The following open petition letter was sent to the relevant authorities in December 2020.
To: Dr Cheong Koon Hean, CEO, Housing Development Board (HDB), Singapore
cc. Mdm Halimah Yacob, President of Singapore
Mr Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore
Mr Tan Meng Dui, CEO, National Environmental Agency (NEA), Singapore
Mr Fong Chun Wah, Deputy CEO (Building), Housing Development Board (HDB), Singapore
Mr Kenneth Er, CEO, National Parks Board (NParks), Singapore
Mr Desmond Lee, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of National Development (MND), Singapore
Mr Lim Eng Hwee, CEO, Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), Singapore
Subject: Open petition letter to support conservation of Bukit Batok Hillside Park area to ensure a sustainable future for us
Dear Dr Cheong,
This petition letter is concerned with the fate of Bukit Batok Hillside Park (BBHP) area, where an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was conducted in 2018. I understand that this area was originally part of a larger ridge that runs parallel to Bukit Gombak town before the ridge was cut in half by a new road (namely, Bukit Batok West Avenue 5) in 2018.
It is my conviction that both the current BBHP area and its neighbouring forested hill (which were formerly parts of the same ridge) are worth conserving in their entirety because they are important landmarks that not only preserve our natural and cultural heritage (which is getting rarer due to rapid urbanisation), but also provide clean air, an ecological refuge for our native wildlife (including the critically endangered straw-headed bulbuls), cooling of the urban heat island effect, and a healing sanctuary that boosts our immune system and enhances our physical and mental health.
Why I started the petition
It is thanks to HDB’s invitation to the public to provide feedback on the EIA report from 19 June to 16 July 2020 that I came to know about the housing development plan in BBHP area. A friend of mine directed me to a post by Mr Karl Png of Singapore Youth Voices for Biodiversity (SYVB), who invited friends of Nature to contribute feedback. I decided to contribute my feedback via SYVB, and I have also sent my feedback directly to HDB and attached my blog link for the full details, which is meant to raise awareness of the environmental issues.
I feel that it is indeed a good move to sound out members of the public and Nature community on the housing development plan because we can offer broader perspectives based on our actual lived experiences, such as feeling a sense of loss for something that means a lot to us and acknowledging the role of the forests in contributing to our health and well-being, and thereby our quality of life.
As a resident of Bukit Batok myself, I can vouch for how many of the other residents feel about the implications of the development plan on the forests. One main reason I moved from Toa Payoh to Bukit Batok about six years ago is that there is much dense greenery around here. The highly urbanised environment in Toa Payoh and the demanding nature of my full-time editorial work in educational publishing had taken a toll on my health after many years; hence, I sought refuge in this town where the nature parks provide a much-needed respite from the heat and stress. I have since been working as a freelance writer and editor, as well as a part-time food delivery cyclist.
Unfortunately, the planned development of BBHP area, as well as the ongoing deforestation in other parts of Singapore, such as Lentor-Tagore forest, Bidadari forest and Tengah forest (despite concerns raised by Nature groups), would invariably result in rising urban heat island effect, loss of biodiversity, increased risk of flash floods, mosquito-borne diseases and other adverse consequences. Though mitigation measures were proposed by the authorities, I feel that they are often too human-centric rather than eco-centric and are insufficient to address the adverse consequences.
These consequences will negatively impact those who are most vulnerable to climate change, including the very young, older people, the homeless, the disabled or less abled people, people in poor health, people with poor mobility and access, and those of us who work outdoors with exposure to the weather elements in our hot, humid and wet equatorial climate.
This petition, which was started by me in August 2020 based on a suggestion from a member of Nature Society (Singapore) Facebook group, has over 10,000 signatures to date and includes comments from other residents staying in Bukit Batok, such as the following:
The anger and anguish in response to the rapid deforestation in the neighbourhood and in our country are not only felt by residents of Bukit Batok, but also residents in other parts of Singapore, such as Dover-Ulu Pandan area, Punggol and Pasir Ris. Some of the residents, including myself, have chosen to buy a new or resale flat and move to these areas in order to be close to Nature, while others have lived here all their lives. Since we have enjoyed the quiet space, the cool fresh air, and the presence of the intriguing wildlife in the nearby forests, it is saddening to see such blissful sanctuaries-cum-natural habitats and the biodiversity they support being taken away from our neighbourhood in the name of development.
I learnt that such emotional responses need to be acknowledged, even if one might seek to justify the need for urban development and economic growth at the expense of our natural environment. These emotional responses may be termed “ecological grief”, defined by Nature Climate Change article as “the grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change”. It is believed that ecological grief “is a natural, though overlooked, response to ecological loss, and one that is likely to affect more of us into the future”. If you have been to a forest or nature paradise and are moved by its tranquil beauty, or are inspired to express your creativity like painting or writing poetry, or experience its profound healing or therapeutic benefits, wouldn’t you mourn for its loss too?
In case this petition might be seen as “anti-development”, I wish to add that it is important for us to have safe spaces for having conversations on conservation and expressing ecological grief without fear of being “cancelled”. For example, when someone in Nature Society (Singapore) Facebook Group lamented about the destruction of the forest for development these days, invariably some others would jump in to defend the need for housing development and dissuade them from airing their grievances. It is a common misconception that people who openly express their concerns about continual deforestation and the state of our environment are anti-development. On the contrary, it is because we love the living environment of Singapore that we are saddened to see the rapid pace at which we are losing our natural heritage. Many of us are questioning ourselves whether we can still afford to pay the price of development at the expense of our remaining forests and biodiversity, and ultimately, at the expense of our health, well-being and long-term survival. We are not against development per se, but rather we are concerned about unsustainable development.
Throughout the 55 years of our journey of national development since independence, we have been witnessing our landscapes becoming more grey than green. We have come to a point where our collective grief over ecological loss is more than mere nostalgia for a kampong lifestyle or sentimentalism about a rustic landscape. Much as we are grateful for having a roof over our heads and no longer struggling for survival like we did as a young nation back in the 1960s, we are also becoming more aware of our complicity in destroying our flora and fauna in the process of relentless urbanisation. Unlike indigenous people who have a proven track record of managing their tropical rainforests sustainably over countless generations for thousands of years, we seem to be heading towards eventual self-destruction through continual destruction of our own precious rainforests.
One may wonder if we are just being alarmist or overly emotional. If so, let us look at evidence-based research for a reality check. Studies have shown that more than 95% of our original forest cover has been lost to agriculture and urban development. A scientific study/report on deforestation causing extinctions acknowledged by the government shows that we have lost nearly 73% of our plants and animals over the last 200 years, including as many as 4,866 plants, 627 butterflies, 234 fish, 111 reptiles and 91 mammals. As our remaining secondary rainforests become more and more fragmented, it is reasonable to be concerned that we may reach a tipping point or a threshold of deforestation, like in the case of the Amazon rainforests in South America and other tropical rainforests elsewhere, beyond which our ecosystems can no longer function in such a way that can sustain all of us in the long run, in terms of our health, safety and well-being.
Vegetation map of Singapore in 1819 and 2007. (Source: NParks) Although the vegetation cover is said to have increased from 37% in the 1980s to 56% today, there was mass deforestation and construction going on back then. Despite an apparent increase in green cover in the last 40 years, the replanted greenery that replaced the trees that have been cut down for development actually has much less biomass and biodiversity (and possibly less functionality in the ecosystems too) than the original rainforests. As the secondary rainforest in BBHP area has been recovering for decades, it contains much biomass and biodiversity worth preserving fully.
Percentage of species extinction in Singapore (Source: NParks) We do not want to risk any further extinctions of species, including the critically endangered straw-headed bulbuls found in BBHP area.
Already, we are facing a zoonotic virus pandemic due to increasing encroachment of wildlife habitats around the world, resulting in loss of health, lives and/or livelihoods for many people, including those in Singapore. I also believe that the numerous roadkills involving pangolins, sambar deer, wild boars, etc (especially in Mandai and Lentor areas where development is taking place) and the recent wild boar attacks on humans in Punggol and Pasir Ris (which occurred near deforested areas) are signs that our ecosystem may be buckling under the strain of unmitigated deforestation. These evidences strongly suggest that deforestation is mainly responsible for causing displacement and homelessness of our native species, and consequently road accidents and human-wildlife conflicts, in which both wildlife and humans end up being injured or killed. Such incidental health, social and environmental costs, which are likely to run up to millions of dollars or even more (and surely the value of one’s health or one’s very life alone is beyond measure too), need to be acknowledged and duly addressed.
In view of the extensive damage done to our environment (and to some extent, our health and well-being) and the ecological grief experienced by many of us, it is hoped that this petition will help us to:
- let HDB (and other relevant authorities) know that we are concerned about ensuring a sustainable future for ourselves and our future generations.
- create awareness for more people about the need to conserve our fast-dwindling forested areas, which serve as a home for our flora and fauna, which we are all interdependent on
- ensure that we will not let another natural habitat disappear under our nose, and hopefully prevent future cases of deforestation and their negative consequences from happening
- advocate the need for creative solutions, such as considering brownfield sites and underutilised lands (such as golf courses, abandoned buildings awaiting redevelopment, etc), as alternatives for housing development instead of sacrificing our endangered natural habitats.
BBHP area has the highest percentage of native plant diversity in Bukit Batok. It may also contain nests of rare bird species, such as eagles, on the tree canopy, which may have been missed during the fauna survey in the EIA.
The newly designated Bukit Batok Hillside Nature Park (BBHNP) and its limitations
Having read the local news on 7 December 2020 about the designation of two new nature parks in Singapore; namely, Bukit Batok Hillside Nature Park (BBHNP) and Bukit Batok Central Nature Park, I feel that they are good reports overall, but there is still much to be done for nature conservation and sustainable development. Upon examining the map in Today’s news article, I realised that nothing has changed much for the Bukit Batok Hillside Park (BBHP) area, which will occupy 8.9 ha, after it includes one of the streams and the small catchment area, as a designated nature park.
From my understanding, HDB is still planning to develop 2 plots of land for housing, which will occupy almost half of the 17-ha forested area, where the EIA was carried out, and HDB is also planning to launch the first batch of BTO flats in this area in February 2021.
As mentioned in the petition, it is much better to build these BTO flats on brownfield sites or redeveloped sites elsewhere than to destroy parts of the maturing secondary rainforest and its rich biodiversity in BBHP area.
As you have acknowledged in 2018:
“Similar to many mature cities, as we become built up over time we will be left with more brownfield rather than greenfield sites. This requires us to shift progressively into an ‘urban redevelopment/regeneration’ mode. For an island city-state limited by our territorial waters, available land for new development will come mainly from ‘recycling’ existing land and properties.”(Source: How We Can Better Chart Singapore’s Urban Future)
In 2019, you have rightly reiterated our need to recycle brownfield fields for future development.
“As more developments use up land space, it is inevitable that future development would come from recycling what urban planners call brownfield sites. We will soon transit into a redevelopment mode where existing land and properties is `recycled’ for new use and new forms of developments. In fact, our leasehold land system is essential for us to achieve a virtual cycle of land recovery, continually rejuvenating our city and housing estates for future generations.”(Source: From Grid to Green: The Plans that Shape Our City State)
Indeed, we are already in the process of redeveloping or rejuvenating some of our housing estates through engaging residents in the “remaking our heartland” programme and so on. Having previously lived in Toa Payoh, I have seen for myself a number of blocks of old flats being demolished to make way for new, taller blocks of flats, such as in Toa Payoh Apex. I have also seen existing used lands of Bukit Batok being redeveloped to build BTO flats, such as those behind Keming Primary School. Moreover, I am aware that some golf courses, such as Keppel Club and golf course, will make way for housing development in the next few years.
I think these housing redevelopment projects are commendable and should be practised more widely instead of removing our few remaining secondary forests. If we take into account the massive health, social and environmental costs of deforestation as mentioned earlier, it should be more economically viable and environmentally sustainable to recycle brownfield sites than sacrificing our remaining greenfield sites and destroying our biodiversity (and our health) further. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as a reminder for us to go back to Nature for healing and inspiration, as well as a gentle nudge for us to step into a new paradigm of doing things that work in harmony with Nature, as the old way of doing things is no longer serving our highest good.
In addition, I am very concerned that the area of 8.9 ha designated as a nature park is insufficient for preserving biodiversity in BBHP area, which is recorded to support at least 81 fauna species and 74 plant species. Considering the fact that the 17-ha EIA study site consists of a forest that is already fragmented, any further fragmentation of the forest will only serve to worsen the edge effects, such as direct exposure to light and drying effects of the wind, which may adversely affect trees in the forest interior. This is worrying because BBHP area has the highest percentage of native plant diversity in Bukit Batok, according to a study done by National University of Singapore in 2013.
BBHP forests have thick leaf litter supporting microorganisms that decompose organic material for fertilising trees and other plants. The trees in the forest interior are protected from edge effects such as windthrow as long as the forest remains intact.
As noted by conservation biologist Dr Thomas Lovejoy:
“Fragments lose up to 30 percent of their biomass essentially forever because of the vulnerability of big trees to windthrow [when trees are toppled or broken by wind]… Fragment size is a really critical factor. Small fragments (those under 10 hectares in size) are really hammered by edge effects and lose much of their biodiversity. They’re sort of like biological deserts, and very seriously distorted ecologically – just a caricature of intact forest.”(“Lessons from the world’s longest study of rainforest fragments”)
Last but not least, during my surveys of the BBHP area, I was fortunate to hear the unmistakable melodious songs of the critically endangered straw-headed bulbuls (which are not recorded in the EIA report) on two occasions. I managed to record a short video of its song during a visit to the forest on 16 November 2020. Given that these highly sought-after song birds were brought to the brink of extinction, we should spare no effort to conserve every one of their natural habitats, including the entire BBHP area and its neighbouring forested hill. We should also keep in mind that other native species, such as bats, Sunda colugos and Sunda pangolins, may be present at BBHP area, even though they were not observed during the 9-day fauna survey done in 2018, as noted in the EIA report.
BBHP area deserves to be fully protected as a natural habitat for the critically endangered straw-headed bulbuls. Other threatened biodiversity will also benefit from the conservation actions. Excerpt from Nature Watch (July-September 2019) by Nature Society (Singapore).
Proposal to preserve the entire BBHP forested areas for educational, recreational and conservation purposes
In view of the limitations of the newly designated BBHNP as discussed earlier, this petition will continue to press for the conservation of the entire forested areas in this vicinity (i.e. both 17-ha BBHP area and the forested hill next to it, which is around the same size) for the sake of our biodiversity (including endangered flora and fauna that depend on the forests for survival), our battle against adverse climate change, and our health and well-being, etc.
As stated in my petition update on 10 December 2020, we need to preserve the original ridge that comprises both BBHP area and the forested hill next to it, in order to ensure a coherent ecological corridor that truly safeguards the safety, well-being and long-term survival of our native wildlife species. (Source of base map: URA Master Plan 2019)
Lest anyone think it is too much to ask for the entire ecological corridor along BBHP and its neighbouring forested hill to be retained, let us recall MP Desmond Lee’s observation recorded in the Straits Times article dated 7 December 2020, in which he said the designated nature parks “act as key stepping stones within the existing network of green spaces between the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Tengah, which provide food and shelter for our native flora and fauna to thrive”. In addition, he cited “the appearance of the Malayan colugo, a gliding animal, in Bukit Batok Nature Park as an example of how existing park connectors and nature ways between Bukit Batok and the Central Catchment have enhanced connectivity for native species”. Thus, we need the same enhanced connectivity for the native animals in the entire BBHP area and its neighbouring forested hill.
In addition, since everything is interconnected, we need to align the Tengah forest corridor in such a way to ensure that the existing wildlife are able to have sufficient living spaces for eating, resting, mating and moving with minimal noise pollution and human disturbance. The map above shows my proposed Tengah forest corridor, which will ensure that ground-moving creatures, such as squirrels, wild boars, Sunda pangolins, and civet cats, are able to move to and from Tengah and BBHP as well as other natural habitats freely and safely. This can also help them in the work of pollination and seed dispersal for a healthy functioning ecosystem.
Moreover, since BBHP area and its neighbouring forest are located near Bukit Batok Polyclinic, Bukit Batok Home for the Aged, and the upcoming senior-friendly assisted-living HDB flats, we could integrate an eco-friendly therapeutic Nature sanctuary within the park premises where there is even ground with ease of access for patients and elderly folks to enjoy the health benefits of forest bathing (aka shinrin-yoku) without having to travel too far. It will ensure that the park area can be well utilised not only by able-bodied residents, but also residents who are less able or less mobile.
Furthermore, the above-mentioned forested area can serve as a research, education and conservation centre to groom young scientists, botanists and ecologists. This initiative would be in line with NParks’ goal to nurture our next generation to take care of our forest ecology. According to the Conservation Sentiments Survey done by Wildlife Reserves Singapore earlier this year, “Generation Z respondents aged between 16 and 24 years old are nearly twice as inclined to support wildlife conservation, compared to Singaporeans above 45 years old”. Our younger generations are also particularly concerned about their future in the context of global warming and other pressing environmental issues, hence the proposed research centre can train and empower them to study forest biodynamics, monitor our flora and fauna in our ecological corridors, and help contribute to nature conservation and ensure environmental sustainability. We could also collaborate with the Forest School Singapore for such educational programmes, for example. (See Addendum below)
One may wonder if we were to conserve the entire BBHP area and its neighbouring forested hill, where else can we build the BTO flats that were meant to be built on the aforementioned 2 plots of land? I do not profess to have the perfect answers, but I do have some suggestions for HDB to consider. As shown in the map on the right, the possible alternative sites include:
- the empty plot of land beside the Buddhist temple along Bukit Batok West Ave 8,
- the empty plot of land beside Dulwich College along Bukit Batok West Ave 8, and
- the land occupied by Yusof Ishak Secondary School (which will be relocated to Punggol in 2021) along Bukit Batok Street 25.
These proposed alternative sites have very low biodiversity (thus will result in minimal loss of biodiversity) and share the same infrastructure and amenities as the existing blocks of flats nearby. Even if my suggestions are found to be infeasible by HDB, I choose to make the suggestions partly to save BBHP area from housing development and partly to demonstrate that we nature enthusiasts are not against development per se, but rather are concerned about how the development may affect our biodiversity, climate, and health and well-being to the extent that it becomes unsustainable.
You may agree that the concerns and suggestions raised in this petition letter are by no means exhaustive, as environmental issues are complex and intersectional. There are some questions we all need to ask ourselves and one another so that we can fill in the gaps of knowledge and understanding, in order to provide better feedback and suggestions and work together for truly sustainable solutions that benefit ourselves, our animal friends and our environment. These questions include:
- How can we, individually and collectively, address our human nature or unconscious desire that causes us to want more and more things (thus resulting in over-exploitation of resources and environmental destruction, and ultimately our self-destruction) but is impossible to satisfy?
- Given the fact that deforestation creates habitats for mosquito vectors, how can we avoid or minimise deforestation henceforth, in order to effectively combat dengue virus outbreak at the very root, instead of only treating the symptoms of the problem and relying mainly on costly chemical fumigation and pesticides that can harm benign creatures and mosquito predators, such as dragonflies, geckos and spiders, and upset the ecosystem further?
- Although the 1-million tree planting project is laudable, even if we can replace 1 million trees lost to deforestation for development by replanting 1 million young trees by 2030, how can we account for the loss of flora and fauna (including our endangered species), together with the biomass and biodiversity they constitute and the functionality they contribute to our ecosystems, which have taken decades to grow, mature and flourish?
- Since urbanisation and having to live in crowded quarters can lead to depression while forest therapy boosts mental health, how can we better make sense of the correlation between deforestation, urbanisation and the increasing number of cases of mental health issues (such as stress, anxiety and depression) and suicides, in order to address the problem holistically? Do we want a future where more and more of us become sick, stressed and even suicidal?
- Since Singapore has one of the world’s lowest birth rates, and our population is declining this year, and it is also reported that “given recent trends, Singapore’s total population is likely to be significantly below 6.9 million by 2030”, how urgently do we really need to build more housing to the extent of having to destroy part of the forest in BBHP area? We need more transparency on such information in order for us to give better informed feedback and suggestions. Moreover, even if we do need to build substantially more housing in the next 10 years, have we really explored all the options and given top priority to redeveloping brownfield sites before deciding to sacrifice our few remaining secondary forests that support sizeable biodiversity as the last resort, including Dover Forest, Clementi Forest etc, which are marked for development according to URA Master Plan 2019? In view of the emerging ecological crisis mentioned earlier, can we move towards zero deforestation and focus on redevelopment of brownfield sites? If we can recycle our used water and innovate NEWater, surely we can also recycle our used built-up lands and innovate new eco-friendly housing development without having to lose our forests further.
- Last but not least, considering the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic that has caused major disruptions to our lifestyles and businesses locally and globally, how prepared are we to deal with another zoonotic virus pandemic if it will happen in future, especially when we humans continue to encroach on wildlife habitats, such as our tropical rainforests? Earlier this year during the circuit breaker, many people avoided shopping malls and flocked to Nature places like forests and beaches to exercise, get fresh air, and build their immune system. If we continue to destroy our remaining secondary forests that serve as buffers to prevent our fragile nature reserves from being affected by having too many visitors, wouldn’t the destruction of our forests endanger ourselves even further?
BBHP area and its neighbouring forested hill can serve as important buffers to protect our fragile nature reserves from being affected by the increasing number of hikers, many of whom are seeking refuge from urban stress and crowded malls to escape the risk of COVID-19 virus infection.
Finally, on behalf of the supporters of this petition and everyone else who has contributed to the conversation, I would like to thank you for your attention and for the opportunity to provide our feedback on the EIA done on BBHP area. I wish you all the best in your endeavours to work with the agencies and stakeholders with regard to BBHP area, which I consider to be a poster child for advocating the conservation of all of our few remaining secondary forests. Hopefully, the best possible outcome will happen for all of us, including our animal friends.
Jimmy Tan San Tek
Creator of the petition “Support conservation of Bukit Batok Hillside Park to ensure a sustainable future for us”
P.S. To sign the petition to save Bukit Batok Hillside Park area, click here.
To sign the petition to save Tengah forest, click here.