Singapore’s success in urban planning: Learning from father of city planning Dr Liu Thai Ker

Singapore is known for its efficient land-use planning, which is due in no small part to the contribution of Dr Liu Thai Ker who is often credited as the architect of modern Singapore. The slideshow below pulls out sound bites from a recent interview conducted by the Journal of Infrastructure, Policy and Development with the former Singapore master planner. Here, he discusses the factors that have led to successful infrastructure development and urban design in the city-state.

A visionary’s experience in incorporating infrastructure into long-term urban planning – Interview with Dr Liu Thai Ker

Under the watch of Dr Liu Thai Ker, the former chief architect and CEO of the Housing & Development Board (HDB) from 1969-1989, two dozen new towns with around 200,000 residents each and more than half a million housing units were completed.

He tells the Journal of Infrastructure, Policy and Development about Singapore’s experience in formulating and implementing public policies, specifically in urban development and public housing, as well as the instrumental role played by the government in the country’s accomplishments. Here are some of the highlights from the insightful discussion.

What were the institutional settings that supported Singapore’s infrastructure development?

  • Political will: Singapore’s first-generation political leaders were far-sighted and determined to change it from a backward city into a modern metropolis.
  • Long-term urban planning: Having a good urban plan helped in knowing where to allocate infrastructure. Taking into account future needs instead of only looking at what you can afford was also key.
  • Wise investments: Investing in areas undergoing urbanisation resulted in returns, therefore giving the government the money to invest more. In remote areas, appropriate technology at appropriate cost was used to upgrade the quality of the environment.
  • HDB’s role in public housing: In 1960, almost three-quarters of Singapore’s 1.6 million population lived in squatter colonies. HDB was involved in resettling the squatters and clearing the land, as well as planning and designing the new towns.

Given Singapore’s limited land and resources, what was the biggest challenge you faced and how was it overcome?

 The first cabinet members decided that the only way to achieve home ownership for all was to go high-rise. At that time, Singapore looked to the West for inspiration, but experts there condemned high-rise high-density housing due to poor experiences in their own countries.

HDB planners made a few trips to Europe to identify these problems and overcome them with policy design. For example, to avoid ghettos here, HDB mixed one-third former squatters with two-thirds urban folks and apartments of various sizes together.

Many countries, such as China, find implementation very difficult. In developing infrastructure, how do we ensure coordination between different government agencies?

 In Singapore, there is only one plan and one implementing agency – the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). However, although URA has authority over the plan, any changes must be discussed with the Master Planning Committee, which consists of representatives from different government departments.

China has the advantage of only one political party running a strong central government, while land is owned by the state. It just needs the right planning ideas and to improve its administrative system.

What is the impact of infrastructure development on Singapore’s social and economic development?

 Singapore has clean air, flowing traffic, good infrastructure and foreign schools, and offers a safe and comfortable life. Good infrastructure makes Singapore more attractive for foreign investment.

 On the social side, HDB actually planned communities. New towns are subdivided into neighbourhoods, precincts and building blocks. Within each block there are community spaces such as void decks and segmented corridors. These social spaces nurture community cohesion and a sense of belonging.

How do you incorporate long-term infrastructure development into a country’s urban planning scheme and what kind of infrastructure has been crucial to Singapore’s development?

Infrastructure such as water, electricity, sewage and drainage are all important. There first needs to be a good long-term master plan. Then, the Public Utilities Board locates power plants of the right sizes, the Land Transport Authority decides road alignments and widths, and Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) engineers draw up the land needed for MRT lines. When these are in place, we have the coordinated staging plan and detailed engineering designs.

It is a matter of being careful and logical in practising a disciplined approach to planning and development. We lifted ourselves from poverty to become a relatively wealthy nation by managing our country like a company and never wasting anything.

How important is legislation in the development of a country?

Most cities have the compulsory Land Acquisition Act, but few use it to the extent that Singapore has. The government, which now owns around 90 per cent of the land, has consistently demonstrated that the acquired land has improved the quality of life, hence winning the support of the people and private landowners.

We have also been fussy about writing our planning rules and regulations clearly and making them available to the public to ensure transparency. This gives potential local and foreign investors confidence in their investment. Setting clear legal guidelines can therefore help the economic growth of Singapore.

For more insights, read Dr Liu’s full interview with the Journal of Infrastructure, Policy and Development.