No regrets' over Bukit Brown effort

ST News
Mar 30, 2012

'No regrets' over Bukit Brown effort
But some things could have been done better, says Tan Chuan-Jin

By Li Xueying & Grace Chua

THE man at the centre of the Bukit Brown engagement effort, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, says he has no regrets about reaching out to interest groups on various policies, including on the controversial road slicing through the cemetery.

But the Minister of State for National Development acknowledged that there were things he could have done better, like in managing expectations on what the consultation process can achieve.

In his first interview since the authorities announced on March 19 changes to the road in response to feedback, Mr Tan noted that the eight-month-long engagement effort over Bukit Brown started with a mismatch in expectations.

'Everyone came in with their own expectations,' he said in an e-mail to The Straits Times.

The Government was engaging on how to build 'a better road with minimal impact' - not whether to do so - and how affected graves can be documented. But some interest groups thought they could work at undoing the road decision.

Thus, one takeaway is that 'there should be better appreciation of the expectations on all sides so that we can develop a dialogue that is constructive and which moves the issue forward'.

Another learning point, said Mr Tan, is that the Government needs to better communicate the constraints it faces and 'why we make certain decisions'. He had explained that one alternative option, the widening of Lornie Road, would affect the adjacent nature reserve and mean acquiring private property. But some still insisted on it, he added.

The Bukit Brown affair is likely to hold lessons for the Government, which has pledged to make public engagement a cornerstone of its policy-making. As Mr Tan noted: 'We would need to learn from our experiences and understand why the Bukit Brown engagement turned out the way it did.'

Just two days ago, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said engagement should start from the point of policy design and continue as policies are implemented. However, he had added, it should not lead to policy paralysis.

Mr Tan is known for his personal commitment to public engagement. He has led public discussions on policies such as the Rail Corridor on disused railway land, and foreign maid matters.

The latest is over the 89-year-old Bukit Brown cemetery, which the Government says must make way for a road now and housing in future. It made some concessions like building an eco-bridge.

But activists who hoped for a stay of the Government's hand accused the Ministry of National Development of 'lack of good faith'.

Though embattled, Mr Tan remains enthusiastic about engagement. This, despite sceptics wondering why he was spending so much time engaging groups that 'seemed to represent minority interests and pandering to their demands'.

Asked if he regretted embarking on the Bukit Brown exercise, he replied: 'I do not. I believe that we should endeavour to continue to try and do it better each time round.'

The Government remains committed to engaging stakeholders, so that together, they can come up with ideas 'to better serve the interests of the people'. Public engagement is almost an end in itself, as it spurs conversations that lead to 'greater collective understanding'.

But, he added, the Government 'is elected to do what is right for Singaporeans and for Singapore', taking into account immediate and long-term needs. 'When the time for decision comes, we will decide,' he said.