Friday, April 12, 2013

Pulau Ubin: Explanation, and Final Remarks

A house at Kampung Melayu, Pulau Ubin;
(Photo from TODAY)

After the kerfuffle over the last few days, with lots of voices of indignation and outrage being expressed on many different platforms, and even an online petition, there's finally a clarification about what was thought to be plans to evict some of the residents on Pulau Ubin.

I am glad that there is finally some explanation, and even happier that it was not the worst-case scenario that many of us had feared. Still, in light of all this information, there are some points to be made.

Rent: will it be too damn high?
"These households are currently residing on state land without a temporary occupation license," the agencies said in the statement. "They can continue to stay on state land if they obtain (the license) from SLA and pay a fee for the use of the land, similar to any other use of state land."

The agencies said the rents will be pegged at the market rate, but would be phased in stages so households will only pay the full market rate in six years.

"The Government will also render other forms of assistance as may be necessary to households who require and qualify for such assistance," they said, adding that each case would be reviewed separately. (Straits Times)
Now that the residents will have to pay rent in order to continue living there, I believe a lot of people are concerned about affordability - what exactly is the market rate, how much rent they'll have to pay, and given that these villagers most probably aren't earning a lot to begin with, it is worrying to think that just the act of choosing to keep their homes will be too expensive for some, even with the assistance schemes. How many months' (or years') worth of rent can the resettlement benefits help pay for? Here are some comments from Facebook that expressed similar sentiments:
Fadhuli Taufek
Sure, won't get evicted but must get Temporary Occupation Licence (TOL) to continue staying there.
If it's anything like what happened to Masjid Kampong Holland, these people are going to have to pay an annual fee with a percentage increment each year as long as they want to stay there.

Can they afford to pay it?

My question is, why the sudden interest? These people have been staying there for a long time without having to deal with this. Why now?

(This last bit about "Why now?" is another point that I wish to discuss later in this post)

Melissa Lim
Good news: the residents won't be evicted and there is no ridiculous "adventure park" plan. Bad news: rents - how high are they going to be, and what're the tenancy conditions like?

Lee Kee Seng
ok, its now about the money, how much? can the residents afford the rent or will they choose to move out? Isn't that indirectly chasing them out by another mean?

Andy Ho
Having been visiting the island on a very regular basis (and "regular" being an understatement here) for more than a decade, I know the story there. MND and SLA are saying they won't evict the residents there, but they are making residents pay exorbitant rental rates like as if these islanders are making tons of profits from the land. If anyone has been to Ubin, you will notice that none of them are making glorious profits. Many of them have given up farming decades ago due to poor revenue and high upkeep (high costs of things like fertilizers and whatnot just does not justify the revenue), and many are depending on sales of soft drinks to visitors who frequent mainly over the weekends to make just a meager income. On rainy days their sales could plummet drastically, meaning they probably earn like $5 to $15 over the weekend. Sooner or later these residents would not be able to afford the rental and are "forced" to leave the island on their own will. Is this acceptable governance?

Obvious reference to a meme is obvious.

And from one of the residents:
Madam Kamariah Abdullah, 54, is worried that she cannot afford to pay the rent.

Her taxi driver husband has been diagnosed with stomach cancer and is undergoing treatment, she said.

She has been told by the authorities that she may receive $10,000 as resettlement benefits, which is "too little", she said.

Madam Kamariah does not know the size of her home, but said she had documents of ownership.

"I don't understand why they want to give us money, then take it back through rent," she said.
(Straits Times)
The 3Es: Explanation and Emphasis on non-Eviction
The agencies clarified that the notices given to 22 households in March - widely thought to be eviction notices - were a follow-up from a previous exercise. (Straits Times)
The authorities met them last month to explain, and to emphasise that they were not being evicted.

The residents were also informed of the assistance which the government would render, if necessary, and the steps the residents should take if they wished to continue staying in Pulau Ubin.
If this was the case, then why were there accounts of residents saying that they were being evicted? Was there a critical and fundamental misunderstanding of the entire basis for the census survey? Was this key information properly communicated to the residents?

You can accuse non-residents of making statements based on hearsay or incomplete information, but what about this interview from RazorTV?

"When the authorities came to check our house, they said it was inevitable that they would take this house away."
Based on the first 2 minutes of the clip alone, both Jariah Binte Garib and Amidah Binte Awang don't show any indication of having received any explanation about the census survey, nor does it seem that anyone had visited them to emphasise that they were not being evicted.

And how was the message transmitted?
"Three weeks ago, upon returning from collecting shellfishes, we saw the notice pasted on the wall, and it really saddened us."

"When they pasted the notice, they just left!"
I'm not in a position to make any judgments, but it does appear that pasting a letter on the house might not be the best way of communicating somewhat complicated land ownership plans with illiterate and elderly villagers who don't seem to understand English in the first place.

Even if it's just this one family who did not receive any explanation because they were not home when the letter was delivered, it still doesn't explain why other households were also under the impression that they were being evicted. And of course, if the people directly affected by this census survey believe that they're being evicted when they're not, you can't blame neighbours, fellow residents of Pulau Ubin, and nosy visitors from the mainland for taking their word for it.

From Facebook:
Marc Wang
The news report would be better if a more complete view is presented. This is only a one-sided view from the government.

The report is silent on the other viewpoint -the affected Ubin residents themselves. Can just hope the residents don't feel they are evicted as the government claimed.
How did this colossal misunderstanding come about? Were any of the letters written in Malay to begin with? And if government representatives did actually pay a visit, were the explanations done in Malay or English?

I don't want to make any assumptions here, but I mean, I'm sure that among rural communities, there is some level of suspicion and mistrust of people from the government, especially those in charge of land ownership. I was not around during the early years of our nation's growth, and know nothing of how other kampungs and communities were uprooted and moved into public housing estates, but I believe that we have elders among us who would have experienced such displacement initiated by similar circumstances - an official letter and a visit from the government. Even if the villagers at Kampung Melayu did not go through such a process, there might have been family members or friends, even fellow residents on other parts of Ubin, who were forced to move. Would it have helped if a familiar face they trusted, like the person who still delivers the mail, had been approached to help in interpretation?

Which brings us to some important words in the letter: Adventure Park and Resettlement Benefits.

Adventure Time

With a proportion of Singapore's population already harbouring resentment and unhappiness over other issues, and the long-standing perception that priceless heritage and treasured memories were continually being erased in the pursuit of economic growth, I think this is how many interpreted the purpose of this 'Adventure Park' (before its true nature was further explained):

1. Evict residents of Pulau Ubin
2. Build Adventure Park
3. ????
4. PROFIT!!!!

The words 'Adventure Park' are poorly-defined to begin with. I'm not surprised that many people thought that it referred to a commercial venture. After all, places like the Megazip on Sentosa and Forest Adventure at Bedok Reservoir immediately come to mind.

Facilities for the park, which included cycling and hiking trails and campsites, were subsequently completed between 1994 and 2005. (Straits Times)

These households were previously informed, as early as in 1993, that they would be affected by a public development project, which included the development of a recreation park.

To align with the rustic nature of Pulau Ubin and its planning intention, outdoor adventure elements were included in the recreation park, for example, trails for cycling and hiking, campsites and amenities like shelters and toilets.

These facilities were completed in phases between 1994 and 2005, and allowed more people to explore the island and enjoy its natural landscape.

The Ketam Mountain Bike Park was subsequently launched in 2008.

Well, not exactly.

In this case, terminology did not work in the authorities' favour.

And in light of recent news, some people appeared to believe that more nefarious plans were afoot.

Resettlement or Acquisition?

The original letters mentioned the need to inspect documents so as to determine eligibility for resettlement benefits. What I now understand is that if the villagers qualify for these benefits, they will be given a sum of money (the so-called 'resettlement benefits'). They can however choose to remain where they are, provided they obtain the Temporary Occupation Licence (TOL) and pay the rent.

So in a sense, it's not exactly eviction and payment of resettlement benefits per se, but perhaps more accurately seen as land acquisition, with the money representing a formal transfer of ownership to the state.

Finishing the job after 20 years?

Remember that the villagers were first informed about development of the 'Adventure Park' back in 1993. Work was completed years ago, and it appears that this latest census survey is meant to check on the status of the households that had yet to claim their resettlement benefits.

Why did it take 20 years to notice this discrepancy? And after so many years, how many of the residents would have remembered the original exercise? And I think a lot of people are still baffled by the discrepancy in dates; why was the Cut-off Date for resettlement benefits written down as 2009, when it's already 2013?

I'm reproducing a comment thread that took place on Ria's Facebook page, because I think there's a lot of important information that really helps everyone understand what exactly is going on.
Ria Tan
Thanks to Zengkun Feng for the heads up on the joint statement by MND and SLA: "Residents on Pulau Ubin will not be evicted and there are no plans to develop a new adventure park on the island"

Jinwen Jinny Chen
Thanks for the clarification! But why do they suddenly need to pay rent?

Zengkun Feng
The land was bought over by the state when they wanted to develop the recreation park, so the land changed from private to state-owned. That's why they have to pay rent now (but are also eligible for the pay-out from the state if they have the legal ownership documents). Yeah that point wasn't very clear, my bad!

Jinwen Jinny Chen
Hmm but wasn't the private land owned by the residents before?

Zengkun Feng
Yep. The households owned the private land before. The authorities made them and other households an offer to buy over their land in 1990s, but these 22 households never replied to the offer. The state then took over the land in name, but didn't pay the households for their land or start charging them rent -- I guess the state just forgot to follow-up after the initial offer. So when the SLA did their recent review they realised the oversight, and now they're following up. Essentially it's a forced sale of land (similar to the land acquisitions for the North-South Expressway).

Jinwen Jinny Chen
ah i see.. that just makes it slightly less problematic right..... Thanks for finding out all these anyway!

Tan Sijie
Any idea what is the range of the rent? I know some villagers have been living there since they were young and I know at least one of them who isn't married.

To be honest, the rent isn't going to help much with their already low income from whatever they earn. I always feel so happy hearing their childhood stories from them...

Zengkun Feng
Range of rent has not been determined yet, that's part of the current survey, which will be finished in June. Also -- exactly, about their low income. The rent will be a real shame, although hopefully the state payout for the land will help a bit.

Tan Sijie
So if they have the legal ownership docs, they are eligible for the pay-out right?

I don't that supposedly is the resettlement benefits? If pay out, do they still get to live on the land, just that they have to pay rent?

I'm just thinking that if this is that confusing to us, what about the aged villagers...?

Zengkun Feng
Yes, if they have legal documents they can get the pay-out. They can still stay on (but must pay rent if they do). The "resettlement" benefit is very poorly named -- they should have just called it a land acquisition or something like that.

Actually the whole original notice document is very poorly written, which is why everyone got confused.

Tan Sijie
Ah... so those who got the notice are probably legal owners hence getting the resettlement benefits aka pay out? They can choose to stay but have to pay rent right?

And yes... the notice is indeed very poorly written. Seems like no thoughts were put in it... *sigh*

Ivan Kwan (myself)
Little wonder then that everyone (including the villagers themselves) has been confused. Sigh.

Zengkun Feng
Yep. Those who got the notice are probably legal owners, but part of the new survey is to check they all have their legal documents just in case.

Tan Sijie
Thanks for clarifying. This is so much clearer. I'll probably be heading down to Ubin next week to talk to the villagers I know.

Joseph Chun
If the State "forgot to follow-up" for 20 years, I imagine the notice of acquisition would have lapsed by now. Perhaps a new notice of acquisition needs to be issued, subject to a fresh consideration of whether the need for acquisition now exists. For example, is the declared purpose of building an adventure park still a valid one? It seems kind of strange that the government is relying on a 20 year old reason to enforce an old notice.

Zengkun Feng
The state has already built everything it wanted back then, which is why the affected houses are so close to the tarmac roads for biking, I imagine. It just hasn't paid the villagers for their land. (And they also haven't started charging rent.)

Joseph Chun
I see. Thanks. So the "adventure park" has already been built. The State took land it eventually did not need, forgot to pay for it, and now wants to pay for it and charge rent. Do you know if the State plans to pay compensation based on 1993 prices and start charging rent based on 2013 market rents?

Zengkun Feng
Part of the current survey is to determine the size of the compensation, but no other details were given at this time. I honestly don't think they can even contemplate pulling a trick like that, but definitely the final payouts will be something to keep an eye on.

Joseph Chun
Yeah, I think the minimum decent thing, assuming the villagers were entitled to compensation in 1993 but did not get it, would be to get the compensation adjusted to today's value. An even more decent thing to do, of course, would be to return the land since it is no longer needed :).

Another thought that occurred to me is that the legal proof of ownership might have already been submitted to the State in 1993, so the villagers may not have retained proof of ownership. Hope the State considers such cases compassionately.

Thank for the information, Zengkun. I hope the government, with the help of mainstream media, plan their communication strategies better in future. It does not require President scholars to anticipate that when confusing HDB clearance letters referring to a long forgotten "adventure park" adventure that took place 20 years ago are sent out to villagers, and the government and mainstream media keeps silent and does not explain what is going on, there is going to be much confusion and concern amongst citizens who care about the future of Ubin, not to mention the villagers themselves. The days of blind faith in the absence of information are over.

Where do we go from here?

I have been told that over the weekend and next week, there are people who will be visiting their friends in Pulau Ubin to find out more information from the affected residents, so hopefully we'll be able to obtain more first-hand accounts soon.

The planned eviction might have been a false alarm this time, but I am glad that it's led to such an outpouring of support from both Singaporeans and foreigners living in Singapore for retaining Ubin as a rustic getaway.

In the event that Ubin is genuinely under threat, it gives me hope that there are many out there who understand its value and importance as part of our cultural and natural heritage, and who are willing to express their opinions and make their voices heard.

Ubin is occasionally the victim of silly ideas suggested in letters to the press, which have included in the past, building a racing track on the island, and creating a reservoir by connecting Ubin to Tekong and Changi. Perhaps a far more insidious threat would be for Ubin to fall into neglect from a lack of visitors, resulting in a decline in income opportunities for the locals. Without the support of mainlanders like us, who pay for the bumboat rides, rent bicycles and charter vans as transport around the island, and purchase food and drinks, many of Ubin's residents might not be able to sustain their way of life. And while my personal interests lie more towards the protection of biodiversity, I'm fully aware that in many ways, retaining the kampungs instead of clearing them for urban development is intricately linked to the continued survival of much of the island's flora and fauna.

Here are some other sites that have discussed this matter. A Google search or a browse through the Facebook pages of some of the popular mainstream and alternative media sites will reveal many more discussions.

Bertha Harian
Straits Perspective
Justin Peter
Everything Also Complain
Singapore Notes
The Online Citizen

Finally, if you'd like to find out more about the communities that were lost over the course of our nation's growth and development, Remember Singapore has a list of kampungs that once stood (or still manage to stand) in Singapore.