Kampung spirit alive in Lim Chu Kang

Aw Cheng Wei The Straits Times AsiaOne 23 Nov 14;

It was the wild, wild (north)west of Singapore until about 20 years ago, before weeds were cleared and land put under cultivation.

Deep inside Lim Chu Kang, an area was carved out for farming, one of six major farming areas on this highly built-up island.

Today, more than 62 farms can be found in this place marked by thick foliage and winding, narrow roads, close to military

But in just three years' time, the first of these farms will be uprooted to make way for military uses, it was announced last month. By 2021, 62 farms will all have moved, as ploughshares make way for arms.

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) said the area's "meaningful size" and location made it an apt replacement for the current training land the Ministry of Defence is giving up for the development of Tengah New Town, which is expected to host 55,000 homes in about two to four years. AVA did not reply to Straits Times queries about the actual size of the area.

As if portending the impending end of the Lim Chu Kang farms, the road to these farms feels ominous: Tree canopies on both sides of the road arch towards each other, almost touching, blocking out sunlight.

Not far away, Singapore's largest cemetery - Choa Chu Kang Cemetery - looms.

To get to the farms, one heads north of the cemetery and passes Singapore Armour Centre at Sungei Gedong to reach a 2km stretch of road.

On its right are the snaking paths leading to the nine lanes of Lim Chu Kang Road. Pass the 2km mark and one hits a coast guard base and a jetty.

The area is deserted enough for bus drivers of service 975, the only one that plies there, to park and stop for a smoke before the return trip to Bukit Panjang. Their only company is the occasional stray dog.

These days, besides the smoke from cigarettes or the haze from Indonesia, an air of unhappiness hangs over rows of greens like chye sim and nai bai.

Most of the 10 farmers The Straits Times spoke to were shocked that they could no longer extend their leases, calling this a step backwards in food security.

An overwhelming 90 per cent of food in Singapore is imported, they said. The farmers, whose plots are about 3ha to 4 ha, said they have been offered the option of a move to smaller plots at Sungei Tengah and another part of Lim Chu Kang, far from the current farming areas. But the shorter leases may lead some farmers to call it a day.

Previously, they held on to their land for 20 years - which they considered "still too short for multimillion-dollar decisions". The new arrangement comes with a confirmed lease for just 10 years, with the promise of another decade's extension if they produced enough.

Ironically, Singapore had just risen 11 places to finish fifth in a world ranking of countries' food security based on its availability, affordability, quality and safety released in September.

Stable local production was a reason for the improved ranking, said National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan.

The bad news from the Singapore Land Authority - relayed to the farmers in a white, crisp envelope in September - comes even as farmers see more interest in local produce.

For example, at least 8,000 urbanites trooped out to the countryside here for farmers' markets in June and October.

Farmer Alan Toh, 50, whose 4ha farm Yili produces Chinese cabbage and baby bok choy, even calls the scene at these markets his favourite memory in his 18 years at Lim Chu Kang.

He said: "It's a good experience for consumers to understand farming in Singapore and for farmers to understand local demand."
Farmers have also noticed more tours and signs put up to direct the growing visitor traffic.

Frog breeder Chelsea Wan, 31, of Jurong Frog Farm said: "It's a growing community of farmers and people interested in farming."

"The kampung spirit is very much alive here. We have a WhatsApp group that we update each other on and will turn up at anyone's farm if they need help."

For some of the farmers, this is not the first time that they will have to sink their roots elsewhere.

Yik Zhuan Orchid Garden's Mr Jack Lim, who grew up watching his dad work on the farm, remembers slurping up $2 noodles near the Neo Tiew Estate now used as an urban military training ground. Their current farm is their second after they moved from Ama Keng in the early 2000s.

Referring to the Lim Chu Kang farm he is now at, he said: "The area was covered with a lot of trees and had no tall structures in sight. There was only one food centre and wet market because the place was so secluded."

Fish farmer Eric Ng, who has moved twice, said he will remember the joy he felt, plucking fruit such as mangosteen, chiku and buah long long as the season rolled in between June and October.

The 41-year-old owner of Apollo Aquaculture said: "I have seen farms move before but this particular one feels like a revolution. Many farmers I know who watched me grow up are ending their businesses. It's a sad thing to know they are going into history."