Thursday, 20 July 2017

Tengah Air Base to be expanded; more than 80,000 graves exhumed, 4 farms to be acquired

Graves, farms to make way for larger Tengah base
Area quarter the size of Clementi town will be added to take in Paya Lebar Air Base assets
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 19 Jul 2017

An air base in the north-western part of Singapore will get new facilities and a substantial injection of land to spread its wings.

To make way, some 80,000 graves will be exhumed, while six farms will be acquired or not have their leases renewed.

The exercise will yield more than 106ha of land - a quarter the size of Clementi town - to enable the 78-year-old Tengah Air Base to expand. It, together with Changi Air Base, will take in the assets of the Paya Lebar Air Base (PLAB), which will move out from 2030.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said last night that the expansion will allow Tengah Air Base to house aircraft assets, operational flying and support squadrons and other facilities from PLAB.

There will also be a new runway at Tengah Air Base, he said, adding that there will be "net land savings" from the relocation.

The plan to move PLAB was first announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2013 when he said it would free up 800ha in Paya Lebar for new homes, offices, factories and parks, and also remove height restrictions around the base.

To accommodate a bigger Tengah Air Base, Choa Chu Kang Cemetery, the only active burial ground and the biggest cemetery here, will lose 100ha, a third of its 318ha area.

Some 45,500 Chinese graves and 35,000 Muslim graves will be exhumed in several phases.

Graves older than 17 years will be exhumed first - from the last quarter of 2018 onwards - while newer graves will be exhumed from a date to be announced later.

The Government will bear the costs of exhumation, as well as cremation for Chinese remains and reinternment for Muslim ones.

Meanwhile, the owners of four plots of private land - affecting three fish farms and a nursery - were notified yesterday that they have been acquired, and will have to be handed over by January 2019. They will be compensated based on market value on the date of acquisition.

A vegetable farm whose lease expires in June 2019 will not have it renewed. Egg farm Chew's Agriculture had sold its remaining lease to the Government in May last year, and its lease will lapse in May 2019.

The total affected farm area adds up to about 6.3ha. Some of the farms are worried about finding alternative sites within 18 months. Said Mr Bernard Goh, a supervisor at Sevenseas Fisheries at 17, Murai Farm- way: "It is difficult to find a suitable plot with the right water quality."

A third change will see the existing Lim Chu Kang Road realigned. The affected portion includes a 1.8km heritage road, one of five in Singapore characterised by their tall, mature trees with overarching tree canopies. Agencies are looking at mitigation strategies, including transplanting the trees.

In a joint statement, the Ministry of National Development, National Environment Agency and Singapore Land Authority said the Government had "considered all alternatives" in developing this plan, and taken into account "our national defence and security needs, as well as the overall benefits of moving PLAB in the longer term".

"Government agencies have, as far as possible, tried to minimise the impact of these works, and affected stakeholders will be given advance notice to make alternative arrangements," they said.

MP Vikram Nair, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Defence, said: "This is an optimal use of our scarce resources - the military needs land for defence purposes, and we need prime land for other development uses.

"There will be some unhappiness, but hopefully there is enough time for people to make the changes."

Additional reporting by Yuen Sin

Size of Choa Chu Kang Cemetery to be cut by one-third to make way for Tengah expansion
By Rachel Au-Yong and Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 19 Jul 2017

Singapore's biggest and only active public cemetery - Choa Chu Kang Cemetery - will have its size cut down by a third, from 318ha to 200ha.

Some 80,500 Chinese and Muslim graves will be exhumed progressively to expand Tengah Air Base, which in turn is to accommodate the relocation of Paya Lebar Air Base from 2030 onwards.

Those affected can have their relatives' remains cremated at Choa Chu Kang Crematorium.

For those whose religions require their dead to be buried, like Islam, the remains can be reinterred elsewhere in the cemetery.

The authorities will pay for the moves, though additional rituals or requirements will have to be borne by the affected relatives.

Owing to space constraints, the Government in 1998 imposed a burial period of 15 years for all graves in Choa Chu Kang, after which the remains would be exhumed.

Since December 2004, the National Environment Agency (NEA) has been exhuming graves at the 70-year-old cemetery in phases.

This is the largest exhumation there to date, though there have been larger-scale ones at other cemeteries, such as in Bishan or Bidadari, which made way for new homes and towns.

At Bishan, around 100,000 Chinese graves dating from 1870 were exhumed between 1982 and 1984.

In Bidadari, 126,000 Christian and Muslim graves dating from 1907 were exhumed between 1996 and 2006.

The NEA said it will continue to exhume graves which have met the 15-year burial period to ensure there is sufficient supply to meet burial demand.

"While there is sufficient land in the foreseeable future, NEA will continue to work with land use planners to explore options for future generations," it said.

In 2007, it introduced a new interment system for Muslims, where concrete crypts built below ground replaced traditional earth plots.

Modelled after similar graves in Saudi Arabia, the system helps to save space as it allows the bodies interred to be arranged in a more compact way, and was reported to help keep the grounds open until at least 2130.

The latest round of exhumations will take place in several phases.

About 45,000 Chinese graves and 5,000 Muslim ones older than 17 years will be exhumed first, with the earliest beginning in the last quarter of next year.

Newer graves - with some buried as recently as three years ago - will be exhumed later, after they meet the minimum 15-year burial period.

Yesterday, retiree Norani Masuni, 59, whose sister's grave at the N-1-3 plot will be eventually exhumed after the burial period, said: "We feel sad, but what can we do? A decision has been made."

She said it is likely that her sister's remains, which were buried six years ago, would be buried with other family members.

"It has happened to us before at other graves, so we are prepared for this," she said.

Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Yee Chia Hsing, whose Nanyang ward includes the air base, said he believes that while the changes may be disruptive, most will take it in their stride as they are aware of the land constraints in Singapore.

"That is why those who can accept it will have their loved ones cremated, while those who bury their relatives know full well it cannot be for forever," he said.

Farms affected by Tengah expansion fret about moving
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 19 Jul 2017

For the past 30 years, Mr Mac Teo has lived and grown up on the site of his family's nursery in Lim Chu Kang.

"It is not just a business, but a home to me," said Mr Teo, 41, a project manager at Koon Lee Nursery, which takes up a 2ha plot of land in Murai Farmway.

Yesterday morning, he was told by government officers that the family business has to move in 18 months.

The authorities have acquired its land, along with that of three fish farms, for the expansion of Tengah Air Base. The handover will have to take place by January 2019. The four farms will be compensated based on market value.

Another two farms - which produce vegetables and eggs - will not have their leases renewed once they expire.

Mr Bernard Goh, a supervisor at Sevenseas Fisheries at 17, Murai Farmway, said it was taken aback by the news. The farm, which supplies produce such as snakehead fish and frogs to wet markets, had about 10 years more on its lease.

"When the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) came for an inspection a few months ago, they even made recommendations for us to increase our productivity by upgrading the water filter and redesigning the ponds.

"We had already started some works, but there is no use doing that now," said Mr Goh, 31.

He added that the company might have to wind up operations on the farm and focus on its seafood distribution business if it cannot find a good alternative site. "It is difficult to find a suitable plot of land with the right water quality," he said.

The Singapore Land Authority (SLA), AVA and National Parks Board (NParks) said they will work closely with the affected owners and assist them in the process.

New farm plots for food fish farming will be available in October, while AVA and NParks will release details on tenders for spaces for ornamental fish farms and nurseries when they are available.

But some of the farmers wonder if they will have enough time to move and start anew at a new site. They have to stop operations at the current spots by January 2019.

Koon Lee Nursery's Mr Teo said: "If we manage to bid for a piece of land tomorrow, we will have enough time to move and set up our business elsewhere. But I am not confident that we will be able to get a new piece of land in time."

He said 18 months is too short a timeframe to find an alternative site because of the effort and labour needed to relocate and set up operations from scratch. "But (SLA) did say that it is willing to accommodate our requirements, such as the time required to move and set up if we go to a new place," he added.

Mr Teo's family had invested over $1 million in the business, including land costs and other facilities. It has about 10 years left on the lease.

The owner of an affected fish farm in his 60s, who declined to be named, also said he was shocked at the news that he has to move out of his plot in 18 months. "We were not mentally prepared for this," he said.

His 1.2ha tropical fish farm, which exports fish to Europe, has been around for over 20 years. It has over 10 years left on its lease.

He said: "We have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into this. Even if you tell us to move, where can we go to?"

He said that the farmers will be meeting the authorities in the coming weeks to discuss the issue, adding: "We only just got the news, so it is very uncertain and we are still not sure what we can do."

Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Yee Chia Hsing, whose Nanyang ward includes the air base, said he has asked the authorities to compensate the farms fairly.

"Hopefully, the valuation will take into the account the money they have invested into the facilities and land. I have been assured they will try," he said.

Additional reporting by Rachel Au-Yong

Benefits for Paya Lebar will take time: Experts
By Sean Lim, The Straits Times, 19 Jul 2017

It will take a while before Paya Lebar reaps the benefits of having the Paya Lebar Air Base relocated, say property experts.

The relocation of the air base from 2030 will free up 800ha of land - bigger than Bishan. Height restrictions to ensure navigational safety for aircraft will also be relaxed, meaning low-rise buildings may be redeveloped.

When he first announced this in 2013, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the land will be used to "build new homes, new offices, new factories, new parks, new living environments and new communities".

But moving out the air base may not directly lead to a boom in property prices in the area, say analysts.

SLP International executive director Nicholas Mak said there are many factors to be considered, such as the timing and market conditions at the point of the move.

He also said that if the land is being redeveloped for residences, it might lead to an increase in the supply of homes, and this would "put a cap on property prices". Even if there is any price increase, it will only "rise at a moderate pace", he added.

International Property Advisor chief executive Ku Swee Yong noted that what is significant is that current height restrictions will be relaxed, meaning there will be "greater room for development of a higher density neighbourhood".

Existing flats, for example, will have the potential to be redeveloped and built higher.

Mr Ku said that it is too early to speculate about how the landscape of Paya Lebar will be, as there are other existing towns that have yet to reach their full potential, citing Jurong West as an example.

The lack of basic utilities in the land currently occupied by the air base, such as sewage, gas and telecommunications, is something that will take years to address, he added. After all, the land has been used as an air base for decades, and the capacity for those utilities is lower.

"After the land has been returned to the authorities, it will take many years for basic infrastructure to be laid out first, before redevelopment can take place," Mr Ku said.

Impact on new town a worry
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 19 Jul 2017

The westward expansion of Tengah Air Base has raised some concerns about how it might affect future residents of a new town on its eastern side, observers said yesterday.

The new residential area located between Jurong, Choa Chu Kang and Bukit Batok, currently a forest mass, will become a new town called Tengah, providing 30,000 public housing units and 12,000 private ones when completed.

The first batch of flats on the 700ha plot - equivalent to Bishan in size - will be launched next year.

Property consultancy Chris International director Chris Koh said there may be some noise issues, similar to those faced by people living near Paya Lebar Air Base.

But he also noted that Tengah town will boast a 100m-wide and 5km-long forest corridor, adding: "It has been known that greens absorb noise, so it won't be too bad.

"Also, the town will be on the other side of the air base, farther away from the runways."

Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC MP Alex Yam, whose Yew Tee ward is close to the affected area, said he has filed a parliamentary question on how the Defence Ministry will mitigate noise issues and assure residents that increased air traffic and training exercises in the area will not affect their safety.

Tengah is the first Housing Board town to be developed since Punggol two decades ago.

Century-old heritage road in way of Tengah air base expansion
But portions of Lim Chu Kang road could yet survive if ways are found to retain them
By Toh Wen Li, The Straits Times, 20 Jul 2017

Parts of a century-old road may have to be sacrificed to make way for the Tengah Air Base expansion.

However, portions of the Lim Chu Kang heritage road could yet survive, with The Straits Times understanding that the authorities are looking at how they can be retained.

On Tuesday, the Ministry of National Development (MND) said that Lim Chu Kang Road will be realigned to make way for a bigger air base.

It told The Straits Times yesterday that construction of the new road is expected to begin by next year. When the 9km road is completed, the existing Lim Chu Kang Road will be closed and traffic will be diverted to the new one.

Lim Chu Kang Road is home to one of Singapore's five heritage roads, stretching 1.8km from the Sungei Gedong Road junction to the junction of Ama Keng Road.

It will be the first heritage road to have trees removed or transplanted as a result of urban developments. These roads were gazetted in 2006 and are characterised by their tall, mature walls of vegetation and overarching tree canopies.

The Lim Chu Kang heritage road, now lined with some 330 trees, was built in the 1800s to serve the gambier, pepper and rubber plantations in the north-western countryside. As the population in the area grew, it served as a link between the villages and the city-bound roads of Choa Chu Kang and Bukit Timah.

Today, the heritage road's green buffer, spanning 10m on both sides, is dominated by Broad-leafed Mahogany (Swietenia macophylla), a common roadside tree, and self-sown exotic tree species such as the Albizia and African Tulip.

A spokesman for MND and National Parks Board (NParks) said mitigation strategies could include transplanting affected trees to the new road where possible.

Dr Shawn Lum, president of the Nature Society (Singapore), said of the realignment: "At face value, we are looking at aesthetic loss, and some limited localised biodiversity impact if we do lose habitat."

But "anywhere where wildlife can make a home has value".

The fast-growing Albizia, for instance, is often a home for woodpeckers, parrots and eagles.

Dr Lum said a survey should be done to assess what sorts of wildlife are in the area - and if these include endangered species such as pangolins and leopard cats, both found in nearby Jalan Bahar.

The imminent realignment of Lim Chu Kang Road is part of an ongoing trade-off between nature and development in Singapore.

In March, The Straits Times reported that 10,000 to 13,000 trees could be removed over the next 15 years to make way for transport and housing projects.

NParks stressed that all the affected trees would be replaced at least one-for-one.

The free Air Show Tengah residents would rather shun
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 20 Jul 2017

Ever so often, the roar of fighter jets breaks insurance sales manager Derrick Ng's concentration at home.

But the Jurong West Street 25 resident, who lives 5km away from Tengah Air Base, has resigned himself to the piercing noise over the eight years he has lived there.

With a second runway coming - part of the air base's expansion to accommodate the relocation of Paya Lebar Air Base from 2030 - he is bracing himself for even more interruptions.

"The planes fly so close to us that I tell my friends I enjoy a free Air Show," he told The Straits Times.

"When they fly, it's this loud zoom-zoom sound, which is disruptive when it comes at 9pm and your family is trying to sleep," the 44-year-old father of two added.

For some neighbours, the noise is enough to drive them in search of other options. Chemical processing technician W. K. Cheng, 37, said that while the jets do not fly every day, their 140- to 160-decibel roar has had an impact on his family's quality of life, especially his three-year-old daughter's.

By comparison, the limit for construction work near residential sites is 90 decibels, about the level of noise a passing truck makes.

"It is a good reason to sell the place," said Mr Cheng, who plans to put his flat on the market.

When told of the expansion of Tengah Air Base, Mr Ng's jaw dropped in dismay. "It's already so noisy, there will be another runway?"

Jurong West residents are particularly affected by the Tengah jets, partially due to the proximity of their homes to the base. The runway in Tengah also has a north-south orientation - in line with the prevailing wind direction in Singapore, making Jurong West a prime target for noise pollution.

In contrast, Paya Lebar Air Base is separated by factories and parks while Changi Air Base is shielded by the commercial Changi Airport.

Hong Kah North MP Amy Khor, whose ward the affected residents are in, said noise complaints are common, but added that the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) has taken steps to mitigate the problem.

For example, it works with schools and avoids flying planes during the examination period.

It has also reduced the number of night flights, "but we cannot not have them at all, because the pilots still need to train", she said.

Residents in the area are also occasionally invited to the air base to understand how operations are conducted and to meet the pilots - a privilege not usually extended to those living elsewhere, she added.She said: "Agencies must look at how to mitigate the noise when another runway comes up, but for some residents, it is more of a challenge."

The Ministry of National Development, which announced Tengah's expansion on Tuesday, told The Straits Times public housing developments take into consideration surrounding noise sources and permissible noise levels.

MINDEF said the Republic of Singapore Air Force is "constantly exploring ways to minimise the inconveniences to the public while still meeting operational and training requirements".

Tengah Air Base expansion: When the dead have to make way for development
With Choa Chu Kang Cemetery set to shrink, some wonder if burial space will run out
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Sunday Times, 23 Jul 2017

Come September, youth development officer Shah Reza's family will receive a letter notifying them that his grandfather's remains will be reinterred elsewhere in Choa Chu Kang Cemetery.

His grandfather's grave is among some 80,500 Muslim and Chinese graves that will make way for the expansion of Tengah Air Base, as announced by the authorities last Tuesday. This, in turn, is to accommodate the relocation of Paya Lebar Air Base from 2030.

Though exhumations being done en masse are common here - part of a policy that sees those who have been buried for 15 years make way for newer "occupants" - the latest exercise will remove a third of the cemetery's 318ha grounds.

The news has left Mr Shah, 28, wondering: "Will we have to bury our loved ones on islands some day?" he said. Mr Shah, whose grandfather died in the 1970s, is concerned that with the shrinking of the cemetery - the biggest and only active one - Singapore may run out of burial space.

Of the 20,017 people who died last year, about 20 per cent - around 3,700 - were buried. Of these, nine in 10 were from religious groups where burial is compulsory, like Islam, which requires its adherents to bury their dead as soon as possible, and their bodies left intact, as a sign of respect.

The National Environment Agency (NEA), which manages the cemetery, said there is sufficient space for now and that it would "continue to work with land-use planners to ensure sufficiency of land ahead of public demand for after-death services".

Previous media reports said the cemetery, at its current size, could be used for burials until 2130. The NEA did not give an updated estimated year with the smaller space.

But it added that even with the expansion of the military air base, "there is sufficient cemetery land to meet burial demands in the foreseeable future as the Government has already put in place measures to extend the lifespan of the cemetery".

A crypt burial system - where prefabricated concrete graves are aligned in a grid - was introduced in 2007 to intensify use of limited land.

Under the 15-year burial policy implemented since 1998, those whose religion mandates burial can be re-buried in smaller plots. The remains of up to eight people can be buried in the same space that fits a newly interred coffin for one.

About 5 per cent of Choa Chu Kang Cemetery is used for such reinterred remains, with the proportion set to grow over time, the NEA said. Those who do not need to be re-buried are cremated, and their ashes reinterred in a niche.

More people are now opting for cremation. Nearly all - 97 per cent - of those who can opt for cremation currently do so, compared with 93 per cent in 2005, said NEA.

It is also significantly cheaper to cremate a loved one. An adult cremation costs $100, compared with $315 to bury someone whose religion requires it and $940 for someone whose religion does not. These rates have remained the same for at least the past decade.

There is no lack of space in Singapore's columbariums too. The Government's 325,000 niches are about half-filled, and several private columbarium operators The Sunday Times spoke to said there are enough niches for three to four decades.

Venerable Seck Kwang Phing, president of the Singapore Buddhist Federation, said while some older Chinese may think a burial means a more restful afterlife, most have come to embrace cremation as part of the death rites here.

"It is more important to be filial to your parents while they are alive than to bury them in an attempt to give them peace," he said.

Editor Jonathan Ho, 38, a father of two girls aged three and four, said he would probably opt for cremation for himself "as it is the practical choice in Singapore" but a part of him wished burial was an option.

"The idea of my two daughters visiting their dad by his headstone is a nicer image than them going to a columbarium to look for my nook in a wall," he said.

Tengah Air Base to be expanded to free up Paya Lebar Air Base for future development -18 Jul 2017
- Annex A: Location map of graves affected by the expansion of Tengah Airbase

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