‘Our forest grows from the earth. If the earth is shaken, the forest trembles.’
– Chained to Our Roots poem
On 23 June 2013, a curious sight was seen at Singapore’s Speakers’ Corner. In a rare display of vocal objections against the state’s plans, a group of Singaporeans chained themselves to a tree with ropes. The peaceful demonstration, Chained to Our Roots, was part of the Love Our MacRitchie campaign. This campaign was intended to protest against the upcoming plans for Singapore’s eight railway line, the Cross-Island Line (CRL) to run beneath the MacRitchie Forest within the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR).
Since its announcement in 2013, the CRL has sparked heated debate, with environmentalists urging the state to reroute the line around the nature reserve. Particularly, Nature Society Singapore (NSS), the country’s largest environmental group, highlighted the profound damage that could be inflicted on the fragile ecosystems. Despite construction being underground, borehole drilling for soil investigation risks noise, soil erosion, siltation and material spillage (NSS, 2013). NSS further proposed an alternative route which skirts around the reserve.
Acknowledging these concerns, authorities declared that both routes will be reviewed. What followed was an Environmental Impact Assessment and consultations with nature groups’ representatives, lasting nearly 7 years. Before I reveal the outcome of this years-long struggle, let us first examine the ecological context of the CCNR and the climate of nature conservation in Singapore.
The Value of Native Habitats Amidst A Curated Nature
Although Singapore is one of the greenest cities globally in terms of tree cover, much of the “nature” present today are not “natural”. Rather, the bulk of Singapore’s native habitats have been bull-dozed to make way for its massive urban transformations, including land reclamation as highlighted in my previous post.
Nature groups have fought back on several occasions, though often with dismal results. For instance, in 1994, NSS started the Friends of Senoko petition to stop the clearance of Senoko, a flourishing bird-nesting site, for public housing (Neo, 2007). Despite the petition amassing 25,000 signatures, Senoko ultimately perished, with then Minister of National Development bluntly expressing that ‘Singaporeans’ needs come before birds’ (The Straits Times, 1994).
Evidently, nature itself has been metabolised and remade in Singapore. As urban developments ensued, native nature areas were cleared ruthlessly. In their place, roadside vegetation and a network of public parks were created. Singapore’s lush greenery are hence, the fruits of extensive urban planting initiatives (Neo, 2007).
Although there is growing recognition to ‘celebrate the mundane nature’ in everyday urban spaces (Newman and Dale, 2013), the ecological significance of native habitats cannot be discounted. In particular, the unparalleled structural complexity of primary forests supports high levels of biodiversity (Corlett, 2011). Today, only a meagre 0.5% (2km2) of Singapore’s primary forests survived – and much of it is located within the CCNR.
Apart from the remnants of primary forests, CCNR also comprises rare natural habitats such as secondary forests, wetland forests and marshes, all of which supports diverse wildlife (NSS, 2013). It is in such a context that CCNR is deemed even more sacred by environmentalists.
Where does nature stand?
Evidently, the CRL controversy is set against the backdrop of a continuous tension between nature conservation and development in this land-scarce city-state. Ultimately, the state declared in 2019 that the CRL will intersect the CCNR as originally planned:
Additionally, it was stressed that the CRL will lie 70m underground (compared to the usual 20-30m), with only 16 boreholes drilled (down from 72) and strict enforcement of mitigation measures to minimise environmental impacts. For environmentalists however, mitigation can never fully negate impacts, and instead risks ‘the allure of control’ (Wang, 2019).
Arguably, this episode reveals yet another instance in which human-centric development needs are prioritised over nature. In this sense, the state’s pursuit of the CRL contradicts its ethos of a ‘City in Nature’ – the encroachment into MacRitchie reveals a fundamental lack of appreciation for the intrinsic value of nature. Reiterating the words of Teresa Teo Guttensohn who led the Chained to Our Roots demonstration, it is crucial to ask “When will it be enough? When will we stop?”.
Corlett, R.T. (2011) ‘Terrestrial ecosystems’, in Ng, P.K.L., R.T. Corlett and H.T.W. Tan (eds) Singapore Biodiversity: An Encyclopedia of the Natural Environment and Sustainable Development, Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 44-51.
Neo, H. (2007) ‘Challenging the developmental state: Nature conservation in Singapore’, Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 48, 2, 186-199.
Newman, L. and A. Dale (2013) ‘Celebrating the Mundane: Nature and the Built Environment’, Environmental Values, 1-12.
NSS (2013) NSS Discussion and Position Paper – Cross Island Line, Singapore: Nature Society Singapore (NSS).
The Straits Times (1994) ‘Not just for the birds – Senoko land will be developed’, Singapore: The Straits Times, 19 March 1994, 2.
Wang, J. (2019) ‘Re-Imagining Urban Movement in Singapore: At the Intersection Between a Nature Reserve, an Underground Railway and an Eco-Bridge’, Cultural Studies Review, 25, 2, 8-30.