Speech by 2M Indranee Rajah at the Committee of Supply Debate 2021 – Reimagining Singapore Together
Mar 4, 2021
From Backwater to Global City
Mr Chairman, let me speak today about reimagining Singapore together. We will start with when we were a backwater, and how we became a global city. Singapore is one of the most liveable cities in the world today, ranking first in Asia under Mercer’s annual Quality of Living Survey, and ahead of cities like London and New York.
Yet, our pioneers would recall the squatter settlements by the polluted Singapore River, and remember that we were once a jumble of urban development and older areas. We have come a long way since then.
Singapore’s remarkable transformation is not to be taken for granted. It is the fruit of careful and far-sighted urban planning and design.
We are now planning for our future city. Allow me to outline MND’s plans which we will be sharing with the public so that we can reimagine Singapore together.
Casting a Vision for our Future City
To guide future development, MND and URA have embarked on a review of our long-term land-use plans. This exercise is known as the Long-Term Planning Review (LTPR). This is crucial given our small land area of just over 728 square kilometers, which is less than 0.1 percent of the world’s largest country, Russia.
Our land is limited. Yet, we have many needs and hopes for the future. We want housing options, with amenities at our doorsteps and green spaces to enjoy. We want a thriving city centre. We also need to keep Singapore safe and sustainable. Long-term planning is key to achieving these objectives and providing a high-quality living environment for Singaporeans.
The LTPR is not a new exercise. The first such plan, formerly known as the “Concept Plan”, was developed fifty years ago in 1971, and laid the foundation for our city's structure. We review our long-term plans regularly. The last major review was conducted in 2011. With changing needs and emerging trends, it is timely to refresh these plans.
My colleagues at URA and MND face very different circumstances from our pioneer city planners.
For a start, as more of Singapore’s land is built up, we must plan not only for development, but also for re-development. Mr Henry Kwek had suggested considering carbon emissions when deciding if we should develop on greenfield or brownfield sites. The spirit of this proposal is line with our national push towards sustainability.
Yet, there is a tension between this and other considerations that guide our land-use plans, including demographic, socio-economic and technological trends. We also have to balance demands across a variety of needs, such as housing, green spaces, schools, and so on.
As Minister Desmond Lee emphasised, we do our best to optimise our land-use, and retain green spaces with high ecological value. Any decision to develop greenfield sites is taken only after considering trade-offs and alternatives.
We proceed with care, to minimise the environmental impact. Overall, taking a long-term approach towards land-use planning is important for sustainable development in Singapore. This will also preserve options for our future generations.
The world that we live in is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Hence, our approach to long-term planning will place a greater focus on optionality and flexibility.
As our circumstances change, we must plan accordingly. This includes planning for an ageing population, and the evolving mindsets of Singaporeans on matters such as lifestyles, work, family, nature and heritage.
For instance, Mr Cheng Hsing Yao asked if we will review our land planning strategies to offer more diverse housing modalities, given our ageing population and decreasing household sizes.Indeed, MND, URA and HDB will continue to monitor societal trends, engage industry stakeholders and adjust land-use policies to meet our housing needs.
Mr Chong Kee Hiong had also suggested to allow more market flexibility in our zoning policies. We will continue to review how our land-use policies can keep Singapore resilient and responsive to change, and consult stakeholders and businesses in this process.
Professor Hoon Hian Teck and Mr Cheng Hsing Yao also asked if COVID-19 will change our land-use plans and designs. Certainly, it will. We recognise that it has impacted the way that we live, work and play. It has also accelerated trends. Today, many of us order food and attend meetings with a click of a button, much more so than before COVID hit us last year.
At the national level, COVID-19 has underlined the need for resilience of resources including food, medical supplies and construction materials.
Last year, in the Emerging Stronger Conversations, a group of Singaporeans and I discussed how to rethink the design of HDB living in light of the pandemic. Many suggested more community work and study spaces, for those in need of a conducive environment for remote working.
Today, residents with telecommuting needs can use HDB’s “Community Living Rooms” within void decks in new developments, or shared spaces in some of our Community Clubs. Those in need of dedicated rooms for videoconferencing can tap on commercial co-working spaces in some of our heartland malls.
We will study ways to inject community co-working spaces in our neighbourhoods, and explore how to make these accessible for vulnerable groups, as suggested by Ms Cheryl Chan. We will also engage private operators, and examine how we can plan and design our neighbourhoods to support remote working, should the trend persist.
COVID-19 has also raised questions on how much office and retail space we need, considering the shift towards e-commerce and telecommuting.
The disconcerting quiet of the CBD during the Circuit Breaker sharpened the importance of planning for more mixed-use in our city centre.
The CBD Incentive Scheme and Strategic Development Incentive (SDI) scheme, which Mr Louis Chua and Mr Henry Kwek asked about, are well-placed to facilitate this shift.
Since 2019, we have offered incentives to encourage the conversion of older office buildings in the CBD into mixed-used developments. These will have offerings such as hotels, residences, gyms, grocery stores, eateries and so on. The SDI similarly incentivises building owners to come together to comprehensively redevelop and transform precincts in strategic areas across Singapore.
Mr Louis Chua asked about these proposals. URA has received several proposals for both these schemes, nine outline applications under the CBD Incentive Scheme, of which six have been given in-principle approval.
Three outline applications were given in-principle approval under the SDI scheme. Mr Chua also asked if the scheme can be expanded to more areas, the SDI already applies across Singapore. URA is actively working with building owners to realise their plans.
This will introduce a good mix of uses and amenities in our city, making it an attractive destination to live, work and play.
We will continue to monitor the trends accelerated by COVID-19 and factor these insights into our plans.
Reimagining Singapore Together
Members have also asked if the public and industry will be consulted on our long-term plans. The answer is yes - we believe that everyone has a stake in building the Singapore that our children and grandchildren will live in. The LTPR will gather the public, private and people sectors, all of whom bring valuable perspectives and expertise to the table.
Throughout the rest of the year, URA will tap on various platforms to engage Singaporeans deeply and widely. We will use a range of modalities to do so, including polls, workshops and focus group discussions, both in-person and online. The engagement will kick off in April, with polls to get a pulse of what Singaporeans want for our future city and why they want it. Subsequently, we will gather input on the long-term land-use strategies and plans that can help us achieve these outcomes.
Given our limited land, difficult conversations on weighing the potential trade-offs, and coming to the right balance on land-use decisions will come up. We will not shy away from these conversations. We welcome a diversity of views.
We also look forward to ideas on how to shape our major long-term strategic redevelopment areas. These include the relocation of the Paya Lebar Airbase and the redevelopment of the Greater Southern Waterfront after the ports move to Tuas.
At URA’s ‘Runway for your Imagination” competition last year, we received many creative proposals on how to repurpose the former Paya Lebar Airport. A winning entry envisioned housing an agricultural park at the former runway, supplying fresh produce for the community. Green corridors would run through the town, allowing residents to enjoy nature at their doorstep. This was a refreshing vision of a residential town that responded to the global challenges of food resiliency and ecological sustainability.
Such insights from academia, professional bodies and the public can help us formulate better long-term plans and strategies for Singapore.
As we gather feedback, debate through options, and listen to one other in the coming months, I am confident that we will build consensus on the way forward. I invite all Singaporeans to spread the word and join us in this process.
As we reimagine Singapore, we also want to partner Singaporeans in action. I am heartened by the energy of the Alliances for Actions (AfAs) launched by the Emerging Stronger Taskforce (EST) last year, which some colleagues have already spoken about.
These collaborations allow industry and community to partner the Government to ideate and implement solutions together.
To accelerate digitalisation efforts in the Built Environment sector, we formed the Digitalising Built Environment AfA in June last year. The AfA drives the adoption of digital platforms based on industry-wide Common Data Environment Data Standards. Close to 300 firms have stepped forward. We hope that more will embrace the collaborative potential of digitalisation across the Built Environment value chain.
We will also expand our partnership platforms. This includes the pilot Business Improvement District (BID) programme, in which businesses and stakeholders work with URA to develop and implement business plans that will enhance the vibrancy of our neighbourhoods.
In the thick of the pandemic last year, the Tanjong Pagar stakeholders rallied together to roll out a joint F&B delivery promotion to boost business amid restrictions. We are also thankful for our Friends of the Parks communities, where Singaporeans from all walks of life have stepped forward to promote the active and responsible use of our green spaces.
We have started to involve our communities in the conceptualisation, design and development of five of our upcoming parks, including Pasir Panjang Park which will open this year. We will continue to work with you to create better parks for everyone to enjoy.
Building a City of Tomorrow through Innovation and Technology
Next, building a City of Tomorrow through innovation and technology.
Our physical resources may be limited, but innovation and technology offer opportunities to overcome this.
Minister Desmond had earlier spoken about MND’s Cities of Tomorrow R&D programme. These research efforts will allow us to tap on innovations in science and technology to transform urban living in Singapore.
One of these is the creation of “noise-cancelling windows”. We are all familiar with noise feedback from residents living near roads and expressways. One solution is of course to create thicker windows to block the noise – but keeping windows closed may lose us the benefit of natural ventilation. The NTU team working on this project will actually be using noise to cancel out noise. To do so, their windows will generate sounds of a similar amplitude but of opposite waves – a simple law of physics I am told!
There are many more of such prototypes in the works – a testament to the ingenuity of our fellow Singaporeans.
We will scale up prototypes that prove to be effective. For example, in Punggol Northshore, HDB’s very first “smart and sustainable district”, we will get a glimpse of the neighbourhoods of the future. Think sensor-controlled smart lighting in common areas, smart sockets and a smart distribution board in homes to help residents monitor energy consumption. Residents will also enjoy a seamless parking experience with barrier-free entry and exit.
These cutting-edge urban solutions will allow for a comfortable living environment even as we intensify our land use, and establish Singapore as a highly liveable city.
Let me conclude by bringing us back to why we plan for the long-term, and why we are inviting everyone along on this journey. At the heart of our plans are our people. The landscapes and buildings we create are to support the individual and collective dreams of Singaporeans, both present and future.
The exciting thing about infrastructure and land-use planning is that our plans will come to fruition in very tangible ways. The historic districts of Chinatown, Kampong Glam and the Singapore River are legacies of the 1822 Jackson Plan. The 1971 Concept Plan laid the blueprint for Changi Airport, and our system of expressways and MRT lines which we enjoy today. The 1991 Concept Plan birthed the idea of connecting parks, green spaces and waterways through a network.
So what imprint would this edition of the Long-Term Planning Review leave behind?
As we look to the transformation of Singapore within a generation, may it give us confidence that we have the ability, the will and the imagination to plan and build our future city together.