Saturday, 19 May 2007

Question for Oral Answer: 11 April 2007 (Land Acquisition Act)

Back in March, there was a decision by the Singapore Court of Appeal on a lawsuit brought by a company called Teng Fuh Holdings, that had its land acquired by the Government. The Government had acquired it for $4.2m in 1983, but didn't do anything with it for over 20 years. When the company found this out in 2004, it appealed for the land to be returned to it.

The court found that the lawsuit had been filed too late (what lawyers call "out of time"). What was interesting was that the court also commented that the Government's failure to explain why the land had not been re-developed or re-zoned in all that time could suggest that the land was not needed for general redevelopment when it was acquired, and hence the acquisition could have been improper.

A couple of MPs who were lawyers (naturally) filed questions on this. The response by the DPM highlighted the safeguards in the process, to ensure that all acquisitions were proper. Having said that, it still didn't explain why the land was acquired in 1983, but it was rezoned only 1998 -- so the land remained unused, without any rezoning, for 15 years.

That still seemed to suggest that there was no specific plan for the land when it was acquired -- in which case, why should it have been acquired at all? I didn't ask any supplemental question to chase this up, given the DPM's final statements about the safeguards in the process -- I was pretty sure he would have reiterated the same comments. I would however say that the recent changes to the Land Acquisition Act show a greater sensitivity by the Government on the impact that compulsory acquisition has on landowners, and that can only be a good thing.

OPQ

ACQUISITION AND DEVELOPMENT OF LAND

Mr Hri Kumar asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Law what was the reason for the acquisition of the land at 20-22 Geylang Road on 26th February 1983 and why was the land left undeveloped for over 20 years after the acquisition.

Mr Siew Kum Hong asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Law since the Land Acquisition Act was introduced (a) how many cases were there where the Government compulsorily acquired land that was subsequently not used for five years or more; (b) what were the most common reasons for acquiring land in such cases; and (c) what controls are in place to ensure that the Government only acquires land that it actually needs.

The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Law (Prof. S Jayakumar): Mr Speaker, may I have your permission to take the first two Questions together as they are related?

Mr Speaker: Yes.

Prof. Jayakumar: May I answer Mr Hri Kumar's question first? Sir, the land in question belonged to Teng Fuh Holdings Pte Ltd and was the subject of litigation in the courts recently.

The land was in the immediate vicinity of the Kallang MRT station. When it was acquired in 1983 for the purpose of comprehensive redevelopment, the plans for the area included a commercial-cum-transportation centre.

Subsequently, the clean-up of the Kallang/Rochor River was successfully completed and the land use plans for the entire Kallang Basin waterfront were extensively reviewed. Accordingly, the subject land was rezoned as part residential, part open space and part beach in the Master Plan 1998, to optimise the development and recreational potential of the area. In line with this, the Government also carried out other public enhancement works such as the development of the Kallang Riverside Park, and the phasing out of the Kallang Gasworks. All these took many years.

The vision for Kallang Basin, including the Teng Fuh site, continues to be one where there will be good quality housing and other waterfront developments.

Let me reiterate, Sir, that Singapore is land scarce. In our special context, optimising the use of our land is a definite necessity. Sometimes, due to new factors which arise after the acquisition, it is no longer optimal to put the land to the original planned use. This is a fact of life due to changes in demographics and land use needs which evolve over time. It would be very detrimental to Singapore to ignore such changes that affect land use planning.

Sir, where land is acquired for comprehensive redevelopment, it is also often not possible to synchronise precisely the acquisition of land with the redevelopment of the land. Especially for a large area or precinct, a longer gestation period sometimes is almost unavoidable. This is usually because the developing agencies need to carry out site works and divert infrastructure, sometimes, in several phases, to minimise disruption to the public and to prepare the land for redevelopment.

So, on occasions, all these factors can contribute to a delay in the redevelopment of certain acquired sites. As for the case of the land formerly belonging to Teng Fuh Holdings, as I have said, the changes in the development plans and the time taken to carry out public enhancement works for the entire Kallang Basin area had contributed to the delay in redeveloping the land.

Let me turn to the question by Mr Siew Kum Hong. Sir, the Land Acquisition Act was enacted in 1966. From available records, more than 15,000 land parcels have been acquired. In view of these acquisitions stretching over a long period of 40 years, I hope the Member will understand that it is extremely difficult and not practical for me to give a precise answer to his question. We would have to mount a massive search to go back and examine each and every acquired parcel to verify the development date and see if the time from which the date of acquisition had been more than five years. Moreover, the acquired parcels could have been further subdivided or amalgamated with other lands for redevelopment and the original land parcel might have been expunged. It is therefore very difficult to say now, exactly how many cases there were of acquired lands that were subsequently not used for five years or more.

However, I asked the Singapore Land Authority to see what information they could obtain for me. And based on the Singapore Land Authority’s records, we are able to state, Sir, that about 12% of the acquired lands, in terms of land area, have not yet been redeveloped. The rest of the acquired lands, if not already fully redeveloped, are in various stages of redevelopment.

Sir, the Government acquires land for a variety of uses such as for the development of new towns and industrial estates, for road and MRT construction and for comprehensive redevelopment. As I have explained to Mr Hri Kumar just now, it is often not possible to synchronise precisely the acquisition of land with the development of land. Especially for a large area or precinct earmarked for comprehensive redevelopment, sometimes, a longer gestation period is almost unavoidable.

I would like to assure the Member that all proposals for land acquisition are carefully considered. Government agencies that initiate acquisition must provide full justifications on why the acquisition is necessary. They would also have to ensure that prior approval is obtained for the intended use before requests for acquisition can be considered. For major acquisitions, the proposals will also have to be presented to a Ministerial Committee comprising the Minister for Law, Minister for National Development and which sometimes can include other Ministers like the Minister for Transport if it concerns land acquisition related to MRT or major expressway development. Finally, every proposal for land acquisition must be submitted to Cabinet for approval.

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