SINGAPORE: Two JTC Corporation officers are among three people who were on Friday (Apr 22) charged with causing the illegal clearance of trees at a woodland in Kranji.
Chong Pui Chih, 46, and Neo Jek Lin, 44, were given seven charges under the Parks and Trees Act. Neo also received an eighth charge under the Wildlife Act.
Chong was a deputy director in JTC while her subordinate Neo was a senior project manager at the time of the offences in 2020 and 2021.
The third person charged was Tan See Chee, 63, a superintending officer of contracts at CPG Consultants at the time.
A fourth individual, Jimmy Liu Wing Tim, 62, is expected to be charged at a later date as he was medically unfit to attend court on Friday. He was a superintending officer's representative at CPG Consultants.
Chong, Neo and Tan are accused of conspiring with each other and Liu to cause Huationg Contractor to illegally cut down trees without the approval of the Commissioner of Parks and Recreation.
To this end, sometime before Jan 13, 2021, Huationg Contractor allegedly cut down the trees at several plots in Kranji Agri-Food Innovation Park. The location of the incident was given as Mukim No 11 Kranji Close/Kranji Road.
Two of Chong's charges were for making documents that contained falsehood to obtain approval from the Commissioner of Parks and Recreation.
On Nov 19, 2020, she allegedly drafted and sent an email seeking approval from the National Parks Board (NParks) to start clearance works at plot 1 of Kranji Agri-Food Innovation Park.
On Jan 12, 2021, she allegedly made a PowerPoint presentation seeking approval from NParks to start land clearance works at plots 2, 3 and road 1 of Kranji Agri-Food Innovation Park concurrently while a fauna baseline study was conducted.
These were purportedly false as clearance works at the plots had already started prior to Nov 19, 2020 and Jan 12, 2021 respectively, according to the charge sheets.
Neo faces similar charges, with an additional charge of hindering the Director-General of Wildlife Management from exercising powers to stop the clearance works at Kranji Agri-Food Innovation Park.
He is accused of instructing Liu to send an email to NParks containing a schedule for the clearance works at the site on Sep 25, 2020, in reply to NParks' request for information.
The email to NParks purportedly represented that clearance works had only started on plot 10-1 of the site.
However, Neo allegedly knew that clearance works had started on other plots of the site "without the implementation of any wildlife-related measures", stated charge sheets.
The illegal clearance of the woodland drew shock and disappointment from nature advocates. 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.
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.
In March this year, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing, who was Minister for Trade and Industry (MTI) at the time of the incident, said two officers from JTC had given "inaccurate information" to their superiors about the cleared woodland.
Mr Chan said at the time: "There is a natural follow-up question: 'Why did the officers do this?'"
He added that had procedures been followed, approval would likely have been given to clear the land "subject to necessary conditions being met".
Mr Chan also said then that the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau had concluded that no corruption was involved.
The process to obtain approval from the Commissioner of Parks and Recreation for felling trees involves a qualified person submitting an application for development control or building plan approval to NParks.
Apart from this, there may also be a need for further wildlife-related measures. The Director-General of Wildlife Management may direct such measures on development works at any time as necessary, which may include environmental studies or mitigation measures.
Those who cut a tree with a girth of more than 1m growing on vacant land without the approval of the Commissioner of Parks and Recreation can be fined up to S$50,000.
The punishment for producing a false document to obtain approval from the Commissioner of Parks and Recreation is a fine of up to S$30,000.
The punishment for hindering the Director-General of Wildlife Management from exercising powers without reasonable excuse is up to a year's imprisonment, a fine of up to S$10,000 or both.
JTC said on Friday that as the matter is before the courts, it is premature to conclude "if and what disciplinary actions should be taken against those involved", adding that it takes a serious view of this incident.
It said that Neo Jek Lin is still with JTC and has been suspended, while Chong Pui Chih is no longer employed there.