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The Cross–Island Line (CRL) Debate – Civil Society Needs to Play Active Role in Pushing for Legislation

The Cross–Island Line (CRL) Debate – Civil Society Needs to Play Active Role in Pushing for Legislation

Muhammad Nurshazny Ramlan

Year 4, LLB

National University of Singapore

The Cross–Island Line (CRL) Debate – Civil Society Needs to Play Active Role in Pushing for Legislation

In the 2013 Land Transport Masterplan, the Land Transport Authority announced plans to build the Cross Island Line (CRL), a new underground MRT line, to relieve passenger traffic along the East-West Line. It soon emerged that the proposed alignment of the CRL would pass through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR) near the MacRitchie Reservoir.

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(Graphic credit: Land Transport Authority, Singapore)

An active debate in the public sphere soon ensued, and Singapore’s most vocal environmental NGO – Nature Society Singapore (NSS) – responded to the CRL by leading the call for the route to be diverted by moving it to skirt around the nature reserve instead. This opinion was supported by the possibility of unintended environmental consequences that may be arise from soil investigation works as well as subsequent tunnelling. Such a measure would in turn extend the route by 9km, increase travel time on the MRT by 6 minutes, as well as costing the authorities S$2 billion more.

The first phase of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) conducted by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) in February 2016 assured that impact would be kept to ‘moderate’ levels if mitigating measures were effectively carried out.  However, civil society remained sceptical and unconvinced, pressuring the authorities to “study [sic] both the underground alignments” and assessing the “different impacts on various stakeholders – the nature reserve, businesses, home owners, commuters and taxpayers.”  An appeal letter by the Love Our Macritchie Forest movement to the Government petitioning in support of the alternative route garnered over 12,000 signatures.

In June 2016, LTA announced that it would put out a tender to appoint a specialist for site investigation works for the direct rail route. This came after “many discussions with nature groups, residents and other stakeholders, as well as takes into account the petition by the Love Our Macritchie Forest movement.”  NParks also gave approval for the soil investigation works in CCNR to proceed with the mitigating measures resulting from the “extensive public consultations and discussions” between LTA and nature groups.

Compared to other countries such as the United States, Canada, and Hong Kong, legislation in Singapore neither mandate EIAs to be conducted for development projects nor require public participation for any EIA conducted. Despite the existence of the Environmental Protection and Management Act (EPMA),  the closest it comes to having mandatory EIAs are found in section 26 and 36 of the Act. However, these provisions only require impact assessments for (i) activities that are likely to cause substantial environmental pollution, and (ii) hazardous installations with the potential of endangering public health due to the pollution it produces. Hence, both these provisions do not require a full comprehensive study of environmental impacts and has no component for public participation as expected of EIAs.  Active citizenry and responsive civil society is thus required to engage the authorities where development works have possibly serious environmental impact.

It is also noteworthy that environmental protection laws in the US and Canada resulted from pressure by civil society on their governments, in order to safeguard their forests and natural landscapes from development that can “significantly affect the quality of the human environment.”  This raises a question about the effectiveness of Singapore’s civil society and the government’s willingness to accommodate their interests. The CRL debate raised the possibility of more engagements with civil society by the authorities in future government–planned development projects, signalling a more open and transparent system. Environmental groups should use these opportunities to push for legislative safeguards to the different phases of the EIA process and the creation of an effective accountability framework for breaches of these safeguards.

PM Lee Hsien Loong spoke at the opening of Gardens by the Bay in Jun 2012 highlighting the new vision to “move on to the next phase” from being a ‘Garden City’ to a ‘City in a Garden’, with plans “to bring the green spaces and the biodiversity closer to our homes and workplaces.”  However, it is unclear if these transition will include the creation of robust environmental protection legislation to safeguard Singapore’s existing green spaces, including CCNR.

NSS President Dr Shawn Lum commented in an interview in Mar 2016 that the goal of engaging the authorities in the CRL issue was not to halt development, but rather to “build it while incorporating and respecting nature” because “it’s not really a case of one or the other.”  How development to improve quality of life ought to be balanced with preserving existing green spaces throughout Singapore as well as fulfilling Singapore’s international obligations under the Convention on Biodiversity remains ultimately in the hands of Singaporeans themselves. One thing is for sure – civil society will and need to keep pushing forward for the conservation and protection of Singapore’s natural treasures through legislation.