Home News Featured News Bukit Timah floods: $300 million gone in a flash?

Bukit Timah floods: $300 million gone in a flash?

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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As we await Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech this evening (Aug 29), I will take this chance to reminisce a bit about floods, roads and the MRT. If nothing else, it will give us some humbling perspective on progress and living with Nature.

Six new stations on the Thomson-East Coast Line began running yesterday (Aug 28) from Springleaf via Mayflower to Caldecott. Among the first passengers was one teacher, Yap Siew Meng, 49, who appeared as excited as when he was among the first to take a ride in the first MRT journey on the North-South Line in 1987, according to The Straits Times. “I saw many reports on (the TEL2). It is brand new and I was excited. I wanted to be the first in Singapore to take the train.”

Now, that is a lot of firsts chalked up by Yap who is clearly a train enthusiast.

Looking back at myself, I think I may be also a train fan. I had ridden on trains in Malaysia, Australia, Germany, Britain, Austria, India, Japan and many parts of the United States. On my earliest visits to the US in the 1980s, I was especially interested in trying out San Francisco’s BART because it was mentioned in the big public debate on whether Singapore should have an MRT. I was impressed by the efficient, high-tech and well-maintained BART which moved people between the city and suburbs and encouraged them to drive less.

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I observed from my travelling experiences in the US that cities which took pride in themselves and their community usually had excellent public transport. BART, METRO (Washington DC) and MARTA (Atlanta) were good examples, at least during the time I was constantly in and out of the US.

I was keen to find out how Singapore’s own MRT would fare back in the late 1980s. I was also among the first to try out the trains when they started to run from Yio Chu Kang to Toa Payoh in 1987. I was staying in Ang Mo Kio then. It was a short but significant ride as Singapore was the first city in South-east Asia to have an MRT. Today, it has the most comprehensive and efficient system, all the troubles caused by the Saw Phaik Hwa years notwithstanding.

I remember the then Communications Minister Ong Teng Cheong beaming with pride whenever he talked about the MRT. He was apologetic about the plastic chairs and even promised to have nicer more comfortable ones in the near future – presumably cushioned or well padded. Without saying it, he was suggesting that that would come if Singaporeans truly became First World in their social habits and had developed a strong civic pride. What say you? I think not – yet. Just look at how we are struggling during this pandemic period to persuade people to get vaccinated, wear masks and not disobey sensible safe distancing measures.

Nevertheless, the government has delivered. The system has become less of a nightmare today. So, kudos to all the hard work put in by former Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan and his team. No need to give us cushioned seats, just run the trains efficiently and on time. We are looking forward to 2025 when the TEL will be completed and finally link the East Coast to the island-wide network.

Ang Mo Kio, served in addition to the North-South Line by the new TEL Mayflower and Springleaf stations, is a far cry from the 1970s and 1980s. It is a very accessible thriving new town today. But the flooding in Pasir Ris and Bukit Timah last week reminds us that accessibility is often at the whims and fancy of nature.

A major flood in 1978 almost prevented me from going on my first trip to Europe. I had packed my luggage for a morning flight but had to attend a friend’s wedding dinner the night before. That wedding happened to take place during one of the worst floods in the history of modern Singapore.   Another friend offered a car ride home after the dinner but neither he nor I could make it back to our homes in the car. His car was submerged along the way by water in Goodman Road. We abandoned it and ploughed through the knee-length water to the main Tanjong Katong Road. I left him there to wait for another person to pick him and took a bus – not to Ang Mo Kio Ave 1 where my flat was because no bus service could operate there but to Upper Thomson Road at the junction to Ave where I walked home in the pouring rain. I made my flight the next morning with a bad cold.

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Man plans, Nature disposes. This flood thing has not quite gone away yet. Thomson Road can still be unpassable at times whenever it trains heavily.

And what about Bukit Timah?

Back in the 1960s, the stretch from Newton to Dunearn Road and Adam Road and beyond to the “Seventh Milestone” area was flood-prone. A major $300 million project to expand the Bukit Timah First Diversion Canal to better deal with the floods there was completed after seven years in 2019.

Evidently, this has not been enough. A flash flood last week brought the water back familiarly to places like Bukit Timah Plaza and Sime Derby Centre.

It has been an unending cycle. Since 2019, further canal widening work has been ongoing. “(We are) in the midst of widening and deepening a 900m section of the Bukit Timah Canal from Rifle Range Road to Jalan Kampong Chantek to expand its drainage capacity,” the PUB said. Work for the project started in 2019 and is expected to be completed by the first quarter of 2024.

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All in all, since 1973, Singapore has invested more than $2 billion in its drainage infrastructure. This has helped to reduce the size of flood-prone areas in the country from 3,200 ha in the 1970s to 30.5 ha in 2016. What next?

It really looks like we may soon have to start developing a Dutch mentality. Of constantly thinking decades ahead in dealing with the forces of nature. Today, the Marina Barrage, tomorrow what else?

Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.

 

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