Overseas Family School in limbo over Pasir Ris site

Tan Weizhen Today Online 18 Apr 13;

SINGAPORE — The protracted discussions between the Government and a group of residents seeking to preserve a 5-hectare woodland in Pasir Ris have put one of the biggest international schools here in a pickle.

The Overseas Family School has to move out of its existing premises on Paterson Road by 2015 because of construction of the Thomson MRT Line.

TODAY understands that the school had put in a proposal for the 4-ha Pasir Ris site under the Economic Development Board’s (EDB) request-for-interest exercise which ended in July last year.

However, to date, the Government has not granted approval, with the Ministry of National Development (MND) and some its agencies engaging the Pasir Ris residents over the last nine months. The residents had started a petition to save the forested patch of land which is home to several endangered bird species. The woodland is the size of two football fields and is flanked by Pasir Ris Drive 3, Elias Road and Pasir Ris Heights.

The authorities had previously told the residents that the site was earmarked for an unnamed international school but they did not provide more details, such as whether it would be a new school or an existing one that had to be relocated.

Property analysts said the Overseas Family School would be racing against time to build a new school by 2015. They noted that it would take about two to three years to develop a plot of land and build a school, and there are limited alternative sites that can permanently house the school’s 3,750 students.

The school said as much in January in its Initial Public Offering (IPO) prospectus. The money raised from the IPO was to be used for building a new campus.

In the prospectus, the school warned investors that in the event that it is “not able to complete the construction of our new school campus before the expiry of the lease extension” of its existing site on June 30, 2015, it may be required to secure “alternative temporary premises”. It added that such a scenario “may also result in a decline in student enrolment”.

When contacted, the Overseas Family School declined comment. Responding to TODAY’s queries, an MND spokesman would only say the proposal for school use at the Pasir Ris plot is “currently being assessed and details will be made known once ready”.

An EDB spokesman said in the meantime, the agency “will continue to work with international schools to ensure there are sufficient high quality international school places available”. He added: “This is important to support the investments of global companies to grow in and from Singapore.”

TODAY understands that three sites, in Pasir Ris, Depot Road area and Punggol, were put up during the EDB’s request-for-interest exercise. However, the sites at Depot Road and Punggol are not large enough to accommodate the Overseas Family School.

The property analysts said that one option is to temporarily house the Overseas Family School in old primary or secondary school buildings, which typically can hold not more than 1,000 students each. This means that the international school might have to reduce enrolment or house its students at different locations.

Mr Colin Tan, Head of Research and Consultancy at Chesterton Suntec International, noted the designs for schools have to be “more customised” and there is “less scope for pre-fabrication which would have saved time”. “There are also few other vacant sites which are suitable — traffic conditions must be right to accommodate 4,000 students, for instance,” he said.

Mr Nicholas Mak, Executive Director at SLP International Property Consultants, said the Government is in an unenviable position.

Nevertheless, he noted that it was “a little unusual for the Government to put off the development of a land parcel if there is a real need for a new development”. While he felt the Government should consult the parties involved, he questioned if a precedent would be set if the authorities put off development of the Pasir Ris woodland.

He said: “If word gets out that the authorities will delay (the development of a plot of land) just because of some special interest groups, where does this leave us?”

Ms Cherry Fong, a representative of the Pasir Ris Greenbelt Committee set up by residents to preserve the woodland, said the group has “consistently maintained a sensible rationale” for the preservation of the area.

Adding that they have made clear their position on the adverse impact of the destruction of the woodland, she said: “We have also made it categorically clear that there are no justiciable grounds for the authorities to clear the Pasir Ris greenbelt at all for whatever reason, whether it is to build an international school or for that matter any other urban development like private condominiums, which are sheer commercial profit-driven enterprises.”

MND: Site currently zoned as ‘residential’
Tan Weizhen Today Online 18 Apr 13;

In an email last month to the Pasir Ris residents seeking to save the woodland, the Ministry of National Development (MND) said that the forested area is “not sufficiently unique” to be recommended to be preserved as a park or nature reserve. Nevertheless, there are “no plans to clear” the plot of land until the site is rezoned and awarded to a developer, it said.

The MND said that following feedback from the residents, a second — and more detailed — environment survey was conducted and the National Parks Board assessed that the existing nature reserves “generally contain about three or four times the bird diversity, and seven to 10 times the plant diversity as compared to the subject site in Pasir Ris”. It said: “Secondary forests are already represented as an ecosystem within the existing Nature Reserves.”

The contents of the email was put up on the Facebook page of the Pasir Ris Greenbelt Committee, which was formed by a group of Pasir Ris residents seeking to preserve the forested area.

The MND said that the site is currently zoned as “residential” for development. It added: “It will need to be rezoned to ‘Educational Institution’ before a school can be approved at this location. Residents will have an opportunity to express their views to the Minister for National Development on any proposed rezoning for the site, and a panel of persons will be appointed to hear the representation.”

In its response, which was also put up on the Facebook page, the committee claimed that in November last year, representatives from the MND and the Urban Redevelopment Authority had informed the residents that it was confirmed that the international school would be set up in the area but the authorities were unable to release the name or any other details yet. The residents were also given the impression that the MND “is already in discussion with the international school”, the committee claimed.

It also criticised the authorities’ “lack of sincerity” in engaging with the residents and described the invitation to air their views as “nothing short of a formality”.