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Standing their ground

The Kranji countryside has become a battleground between farmers and the military over land use. We investigate.

By Romesh Navaratnarajah

Taking a day trip out of the city to explore the Kranji countryside is like stepping back in time, to when Singapore was mostly a rural settlement made of villages and farms.

Comprising just one percent of land, the area located in the north-western corner of Singapore has been set aside for farms, ranging from vegetable cultivation to fish breeding.

However, its tranquillity has been shaken by news that 62 farms many of which are operated by third and fourth generation farmprenuers will have to move out between 2017 and 2021, when their leases expire, to make way for army training grounds.

The farmers first heard of this decision in September 2014, when it was officially announced to them during closed-door meetings with the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA), said Kenny Eng, President of the non-profit Kranji Countryside Association (KCA).

We have engaged various government agencies requesting a review of the decision, as local agriculture is important for food security. Farms should not simply be asked to vacate their land, as it takes years of preparation to cultivate the right environmental conditions for different types of farms, which is necessary to ensure business continuity and long-term agricultural sustainability, he added.

Fighting back

One of the farmers whose lease will not be renewed is William Ho, who runs a 2.7 hectare quail farm. Speaking to PropertyGuru, the 49-year-old said: We were offered a 20-year lease which expired in 2014, but were allowed an extension till June 2017 to give us time to move out. We asked why the lease couldnt be extended for another 20 years, and were told the land would be used for military training activities.

Why cant the military just spare us this one percent of land and leave us alone? Singaporeans can benefit from the educational tours on offer and food security we provide.

He added that none of the affected farmers will receive any compensation from the authorities because the land was offered for lease.

The KCA couldnt provide details of the total land area affected, but a map provided by Ho shows roughly a third of the plots will be taken back.

Responding to media queries, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Ministry of National Development (MND), said: Given that we have limited land in Singapore, we have to constantly balance the different land uses such as housing, industry, transport infrastructure, defence, greenery and farming.

The western part of Lim Chu Kang, which includes existing vacant land and farm sites, will be needed for military purposes. The land will replace the current training land that MINDEF is giving up for future housing and industrial developments. This tract of land is contiguous to existing military training areas, and is of a meaningful size and configuration to realistically cater to our military training needs.

Both ministries added that new sites at Lim Chu Kang and Sungei Tengah will be available for tender for farms who wish to continue their farming business.

A smelly proposition

Although he wont have to move very far, Ho doesnt think this is ideal. The total area is about 50 percent smaller and there isnt sufficient space to accommodate all the farms. The new location is also behind the DKranji Farm Resort, which is not conducive because visitors staying there will have to smell my quail poo.

As the new plots are being put up for public tender, interested parties must submit proposals on how they plan to develop the land, which means other businesses, including foreign companies, could bid for the sites. As such, Ho is worried the area may face the same situation as the former Bottle Tree Park in Yishun. The seven-hectare site was turned into a leisure park by a China-based firm, after it won the lease with a bid of $169,000 per month.

A bidder with a lot of money will definitely be awarded the site. Farmers like me cannot afford to pay a high rent, especially since I sell each egg for nine cents. Ho currently pays a lease of $1.50 per square metre per year. On top of the lease, it would cost roughly $3 million to $4 million to build up a farm, which includes new structures and cages, employing architects, and paying licensing fees.

Another concern is the shorter lease term of 10 years for the new sites, with the possibility of renewing it for another 10 years. Ho prefers a 20-year lease as it usually takes a longer time to create a profitable farm.

Meanwhile, the AVA is aware of the farmers concerns, and launched the $63 million Agriculture Productivity Fund in October 2014 to help them invest in new, high-tech farming equipment and systems. The AVA will continue to engage affected farmers to obtain feedback and keep them posted of new updates.

The gentle warrior

Ivy Singh-Lim, owner of Bollywood Veggies, a 10-acre farm in Kranji whose land lease isnt affected, does not see any reason why the military should take more than 19 percent of land. This is in reference to MNDs Land Use Plan, which has designated 14,800 hectares of land for defence requirements by 2030, compared to more than 13,000 hectares set aside for housing (Refer to Figure 1).

Breakdown of Singapore's land use plan.
Breakdown of Singapore's land use plan.

She hopes the government will relook plans for the Kranji countryside, and make it a permanent fixture on Singapores tourist map. Tourists come here to explore the charm and mystery of the Far East, not go to expensive, sterile attractions like Gardens by the Bay.

This is the only countryside left on mainland Singapore. With its proximity to Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and the Kranji War Memorial, I have suggested to the other farmers that we should apply for UNESCO World Heritage status, said Singh-Lim, who calls herself a gentle warrior.

She recounted that when she first moved there in 2000, she saw a lot of potential for it to become like Margaret River, where she originally intended to retire. The popular holiday destination just south of Perth, Western Australia, is well known for its farm stays, restaurants and chocolate factories.

Remembering LKY

In a bid to inject more life into the countryside, the KCA submitted plans to then Law Minister K. Shanmugam and the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) in 2013, to convert the nearby Neo Tiew Estate into a farmers market.

Built in 1979, the former public housing estate was taken over by the government in 2002 for use as an army training area, but the association felt the site was underutilised.

We wanted to call it the Lee Kuan Yew Farmers Market, selling a variety of local produce, including vegetables, fruits, fish and dairy products, revealed Singh-Lim, citing the KCAs proposal. Plans for the family- and community-friendly space included a nature hotel that would be a base for visitors to explore the countryside, a creative hub for hosting performances, a conservation centre for visitors to learn about resource management, and a sanctuary that would offer help to marginalised Singaporeans.

The income generated from this project would go towards supporting the farmers, noted Singh-Lim, adding that a good developer could help them carry out this plan.

Although the benefits of such a project are far reaching, she revealed that the SLA rejected the proposal, stating that the site was required by the army.

While she isnt bitter about the decision, she plans to continue fighting to preserve Kranjis unique way of life from commercial and other vested interests.

Highlighting how the haze pollution has badly affected Singapore in recent months, she recited an old Native American saying as a parting shot. When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, you will realise that you cannot eat money.

Land use beyond 2030.
Land use beyond 2030.
The PropertyGuru News & Views

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