When the talking is done

ST Editorial
Mar 24, 2012

When the talking is done

COMMUNITY engagement, which became a buzzword after the last General Election, took a stumble from the Bukit Brown and Toh Yi controversies. These dialogues started as honest attempts by both sides to communicate with each other. But as they progressed, observers wondered if it would end satisfactorily and what could be the rules of engagement, so to speak, when it's not possible to bridge a yawning gulf.

The Bukit Brown Cemetery dialogue sessions came to a head with interest groups, including nature lovers, heritage advocates and paranormal investigators, calling for a moratorium on all works scheduled for a new road to meet growing traffic needs. The project had been delayed by several years already to study alternatives, and the Government recently made concessions, namely an elevated section to reduce ground impact, that could cost two to three times more than normal. But this did not entirely satisfy the activists.

Design concessions were also made by planners at Toh Yi where the site for studio flats for seniors had become a bone of contention. But residents living nearby did not want to lose a basketball court and jogging track on the site. They wanted to push the location of the flats to other parts of Toh Yi. And the residents there pushed back. This effectively meant that any decision that was taken would have upset one group or the other, unless the authorities decided to do nothing. Thankfully, in both cases, the authorities arrived at a point where consultations had to make way for a decision. Hence, a new road will be built at Bukit Brown, and the Housing Board will stick to the original site for the studio flats.

Some have wondered if these moves signal a return to the 'just do it' mindset of times past. Rather, the recent decisions acknowledge the need to serve the larger public interest ultimately, after taking into account all competing perspectives. Citizen involvement in planning can take many forms, from passive voting for en bloc redevelopment to active participation in shaping the plans for several new Destination Parks to be built. This is an evolving process and should be nurtured. The public should take up the Government's call and engage. Those who do should offer their views and make their case, but also accept that not every idea can be taken up and implemented. Nor can every competing interest be fully satisfied. Consultation should not lead to policy paralysis. To dismiss the engagement process simply because you disagree with the outcome would be callow. A worthy Singapore model of engagement would be one that can get all to join hands to finish the job after the talking is done.