COS 2015 - Speech by MOS Desmond Lee "A Liveable and Sustainable Home for all Singaporeans"

Mar 11, 2015

Fifty years ago, our pioneers had to meet many pressing challenges of a young nation that needed housing, jobs and infrastructure.

But even amidst rapid urbanisation, our pioneers had the foresight to ensure that we could all grow up and live in a green and liveable environment. Let me give an example.

In 1971, the Government, with the support of the United Nations Development Programme, drew up the first Concept Plan for Singapore, charting out our development plans over the longer term.

Many key ideas in the 1971 Concept Plan have been realised. One, there would be a ring of HDB towns around our Central Water Catchment area, which serves as a ‘green lung’ for Singapore. These towns include Yishun, Ang Mo Kio, Bishan and Toa Payoh. Two, to improve the quality of the living environment for our people, we moved heavy industries to the West – in Jurong - and our airport to the East – in Changi. Three, to provide connectivity, land was safeguarded for a North-South and East-West MRT line and expressways to link up HDB towns and areas where people worked.

Even in those early days, our pioneers already appreciated the need to preserve elements of our past. In 1967, Mr Alan Choe, who led the then-Urban Renewal Department, had received a note from Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then PM, asking if he had thought about conservation. This was 1967. Mr Choe sent Mr Lee the plans that he had prepared to preserve historical places in Singapore. This initiated thinking about urban conservation and the protection of well-loved places such as Kampong Glam, Chinatown and Little India, which are an integral part of Singapore’s history and heritage.

Today, we benefit from a good home and a good environment because we are building on the good work of our pioneers. But the obligation to strengthen and enhance Singapore and to make it better for future generations now falls on all of us.

Commitment to sustainable living environment

Just a few months ago, PM launched the updated Sustainable Singapore Blueprint, or SSB 2015. This blueprint, first published five years ago, in 2009, was drawn up collectively by many government agencies after extensive consultation and reviewing inputs from around 6,000 people. The SSB 2015 charts out our plans and targets for a sustainable and liveable Singapore. The Government has committed $1.5 billion to implement these plans over the next five years.

A major part of our commitment to create a sustainable living environment is our effort to make Singapore a City in a Garden. In 2013, we celebrated 50 years of greening Singapore. Mr Seah Kian Peng spoke about retaining our green cover, even as we face development pressures. Singapore has been carefully balancing development with greenery & conservation. Under the URA Master Plan, we have dedicated close to 10% of our land for parks and nature reserves. By this year, we would also have developed 300km of Park Connectors. By 2030, we target to complete around 400km of Park Connectors, including a Round Island Route.

Our greening efforts have also gone skywards, as Mr Seah mentioned. Last year, URA expanded the Landscaping for Urban Spaces and High Rises scheme (LUSH), to cover more types of developments and geographical areas. The LUSH Scheme, together with HDB’s rooftop greening efforts and NParks’ Skyrise Greenery Incentive Scheme, has increased the total area of skyrise greenery to more than 65 hectares. Where possible, we will incorporate more greenery within our public housing estates and infrastructure such as MRT stations and covered linkways, to create a rich, pervasive, green environment all around us.

Mr Seah also spoke passionately about protecting old, mature trees, those above 100 years old. His call resonates deeply with all of us. To help achieve this, we introduced Tree Conservation Areas in 1991, to ensure that trees would not be cut down indiscriminately. There is also the Heritage Trees Scheme that protects our mature trees. 222 trees have been designated as Heritage Trees, some of which are more than 150 years old. These trees are our natural heritage & distinguish Singapore as a City in a Garden. They represent important green landmarks of our Garden City and lend a sense of continuity and identity to our home. Unfortunately, mature trees sometimes need to make way for necessary developments, such as flood alleviation work, or road works. This is done only after very careful consideration. Where possible, we will find new homes for these mature trees, and have transplanted some 2,100 such trees just last year alone. This is a very major undertaking. Also, the task of tree planting continues unabated. In 2014, NParks planted more than 38,000 trees, or 1.5 times more than the average in recent years. NParks also accelerates replacement of greenery by setting up tree banks to raise semi-mature trees for planting.

The Rail Corridor – our commitment to a sustainable living environment

Madam, the Rail Corridor is another good example of how a number of key strategies in the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint will be realised. The Rail Corridor is the former KTM railway track that stretches 24 km from Woodlands in the north to Tanjong Pagar in the south, and is closely linked to our heritage and history. It provides tremendous opportunities, in the coming years, for us to realise a continuous green corridor and active public space for recreation, active mobility, and community activities.

This vision of the Rail Corridor is shared by many Singaporeans from all walks of life. Over the past few years, MND together with URA have been actively seeking views and ideas on what people would like to see in this space. We invited suggestions on the name of the corridor, conducted workshops with students, design professionals and residents, and organised a competition and exhibition on possible ideas and designs. We also formed a group called the Rail Corridor Partnership, to foster dialogue with interest groups, academics, design professionals and government agencies.

Even as we seek public views on the Rail Corridor, many people have already stepped forward to activate the space along it. For example, the Green Corridor Run has been held annually for the past few years – the most recent being just a couple of days ago, on a weekend. The former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station has also hosted a wide range of community activities, including most recently a flea market. At Buona Vista, graffiti artists have a dedicated space to legitimately showcase their talent.

Many people are excited about the possibilities presented by a continuous green corridor. Avid cyclists, such as Mr Han Jok Kwang, have suggested that we encourage commuter cycling as a sustainable means of personal transport. Indeed, there is potential for the Rail Corridor, linked to our park connector network, to become an attractive commuter cycling route into the Central Business District. With a typical width of 12-18m, it is wide enough for us to develop a trail for cycling and walking, and even for enhanced biodiversity in certain areas through environmentally sensitive strategies and designs.

Singaporeans have also told us that the Rail Corridor can provide respite and greenery in our dense urban environment. Those living and working nearby can use and enjoy the Rail Corridor. Residential, industrial and commercial developments can also benefit from their proximity to it. Some people have suggested that spaces along the Rail Corridor be made available for community uses, such as gardens and urban farms, and that these spaces can evolve according to the community’s needs. We should support this, to encourage community ownership of the Rail Corridor.

Over the past year, URA has been working painstakingly to study and to incorporate Singaporeans’ inputs into the planning and design goals for our Rail Corridor. We are now ready to launch a Request for Proposal (“RFP”) for the concept master plan and design concepts for the Rail Corridor. A public exhibition will be held later this year to showcase the various proposals that are brought forward.

The RFP will enable us to firm up the overall plan and design for the Rail Corridor, which will then guide how it will be realised in the coming years. However, given that the length of the Rail Corridor is 24 km, there is no rush to work on the whole stretch all at once. Instead, the enhancement of the Rail Corridor will be carefully and sensitively staged, and we will work closely with local communities to realise its full potential.

Building on scientific foundations for a green and distinctive city

Madam, apart from consultation and outreach, our commitment to a sustainable living environment is increasingly being supported by science and technology. This includes the use of environmental modelling for new housing areas, computational software for building design and enhancing walkability, the choice of streetscape trees and advanced technology to plant trees in built up areas. We will continue to invest in meaningful research such as this, through the $135 million Land & Liveability National Innovation Challenge.

A scientific approach is also taken to better understand and mitigate the impact of future developments on our environment. In land-scarce Singapore, some developments may inevitably come close to environmentally sensitive areas, a concern raised by Mr Chen Show Mao. Currently, major development projects are required to undergo an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), especially when they are near to sensitive areas such as nature reserves, nature areas, as well as marine and coastal areas. As EIAs do take significant time and resources, we apply them to projects that may most adversely impact our protected natural spaces, and coastal and marine environments. These EIAs are gazetted and made public; stakeholders’ views are also sought. The Government takes EIA recommendations seriously, and uses the studies to finalise plans and mitigate any development impact by modifying the scale or the scope of such works.

Let me illustrate with an example. The Maritime Port Authority is consolidating Singapore’s port activities in Tuas over the next few decades to free up prime land occupied by these terminals today. An EIA study in 2012, initiated by MPA, highlighted the possible impact of the Tuas port developments on nearby coral at Sultan Shoal. To save these corals, MPA worked with NParks on a coral relocation programme, and successfully relocated some 1,600 coral colonies to the Southern Islands in 2014 with the help of blue group volunteers - you can see it, some of the work on the screen. In protecting corals, we went one step further – using predictive models, NParks found that the Sisters’ Island is a potentially strong source of coral larvae for other reefs in our southern waters. This is therefore an ideal site for the development of Singapore’s first Marine Park, which is underway. Today, you can join NParks’ guided tours of the Sisters’ Islands for a first-hand experience of our oft-hidden marine biodiversity.

Retaining our Unique Identity – by Harnessing the Power of the Community

Madam, even as we build a modern, green and cosmopolitan city, we want to retain unique features of Singapore’s identity and history amid our changing skyline.

• Our conservation journey started many years ago, and was a thrilling and sometimes even life-threatening experience for some officers who kickstarted this. As URA Senior Planning Executive Doris Lee recalls – and she is now shown on the screen, when taking measurements in old shophouses in Tanjong Pagar and Cuppage Terrace during the 1970s with a colleague, her colleague had fallen and his leg got stuck through some of the rotten floorboards!

Today, the spirit of conservation is very much alive, and more active than it has been before. URA’s Architectural Heritage Awards recognises sensitive restoration of conserved buildings for today’s use. A recent award winner is the Yueh Hai Ching Temple - shown on the screen - along Philip Street. It also won the prestigious UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation last year. For the history and stories behind conserved areas and buildings in Singapore, you can access URA’s Conservation Portal and share your memories there as a record for posterity.

However, restoring our built heritage only retains a physical reminder of the past. What are harder to retain are the personal stories and memories of the way of life from before. While we are working with the National Heritage Board to realise these efforts, community is indispensable in conserving the richness of our heritage.

• For instance, volunteer groups such as the Tiong Bahru Heritage Volunteers, and the Friends of the Museum make the history of our old neighbourhoods come alive with the stories and anecdotes that they tell.

• Enterprises also can play a role, too. The Hong How Group, for instance, has volunteered several heritage buildings for conservation, and had won the URA’s Architectural Heritage Award.

Similarly, many Singaporeans see greenery as part of our unique identity and heritage. Indeed, our efforts in building our Garden City would not have been successful without the longstanding efforts of our pioneer officers.

• Madam Veeranathan Kogila joined the then-Parks and Recreation Department at the age of 16. With an amazing 44 years of experience, she uses her expertise to bring out the vibrancy of many of our Singapore Garden Festivals, and has helped nurture the future generations of nature lovers.

The community also plays an increasingly active role in the greening of our city. Over the years, we have given the community more autonomy to grow and own green spaces through programmes such as NParks’ Community in Bloom.

• 58-year-old Madam Kamisah Binte Atan is a passionate champion of our Community in Bloom programme. Travelling 40 minutes daily from her home to her gardens, she has transformed the community gardens into meaningful places for the elderly in the neighborhood, forging bonds through growing, cooking, sharing and eating the fruits and vegetables together.

Madam, we are continuing to work in step with the community to shape the places we know and love. Other than the Rail Corridor, we have been stepping up engagement with the community through The Ubin Project for people to build on existing efforts and shape a common vision for Pulau Ubin. The Jurong Lake Gardens, under the stewardship of a committee led by Minister Lawrence Wong, is another such initiative. Jurong Lake Gardens is intended to showcase our strong community spirit, where everyone plays a part in preserving the beauty of our natural spaces. Besides the ongoing public consultations, NParks will be reaching out to more Singaporeans through a roving exhibition and focus groups ahead of the design competition for the Gardens later this year.

Addressing other cuts

Now let me now address the remaining cuts. Ms Lee Li Lian spoke about pigeon nuisance in her area. AVA is the First Responder for animal-related issues - which means that people can contact them, including Town Councils, for animal-related issues, but addressing this is a multi-stakeholder effort which requires coordination among Town Councils, members of public and government agencies such as AVA and NParks. For example, AVA coordinates with Town Councils and NParks to prune trees to deter the roosting of pigeons, as well as with NEA on proper food-waste management in food centres so as to reduce the food supply for pigeons. This is what Ms Lee spoke earlier about, the need to work upstream to control the food source for breeding of pigeons. In particular, it is important that residents do not feed pigeons and thereby encourage their population to grow.

Mr Png Eng Huat also spoke about keeping of cats in HDB flats. Now there is an ongoing pilot project in Chong Pang - Project Love Cats - where community groups such as the Cat Welfare Society, together with the Town Council, the local community and grassroot groups and residents, have been piloting a trial for the keeping of cats in HDB estates. We will take a look at the results of that pilot when it is over in our ongoing review of our animal-related policies.

Madam, Ms Sylvia Lim, in a cut yesterday, had suggested setting up a tribunal to resolve issues between residents, Town Councils (TCs), and HDB. Our experience dealing with residents suggests that our residents are generally cooperative if agencies engage them patiently and professionally. Agencies, including TCs, must be prepared to take the time to engage, educate and persuade.

Ms Lim is of course, right to observe that there are a minority of residents who are uncooperative or unreasonable. These residents engage in various forms of anti-social behaviour like noise nuisance, obstruction of common corridors, illegal subletting, or refusal to address ground leaks that affect the ceilings of their neighbours below. Like HDB, I am sure the TC has its fair share of such residents. For these recalcitrant cases, after persuasion and mediation have failed, agencies must be prepared to take enforcement action, for the good of the larger community. To this end, we are amending the Housing and Development Act to empower HDB officers to enter a flat to carry out investigations and repair, where works are urgent (for example, urgent ceiling leaks) or where there is imminent danger affecting public health and public safety (for instance, where there is hacking of structural members affecting the structural integrity of the building). I hope Ms Lim will support the Bill when it is debated in this House next month.

From time to time, we recognise that there may also be differences in views between HDB and the TCs over issues. MND is the ministry that oversees the administration of the TCs Act and the Minister is the final authority under the Act. In MND, we have a full team of officers overseeing TC matters who can help look into these. Indeed this has long been the recourse for TCs to engage when they have issues with HDB or other public agencies. Otherwise, you can also write to MND office holders, and we will be happy to see how we can help resolve the situation. Finally in our system, any aggrieved party can of course seek redress through the courts.

That said, TCs must also be prepared to accept the decision, and abide by the rules and procedures that govern all TCs. A TC cannot only accept decisions or rules that suit the TC, and disregard what is inconvenient to the TC. All parties must play their part and work within the framework of the laws and national policies.

For instance, all TCs are required to maintain letterboxes as these are part of common property. All TCs have abided by this statutory duty for many years. But HDB has told us that AHPETC has refused to carry out its duty to repair a resident’s defective letter box even after HDB has clarified this several times with the TC. I wonder if this is one of the cases which Ms Lim sees as one that would go to her housing tribunal that she has suggested. But in fact, AHPETC’s General Manager insists that HDB requires all residents in its constituencies to sign a letter of undertaking to maintain and repair their own letterboxes. If the residents refuse to sign this undertaking, AHPETC wants HDB to hand over the residents’ letterbox keys to the TC. HDB cannot agree to this because it is clearly the TC’s responsibility to maintain the letterboxes and it is collecting S&CC; the TC should not be passing the cost of repairs and maintenance to its residents. HDB also cannot agree to passing over the residents’ keys as it compromises the privacy of residents. And I must say I think we all agree with HDB. So these, these are a different dimension. There are disputes between residents, as well as HDB and TCs. But also equally, there may be some disagreements between TCs and HDB.

But HDB has also told us that AHPETC has been letting out public spaces at Hougang Central Hub and Kovan City to outside businessmen and retailers for profit. This contravenes HDB’s guidelines, which allow, but control the frequency of, such promotional activities, to mitigate the impact on the businesses of shopkeepers, who also pay the TC S&CC. A number of shopkeepers are unhappy about this. HDB has therefore written several times to remind the TC of the guidelines, to no avail. The TC had simply ignored HDB. Madam, MND is prepared to help TCs, all of them. But TCs must also comply with the rules. Otherwise, a housing tribunal of any form will not help.


Madam Chair, we are building on efforts of our pioneers over the last 50 years to create a Singapore that is green, sustainable and highly liveable. The community is an indispensable partner whom we will work closely with as we continue to shape the city we know and love, as a home for all Singaporeans.