Saturday, 31 March 2012

Navigating a new terrain of Government and Citizens engagement (Bukit Brown)

A passionate attempt to save Bukit Brown Cemetery has not turned out as civil society groups hoped it would. What does the saga teach about engagement between the Government and citizens?
By Grace Chua , Li Xueying, The Straits Times, 30 Mar 2012

IF DEAD men could talk, imagine the stories that those buried at Bukit Brown would tell their loved ones this Qing Ming.

Left peacefully alone for decades barring the annual spurts of visits during the grave-sweeping festival in early April, they have, over the past year, been witness to a sudden hubbub of conversation and activity at their resting place.

Government officials have trooped up and down the undulating terrain, overlaid with gnarled roots, to survey the tombs and plant stakes by the 3,746 that would make way for a eight-lane road - in turn, a precursor of the eventual development of the entire cemetery for housing.

Passionate debates over its fate have swirled around the elaborate tombstones, as anthropologists, filmmakers and heritage enthusiasts hauled cameras around to document those affected.

Politicians have paid visits too, most notably Minister of State for National Development Tan Chuan-Jin.

The Government's point man for the issue, he made his way to the cemetery on Feb 3, spoke to the documentation team and tried his hand at chalking the faded inscriptions on tombstones.

He also met other lobbyists, did media interviews, and penned his thoughts on Facebook.

Government officials - including the chief executives of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and Land Transport Authority (LTA) - also held meetings with various groups on their concerns. Documentation shows that from July last year, about 15 such meetings have taken place.

In response to the vocal feedback, the Government said it would fund the documentation efforts, pushed back the date of exhumation, and realigned the road so that fewer graves - down from the original 5,000 - have to be exhumed for the road.

Most notably, one-third of it would be built in the form of an 'eco-bridge', a costlier option, so the cemetery's resident fauna such as monitor lizards can scamper under and plants, disperse.

But the controversial road remains, and so too the plans for the re-zoning of the 89-year-old cemetery for homes.

On March 19, the day the LTA announced the final details of the road, the dialogue ended on a sour note.

Duelling statements were issued by the civil society organisations (CSOs) hoping for a stay on the bulldozers, and Mr Tan.

The group of seven CSOs charged that a meeting with Mr Tan that evening gives 'a strong impression of the lack of good faith on the part of MND', referring to the Ministry of National Development.

They had thought it was an opportunity for them to offer and discuss alternatives to the road and development. 'The fact that this meeting is held after LTA's announcement of plans for the new highway demonstrates the old practice of presenting decisions as fait accompli to concerned groups instead of genuine engagement and discussion,' they said in a statement to the media.

Stung, Mr Tan fired back a salvo. At 4.30 the next morning, he posted a Facebook note.

The meeting was to announce the details and alignment of the road, he said.

In uncharacteristically terse language, he added: 'However, it was clear that it did not matter.

'Because we failed to conduct a session that was in line with what they wanted, for example, to have their own briefs, to invite others on their invite list, it was deemed to be an inadequate effort at genuine engagement.'

These are strong words from the fourth-generation leader who has made public engagement a personal commitment since entering politics last year; and from a government that stresses the importance of consultation and policy 'co-creation' in its governance today.

The Bukit Brown saga is thus a case study of how the Government and citizens are navigating their way through the terrain of public engagement in a new political environment - and the minefields that it holds.

Why it was such a tinderbox

THOSE caught off-guard by the sound and fury of the Bukit Brown saga would have remembered that controversial and hard-headed decisions are hardly new to this Government.

Take the razing of Bidadari Cemetery from 2001 to 2006, which housed many of Singapore's famous dead. There were cries of protest, but they faded into the background. Today, a new town is being built on the plot.

At the same time, the Government has also shown that it is amenable to staying its hand on development in response to public feedback.

A notable instance is Chek Jawa.

But the stakes for Bukit Brown are particularly high - for both sides. The cemetery occupies prime land that could one day house 15,000 flats for some 50,000 residents, or 40 per cent of Toa Payoh township.

At the same time, it is also a historic space, the heritage and ecological value of which is irreplaceable, counter the CSOs.

Today, such groups are also able to galvanise public opinion and get organised with greater speed than before, particularly with the rise of social media.

For instance, the groups SOS Bukit Brown and All Things Bukit Brown were started only in November last year after a public symposium on the issue, rapidly developing a presence online and on social networking site Facebook.

What's more, post-General Election 2011, there are higher expectations of the Government when it engages in public consultation.

Said governance expert Neo Boon Siong of Nanyang Technological University (NTU): 'I think the Government has progressed - Mr Tan Chuan-Jin has certainly gone further than previous ministers to engage civil society.'

He applauded the 'sincere attempts' in response to feedback: the documentation process and eco- bridge. 'But it could have done better.'

What went wrong?

THE harnessing of public ideas for how former railway land should be developed, a project spearheaded by Mr Tan too, is considered a public engagement success.

But it benefited from starting on a blank slate - with no plans yet for the narrow 26km stretch.

Not so for Bukit Brown.

Fundamentally, there was a mismatch of expectations between the Government and civil society groups on what the engagement process was to achieve.

From the former's point of view, the decision had been made two decades ago. Bukit Brown had been earmarked for housing since the 1991 URA Concept Plan, which guides development for the next 40 to 50 years. A spokesman reiterated in May 2011 that Bukit Brown and Bidadari were needed for housing.

But the CSOs were hopeful that there would be room for change.

Nature Society (Singapore) president Shawn Lum pointed out that the society raised concerns about Bukit Brown 20 years ago, in its Masterplan for the Conservation of Nature.

Nor are URA concept plans writ in stone, he said.

Media executive Jay Ng, a heritage volunteer, noted: 'You can't rest on what's said or done 20 years ago. Things change. Needs change.'

The CSOs thus prepared a stream of alternative proposals on where the proposed housing on Bukit Brown could be sited. Mr Liew Kai Khiun of the Heritage Society, for instance, argued that the choice should instead be between public housing and one of Singapore's 22 golf courses - including that of the Singapore Island Country Club off Lornie Road.

That in turn means there is no immediate need for the new road, they believe.

But the MND yesterday clarified to Insight that the need for the road is independent of the plans for Bukit Brown.

In September, LTA said that the road was necessary to deal with current and impending problems. Lornie Road is already congested. Between 6,000 and 7,000 vehicles per hour use it during peak time, and traffic is expected to increase 30 per cent by 2020, it said. The new road is also needed for planned housing estates in central and northern Singapore.

The MND said: 'Thus, irrespective of future development at Bukit Brown, the new road through Bukit Brown is needed to serve traffic needs in the immediate term and the near future.'

And so, to the Government, the engagement efforts were meant to take on board concerns and to adjust development work. A U-turn was not on the table.

Said Mr Tan, in an e-mail response to Insight yesterday: 'To build or not build the road, was not, from the onset, something we were consulting on.

'We sought to explain our considerations even as we took on board the range of concerns and feedback.'

But in an unfortunate case of communication failure, the message never gained traction.

Said Nominated MP Janice Koh: 'I feel that the Government could have been more clear and more honest from the outset, meaning that if the decision was moot and there was no room for a turnaround for whatever reason, that should have been communicated and reiterated.'

Mr Tan acknowledged that there were differing expectations.

'For some interest groups, it was to undo the road decision whereas we wanted to see how we could build a better road with minimal impact, and how to carry out the documentation better,' he said. There also needs to be better appreciation of the expectations on all sides to enable constructive dialogue.

The Government also needs to better communicate the constraints it faces in making certain decisions, Mr Tan added. 'For example, I have explained in Parliament the different alternative options explored, and constraints in terms of not affecting the Nature Reserve and avoiding acquisition. However, some still insist that we should widen Lornie Road.'

Heritage and nature groups are also frustrated at what they perceive to be lack of transparency on the Government's part.

The LTA, for example, refused to release in full its biodiversity impact assessment report. They also asked for but did not receive data on population growth projections.

Underlying all this seems to be a lack of trust.

While some of the CSOs such as the Nature Society have long-established relationships with the Government, others - such as the newer ones - have had little contact. So, for instance, Ms Olivia Choong of interest group Green Drinks said government agencies 'haven't gone out and tried all other alternatives'.

It did not help that prior to March 19, the newer CSOs have not had official meetings with the authorities.

'It's a bit difficult to talk about engagement when we haven't had any direct contact,' remarked Ms Erika Lim of SOS Bukit Brown.

Implications and lessons

SOME say Bukit Brown marks a step backwards in the evolving relationship between state and citizen. Others feel that it was a useful episode as both sides learn to navigate the terrain.

There are some who fear the episode gives ammunition to those who feel that public engagement is a waste of time.

Ms Koh, for instance, worries that 'in this case, we took a few steps back and you have to rebuild those bridges, because it's a long-term relationship'.

But Prof Neo disagrees, saying: 'The Prime Minister has made it quite clear that that is the political imperative.

'This is part of the learning process as Singapore becomes a more mature democracy.'

What is clear is that it holds lessons for both sides.

One for the Government is to get its communications right.

Another is that it would have to learn to manage an increasingly diverse society of groups with different agendas and methods.

Some, like SOS Bukit Brown, are militant about their mission. They won't stop till they protect Bukit Brown '100 per cent', said Ms Lim. Others are doing some soul-searching and strategising. 'This raises the question: How can we accurately gauge the sentiment of the general public on these things?' said the Nature Society's Dr Shawn Lum.

'What works for one cause may not necessarily work for the same cause 10 years hence, or for a different cause.'

Yet it shows that members of the public can spontaneously take the initiative to get organised and 'stand shoulder to shoulder with everybody else', he added.

Those on the ground, too, remarked that they appreciated Mr Tan's work, but there was a limit to how far his mandate stretches.

Mr Woon Tien Wei of SOS Bukit Brown commented: 'There's a big difference between Tan Chuan-Jin as an independent minister, and the whole machinery of Government. I don't believe that he made up his mind very early on. He's listening, but I know it's not up to him.'

Indeed, Mr Tan himself made it clear that he is not giving up on the process.

'I believe that it is important for Singaporeans to care enough to be involved,' he said.

'Being engaged is almost an end in itself because the process would enable not only better policy-making but would also allow conversations that will lead to greater collective understanding.

'This understanding would include knowing our differences and to be able to agree to disagree. And the process goes on.'

Timeline of a grave saga

1872: Seh Ong (Hokkien) cemetery set up.

1922: Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery officially opened on the site.

1973: Municipal cemetery is closed to burials.

1991-2001: In the Urban Redevelopment Authority's (URA's) Concept Plans 1991 and 2001, which guide development for the next 40 to 50 years, the site is zoned for residential use.

2003-2008: In the URA's Master Plans for 2003 and 2008, which set out plans for the next 10 to 15 years, it is marked as a cemetery.

March 2010: Heritage enthusiasts voice fears that the Circle Line will affect Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery.

May 2011: The Straits Times reports that Bukit Brown will eventually make way for housing.

June 2011: The Singapore Heritage Society publishes its book Spaces Of The Dead: A Case From The Living, reviving public interest in Bukit Brown. Interest groups explore and give walking tours of the area.

Responding to Straits Times Forum writers, the URA says Bukit Brown is needed for future housing, and that many such 'difficult trade-off decisions' are made in land-scarce Singapore.

Sept 13: The Land Transport Authority (LTA) announces a new four-lane dual carriageway to be built by 2016 to ease congestion. Heritage groups ask for more time to document the graves. Some 5 per cent of the area's 100,000 graves to be affected.

Sept 21: Singapore Heritage Society protests that its only collaboration with the LTA and URA was to connect the agencies with documentation experts - after it was informed about the road. It asks the authorities to slow down the pace of development.

Sept 27: Following a spate of letters in The Straits Times, the LTA says the new road is needed to ease Lornie Road traffic and serve the area's future plans.

Oct 19: The Straits Times publishes a letter by descendants of famous pioneers, including Chew Boon Lay and Tan Tock Seng, who want Bukit Brown left alone.

Oct 21: Singapore Heritage Society issues a statement on how the group was not consulted over whether Bukit Brown should be developed.

Oct 24: Officials meet privately with heritage groups to explain the Government's reasons for developing a new road, and reaffirm plans to go ahead.

Oct 26: Heritage groups and the preservation project leader, appointed by the Government, raise concerns over insufficient time given to document the graves.

October 2011: Documentation of the graves begins.

Nov 6: Minister of State for National Development Tan Chuan-Jin reiterates that Bukit Brown will not be spared the bulldozers, but the affected graves will be thoroughly documented.

Nov 19: Participants at a public heritage forum air concerns that activist groups have given up the fight to protect the graves wholesale.

Feb 3, 2012: Mr Tan's Facebook note says the carriageway will go ahead as planned.

Feb 4: Singapore Heritage Society expresses disappointment that there was no public consultation before the zoning decision and before the road was planned, and maintains the area should be protected as an historic site.

March 5: In Parliament, MPs make a last-ditch appeal to save Bukit Brown.

March 19: The LTA announces that part of the road through Bukit Brown will be a bridge over a depression, protecting some biodiversity. Exhumation is pushed back to early next year instead of late this year to give next-of-kin more time to register claims.

Mr Tan meets privately with civil society representatives, who are upset that the meeting was open only to select members. They call for a moratorium on housing and transport infrastructure, including the new road, while national discussions are still under way over housing, transportation and immigration.

When feedback led to Govt changing course


The issue: The Government had planned to reclaim the 100ha wetland on Pulau Ubin for military use, with works slated to begin in January 2002. Its rich biodiversity had remained unknown to most until nature lovers raised that fact at a public forum on land use in May 2001.

The process: News soon spread of Chek Jawa's fate, and its unique ecology. Numerous experts, Ubin residents and ordinary citizens wrote to the press and petitioned the Government, urging them to preserve Chek Jawa. In response to the vocal campaign fronted by nature enthusiasts, the authorities consulted academic experts and took in citizen submissions. Then National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan and officials visited Chek Jawa to assess the situation for themselves.

The outcome: A month before works were to begin, the authorities announced that plans to reclaim the wetland would be shelved for at least 10 years.


The issue: When certificates of entitlement (COEs) were first launched in May 1990, winning bidders could transfer their certificates to another party. Many blamed high COE prices on speculators seeking to make a quick buck by 'flipping' their COEs to genuine car buyers.

The process: In the months following the first COE auction, many, including the Automobile Association of Singapore, urged the authorities to make COEs non-transferable to eliminate speculation. The topic was also widely discussed at grassroots forums and in the press. The Government stuck to its guns initially, but the sustained chorus of opposition convinced it to reconsider. In June 1991, the Government Parliamentary Committee for Communications, after consulting interested parties, recommended a trial on non-transferable COEs for most cars.

The outcome: In September 1991, the Government approved plans for a year-long trial. When the trial ended, the authorities decided to keep COEs for most cars non-transferable, as the public expressed a clear preference for it despite it having no direct impact on COE prices. This policy remains in place today.


The issue: Hoping to improve members' returns, the Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board unveiled proposals in January 2004 to give members the choice to divert their funds into privately managed pension plans (PPPs). It hoped to implement PPPs as early as 2005.

The process: The CPF Board published a consultation paper on its website and solicited feedback from financial industry players and the public. This online-based propose-consult-fine-tune model is used frequently by the Government for matters ranging from legislation to MRT station names. In this case, industry players expressed doubts about the PPPs' ability to attract a large enough pool of funds in order to keep fund management costs low. Many respondents also worried about the higher risks members had to bear.

The outcome: By November 2004, the CPF Board had put plans for PPPs on hold as it re-examined their viability. Plans were scrapped from March 2005.

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