Felling of the Chengal Pasir tree

Singapore Infopedia


A Chengal Pasir tree near Halton Road in Changi was felled by DTZ Debenham Tie Leung Property Management Services (DTZ) on 20 November 2002.1 The tree was believed to be the last of its species in Singapore.2 DTZ was found guilty of illegally felling the tree and was fined S$8,000 as well as ordered to pay a compensation of S$76,035 to the state.3 Logs from the felled tree were salvaged from a sawmill and turned into nine sculptures that were subsequently adopted by the Singapore Zoo.4

Discovery of the tree
In 2002, a team of nature enthusiasts surveying the Changi area came across an old tree, which was later identified by its binomial name Hopea sangal, a species of plant in the dipterocarp family (a group of timber trees).5 The tree is native to Singapore, parts of Indonesia, Peninsular Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand, and commonly used as timber.Nature enthusiasts believed that this was possibly the species from which Changi derived its name.7

Also known by its native names, Chengal Pasir and Chengal Mata Kuching, the tree was listed in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List as being critically endangered.The 1994 edition of the Singapore Red Data Book listed the tree as being extinct.9

The hopea sangal tree found in Changi was estimated to be at least 150 years old, about 35 m in height and with a girth of 330 cm.10 The tree was growing on state land behind 46 Halton Road, bounded by Upper Changi Road North and Changi Village.11 It was in one of the two tree conservation areas in Singapore, where permission from the National Parks Board (NParks) must be sought before a tree can be cut down.12 The Changi tree conservation area is bounded by Netheravon Road, Cranwell Road, Loyang Avenue, Loyang Way, Upper Changi Road North and Changi Village Road. The other tree conservation area is in the central part of Singapore.13

Felling of the tree
On 20 November 2002, the tree was felled by workers employed by DTZ. The company said that its officials had inspected the tree and found that it was termite-infested and had been struck by lightning. The tree was also leaning towards some DTZ-tenanted houses, and the company was of the view that the tree posed a danger to the public.14 DTZ also related an incident in December 2001 during which a nearby tree fell during a thunderstorm and damaged the roof of two houses.15 The company cited urgency of the situation and public safety as reasons for felling the tree without seeking prior permission from NParks.16

The felling of the tree came to light when N. Sivasothi – nature enthusiast and research officer at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research – discovered the stump while on his way to Pulau Ubin. By then the tree had already been cut, and he witnessed the trunk being sawn into two and carted onto a lorry.17

The then vice president of Nature Society (Singapore), Shawn Lum, refuted DTZ’s claims that the tree was a public hazard. Lum said that the tree was still healthy despite being struck by lightning, and had just recently flowered – a phenomenon that takes place every three to 10 years for this particular species of tree. Lum also said that the tree could have lived for many more years if left undisturbed.18
The felling of the tree attracted much public attention. Members of the public wrote in to the press, expressing their disappointment with DTZ’s actions and called for stricter measures to be taken to protect heritage trees. Some questioned whether DTZ officials were qualified to make the decision for the tree to be cut down, and said that the tree could have been treated to rid it of termites.19

In November 2002, NParks took DTZ to court for flouting the Parks and Trees Act as well as for failing to secure a permit to fell a rare tree in a gazetted conservation area. Under the act, it is an offence to fell any tree with a girth exceeding 1 m without permission.20

Preliminary assessments of the tree by NParks revealed that the tree did not pose any public danger. If DTZ had sought permission to fell the tree, NParks would have conducted a health and safety assessment to determine if felling was necessary. If the decision then was to save the tree, NParks would also advise the company on the best way to do so.21

NParks pointed out that there had been “considerable media coverage and publicity” about the Parks and Trees Act and the tree conservation areas since 1995, and that firms like DTZ cannot claim ignorance of the laws and regulations protecting mature trees.22

In March 2003, DTZ pleaded guilty to the charge of felling the tree without permission, but its defence counsel Tan Chuan Thye blamed the offence on an overzealous building supervisor who was concerned about the safety of the tenants living in the two houses near the tree. The counsel also said that there was no sign that indicated the heritage significance of the tree, and that the company had not broken the law for financial gain. He requested that the court fine the company just S$5,000. Deputy Public Prosecutor Low Cheong Yeow argued that the tree was in a stable condition and had significant heritage value, and asked that the company be fined the maximum of S$10,000 instead.23

The company was eventually fined S$8,000, taking into account that DTZ was a first-time offender. The company was also ordered to pay S$76,035 as compensation to the state for loss of the tree.24

In passing the judgement, District Judge Kow Keng Siong said that the tree had been significant and was a “silent witness” to the birth of the nation, and that despite weathering the forces of nature for more than 100 years, it could not survive “the senseless act of man”. Kow said that while the supervisor was altruistic in worrying about the safety of the tenants, the company should have considered how to save the tree instead of just cutting it down.25

A new lease of life
Nature lovers tracked the cut trunk of the tree to a sawmill where it was being chopped into pieces for furniture. NParks then took the logs away.26

In April 2003, NParks set up a committee to decide how the wood from the felled tree could be used. The committee comprised representatives from NParks, Sculpture Society, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, Nature Society (Singapore) and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. The committee finally decided that nine pieces of wood would be sculpted into artworks by artists from the Sculpture Society.27

A sculpture symposium was held on 14 September 2003 to involve students and members of the public in the creation of these sculptures.28  The sculptures, measuring between 2 m and 5.6 m in height and each depicting a period of Singapore’s history, were adopted by the Singapore Zoo.29 In 2005, the sculptures were displayed outside the zoo’s Restaurants in the Wild.30

Despite being chopped down, the Chengal Pasir tree was able to spark new life and create awareness of the need for heritage tree conservation. Fortunately, prior to its felling, seeds were collected and 20 of these were given to NParks to be germinated and grown in their nursery.31 By 2010, saplings of the tree had been planted at the Singapore Zoo, Botanic Gardens, Changi Museum and the Singapore Changi Airport.32 In 2005, the Parks and Trees Act was amended to impose stiffer fines on developers and contractors who chop down protected trees.33

The felling of the Chengal Pasir tree was also an inspiration for a play, Tree Duet, by Paul Rae of theatre company Spell#7. First performed at The Substation in 2007 and then restaged at the Singapore Theatre Festival in 2008, the play weaved several stories of trees in Singapore, including the incident of the felled Chengal Pasir tree.34


Stephanie Ho and Jaime Koh

1. “Firm in Court over Felled Tree,” Straits Times, 18 February 2003, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Neo Hui Min, “‘Extinct’ Tree Felled,” Straits Times, 23 November 2002, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Selina Lum, “Tree Felling: Firm to Pay $76,000 to State,” Straits Times, 25 March 2003, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “The ‘Changi’ Tree,” Straits Times, 18 October 2005, 16; Tor Ching Li, “$45K or Mouldy Future for Felled Tree Sculptures,” Today, 29 January 2004, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Joseph Lai, et al., “Tree of Time,” Habitatnews, n.d.
6. “Hopea Sangal,” International Union for the Conservation of Nature, n.d.
7. Lai, et al., “Tree of Time”; “Firm in Court over Felled Tree”; N. Sivasothi, “Hopea Sangal Felled, 20th November 2002,” Habitatnews, n.d.
8. Angie Ng, et al., “Changi Legacy Stems from Tree,” Today, 4 October 2002, 47 (From NewspaperSG); Sivasothi, “Hopea Sangal Felled”; International Union for the Conservation of Nature, “Hopea Sangal.”
9. P. K. L. Ng and Y. C. Wee, eds., The Singapore Red Data Book: Threatened Plants and Animals of Singapore (Singapore: Nature Society, 1994), 282. (Call no. RSING 574.529095957 SIN)
10. Neo, “‘Extinct’ Tree Felled”; Lai, et al., “Tree of Time.”
11. “Firm in Court over Felled Tree”; Lai, et al., “Tree of Time.”
12. G. W. H. Davison, P. K. L. Ng and H. C. Ho, eds., The Singapore Red Data Book: Threatened Plants and Animals of Singapore (Singapore: Nature Society, 2008), 8. (Call no. RSING 591.68095957 SIN)
13. Davison, Ng and Ho, Singapore Red Data Book, 8.
14. “Firm in Court over Felled Tree.”
15. Joy Frances, “150-Year-Old Tree Cut Down,” Today, 23 November 2002, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Neo, “‘Extinct’ Tree Felled.”
17. Frances, “150-Year-Old Tree Cut Down.”
18. Neo, “‘Extinct’ Tree Felled.”
19. “Consider Cost of Foregone Timber, Too,” Straits Times, 2 December 2002, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Selina Lum, “Firm Admits Felling Rare Tree,” Straits Times, 5 March 2003, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Neo Hui Min, “NParks Takes Action against Firm for Felling Tree,” Straits Times, 27 November 2002, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Neo, “NParks Takes Action against Firm.”
23. Lum, “Firm Admits Felling Rare Tree”; Lum, “Firm to Pay $76,000 to State.”
24. Lum, “Firm to Pay $76,000 to State.”
25. Lum, “Firm to Pay $76,000 to State.”
26. “‘Changi’ Tree.” 
27. “Felled Tree Turned into Art,” Straits Times, 3 September 2003, H14. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “The Hopea Sangal Tree: Sculpture Symposium,” Habitatnews, 11 September 2003.
29. “‘Changi’ Tree”; Tor, “$45K or Mouldy Future for Felled Tree Sculptures.” 
30. “‘Changi’ Tree.”
31. Neo, “‘Extinct’ Tree Felled”; Neo, “NParks Takes Action against Firm.”
32. “Towards a Greener Changi Airport,” Singapore Government News, 9 November 2010. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
33. Wong Siew Ying, “Developers, Contractors Face Stiffer Fines for Chopping Down Protected Trees,” Channel NewsAsia, 25 January 2005. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
34. Tara Tan, “Digging Up Memories,” Straits Times, 9 August 2008, 102; Tara Tan, “Tree for Two,” Straits Times, 31 July 2008, 56. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of 6 March 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.



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