There has been a fair bit of news on the Singapore Land Authority’s (SLA) eviction of farmers occupying land along Sungei Ulu Pandan just north of the Clementi Avenue 4 area. The issue first came to light when an impassioned letter, written by the son of one of the farmers was sent to SLA on 7 March to appeal the eviction, which was followed by a Straits Time report “Group told to clear out ‘farm’ on state land” published on 10 Mar 2012. The SLA has since clarified their position, stating the reasons behind the eviction of the farmers who have for several years illegally occupied what is State Land.
The land in question lies along the Jurong Rail Corridor. The rail corridor was built in the mid 1960s to serve Jurong Industrial Estate and has been disused since the mid 1990s – after which the land was returned to the State by Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM). The writer of the letter, had written of what the farm had meant to his 71-year-old father who tended to it, which provided “much joy, personal well-being and an avenue for physical activity”. He also added that the space had also allowed his children an education beyond what the classrooms are able to provide.
The SLA in exercising its right to evict the farmers – not least for the illegal occupation of State land, also cited several reasons beyond illegal occupation. These include the fencing up of the parcels of land involved, the erection of make-shift sheds and an outdoor toilet, as well as the collection of stagnant water which had a potential for mosquito breeding. It does appear that the SLA has acted on complaints made by residents in the area on the nuisance caused by the burning of branches and leaves which has affected the air quality in the area – as well as the act being a potential fire hazard. SLA position has also drawn support from some members of the public – one, Mr Tony Lee, in a letter to the Straits Times Forum published today, brought up an important consideration that “if such squatters are tolerated, more and more will occupy state land illegally”.
There isn’t any doubt about the validity of the concerns raised over the illegal use of land, or on the need to carry out the necessary enforcement on the SLA’s part. This episode does however, open a window of opportunity for the Authorities to look beyond the enforcement of the law (which is there for good reason) and take a step towards a gentler and more inclusive society that has very much been talked about of late. The signs are certainly encouraging based on a news report in today’s edition of the Straits Times (“Let’s talk, SLA tells farmers”, Grace Chua, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2012). The report does indicate that the SLA has changed its tact slightly and has now opened a channel for discussion with farmers who willing to come forward by 20 March.
While in all probability the discussion would be on a possible extension to the deadline of 20 March imposed by the SLA for the clearance of illegally occupied State Land, I do hope that it goes far beyond that. While that the farms have been illegally set-up and fenced up and that there are public safety and health concerns associated with them is never in question, there is some scope to look into maintaining what is already there and extending access to them to the wider community in the interim (the SLA does note that there are no immediate plans for the use of the particular stretch of land). An idea mooted by a guide during one of the walks organised by the good people behind “We Support the Green Corridor” I attended a while ago, Ms Margie Hall of the Nature Society of Singapore, was that the Authorities grant temporary occupation licences to the farmers. This would not only allow the farmers – mostly retirees, a useful pursuit in their advanced years, it will also permit the use of land to be regulated. This will also allow concerns of residents and the Authorities to be managed and eliminated and its use opened up to the community. It is the community that would stand to gain most from this – allowing both young and old a space in their neighbourhood to which they would be able to escape the urban Singapore we have become to a calmer, gentler and greener Singapore – a Singapore from which we have all emerged from and a Singapore we have long forgotten of.
SLA’s reply to Straits Times article “Group told to clear out ‘farm’ on state land” published on 10 Mar 2012:
SLA makes available vacant State land, pending their development, for interim use by the community for recreational activities. Over the years, SLA has upgraded vacant State land for such uses. There are today 270 community use sites in various parts of Singapore for the community to use and enjoy.
However, State land is a precious resource and must be maintained and managed responsibly. An important principle that we uphold without exception is that individuals or groups of them are not allowed to encroach and lay claim on State land for their private use. Where State land is allowed for community use, it is important that it does not cause disamenities for the neighbourhood, and does not adversely affect the land and the environment, such as causing ground contamination or mosquito breeding.
In this case, some individuals have not only encroached on State land for their private purposes but several of them have also fenced up parcels of land as their “own” and padlocked them for their exclusive use. There are also illegally erected make-shift sheds and even an outdoor toilet (photos attached). During our inspection, we found several ponds with stagnant water which are potential mosquito breeding grounds if left unchecked. We have also received feedback of the burning of branches and leaves which affects the air quality for the residents nearby and are a potential fire hazard.
In the interest of all residents living in the vicinity, SLA’s immediate priority is to stop the burning of leaves and commence vector control measures. We will also give those responsible for the encroachment a reasonable period of time to dismantle and remove the enclosed areas and illegally erected structures, failing which we will have to take action to remove them.
The land is zoned as “Reserve” under the Master Plan 2008 and there are no immediate plans for the site at this point in time. In the interim, SLA will seek and consider the views of the grassroots organisations whether the land can be put to some form of community use for the enjoyment of the residents in the vicinity. However, any such use is interim and will have to cease when the land is required for future development.