Speech by 2M Indranee Rajah for the 7th Singapore Institute of Planners (SIP) Planning Awards

Sep 17, 2021

A very good evening to all of you. Allow me to begin by congratulating all the award winners here tonight. You have all done very well, and I look forward to seeing more great work from you in years to come.

Examining the Importance of Urban Planning through a Historical Lens

Today, allow me to share my thoughts about the importance of urban planning.

Firstly, what is urban planning exactly? Many definitions of urban planning abound, and I’m sure all of us have our own preferred one. But do bear with me as I share my own. Urban planning can be understood as the science of wielding public policy to shape and interweave public and private spaces, with the aim of helping all citizens thrive. Urban planners like yourselves therefore play an exceptionally important role. By wielding a mixture of rationality and creativity, you put in place plans that create the optimal conditions to maximise human flourishing, not just for the privileged but for all citizens.

There are many examples throughout history that illustrate the great positive impact that urban planners can bring about.

Even in ancient cities, urban planners were deeply influential. Take Hippodamus of Miletus for instance, who utilised the grid layout in the 5th century BC. His simple yet effective design of laying out streets intersecting at right angles introduced order, uniformity and convenience. It was eventually used in many great ancient cities such as Antioch and Alexandria. Even today, we see the influence of his principles when we walk the streets of famous cities like Manhattan and Barcelona.

Another more modern example of the importance of planners is the industrial cities of the 20th century. In many cities across the West, rapid industrialisation sped up the pace of urban crowding and led to a rise in pollutive commercial activity. This caused an increase in disease and a decrease in life expectancy. Despite space constraints, urban planners had to quickly design ways to mitigate these negative externalities. For instance, residential areas were quickly moved away from industrial facilities and comprehensive sewer systems were implemented, bringing about great improvements in public health. Indeed, these efforts are echoed today by our planners’ work to ensure that our public spaces can be safer and our communities more resilient in the face of current and future pandemics.

In fact, I would say that the Singapore urban planning journey is perhaps the prime example of the importance of urban planning. To me, it illustrates perhaps the most fundamental aspect of planning – making the most of the cards we are dealt with. Since independence, we were faced with a set of daunting circumstances. Our urban areas were overcrowded, susceptible to fires and floods, and pests were rampant. But we also had some distinct advantages. As an island nation, we were surrounded by waters that made good harbours, and we benefitted economically from being located along the Straits of Malacca.

In this regard, we were fortunate to have had wise planners who deftly employed our limited land and resources to position our nation in a manner which compensated for our weaknesses and emphasised our strengths. We built thousands of flats and meticulously planned townships to provide quality homes and living environments for our citizens, removing the health hazards associated with living in slums. We also capitalised on our geographical location by investing heavily in infrastructure to support our maritime industry, enabling us to compete effectively with other ports in the region.

These far-sighted decisions improved the quality of life for citizens by leaps and bounds, not just for those that lived then, but also for generations that followed. And while these decisions may seem simple in hindsight, they were far from easy ones. For instance, our planners made the bold decision to move our airport from Paya Lebar to Changi. By doing so, we moved disamenities such as noise pollution away from residential areas towards the sea, improving the quality of life of residents in the Geylang and Katong region.

Today, we benefit from a world-class airport in Changi, while Geylang and Katong are home to many who enjoy the rich heritage and amenities in the neighbourhood. While it seems today that this may have been an obvious move, back then this was considered a very costly investment. It also was perceived as extremely risky, as the airport at Paya Lebar was already doing quite well.

Today, our planners continue to draw up plans that are just as bold. We are building a mega port in Tuas to strengthen our already exceptional maritime industry. At the same time, this will allow us to relocate our existing terminals at Tanjong Pagar, Keppel and Brani, freeing up great amounts of land that our planners can reshape. This will allow future Singaporeans to benefit from a brand new redeveloped Greater Southern Waterfront. While these moves are costly, we are willing to make them with conviction, because we believe that these plans can bring great benefits to citizens of today, as well as citizens of tomorrow.

Providing Ideal Conditions for Planners – the Government’s Role

At this juncture, allow me to revisit a previous point. Earlier, I described urban planning as the science of putting in place plans that create the optimal conditions for citizens.

But I think this is perhaps missing something – because plans in themselves cannot create conditions if they remain on paper. They must be effectively implemented. Robust legislation and regulation are thus important ingredients for our detailed plans to become reality.

But we also need other conditions to be in place to ensure that urban planners themselves can thrive as they plan – and the Government’s role has always been to ensure these conditions are in place.

For instance, because long-term planning ironically requires great responsiveness to shifting trends, we must also ensure the overarching circumstances afford our planners maximum flexibility to adapt plans. In this regard, our Planning Act is carefully crafted to ensure that the Master Plan is not only legally binding, but also regularly reviewed and able to be modified quickly, in a transparent manner.

Beyond good legislation, political stability is another key ingredient. By nature, planning has a time horizon stretching forward for decades. In many cities, this means that effective planning is often stymied by external factors such as frequent changes in city government. In contrast, while our Government here has evolved over the years, we have been careful to manage this evolution to provide stability. I believe this has to a great extent contributed to the success of our urban planning here in Singapore.

These conditions are necessary because urban planning by nature is concerned with realising benefits in the long term rather than short term. For instance, we spend significant amounts and put up with years of construction-related inconveniences whenever we build new MRT stations and lines. Citizens bear the load today, so that future generations can benefit from more space and better transport networks.

After many years of planning, I am sure that like me, many of you have noticed that this time lag goes against people’s innate desire for instant gratification. Hence, as a Government, we have always sought to find ways to ameliorate this temporal tension. One way is by ensuring that our fiscal situation does not force us to sacrifice long-term investments. In this regard, the Government has consistently been responsible stewards of our country’s finances, thereby ensuring we do not need to pawn the happiness of future generations to pay for the excesses of today.

Besides fiscal prudence, we’ve also put in place specific measures to better spread the fiscal burden temporally. For instance, earlier this year we introduced the Significant Infrastructure Government Loan Act (SINGA), which paved the way for the Government to pay for major national infrastructure projects through borrowing. This move allows us to spread lumpy up-front costs over many years, so that we can finance significant long-term infrastructure in a manner that is equitable across generations.

All these moves have created conditions that I believe empowers our planners here to exercise their ingenuity to the utmost, which ultimately benefits Singaporeans for multiple generations.

But regardless of our efforts, as planners we recognise that we cannot fully erase this fundamental trade-off between the present and future. So, we must continually build up public trust in our plans, so that citizens are willing to put up with some pains in the present to safeguard a brighter future for coming generations.

This can only be done through constant dialogue with citizens and planners from the private sector. We recognise this, and that is why we are empowering our planners by purposefully placing a strong emphasis on meaningful and in-depth public engagement during the ongoing Long-Term Plan Review (LTPR).

The LTPR is URA’s latest review of Singapore’s long-term land use plans, which guide development over the next 50 years. Even more so than in past reviews, our planners are faced with increasing uncertainties, game-changing trends and competing land demands. To make the trade-offs in the wisest fashion, they need to understand and empathise with the fears and aspirations of every segment of society. Thus, we are conducting numerous polls, dialogues and workshops to hear from as many citizens as possible from all walks of life. Many of you have participated in the online polls URA conducted, and I would like to thank you for the support.

We are aiming for our LTPR engagement efforts to reach as many people as possible, hence I was glad to hear that SIP is organising your own conversations to discuss ideas or proposals for URA to consider. Please feel free to let my URA colleagues know how we can support this. Your views, both as professionals with diverse experience and expertise in the planning community and as Singaporeans, play an important role in shaping the future of Singapore. I look forward to you contributing your thoughts and ideas to the LTPR.

Recognising and Thanking Planners for Working with the Government

Indeed, to achieve the optimal outcomes, it is imperative that planners from both the private and public sectors collaborate.

In this regard, I’m glad that we have been able to work out a way for SIP and URA to collaboratively plan for the future of the Paya Lebar Airbase area. As the airbase will only be phased out after 2030, the collaboration provides a good platform to make use of the long lead time to gather ideas and re-imagine how the area can be reshaped into a great place to live, work and play. It is exciting to hear that SIP, together with the Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA), has already formed two core teams to develop two alternative concept master plans.

I look forward to seeing some of these findings shared with the public next year, so that we can better incorporate the hopes and aspirations of our citizens to create better urban spaces for our future generations. I sincerely hope that this collaboration will be the harbinger of many, many projects that bring together private and public sector planning professionals and builds partnerships that last for many years to come.

At this juncture, I would also like to thank the SIP for their contributions to the field of planning in Singapore. SIP plays a vital role in nurturing talent and promoting excellence in the field of urban and regional planning. This Planning Award, as well as other initiatives such as the Joint Talks with industry experts and planning courses, have contributed to the growth and high standards of planning professionalism in Singapore. Besides this, SIP also encourages collaboration and strengthens networks and friendships between planners, as well as with stakeholders across allied disciplines. This in turn contributes to the vibrancy and dynamism of the entire profession. I urge the Institute to continue its good work. The Government will continue to work together with you to promote excellence in the planning profession.

Conclusion: Planning Together for a Brighter Future

To conclude, I think it is worth reiterating that Singapore is a city-state that is not just constantly being recreated, but more importantly, constantly being co-created. To plan for a brighter future, we need all stakeholders from both the public and private sectors to work closely together.

As we look ahead to the decades to come, we see a very different set of circumstances and challenges as compared to what has come before. Our plans must account for major trends such as an ageing population, game-changing technological developments and the existential threats such as climate change.

COVID-19 has also accelerated some changes in how we live, work, and play. For instance, telecommuting, online shopping and food delivery are becoming the default way of life for an increasing proportion of our population. We are also seeing a renewed appreciation for outdoor parks and open spaces. This means we may need to tweak our plans to accommodate new forms of urban logistics, more green spaces and rising demand for more roomy apartments, as some of these trends will likely persist beyond the pandemic.

These ever-shifting trends will pose uncertainties that will be difficult to plan for. But I have great faith in the abilities of our local planners. Just as Singapore’s urban development today bears testament to the foresight of our past planners, I believe that the Singapore of the future will inspire appreciation in the future generations of Singaporeans who will benefit from the plans that we are crafting today.

I wish you all good health, and a hearty congratulations once again to the award recipients. Thank you.