(Delivered in Parliament on 7 February 2017)
Madam Speaker, the Parks and Trees Amendment Bill seeks to update the Parks and Trees Act to expand the powers of NParks to appoint park rangers, to increase penalties for nature-related offences and to extend certain protections to marine parks, among other things. I have no objection to the Bill but I would like to speak about gaps in our current regime for managing trees and parks as well as to raise some technical questions about certain provisions in the Bill.
In November I asked the Minister for National Development what are the criteria that NParks uses to make decisions about tree cutting and/or replanting activities in residential estates; whether these criteria vary according to the location and nature of the residential estate and, if so how; and how are residents consulted in the process.
The reply was that tree removal is a last resort. If it is deemed necessary by NParks’ arborists or contractors, NParks will then study replanting options and make a decision about what replacement trees to plant based on technical considerations like available space, soil conditions, sunlight exposure at that location and so on.
The reply also said: “Residents are consulted when there is an opportunity to rejuvenate the overall landscaping of the estate. For example, NParks seeks feedback on landscaping options and tree planting schemes as part of the Estate Upgrading Programme and for large projects such as Jurong Lake Gardens.”
The reply did not state if there was a process for consulting residents on decisions about replacing groups of trees near residential estates, or planting new clusters of trees – in other words for tree planting decisions that are not related to big projects. I can only assume that no such structured and regular process exists.
In my grassroots work, residents have told me several times that they would like to have been consulted about what types of trees are replanted in place of removed trees.
One family living in a landed estate where trees lined the path from the market to her house shared with me that a group of trees that they had loved and which had afforded them good shade on hot days had been replaced by a tree species which was less shady. I know that this wish to have some say over the types of trees planted in a particular area is also felt by some residents in the HDB estate where I live.
I would like to suggest a new model for making decisions about trees being planted in residential estates. Where a significant number of trees are to be removed and trees replanted or where a new group or grove of trees is to be planted – be it installation of tree saplings or planting of instant trees – NParks (and HDB where HDB manages the green areas) could initiate a consultation process with residents.
Some might argue that this is a trivial issue and does not warrant such consultation, or that it would over-burden NParks.
However efficient solutions can be found that do not stretch resources and manpower. And this solution can be deployed only when there is significant new planting or replanting, not for the replacement of just a single tree.
For example where such decisions need to be made, NParks could direct residents to a website page that presents different tree options. Residents could submit a very simple online form with their NRIC to express support for one or another option. The residents could learn about the page through notice boards in HDB estates, or by signboards placed strategically at landed estates.
One could argue against this by saying that if only certain people go online and express a preference, then the decision will be undemocratic. However, that is still better than no one being given a chance to express a preference. Moreover, more votes may be generated by individual residents urging their neighbours to go online and vote for their preferred option.
Some may argue that this is giving residents too much choice over decisions that are best left to professional arborists. But the option set can be decided by NParks on professional grounds. NParks could provide only certain options for choice based on local considerations – soil conditions and so on – as well as national considerations, like the need to preserve a certain level of biodiversity in the national tree population, which has broader ecological benefits.
In fact, if such a model can be piloted and run efficiently, it could serve as an inspiration for local consultation on other matters that fall into the middle zone where they are neither too big to warrant a vote nor too small to ignore residents feedback altogether.
I have suggested an online approach to consultation but there could be other approaches to achieve the same result, bearing in mind that many Singaporeans are still not too IT-savvy.
What are the benefits of such consultation? There are many.
Such exercises could inspire a greater sense of ownership over the local greenery and public park spaces. This in turn could enhance positive behaviours like anti-littering. Such consultations could even stimulate interactions among residents as they lobby for their own preferred tree-scapes. Lastly, such exercises could stimulate a better understanding of and appreciation of the beauty of our natural flora in Singapore, as well as of the work of NParks.
I would like to speak on another gap that does not seem to be addressed in this bill.
In the past decades, there have been residential developments constructed at the margins of the Central Catchment and Bukit Timah reserves. Many of these are large scale developments, like condominiums and strata landed housing. The amendment regulating the release or abandonment of animals into reserves through waterways is a good one. But it does not address one major issue, which is the potential of invasive species to enter the reserves not by design but by random chance – such as non-indigenous decorative plants favoured by condo developers reproducing in the reserves and exotic pets owned by residents escaping into the reserves. These may disrupt the reserve’s delicate ecosystem and biodiversity. What measures are in place to limit that danger?
Conversely, what happens when animals “accidentally” exit the reserves and are found by residents in these developments, who may decide to capture and retain them or even harm them? They should by right call NParks to return animals that are captured but if they do not, what recourse does NParks have in such cases?
Next, I have a few questions that are more technical in nature.
Firstly, the bill stipulates a reduction in the area (size) of the Botanic Gardens protected by law. Clause 23 will result in a reduction of 151.1 m2 of land from the Botanic Gardens. What is the reason for this reduction?
Secondly, I would also like to question the expanded powers given to NParks to appoint auxiliary police officers to become park rangers. Clause 3(b) of the Bill also now allows the appointment of “a person who holds a security officer’s licence under the Private Security Industry Act (Cap. 250A)” to a park and nature reserve policing role.
What circumstances have given rise to the need to expand the pool of people who can be appointed to be authorized officers of the Board or park rangers? And to what extent does NParks envisage that it will induct more staff in this way to police nature reserves and parks? I ask this because I wonder if we have given due consideration to other ways to minimize offences occurring on NParks land such as CCTV cameras or apps that allow members of the public to photograph and report offences they see.
If for example there has been a rise in offences that warrant this, it is a matter of public interest to understand what these offences are. For example if there has been a spike in incidents of persons harming or poaching endangered species of animals or plants in our nature reserves, many concerned citizens or NGOs may want to know about this.