Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore – Another Way of City Building

March 23, 2015

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Lee Kuan Yew died yesterday in Singapore at the age of 91, one of the most remarkable political figures of modern times. The successful city-state he founded lives on, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. He was a great builder and from his uniquely inspired vision of what makes the good city, there is much to learn.

The approach path to Singapore’s Changi Airport explains the city’s reason for being. To the west, the Straits of Malacca and the Indian Ocean; to the east the South China Sea and the Pacific. Below is the 10 kilometre wide connection, one of the busiest sea highways and ports in the world. Panama or Suez, but without the canal; one of the key strategic places in the planet.


The drive in from Changi Airport has to be the loveliest airport-to- city centre approach in the world. The broad boulevard runs for 20 kilometres, over-arched by huge flowering trees, with a trim hedge of bougainvillea on the centre median. Glimpses of the bay flash by. Traffic flows easily. This arrival in the city is sending you a message; they do things differently in Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew selected the trees.


Singapore is an island state, a one-tier government right on the equator about the same geographic size as Toronto, but with double the population. Founded as a British colony in 1819, it achieved independence in the early 60s, first as a part of the Malaysia Federation, from which it then separated in 1965. Under Lee Kuan Yew’s forceful tutelage, it has established a very distinctive style of government, propelling it in half a century to become one of the wealthiest countries, and cities, in the world.

In public debate a number of cities have become familiar exemplars for how a modern city should be designed and manage itself. Copenhagen for its bicycle friendliness, Stockholm for its practical environmentalism, Bilbao for its cultural leap, Portland for its transit system. Singapore has arguably as much to teach and more, although understanding the dynamics of its success often requires a deep intake of breath.

Let’s start with that lovely, easy drive in from the airport. There’s remarkably little congestion in Singapore because the island has mounted the most comprehensive ‘war on the car’ of any city. To buy a car you must first obtain a Certificate of Entitlement. There are about half a million cars in Singapore, one of the lowest rates of car ownership in the world, and the government releases only enough certificates for a one percent increase every year. You have to bid to get one, with the going rate topping $75,000 – and it’s only good for ten years – before you get to buy the actual car, which again is loaded up with whopping great import duties. And then you get to pay some of the stiffest road tolls in the world. In compensation the city has a superb, modern, inexpensive and ever-expanding transit system. Not for the faint of urban management.

This strongly directed way of doing things reflects throughout the city. Let’s take how they live. An extraordinary 90 percent own their homes, but more remarkably 83 percent of residents live in public housing. Home-ownership public housing, not rental, made available through clever programs to households of all incomes. Lee Kuan Yew felt people had to own something to look after it, to become committed citizens and to build the capital with which to start a business. The sales office of the Housing Development Board (HDB), their public housing agency, reflects that perspective. The huge, high ceilinged showroom feels like a luxury car dealership, with an immaculate selection of model suites and attentive customer service staff. I have never seen anything less like the typical city public housing agency office.


The housing estates are high-rise, high density and highly sought after – and break all of Jane Jacob’s prescriptions for successful community design, with relentless mega-blocks, terrible street relationships and all kinds of un-surveillable spaces. So far without consequence in terms of negative social behaviour it would seem. In fact Singapore’s physical form convincingly destroys any theory of urban design determinism. HDB are however increasingly alert to the Jane Jacobs deficit and much of our work in Singapore involves re-planning or adding to these estates, inserting more active streets, places for small business formation, informal gathering spaces, trying to achieve similar densities but in a more community- and entrepreneurial-friendly form.

Singapore are a great client but you have to be careful working with them; they move incredibly fast. You put an idea on a plan and a couple of years later people are moving in. There is an urgency to increase their population from 5.4 to 6.9 million in the next twenty years to service their burgeoning economy. It’s another aspect of Singapore that continually strikes you. The fluid, effective connection between the brain, the wallet and the hand; their sheer competence. The civil service is well-trained – all of them seem to have spent time at the world’s best universities – and remarkably empowered. They are among the best paid civil servants in the world, expected to deliver and dismissed if they don’t. The country is ranked as among the least corrupt in the world; could that be the reason.

The Singapore difference is most evident in social policy, a country without the government-provided pensions, welfare, housing benefit, health care or unemployment insurance characteristic of developed nations. Instead the country has the lowest rate of income tax in the world and citizens are required to save 20% of their incomes in a government-managed Central Provident Fund, employers making a matching 16% contribution. Contributors own their assets in the fund; withdrawals during their working life are however limited to health insurance, housing mortgage payments and educational expenses, but typically not for unemployment relief. The provident fund in turn provides a large capital fund from which to fund infrastructure investment.

The socio-economic construct is essentially the opposite of that in the west. They have low rates of taxation, you don’t get much from directly from the government, but you are helped to save for yourself. You are expected to work. The country has an unemployment rate of 2 percent and thus is not burdened with heavy income transfer expenditures.

They do some things very differently, things harder to take. Homosexuality is illegal, although the law unenforced. Drug traffickers can be executed; drug use and public drunkenness can be punished by caning. The ‘tough on crime’ approach does have its effects however. The country has probably the lowest rate of drug use in the world and, since the majority of urban crime the world over is related to substance abuse, the removal of so primary a cause has palpable consequences for the city’s livability. That’s why all that ‘in-defensible space’ in the HDB projects gives off no sense of risk.

Ok. Do you get the idea? Singapore is such a powerful alternative model for organizing urban society when there my head is spinning, suspicious of both my attraction and my reservations. What the country has done is to place the strongest challenge to the generally accepted premise of advanced western countries; that a society based on ever advancing individual rights and benefits will provide its citizens with the highest quality of life. Singapore stands that on its head. It is individual responsibility; to work hard, to get an education, to stay healthy, to abstain from dangerous behaviour, to look after the family, to own and maintain property, which actually produces the best personal and community outcomes.

History is replete with gullible visitors returning from foreign lands having ‘seen the future and it works’. But Singapore is not the thrall of some charismatic dictator or third world strong man. It is a functioning democracy, with five decades to its name. Albeit only one party has been in power all that time, the People’s Action Party (PAP), founded by Lee Kuan Yew. And as he himself later admitted, Lee had a mean and messianic streak. He obsessively harassed opposition politicians and indulged slightly loony fixations. Concerned that intelligent women were delaying fertility to improve their job prospects, with consequent damage to the country’s genetic stock, he organised national matchmaking for suitably brainy mates.

But elections are now increasingly contested; in 2011 the PAP got only 60% of the vote, although the first past the post system means they hold a disproportionate number of seats. And an accusation that the current Prime Minister, his son Lee Hsien Loong, holds office by virtue of nepotism would be belied by his impressive pre-politics educational and work resume – certainly one that no member of the Bush, Clinton or Kennedy dynasties could match. The Economist Freedom Index grades them 3 out of 4. And whenever outsiders give them a hard time, Singaporeans cast a knowing glance at recent events in their great rival, Hong Kong.

The sense one gets is that the next generation of Singaporeans will be seeking to evolve towards a less regimented society. The direction of political life does seems headed towards greater liberalisation, although the primary opposition issues seem focussed on grumbling about road tolls and on tensions about how much and what kind of immigration to allow. Singapore has grown rapidly by immigration; more than a third of the population is foreign born. It’s a small densely packed country, about 70 percent Chinese, 17 percent Malay, with a significant Tamil Hindu presence, and its early years were badly marred by inter-racial tension. Lee Kuan Yew, contrary to the many of the racialist spirits of the times was determinedly inclusive, knowing that to be the only foundation for the modern society he wanted to build. As a consequence Singapore has boldly embraced multi-culturalism; there are four official languages, which make subway station announcements quite the multi-lingual event. But other than the preserved China Town and Little India downtown, they have been keen to avoid the creation of ethnic enclaves. Again the embrace of cultural difference is distinct. In what is probably a unique form of social engineering, the occupancy profile of each HDB project is carefully managed to reflect as far as possible the overall ethnic mix of the country.


Singapore first made its money as a port but soon added heavy engineering, ship building and other manufacturing activities. It still constructs about half the world’s deep sea oil platforms and is the world’s third biggest oil refining centre. Like all successful modern cities they are having to transition from making things to making ideas. Unlike most they have a very clear plan on how to do that. Their top university, the National University of Singapore, has been cranked high in the global rankings. They trawl the world for talent through aggressive scholarships and incentives. Out in the suburbs is the ‘One North’ complex, a highly successful, ever expanding commercial science complex. The first cluster was ‘Biopolis’ where the world’s pharmaceutical companies and expertise were induced to locate in the dramatic, Zaha Hadid-designed complex by corporate and personal tax breaks.


‘Biopolis’, which opened over a decade ago, has now been followed by ‘Fusionopolis’, a similar centre for advanced engineering and ‘Mediaopolis’, a media/IT/digital cluster. And there are ‘coming shortly’ rumours for ‘Nanopolis’, devoted to nanotechnology and micro-engineering. To visit One North is breath-taking; every city in which we work is trying to find this go-forward commercialised marriage of intellectual and scientific knowledge and business and investment acumen. Here it is, spread over 200 hectares in front of you.

Our firm’s entrée to Singapore was winning a major international competition for the master planning of the southern waterfront, to create a new urban district replacing the existing container port now just south of the downtown. In a characteristically bold move they decided to move the world’s third biggest port to a more efficient location and create room for the city centre to grow. Most world cities have barely figured out what to do with their pre-container port lands.


The to-be abandoned port area is huge and frankly we had some scepticism coming from the timid west about the reality of the project. These were rapidly set aside by a briskly effective senior civil servant. ‘Congratulations on winning the competition’ she said. ‘Now I have to give you Singapore 101. It’s very simple. We have no oil, no gas, no resources, no agriculture and precious little water. All we have is brains.’

The same is of course true for every world city, though remarkably few recognise it.

When Sir Stamford Raffles took Singapore for the British two hundred years ago he found a muddy tidal inlet filled with traders and fishermen from across the region. But he understood that creek’s global strategic advantage. Rapid development followed. Raffles, like many a British colonist, was a resolute urban improver and commissioned a new city plan, with the disciplined streets, districts, public squares and botanical gardens characteristic of imperial attempts to bring order to an unruly world.

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Fine colonial buildings, now the government and cultural centres of the new Singapore – and the famous Raffles Hotel, home of the Singapore Sling – sprang up on the bluffs either side of the river. The creek itself became a dense mass of sampans, floating businesses and homes. Big warehouses – godowns – lined the creek, behind which were the hutongs, the dense network of narrow streets where the native populations lived and did business.


Raffles usefully insisted on a five foot set-in sidewalk in front of these shops, chop houses, temples and bazaars to provide protection from the tropical heat and the tropical monsoon.

The organised chaos along the river endured into the 80s, by which time its food and wholesaling activities were declining with the changing business, demographic and retail structure of the city.


The decision to dam the tidal creek and replace its brackish water with a huge potable water reservoir illustrates Singapore’s bold use of urban brainpower. The Marina Bay project was driven both by the imperative to sort out the sampan situation in the creek but also to lessen the country’s strategically vulnerable dependence on water supply from Malaysia. From these objectives grew one of the largest, most ambitious waterfront developments anywhere.

Marina Bay reflected the country’s desire to transform the image of the city and position it as a world tourism and cultural destination. Sparked in part probably by what Hong Kong was doing. The Singapore/Hong Kong rivalry is one of those great inter-city stand-offs. London and Paris; New York and Los Angeles; Sydney and Melbourne; Toronto and Montreal. Each with its mix of envy and disdain, caricature and truth. Singapore and its rival regularly exchange places in the rankings as to which, after New York and London, is the world’s most significant financial centre, as to which has the most dynamic business class, and where it is most attractive to live. Their current rivalry concerns which is going to become Asia’s most dynamic cultural and entertainment hub. Hong Kong probably has the edge right now, and is moving ahead with an ambitious new cultural complex on their West Kowloon waterfront. Singapore is looking to shed its straight-laced image. Marina Bay is Singapore’s response.

On the city side of the Bay the sampans were removed and the traders relocated into the incredibly cheap street-food markets that dot the central city. Places where I love to eat, even if I don’t have a clue what I’m eating. Sugarcane drink, yam paste ginko nut, Chinese porridge, peanuts soup, popiah cockle. The godowns on either side of the creek have been converted to tourist entertainment and eating destinations, some with real urban interest, some a bit hokey. Major cultural buildings, fine colonial restorations and dramatic modern architecture line the lagoon.


On the east side of the Bay, an extensive new landfill area was created, now home to the biggest urban development moves. Most dominant is the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Casino, designed by Canadian architect Moshe Safde, with an utterly over-the-top curving three-tower hotel complex, decked by a surfboard-like infinity swimming pool deck. At the base of the complex is a vast retail complex, to indulge the lunatic Asian obsession with name brands, an entrancing, lily-shaped ArtScience Museum, and a huge casino. There’s nothing quite like this in the world.


Gambling was not something on which Lee Kuan Yew’s view of responsible human behaviour looked kindly. It was banned for many years until the realisation that, particularly in Asia, tourism and gaming are strongly linked. But they didn’t just open the door and let it happen. Casinos are notoriously problematic urban buildings. So they structured the competition for the casino rights to ensure a spectacular design – they certainly achieved that. They prohibited any casino building advertisement – I think uniquely in the world – so there’s no garish neon naming. There’s actually nothing that advertises the casino’s presence in the city. And while they don’t ban locals from using the casino, they charge them a $100 tax per visit and strictly monitor for problem behaviour. It is estimated that the casinos have added 1% to national GDP and they have certainly transformed Singapore’s tourism business.

To the east of the casino/hotel complex is ‘Gardens by the Bay’, probably the most dramatic large urban park created by any city in modern times, and perhaps the best example of how to use a major urban open space as a destination attraction with global reach. Its 100 hectares of dense tropical landscaping represent plants and themes from each of Singapore’s distinctive communities. But they didn’t stop there. What they added was scale, imagination and humour. Braided-metal supertrees spring up to house restaurants and energy and hydroponic systems, all linked together by treetop walkways.


A pair of large rolling wave-like glass conservatories house imaginative presentations of local and global landscapes. Outside, the paths are lined with stalactites and stalagmites, tree barks and boles, all skillful arranged to bring out anthropomorphic suggestions – helped along by subtle and not so subtly added carvings of faces, animals and images. Nature is enhanced, improved and gently made fun of, harkening back to 19th century landscape traditions now sadly forgotten or worse disdained in the west. It’s hugely popular with locals and tourists.


‘Gardens by the Bay’ reflects both city’s founders. Stamford Raffles, ever the stereotype British imperialist, was a dedicated botanist and zoologist, a founder of the London Zoological Society who loved the tropical paradise he found along the creek. Lee Kuan Yew was said to be never happier than when adding to his garden city.

Following its different path, Singapore conducted none of the tangled nest of environmental assessments and other processes that dog big urban projects in developed world cities. They decided simply to search out and apply best world practice. EA’s are in their view a sham way of narrowly answering the particular question asked. They also conducted no public meetings. Mandatory voting pertains in Singapore, so politicians are expected to know what their electorate think about things and to convey that opinion to government. That’s their democratic job, a process seen as more legitimate than responding to the concerns of the unrepresentative few who turn up at public meetings. Instead a lot of care is taken to ensure that the electorate is properly informed. The offices of the planning agency across the city contain elaborate large-scale city models and information packages, with helpful staff to respond to questions.

It has taken ten years since the creek was dammed and development around the Bay is well underway, particularly to accommodate the rapid expansion of the financial core. By no means is all good; the overly fat, dark, heavy buildings emerging on the south shore are definitely in need of a contemporary Raffles-style design code.



Singaporeans are impeccably polite and well-mannered. Perhaps a considered caution with outsiders. It takes an extended acquaintance before they will admit to any anxieties. But theirs are shared by any globally competitive city. Will we get lost in it, chased away by super costs, crowded out by others? How can we limit the corrosive impact of the feckless global hyper-rich, increasingly drawn by stability and low taxes? And what about our distinct identity? Where will that be?

Cleverly Singaporeans have not attached their identity to a nostalgic culture. Quite the contrary. They seem all to subscribe completely to the imperatives of global competitiveness.  And they have won. ‘What next?’, is the question, which for them translates very quickly into a territorial issue. They are running out of room and Malaysia sits less than a kilometre away. A high speed rail line is planned to Kuala Lumpur, which could be a game changer, connecting them to a large, less expensive labour pool and lots of land. Already the spread effect can be seen, with new development sprouting all over Malaysia’s south shore. We recently helped one of Singapore’s leading developers to plan a large mixed-use community just the other side of the connecting causeway. Whether Malaysia will be content with becoming Singapore’s New Jersey is of course another matter. Relations are sometimes fraught.


So what does all this mean to us in Canada, whose knowledge of Singapore is mostly restricted to the fact, aggressively advanced by Wrigley’s, that chewing gum is banned?

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, recently observed that Europe has 7 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of its GDP and 50 percent of its social expenditures. All that and a rapidly aging population. We in Canada are not quite at that pass, but there is a sinking realisation in Europe that the continent can no longer afford the state it wants. If there is one fate Singapore is focussed on avoiding, it is this trap of high entitlement expectations and dwindling tax generation. In an important recent book, The Fourth Revolution, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, two Economist editors, argue that what Lee Kuan Yew invented was the first original idea in practical political economy since the formulation of the post-war social democratic state. And at the same time they seem to be solving another problem, which any modern city dweller knows too well – the problem of getting things done. Singapore, along with Seoul, Bangalore, Shanghai, Hong Kong and the like, have far less difficulty than does the west in installing the essential equipment of the modern city. They are building the subways, airports, cultural buildings and great parks that are the contemporary version of the great infrastructure legacies left most developed world cities by the Victorians and the post-war baby boom years. Since then too many Western cities have either lost their nerve, or created a counter narrative that disparages such ‘world class’ ambitions.

Indeed it may be that the successful cities of the west – and Manchester, Barcelona and New York come to mind – are those that have evolved a comparable form of ‘soft dictatorship’ as their city government. It’s easier in Singapore no question, a small, self-contained city-state that cultivates what locals characterise as a ‘state of siege’ mentality to overcome any problem, domestic or foreign. ‘A tiny island with no friends’, is how they describe themselves in their cups. I doubt it, but it’s a useful story.

In contrast our inability to create essential physical, economic and intellectual infrastructure is steadily diminishing Canadian cities’ ability to compete. Very few of the things I admire in Singapore could be done in a Canadian city. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that isn’t a problem. Because if you want to know to where the western world’s middle class has disappeared, it’s to Singapore and its colleague cities. Not literally of course, but this is where the energetic, productive, family-centric middle class of the future is to be found. The great and important debate about income inequality in the west has missed the point that while inequality may be increasing in our cities, it is reducing dramatically when measured across the globe.

I am no theorist, just a working stiff trying to get useful things in cities to happen. But I have been in enough places around the world to get a good sense of where things are actually moving forward. Singapore is a walking, talking PoliSci course, a continuous debate – with myself, with my colleagues, with our clients – about ‘greatest good for the greatest number’, ‘two concepts of liberty’, ‘means and ends’, ‘top down and bottom up’, ‘cultural stereotypes’ and ‘root causes’. And quite simply about the importance of leaders, because without Lee Kuan Yew it’s hard to believe this remarkable place would have been born.

At a practical level it’s also about how to build a great city. For my generation these questions were often best answered by the Scandinavian countries. Well Singapore in the contemporary era may just be the Sweden of the tropics.

And yes, there are no black rings dotting the sidewalks. There are choices and there are consequences. Lee Kuan Yew understood that and helped his people to live and prosper with them.


March, 2015

See Joe Berridge’s Belfast blog: AFTER THE TROUBLES