Group told to clear out 'farm' on state land

Clementi folk, who have tended to garden for years, hope for reprieve
Grace Chua Straits Times 10 Mar 12;

FOR three decades, a group of Clementi residents have tended to a garden in their neighbourhood, coaxing harvests of bittergourd, sweet potato and jackfruit from the soil, mostly for their own dinner tables.

But their 'farm' sits on state land.

On Tuesday, they were told by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) to clear out by March 20 - in two weeks.

The plot in question is bounded by a portion of the former Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) railway line, the Sungei Ulu Pandan canal, Clementi Avenue 4 and Clementi Avenue 6.

A notice from the SLA has been posted on the door of the outhouse on the farm, announcing that these 'farmers' had trespassed on state land by erecting an illegal structure and cultivating crops illegally.

The notice also pointed out that 'other items' had been placed on state land without approval, in an apparent reference to a small shrine, a tool shed and several fish ponds.

Asked why it was taking action now, the SLA, in a joint statement with the Urban Redevelopment Authority, replied that a resident in the vicinity had reported that the frequent burning of leaves in the area had made the air acrid, creating discomfort especially for her children who have asthma.

The SLA said it looked into the complaint and found burnt patches of ground, the crops and unauthorised structures, so it posted the eviction notices.

'Going forward, the SLA will consider and discuss with grassroots organisations whether and what arrangements can be put in place to allow community use of the land,' said the statement.

It added, however, that the 'disamenities' caused by the farming had to be taken into account.

The SLA has the law on its side.

The State Lands Encroachment Act states that those who 'unlawfully enter into possession of any state land, either by residing or by erecting any building or hut thereon or by clearing, enclosing or cultivating any part thereof' shall be guilty of an offence. Conviction brings a fine of up to $5,000, a jail term of up to six months or both.

Madam Siow Siew Eng, 72, who is at the farm almost daily, said officers turned up and took down her details. Asked how she felt about the eviction, she patted her chest and said 'sim tiah', meaning 'heart pain' in Hokkien.

She said she is not planting anything new, and will just harvest what is there.

The group of 'urban farmers', mostly elderly, have been pottering on the farm long enough to have seen a new generation of them turn up to work the soil.

Madam Siow herself took over her patch from her godfather, now in his 80s and unable to walk.

Clementi resident Lester Yeong, a 35-year-old laboratory manager, said his father has farmed there in the two years since he retired, surrounded by his grandchildren, who go there to play.

Mr Yeong and others have asked the SLA for the gardening to be permitted until the land is needed for other uses, and for the current users to pay a nominal fee for a temporary occupancy permit.

He said he is meeting his MP, Ms Sim Ann, next week to discuss the issue.

Mr Leong Kwok Peng of the Green Corridor civic interest group looking to preserve the former KTM railway stretch, said an abandoned railway bridge linking Sunset Way to Clementi had significant heritage value, as does that section of the track, which was a branch of the Tanjong Pagar-Woodlands line that became disused more than 20 years ago.

Mr Leong called for the farmers to be allowed to continue their activity, but said the plot should be a community space, open to all, not just the farmers.

Clementi residents say the farm, there since the late 1970s, is something of a neighbourhood institution.

Housewife Jacinta Conceicao, 50, said: 'It's part of the scenery for us. We have the railway track, we have the river and we have this farm - it makes our neighbourhood unique in this way.'