Mention Singapore and one visualises skyscrapers and bright lights, perhaps even the opulent Marina Bay Sands Hotel with its infinity pool.
Yet Singapore is first and foremost a tropical island, with pockets of land that still preserve a rich biodiversity.
Extending over 2,000 hectares, the Central Catchment Nature Reserve is the country’s largest green lung.
Walking through the forest early in the morning, one can watch monkeys playing and hear the singing of waking birds.
It is cool, quiet and peaceful, as if the entire island is taking a long, slow breath before the relentless humidity of the tropics kicks in.
Yet even such a sanctuary might not withstand Singapore’s relentless development. A master plan by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) has indicated that a new subway track, the Cross Island Line, could run through the reserve by 2030.
The ensuing debate has once again triggered a clash between conservation and urbanisation.
Significant sites have already surrendered to development. Exhumation in Bukit Brown, the largest Chinese graveyard outside of China, began in 2013, with over 3,700 of the 100,000 graves demolished for a planned eight-lane highway.
Singaporeans are now bidding for new apartments in the central neighbourhood of Bidadari, which was once a cemetery for people of different faiths.
With a total land area of just under 72,000 hectares and a growing population of just over 5.5 million, Singapore’s city planners are under pressure to develop infrastructure.
The Cross Island Line, which is meant to save commuters up to 40 minutes of travel time, is one of a number of additional Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) links in the works.
By 2030, the LTA predicts the city-state will have a rail density to rival London.
“Commuters will be less affected by a train disruption on an MRT line because they will be able to switch to other lines in the network to reach their destination,” the transport authority wrote in its 2013 master plan.
The agency’s original idea was to run the line under the reserve by building a four-kilometre tunnel, two kilometres of which would be 40 metres below the forest.
Compromising conservation and development
The reserve is a mixture of secondary rainforest over a century old and primeval, primary rainforest.
Conservationists like the Nature Society Singapore have now suggested an alternative alignment, skirting the area.
David Tan, a researcher at the National University of Singapore, is an avid bird watcher and an active member of the Love Our MacRitchie Forest campaign.
He and his fellow nature lovers conduct guided walks in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, near the MacRitchie reservoir, every two weeks.
“The nature reserve is protected not just out of sentiment, it’s protected because it is valuable. It conserves some of Singapore’s richest biodiversity, but also provides a lot of services that we would be unable to live without,” he said, citing the benefits of water catchment and flood and mosquito control.
He is quick to emphasise that the nature groups are not protesting against the Cross Island Line itself, but merely trying to persuade the Government to adopt an option that accommodates conservation and development.
“It’s a compromise already on everyone’s part, because even the alternative route will have an impact on nature,” he said.
“You’re skirting the edge of the nature reserve, all this noise will impact things at the edge as well.”
Other considerations have come into the debate. The Government has said the nine-kilometre alternative alignment would add six minutes to the projected commute on the Cross Island Line.
“I am not so sure we can just brush aside the extra six minutes, just like that, because in the mindset of the MRT commuters, an extra half a minute is already terrible,” Minister of Transport Khaw Boon Wan said.
According to the authorities, the alternative alignment would cost 2 billion Singapore dollars ($1.9 billion AUD) more.
The cost of the total project has not been revealed, making it difficult to understand the budgetary context of that figure.
Indications that land acquisition might be needed for the alternative route have also caused some uneasiness among residents living near the forest.
Nature Society Singapore council member Tony O’Dempsey points out that despite the authorities’ best mitigation measures, future survey work in the area would have a significant impact.
“The probes [used for soil investigation] need to be placed in off-trail areas and connected by coaxial cables by teams of workers,” he said.
“It is the continued presence of these workers and their movements in the off-trail forested areas which will cause native animals to flee into the territories of neighbouring species, potentially resulting in territorial clashes and subsequently injuries.”
Discussions are ongoing, yet the reality remains that many Singaporeans are not well informed on the importance of the reserve’s biodiversity.
To that end, Mr Tan and his colleagues continue their guided walks, bringing urbanites face to face with nature.
“The thing is that the forest we see today is not even pristine anymore,” he said.
“We have to bear in mind that when we make conservation decisions, we are already looking at a degraded forest. And the baseline keeps shifting. You degrade it a little bit more, tomorrow when you come in to do an assessment, you’re doing it relative to an even more degraded forest.”