JTC Corporation officer and his then-supervisor plead guilty to causing illegal clearing of Kranji woodland
Neo Jek Lin and his supervisor Chong Pui Chih directed the contractor to go ahead with the felling of trees without putting in place wildlife and environmental management measures as they were worried the project would be delayed even further.
SINGAPORE: A JTC Corporation officer and his then-supervisor pleaded guilty on Friday (Nov 4) to their roles in causing the illegal clearing of a woodland in Kranji.
They had done so as the development project in that area was already delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and they were worried that it would drag further if they fulfilled the conditions required by the National Parks Board (NParks) before carrying out tree felling.
A total of 362 trees with girths of more than 1m were cut down before steps were taken to manage wildlife in the area.
Chong Pui Chih, 47, pleaded guilty to three charges, with another four taken into consideration. She was then a deputy director at JTC and has since left the company.
Her subordinate at the time Neo Jek Lin, 44, pleaded guilty to four charges. Another four charges will be considered in sentencing. He was a senior project manager with JTC and is currently suspended.
The court heard that the Government announced in March 2019 that a plot of land at Kranji Close and Kranji Road would be set aside for the development of an Agri-Food Innovation Park.
The park was to house high-tech farming and research and development activities such as indoor plant factories, insect farms and animal feed production facilities.
BACKGROUND TO THE OFFENCES
JTC was appointed as the project owner and developing agency for this park, and was to engage consultants and contractors to plan, design and execute the related works.
JTC appointed Neo as the project manager for the park, with Chong as his direct supervisor. JTC also engaged two contractors for various construction works: Shuan Huat Tractor Services and Huationg Contractor.
The Kranji site is about 18.4 hectares - roughly the size of 26 football fields - divided into 10 plots. The planned development required the felling of existing trees, but approval was required for the felling of any tree with a girth exceeding 1m growing on any vacant land.
On Jul 22, 2019, the qualified person in the project submitted a set of partial plans for the site with a tree survey plan to NParks, seeking approval to fell trees in three plots: Plots 4, 5 and 9.
NParks responded to the submission on Aug 1, 2019, asking for updated tree felling plans and all relevant cross-sections of proposed earthworks and new roads.
NParks approved the felling of trees in plots 4, 5 and 9 on Aug 29, 2019. However, in the course of the exchanges between NParks and the qualified person, NParks realised that the development of the entire project would involve the creation of a temporary drain designed to discharge water from surface run-off into Sungei Pang Sua, a natural waterway nearby.
NParks had concerns about the possible adverse impact to the environment as a result of construction activities at the area.
On Jun 26, 2020, NParks directed those involved in the project to address NParks on the anticipated environmental impact of the project, as well as any proposals to mitigate the impact.
The qualified person consulted with Chong and the other co-accused persons before submitting the required form to NParks on Aug 5, 2020.
On Aug 21, 2020, NParks replied to the form submission, stating that the proposed development would result in the clearance of a significant forested patch. This could potentially displace wildlife if suitable measures were not put in place.
NParks attached a form containing its assessment by technical agencies for public projects, or Form B, in its email reply. JTC was directed to implement multiple measures contained in Form B to safeguard the wildlife, public safety and health, and ecosystems.
After this, Chong and Neo had various meetings with those involved in the project. They discussed the impact of the Form B wildlife-related requirements on the timeline of completing the development of the Kranji project.
They knew that the project had already been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in works being halted from Apr 7, 2020 to Aug 3, 2020.
As they were worried that the project would be delayed further, Chong and Neo decided to continue the tree felling and site clearance works while efforts were made concurrently to satisfy the Form B requirements.
As a result, Hua Tiong Contractor was instructed to perform tree felling works at various plots in Kranji. The contractor was not told about Form B.
A total of 362 trees exceeding girths of 1m were cut down as a result.
The incident came to public attention when Facebook user Brice Li posted aerial photos showing swathes of cleared land in the area on Feb 14 last year. The illegal clearance of the woodland drew shock and disappointment from nature advocates.
Two days later, JTC said that land earmarked for the development of the Kranji Agri-Food Innovation Park had been "erroneously" cleared. It instructed the contractor to stop all clearing works immediately and issued the firm a stern warning.
PROSECUTION SEEKS FINES FOR PAIR
Deputy Public Prosecutor Nicholas Khoo asked for a fine of S$34,000 for Neo and a fine of S$28,000 for Chong. He said the number of trees cut here was “enormous”, with sustained conduct and high potential harm.
He pointed to a past case involving a single rambutan tree in a tree conservation area on a private development, where the tree was of low retention value. When a single tree was cut in an unauthorised manner, the court imposed a fine of S$5,000, he said.
The judge pointed out that the land was intended to be cleared in this case, and that the harm was in the fact that measures to safeguard wildlife, public safety and health and ecosystems were not put in place before the land was cleared.
Mr Khoo acknowledged this, adding that approval for the trees to be cut would have eventually been granted by NParks.
“The harm caused in this case is the failure to allow for proper environmental studies to be done to ensure that the wildlife as well as any flora or fauna could be properly managed such as the measures that were identified by NParks,” he said.
He said a message must be sent to would-be offenders that commercial considerations cannot trump or override any regulatory requirements, and that offenders who do that will be punished in a deterrent manner.
NEO UNDER STRESS WITH MULTIPLE PROJECTS: DEFENCE
Defence lawyer Raphael Louis said the fine sought by the prosecution for his client Neo was high, but that his client was willing to accept the punishment.
He said Neo was employed by JTC since 2014, calling him a “highly reliable employee” who completed several important projects.
He was the project manager in this case, with his primary role being to work with consultants and contractors to ensure the land was prepared in time to be handed over to the incoming companies.
“During the process, your honour, he was under a lot of stress, because he (was given) short notice to manage this new requirement to make these sufficient submissions to NParks and get the approval,” said Mr Louis.
He said Neo faced many challenges and had to concurrently oversee four other JTC infrastructure projects.
“He was fighting against a tight timeline. He’s not giving any excuses - he agrees that due processes should have been followed,” said Mr Louis. He added that his client was very remorseful and that there was no corruption in this case.
Chong’s lawyer, Senior Counsel Sreeni Narayanan, asked for a fine of S$18,000 instead. He said Chong and her colleagues were trying to catch up with work after the “circuit breaker” in 2020.
He said Chong and her family have been “traumatised” and that she is portrayed as a bad person. He said she volunteers with several causes including with the Chinese Development Assistance Council.
The pair will return to court at a later date for sentencing.