The debate on the Cross Island Line has been progressing steadily since the release of the first phase of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). On the one hand, we have witnessed how proponents of the Cross Island Line’s currently planned route have continually supported the Land Transport Authority’s plan to encroach into the Central Catchment Nature Reserve to construct a new MRT line. This is in spite of the environmental consequences that have been spelt out by the EIA. It has been found that these consequences cannot be mitigated in their entirety or even with a level of confidence high enough to guarantee minimal impact on our local biodiversity. On the other hand, we see a group of concerned Singaporeans, from geographers and scientists to environmentalists and ordinary citizens advocating for the proposed alternative route along Lornie Road. Even NParks’ former conservation manager of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve has joined the chorus of voices against the current route. Much has been fairly said about the specific localised and generalised merits and drawbacks of each route.
Contrary to what some might assume, however, this debate is not just about pragmatism versus principle. It is not the usual kind of trade-off we have witnessed in the course of our nation’s development. This debate is one that will help shape environmental governance, land use planning and our notions of sustainable development as our nation matures.
Central to the arguments over the Cross Island Line is the type of sustainable development Singapore will show it is committed to, through its decision. What environmental groups like the Nature Society are arguing for, whilst focusing on the intrinsic value of biodiversity, stops short of deep green philosophy. By accepting the real need for better transport infrastructure, capacity and efficiency to support a growing population, these arguments are more in line with the kind of sustainable development that Singapore has been accustomed to than with what the typical pragmatic Singaporean may think of as mere idealistic drivel or bluster. The alternative route, while costlier, will prevent encroachment into the most pristine of our nature reserves while meeting the demands of a 6.9 million-strong population. Simply put, the economic loss brought about by building the alternative route today will be worth what we stand to gain from this decision in the future. It is crucial to note that not only do we stand to conserve our local biodiversity for future generations to learn about, our public transport operators will also benefit economically from having the chance to build one more station along the alternative route. Indeed, residents in Central Singapore will get to partake in the joy of being better connected to both Jurong and Changi like never before. We will all stand to gain from the alternative route of the Cross Island Line which is a project that boasts clear benefits for most of the suburbs that it will ply.
Too often, however, the end game of sustainable development in Singapore has involved environmental losses, in the pursuit of economic or social gain. We live in a country where greenery, no matter how man-made or manufactured, is viewed no differently from that which is natural. We relish in the number of neighbourhood parks we have access to, and in the image of the Garden City, nay – a City in a Garden. But we forget that even a garden no matter how well-manicured or maintained cannot truly conserve the biodiversity that is unique to our Central Catchment Nature Reserve. When we build an expressway through the rainforest, we build a bridge for animals to cross the gap and hail it as a unique solution to a necessary problem. Today, we are committed as a nation to even more land reclamation, drawn out in the 2030 Land Use Plan that will harm more coastal ecosystems in the name of development. Against the backdrop that this mentality provides, for all the merit our nature reserves hold, they are not valued as much as environmental resources upon which we depend more directly are. Interestingly, the water in MacRitchie Reservoir is valued more highly than the trees that surround it, than the soil through which it infiltrates, than the flora and fauna that depend on it as much as we do.
Granted, in the past, development necessitated many trade-offs. Even today, such trade-offs may very well be necessary. However, given not only our current level of development but also the need for us to become smarter and more innovative in addressing land use planning challenges that will only provide more strain with a rising population in the future, the current Singaporean style of sustainable development needs to be rethought.
Otherwise, it is worth questioning if the story of the Cross Island Line presents the new normal of environmental governance in Singapore. Where one government department develops a national biodiversity strategy and another ignores it? Where we change our tune on the environment depending on whom we are talking to? – It is interesting that on the one hand, we tell the world that we are committed to a new global environmental pact founded upon the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities insofar as climate change is concerned. But, on the other hand, we cannot even be committed to safeguarding the green lungs of our own backyard even though we can financially afford to via a potentially viable alternative? The issues of climate change and encroachment into our nature reserves may not be directly linked. But, the clearer picture that the Cross Island Line debate paints of our attitude about the environment suggests that we may not yet be as committed to a new Earth systems-based model of sustainable development as our well-executed dealings in COP 21 may have had begun to suggest.
What we stand to lose from the construction of the Cross Island Line’s current route, however, is much greater than the lost opportunity of increased transport efficiency and capacity. Our commitment to sustainable development is on the line. Today, it might be the Cross Island Line. In a few decades’ time, it might be a residential or industrial development. As most people would surely hope for, Singapore will be around for a long time. Shying away from making smarter decisions about land use planning today will only exacerbate our urban problems in the future in what shall certainly be a more complicated landscape.