Singapore’s Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong
Shares Urbanisation Story and Strategies
(17 May 2019, Hong Kong) Good urban planning is crucial to the future development of a city. Mr Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s Minister for National Development and Second Minister for Finance, shared Singapore’s story and strategies on the topic of “Building for the Future – Singapore’s Urbanisation Experience” at the “Global Perspectives Series” seminar organised by Our Hong Kong Foundation (OHKF) with more than 200 community and business leaders in Hong Kong.
"Keynote Address by Minister Lawrence Wong at the Our Hong Kong Foundation “Global Perspectives” Seminar."
I am very happy to be here in Hong Kong on the invitation of the Government for this visitorship programme. It is also good to be here to attend this Global Perspectives Seminar.
Hong Kong and Singapore are often compared with one another because we share so many things in common. Our two cities were former British trading colonies; we both adopt common law system; and use English language at work and in school. We are both small cities and we lack natural resources. But there is one thing in common, and that is, we have people who are hardworking, enterprising and it is through the ingenuity of our people, that both our cities have succeeded as business hubs for the region.
Between our two cities, from time to time, there is competition, and sometimes even rivalry across different areas - be it business and financial services. Also quoting what Mr Lee Kuan Yew said many years ago, this competition really motivates us to want to do better, and offer better services for businesses, and for our people. Ultimately, it is not a zero-sum game, because when Mr Lee said in the 70s that the market is large enough for both our economies to thrive, this is so much more true today, where the market is so much bigger, and so there are many opportunities for our two cities to collaborate and cooperate.
In fact, there is much for us to learn from each other. We’re both compact, high-density cities and we face many similar challenges – how to optimise our limited land resource, and how to ensure a more liveable environment for our people. Over the last few days I’ve gained a lot of insights about what Hong Kong is doing to deal with its land and housing challenges; you have good plans that have been put in place, and you will see the results of these plans over the coming years. This afternoon I will share briefly with you some of our experiences in Singapore.
A City in A Garden
In Singapore, we are very conscious of the fact that we are not just a city but we are also a country. All we have as a country is this little island that is just above 700 square kilometres. We try very hard to make the best of this small little red dot that we have.
That’s why we made a strategic choice at the very start of nation building to be a Garden City; and now we have been advancing this concept as a City in a Garden. We do this by deliberately safeguarding land for our social and recreational needs. Land that would otherwise be priced out by commercial uses. We safeguard the land for green spaces and recreational spaces, ensuring that there are open green spaces for everyone to enjoy.
If you look at the map of Singapore, and you look at it from the top down, you will be surprised that despite Singapore being such a highly urbanised city, we are in fact very green. We are easily one of the most, if not the most, the greenest city in terms of green cover and green density in the world. We are doubling down on this green strategy. Today, our green spaces – nature reserves, nature areas, parks and park connectors – they account for about 7800 hectares of land; we are increasing this by about 1000 hectares in the next 10-15 years. We are increasing our greenery and enhancing it, even as we develop. We are doing it not in an ad-hoc manner; in fact, we are doing it deliberately and systematically. The Central Catchment area in Singapore is the part with the richest biodiversity, in terms of our native flora and fauna. We are adding green buffers around this Central Catchment area to protect, preserve and enhance our native biodiversity. That is how we continue to enhance greenery in Singapore, and advance our city as a City in a Garden.
Our green spaces are also linked together by over 400km of park connectors, and we are enhancing these park connectors. There is a Coast to Coast Trail which links the west to the east of Singapore, that is 36km long. There is a Rail Corridor, this is an old rail line that is no longer in use – we have kept it as a rail green corridor from north to the south, it is about 24km long; we are now upgrading it and it will ready in two years’ time. If you are more adventurous, you can do a Round Island Route – all around the whole of Singapore are going about 150km long. These are ways in which we continue to enhance our greenery, and it is very much an important part of our past. This is a strategic imperative for Singapore, continuing as a City in a Garden.
Optimising Land Use
Beyond these green spaces, we have land that is used for a range of different purposes, be it residential, commercial or industrial. We are always looking for ways to increase our land options and to optimise land uses. I will elaborate on three strategies. We can extend seawards, we can go upwards, or we can go downwards
First, extending seawards. One way, of course, means reclamation. We have been reclaiming land; it is not new – we have been doing this for many years. In fact, since the 19th century. This year marks 200 years since the British first arrived in Singapore in 1819. That marked a turning point in our history. After the British came, reclamation had already started. If you compare the map from 1819 to today, our land area has expanded by about 25 per cent through reclamation. Reclamation is a massive endeavour - it is costly, requires sand, and we have to do it carefully to minimise any environmental impact. We are very mindful of this. We are also looking at new ways of doing reclamation, not the traditional methods, but methods of reclamation that might be more sustainable. One project that we are doing is in an offshore island called Pulau Tekong. This is an island we use for military training today. Instead of the traditional method of reclamation, we are doing something called a polder. It will create about 800 hectares of land, and we will do it with 40 per cent less sand than traditional reclamation. It is quite a major saving. By expanding the space for military training in this island, we can effectively move military training from the main Singapore island to this island, and free up space for other uses, for example, housing.
One example I would cite is the port terminal land that we have in the southern part of Singapore today, in Tanjong Pagar and Pasir Panjang. The ports currently sit on prime waterfront land, near where our CBD is. When the leases of these ports expire, we will move them to the Western part of Singapore where we have reclaimed land for a new terminal. This will free up 1,000 hectares of space. Aside from the ports moving, there are also other pieces of land around the area - an old power district which is no longer in use, a golf club, offshore islands like Sentosa and Pulau Brani nearby. Altogether that is another 1,000 hectares. If you look at the entire area, it is 2,000 hectares – that is six times the size of Marina Bay today. It will give us many possibilities to extend our city and build a new Southern Waterfront City. That is a major way in which we can inject new land, and optimise extending new ones. That is our first strategy about extending seawards.
The second way is to go upwards to maximise our vertical spaces. In Hong Kong and Singapore, we are all used to high-rise living. But in Singapore, we believe with good planning, there is potential to do more. One example I will share is what we are doing with an existing military airbase in a place called Paya Lebar in Singapore. This Airbase is currently in use by the military, and it is located near urbanised areas and so it imposes height restrictions for the buildings nearby. The buildings in the housing towns around Paya Lebar Airbase are only about 10-20 storeys. We are relocating this airbase to two places – Tengah, where there is an existing military airbase, and Changi, which is a civilian airport, but we are expanding it to accommodate a military runway. We are moving it to the eastern and western parts of Singapore, which are relatively less built up areas. Doing so will free up 800 hectares of land from the Airbase itself – that is about the size of a typical housing town in Singapore. There is also potential to redevelop the surrounding industrial areas – the entire site is much bigger, about to 2 – 3 times the size of a typical housing estate. Importantly, when the Airbase moves out, we can remove the existing height restrictions. When we eventually redevelop the area around Paya Lebar Airbase, we are able to build higher and better optimise existing land around Paya Lebar and all the way to Marina South, to provide more homes, offices and retail spaces in the central, eastern and southern parts of Singapore. Building higher - there is a lot of potential to do that.
The vertical strategy has many other applications. We can use rooftop spaces to harness solar energy, for example. We have always said that Singapore lacks options for renewal power, and indeed we do. The most promising source of renewable energy is solar. But we don’t have a lot of land for large solar farms; what we have done is to put solar panels on rooftops. By next year, we will be installing solar panels on the rooftops for half of all our public housing blocks. Literally half of public housing blocks will have solar panels on their rooftops, and we can move forward to do more in solar energy. In fact, the solar panels, with advancing technology, you can do more than just rooftops, because there are new technologies emerging. For example, there is something called the perovskite solar panels, where the solar cell is not a PV but a thin film, and it can be applied vertically.
Another application is vertical gardens or even urban farms. We don’t have space for large plots of traditional agricultural land in Singapore, so we import virtually all the food we eat today. But we can go into vertical farming and employ new high-tech methods of farming which require less land and are more productive. One such company is already started in Singapore and it produces 10 times more vegetables per unit area of land compared to traditional farms, and it is cost effective. That’s how we can also enhance the resilience of our food supply through innovative vertical strategies. In fact, because this technology shows so much promise, we are setting ourselves an ambitious target called “30 by 30”. We intend to produce 30 per cent of our nutritional needs through home-grown production by 2030. We will still import a lot of food, but 30 per cent of our food supply will be grown through home-grown farming. Not traditional agriculture because we have no space, but modern, high-tech farms, by 2030. That is the vertical strategy, upwards.
Another strategy is to go downwards and utilise underground spaces. We are used to underground spaces too in both Hong Kong and Singapore. We have underground subways and trains, the MRT in Singapore, the MTR in Hong Kong. In Singapore, we have used underground spaces for other things like an underground sewage system, underground power grids and cables. We also developed an underground district cooling network; this is in Marina Bay at our existing city are, where we have centralised production of chilled water that is piped to buildings for air-conditioning. The advantage is that it allows for more efficient use of space. Individual buildings do not need their own on-site chillers and compressors, so it frees up roof-top spaces. All of this is parked underground, not only does it save space, the system also helps to save energy. More than 40 percent of energy savings can be expected through a centralised district cooling system, and it is hugely important for Singapore, to save energy.
The typical underground system, be it a train system or your power systems tend to be 30-40m underground. We have gone deeper to 150m underground, where we have built underground caverns for ammunition storage, and also for oil storage. Underground caverns for oil storage allows us to thrive as a hub for oil trading – we still have space for underground oil storage, even though we have such limited land. We are now going further to identify and safeguard suitable locations in Singapore for such cavern developments.
For the first time this year, when we put together a Master Plan for our development plans, we have included an Underground Space Plan. We are looking at three areas in Singapore for a start, and the underground plan will show what is already in the ground, what we plan for in the future can facilitate better planning and efficient use of underground space. We are starting with three areas, but we hope to expand this Underground Space Plan to include more areas in the future. I have briefly summarised these three strategies – extending seawards, going upwards, going downwards. Those are the major ways in which we can enhance land options and then optimise our existing uses.
Long-term Planning for Housing
With these strategies in place, we can plan ahead and ensure that sufficient land is safeguarded for more important needs, for example, housing. This is a key concern for many Singaporeans, certainly, as is the case in Hong Kong.
Today, we have housing towns spread all over the Singapore island, and we are continuing to safeguard land for new housing towns and estates to ensure there is adequate supply of land for housing in the future. The location of these towns are also not a trivial matter. We have planned for these towns to be located in areas around what we call new major centres or gateways. Because the old paradigm of planning was to have one CBD, and then to have housing in the suburbs or the surrounding areas, and have everybody travel to the CBD. I don’t think that works anymore. In fact, that contributes to traffic congestion during peak hours because everybody is travelling to the CBD for work, and when work is over everybody is travelling out of the CBD to get home. This contributes to traffic congestion and commuting time takes too long. We are now building, broadening and decentralising away from the CBD to regional centres or major gateways outside. On the eastern part, it will be anchored by our Changi Airport which we are expanding; in fact, we are doubling the capacity of our Changi Airport with a new Terminal 5 and a third runway. On the western side, we already have plans for a new container port terminal. We are also planning a western gateway anchored by the new Tuas terminal port. On the northern part of Singapore, that is our closest land link to Malaysia; again, it offers itself as a natural gateway on the northern part of Singapore. The new housing towns are located around these major gateways, and we are expanding our transport network so that transport accessibility will be very convenient. In fact, our planning norms is that the vast majority of residents will be able to live within a ten-minute walk of an MRT station. All of this are designed to ensure that there are jobs close to home, and we can create places where Singaporeans can live, work and play.
In Singapore, the vast majority of Singaporeans live in public housing. More than 80 per cent live in public flats which we call HDB – Housing & Development Board - flats, and 20 per cent live in private property. But we ensure that there is sufficient land for both. Besides the supply of land, we also want to make sure that housing is affordable.
For the private property market, it is much harder to ensure affordability because it is hard for governments to fully control prices. Our experience, in Singapore certainly, and in many other cities has shown, left purely to market forces, the property market will tend to go through large price swings. Our belief and view is that corrective actions are needed – the Government needs to step in, because if such measures are not done in a timely manner to prevent a bubble forming, the costs will eventually be larger and more painful for genuine home owners.
That is what we have done. We have introduced a range of macro prudential measures to ensure a stable and sustainable private property market. If you look at the property prices, we had a huge run-up in prices in the last cycle from 2009 to 2013. We had to intervene in the market eight times before some stability was restored. More recently, there was another run-up in the market, and we intervened yet another time to introduce our ninth package of cooling measures. The aim of these measures is not to bring prices down; it is not in the interest of the Government to cause property prices to collapse either. The aim is to steady the property market and to stabilise the market; to ensure that home prices broadly keep pace with economic growth and fundamentals.
For public housing, we have what we call the HDB, the Housing & Development Board. It is an institution we set up in 1960, and we develop, build and sell the flats to Singaporeans. The commitment of the Government is to ensure that public housing remains affordable and accessible for all young Singaporeans.
What does it mean to be affordable and accessible? First, how long does it take to get a flat in Singapore? A typical first-timer family buying a flat for the first time, in a new estate, will be successful within two to three tries. Then you wait for the building of the flat, and you collect your keys. The average time – four to five years, that is the experience so far, and we are committed towards that.
How much will the flat cost? The new flats are priced at significant discounts to market, with generous grants for first-timers. Our commitment so far is that all first-timers buying a new flat in a new estate will have a mortgage service ratio less than 25 per cent. That is well within international benchmarks of affordability. The vast majority, more than 80 per cent of them, are able to pay for the mortgage and service their loans entirely using their CPFs -what we call the Central Provident Fund – a social security fund which we allow for housing. Zero cash. The remaining 20 per cent pay a bit of cash, but it’s very little. That is the commitment that we have, and that is borne out in the actual experience.
Public housing is not just building and selling an apartment; the Government is also the master developer for the entire estate in the neighbourhood. A lot of effort goes into the planning, design and development of our new towns, to ensure that it has the full range of amenities and facilities. This is to ensure that it has a high quality living environment for our citizens.
For older towns it is harder to change because these have been built in the past – but we provide generous funding for upgrading. Within the flat, we provide for various home improvements to common maintenance issues - whether it is spalling concrete, replacement of old waste pipes, even the upgrading of your bathroom and installation of a new door – funded by the Government. For the least of 99 years, we are doing it two times – the first time at the 30-year mark, and the second time at the 60-year mark, so that the flats continue to be liveable. At the precinct level, we provide for upgrades to the living environment. We provide for playgrounds and fitness stations, and covered linkways for better connectivity. Again, entirely funded by the Government – so that you are living in a place that doesn’t decay and deteriorate, even as the estate grows old, your flat is upgraded, is liveable; and the neighbourhood is also liveable.
One issue we are now planning ahead for is how can public housing support the needs of an ageing population. Most Singaporeans have a home, but they are getting older. Once they stop working, they need to prepare for their retirement. For the older folks, they have a home, but they may not have so much in their retirement accounts. They say that “I am asset-rich but cash-poor”. We have a scheme called the Lease Buyback Scheme where the seniors can sell part of their flat’s remaining lease to the Government, and they receive a stream of retirement income for life. Our leases are 99 years – it is long enough for two generations. For an elderly couple living in the flat, they may not need the entire duration of their existing lease. They can sell the tail-end of the lease to the Government and get some money back – part of it will go into the retirement account, so they literally get a pension for life, and the rest will be proceeds they can take out in cash.
This a real example of Mr Mohamed Salleh and Mdm Normah – a couple in their 70s living in a four-room flat today in Singapore. They don’t want to move out, and they want to live in their flat for the rest of their lives. They have 60 years of lease remaining. Would a 75-year-old couple need 60 years more of lease? Maybe, I don’t know – but I reckon not so. They retained 25 years, which will be more than sufficient for them. But our commitment is that whatever you retain, we will ensure that you can stay there until the end of your life, even if you sell the remaining lease to the Government. By doing so, you get compensation, and in this case, they get almost $1000 a month for life, and $110,000 in cash for their retirement. This is just one example. It is a scheme that every Singaporean have access to, to unlock the value of their flats, because the flats are not only a home, but a store of value for retirement.
Some people prefer to shift to a smaller apartment after their children have moved out. They say that they live in a big flat, all their children have married and moved out – the children have gotten their own flats, and they now suffer from the empty nest syndrome. If you talk to them, they will say that it is such a big apartment, they really do not want to spend time cleaning it up. We try to facilitate this process; we call it right-sizing. We build smaller two-room apartments with varying short leases to allow them to sell their existing place, and move to a new place to spend the rest of their lives. We are building these flats – you could call it a retirement home, but we are trying to do it in a way that is more vibrant, it still provides them with convenient access to amenities. In one of the new areas where we have done this, we have integrated public housing for seniors with a wide range of services, be it clinics, restaurants, senior activity centres. We are learning from you too. I visited Tanner Hill by the Housing Society, and saw some of the assisted living options that they have put in place. We are also similarly doing some of these developments, with integrated housing as well as assisted living in order to provide more options for the elderly.
Building Resilience for the Future
Finally, let me just say a few words about how we are thinking about our next phase of development. We don’t want to develop in the same way – I have shared what are some of these plans, but we want to ensure that the next phase of development in Singapore is not just a continuation of business-as-usual practices. As we go about transforming or moving forward in our development, we have to set higher eco-friendly standards, and more sustainable and liveable urban practices. That is something upper-most on our minds. We also want to be more resilient as a city, bearing in mind that there will be many new challenges we have to face in the coming decades.
For example, one major challenge that we are addressing and studying what we need to do is climate change. As a low-lying island surrounded by water, Singapore faces the threat of rising sea levels due to climate change. In fact, it is a very real threat – it is an existential threat. According to projections by the UN panel, if global emissions continue on their current trajectory uncurbed, sea levels could rise by around 1m in 2100. Even if countries around the world pursue all the measures committed under the Paris Agreement, and that is a big if – we hope it happens but even if the Paris Agreement commitments are upheld, sea levels are still going to rise, by about 0.7m in 2100. There are many uncertainties surrounding these projections. But there are more downside risks than upside. For example, if the Antarctic ice sheets were to melt faster than expected, the sea level rise would be far more dramatic and it may well happen earlier – it will possibly cause significant global impact by 2050. We are studying what measures we need to do to protect ourselves. Reclamation can help in that respect; in Singapore, whenever we do reclamation we are reclaiming at a higher level. We have reclaimed up to 2m above the highest recorded tide level in Singapore. But it is not possible to reclaim the whole of Singapore, so we are studying ways to put in place other infrastructure, like the polders that I talked about earlier.
We may have to do more seawalls, more pumping stations around vulnerable areas. These are long-term investments, but we are planning well ahead and we are putting in place the necessary protective measures within the next 20-30 years.
Besides defending ourselves and protecting our city, we are also looking for more innovative ways to build our city. Science and Technology certainly is a major game changer in how we think about planning and designing our city. There will be tremendous potential for new breakthroughs and new solutions. Technology is a buzz word these days, and you hear a lot in Hong Kong and Singapore about FinTech, because we are financial centres. But there’s also the rise of Property Tech and Urban Tech, and that is attracting a significant share of global venture capital investments. It reflects the growing role of cities and urbanism in the global economy, and that is changing the way we think about cities and urban living. For example, there can be new ways to construct and build infrastructure that are greener, smarter and more efficient. There may be new ways to maintain ageing infrastructure, and there may be new forms of urban mobility, including autonomous or driverless cars. We are now starting a project to look at the possibility of having autonomous buses in one of our new towns. The autonomous shuttles will provide the feeder bus services within the town, and not on a dedicated lane. If it is driving along a dedicated lane, you are not saving a lot of space. We are trying to do this together with normal cars on the road. If this is possible, then we can roll it out, and it can hopefully provide more efficient, better services for residents through autonomous vehicles.
We are investing in a range of R&D solutions, urban solutions that can help take our city to a different level. We want to create new versions of urban living that are more people-friendly, more fulfilling and more sustainable than before. These may be ideas that we pilot but progressively we can test-bed them, and then scale them up throughout our city.
This process of building our city – be it in Hong Kong or in Singapore, it is really a constant journey of discovery and innovation, and we must always push ahead. In some ways it is useful to think of cities as living organisms in a natural eco-system - we either adapt and grow; or we stagnate and perish, and the choice is clear. We can’t say we want to remain the same. If we want to continue to grow, we have no choice but to constantly invent, and reinvent ourselves. That is what cities all over the world have to do. Not because we want to do it, but we are doing it for our people, to ensure a better life for our people. If you look around the world, the two cities in the world that have proven that they can do this, is Hong Kong and Singapore.
We have proven that we can both adapt and thrive under challenging environments, we have no natural resources but through human ingenuity, we continue to innovate, to push the boundaries and to go even further.
That is the spirit that will enable us to build vibrant cities and endearing homes. To succeed in building our cities and this urban development journey, we have to look at the long term because we are building for generations; we are building for enduring success; and we are building for a better life for our future generation. Thank you very much and I hope you will benefit from this sharing.