Six minutes to save Singapore’s environment

MARCH 6 — Six minutes. What can you accomplish in six minutes? It often takes me longer to brush my teeth in the mornings or on some days to even clamber out of bed. How much is saving six minutes a day worth?

If you’re paid somewhere around Singapore’s median salary of S$3,000-4,000 (RM8,865-11,819) per month then the answer is six minutes is worth around S$2 (RM5.90) as your hourly rate of pay works out in the vicinity of S$20 (RM59), though that doesn’t take into account deductions.

I guess it is relative. Some people are happy to pay a little extra to disembark first on a budget flight, others are willing to splurge on a private clinic over the government polyclinic because they can’t stand the wait.

Whatever six minutes is worth to you, I don’t think it is worth risking the biodiversity of Singapore’s Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR).

Basically as our city state sets up its 50km Cross Island Line (CRL), an ambitious project to improve connectivity between the island’s east and west, planners face a major dilemma.

Commuters exit and enter a subway train at the Raffles Place Mass Rapit Transport station in Singapore. — Picture from AFP
Commuters exit and enter a subway train at the Raffles Place Mass Rapit Transport station in Singapore. — Picture from AFP

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One proposed route for the line (the shortest and most direct) will take it through the CCNR — the largest nature reserve in Singapore.

The second route will skirt the reserve. This means no drilling and digging will take place in one of the last pockets in Singapore that remains a habitat for the branded leaf monkey, the sunda pangolin and the pleasingly named slow loris, among hundreds of other species.

But the second longer route will add 5km and six minutes to the journey and herein lies the problem. While there is a lot of talk surrounding the importance of nature and biodiversity, are we really willing to wait six minutes a day for a bunch of lorises and monkeys?

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan seems quite certain we aren’t. In response to a question about the two proposed alignments he answered: “I’m not sure if we can brush aside extra six minutes just like that because for MRT commuters, extra half a minute is terrible,” Khaw said on behalf of commuters everywhere.

“Because when the train has a disruption and there’s an extra minute of delay, within that minute (commuters) send out maybe 100 tweets to flame LTA or SMRT,” he said.

I am mostly amused by this train of thought. If a journey takes 26 minutes, it takes 26 minutes. You set out from home knowing it takes 26 minutes. This is not a disruption; unlike a delay which is unexpected and unplanned and hence the “flaming.”

To me, the implied sentiment is Singaporeans want efficiency at all costs but I don’t agree and I am heartened by the pushback online. There has actually been considerable opposition to the plan to cut through the island’s green heart.

While I don’t doubt the importance of the rail project — strengthening east-west linkages is a very legitimate priority — it does not trump our need to protect the fragile balance of life on what is barely a speck on the world map.

From the perspective of the planners and various authorities that must approve a project on this scale, why would a few angry tweets really matter more than a sustainable alternative? As a nation, one of our defining values has been a commitment to striking a balance between rapid development and enlightened urban planning that has respected our green spaces.

Singapore is not just an economic success. It’s a green and well-planned economic success — a garden city among Asia’s countless smog-infused concrete jungles.

This is part of our national brand and even our national heritage and if the ethos of staying green does not persuade you there is also the simple fact six minutes is not that long. As the online news portal, points out in their list: 13 things that prove Singaporeans can and do often wait longer than six minutes for.

My favourites on that list being: CPF withdrawal — definitely longer than six minutes and the fact that during last year’s massive train breakdown, Singaporeans waited 3.5 hours for train services on the NSEWL to resume.

Sure, we complained a lot, and people probably sent “hundreds of tweets”, but to be fair, 3.5 hours is 210 minutes, which is definitely a lot longer than six and remember, that’s an unplanned delay — that is a disruption.

The point is as long as the trains are comfortable and run on time so I can plan my journey and my day, I will manage easily whether it takes 20 minutes or 26. Besides, we will spend the extra time just staring at our phones anyway but if those few more minutes on Facebook mean the slow lorises can keep being slow without having to worry if the next train is going to shake them off their trees, I think that is time well-spent.

I think (and hope) most other Singaporeans would not mind doing the same.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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