Now we know exactly who is eyeing that 4-hectare piece of land in Pasir Ris that residents are hankering to preserve. It is for the Overseas Family School, which will have to move from its Paterson Road premises by 2015. For nine months, the G has been locking horns with residents who want to preserve the forested area. Over that time, the management of the school must be anxiously looking at the fracas because it will mean so little time for construction. As for an alternative site, it appears that there are very few places that can house a school with more than 3,000 students.
This is an interesting case because as one property expert was reported saying in Today, it was “a little unusual for the Government to put off the development of a land parcel if there is a real need for a new development”. If the residents got their way, then will a precedent be set? One can imagine developers and other investors shaking their heads over the G’s change of heart – all because of some tree huggers and bird watchers! He said: “If word gets out that the authorities will delay (the development of a plot of land) just because of some special interest groups, where does this leave us?”
Hmm. It will leave us with a reminder that there is a democratic process in Singapore and that the people who live here want a say in what happens to their surroundings. TODAY had an interesting commentary which tries to explain this angst we have about our neighbourhood, especially areas we think are worth preserving as part of our heritage. This has surfaced most recently over the fate of Pulau Ubin and its residents.
Said the commentary: “The fate of the island is held in suspension, contingent on the country’s housing needs, and this uncertainty has a long-term profound impact on Singaporeans’ sense of belonging and psyche.
“The lesson here is not that spaces must be sacrificed for the country’s housing needs but that spaces, regardless of natural or heritage worth, are transient in Singapore and it is better not to get too attached to them.’’
The island has been held in bureaucratic limbo over the years and while exhortations that it will be kept “rustic’’ have been made, they just do not go far enough as a stamp of permanence.
“One cannot expect citizens to sink roots into the land or be called to defend it without expecting them to be angry, even confrontational, when spaces like Pulau Ubin and Bukit Brown are vulnerable,’’ the commentary said.
“It is thus important for civil servants and civil society activists alike to understand that the bridges of communication must always be kept open in order for dialogue to take place. Without this dialogue, both parties will become more entrenched in their positions and less willing to compromise.’’
Nobody has a monopoly over the definition of the national interest. The old norm that economic development must over-ride all other considerations is increasingly being questioned now that the country has passed the survival stage. Questions of identity and belonging loom large.
The Bukit Brown, Pulau Ubin and Pasir Ris examples makes official decision-making “messier’’ for sure, and will make bureaucrats pause the next time they see a “development’’ opportunity in a piece of green space. The stakeholders, that is, the people who live here, want to have a say. Both sides will have to talk it out and decide together what would be in their best interest.
In the case of the Pasir Ris greenbelt, one side might have to give way or some compromise be sought.
The greenbelt lobby is digging in its heels. Said a spokesman: “We have also made it categorically clear that there are no justifiable grounds for the authorities to clear the Pasir Ris greenbelt at all for whatever reason, whether it is to build an international school or for that matter any other urban development like private condominiums, which are sheer commercial profit-driven enterprises.”
How to talk like that?