The forest that will be making way for the “Forest Town”

5 05 2018

One of the things that I quite dearly miss are the seemingly long road journeys of my childhood to the far flung corners of Singapore. The journeys, always an adventure, provided an opportunity to the many different sides that Singapore then had; places that had each a unique charm and character.

A stream running through the now forested area, close to what would have been the 12th Milestone.

One especially long journey was the one to would take me to the “wild west”. The journey to the west, along a slow and dusty Jurong Road that meandered from the 8th milestone of Bukit Timah past wooded areas, settlements, graveyards, rubber plantations, and a rural landscape that is hard to imagine as having ever existed in the brave new world that we now live in.

There is a reminder of that journey, an old stretch of the road that, even stripped of rural human existence and its paraphernalia, bears some resemblance to the old road. Found just north of the Pan Island Expressway (PIE) between Bukit Batok Road and Jurong West Avenue 2, it has been relegated to a service road and has been all but forgotten.

12 Milestone Jurong Road today.

The stretch, now shaded by its overgrown trees, would have corresponded to the 11th to 12th milestones of Jurong Road – an area that went by the name “Hong Kah” before the name was appropriated by a public housing precinct across the PIE in Jurong West. Hong Kah Village itself stood right smack where the 12th milestone was and it wasn’t one that would have easily been missed in the old days, just as the old Chinese burial site nearby, Bulim Cemetery, on the road just past the village that gave me the chills on night drives past the area.

12 Milestone in 1986 (source: National Archives Online)

The odd sounding “Hong Kah” quite interestingly translates to “bestowing a religion” in the Hokkien or Teochew dialects. It was a term that apparently, in colloquial usage, was also used to refer to Christians (Chinese converts to Christianity I suppose). “Hong Kah Choon” was thus the “Christian Village”, so named due to its association with the Anglican St. Andrew’s Mission, which had carried out missionary work in the area since the 1870s (see page 45-46 of NHB’s Jurong Heritage Trail booklet). The mission also built a nearby church, St. John’s Church Jurong, located at 11th milestone at the top of 105 steps on a hillock. Put up in 1884, the church operated until 1992. That was when it was acquired together with the rest of the area for redevelopment.

The track leading to SJJ at 11 MS Jurong.

Cleared and left untouched, except for its use as military training grounds until very recently, nature has since reclaimed much of the area – which stretches up north to the Kranji Expressway. Today, the site hosts a lush secondary forest, complete with fresh water streams and a thriving birdlife. Redevelopment, will however soon clear much of what is now there, to be replaced by a forest of concrete that will be called Tengah – Singapore’s 24th “new town”.

One of the forest’s winged residents – a (male) common flameback woodpecker.

Dubbed, rather ironically, as the “Forest Town“, Tengah  will feature a fair bit of greenery. Much of which, however, will quite saldy be manufactured and put in once the existing forest has been cleared and a fair bit of concrete has been introduced – which is the Singapore way.

Another resident – a St. Andrew’s Cross spider.

Also manufactured will be a “real” forest that will take the form of a 100 metre wide and 5 kilometre long “forest corridor”. Running by the Kranji Expressway, it will serve to connect the Western Water Catchment Area and the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. And again, in the Singapore way, the corridor will be one that is “planted with rainforest tree species to transform it into a rich forest habitat”.

More views of the forest 

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A paddle through the Jalan Gemala Nature Area

15 12 2014

The Jalan Gemala area at Lim Chu Kang is as remote and wild as it can possibly get on the island of Singapore. Set along the banks of the upper reaches of the Sungei Kranji, once a tidal river lined with rich mangrove forests up to the extent of the tidal influence,  it finds itself at the edge of a reservoir of freshwater, created by the damming of the mouth of the Kranji River.JeromeLim-0667 2

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The river itself had in the past been one that served as a communication link, bringing in settlement to an area where early gambler plantations had been established. An area of mangroves – the river was lined with the watery forests up to the limits of the tidal influence, it now supports an area of freshwater marshes, wet grasslands and secondary woodland that is teeming with bird, plant and insect life – it is thought to support a colony of fireflies.

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The area was one of two identified in the 2013 Land Use Plan and subsequently the URA Master Plan for conservation as Nature Areas – the other being Pulau Unum and Beting Bronok.  The Land Use Plan has this to say about the area:

Jalan Gemala at Lim Chu Kang has varied habitats such as wet grassland, freshwater marshes as well as tall secondary woodland and freshwater reservoir that are near the area. Its addition as a nature area is significant given its rich wet grassland, with two rare plants (Leea angulata and Cayratia trifolia) being sighted. The inclusion of Jalan Gemala will also help secure the sustainability of the existing Kranji Marshes site at Neo Tiew Lane. The Pink-necked Green Pigeons and Mallotus paniculatus, a quick growing shrub that provides food for small birds are some wildlife species that can be found here.

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Based on information provided by the Nature Society (Singapore) the Jalan Gemala Nature Area is spread along a length of 4 to 5 kilometres and includes secondary forest, grassland and wetland running along the Kangkar inlet into Kranji Reservoir and is adjacent to Kranji Marsh.

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A blue-tailed bee eater in flight

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A rare blue-eared kingfisher


Works being currently bing carried out by NParks

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Remnants of a lost forest

9 10 2014

The first Sunday in October had me paddling a kayak through what turned out to be a surprisingly area of mangroves in a part of Singapore where nature has long abandoned. Described by the Nature Society (Singapore) as “the most extensive mangrove forest in the southern coastline of mainland Singapore”, the mangroves line the banks of a stretch of Sungei Pandan where the industrial march that has all but conquered Singapore’s once wild southwest is quite clearly evident.

Kayaking through the Sungei Pandan mangroves.

Kayaking through the Sungei Pandan mangroves.

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The Sungei Pandan mangroves, found along the stretch of river that lies between the Pandan Tidal Gates and the Sungei Pandan Bridge, is perhaps the last remnants of the lush mangrove forest that had once lined much of the banks of the Pandan and Jurong Rivers that had been offered protection as the Pandan Forest Reserve. The reserve covered an area of 542 acres or 219 ha. in 1966 and may have covered an even larger area before that – a newspaper article from 1928 had put the area of the reserve at 639 acres or 259 ha. and had been one of 15 forest areas that was protected under the Forest Ordinance enacted in 1908, and later, the 1951 Nature Reserves Ordinance.

The Pandan Tidal Gates.

The Pandan Tidal Gates.

A 1945 Map showing the extent of the Pandan Forest Reserve.

A 1945 Map showing the extent of the Pandan Forest Reserve.

The death knell for the mangrove reserve was sounded in the 1960s when land was needed for the expansion of Jurong Industrial Estate. An amendment to the Nature Reserves Ordinance in 1966 saw it lose the 186 acres (75 ha.) on the west bank of Jurong River and that was filled up to create much needed land for the fast expanding industrial zone. The reserve was to lose its status altogether in 1968 when a further amendment to the Ordinance removed the reserve from its schedule of protected forest areas to allow what was described as the “rapid growth of Jurong Industrial Estate”.

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The mangrove forest, besides being home to a rich diversity of flora and fauna, also hosted human inhabitants, many of whom were fishermen who depended on cast net prawn farming in the vicinity of the river mouths and the islands for a livelihood. One of the isolated villages that was found at the edge of the watery forest, was Kampong Teban, described in an article from The Singapore Free Press dated 13 January 1958 as “a village of 135 people living in 27 cottages, some built on stilts over the ooze and slime on the river bank”. The villagers were to see their lives altered by developments n the early 1960s, when part of the area was given to prawn farming.

Kampong Teban, 1958 (source: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline).

Kampong Teban, 1958 (source: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline).

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The original mouth of Sungei Pandan, was where the Republic of Singapore Yacht Club (RSYC), then the Royal Singapore Yacht Club, moved its premises to, on land reclaimed from the mangroves, in 1965. The club, which traces its origins to 1826, moved in 1999 sometime after it lost its seafront to land reclamation. Its former clubhouse is now occupied by the Singapore Rowing Association – close to where the kayaking trip started.

The entrance to the grounds of the Singapore Rowing Association, formerly the site of the RSYC.

The entrance to the grounds of the Singapore Rowing Association, formerly the site of the RSYC.

The start point for the kayak trip.

The start point for the kayak trip.

Paddling through the greenery offered by the mangroves, nipah palms and mangrove ferns, the sounds of tree lizards and birds were most evident. Beyond the distinct calls belonging to the ashy tailorbird and the pied fantail – birds that often are heard before they are seen, the likes of grey and striated herons, and white-bellied sea eagles gave their presence away flying overhead. A special treat came in the form of an Asian paradise flycather – a particularly beautiful avian resident of the watery forest, dancing across the mangrove branches. Besides the lizards and the birds, the forest is also plays host to fauna such as mud lobsters, mudskippers, horseshoe crabs, mangrove snails and the dog-faced water snake.

The dance of the Asian paradise flycatcher...

The dance of the Asian paradise flycatcher…

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A grey heron in flight.

A grey heron in flight.

Another grey heron in flight.

Another grey heron in flight.

A striated heron perched on a fallen trunk.

A striated heron perched on a fallen trunk.

The Sungei Pandan mangroves is all that remains of a once rich mangrove forest. What the crystal ball that is the URA Master Plan tells us is that the area in which it is situated has been designated as a park space. It would be nice to see that the mangroves remain untouched, not just to remind us of the lost forest, but more importantly to protect an area that despite its location and size, is a joyously green space teeming with life.

Minister of State Desmond Lee - an avid bird watcher.

One of the kayakers was Minister of State Desmond Lee, who is an avid bird watcher.

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A paddle through the magical watery woods

30 07 2014

The process of acquainting myself with the shores of Singapore for a project I am working on, Points of Departure, has provided me with some incredible experiences. One that I was especially grateful to have had was the experience of paddling through a green watery space that is almost magical in its beauty. Set in the relatively unspoilt lower reaches of Sungei Khatib Bongsu, one of Singapore’s last un-dammed rivers, the space is one that seems far out of place in the Singapore of today and holds in and around its many estuarine channels, one of the largest concentration of mangroves east of the Causeway along the island’s northern coast.

Paddling through the watery forest at Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

Paddling through the watery forest at Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

The much misunderstood mangrove forest, is very much a part of Singapore’s natural heritage. The watery forests, had for long, dominated much of Singapore’s coastal and estuarine areas, accounting for as much as an estimated 13% of Singapore’s land area at the time of the arrival of the British. Much has since been lost through development and reclamation and today, the area mangrove forests occupy amount to less that 1% of Singapore’s expanded land area. It is in such forests that we find a rich diversity of plant and animal life. Mangroves, importantly, also serve as nurseries for aquatic life as well as act as natural barriers that help protect our shorelines from erosion.

Khatib Bongsu is a watery but very green world.

Khatib Bongsu is a watery but very green world.

The island’s northern coast was especially rich in mangrove forests. Much has however, been cleared through the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, with large tracts being lost during the construction of the airbase at Seletar and the naval base at Sembawang in the early 1900s. The mangroves of the north, spread along the coast as well as inland through its many estuaries, along with those found across the strait in Johor, were once the domain of the Orang Seletar. A nomadic group of boat dwellers, the Orang Seletar had for long, featured in the Johor or Tebrau Strait, living off the sea and the mangroves; finding safe harbour in bad weather within the relatively sheltered mangrove lined estuaries.

Mangrove forests had once dominated much of coastal Singapore.

Mangrove forests had once dominated much of coastal Singapore.

Boat dwelling Orang Seletar families could apparently be found along Singapore’s northern coast until as recently as the 1970s. While the Orang Seletar in Singapore have, over the course of time, largely been assimilated into the wider Malay community, the are still communities of Orang Seletar across the strait in Johor. Clinging on to their Orang Seletar identity, the nine communities there live no longer on the water, but on the land in houses close to the water.

Safe harbour in the watery woods.

Safe harbour in the watery woods.

It is the labyrinth of tree shaded channels and the remnants of its more recent prawn farming past that makes the side of the right bank of Sungei Khatib Bongsu’s lower reaches an especially interesting area to kayak through. Much has since been reclaimed by the mangrove forest and although there still is evidence of human activity in the area, it is a wonderfully green and peaceful space that brings much joy to to the rower.

The canalised upper part of Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

The canalised upper part of Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

The area around Sungei Khatib Bongsu today, as seen on Google Maps.

The area around Sungei Khatib Bongsu today, as seen on Google Maps.

Paddling through the network of channels and bund encircled former prawn ponds – accessible through the concrete channels that once were their sluice gates, the sounds that are heard are mostly of the mangrove’s many avian residents. It was however the shrill call of one of the mangrove’s more diminutive winged creatures, the Ashy Tailorbird, that seemed to dominate, a call that could in the not too distant future, be drowned out by the noise of the fast advancing human world.  It is just north of Yishun Avenue 6, where the frontier seems now to be, that we see a wide barren patch. The patch is one cleared of its greenery so that a major road – an extension of Admiralty Road East, can be built; a sign that time may soon be called on an oasis that for long has been a sanctuary for a rich and diverse avian population.

The walk into the mangroves.

The walk into the mangroves.

The beginnings of a new road.

The beginnings of a new road.

The Sungei Khatib Bongsu mangroves, lies in an area between Sungei Khatib Bongsu and the left bank of Sungei Seletar at its mouth that lies beyond the Lower Seletar Dam that has been designated as South Simpang; at the southern area of a large plot of land reserved for public housing that will become the future Simpang New Town. The area is one that is especially rich in bird life, attracting a mix of  resident and migratory species and was a major breeding site for Black-crowned Night Herons, a herony that has fallen victim to mosquito fogging. While there is little to suggest that the herons will return to breed, the area is still one where many rare and endangered species of birds continue to be sighted and while kayaking through, what possibly was a critically endangered Great-billed Heron made a graceful appearance.

Evidence of the former prawn ponds.

Evidence of the former prawn ponds.

Kayaking into the ponds.

Kayaking into the former ponds.

It is for the area’s rich biodiversity that the Nature Society (Singapore) or NSS has long campaigned for its preservation and a proposal for its conservation was submitted by the NSS as far back as in 1993. This did seem to have some initial success and the area, now used as a military training area into which access is largely restricted, was identified as a nature area for conservation, as was reflected in the first issue of the Singapore Green Plan. Its protection as a nature area seemed once again confirmed by the then Acting Minister for National Development, Mr Lim Hng Kiang, during the budget debate on 18 March 1994 (see: Singapore Parliament Reports), with the Minister saying: “We have acceded to their (NSS) request in priorities and we have conserved Sungei Buloh Bird Sanctuary and Khatib Bongsu“. 

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Unfortunately, the area has failed to make a reappearance in subsequently releases of the list of nature area for conservation, an omission that was also seen in subsequent editions of the Singapore Green Plan. What we now see consistently reflected in the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Master Plans (see: Master Plan), is that as part of a larger reserve area for the future Simpang, the area’s shoreline stands to be altered by the reclamation of land. Along with land reclamation, plans the Public Utilities Board (PUB) appears to have for Sungei Khatib Bongsu’s conversion into a reservoir that will also include the neighbouring Sungei Simpang under Phase 2 of the Seletar-Serangoon Scheme (SRSS), does mean that the future of the mangroves is rather uncertain.

A resident that faces an uncertain future.

A resident that faces an uncertain future.

Phase 2 of the SRSS involves the impounding of Sungei Khatib Bongsu, Sungei Simpang and Sungei Seletar to create the Coastal Seletar Reservoir. Based on the 2008 State of the Environment Report, this was to be carried out in tandem with land reclamation along the Simpang and Sembawang coast. The reclamation could commence as early as next year, 2015 (see State of the Environment 2008 Report Chapter 3: Water).

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In the meantime, the NSS does continue with its efforts to bring to the attention of the various agencies involved in urban planning of the importance of the survival of the mangroves at Khatib Bongsu. Providing feedback to the URA on its Draft Master Plan in 2013 (see Feedback on the Updated URA Master Plan, November 2013), the NSS highlights the following:

Present here is the endangered mangrove tree species, Lumnitzera racemosa, listed in the Singapore Red Data Book (RDB). Growing plentifully by the edge and on the mangrove is the Hoya diversifolia. On the whole the mangrove here is extensive and healthy, with thicker stretches along Sg Khatib Bongsu and the estuary of Sg Seletar. 

A total of 185 species of birds, resident and migratory, have been recorded at the Khatib Bongsu  area. This comes to 49 % of the total number of bird species in Singapore (376, Pocket Checklist 2011, unpublished  )  – almost comparable to that at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. 13 bird species found here are listed in the RDB  and among these are:  Rusty-breasted Cuckoo, Straw-headed Bulbul, Ruddy Kingfisher, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Changeable Hawk Eagle, White-chested Babbler, etc. The Grey-headed Fish Eagle  and the Changeable Hawk eagle are nesting in the Albizia woodlands in this area.

The mangrove dependent species present are : Crab-eating Frog, Dog-faced Water Snake & Malaysian Wood Rat. The Malaysian Wood Rat is regarded is locally uncommon.   In 2000, Banded Krait (RDB species) was found here near the edge mangrove. Otters, probably the Smooth Otter, have been sighted by fishermen and birdwatchers in the abandoned fish ponds and the Khatib Bongsu river. 

URA Master Plan 2014, showing the reserve area at Simpang.

URA Master Plan 2014, showing the reserve area at Simpang.

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It will certainly be a great loss to Singapore should the PUB and the Housing and Development Board (HDB) proceed with their plans for the area. What we stand to lose is not just another regenerated green patch, but a part of our natural heritage that as a habitat for the diverse array of plant and animals many of which are at risk of disappearing altogether from our shores, is one that can never be replaced.

The present shoreline at Simpang, threatened by possible future land reclamation.

The present shoreline at Simpang, threatened by possible future land reclamation.

The white sands at Tanjong Irau, another shoreline under threat of the possible future Simpang-Sembawang land reclamation.

The white sands at Tanjong Irau, another shoreline under threat of the possible future Simpang-Sembawang land reclamation.





A final frontier

13 02 2013

One of the few places in present day Singapore that I am able to find myself at home in is the Sembawang area along the northern coast. It is an area which has in the last two and a half decades, as with much (if not all) of Singapore, undergone a huge transformation and also one that is still being transformed. Despite the transformation – Sembawang now plays host to a new public housing estate, it is still a place in which a Singapore we have forgotten about can still be found – at least for the time being.

An intermediate egret in flight.

An intermediate egret in flight over the canalised Sembawang River – the Sembawang area was one known in the past to be rich in bird life.

Sembawang is one of the last places left in which much of the past remains to be discovered. A past which perhaps with the planned future developments in the area, some for which preparations are already being made, is one which may soon be well forgotten. Best remembered for hosting a huge British naval base which was completed in 1938, Sembawang Shipyard which inherited the former Naval Dockyard in 1968 serves to remind us of that, as does the former Stores Basin, now used as a naval logistics base. It is however in several of the smaller reminders in which the past charms of the area can found in. These include the cluster of colonial bungalows (“black and white houses”) and in what is today Sembawang Park. Sembawang Park and perhaps the coastline east of it is where some of the old world does seem to have been left behind including what may be one of the last stretches of natural beaches in Singapore, the old jetty (sometimes referred to as the “Beaulieu”, prounounced “bew-lee” jetty, or “Mata” jetty), Beaulieu House, and a seawall which once belonged to Kampong Wak Hassan.

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Sunrise along the northern coast – an undeveloped part of the beach east of Sembawang Park, and an area which despite the kampongs being cleared from it, retains much of a charm which is missing from the overly manicured and cluttered urban spaces in Singapore.

Besides traces that is associated with the former naval base, reminders do also exist of the area’s lesser known natural past. The area (as had much of the coastline around it) played host to a swamp. Much had already been cleared when the naval base was built with the course of two rivers around which the marshy ground formed altered. There were, however, remnants of the marshland that remained around an area of what is today the Sembawang River up to the 1980s when it was drained for the development of Sembawang New Town. This lay about a kilometre west of what was then Chong Pang Village, just north of the Ulu Sembawang area (an area of farms and freshwater ponds around where Gambas Avenue is today). It was known then to have been a fertile feeding ground for marsh birds, attracting herons, egrets, sandpipers and storks to it. While the swamps have all since vanished – HDB blocks of flats have risen where the wetlands had once thrived, the is today a canalised Sembawang/Senoko River which on the evidence of what we do see today, does see a return of some of the previously rich bird life. Besides the marsh birds, the area today also sees many other birds. These include common birds such as the yellow-vented bulbulblack naped oriolepied fantailashy tailorbirdgreen pigeon, starling, Asian koel, several types of kingfishermunia and sunbird. There have also been some less common sightings in the area including the Sunda woodpeckerbrown hawk owlmilky stork, and what is perhaps an escapee, a white-rumped shama.

A yellow-vented bulbul in a Simpoh Air bush along the banks of the river.

A yellow-vented bulbul in a Simpoh Air bush along the banks of the river.

A white-throated kingfisher.

A white-throated kingfisher in flight over the canalised river.

Sembawang is toady, a world in which the charm of a forgotten old world missing from most of the redeveloped spaces on the island, can still be found. It is a world which has thus far, managed to remain free from the crowds and clutter which now seems to dominate almost all of the urban world we now find around us. The area is one which had for a long while boasted of welcome pockets of greenery and un-manicured beauty. But all that I fear, is soon going to change. Sembawang Park for one is already in the midst of a “renewal” which I feel will see it lose the character and charm which attracted me there since the days of my childhood as it becomes just another well manicured park cluttered with paraphernalia which Singapore really has too many of.

A once beautiful area that is now being cleared for possibly what is the beginnings of the HDB's new Simpang estate.

A place where the sun would shine on an uncluttered space …

As I look around me, I also see huge tracts of land which were once held much beauty behind hoardings and in the midst of being cleared. That I understand is part of the effort to provide new homes. What that also means is that the crowds the area has hitherto been spared from would soon descend on it, attracted not just by the homes, but the inevitable as it now seems – a huge redevelopment effort which has been outlined in the recently released Land Use Plan intended to supplement the somewhat controversial Population White Paper. That speaks of “new waterfront land along the Sembawang Coastline being freed up once existing shipyard facilities are phased out” with the aim “of providing land for new business activities”. With that it will not just be the character and charm of the area that will be lost, but what it does also mean is that it will see the breaking of what may be the last links it has with its past.

Another part of the same area seen on a misty morning on 28 August 2012.

… and a space where once there were trees.

Inevitable as it may seem, that future  is one that I hope, perhaps for selfish reasons, is one that will never come. Development which has broken many of our links to our past as well as the more recent wave of immigration has without a doubt provided great economic benefit to us living in Singapore. For many of us however, it has also come at a huge cost, a cost which has also seen us lose the soul of who we are as a people. The country is today, one where I find it a struggle to feel at home in. Much of what once was familiar and a source of joy and comfort is no longer with us, creating in us that sense of longing for what has been lost, as well as a sense of loss … a feeling which perhaps can best be described by the Welsh word Hiraeth or  the Portuguese word Saudade

The final frontier?

Now perhaps the final frontier?

One of the positive things that did come out of the land use plan is that it makes mention of some of the more immediate future developments to provide public housing at Bidadari, Tengah and Tampines North. What that does mean is that for the time being at least, the large parcel of land reserved for the future Simpang New Town, an area by the northern coast part of which was once a land of idyllic coastal villages and prawn farming ponds will be left undeveloped. What that also means is that while the area will certainly become more crowded over time, it will for a while, be spared from an even bigger   one, remaining as a final frontier where not just the birds, but also free spirits such as myself can still find space to roam free.