Speech by Minister Lawrence Wong at the 6th Singapore Institute of Planners (SIP) Planning Awards Dinner

Sep 12, 2019

I am very happy to join you this evening for the SIP Planning Awards Dinner. Let me start by recognising the award recipients tonight, and to congratulate all of you. Let us give them once again a big round of applause.

Urban planning has a long history. In some ways, it is as old as human civilisation itself; if you look at some of the ancient cities – Greek, Roman, Chinese, or Mayan, you can find traces of planning in all of them. There was a certain order and method in the way they laid out their buildings and streets in a coherent pattern. All of you, as professional planners, can take pride that you are part of this long and important tradition of planning.

Of course, planning went through a paradigm change. At the turn of the 20th century, with rapid industrialisation, cities especially in the West were growing at a tremendous rate, and there was a need for planners to deal with negative consequences on environment and the impact on human health. The planning profession had to respond to these needs.

This rapid urbanisation continues to be the main challenge for planners today. With rapid urbanisation, cities everywhere are becoming more complex and difficult to manage – be it social inequality, environmental issues, or in the longer term, climate change. Hence, the way we organise and plan our cities to be more liveable, and sustainable becomes so much more critical.

We are very fortunate in Singapore. We had founding leaders and pioneers who understood these urban challenges, and the need for good, long-term planning to optimise, and to make the best use of our limited land. We have had early planners like Dr Liu Thai Ker and team who developed the 1971 Concept Plan, which was Singapore's first national blueprint.

This forms the structural base upon which we do our urban development today. After him, successive teams in the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) have continued that tradition. Tonight, we are very fortunate to see four generations of Chief Planners here – from Dr Liu, to Mr Khoo Teng Chye, to Dr Cheong Koon-Hean, to Mr Lim Eng Hwee. This is our 4G planning team.

Besides having the tradition of good planning in government, it was important that politically, the Government backed the blueprint that the planners came up with, and ensured that the plans were implemented over the long term, through many years and decades, and through multiple terms of government.

When we look back at what we have done, we see how these plans have been systematically carried out throughout our history. For example, how the airport was relocated to Changi in the 1970s, or how we developed Marina Bay from 40 years ago, starting with reclamation when there was literally nothing there, and over the years developing a vibrant new downtown as an extension of our city.

Of course, this discipline and implementation of plans does not mean that we have an unthinking adherence to plans. Our plans are never static. We are always updating and adjusting them along the way, depending on the changing circumstance and context. We look at the viability of the project before we proceed. We look at the needs and demands of the time.

Look at the example of public transport. When we started out, we favoured buses to our Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system heavily. Over the years, our thinking on this has shifted. We have been investing a lot more in our MRT system to make it much more comprehensive. Now, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) has a transport blueprint, which indicates that it will take 45 minutes to commute within the city centre, and 20 minutes to get to any amenities within your town – all through public transport.

Look at the example of our PSA container port. The idea to move the container port to Tuas was mooted way back. We talked about this for quite some time, from the 1980s to 1991. At that time, we decided not to move the Port all the way to Tuas, because it was too drastic a move. We decided to reclaim land in Pasir Panjang for the expanded ports.

Now, we have made plans to build a new Tuas Mega Terminal. Over the coming years, there will be a systematic shift of the port – starting from the city ports, and later the Pasir Panjang ports into Tuas. That is how we have worked out our plan. We cannot do a plan now, and expect the plan to be valid 10 to 20 years later. It is adaptive, it is flexible, but throughout, there is a consistent methodology, and a coherent implementation.

This is the system that has worked for us and delivered results. That is why many countries admire the system of planning in Singapore and send teams to learn from us and we are happy to share our experiences with them.

In fact, many countries and many cities will develop their own concept plans. But if you look around the world, very few have the ability or the discipline to follow through on these plans. There are several reasons. Sometimes, it is because there is a change of government after an election – a new government is formed and discards the plans by the previous one, purely for political reasons, which is very unfortunate. Sometimes, it is because the government lacks resources or faces obstacles from various interest groups in implementing the plans.

Fortunately, we have not had these problems in Singapore so far. Here in Singapore, we have a robust system of long term planning – one that is adaptive and flexible, but importantly, one that is backed by actions and effective implementation.

This creates a virtuous circle. When the plans are translated into reality, people can see that these are credible plans. Then they start to take the plans seriously, and want to participate to shape the plans. That in turn helps us to develop better plans for the future.

All of you are part of this ecosystem of planning in Singapore, and each one of you, in your own ways, has contributed to the designs and plans of our city. Tonight, I want to put on record my thanks to all of your contributions. Thank you very much.

The Government will continue to lead our urban planning efforts in Singapore, but we cannot do everything on our own. Private sector planners like yourselves bring your own creativity, imagination and ideas. By working together, we can develop better plans.

We indeed have many successful public-private partnerships. Just to name a few, we have planners from WOHA on the Punggol Digital District Master Plan, and the MKPL on the Bidadari Estate Master Plan. There are many other examples, and there will be many more opportunities for such partnerships in the future.

Singapore is very small. When it comes to master planning it is not of the scale that you see in many other cities. In fact, if you do a project in China, the size and scale of it may already be much larger than anything we do in Singapore.

But because we are now embarking on an exciting phase of rejuvenating and reinventing our city for the future, there will be new spaces to start thinking about, be it our Greater Southern Waterfront, or the current Paya Lebar Air Base when the military base moves out to Changi.

These are literally greenfield sites that we can start thinking about what we want to do for the future. We look forward to working with all our planners to shape this exciting new phase of building our next Singapore.

Of course, beyond Singapore, there are and will be many opportunities for our planners and private firms. Many cities are very keen to learn from us. If you talk to any city leader, they will tell you that their first impression of Singapore is that it is a very well-planned city. Many of these mayors and city leaders would like to learn many things from us, but on the top of the agenda is to learn about how we do master planning. They would like that service.

You have the opportunity to help us share your expertise and experiences, and so that makes good opportunities for our planners to make an impact overseas. I am glad that many of our private firms here are already doing good work overseas.

Many of you are in Asia – in Southeast Asia, but also in countries like China, India and Sri Lanka. Some of you have ventured farther afield, going to Russia, African countries, and even Latin America.

The Government has and will continue to support these efforts. Enterprise Singapore will support firms in your internationalisation efforts. They will help you to identify and facilitate meetings with potential partners in overseas markets.

We have other platforms where we can help to champion the work of our private partners and planners. For example, we recently held the International Built Environment Week (IBEW) where many international developers were in town. We have the World Cities Summit, where many city leaders come together. Through these platforms, we have and will continue to showcase the work of our private firms and planners, so that you have a platform to demonstrate the works that you have done. Hopefully, new opportunities can be struck with our neighbouring countries.

Of course, to seize these opportunities, planners yourselves must do your part to build up strong capabilities. The capabilities have to be developed in multiple disciplines, because planning is inherently a multi-disciplinary work.

You need to sometimes wear the hat of an architect, in order to have the design capability and visualise how the new area will be. You sometimes need to wear an engineer’s hat, in order to think of infrastructure solutions in a systematic way. You sometimes need to wear a social scientist’s hat to understand the city's geography, its culture and its history, to understand human behaviour and how people interact with one another, as well as how structures and building forms shape people's behaviours. It is actually very complex.

Above all, to plan effectively, planners need to have intellectual curiosity, rigorous analysis, and good judgement. You need to be able to consider a wide range of needs and perspectives in your plans.

All of this means that planners cannot work in silos. You need to collaborate, not just between the private and public sectors, but also with other stakeholders. This collaboration is key also in tackling cross-cutting issues like climate change. When you think of an issue like climate change, the solution has to be from many different domains. It calls for a comprehensive urban solution, ranging from physical engineering and design solutions, to behavioural science solutions to nudge people’s behaviour to adopt more sustainable practices.

We also need, for example, micro-climate modelling scales to better understand urban design, and how it interacts with outdoor thermal comfort. A whole range of skill sets will be needed. Planners will need to be familiar with these varied disciplines in order to thoughtfully synthesise these different ideas and approaches into a coherent, urban plan.

Climate change is just one example.  But I am sure that across your planning work, there are so many different domains that you really have to wear those multiple hats that I highlighted, and you may not have all of the capabilities in one person. Very often, as all of you know, you have to bring them together in teams, and you need collaboration.

SIP plays a key role in promoting such collaboration, and in helping you to strengthen your capabilities. The networks and friendships cultivated through SIP can help strengthen collaboration between the public and private sector planners, as well as with stakeholders across different areas.

The programmes and courses run by SIP – and I understand SIP intends to do many more of these professional upgrading programmes – can continue to help planners level up your skills to tackle new challenges.

I encourage SIP to keep up the good work. Your membership is growing. Yes, it may be small, but as is the case in Singapore, small is never an excuse to limit the size of our ambitions. Keep up the good work in SIP and continue with your efforts to strengthen the planning profession in Singapore.

To conclude, the planning profession has been instrumental in shaping today's Singapore. I am confident that you will continue to do so. We still have a lot of work ahead of us as we reinvent and remake our city.

I encourage all of the planners here tonight to partner us in our journey ahead, so that we can continue planning for a better, greener and more liveable Singapore for many more decades to come.

Thank you very much and enjoy the rest of the evening.