PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD)'s Ministerial Forum/ Credit: Prime Minister's Office (Screenshot from video:

PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD)'s Ministerial Forum/ Credit: Prime Minister's Office (Screenshot from video:

Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong on “A Better Nation by Design”

Speaking at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD)'s Ministerial Forum, PM Lee Hsien Loong talked about the importance of design thinking in the development of Singapore.

As an institution, SUTD is focused on identifying and analysing real-world problems, and coming up with comprehensive, systematic and analytical solutions, practical solutions. At the national level, design is similarly a core element of Singapore’s nation-building. 

Talking on the topic of a “A Better Nation by Design” PM Lee said that nothing in Singapore is natural or happened by itself or by chance. Singapore’s economic growth, international standing, multiracial standing, and even its nationhood were all achieved by design.

“We didn’t call it design thinking then, but with each of these major policies, our founding fathers had to understand the issues, define the problem, come up with creative ideas and solutions, prototype the idea, test out the innovations, and constantly review the thinking and solutions. And that is the essence of design thinking,” he said, referring to the building of the Singapore Armed Forces, the creation of the Economic Development Board and setting up the Housing Development Board.

The past - Public housing and water supply

When the PAP (People’s Action Party) took office, housing was one of its top priorities. Many people in Singapore lived in slums or squatter settlements. HDB was set up in 1960 and an ambitious building programme was launched to house Singaporeans.

The idea was to build not just flats, but homes. HDB had to consider many factors in their plans: Configuration and size of each flat, to serve big and small families and different income levels; local amenities like wet markets, hawker centres, schools, neighbourhood centres, places of worship; common spaces like void decks, common corridors and parks, to promote social interaction. 

The Government also came up with policies that gave Singaporeans a substantial stake in the country, such as the Home Ownership for the People Scheme and the use of CPF (Central Provident Fund) savings for the down-payment and mortgage instalments on HDB flats. 

Thus, public housing was treated as much more than an urban planning exercise, or an engineering and construction project. It was a social, economic and political endeavour. 

Today more than 80% of Singaporeans live in high quality HDB flats and Singapore has no slums or ghettos.

Similarly, Singapore started off with limited domestic sources of water and was heavily reliant on water from Johor (Malaysia). This was a vulnerability. To tackle the problem, the Government implemented multiple solutions simultaneously. Reservoirs and catchment areas were enlarged to retain “every single drop of rain.” River mouths were dammed up to create new reservoirs – Lower Seletar, Kranji, Murai, Poyan, and others.

The Government launched Save Water” campaigns to raise public consciousness of the preciousness of water. And water was priced to reflect its scarcity, and to give a financial incentive to never waste water.

Later on, Singapore developed new technology to reclaim and reuse water from waste water treatment plants. NEWater effectively doubled the water supply. (Of every drop of water, half is reclaimed, and of that half drop, another half is reclaimed. The geometric series of one plus half plus one quarter plus one eighth converges, and the sum is two.)

PUB, which was in charge of drinking water, was also placed in charge of waste water treatment, to make one organisation responsible for the whole water cycle: from supplying clean water, to collecting back the used water, cleaning it up, processing it further, reusing it as NEWater.

Now Singapore has what PUB calls “four taps” – Johor water, Singapore reservoirs, NEWater, and desalination.

The future – Land planning, public transport

PM Lee said, “It is time for us to reimagine and rebuild Singapore. You may find this comment odd because nearly every inch of our land is developed or planned for, and there does not seem to be anymore empty space for development. So how can we reimagine and rebuild further? But we can, and the answer is by freeing up new parcels of land, and enabling already developed parts of Singapore to be redeveloped, modernised and improved.”

One example is to move Paya Lebar Airbase to Changi, beyond the airport. It is expected to take 15 years, but once the move is completed, around 800 ha of land in Paya Lebar will be available for redevelopment. This will remove height constraints over the eastern part of Singapore and the whole region can be redeveloped and progressively rebuilt over 50 years.

Another crucial area is public transport. PM Lee described public transport as another ‘multi-level design problem’. At one level it is an engineering problem, involving mapping out the network to have the right connections and coverage, using the right technologies and engineering methods, and building in sufficient capacity for the present and the future, along with redundancy, reliability and flexibility.

At another level it is an economic problem about structuring the industry so that the different players – the operators who operate the trains, the asset owners who own the trains, the Government and the commuters – will have the right incentives to do the right things. Questions such as who should own the trains or the buses, who should be responsible for maintenance, for replacing trains when they get old, for buying new trains when ridership increases new capacity is required.

Should involved parties be incentivized by profits, so that they watch the bottom line and save every dollar or reimbursed for costs so that they do not hold back when they need to spend and when costs really go up? How much should commuters pay? How much should the Government subsidise fares?

Then there is the most complicated socio-political aspect to public transport. Public transport is an economic mobiliser and a social equaliser.

“All Singaporeans, regardless of where we live, and how much we earn, we need to move around and interact with one another in the city with ease, for work, school and recreation. It is part of the shared experience of living in Singapore, and being Singaporean. We all want a high quality, efficient, reliable and cost-effective public transport system. None of us like it when fares go up. So how do we give the public the assurance that the system is fair, that it is well run, and that when fares have to go up, they have to go up for a good reason, and the increases are necessary and justified?,” PM Lee explained.

These problems cannot be solved through calculations and audits or by consulting managers. The Government has to talk to Singaporeans and persuade people the system is working well, working for them, and they have to support it. 

Many other areas, such as healthcare, education, CPF, national service and the political system can benefit from design thinking.  

PM Lee said. That good design does not happen in a vacuum. There is a need to amalgamate experiences and views across many disciplines.

“It is not just the hardware aspects of engineering and architecture but the software as well. It goes beyond the application of technology, economics and sociology. It needs a deep understanding of human beings, their emotions and psychology – how individuals behave, how society works.”

He called for the development of a visionary plan which would take Singapore from SG50 to SG100 and beyond. It should build on past experience, accumulated resources, the imagination and skills of people and the opportunities of the region.

“We should create an outstanding living environment, a well-planned, technologically advanced, green and sustainable city. Not just well-designed buildings, structures and infrastructure but also good fine-grained urban design – adaptable public spaces, immersive greenery, people-friendly walkways – all well integrated into the neighbourhoods. It will be a new city built on a human scale with distinctive local identities, and a place where the human spirit can flourish,” the PM said, presenting his vision for Singapore. 

Read the transcript of the speech here.

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