Navigating a new terrain of engagement

ST News
Mar 30, 2012

Navigating a new terrain of engagement

A passionate attempt to save Bukit Brown Cemetery has not turned out as civil society groups hoped it would. What does the saga teach about engagement between the Government and citizens?

By Grace Chua , Li Xueying

Background story

Some say Bukit Brown marks a step backwards in the evolving relationship between state and citizen. Others feel that it was a useful episode as both sides learn to navigate the terrain.

IF DEAD men could talk, imagine the stories that those buried at Bukit Brown would tell their loved ones this Qing Ming.

Left peacefully alone for decades barring the annual spurts of visits during the grave-sweeping festival in early April, they have, over the past year, been witness to a sudden hubbub of conversation and activity at their resting place.

Government officials have trooped up and down the undulating terrain, overlaid with gnarled roots, to survey the tombs and plant stakes by the 3,746 that would make way for a eight-lane road - in turn, a precursor of the eventual development of the entire cemetery for housing.

Passionate debates over its fate have swirled around the elaborate tombstones, as anthropologists, filmmakers and heritage enthusiasts hauled cameras around to document those affected.

Politicians have paid visits too, most notably Minister of State for National Development Tan Chuan-Jin.

The Government's point man for the issue, he made his way to the cemetery on Feb 3, spoke to the documentation team and tried his hand at chalking the faded inscriptions on tombstones.

He also met other lobbyists, did media interviews, and penned his thoughts on Facebook.

Government officials - including the chief executives of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and Land Transport Authority (LTA) - also held meetings with various groups on their concerns. Documentation shows that from July last year, about 15 such meetings have taken place.

In response to the vocal feedback, the Government said it would fund the documentation efforts, pushed back the date of exhumation, and realigned the road so that fewer graves - down from the original 5,000 - have to be exhumed for the road.

Most notably, one-third of it would be built in the form of an 'eco-bridge', a costlier option, so the cemetery's resident fauna such as monitor lizards can scamper under and plants, disperse.

But the controversial road remains, and so too the plans for the re-zoning of the 89-year-old cemetery for homes.

On March 19, the day the LTA announced the final details of the road, the dialogue ended on a sour note.

Duelling statements were issued by the civil society organisations (CSOs) hoping for a stay on the bulldozers, and Mr Tan.

The group of seven CSOs charged that a meeting with Mr Tan that evening gives 'a strong impression of the lack of good faith on the part of MND', referring to the Ministry of National Development.

They had thought it was an opportunity for them to offer and discuss alternatives to the road and development. 'The fact that this meeting is held after LTA's announcement of plans for the new highway demonstrates the old practice of presenting decisions as fait accompli to concerned groups instead of genuine engagement and discussion,' they said in a statement to the media.

Stung, Mr Tan fired back a salvo. At 4.30 the next morning, he posted a Facebook note.

The meeting was to announce the details and alignment of the road, he said.

In uncharacteristically terse language, he added: 'However, it was clear that it did not matter.

'Because we failed to conduct a session that was in line with what they wanted, for example, to have their own briefs, to invite others on their invite list, it was deemed to be an inadequate effort at genuine engagement.'

These are strong words from the fourth-generation leader who has made public engagement a personal commitment since entering politics last year; and from a government that stresses the importance of consultation and policy 'co-creation' in its governance today.

The Bukit Brown saga is thus a case study of how the Government and citizens are navigating their way through the terrain of public engagement in a new political environment - and the minefields that it holds.

Why it was such a tinderbox

THOSE caught off-guard by the sound and fury of the Bukit Brown saga would have remembered that controversial and hard-headed decisions are hardly new to this Government.

Take the razing of Bidadari Cemetery from 2001 to 2006, which housed many of Singapore's famous dead. There were cries of protest, but they faded into the background. Today, a new town is being built on the plot.

At the same time, the Government has also shown that it is amenable to staying its hand on development in response to public feedback.

A notable instance is Chek Jawa.

But the stakes for Bukit Brown are particularly high - for both sides. The cemetery occupies prime land that could one day house 15,000 flats for some 50,000 residents, or 40 per cent of Toa Payoh township.

At the same time, it is also a historic space, the heritage and ecological value of which is irreplaceable, counter the CSOs.

Today, such groups are also able to galvanise public opinion and get organised with greater speed than before, particularly with the rise of social media.

For instance, the groups SOS Bukit Brown and All Things Bukit Brown were started only in November last year after a public symposium on the issue, rapidly developing a presence online and on social networking site Facebook.

What's more, post-General Election 2011, there are higher expectations of the Government when it engages in public consultation.

Said governance expert Neo Boon Siong of Nanyang Technological University (NTU): 'I think the Government has progressed - Mr Tan Chuan-Jin has certainly gone further than previous ministers to engage civil society.'

He applauded the 'sincere attempts' in response to feedback: the documentation process and eco- bridge. 'But it could have done better.'

What went wrong?

THE harnessing of public ideas for how former railway land should be developed, a project spearheaded by Mr Tan too, is considered a public engagement success.

But it benefited from starting on a blank slate - with no plans yet for the narrow 26km stretch.

Not so for Bukit Brown.

Fundamentally, there was a mismatch of expectations between the Government and civil society groups on what the engagement process was to achieve.

From the former's point of view, the decision had been made two decades ago. Bukit Brown had been earmarked for housing since the 1991 URA Concept Plan, which guides development for the next 40 to 50 years. A spokesman reiterated in May 2011 that Bukit Brown and Bidadari were needed for housing.

But the CSOs were hopeful that there would be room for change.

Nature Society (Singapore) president Shawn Lum pointed out that the society raised concerns about Bukit Brown 20 years ago, in its Masterplan for the Conservation of Nature.

Nor are URA concept plans writ in stone, he said.

Media executive Jay Ng, a heritage volunteer, noted: 'You can't rest on what's said or done 20 years ago. Things change. Needs change.'

The CSOs thus prepared a stream of alternative proposals on where the proposed housing on Bukit Brown could be sited. Mr Liew Kai Khiun of the Heritage Society, for instance, argued that the choice should instead be between public housing and one of Singapore's 22 golf courses - including that of the Singapore Island Country Club off Lornie Road.

That in turn means there is no immediate need for the new road, they believe.

But the MND yesterday clarified to Insight that the need for the road is independent of the plans for Bukit Brown.

In September, LTA said that the road was necessary to deal with current and impending problems. Lornie Road is already congested. Between 6,000 and 7,000 vehicles per hour use it during peak time, and traffic is expected to increase 30 per cent by 2020, it said. The new road is also needed for planned housing estates in central and northern Singapore.

The MND said: 'Thus, irrespective of future development at Bukit Brown, the new road through Bukit Brown is needed to serve traffic needs in the immediate term and the near future.'

And so, to the Government, the engagement efforts were meant to take on board concerns and to adjust development work. A U-turn was not on the table.

Said Mr Tan, in an e-mail response to Insight yesterday: 'To build or not build the road, was not, from the onset, something we were consulting on.

'We sought to explain our considerations even as we took on board the range of concerns and feedback.'

But in an unfortunate case of communication failure, the message never gained traction.

Said Nominated MP Janice Koh: 'I feel that the Government could have been more clear and more honest from the outset, meaning that if the decision was moot and there was no room for a turnaround for whatever reason, that should have been communicated and reiterated.'

Mr Tan acknowledged that there were differing expectations.

'For some interest groups, it was to undo the road decision whereas we wanted to see how we could build a better road with minimal impact, and how to carry out the documentation better,' he said. There also needs to be better appreciation of the expectations on all sides to enable constructive dialogue.

The Government also needs to better communicate the constraints it faces in making certain decisions, Mr Tan added. 'For example, I have explained in Parliament the different alternative options explored, and constraints in terms of not affecting the Nature Reserve and avoiding acquisition. However, some still insist that we should widen Lornie Road.'

Heritage and nature groups are also frustrated at what they perceive to be lack of transparency on the Government's part.

The LTA, for example, refused to release in full its biodiversity impact assessment report. They also asked for but did not receive data on population growth projections.

Underlying all this seems to be a lack of trust.

While some of the CSOs such as the Nature Society have long-established relationships with the Government, others - such as the newer ones - have had little contact. So, for instance, Ms Olivia Choong of interest group Green Drinks said government agencies 'haven't gone out and tried all other alternatives'.

It did not help that prior to March 19, the newer CSOs have not had official meetings with the authorities.

'It's a bit difficult to talk about engagement when we haven't had any direct contact,' remarked Ms Erika Lim of SOS Bukit Brown.

Implications and lessons

SOME say Bukit Brown marks a step backwards in the evolving relationship between state and citizen. Others feel that it was a useful episode as both sides learn to navigate the terrain.

There are some who fear the episode gives ammunition to those who feel that public engagement is a waste of time.

Ms Koh, for instance, worries that 'in this case, we took a few steps back and you have to rebuild those bridges, because it's a long-term relationship'.

But Prof Neo disagrees, saying: 'The Prime Minister has made it quite clear that that is the political imperative.

'This is part of the learning process as Singapore becomes a more mature democracy.'

What is clear is that it holds lessons for both sides.

One for the Government is to get its communications right.

Another is that it would have to learn to manage an increasingly diverse society of groups with different agendas and methods.

Some, like SOS Bukit Brown, are militant about their mission. They won't stop till they protect Bukit Brown '100 per cent', said Ms Lim. Others are doing some soul-searching and strategising. 'This raises the question: How can we accurately gauge the sentiment of the general public on these things?' said the Nature Society's Dr Shawn Lum.

'What works for one cause may not necessarily work for the same cause 10 years hence, or for a different cause.'

Yet it shows that members of the public can spontaneously take the initiative to get organised and 'stand shoulder to shoulder with everybody else', he added.

Those on the ground, too, remarked that they appreciated Mr Tan's work, but there was a limit to how far his mandate stretches.

Mr Woon Tien Wei of SOS Bukit Brown commented: 'There's a big difference between Tan Chuan-Jin as an independent minister, and the whole machinery of Government. I don't believe that he made up his mind very early on. He's listening, but I know it's not up to him.'

Indeed, Mr Tan himself made it clear that he is not giving up on the process.

'I believe that it is important for Singaporeans to care enough to be involved,' he said.

'Being engaged is almost an end in itself because the process would enable not only better policy-making but would also allow conversations that will lead to greater collective understanding.

'This understanding would include knowing our differences and to be able to agree to disagree. And the process goes on.'