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Mr Lee 'showed foresight in urban development'
He ensured the bold plans were followed through, say speakers at conference
By: Elgin Toh And Charissa Yong
MANY countries have a concept plan to guide physical development, but Singapore stands out in that it made bold plans early on and actually stuck to them.
That was largely because founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had the foresight to insist on it, the men who worked with him to transform the city said yesterday.
However, speakers at the second conference this week to mark Mr Lee's 90th birthday also identified areas in Singapore's urban development where meticulous planning came with costs, or were inadequate in addressing problems.
One said it made inequality "invisible" and, therefore, kept it under the radar. Another noted that it could not change uncivil forms of behaviour like littering.
The meeting - dubbed "Lee Kuan Yew and the Physical Transformation of Singapore" - was jointly organised by the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities and the Centre for Liveable Cities.
Speakers highlighted the importance of the 1971 Concept Plan - Singapore's first blueprint.
Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) chairman Peter Ho said this plan was "seminal" and that its "essential features are recognisable even today as the basic structure of Singapore".
These include: a nature reserve in the island's centre, heavy industry in the west, a network of transport links, as well as sea and air ports placed where there is space for capacity upgrades.
As Mr Lee said in an interview last year: "There's a definite plan, and we stuck with the plan. There is no corruption and nobody can deviate from the plans."
Former chief executive of URA Liu Thai Ker, who advises cities around the world, including over 20 in China, said Singapore's plan had "teeth to be implemented".
Deliberate planning ensured public housing was available to many, ethnically mixed and well connected.
But Professor Chua Beng Huat of National University of Singapore (NUS) also noted the move to mix all public housing types - one-room, three-room and above - so no ghetto developed had the unintended consequence of making inequality "invisible".
This, he said, resulted in a "neglect" of the "idea of poverty" until recently, when the inequality problem grew more pronounced.
Furthermore, these plans may be struggling to keep up with newer problems. Banyan Tree executive chairman Ho Kwon Ping said that the inability to integrate "sub-communities" in the population, such as blue-collar foreign workers living in dormitories, may turn into a social problem.
On plans for a clean and green Singapore, Gardens by the Bay chief executive Tan Wee Kiat described the effort Mr Lee put into parks and reserves. He noted how former prime minister Goh Chok Tong once remarked Singapore was the only country that read a gardening report in the Cabinet.
But these plans did not always accompany change in human behaviour. Mr Simon Tay, president of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said that the city is clean because before dawn each day, "armies of cleaners" sweep up the litter Singaporeans leave.
Some plans were hard-nosed, even unpopular, but necessary.
Moving the airport from Paya Lebar to Changi when it was not yet clear there would be sufficient demand paid off, said Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong. Selling public housing to recover costs made it sustainable, said Prof Chua.
Certificates of entitlement for cars prevented traffic jams and, crucially, were done early enough, at a time when fewer could afford cars, noted URA's Mr Ho.
But "tough love" was not always appropriate. Mr Liew objected to how some pre-school space is tendered out in closed bids to the highest bidder to maximise land value, making it difficult for socially minded operators who want to charge low fees.
"Maybe we should have a more gracious use of our natural resources and land," he said.