Monday 16 July 2012

How to give residents a bigger say

Forget NIMBYism, time for a consultation SOP when development plans affect estates
by Tan Weizhen, TODAY, 14 Jul 2012

As Singaporeans increasingly demand to be heard on planning developments that affect their neighbourhoods and estates, it may be time to formalise channels - like setting up local planning councils or holding public hearings - that will give residents more say in such municipal-level affairs.

Members of Parliament (MPs), political analysts and sociologists told TODAY that they see an urgent need to regularise the rules of engagement, following a slew of petitions by groups in the past year against (or for) various developments in their estates. 

Those that have made headlines include groups rallying over proposed eldercare centres; apartment residents unhappy with MRT construction works; households upset with a condominium developer's positioning of the refuse bin centre; and a Pasir Ris group seeking to save a forest belt.


In the United States, for instance, there are local councils that engage in consultation with the authorities on new developments that could impact the town or neighbourhood.

Joo Chiat MP Charles Chong is all for moving towards a system of public hearings, where the authorities seek the views of residents and other stakeholders on major municipal issues or key legislation. Experts and interest groups may also be brought in.

"Over there (in the US), they have all sorts of consultations, even if it is to build a church or mosque in the area. 

"In Singapore, the Government should consult on issues as long as it is not about national survival. For instance, the building of facilities that will affect the district," said Mr Chong.

Explaining why this is important as citizens get louder, he said: "Not everyone will get their way but at least the process is there and it is transparent. For now, it appears like it is everyone against the Government, who appear to be forcing changes upon the people. 

"But with a system like in the US, everyone has their say and it is less emotive, with more facts and figures to support various points of view."

Such dialogue, as a start, could take the form of regular town-hall meetings, suggested Mr Chong, whose own Joo Chiat residents have been a textbook case of activism. (Efforts of the Save Joo Chiat Work Group in 2004 to combat sleaze in their district and promote its Peranakan heritage led to a freeze in new licences for pubs and KTV lounges in the area. Today, the area is known for trendy eateries and furniture shops.)


Others feel that Singapore is not ready for local planning councils. Several, like Sembawang GRC MP Ellen Lee and grassroots leader David Sim, 47, are more for expanding the role of Residents' Committees - which promote neighbourliness, racial harmony and community bonding - to include a consultative role on estate developments.

They pointed out that RC members typically have experience and knowledge of the ground, and they know other residents well and seek out their views. Town councils, on the other hand, deal mainly with implementation and are not suited for a consultative role, the MPs felt.

"We can't have a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to public consultation. But a formal process should be started if more negative reactions for a particular project are anticipated," said Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Indranee Rajah, who has been liaising with a group of Emerald Hill residents who have petitioned against an upcoming condominium development's construction of a rubbish-collection access gate on Saunders Road.

Nominated MP and Assistant Professor of Law Eugene Tan thinks the manner of consultation with residents should evolve; guidelines can be tweaked with each new situation that arises, until a set of protocols coalesces over time.

But the need for engagement is urgent, he feels. "Sometimes gathering feedback on the ground will enable the Government to make even better policies," he said. "An agency may know what is needed at the national level but, in terms of implementing it, that is where intimate local knowledge becomes important."


That does not mean that every minor decision or change in estate affairs should be put up for discussion.

Ms Lee, who dealt with a petition from residents against the building of an eldercare centre on Woodlands St 83, thinks formal consultation should be set in motion only for larger developments that affect many.

"Projects could be derailed and the whole process becomes tedious and prolonged if residents are to be consulted for everything," said Ms Lee, echoing a common view.

Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Hri Kumar said MPs should decide what is major enough. He is carrying out a couple of simple consultation exercises: Sending out letters before building a park in the Shunfu area and gathering feedback before allowing a REACH family service centre to set up an office at a void deck.


Emerald Hill resident and petition-leader Tan Tiang Yeow says that whether he would be willing to sit on a neighbourhood council would depend on how effective it is. 

"We can give feedback 24 hours a day but what does it register as - a complaint, or something taken into account that will effect a rethink?" 

Mr Tan, 46, said that there is sometimes a "disconnect" between how residents and the authorities see an issue. 

To address this, he suggested that every neighbourhood could have a website detailing plans for any future development, repair work or upgrading and an explanation of how land-use decisions are made, as well as channels to foster discussion.

Regulations could also be put in place to make it necessary for developers or the authorities to inform residents before a decision is made, as well as a time-frame for it to be done in.

Clementi resident Lester Yeong said he would be happy to sit on a residents' council and represent his community's views on town planning and development. 

The lab manager, 35, who backed the case of a group of Clementi Ave 4 residents who were farming illegally on State land, said: "It's my community and my responsibility for the well-being of the area I live in."

Asst Prof Tan believes that this is the crux of the issue facing Singapore - that resident activism should not be equated with NIMBYism (not in my backyard). 

"You short-circuit the whole dialogue process if the Government is convinced it is just a NIMBY issue. They are not going to be interested in feedback," he said.

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