Bukit Batok hillside park area hiking trip, 8 January 2023

We are the eyes, ears and voice of the voiceless flora and fauna who cannot speak up for themselves. (Photos by Jimmy Tan)

Thanks to my hiking buddies, we had an immersive forest bathing experience, known in Japanese as “Shinrin-yoku” on 8 January afternoon.

Our climbing along the steep slopes shows us how important the trees are in holding the soil together, while also helping us to stabilise ourselves. (Top left map by 99.co; photo by Jimmy Tan)

The trees in the forest are truly our friends, as they provide shade, fresh air and immune-boosting phytoncides, even as they prevent soil erosion and cool the urban heat island effect, among many other ecosystem services.

I hope that the forest can be spared from further removal for BTO (Build To Order) housing development in this area, especially since the application rates for the BTO launches in Bukit Batok have been relatively low.

As noted in our feedback to the authorities last November:

“Although Bukit Batok Hillside Park area is relatively small and seemingly insignificant compared to other bigger forests in Singapore, it may well be our weakest link because any further disruption along this part of Bukit Batok nature corridor may irreversibly affect the safe movements of fauna (including pollinators and seed dispersers vital for our food security) between Western water catchment and Central catchment nature reserve.

The physical and mental well-being of our residents living in the vicinity is also at stake.”

P.S. A wild boar was seen by some of us at BBHP hill 2, which demonstrates that it most likely uses the forest here as an ecological corridor to move between Tengah forest and Bukit Batok nature park.

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Ecological connectivity between western water catchment and central nature reserves

Why is it so important to conserve Tengah forest and Bukit Batok hillside park (BBHP) area?

Why was the recent disruption of wildlife corridor between Bukit Batok nature park and Toh Tuck forest caused by excessive tree-cutting for road widening so serious?

And why do we need to protect Pang Sua woodland along Green Rail corridor from housing development?

One main reason is “ecological connectivity”.

How the connectivity along Bukit Batok nature corridor risks further disruption to wildlife movements. (Source: NParks, 99.co, Our Singapore Facebook page)

Due to rapid deforestation and urbanisation in the past two centuries, there is only one contiguous forest left that can provide safe movements of wildlife between western water catchment and central nature reserves,

which include critically endangered Sunda pangolins, leopard cats and straw-headed bulbuls, globally endangered long-tailed macaques, and uncommon Malayan colugo,

and that contiguous forest is Tengah forest.

Imagine pangolins, macaques and wild boars being able to move safely from Tengah forest to Gombak park and then to Bukit Gombak forest, and vice versa. (Photo by Jimmy Tan)

The challenge is: how can these wildlife still travel across Tengah forest safely in order to ensure healthy genetic exchange and prevent inbreeding and extinction?

Currently, there are 3 conduits between central nature reserves and Tengah forest:

  1. Via Bukit Mandai, Pang Sua woodland, Bukit Gombak forest and Gombak park
  2. Via Bukit Timah nature reserve, Bukit Batok nature park, Bukit Gombak forest and Gombak park
  3. Via Clementi nature corridor, Bukit Batok nature park, Bukit Gombak forest, Bukit Batok central nature park and Bukit Batok hillside park (Hill 1 & Hill 2)

This is why we need eco-links to

  • connect Tengah forest west to Jalan Bahar forest
  • connect Tengah forest east to Gombak Park
  • connect Tengah forest south to Bukit Batok hillside park

Routes 1 and 2 may be a bit tricky as the military area has barbed wire fences, which may impale colugos if they happen to land on the fences.

Wild boar tracks at Bukit Gombak forest. The barbed wires on top of the military fence may pose a danger for the Malayan colugos. (Photo by Jimmy Tan)

Route 3 is also challenging, as more trees need to be planted along roads in residential areas to create safer passages.

The forests in BBHP area along Route 3 also risk further clearance for housing development, which will disrupt ecological connectivity even more.

Any further disruption in the ecological connectivity along Bukit Batok nature corridor (and Tengah nature way) may result in irreversible damage to the biodiversity and loss of species, adversely affecting ecological functions.

Top: Aerial view of Bukit Batok hillside park (Hill 1) showing its proximity to Tengah forest on the right. Bottom: Bukit Batok hillside park (Hill 2) is essential for connecting BBHP Hill 1 and Bukit Batok central nature park. (Photos by Jimmy Tan)

Already, we have lost native species, such as the giant cream-coloured squirrel and forest gecko, when the Bukit Timah expressway construction separated Bukit Timah nature reserve from Central catchment area since the 1980s-1990s.

The stakes are high for the ecological connectivity between western water catchment and central nature reserves too.

Different forest-dependent wildlife species are affected by habitat fragmentation and disruption of ecological connectivity to varying extents. (Photo by Jimmy Tan)

Though strong dispersers among aerial and canopy wildlife, such as changeable hawk-eagles and long-tailed parakeets, are able to fly long distances, they face the threat of habitat loss, which means fewer sites for nesting, breeding and feeding.

Moderately strong dispersers among canopy wildlife, such as straw-headed bulbuls, will be affected by even small-scale deforestation, such as a planned 4-ha BTO (Build to Order) site in BBHP area.

Weak dispersers among forest-dependent wildlife, such as red jungle fowl, Sunda colugos and possibly red-legged crakes, will be most affected by any disruption of ecological connectivity, as they seldom travel far from forest edges.

Feedback: Environmental concerns over habitat fragmentation in Bukit Batok nature corridor and Tengah nature way

[On 18 November 2022, the following feedback has been sent to the representatives of Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), Housing & Development Board (HDB) and National Parks Board (NParks) as part of our ongoing dialogue.]

Thank you for your reply dated 8 Sep 2022 regarding our email to Dr Amy Khor, in which she advised us to approach Ministry of National Development (MND) for a dialogue. We appreciate the time that you have taken to respond to our email.

As our email to Dr Khor didn’t convey our full feedback on Bukit Batok Hillside Park (BBHP) area, since we were requesting a Meet-the-People session to discuss the details, may we take this opportunity to respond to your email to briefly introduce ourselves and provide some details of our feedback, as part of the dialogue to promote environmental sustainability in the community?

Jimmy Tan’s background

As a resident of Bukit Batok East who is also a nature enthusiast and who works in the vicinity as a part-time food delivery cyclist and freelance writer and editor, Jimmy feels compelled to share his lived experience and observations after moving from his original hometown, Toa Payoh, several years ago, partly to seek refuge in a cooler and quieter environment next to Bukit Batok nature park (which makes him a “microclimate refugee”).

Also, as the creator of the petition to save BBHP area from housing development and one of the co-creators of the petition (with Roxane and Saniroz) to conserve at least 30-50% of Tengah forest, he hopes to be a voice representing almost 15,000 BBHP petition supporters and close to 10,000 Tengah forest petition supporters of nature conservation in some ways, who are concerned about the health, social and environmental impacts of development.

Denise Liu’s background

Denise is a senior researcher working in a social service agency and an associate lecturer with the Singapore University of Social Sciences. She is also an active member of the Bukit Batok community. She chose to purchase a BTO flat in Bukit Batok because she enjoys the greenery in the area. During COVID-19, in particular, taking her dog for long walks around BBHP Hill 2 is essential to her well-being and mental health.

As a member of her neighbourhood’s Resident Network, she has spoken to many residents who also value the greenery and nature of the estate. Many have expressed their concerns about losing these spaces, which provide a much-needed respite from the crowded BTOs they live in. The loss of BBHP Hill 2 will be particularly devastating for the hundreds of residents who cycle, jog or walk around the hill as part of their fitness routines. She spoke to a resident recently who is thinking about selling her flat if/once BBHP Hill 2 is redeveloped, as she cannot imagine living in a neighbourhood surrounded by BTOs, without greenery and the space to bring her dog for walks.

When looking at greenery in a forest, we experience stress relief as we breathe in the immune-boosting phytoncides released by the plants, commune with the flora and fauna, and get a good workout while hiking, jogging or forest bathing. (Map from 99.co, photos by Jimmy Tan)

Our response to HDB’s reply to Jimmy’s feedback on EIS report on BBHP area

Firstly, we noted that HDB’s reply dated 9 September 2020 says:

“The land use zoning of this area is gazetted as ‘Residential’ and ‘Park’ in Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA)’s Master Plan since 2003. As reflected in the current Master Plan 2019, the area is safeguarded for housing and park development, which will offer more housing choices and recreational spaces in Bukit Batok town.”

Although URA’s Master Plan 2003 was approved and gazetted after public consultation, we have seen that many things have changed over the past 19 years.

Back then, the urgency of the existential crisis associated with the climate emergency facing us had not received as much attention and concern as it has today.

Early this month, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reminded everyone at COP27 that the world was losing the battle against climate change, and it would soon be too late to undo the damage being inflicted on the planet.

Notably, eight of the ten warmest years on record in Singapore have occurred in the 21st century.

Since Singapore is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the world, mainly due to rapid deforestation and urbanisation, especially over the past few decades (as shown in the graphs below), it may be suicidal for us to keep on replacing the naturally cooling dense forests with heat-absorbing concrete and asphalt surfaces.

As the Centre for Climate Research Singapore has projected that Singapore could experience an increase in daily mean temperature of 1.4 to 4.6 degrees Celsius towards the end of this century, more intense and frequent heavy rainfall events, and mean sea level rise of up to 1 metre by 2100, the need to conserve and restore our forests is critical for our survival, as also noted in NParks’ One Million Trees Webinar | Beneath the Canopy: Uncovering the Science of our Forests in December 2020.

According to research studies, sizeable forests (10 ha or above) with dense trees can cool the environment up to 300+ metres, whereas plants on facades of buildings can only cool within 4 metres effectively. (Graphs from Global Forest Watch and weather.gov.sg, map from NParks webinar, photos by Jimmy Tan)

Secondly, much as we appreciate the efforts and dedication of our urban planners, we note that they have not undergone any mandatory course on basic ecology and the EIA process until the plans were announced in 2020 regarding this requirement.

Hence, it is possible that the Master Plan 2013, as well as the Master Plan 2019, has not taken into consideration the full impacts of continual forest habitat loss and fragmentation on our climate, biodiversity, ecological connectivity and human health and well-being, partly because we did not have the benefit of hindsight.

In the past decade alone, Singapore has witnessed floods, landslides, animal roadkill, human-wildlife conflicts and disease outbreaks – many of which are unprecedented, as mentioned in Jimmy’s blog.

EIS report on BBHP area is likely to have been compromised by certain factors

As regards BBHP area (aka “Zone A” according to your email), while it is commendable that the agencies conducted an EIA in 2018 to better understand the site condition and recommend measures to mitigate environmental impacts of development, we note that the EIA was likely to have been compromised by the ongoing construction of Bukit Batok West Ave 5 in 2018, which divided the two hills (aka BBHP Hill 1 and Hill 2).

(The premature clearing of trees in Kranji woodland by JTC in 2020 before NParks could complete their biodiversity studies serves as a lesson here, since the exact impact on the environment could not be calculated because the offences took place before any studies were undertaken.)

The building of a new road (Bukit Batok West Ave 5) has affected ecological connectivity and might also have compromised the EIA process in BBHP area in 2018. (Sources: BTOHQ, Google Map)

Shouldn’t both BBHP Hill 1 and Hill 2 be studied together before any construction was done in the vicinity, as they were originally part of the same ecological corridor, which was also recognised by a National University of Singapore (NUS)’s paper on vascular plant flora of Bukit Batok in 2013 as having “the highest percentage of native species”?

Moreover, the various feedback from other members of the public, which was compiled by Singapore Youth Voices for Biodiversity (SYVB), also noted that the biodiversity survey was conducted in April over 8 days, which is outside the bird migratory season.

Another feedback noted that there was a lack of reporting being done with regard to the Chiropteran assemblage (bats), who provide an invaluable service as insect predators and seed dispersers.

Over the past couple of years, during recces in/around BBHP area, some native fauna not recorded in the EIS report have also been spotted, such as:

Approximate locations of native fauna sightings in BBHP area in 2021-2022. Note that the list is not meant to be exhaustive. (Source: Google Map, photos by Jimmy Tan)

All these suggest that the EIA done on BBHP area could have been better and more comprehensive in its assessment of the environmental impacts if more time and attention had been given, as it is relatively limited compared to the other EIAs which were done for other ecologically sensitive areas, such as Tengah forest north and south, and Springleaf forest.

This is regrettable because a deeper appreciation and understanding of its relatively rich biodiversity should compel us to focus more on preserving natural features to facilitate ecological connectivity with minimal disruption and harm caused to the well-being of the wildlife and human residents living along and around Bukit Batok nature corridor.

Environmental impacts observed along Bukit Batok Nature Corridor in 2018-2022

As it turns out, we have seen some environmental impacts along Bukit Batok Nature Corridor after the EIA was conducted in BBHP area in 2018, and after about 30% of Tengah forest was cleared since 2018 (as well as 4 ha of the forest in BBHP area was cleared for housing development in early 2021), despite mitigation measures being taken, such as:

Although the colugo, who most likely glided from BBNP and/or Toh Tuck forest (TTF), was not directly impacted by the ongoing deforestation in BBHP area, the fact that it got disoriented illustrates how the loss of ecological connectivity due to the removal of trees during the road widening process between BBNP and TTF has affected safe movements of the wildlife such as the colugos.

The stranded colugo was likely to have been affected by the loss of mature trees between Bukit Batok nature park and Toh Tuck forest due to the roadworks. (Map from LTA, screenshot from Our Singapore Facebook page, photo by Jimmy Tan)

This impact is significant because as noted in the above blog:

“Wouldn’t the ongoing removal of vegetation at BBHP Hill 2, aka Zone B (as well as the planned deforestation for the November 2022 launch of BTO site in BBHP Hill 1, aka Zone A) further disrupt ecological connectivity, which might also further impact the wildlife (such as the uncommon native Sunga colugos, critically endangered pangolins, forest-dependent palm civets, endangered long-tailed macaques, etc) moving between western catchment forests (via Tengah nature way and Bukit Batok nature corridor) and the central nature reserves?”

Why Zone A and Zone B of BBHP area should be protected from further deforestation

While HDB has done well in retaining the natural stream (aka Stream A according to the EIS report) and its catchment area within the planned BBHNP and expanded the original ‘Park’ area from 7.5ha to about 9.2ha, it is regrettable that Stream B and its catchment area in Zone A of BBHP area have not been retained due to their being zoned as a BTO site to be launched in November 2022.

This is because Stream B catchment area has a large fig tree (Ficus vasculosa) with conservation status of Endangered and some seedlings are situated on higher ground immediately next to the stream B (where dragonflies can be found to control the mosquito population), and slender pitcher plants (Nepenthes gracilis), which the rare pitcher blue butterfly is dependent upon, have also been discovered growing on the steep slopes there.

Speaking of which, both the aforementioned areas in Zones A and B have steep slopes along parts of the perimeter of the forest – some of which have gradients of 30 to 40 degrees or more. As noted in an article, “Anything above 20% (incline) is deemed steep. Beyond about 15%, costs begin to increase significantly as the risks become greater and the work becomes more difficult.” (See below image for reference.)

The second BTO site at BBHP area (Zone A) is only about 50 m away from the spot where a previous landslide had occurred on a steep slope, which has since been covered by a protective sheet to prevent further soil erosion. Would it be better to redevelop a previously developed or underutilised land elsewhere than potentially risking lives and further disrupting ecological connectivity by building on the steep slopes in this area? (Source: Google Map, 99.co; photo by Jimmy Tan)

Although we appreciate that the agencies seek to provide affordable public housing to Singaporeans, we wonder if it is feasible building BTO flats on such steep slopes, considering that it is more costly and also more risky, since the removal of vegetation that holds the soil together along the slopes may invariably result in soil erosion and even landslides, given the history of landslides occurring in the hilly regions of Bukit Batok and Bukit Gombak as well as the occurrences of more severe storms due to human-induced climate change over the past decades.

Why Tengah forest should also be protected from further deforestation


Speaking of climate change, residents living (and those who work outdoors such as food delivery cyclists and walkers) in Jurong, Bukit Batok West and Choa Chu Kang around Tengah forest risk experiencing heat injuries (such as dehydration, skin rashes, fatigue, irritability, heat strokes and inability to focus on work, affecting safety, creativity and productivity for those who work from home or outdoors) due to the warming microclimate as a result of the deforestation and urbanisation that have been going on since around 2018.

For example, while doing part-time food delivery in this region lately, I (Jimmy) could experience the warming effect on some of the apartment blocks, such as Block 435A, Bukit Batok West Ave 5 (see image below for reference).

Deforestation at Tengah forest increases the urban heat island effect. In their Green SG Policy Paper 2022, Singapore youths have called for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) processes to be strengthened, such as “expanding EIAs to include the social impacts of development (i.e. Environment and Social Impact Assessments – ESIAs)”. Would social impacts of development include assessing how residents living near the forests marked for clearance will be affected by the warming microclimate? (Map from Global Forest Watch, photos by Jimmy Tan)

The air outside some units of Block 435A felt stuffy and smelled stale due to lack of ventilation, and since the small units along the narrow corridors seem to be for lower income residents, they may be affected by the urban heat island effect the most due to inadequate or lack of access to air-cooling/conditioning devices and healthcare services, and there is only so much we can do to adapt to the warming climate in our own capacity.

Last year’s SG Climate Rally features Marlina, who shared about the challenges of dealing with the rising heat with no air conditioning in a rental flat, which shows that Muslim women in particular tend to suffer more from heat injuries as they have to wear tudung and full length clothes in the households.

As a Bukit Batok resident working as a food delivery cyclist in the vicinity, Jimmy has also been dealing with symptoms of heat injuries, such as skin rashes, which persisted for months earlier this year and required medical treatment before the symptoms finally subsided. (The receipt of the medical bill is available upon request.)

Last but not least, we learnt that certain fauna in the remaining parts of Tengah forest have been affected by the noise and disturbances caused by the ongoing construction works as well as the habitat loss and fragmentation – they include the native wild boars (Sus scrofa) and the nationally near-threatened (and globally vulnerable) long-tailed parakeets (Psittacula longicauda).

As shown in the above video dated 5 Sep 2022, the wild boar at the forest fringe along (old) Jurong Road somehow got a fright when it saw human beings and ran away even though the hikers stood still. Compared to wild boars in the forests of Pulau Ubin, as well as the nature parks and reserves in mainland Singapore, the wild boars encountered in Tengah forest ever since forest clearance began around 2017 tend to be skittish or nervous, possibly because they have been stressed by construction noise and habitat loss (and it is highly unlikely that the wild boars have been fed by humans since the forest perimeter has been fenced up).

If we are to learn from the encounters with wild boars who have been displaced from their homes and wandered into residential areas in Punggol and Pasir Ris in 2018-2021, in which humans got hurt by the disoriented wild boars, utmost care and attention should be given to minimise habitat loss and improve ecological connectivity in and around Tengah forest, in order to prevent such human-wildlife conflicts in future, such as by conserving at least 30-50% of the original forest.

Tengah Nature Way should be spacious for pangolins, wild boars, etc to travel unharmed, without becoming roadkills or getting into human-wildlife conflicts. (Photo by Jimmy Tan)

As for long-tailed parakeets, even though they might seem to be more commonly seen in residential areas such as Choa Chu Kang, over the past year or so, their conservation status remains vulnerable especially since they are being displaced from their habitats in Tengah forest. Already, some residents find these parakeets too noisy, and it is a sad reality that such beautiful forest-dependent birds are being seen as a nuisance or even pests just because they became homeless and were forced to adapt and co-exist with humans in residential areas as a result of rapid deforestation and urbanisation in Singapore.

Let’s also remember the fate of other native fauna in the diminishing Tengah forest, such as the globally and nationally critically endangered Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica) and the globally endangered long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis).

The current 20 percent of Tengah forest set aside for greenery is unfortunately insufficient to ensure their safety and long-term survival, if we were to go by the artists’ impressions of the manicured, sparsely growing plants in 50-m wide wildlife corridors (which is considered by botanist Dr Shawn Lum as too narrow since at least 50-m buffers are needed on both sides for adequate protection from human disturbances, light pollution, etc) surrounded by buildings and other man-made features, and the absence of eco-links to facilitate their safe movements between Western water catchment and Central catchment nature reserve.

At the very least, the mitigation measures recommended by the Tengah forest EIA reports should incorporate the same considerations for wildlife-friendly environments as those in Springleaf forest EIA report commissioned by URA, which has recommended about 70 percent of the forest to be conserved and specially designed housing and pathways that minimise human-wildlife conflicts to be built.

Why and how ecological connectivity in Tengah nature way and Bukit Batok nature corridor should be improved. (Base map by ST Graphics)

Last but not least, we note that the Straits Times reported on 11 November 2022 that “while Singapore’s forests provide refuge for up to about a third of the world’s straw-headed bulbuls, the globally critically endangered species prized for its singing has increasingly been driven to the brink of extinction.”

If the critically endangered straw-headed bulbuls (Pycnonotus zeylanicus) are becoming more endangered, then their forest habitats should also be even more protected, instead of just having the international songbird trade regulations tightened.

While it is good to show concern and take necessary actions regarding the trade of the endangered songbirds on the international stage, we should also spare no effort to stop the decimation of their forest habitats in our own backyard, such as Bukit Batok hillside park area, Tengah forest and Dover forest, where these songbirds have been seen and heard.

Otherwise, it would be tragic to witness the extinction of the straw-headed bulbuls in the wild happening right under our nose when we already have the knowledge and the means to protect them and their natural habitats, especially since Singapore has only about 200+ individuals left (in mainland Singapore, as of 2021) and is their last stronghold in Southeast Asia, if not the world.

Why we should focus on redeveloping brownfield sites to meet demand for public housing

Finally, we believe that our dialogue to promote environmental sustainability in the community wouldn’t be complete without a brief discussion about HDB’s announcement of strong demand for public housing in Singapore, as it has been cited as a major reason for the need to clear our secondary forests for housing development.

We note that the strong demand for public housing (whether BTO, resale or rental) tends to occur mainly in housing estates close to downtown, such as Bendemeer, Kallang, Queenstown and Redhill, whereas news reports have shown that initial applications for new BTO flats in western parts of Singapore, such as Tengah and Bukit Batok West, tend to be lower than those in Toa Payoh and other central locations in Singapore.

As stated by HDB in June 2022, “There were about 19 BTO projects that had flats with first-timer application rates of 1.7 or lower. The locations for these BTO projects included areas in Bukit Batok, Jurong West and Tengah for non-mature estates, and in Tampines for mature estates.”

Hence, we feel that our focus should be more on redeveloping brownfield sites for SERS, VERS and BTOs (such as in the case of the recent Tanglin Halt and Ang Mo Kio SERS projects as well as redevelopment of Mount Pleasant and Keppel Club golf course for public housing), rather than sacrificing the forests in ecologically sensitive areas and along the nature corridors identified by NParks in their Ecological Profiling Exercise (EPE), which include Bukit Batok nature corridor and Clementi nature corridor.

As also noted in the above blog, the news reported last year that many people buy property just to sell them in 5-10 years upon meeting the Minimum Occupation Period (MOP) to make quick profits, instead of staying long-term.  

Hence, if we keep on building new BTOs and condos in the vicinity to cater to such frivolous housing demands instead of redeveloping brownfield sites elsewhere for genuine buyers who want to stay long-term, we not only may make it more difficult for Singaporeans to find affordable public housing given the space constraints, but also unwittingly sacrifice our precious few forest habitats, such as along Bukit Batok nature corridor, to build housing and widen roads mainly to cater to the rich and privileged who could afford to buy housing for property investment/speculation and drive cars.

There is also a chance that Singapore may eventually experience an oversupply of HDB flats, as noted in a commentary by Stacked Homes dated 20 October 2022, in view of the ageing population (and the global warming fallout).

Our proposals

In view of the climate emergency, biodiversity loss and public health crisis facing us, as well as in the spirit of participating in Forward SG, may we ask URA, HDB, NParks and other relevant agencies to seriously consider the following proposals:

  1. Increase MOP from 5 years to 10 or more years for new BTO flats (especially those that will be built in greenfield sites), so as to discourage people from buying new property purely for short-term investments and profits at the expense of the forests and forest-dependent wildlife.
  2. Make resale/rental flats more affordable/accessible, optimise the allocation of Sale-Of-Balance flats, and make it compulsory for those who own private housing to give up and sell back their public housing flat to HDB because subsidised public housing should not be used for profiteering.
  3. Avoid any further deforestation along Bukit Batok nature corridor (including BBHP Hill 1 and 2 area) and in Tengah forest, so as to maintain ecological connectivity, climate resilience and a liveable environment for humans and wildlife between Western water catchment and Central catchment nature reserve, and focus on redeveloping brownfield sites (such as old industrial sites, underutilised or vacant lands, abandoned schools, golf courses whose leases are expiring soon, etc) elsewhere.
  4. Adopt the Degrowth or Doughnut economic model to ensure that we respect our social foundation and ecological ceiling, so that every Singaporean will lead their life with dignity, opportunity and community within the means of our environment.
No further deforestation along Tengah nature way (at least 30-50% of the original forest with eco-links at both western and eastern ends) and Bukit Batok nature corridor should be carried out, in order to prevent further habitat fragmentation and avoid disrupting the ecological connectivity between the western water catchment and the central nature reserves. (Photo by Jimmy Tan)

Although Bukit Batok Hillside Park area is relatively small and seemingly insignificant compared to other bigger forests in Singapore, it may well be our weakest link because any further disruption along this part of Bukit Batok nature corridor may irreversibly affect the safe movements of fauna (including pollinators and seed dispersers vital for our food security) between Western water catchment and Central catchment nature reserve. The physical and mental well-being of our residents living in the vicinity is also at stake, as shared earlier.

We are only as strong as our weakest link, for we are all members of the same body and citizens of the cosmos, and if the most vulnerable among us suffer as a result of climate emergency, we all suffer together as one. As rightly noted in the vision that Dr Amy Khor has for Hong Kah North (which can be applied for the entire Singapore) - may we build “a place where no one is left behind, but everyone progresses together, each at his own pace”. This can be achieved by adopting the above-mentioned proposals, which include conserving and restoring the forests in Bukit Batok nature corridor and Tengah nature way, to prevent further habitat fragmentation, boost climate resilience, and protect our health, well-being, safety and long-term survival.

Thank you for your attention, and we look forward to continue working with you and Dr Amy Khor on promoting environmental sustainability in the community.

Yours sincerely,

Jimmy Tan San Tek, Bukit Batok East resident

Denise Liu, Bukit Batok West resident

cc

Dr Amy Khor, Adviser to Hong Kah North SMC Grassroots Organisation

Mr Desmond Lee, Minister for National Development of Singapore

[Main text edited slightly to ensure clarity and reflect the latest updates as of 1 January 2023]

The plight of the parakeets in Tengah forest

Although red-breasted parakeets are globally near-threatened, they are considered introduced non-native species in Singapore.

There are concerns that the more urban-adaptative red-breasted parakeets may establish their populations at the expense of the forest-dependent native long-tailed parakeets.

Both parakeet species have been displaced by habitat loss in Tengah forest in recent years, and many are seeking refuge in roadside trees in Choa Chu Kang town nearby.

Alas, their noise has resulted in some residents complaining to the authorities, who have captured many of the parakeets in order to cull the red-breasted parakeets.

Then again, culling appears to be a band-aid solution to a deeper problem of deforestation and loss of habitats.

The native long-tailed parakeets, which are globally vulnerable, continue to face the threat of extinction as long as they lose their forest habitats, not so much because of the so-called competition from the red-breasted parakeets.

Hence, the call to conserve at least 30-50 percent of Tengah forest remains as urgent as ever, for this and many other reasons.

My proposal to NParks et al on conserving and restoring mangroves in Jurong river and Pandan river

Panoramic view of Jurong river mangrove mudflats (Photo by Jimmy Tan)

Below is my message sent to National Parks Board (NParks) on 9 December 2022:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I would like to propose to NParks and other relevant agencies to conserve and restore Jurong river mangroves and designate Pandan river mangroves as a nature park or wetland reserve.

The purpose is to complement the roles of the current nature reserves, such as Sungei Buloh wetland reserve, and other nature parks, to strengthen Singapore’s climate, ecological and social resilience, in view of the current climate emergency.

Location of Jurong river (which flows through Jurong Lake Gardens) and Pandan river (which flows past Dover-Ulu Pandan forest towards the sea) in southwest Singapore. A visitor centre for the proposed Sungei Pandan wetlands reserve could be built next to Pandan river tidal gates, not far from the upcoming Pandan Reservoir MRT station. An ecological corridor could be designated to link both proposed conservation sites. (Base map: Google Maps)

1. As noted by Nature Society (Singapore) in their post dated 13 September 2022, Jurong river and Pandan river are among the 3 remaining mangrove patches in the southern sector of mainland Singapore (the third one is Berlayer Creek).

They have identified a green area in the vicinity that is contiguous with the Old Jurong Line and a corridor for wetland bird species from the Southern Islands, thus giving us the opportunity to preserve both our natural and historical heritages.

2. Although parts of the banks along Jurong river and Pandan river have been concretised or reinforced due to industrialisation since the 1960s-1970s, some mangroves (and back forest vegetation) and mudflats remain, as also noted by MND minister Desmond Lee in the aforementioned post.

These mangrove habitats support a diversity of flora and fauna, including endangered Nipah palms, smooth-coated otters, horseshoe crabs and threatened giant mudskippers, as well as resident and migratory shore birds, many of which were spotted by my hiking buddies and me during our recces and environmental clean-up sessions.

Smooth-coated otters swimming along Jurong river mangrove mudflats on 8 September 2021

A crocodile was also spotted in the West Coast area yesterday (8 December 2022), which I believe testifies to a gradually recovering ecosystem, in spite of the environmental impacts of industrialisation and land reclamation in recent decades.

Hence, restoring Jurong river mangrove mudflats and protecting Pandan mangrove wetlands can ensure that these native flora and fauna can continue to survive, and in turn help the mangrove ecosystem to become more established through the interconnected web of species interactions (including seed dispersal, pollination, prey-predator relationships, etc).

3. By having a bigger and healthier mangrove ecosystem, Singapore can benefit from greater carbon sequestration (since mangroves can sequester more carbon than tropical rainforests) and protection of the coasts from rising sea levels and resultant floods.

For example, as recent as 17 April 2021, Ulu Pandan river canal experienced flash floods as a result of the intense rain and high tide.

Earlier today (9 December 2022), I noticed that Pandan river was almost full capacity near the tidal gates around 1 pm plus during high tide – see link for pictures.

Given that Singapore may experience rising sea level up to 1 metre by the year 2100, having more mangroves along the coast can help stabilise the mudflats, build higher ground and mitigate floods to some extent, which can help reduce the socio-economic costs of flood damage, since we cannot solely rely on engineering solutions due to high costs, resource-intensiveness, reliance on global supply chains, and other factors.

4. Economically speaking, Singapore can benefit from the restoration of mangroves in Jurong river and Pandan river in terms of not only flood prevention but also ecotourism. For example, with the expected completion of Pandan Reservoir MRT station by 2027, both rivers will be much more accessible to visitors and tourists. 

The (UNEP) report outlines that every $US1 invested in restoration creates up to $US30 in economic benefits. “Restoring our ecosystems will help avoid 60 per cent of expected biodiversity extinctions,” Atallah says. “It will also help absorb carbon and crucially, help us adapt the effects of the climate crisis.”

Why nature holds the key to meeting climate goals” (UNEP, 15 November 2022)

I believe that a new Sungei Pandan wetland reserve can help draw more international tourists to visit Singapore, given that mangroves are unique to only certain tropical coastal areas. It can also help ease visitorship in Sungei Buloh wetland reserve, as too many human visitors may cause stress to the wildlife there (just as too many visitors in the central nature reserves may also be detrimental to the sensitive wildlife, hence the need for buffer nature parks outside the nature reserves).

Some wildlife sightings in/around Pandan river mangroves in May 2022 (Photos by Jimmy Tan)

Having the new Sungei Pandan wetland reserve can also facilitate school and public education and foster scientific research on mangrove habitats and their manifold benefits.

5. Last but not least, residents and people working in the highly built-up industrial estate around Jurong river and Pandan river can benefit from having access to cleaner air, cooler environment and more dense greenery in the neighbourhood, which is good for both physical and mental health. 

This in turn will help them save costs of electricity bills (from using air conditioning) and costs of medical bills (from falling sick due to stress, heat injuries caused by heat waves or rising urban heat island effect, and so on).

Protecting and restoring the mangrove forest in Pandan river will bolster its role as a water catchment for Pandan reservoir and as a nature-based solution to rising sea levels and urban heat island effect. (Photo by Jimmy Tan; base map from NParks)

I understand that Singapore is considered land scarce, and I believe the above proposal does not involve having to sacrifice much land zoned for other purposes, since the mangroves in Jurong river and Pandan river already exist, and the main work to be done is to first protect them as nature areas, so that we can focus on making these environments more habitable and conducive for both humans and non-human residents (and more pleasant and attractive for visitors as well).

Going further, we can redevelop old industrial sites in this part of Singapore, since many of the single-storey or low-rise industrial buildings built in the 1960s and 1970s are old and possibly run-down or underutilised, so that we can rebuild taller and more integrated modern industrial buildings in order to optimise land space fully.

The island-state’s sixth national report to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, submitted in 2020, said: “Due to the limited land area in Singapore, our natural areas tend to be small and isolated.” But to maintain the biodiversity of these areas, it is important to connect the green spaces, restore habitats and implement species recovery projects, among other efforts, the document added.

Protecting 30% of planet’s forests and habitats can save 1,000 wildlife species: Study” (The Straits Times, 5 December 2022)

Thank you for your attention, and I look forward to your favourable response.

Yours sincerely,
Jimmy Tan San Tek

“Counter-imagining the Dystopia” Photo Exhibit

My first forest experience was in MacRitchie forest during secondary school, which organised a cross-country run event every year.

Since the forest is part of the central catchment nature reserve, it is in no danger of being cleared.

Since then, I had taken forests in Singapore for granted.

It wasn’t until 2016 when I saw firsthand how one secondary rainforest after another was razed to the ground by bulldozers.

First was Bidadari forest, followed by Lentor forest, and then Tengah forest.

Then came news reports of roadkills and human-wildlife conflicts, mainly due to deforestation in Mandai, Punggol and Pasir Ris.

Finally, revelations of development plans in Bukit Batok hillside park area, Clementi forest and Dover forest in 2020 were the last straw that compelled many concerned citizens to advocate the conservation of our remaining forests.

Lately, as I revisited MacRitchie forest, I realised how fortunate it has escaped the axe, after having been regenerating from human disturbances 150-200 years ago.

As I survey the lush greenery, I hope that the photographs of this forest will inspire action to be taken to conserve and restore the forests outside of the nature reserves for climate resilience, biodiversity protection and public health management.

The OML photo exhibition hopes to bring together leaders who provide active resistance that challenge our social, cultural, economic, environmental, and imagination crises and open thresholds to foresee the shape of what can become possible.

One challenge of advocating nature conservation and environmental sustainability is not to fall into the doom-and-gloom fatalism (which I occasionally find myself meandering into).

Hence the need for “counter-imagining the dystopia”, which is the theme of this OML (One Million Leaders) Photo Exhibit, organised by NELIS Global.

The exhibit showcases visions of a more beautiful, compassionate, regenerative future that already exist.

After all, we live in a world where contradictions and paradoxes exist, as I have come to realise.

Whether we are for nature conservation or economic development, we find ourselves inextricably enmeshed between the two spheres.

For example, since we live in a monetary-based society, nature conservation advocacy work requires funding to be successful.

Similarly, no business can remain sustainable without relying on the regenerative nature of the natural environment.

Perhaps it is a matter of where the resources are channeled to.

For example, are they used to protect the environment, biodiversity and thereby our physical and mental well-being?

Are they also used to promote nature awareness?

On this note, I am glad to have my three photos – together with other amazing photos by other photographers – contributing to the success of the OML Photo Exhibit in Tokyo, Japan, which I learnt “was very well received”.

The online gallery is found here.

Their video, heartfully received by NELIS’s audience on the 5th of November, is helpful for their ongoing Web Expo awareness campaign this month.

Feel free to watch and share the link.

If you feel inclined to help support this Web Expo movement, may I invite you to share the post and/or purchase any of the photos in the online gallery?

By doing so, you will be supporting the OML Programs running worldwide (OMLA -Africa-; OMLATAM -Latinamerica-; OMLAS -Asia-; OML-MENA -the Middle East & North Africa-).

You will also be supporting the local doers, dreamers, and their communities or initiatives working towards “one world in harmony”.

P.S. For the purchase of each photo, 50% of the funds goes to NELIS/OML and 50% to the photographer.

Notes from my volunteer photography assignment for Pulau Ubin Cleanup (26 November 2022)

I was privileged to participate in the Pulau Ubin cleanup event as a volunteer photographer, witnessing the commendable efforts of the organisers and other participants in helping to make the environment cleaner and more conducive for flora, fauna and humans.

On our way to Kampong Mamam beach, we saw long-tailed macaques gathering and watching us inquisitively as we prepared to start picking up litter in the forest.

These primates have been recognised by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to be globally endangered early this year, due to habitat loss, illegal wildlife trade, culling, exploitation, and so on.

Despite their apparent common status in Singapore, there is still a need to ensure that they have a safe and clean environment to live in.

Some of the macaques appeared to have been conditioned to approach human visitors boldly in search of food, probably because they have been fed previously or they have learnt to pick up trash disposed indiscriminately by inconsiderate visitors on the island.

Though our efforts to clean up the environment may be seen as a band-aid solution to a deeper issue of human negligence and disregard for ecological health and sustainability, I hope that this event can also serve as a means to promote nature awareness and education for the general public.

For advisories on what to do when you see a monkey in the forest or neighbourhood, click here.

My feedback to Housing & Development Board (HDB) for Bayshore environmental study

Here is my feedback to HDB for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report on Bayshore forest.

I appreciate that the EIA and Environmental Management and Monitoring Plan (EMMP) have been arranged for the regenerating scrubland and secondary forest in Bayshore area, which I noted has been fully reclaimed from the sea by the 1980s and zoned for development in 2003.

Firstly, according to the executive summary page 1, the “baseline ecological surveys were conducted between 25 April and 21 July 2022”. Given the considerable size (31.4 ha) of the study area, which is about the same size as Dover forest (33 ha), and the fact that the survey was conducted outside the bird migratory season (September to March), I think that the 54 avifauna species recorded in the EIA may not be fully representative of the bird demographics that use Bayshore forest as a core habitat and/or ecological corridor or stopover between the forested areas around Sungei Serangoon water catchment area in the north and the linear forests south of East Coast Parkway (ECP).

Bayshore forest may serve as a core habitat and stopover for resident and migratory birds. For instance, the vulnerable Buffy fish owls have been spotted in the eastern side of Singapore, and it is not inconceivable that they may use Bayshore forest as a feeding ground and/or ecological corridor too. (Map adapted from URA/NParks for illustration only)

During my short recce at Bayshore area on 21 November 2022, I saw some birds resembling parakeets flying around Upper East Coast Road (though I couldn’t make out their exact species from a distance). Together with other vulnerable species such as Rusty-breasted cuckoos and Red-legged crakes as well as endangered Blue-crowned hanging parrots, Changeable hawk-eagles, Oriental magpie robins and Red junglefowl, these birds may have nesting or roosting sites within Bayshore area.

The scrubland may double up as a freshwater marsh during rainy seasons, acting as a carbon sink and a refugium for waterbirds such as the vulnerable red-legged crakes. (Photo by Jimmy Tan)

If the entire forest were to be decimated for housing and road development, many of these birds would become homeless and would be forced to relocate to other forests where they have to compete with other forest-dependent birds for food and shelter.

Some of these birds may also be forced to nest or roost in roadside trees close to houses and apartments in urbanised or residential areas, such as Bedok, Siglap and so on, where they may face fierce competitions from urban-adaptive birds such as Javan mynahs, or they may be considered a nuisance by human residents, due to noise (like in the case of parakeets, as many of them were recently captured and/or culled in Choa Chu Kang, unfortunately due to their being displaced from Tengah forest as a result of deforestation and habitat loss in the vicinity).

Secondly, I noted from page 1 of the executive summary that “the Developments are located primarily on reclaimed land with an exotic-dominated secondary forest”. To me, land reclamation does not necessarily give humans the right to own the land, as it ultimately belongs to Mother Nature, to whom we owe our existence. We also owe our ability to reclaim the land partly to other countries where sand mining was carried out. As noted in an article, “instances of land erosion, community displacement, floods, or droughts in obscure parts of our Southeast Asia neighbours — all of which can be linked to Singapore’s land reclamation pursuits.”

Therefore, could we rethink our relationship with the reclaimed land of Bayshore, just like we have chosen to conserve most of the forest in Coney island which was mostly reclaimed too, and enhance the biodiversity of Gardens by the Bay which was also created on reclaimed land?

My fauna sightings include dragonflies, spiders, a snail shell and a palm civet’s poop. (Photos by Jimmy Tan)

Thirdly, during my recce at Bayshore forest on 21 November afternoon, I encountered many mosquitoes in the stretch of the forest between Bayshore MRT station construction site and ECP, and I had to swat at the mosquitoes that were biting my arms every few minutes.

Despite the presence of dragonflies, which are natural predators of the mosquitoes and other insects, the mosquitoes appear to proliferate in the area, most probably due to the forest ecosystem having been disturbed by the ongoing construction works in the vicinity.

A dragonfly seen in Bayshore forest. Since the profusion of mosquitoes is a sign of a disturbed ecosystem in this forest, restoring ecological health through habitat enhancement, such as improving water quality for frogs and incorporating dragonfly ponds (like the one in HDB’s Punggol Northshore), is vital to control the disease-carrying mosquito populations. (Photo by Jimmy Tan)

We need healthy ecosystems, such as the relatively undisturbed mature secondary forests in Windsor nature park and Bukit Batok nature park, where frogs and dragonflies thrive, in order to curb mosquito populations and prevent dengue outbreaks effectively. You need not have to take my word for it, as you could visit the aforementioned forests and check for yourself, for we cannot care for what we do not know experientially. I believe that your forest experiences will tally with the observations below:

“Urbanization, habitat destruction and fragmentation, climate change, as well as chemically-intensive landscape management and agriculture have all led to disruptions in ecosystems. While mosquitoes can readily breed in poor-quality sites created by human disturbance, other organisms, including many of the predators that naturally control mosquitoes, require higher quality habitat. Pesticides that are used to try to control mosquitoes may actually be making matters worse as mosquitoes become resistant to the pesticides, while natural predators and other invertebrates are killed or harmed, which throws aquatic food webs out of balance.” (“Ecological mosquito management” by City of Boulder Natural Climate Solutions)

Therefore, could we apply similar ecological mosquito management, such as the one recommended in section 1.2.10 “Biodiversity-sensitive insect pest control practices” in Springleaf forest EIS report commissioned by Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), and also conserve and restore at least 20-40 percent of the forest to improve ecological health and support natural predators and other invertebrates such as spiders, so as to control disease-carrying mosquito populations and prevent dengue outbreaks effectively?

Poop of a palm civet, who plays an important role in the ecosystem as biological pest control and seed disperser for maintaining and improving the health of Singapore forests, as seen in Bayshore forest. (Photo by Jimmy Tan)

Fourthly, since palm civets live in Bayshore forest, as noted in the EIA report and evidenced by the presence of their poop on the forest floor, it would be good to not only ensure they have sizeable habitats to live in, but also to build drain culverts or tunnels to enable the civets and other ground-dwelling creatures, such as monitor lizards, otters and snakes, to move or escape to the wooded area across ECP for their long-term survival.

Otherwise, the civets will be forced to move to residential areas nearby where they have been sighted more often in recent years, as noted by Ms Xu Weiting, an instructor (ecology, evolution and biodiversity) at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Department of Biological Sciences: “The seemingly high encounter rates could be a combination of factors, which include increased awareness of local wildlife over the years, ease of reporting sightings on social media and also clearing of forest patches, which has led to civets dispersing out into nearby areas.”

Culverts act as underpasses for animals that prefer more privacy, like the common palm civet. (Photo of NParks poster by Jimmy Tan)

Although certified wildlife handling contractors or animal management specialists will be at hand to help relocate the animals to safer grounds during the construction phase, extra care should be taken to prevent or minimise incidences of roadkill and human-wildlife conflicts as a result of the forest-dependent animals being displaced from their habitats.

This is because the animals may end up injured or dead if they are not shepherded or captured for release under safe conditions, as illustrated in a recent case of a palm civet having to be euthanised after getting burnt on a hot stove in a coffee shop during an apparently botched attempt by the contractor to capture it.

My flora sightings at Bayshore forest include fish-tail palms, bird’s nest ferns and angsana trees. (Photos by Jimmy Tan)

Last but not least, while certain native flora species, such as fish-tail palms and bird’s nest ferns, may be common species, they are essential for supporting native fauna, including endangered species, thus ensuring functional biodiversity and optimal ecological health in Bayshore forest. As also noted in Tengah North Environmental Impact Studies (EIS) report (page 185), “it is important to recognize that both common and rare species contribute ecological functions in an ecosystem.”

Fruits of a fish-tail palm provide food for a wide variety of common and uncommon wildlife species. (Photo by Jimmy Tan)

For example, the fruits of fish-tail palms, which are found growing in Bayshore forest, provide food for squirrels, palm civets and a variety of birds, including the critically endangered Oriental pied hornbills (who may use Bayshore forest as a stepping stone in the East Coast vicinity even if they are not recorded in the EIA report), who are also seed dispersers.

Bayshore forest is one of the few remaining relatively biodiverse forests in the eastern part of Singapore that are dense and sizeable enough to cool the urban heat island effect considerably in the surrounding area. According to NParks, “denser tree canopies reflect radiant heat and cool our surface and ambient temperatures through shade and evapo-transpiration, and help to mitigate the Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect and climate change.” (Maps by weather.gov.sg and NParks)

In summary, given the urgency of climate emergency, threat of biodiversity loss and public health risks, may we implement or adapt the following measures?

1. Conserve at least 20-40 percent of Bayshore forest so that the densely growing trees can cool the rising urban heat island effect, mitigate floods and rising sea level along the East Coast, support forest-dependent birds and other wildlife, promote ecological health and prevent dengue outbreaks, as well as protect residents’ physical health and mental well-being.

The forest and marsh in Bayshore can function as a nature-based solution to help mitigate floods to some extent by absorbing excess water. (Map from the Straits Times, 19 August 2019)

2. Build in advance drain culverts across ECP to connect Bayshore forest and East Coast park woodland to ensure safe movements of palm civets and other animals.

3. Restore some degraded parts of the forest and create dragonfly ponds to support natural predators of mosquitoes and other pest insects, so as to prevent dengue and other disease outbreaks effectively, without resorting to harmful chemical pesticides (which inadvertently make mosquitoes more resistant).

4. Build taller buildings and redevelop brownfield sites elsewhere if need be, in order to optimise land use and ensure sustainable development, besides adopting a more sustainable economic model such as degrowth or Doughnut.

5. Implement measures to discourage short-term property investment/speculation that artificially boosts housing demand and makes it more difficult for genuine long-term home buyers (such as young couples getting married and starting a family) to buy a new Build To Order (BTO) flat, such as extending the Minimum Occupation Period (MOP) from 5 years to 10 years or longer.

Over-emphasising subsidised public housing as asset investment has its drawbacks, such as inflating housing demands (mostly by property investors eager to make quick profits who sell their flats upon fulfilling the 5-year MOP), which result in oversubscribed new BTO flats in popular housing estates, and habitat loss and fragmentation for the flora and fauna wherever the forests are cleared for housing development, thus reducing our climate resilience and compromising our well-being and long-term survival. (Article by the Sunday Times, 20 November 2022)

Thank you for reading.

(Last updated on 12 December 2022)

My feedback to Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) on Agri-Food Innovation Park (AFIP) Land Preparation Works at Kranji Woodland – Environmental Study Report

Dear Sir/Madam,


Here is my feedback concerning the Fauna Baseline Study Report dated 5 September 2022. I noted on page 22 of the report that 206 fauna species were recorded in the Project area, with a total of 15 species of conservation signatures and two species of interest.

Kranji woodland, as seen on 19 February 2021 (Photo by Jimmy Tan)

Since a total of 362 trees exceeding girths of 1 m in Kranji woodland were cut down in 2020 before NParks could study on further measures to be put in place to safeguard wildlife, public safety, public health and ecosystems, it is possible that the Project area would have been more biodiverse if part of the forest had not been prematurely cleared (which compromised the results of the environmental study report).

As also noted on page 61, though mammal species of conservation significance such as Sunda pangolin and long-tailed macaque were not recorded during the field assessment, they are identified to be likely present at the Project area.

I noted on page 10 of the report that the AFIP is established as a pilot cluster to catalyse innovation in the food- and agri-tech ecosystems, by bringing together high-tech urban indoor farming (agriculture and aquaculture), food production including alternative proteins, and associated research and development (R&D) activities.

Since AFIP developments may include indoor plant factories, aquaculture hatcheries, insect farms and innovative food manufacturing industries, I wonder how much the Project area will be deforested and concretised with cement and asphalt surfaces?

Should we at least retain 30-50% of the existing forest in Kranji woodland as part of nature-based solutions to mitigating climate change, which are highlighted by National University of Singapore (NUS) at the United Nations climate change conference COP27?

Not only a dense forest can cool the urban heat island effect up to 300+ metres, according to a research study, it can support biodiversity to ensure there are pollinators, seed dispersers and decomposers necessary for agriculture, especially permaculture or organic soil farming.

A food forest cools the microclimate and supports biodiversity, including birds and butterflies (which are pollinators) as well as frogs and dragonflies (which are natural predators of insect pests such as dengue-carrying mosquitoes). (Photo by Jimmy Tan)

Although indoor high-tech farms may generate higher crop yields, an overreliance on indoor food farms could negatively impact Singapore’s future food security, as such facilities are often energy-intensive, and require imported seeds, substrates and fertilisers which are vulnerable to geopolitical forces, as compared to a regenerative, biodiverse, climate resilient food forest.

(To be continued)

Loss of ecological connectivity along Bukit Batok Nature Corridor is a serious concern, in view of Singapore’s commitment to sustainable development

Sustainable development should prioritise climate resilience, biodiversity protection and people’s well-being, not just having more housing or wider roads

Over the past decades, Singapore has witnessed a number of negative environmental impacts of rapid deforestation and urbanisation, such as floods, landslides, animal roadkill, human-wildlife conflicts and disease outbreaks – many of which are unprecedented.

One root cause of such environmental problems is capitalism, which is recognised to have generated massive wealth for some, while also devastated the planet and failed to improve human well-being at scale.

Lately, I learnt that an alternative economic model is gaining traction in today’s world, in which we are grappling with climate change, biodiversity loss, and threats to our well-being.

It is called the Doughnut economic model, conceived by Oxford University economist Kate Raworth for promoting respect for our social foundation and ecological ceiling.

The doughnut economics conceptual model. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It has been adopted by major cities, such as Amsterdam, Brussels and Melbourne, and has also been proposed by Red Dot United (RDU) and Singapore youths’ 2022 SG Green Policy Paper, in the hope to address the issues of widening inequality and climate emergency.

After all, a growing GDP doesn’t necessarily equate to a successful society when the rich become richer and the poor become poorer, or when environmental degradation affects our well-being, quality of life and survival.

Those of us who are less well-off are also more vulnerable to the negative consequences of human-induced climate change, due to lack of or inadequate access to air cooling and/or healthcare services.

To date, six of the nine planetary boundaries, including climate change and biodiversity loss, have already been crossed, according to researchers from the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Disruption of ecological connectivity between Bukit Batok nature park and Toh Tuck forest (Photo by Jimmy Tan)

Part of wildlife corridor in Bukit Batok being cleared for roadworks is regrettable

In the light of the aforementioned environmental impacts, I am deeply concerned about the clearance of a patch of secondary forest in Bukit Batok during the ongoing road-widening works, which was done without any Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

Not only it results in a loss of ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration, cooling of urban heat island effect and prevention of soil erosion and landslides, it also disrupts safe movements of wildlife between Bukit Batok nature corridor and Clementi nature corridor.

Notably, the loss of about 1 ha of the forest in this area is equivalent to 483 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions (or the equivalent of the annual emissions of over 150 cars), if we consider the fact that Singapore has lost 201 ha of tree cover, equivalent to 97,200,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, last year.

Annual tree cover loss through deforestation in Singapore from 2001 to 2021 (Source: Global Forest Watch)

While we note from a Land Transport Authority (LTA) spokesman that “detailed environmental studies were not needed when the project was first proposed in 2016 as the works mainly impacted the fringes of secondary forest dominated by rubber trees”, and that “the project will cater to the expected increase in traffic in the vicinity”, many things have changed since 2016.

Expected increase in traffic in the vicinity is questionable

Firstly, more people have been studying and working from home ever since the Covid-19 pandemic took place in 2020, and this trend is likely to continue as many schools and companies have learnt to be flexible in dealing with any such future pandemics.

Secondly, LTA has been promoting their vision for a car-lite Singapore since 2016, such as encouraging more people to walk, cycle, share cars or take public transport.

So, it is questionable as to whether traffic will increase in the vicinity as much as it was expected in 2016, since car drivers can choose to use greener transport modes, or travel via alternative routes, or adjust their travelling schedules to avoid any peak hour congestion where possible.

As a resident of Bukit Batok, my own observations show that the roads around Bukit Batok nature park have light traffic most of the time, and the peak hour traffic in the morning and evening seldom builds up beyond each cycle of traffic light changes at the road junction (see below videos for reference).

Another resident of Bukit Batok also noted that “the roadworks may be necessary, but it seems the road is being made unnecessarily wide, considering that the traffic jam occurs at only certain hours of the day”.

Moreover, in my feedback to LTA via One Service app in February 2022, I wrote that the Right Turn storage lane from Bukit Batok East Ave 6 to Bukit Batok East Ave 2 could be extended to accommodate more vehicles, so there was no real or urgent need to widen the road to the extent of encroaching on the existing pavements and trees.

The lack of space in the Right Turn storage lane results in a gap in the middle lane of Bukit Batok East Ave 6 when vehicles are waiting for the traffic lights to turn green. Extending the storage lane can significantly ease traffic congestion during peak hours without having to widen this road. (Photo by Jimmy Tan)
The Left Turn slip road along Bukit Batok East Avenue 2 can accommodate one more lane to ease the short traffic jams during peak hours (which usually happen only on weekdays), so the trees along the edge of Toh Tuck Forest on the opposite side of the road junction need not be removed for road widening. (Photo by Jimmy Tan)

While I understand from LTA that the widening of the junctions within Bukit Batok leading to Hillview and Dairy Farm is meant to enhance connectivity and support the growth in new and future residential and commercial developments in these neighbouring areas, I wonder how many people buy property just to sell them in 5-10 years upon meeting the Minimum Occupation Period (MOP) to make quick profits, instead of staying long-term?

“Many of my peers who are also applying for a BTO unit or have already booked one seem to have this more dispassionate view: They believe it is a no-brainer that one should sell a BTO unit as soon as possible, while it is still relatively new, so as to reap sizable profits.”

– Ng Jui Sen “Adulting 101: My first BTO flat — a home to sink roots and build a family or a money spinner?” (TODAY, 31 July 2021)

Such a situation will invariably (and artificially) boost housing demands (whether for long-term homes or short-term investment or upgrading), and property developers will constantly need new land space or forests to clear to build more Build-To-Order (BTO) flats and condos. Is that sustainable, as compared to redeveloping previously developed or under-utilised lands (and perhaps also lengthening the MOP for new BTO flats in former forested lands to discourage people from speculating in property at the expense of the forests)?

Also, although Singapore’s population growth rate has risen from 1.3% in 2016 to 3.4% in 2022, most of the growth comes from PRs and non-citizens, including wealthy foreign investors who tend to make bulk purchases of private properties, and many investors may buy the properties to rent or sell them for quick profits instead of staying there long-term.

Thus, if we keep building on new condos in the vicinity to cater to such frivolous housing demands instead of redeveloping brownfield sites for genuine home buyers, we not only may make it more difficult for Singaporeans to find affordable public housing given the space constraints, but also unwittingly sacrifice our precious few forest habitats to widen roads mainly to cater to the rich and privileged who drive cars.

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in ecologically sensitive areas should be mandatory

In recent years, the Ministry of National Development (MND) has been strengthening EIA frameworks, such as in 2020 when Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) spelt out that an environmental study must be done if the development works are located close to an area of ecological significance, such as the nature reserves, nature areas, marine and coastal areas, other areas of significant biodiversity or with potential trans-boundary impact.

While LTA has done well to ensure that an EIA was done for the North-South corridor project in Sembawang woods, and for the Cross Island Line projects in Central Catchment nature reserve and the forested areas in Eng Neo Ave, Turf Club, Clementi forest, Maju forest and Windsor nature park to mitigate environmental impacts, it is regrettable that they neglect to do so for the road widening project between Bukit Batok nature corridor and Clementi nature corridor, as both nature areas have been studied and established to be highly biodiverse and ecologically sensitive.

We have seen how over the years previous development projects done in forested areas without any EIA have serious negative impacts on wildlife and human residents, such as in Punggol, Pasir Ris, Tampines and Hougang.

For example, the loss of forest habitats in Punggol and Pasir Ris have resulted in human-wildlife conflicts, resulting in injuries to unfortunate passers-by caused by the displaced wild boars, and the injured residents had to bear medical costs and possibly experienced post-traumatic stress disorder for a long time.

The loss of secondary forests, such as in Tampines bike park and in Hougang, have also contributed to flash floods during intense rain, causing vehicles to stall and resulting in inconvenience, distress and costs of damage for the drivers.

All these negative impacts on humans and the environment might have been prevented if an EIA had been conducted and there were mitigation measures (such as wildlife shepherding and retaining of sizeable forested areas to minimise the effects of habitat fragmentation and loss) in place.

As it were, the lack of an EIA for the road widening project in Bukit Batok to mitigate environmental impacts of the forest fragmentation is disappointing, as it suggests a disregard for climate change mitigation, wildlife movements, ecological connectivity, and human safety and well-being.

As colugos live on tall trees and move between Bukit Batok nature park and Toh Tuck forest, they may suffer chronic stress, fertility problems and change their migration routes in response to the construction noise and loss of tall trees along the road in the vicinity. Furthermore, if the forest patch next to Bukit Batok hillside nature park (which is part of Bukit Batok nature corridor) is cleared for housing development, it will further disrupt ecological connectivity and affect safe movements of wildlife. (Sources: NParks, ST Graphics, HDB, Our Singapore Facebook page)

Already, an uncommon native Sunda colugo, an arboreal forest-dependent animal that lives and glides among trees, was found to be stranded in a car park next to Block 271, Bukit Batok East Ave 4, late last month. It is likely to have been affected by the loss of mature trees between Bukit Batok nature park and Toh Tuck forest due to the roadworks, which suggests that the mitigation measures LTA had discussed with NParks have not worked as well as they should.

As noted by National University of Singapore (NUS) biology lecturer N. Sivasothi, “the affected forest patches are located near the intersection of the Bukit Batok and the Clementi nature corridors, which might impact the wildlife moving between western catchment forests to the central nature reserves.”

“These nature corridors are important pathways for animals to travel between areas of high biodiversity, which help rejuvenate green fragments. If the link is broken, green fragments become cut off from ecosystem functions available in a mature forest.”

– Mr Sivasothi, “Part of wildlife corridor in Bukit Batok cleared for roadworks” (The Straits Times, 26 October 2022)

If naturalists and nature groups had not spoken up about this issue, I wonder if LTA and National Parks Board (NParks) would have reinforced their efforts to mitigate such impacts?

Both Bukit Batok hillside park Hill 1 and 2 (which include new HDB BTO sites) are part of Bukit Batok nature corridor, as identified by NParks’ Ecological Profiling Exercise.

In addition, given the fact that an EIA is being carried out along Bukit Batok nature corridor (which Bukit Batok Hillside Park (BBHP) Hill 1 and 2 are a part of) since end 2021 and is expected to take about 15 months upon commencement, shouldn’t the respective agency or contractor allow for the proper environmental studies to be done, to ensure wildlife, flora and fauna could be properly managed, before deciding whether (and how much) to clear or conserve any part of the forest (like in the case of the erroneous clearance of part of Kranji woodlands last year)?

Wouldn’t the ongoing removal of vegetation at BBHP Hill 2 (as well as the planned deforestation for the November 2022 launch of BTO site in BBHP Hill 1) further disrupt ecological connectivity, which might also further impact the wildlife (such as the uncommon native Sunga colugos, critically endangered pangolins, forest-dependent palm civets, endangered long-tailed macaques, etc) moving between western water catchment forests (via Tengah nature way and Bukit Batok nature corridor) and the central nature reserves?

The collage of photos show soil erosion and loss of ecological connectivity in Bukit Batok nature corridor over the past couple of years. The landslide at Bukit Batok nature park in September 2021 may be seen as a consequence of our planetary boundaries, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, having been exceeded. (Photos by Jimmy Tan)

Early this month, at the time of writing, representatives from Singapore are attending the COP27 United Nations climate talks in Egypt – can we really present our revised climate targets on net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050 with a clear conscience when we continue to clear carbon-absorbing forests right in our own backyard for road widening to accommodate more vehicles (many of which are carbon-emitting)?

Similarly, how can naturalists, nature groups and the general public have trust in our governance of wild green spaces if the authorities fail to respect NParks’s Ecological Profiling Exercise in the aforementioned nature corridors?

I believe that Singapore can do better than merely coming up with promising solutions that may end up being little more than greenwashing than actually dealing with the environmental problems.

In view of the climate emergency, biodiversity loss and public health crisis facing us, may I recommend the following solutions to prevent incidents, such as the clearance of part of a wildlife corridor, from happening again?

  1. Create or appoint an independent, non-governmental agency or organisation with regulatory teeth to ensure that there are proper checks and balances regarding environmental studies, since NParks may not have sufficient clout to enforce their own regulations when it comes to working with other government agencies, such as LTA and Housing & Development Board (HDB).
  2. Consult nature groups at the earliest possible stage of any development project involving ecologically sensitive nature areas, so as to ensure accountability and transparency of the relevant policies and mitigation measures.
  3. Adopt the degrowth or Doughnut economic model to ensure that we respect our social foundation and ecological ceiling, so that every Singaporean will lead their life with dignity, opportunity and community within the means of our environment.
  4. Increase MOP from 5 years to 10 or more years for new BTO flats (especially those that will be built in greenfield sites), so as to discourage people from buying new property purely for short-term investments and profits at the expense of the forests and forest-dependent wildlife.
  5. Avoid any further deforestation along Bukit Batok nature corridor (including BBHP Hill 1 and 2 area) and in Tengah forest, so as to maintain ecological connectivity, climate resilience and a liveable environment for humans and wildlife between Western water catchment and Central catchment nature reserve, and focus on redeveloping brownfield sites elsewhere.

P.S. To support the conservation of (the rest of) Bukit Batok Hillside Park area so as to ensure a sustainable future, click here.

To support the preservation of at least 30-50% of Tengah forest so as to protect biodiversity and tackle climate emergency, click here.