NS man killed by tree in freak accident

From ‘NSman’s death: Tree was checked in April’, 29 Sept 2012, article by Jalelah Abu Baker and Lim Yan Liang, ST

The site where the fallen tree killed an operationally ready national serviceman (NSman) on Thursday was checked during a routine inspection in April.

The inspection was carried out by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), which said in response to The Straits Times’ queries last night that such checks included the pruning of trees on state land in populated areas.

“For forested state land next to populated or high-traffic areas, SLA carries out periodic and cyclical checks of trees, and will prune them when necessary,” said an SLA spokesman.

The spokesman did not say how often these checks were made, and declined to comment when asked what the authority thought had caused the tree to fall, citing ongoing police investigations.

On Thursday, Lance Corporal (NS) Tan Tai Seng, 23, was waiting to enter the military grounds of the Ama Keng Training Area in Lim Chu Kang when the tree fell and pinned him to the ground.

When a tree falls by the roadside and no one is there to see it, who do you point your fingers at? SLA, NParks or GOD? April is a good 6 months since this tree was maintained, and according to NParks’ Tree Management Programme, inspection along ‘major roads or parkland’ is done at least once every 18 months, to check ‘health and stability to ensure that trees are safe and stable under NORMAL weather conditions’. Which suggests that the authorities have little control over ‘healthy’ trees still succumbing to ‘tree failure’ in the event of storms. Of course when someone’s life is at stake, it’s no longer ‘tree failure’ anymore, but a ‘freak accident’. In the Garden City, when the bough breaks, it’s not just the cradle that will fall. Vehicles are a favourite target for killer trees. Other hits include houses, hikers, covered walkways and even the NTU hostel. One death is too many still, no matter how much pruning or hi-tech tree tomography the authorities deploy to keep our 800,000 roadside trees (in 2009) in pristine condition.

In 2000 alone, there were at least 3000 cases of trees falling apart, and NParks maintains that the number has been reduced over the years. So how did SLA suddenly get involved in tree management? Earlier in March, one particular huge tree in Upper Bukit Timah which crushed a couple of cars was reported to be ‘managed’ by SLA (after a clarification by the media that it was wrongly attributed to NParks’ charge) with one of the motorists describing it as more than ‘FLIMSY’. It seems that the work to look after our trees is split between these agencies (though they would call it ‘tapping on mutual resources and expertise’), with SLA taking charge of a tree bank consisting of 11,000 trees in 2008. But even SLA may refer you to someone else if you try to seek damages when a giant tree crashes into your house. In the case of a near-fatal bungalow incident in Seah Im Road in 2008, it was EM Services, a property management company. If a tree falls and hits your car in a HDB carpark, a lawyer may tell you to claim damages against your TOWN COUNCIL, though the latter will tell you to speak to your insurance company. Sometimes, the town council may pin the blame on a ‘horticultural contractor’, and even the URA may be answerable to trees falling in their carparks. Like pesky birds, it seems that we’re facing the same accountability problem with toppling trees, and no one knows if they should call the HDB, NParks, URA, SLA, property agents, insurance companes, third-party contractors, your MP or the Archbishop if something unforseen and terrible happens.

Most of our trees were part of a LKY-led ‘green rage’ to artificially landscape Singapore into a tropical paradise, and instead of just focusing on post-mortem fingerpointing, one should think about the tree’s history too, whether it was indigenous to the area or one of those ‘instant trees’ that was erected in a hurry, like a clumsy prop on a shaky wooden stage. Any attempt to sue NParks, SLA or your town council with negligence in the event that a tree murders a loved one would be countered with the ‘Act of God’ defence, unless you could prove beyond a canopy of a doubt that the authorities have not been diligent in their inspections. But just how efficient are these ‘checks’ anyway? In the recent case of a tree crashing a metal roof of a walkway in Sentosa, it was checked merely 3 WEEKS before the incident, though the inspection was managed by Sentosa’s ‘environment and landscape’ team and there was no mention of any agencies’ involvement. If so, SHOULD NParks have been involved? Or is it a case of ‘your tree, not mine’? Are victims of killer trees condemned to resigning themselves to just ‘bad luck’ and endless rounds of ‘passing the parcel’ over which tree belongs to which agency?

It would be unfair to blame the SAF for not training our soldiers how to defend themselves against uprooted trees, but if history prevails, the likely answer given to the distraught family of the deceased is probably a botanical (fungus infection, bad soil) or a meterological one (bad weather, strong winds). Mother Nature already took the blame for being the mastermind behind our flash floods, and now she’s orchestrating death by trees too.  I think it’s time we have an NParks App that alerts Singaporeans to any tree that is ‘due for inspection’ so that we can watch out for falling branches or whole trees going ‘timber!!’ on us if we’re anywhere near. They could call it Angry Trees or something. It could save a few lives and cost much less than a bunch of overpriced bicycles.


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