THE planned construction of the Cross Island Line (CRL) through the centre of the nation presents us with the difficult task of deciding between two unpalatable alternatives, the difficulty of which has tempted many to leave the decision up to the government. For instance, Mdm Ang Hong wrote in a letter to the Straits Times:
“The least we can do is let the Government carry out its works and weigh the various factors on what works best for Singaporeans. If, at the end of the day, the decision is to take away homes, then we will at least know the matter was studied carefully.”
Mdm Hong believes that the government is best suited to make a complex decision such as this, and she believes that any decision it makes will be a fair one. But this places too much faith in the state. Complex decisions require more input from citizens, not less. Making a controversial decision increases the risk of unfairness, it doesn’t decrease it. Greater transparency and accountability are therefore required.
In other words, it is precisely because the decision is so difficult to make, because the stakes are so high, and because the considerations involved are so complex, that the government has neither the authority nor the ability to make the decision on its own.
Under the first alignment option, the line will pass under the nature reserve. The main question is whether we should risk doing irreparable damage to an important nature reserve to save S$2 billion (US$1.4 billion) and reduce travel times by four minutes.
Under the second alignment option, the line will skirt around the nature reserve. The main question is whether we should uproot affected residents from their homes in order to avoid the risk of doing irreparable damage to the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR), and whether the S$2 billion in costs may in fact be a worthwhile investment that creates jobs and connects more residents.
The rules that govern the cost-benefit analysis
The release of phase one of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report sparked a heated debate that has tended to oversimplify the options. In an earlier piece, I argued that overreliance on the concept of “trade-offs” creates three problems in the way we approach the issue. First, it imposes the zero-sum assumption that environmental conservation and economic progress are irreconcilable goals when they may in fact be mutually compatible.
Second, it encourages us to see conservationists as self-interested actors working to preserve the environment because they are nature lovers rather than see that their aim is to preserve the environment for all of us and our future generations.
Third, it imposes fixed, usually narrow, terms onto the debate, to the exclusion of other considerations (especially unquantifiable ones), such as the impact the second alignment option would have on home owners.
The problem, however, is that it is precisely the task of the LTA to think in terms of trade-offs — or in the language of bureaucracy, to perform a cost-benefit analysis. Indeed, this rationalised form of decision making (one that relies heavily on fixed rules to maximise efficiency) is highly favoured by our state because it enables it to manage an otherwise unruly and divisive society. But this comes at a cost. The outcomes are seldom socially equitable because the rules are not as impartial as they seem. Just take for instance how English-speaking Chinese have done disproportionately well in Singapore because the language of administration, a holdover from British rule, was English, and because the ruling party was composed primarily of English-educated Chinese.
Nonetheless, the solution is not to eschew a cost-benefit analysis entirely but to be transparent about how it is conducted so that the rules themselves which underpin the analysis may be questioned and modified. Thus, we may still approach the issue in terms of trade-offs (and continue using that trite term if we really must) as long as we avoid its pitfalls.
This will be a step forward but it is still not enough. The high stakes and the complexity of the considerations involved mean that in addition to being transparent, the government must also be democratic in its conduct of the cost-benefit analysis.
Because of the difficult nature of the CRL decision, the government cannot claim to have conducted an accurate cost-benefit analysis if it fails to genuinely engage the public. For instance, how will it measure the cost of losing our natural heritage when the value is a subjective one which can only be discerned by hearing the people’s views? How do we measure the importance of keeping a vital part of Singapore for future generations if we foreclose debate on these issues by saying we should just let the government decide?
It is often argued that since the technical details are incomprehensible to the layman, there is no point in explaining everything. And indeed this continues to be the approach taken by the LTA and mainstream news outlets. So far, most people only know of the 1000-page risk assessment as a one word summary: Moderate. But that begs the question. What does Moderate mean? How is that assessment arrived at? Is the report reliable? If we can’t answer these questions now, how will we make sense of the far more complex phase II of the EIA when it is completed at the end of the year?
If the whole point is to provide citizens with the information they need to participate meaningfully in the debate, then it is precisely because the issue involves great levels of technicality that extra effort must be made to explain these things to citizens. It is not enough to put the 1,000-page document online, spokespersons and the media must help to explain it, especially the assumptions that underpin the conclusion—the most significant of which is the assumption that mitigation measures and contingency plans will be adhered to and will work effectively.
Failure to do so not only hinders informed debate, it also compounds fears that the government is hiding something, or that it is not acting in the people’s interest. And if and when unexpected events occur, as they most likely will in a construction operation of this magnitude, much of the blame will be heaped on the government, even if it does not deserve it. The potential political cost of this should make any political party in a democratic country quiver. Judging by the forum letters to the mainstream news outlets so far, there has been more smoke than light, more speculation than facts.
There is an opportunity here to do things differently than before. Let the people make the decision, tap into their collective wisdom, and if things go south, at least the political damage to the government will be limited.