“As for government agencies, the practice has been to make physical copies of the EIAs available for public inspection by appointment” (Government Agencies May Post Environmental Impact Studies Online In Future, Neo Chai Chin).
It seems curious to me that “government agencies will consider doing the same for future [environmental impact assessment (EIA) reports], especially if there is significant public interest involved” (TODAY, Feb. 27), when the online release of such EIA reports should be the norm, not the exception. In particular when the notion of “significant public interest involved” can be ambiguous. While there is no law mandating the need for these studies to be conducted or made public, the recent debate surrounding the implications of the first phase of the Cross Island Line signals interest from the general public. It should also allow the government to gauge sentiments, enriching discourse in the process.
And in fact, it challenges the proposition that the corporations involved have been “engaging nature lovers and other stakeholders” in these studies, because if conducted effectively these dissenting perspectives should have surfaced in a much earlier phase.
Arguments that EIA reports could be too technical or too voluminous, or “may not be easily understandable or interesting to the layman”, are not necessarily valid. Three points therefore follow. First, it may point to the need for public agencies to not only make these reports more readily available, but to also improve the communication of these studies. The second related point concerns consultation, alluded to by many of the academics or experts TODAY spoke to. In addition to consultation after the publication of these EIA reports, during which there may be greater resistance to change, it appears useful to involve Singaporeans even before publication. Public participation is messy, yet consideration of plural viewpoints can strengthen eventual arguments made.
Moreover, the third point concerns knowledge and knowledge-sharing. The value of these EIA reports is premised upon the information they provide, which is necessary if individuals wish to evaluate or challenge development projects. It is true that not all Singaporeans may have the background to comprehend the technical or voluminous publications, yet over time epistemic communities – groups of professionals who have recognised skills and knowledge across different domains, and who can provide value-based feedback – can make sense of them, and hence provide public agencies with another point of view. Such aggregation is only possible if access to information is made more convenient.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.