Speech by 2M Desmond Lee at the 9th Session of the World Urban Forum

Feb 9, 2018

Singapore thanks the government and people of Malaysia, and UN Habitat, for your generosity and gracious hospitality in hosting the 9th session of the World Urban Forum (WUF). 

When we were in Quito a year ago, national and city leaders from around the world gathered to endorse the New Urban Agenda. 

The Agenda recognises that well-governed, planned and nurtured cities will play an increasingly fundamental role as drivers and leaders of positive global growth and action. They will provide good homes for people, help shape more inclusive and sustainable societies, and ensure environmental protection. 

But the converse is also true. Poorly run cities will lower the quality of life for dwellers, entrench inequality, harm the environment and derail sustainable development goals.
The New Urban Agenda has been set. So we believe that WUF and subsequent sessions have to focus on the goals and implementation. So in this regard, I will spend most of my speech sharing about the experience from our city state and hope that other member states can also share so that we can learn from each other as we seek to find solutions that can be implemented and scaled in our societies. 

UN Habitat has rightly identified ‘Urban Legislation and Governance’ – the focus of this dialogue – as one of five key action areas under the New Urban Agenda. 

For Singapore, urban governance and the Rule of Law has been, and continues to be, fundamental to our city’s development. 

For some of you in the audience who have come from afar, and may not know where we are - Singapore is immediately south of our host, Malaysia. Turn on your iPhone GPS, head south, drive for 5 hours and you will reach Singapore. By 2026, with the High Speed Rail connecting Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, we will just be a 90-min train ride away, bringing both cities even closer. We are an island city-state: a city in a small island that is also a sovereign state. We are just 720 square kilometres in size, with a population density of about 8000 people per square kilometre. Our population is multi-racial, and we are one of the most religiously diverse places on earth.

With these fundamental characteristics and constraints, you can understand why proper urban legislation, governance and rule of law are vital to our sustainability and survival. They provide a basis for law and order and security, and stamp out corruption. They ensure a stable and predictable framework for urban development, fairness for all, and the protection of peoples’ rights. Urban plans designed in consultation with our people ensure an inclusive built environment. And Government policies and programmes are designed to give every person equal access to opportunities, regardless of their starting point in life.

These are important aspects of our urban governance approach, and something that we share with fellow counterparts through our joint international capacity building programme with UN Habitat, that we run for city leaders and mayors in support of the New Urban Agenda.

But legislation and government intervention alone are not enough. To build an inclusive society, we believe in the need for collective responsibility. The efforts and programmes of government need to be reinforced by personal and family responsibility, and a supportive culture within the community where people help and look out for each other. So the state must intervene and the state must be active, but not to such an extent that we extinguish a person’s will and desire to stand up for themselves and take care of their family. 

I would like to share with you today, some of the small ways in which we strive to build a city and home that is as liveable, inclusive, sustainable, and stable as far we can make it. 

The Government’s Role – Urban Governance and the Rule of Law

First, we take a proactive approach to ensuring that our city is inclusive and well-integrated. As a very small country, we need our development to be stable and orderly. We have less margin for error, so we cannot leave many things to chance. 

URA Master Plan freely accessible to all 

One example of this is our Urban Master Plan, overseen by our Urban Redevelopment Authority, the URA. By law, it is reviewed every five years and guides development over the next 10 to 15 years. This Master Plan, which is a statutory land-use plan, clearly stipulates permissible land uses and densities of any piece of land. And this plan must be strictly complied with, and is enforced. It is publicly available on the URA website, and anyone can refer to it. It is not only available to the privileged. 

Building Multi-racial, Integrated and Harmonious Neighbourhoods 

Multiracialism and multiculturalism has provided peace and opportunity for all, and this has been the basis for our progress. It is also a matter of national identity.

In no other area is the importance of racial and religious harmony made more clear than one of our starkest policies - the Ethnic Integration Policy. Since the 1970s, we have designed national programmes to ensure that society has a balanced representation of Singapore’s ethnically diverse population. The Ethnic Integration Policy was introduced in 1989. It was in the context of a massive public housing policy, that provided, first, basic homes and then better quality homes - but all public housing. It now houses 80% of Singapore’s population; 80% of our citizens live in Government housing. And 90% of these households own their homes. This Ethnic Integration Policy sets quotas for the proportion of each major ethnic group allowed to own flats in our public housing estates. So every block will have quotas. Doing this prevents racial enclaves forming, and ensures that our neighbourhoods have a diverse ethnic mix. Most families will live alongside, and learn to understand and respect neighbours of different ethnicities, different languages and profess different faiths.  

In any one neighbourhood, you will find a deliberate planning mix of public and private housing, and different flat types catering to different income groups. So we have condominiums or apartments surrounded by smaller units dedicated to seniors, singles or lower income households. You also see slightly larger flats - 3 or 4-rooms that cater to the lower and middle income. And the 5-rooms and executive and maisonette flats catering to the higher income households, all mixed together. So social economic status is not defined strictly by where you live. We do not have areas of deprivation where one would tell a tourist never to venture. There are no such areas. We cannot afford it; we are a small place.

We mix these housing types in our neighbourhoods to ensure greater social equity and social mixing, to mitigate against class stratification. As a result, our neighbourhoods will have both a diverse ethnic mix and a good mix of people from different socio-economic status. This makes peoples’ daily lived experience of Singapore life more inclusive, and more representative of reality.

I spoke earlier about the fact that our forefathers hailed from the region and beyond. Many came here not with intention of settling here in Singapore, but of making a living and returning back -  to China, to India, the Malayan peninsula and elsewhere. So when we became a nation, to give people a stake in the country, we have an active home ownership policy for public housing. Over 80% of our resident population live in affordable, good quality public housing today, across 23 towns and three estates. 90% of these residents own their own homes. 
But our public housing programme goes beyond brick and mortar. Beyond providing a roof over everyone’s heads, it is a tool for us to respond to our society’s needs and changes, and to foster a sense of rootedness and community in Singapore.  We believe the family is an important pillar of strength for our society. For those who are married and wish to live with or near their parents for mutual care and support, we have introduced various schemes to enable this. We are also mindful of changing norms in society. As more people choose to remain single, we reviewed our schemes to support their housing needs too. 

Our society is also ageing rapidly. While we are a relatively young nation, our population has aged faster than in most developed countries. Today, 1 in 8 Singaporeans is 65 years of age and above. With increasing life expectancy and low fertility rates, this proportion will rise to 1 in 4 Singaporeans by 2030. In response, we are designing ways to provide housing and care options that can enable our seniors to age well and age-in-place, with easier access to medical and social services. A study is underway to examine possibilities for assisted living, where housing comes with a range of services that older people may need. By working closely across the public, private and people sectors, we can empower our seniors to remain independent in their daily living, beyond the traditional confines of a nursing home. 

Even as we have enabled the majority of Singaporeans to own their homes, it is just as important that we go beyond just brick and mortar and nurture the social connections in our neighbourhoods. This is the glue in our society that we must strengthen. One can live in close proximity to different housing types but if there are no activities that bring people close together, they can live together but still be worlds apart. 

We formed a statutory entity - the People’s Association, or PA - in 1960 to boost social cohesion and strengthen multiculturalism. in the past, it was a place where people go to watch television. And people of different races will mix because they all watch television together. In our neighbourhoods today, the PA and its citizen volunteers organise all kinds of events and activities for residents: celebrating festivals, playing sports together, learning dance or even learning emergency preparedness skills like how to perform CPR during an emergency. They also help mediate disputes between neighbours, and teach residents how to prevent mosquito breeding and fight the scourge of dengue. 

On the surface, these are just events. But they bring people of different backgrounds together. They make new friends, grow a sense of belonging to their neighbourhoods, and to Singapore. These social networks bind communities together. This is especially crucial in times of disaster or emergency, where we will be able to count on a strong network of friends and neighbours to help each other, and to help the most vulnerable in society. 
Ensuring that no one gets left behind 

Cities also accentuate social inequality, and this is amplified in city-states. So we have to actively support social mobility, and work against the natural order of development, which is for society to stratify and settle. 

We must therefore make extra effort to care for and help those who are struggling, or who start with disadvantages in life. We want to give them a leg up, to have equal opportunities to build a good life for themselves.  

Beyond very significant social spending on education, healthcare and public housing that benefit people across the board, we also have a range of programmes that give targeted help to those that need more help. 

One programme, our ComCare programme helps the low-income and those permanently unable to work with financial support, as well as additional subsidies for healthcare, childcare, and schooling. Singaporeans with disabilities can count on financial support for their learning and development, mobility aids, home-based care, and also for training and assistance so that they can find good jobs with supportive employers. Especially when technology disrupts jobs, we want to help those who are most vulnerable adapt and find opportunities in new industries.

In our social support network and in many of our programmes, we work closely with non-governmental organisations and the community to give more tailored support. For instance, the Singapore Children’s Society assists in running a programme, BeaconWorks, that gives much needed counselling to families with children who have serious disciplinary issues.  

Three years ago, we also launched a national health insurance scheme, MediShield Life, which gives all citizens lifelong protection against large hospital bills. No one is excluded, regardless of their pre-existing condition or financial ability to pay.

We also co-locate social and health services in the heart of our neighbourhoods making them easily accessible to the elderly and more vulnerable. In the neighbourhood of Yishun, for example, we have three ‘Wellness Kampung’ or ‘Wellness Village’ initiatives which give residents access to day care and rehabilitation, as well as free health screenings, exercise and recreational programmes, and healthy cooking demonstrations – all in one place. Residents say that they enjoy making new friends there, and are able to get healthier and more active. 

Public Spaces as Social Levelers 

One of the things we reassure about Singapore is how green we have made it. For a small city, we make sure that there are many trees, parks, and nature reserves. Almost half of our city are under green cover. 

Some of our best loved public spaces – the Singapore Botanic Gardens which is a UNESCO site, Marina Barrage, Macritchie Reservoir – are spaces with greenery and water, and they are completely open for anyone to visit.

Having public spaces freely accessible to all is an important part of an inclusive city. They are social levelers that allow all people to enjoy the landscape of the city, without exception.  

In recent years, we have also gone one step further to do more for the disabled and elderly. For example, we have built inclusive playgrounds like this one in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. It has a wheelchair-accessible swing and merry-go-round. Where physically-disabled children can enjoy it, and enjoy it with children without disabilities.  

For the elderly, we have also developed therapeutic gardens, like this one in HortPark. These gardens are not only designed with elderly-friendly features. They also help improve the mental well-being of patients recovering from stroke or suffering from dementia.

Public Consultation in Urban Governance 

We continually seek to improve our urban governance. One important way we do this is by consulting and engaging with the community more when developing plans and policies.

For example, we consult the public when preparing our Master Plan that I described earlier, via various channels such as surveys, focus group discussions, and public fora. By listening to our people, we can better understand their concerns and aspirations as we plan for the future. 

Another example is the Rail Corridor, a former railway line that is now a 24-kilometre green corridor running from the north to the south of Singapore. It used to run through to Malaysia as well. Through four years of public consultation, people voiced their desire for the Rail Corridor to be kept rustic and green, retain heritage, and to be an inclusive public space for all. The public’s views have been made central in our plans for it.  

We also work closely with other stakeholders such as interest groups, professional associations, and academics to study the viability of our plans and the different options available to us.

The Community’s Role – Personal Responsibility and a Supportive Social Culture

Singapore adopts a balanced approach to building an inclusive society. We believe that it is not only the Government’s responsibility but also the community’s as well. Even as we do more to mitigate the inequalities that people face, this should be reinforced by a deep sense of personal and family responsibility, and a culture of caring for others. 

We are already seeing how inspiring it can be when people in the community band together to help each other, and look after the spaces they love. 

For example, Volunteers from the group ReadAble spend their Saturdays in this neighbourhood (Jalan Kukoh) helping kids from low-income families to get better at and to love reading. They want to raise the kids’ confidence and enable them to dream, through the power of literacy. Some of these kids were falling behind in school, but after help from the volunteers, have improved tremendously. 

Another initiative is called Friends of the Parks. It brings together volunteers, researchers, conservationists, heritage buffs and regular park goers. The thing they all have in common is they love our parks, but in different ways. And these groups are brought together to understand each other’s concerns, needs, worries and wants and they then activate and energise the space.   

Many other volunteer and community groups across Singapore devote their time and energy to bringing people together and helping them, whether through befriending seniors who live all by themselves, fixing wheelchairs, or helping at-risk youths and ex-prisoners to re-integrate into society. 


Our city continues to develop and evolve and continues to meet many challenges, such as technological disruptions and medical changes. 

But whilst building the city involved constructing physical infrastructure – roads and railway, parks and water pipelines, and buildings and airports - what is even more important in making sure that the city runs smoothly, and that people are included, have been the elements that are non-physical, non-tangible such as the Rule of Law, safety and security, our systems of governance and policies, and an active civic society that cares.  

On its own, the free market will worsen inequalities. But we believe in free markets but active government intervention where markets fail, together with personal responsibility and a supportive community. 

I look forward to this continuing conversation and learning from each other about things that we can do so that in implementing the New Urban Agenda, we have new practical ideas to chew on and practical work to get on. Thank you.