Why Bukit Batok Hillside Park should be spared from housing development

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The dense secondary rainforest in Bukit Batok Hillside Park serves as a natural habitat and safe haven for our dwindling numbers of wildlife residents and plants (of which 10 species have been identified in the EIA report to be of conservation concern).

The Housing and Development Board (HDB) has engaged an environmental consultancy firm to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) on Bukit Batok Hillside Park in the western region of Singapore.

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Aerial view of new BTO flats in Bukit Batok West from Bukit Batok Hillside Park
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Ground view of Bukit Batok Hillside Park, which is sandwiched between the new BTO flats in Bukit Batok West and the existing HDB flats in Bukit Gombak.

According to HDB’s website, they “carefully consider the findings from the studies so that (they) can sensitively plan the land use and make adjustments to the Master Plan if needed to mitigate the potential impact, and establish urban design strategies to provide a quality living environment.”
While I commend HDB for initiating the environmental study in their proposal to build more housing units, I have several concerns about the potential impacts of deforestation in Bukit Batok Hillside Park:

  1. Loss of biodiversity and natural heritage
  2. Risk of soil erosion and landslides
  3. Loss of natural cooling effect and increase in urban heat effect
  4. Loss of cultural and historical heritage
  5. Loss of connection to Nature and increase in stress and anxiety associated with urban claustrophobia
  6. Increase in dengue fever cases due to conditions favouring increased reproduction of disease-carrying mosquitoes
1) Loss of our biodiversity and natural heritage in the western region of Singapore

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Oriental Whip Snake in Bukit Batok Hillside Park, which is endemic in Southeast Asia

During a short hike in and around the forest of Bukit Batok Hillside Park on 5 July 2020, I spotted several animal species, such as oriental whip snake, greater racket-tailed drongo, white-crested laughing thrushes, black-naped orioles, yellow-vented bulbuls, and insect species such as dragonflies and butterflies.

These are merely a fraction of the 81 fauna species recorded in the EIA (and there may be more species that have yet to be discovered during the 9-day wildlife survey). The presence of predators such as snakes suggests a fairly complex food web in this fragile secondary forest ecosystem, which is still recovering from past human disturbance.

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Bukit Batok Hillside Park faces the disappearing Tengah forest opposite Bukit Batok Road.

Since Tengah forest nearby is currently being cleared to make way for new homes, most of the wildlife there will have nowhere else to escape to, since it is bounded by expressways in the north and west, and by roads along Choa Chu Kang housing estate in the east and along Bukit Batok and Bukit Gombak housing estates in the south.

Some birds may be able to fly across Bukit Batok Road from the disappearing Tengah forest to take refuge in Bukit Batok Hillside Park. However, if the forest in Bukit Batok Hillside Park were to be destroyed too, then there would be a huge loss of the existing biodiversity in this region. This is because Bukit Batok Hillside Park serves as the last remaining node of connectivity between Tengah forest and the forested areas in Bukit Batok town park (Little Guilin), Bukit Batok nature park and Bukit Timah nature reserve.

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With Tengah Forest looking set to disappear in about 10-20 years’ time due to housing development, Bukit Batok Hillside Park is the last remaining refuge for the wildlife in this region. (Source: Google Maps)

Although the upcoming Tengah town is designed to have “forest corridors“, they will be closely intersected by roads, pavements and cycling tracks. These do not allow the animal residents to move freely, unlike in a real forest setting such as in Bukit Batok Hillside Park, where they can go about their daily lives – eating, mating, reproducing, sleeping, etc – undisturbed by human presence.

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Bukit Batok Road and the new BTO flat construction site pose a challenge for the native ground-moving animals, such as the critically endangered Sunda pangolins, to cross safely from the diminishing Tengah forest to Bukit Batok Hillside Park.

Like Dr Ho Hua Chew, vice-president of Nature Society (Singapore), said, “some species of birds, such as parakeets, eagles and others that can fly longer distances, will be able to use the fragmented patches of forests as stepping stones from the Tengah forest to Bukit Batok Nature Park or the nature reserve and vice versa”. On the other hand, he is also concerned that “wiping out the vegetation (in the Bukit Batok area) further disrupts the route that wildlife can use to move from forest to forest”.

2) Steep slopes prone to soil erosion and landslides in Bukit Batok

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The steep slopes of Bukit Batok Hillside Park are prone to soil erosion and landslides, especially if the protective tree cover is removed.
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Fragile topsoil exposed in a gully in the forest of Bukit Batok Hillside Park

Bukit Batok is blessed with several small forested hills and ridges, which thankfully have helped the town retain its overall green appearance for the most part, compared to most other towns in Singapore. Thanks to their steep slopes, some of these forested hills, such as Bukit Batok neighborhood park along Bukit Batok Street 21 and the hills surrounding Bukit Batok MRT station, have escaped urban development so far.

Hence, I find it inconceivable that Bukit Batok Hillside Park is being considered for housing development, since the steep slopes, especially those adjacent to Bukit Batok West Avenue 2, are prone to soil erosion and landslides if the vegetation cover is removed. The seasonal monsoon rains and late afternoon thunderstorms, which are common in Singapore, add to the risk of natural hazards such as landslides. It is also dangerous and expensive to construct buildings on steep slopes, hence Bukit Batok Hillside Park is not ideal for housing development.

3) Loss of natural cooling effect of forest and increased urban heat effect in the western region of Singapore

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The tropical rainforests in the western region of Singapore help to lower the temperatures in towns such as Bukit Batok, whereas the highly built-up areas in the central and eastern regions of Singapore, such as Toa Payoh, experience significantly higher temperatures. (Source: weather.gov.sg)

According to HDB’s website, “greenery is present in every HDB estate. It helps to reduce temperatures and mitigate heat while improving air quality and biodiversity, besides being pleasing and attractive.”

I agree with that. I would like to add that sizeable forested areas, such as Bukit Batok Hillside Park, help to reduce temperatures in housing estates much more effectively than roadside trees and fragments of ornamental vegetation in town parks in highly built-up areas, such as Toa Payoh.

For example, when I was staying in Toa Payoh in central Singapore, where I grew up in from 1973 to 2014, I could feel the warm humid air on most nights. This is because Toa Payoh is located in a highly built-up environment with fragmented vegetation and lack of a dense forest. After moving to Bukit Batok in the western region of Singapore in 2014, I could feel the difference in temperatures, as the air is cooler on most nights. This is because of the presence of dense forests in and around Bukit Batok.

In fact, the above map shows that on average, the night-time temperature in Bukit Batok is about 1.5 degrees Celsius cooler than that in Toa Payoh. Now that Tengah forest is disappearing and becoming more and more fragmented due to deforestation for housing development, it is likely that the surface temperatures around the neighbourhood of Bukit Batok will rise gradually.

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A loss of the dense forest in Bukit Batok Hillside Park will lead to a loss of natural cooling effect and a rise in urban heat effect in the neighbourhoods of Bukit Batok West and Bukit Gombak.

If the forest in Bukit Batok Hillside Park is removed too, then the temperature in the neighbourhood will rise further due to the loss of cooling effect of the dense tree growth. With an increase in urban heat effect, there will likely be an increase in electricity consumption, due to higher usage of air conditioning in homes, especially on warm, stuffy nights. The increased heat will be exacerbated by the ongoing global warming climate, which will inevitably result in more physical discomfort and stress for the residents in the coming years.

In addition, the quality of air is likely to deteriorate if Bukit Batok Hillside Park is sacrificed for housing development, due to increased motor traffic around the vicinity and less natural vegetation to filter air impurities or toxic chemicals and reduce air pollution.

4) Loss of cultural and historical heritage in Bukit Batok

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An abandoned well in Bukit Batok Hillside Park, which has historical and cultural significance

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Relics of a former settlement and plantation, such as ceramic ware, in Bukit Batok Hillside Park have historical and cultural values.

As Singapore becomes more and more modernised, our younger generations face the danger of losing touch with our history, cultures and traditions. According to the EIA report, Bukit Batok Hillside Park comprises a former rubber plantation, with natural freshwater streams, which are rarely seen in Singapore today.

Hence, not only is the forested area worthy to be conserved for natural heritage, it is also worthy to be preserved for having historical and cultural significance. For example, the abandoned well and other relics in Bukit Batok Hillside Park can serve as useful tools for educating the public about Singapore’s history in an authentic setting (like how the abandoned kampong houses in the former Hainan Village are now preserved for public education in Thomson Nature Park).

5) Loss of connection with Nature and increased stress and anxiety associated with urban claustrophobia felt by people

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The intriguing remains of a rocky trail in Bukit Batok Hillside Park are worth preserving, not only for their aesthetic value, but also for enabling visitors to explore and experience the forest as part of nature therapy.

An article by NParks noted that forest therapy helped people to relax, destress and often, enabled them to feel happier and more positive.

“A mental and emotional boost, you may say. And scientific research backs this up.”

– “Urban Forest Therapy in Singapore” by NParks

Moreover, a scientific study “reported that individuals’ positive moods increased significantly inside a forest than outside it or at its periphery, whereas their negative moods increased outside the forest.”

Hence, if the forest in Bukit Batok Hillside Park is destroyed for housing development, it will increase the likelihood of the residents losing connection with Nature, which in turn can be detrimental to their physical, mental and emotional health and well-being in the long run.

6) Deforestation can lead to an increase in dengue fever cases

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In July 2020, the dengue clusters are mainly concentrated in highly built-up areas in central and east Singapore, where people live around fragmented vegetation spots in deforested areas. (Source: NEA)

The above map shows that dengue fever cases are fewer in the western region of Singapore, including Bukit Batok, where there are dense forested areas nearby, such as Bukit Batok Hillside Park, Bukit Batok nature park and Bukit Timah nature reserve, which are relatively undisturbed by humans.

Notably, an academic research paper reported in 2016 that “a growing body of scientific evidence shows that the felling of tropical forests creates optimal conditions for the spread of mosquito-borne scourges, including malaria and dengue.”

Similarly, a Straits Times article reported in 2019 that the ecological history of deforestation in the Philippines – followed by urbanisation, the further degradation of our forests and climate change – continues to explain the tenacity of dengue in the country.

Hence, it is imperative that the authorities take drastic steps to stop or minimise deforestation as much as possible, in order to curb the current dengue outbreak in Singapore, which has become the worst outbreak in recent history.

My Proposed Alternatives
In view of my concerns described above, may I propose the following alternatives?
First, we can consider reinstating Bukit Batok Hillside Park as an enhanced nature park with educational trails and conservation zones.
Second, we can choose to focus on recycling or redeveloping brownfield sites (such as old or disused developed areas) instead of clearing greenfield sites (such as Bukit Batok Hillside Park) for future housing development, as also suggested by HDB CEO Dr Cheong Koon Hean in her IPS-Nathan lecture 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.”

– Dr Cheong Koon Hean, HDB CEO (IPS-Nathan lecture, 2018)

Last but not least, we should definitely review our national development master plan, since The Straits Times reported on 3 July 2020 that “recent trends ensure that Singapore’s population will be significantly below 6.9 million in 2030″. Surely we don’t really need to keep destroying our few remaining valuable forests for housing development, given that our population is not expected to increase as quickly as we had once thought?

Conclusion

In summary, by sparing Bukit Batok Hillside Park (and other greenfield sites) from deforestation for housing development and by choosing to develop brownfield sites instead, we can achieve the following benefits:

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The residents of the new and existing flats in Bukit Batok West and Bukit Gombak will appreciate having Bukit Batok Hillside Park for recreation and outdoor education on nature conservation.
“We recommend the conservation of these secondary regrowth forest patches as they are, as refuges for nationally threatened native species, which make up about 20% of the species we recorded in each forest patch (namely, Bukit Batok Hillside Park, Bukit Batok Town Park, Bukit Batok Nature Park and Bukit Batok East Forest).”
(Source: The Vascular Plant Flora in Bukit Batok, Singapore by National University of Singapore, 2013)

Our fragile nature reserves in Singapore

Last Sunday, I took a plunge into the last remaining primary rainforest in Singapore, which I haven’t visited for some time.
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I decided to hike along South View trail, as I didn’t recall having taken it before and I wanted to be far away from the crowd who took the main path to the summit.
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I was rewarded with a view of the surrounding area at a lookout point at South View hut.
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Though the view is mostly covered by the foliage, it is at least better than the view from the summit, which is almost completely covered by trees (not that it’s a bad thing, as the trees are important too).
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As I sat at the South View hut, I read the NParks signboard that says we are guests in this place, and it is our responsibility to conserve our fragile nature reserves both for ourselves and future generations.
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The words are so true, and yet so ironic… because the transport authorities are considering to build an underground MRT train tunnel underneath the Central nature reserve near the reservoirs.
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No words can adequately describe the sense of tranquility and ancient heritage of Bukit Timah nature reserve, which must have retained its original form for millions of years (possibly surviving cycles of sea level rises in between ice ages due to its elevation).
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It is the last stronghold for the native green spaces that are relatively untouched by humans in Singapore.
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Its fragile existence is made all the more pronounced by the fact that one forest after another has fallen prey to development over the years, including Bidadari forest, Lentor-Tagore forest and Tengah forest.
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Even the forest around Poyan area in western Singapore is being cleared for development (as reported by avid Nature explorer M Saniroz AR) – this is being carried out quietly while the mainstream media distracts us with news of all kinds.
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All this talk about climate change mitigation measures might sound impressive, but …
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As long as deforestation continues in our midst, and our wildlife residents continue to experience genocide and displacement, the words ultimately sound hollow, for we are failing in our responsibility to conserve Nature as a nation.

A visit to Lentor-Tagore forest 

Having been reading on Facebook about the impending development of Lentor area that will result in the destruction of forest and two natural streams, I decided to check out the area this afternoon in search of the elusive streams. 

But it turned out that I was a bit too late because when I arrived at Yio Chu Kang road via Ang Mo Kio Avenue 5, I saw that the entrance to the forest, where the streams were supposed to be, has been fenced off, and a portion of the forest behind a bus stop along Yio Chu Kang road has already been cleared. 

I decided to cycle around Lentor private housing estate, hoping to find another way to Lentor forest. The nearest I could get to the forest is via a canal near the junction of Lentor avenue and Seletar Expressway (SLE).

From the end of the canal, I could see heavy machinery clearing the forest. I found a path through the forest fringe that led me closer to the clearing. 

I decided not to venture too close to the clearing and turned back. I later circled round the area via Springleaf nature park in the north to the other side of the forest, hoping to find an entrance to the forest from Tagore Industrial Avenue. 

I managed to find a small entrance along the avenue, and walked some distance along the fringe of the Tagore forest. I came to the point where forest clearing was taking place in the south beside a stagnant-looking water body. 

Is that part of a natural stream? I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t want to trespass the construction site, and decided to hike in another part of the forest. I followed a track through Tagore forest that led me to SLE in the north. 

Apart from some wildlife such as a wild boar, a jungle rooster and munias, I didn’t see much in this area. There seems no signs of any natural streams. I suppose they are only found in the part of the Lentor forest that has been fenced off, which I wasn’t able to access. (Or maybe there is another entrance to Lentor forest that leads to the streams that I am unaware of, as I am unfamiliar with the area.)

I decided to call it a day, as evening was approaching. I cycled via Teachers’ Estate back to Ang Mo Kio Avenue 5, and took a lift up to the highest floor of a HDB block, and snapped some sunset pictures, showing an aerial view of the remaining forest next to Teachers’ Estate.

What kids teach me

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By taking a detour from the main road in Batam centre, I was hoping to find a short cut back to the hotel. Instead, I stumbled upon a poor neighbourhood district where kids played on polluted streets amid wooden huts. One would wonder why the authorities have chosen to spend the nation’s budget on building lavish shopping malls instead of improving the basic infrastructure of the residents. Nevertheless, one lesson I took away from this experience is the inverse relationship between happiness and material attachments.

The closer we are to Nature, instead of being cooped up in concrete buildings or hemmed in by motor traffic, the happier and healthier we are. The more we allow ourselves to be carefree and not rush hither and thither, the freer and lighter we feel. And the more simply we live our lives instead of making our lives complicated, the more joyful we become.

 

Touching deeply the wonders of Nature brings healing, nourishment, joy and happiness

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“It is clear that in this age of globalisation, what happens to one of us, happens to us all. We are all interconnected, and we are all co-responsible. But even with the greatest good will, if we are swept away by our daily concerns for material needs or emotional comforts, we will be too busy to realise our common aspiration.

“Contemplation must go together with action. Without a spiritual practice we will abandon our dream very soon.

Each of us, according to the teaching of our own tradition, should practice to touch deeply the wonders of Nature, the wonders of life in each of us, the Kingdom of God in each of us, the Pure Land, Nirvana in each of us, so we can get the healing and nourishment, the joy and happiness born from the insight that the Kingdom of God is already available in the here and now. The feeling of love and admiration for nature, that we all share, has the power to nourish us, unite us, and remove all separation and discrimination.

“By being in touch with everything that is refreshing and healing, we can free ourselves from our daily concerns for material comforts, and will have a lot more time and energy to realise our ideal of bringing freedom and compassion to all living beings. As it says in the Gospel, “Do not worry about what you will eat or drink or wear. Seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be given to you. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will take care of itself.”

(From “Thich Nhat Hanh’s Speech at the Vatican, December 2, 2014“)

Pulau Ubin explorer II: kayaking event (9 Nov 2014)

The kayaking event is organised by Kayak Khakis meetup group based in Singapore. We kayaked from Pasir Ris beach to Pulau Ubin and back, and we were fortunate to experience favorable weather as it had been raining the past few days.

(Video: Kayaking expedition at Pulau Ubin)

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Single SOT and double SOT kayaks on Pasir Ris beach

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Some parts of the beaches in Pulau Ubin are polluted with carelessly discarded litter.

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Fish farms in the sea

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A flloating restaurant in the middle of the sea channel between Singapore and Pulau Ubin

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Safety briefing by the kayaking expedition leader and organiser Khee Wei

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Simon Paul Harrison: Why Nature Is Such A Miraculous Teacher

Video information

Nature is such a perfect teacher because she reminds us we have always been free. Video from Simon Paul Harrison. Music by Ian Mackinnon. http://www.simonpaulharrison.com for blog, books, audio programs and personal mentoring.

This inspirational video resonates with me. I agree with the message that Nature reminds us that we have always been free, and being in Nature enables us to enjoy the freedom from the burdens of the expectations of modern societies and know there is nothing to run after or out-compete, as we remember who we really are – we are already perfect here and now.