Thursday, 14 February 2013

Our home: Think big, plan long term

By Liu Thai Ker, Published The Straits Times, 13 Feb 2013

THE current debate on population consists of two key aspects.

On the one hand, the Population White Paper touches on issues related to our ageing population, the low birth rate by Singaporeans, the social impact of a high percentage of foreigners and so on.

On the other hand, there is a complementary paper about achieving quality environment for Singapore at an increased population of up to 6.9 million by 2030.

The latter involves the hardware aspect of our nation building - the construction of buildings, roads and other infrastructure.

Let us focus on the hardware issue. In our land-scarce island-nation, where there is almost zero tolerance for mistakes, we have to look at the issues rationally and calmly, with foresight, skill and brave hearts. We have to look past symptoms and identify causes. Only then can we find appropriate solutions with minimum mistakes.

The hardware core issues in the current debate on population size should be about limited land, more people, higher density, quality environment as well as the floor area standard per person for all his or her activity needs.

There are a few factors to consider.

First, it is easier to achieve quality environment with a relatively low population density, and increasingly more difficult to achieve quality environment with increasing density. But higher density does not necessarily equal bad environment; conversely, low density does not automatically equal good environment. The key is whether it is well planned.

As a reminder, in 1960, we had 1.89 million people. To date, we have 5.3 million - an increase of more than 250 per cent. Despite the increase, and the fact that we are among the densest cities in the world, we have managed to be consistently ranked among the world's most liveable cities.

The message here is, given clear vision, determination and skills, we can manage high density as well as good environment. In other words, we can have our cake and eat it too.

Second, very few city governments are able to stop population growth by sheer decree. This is especially so if the city needs to stay relevant in the global arena. China is unable to stop the population growth of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Even small countries in Scandinavia are experiencing population growth, although at a much slower pace than Asian countries and cities. Therefore, in Singapore, we can only try to find ways to slow down, rather than to stop population growth at an arbitrarily fixed growth rate and for a fixed point in time.

Third, we should bravely face the harsh reality that while our land mass - despite further but not unlimited reclamation - is limited, our nation will last for unlimited years. What should we do then to plan for continuous population increase, even at a lower rate, while retaining and even enhancing the hardware of our physical environment?

By quality environment at noticeably higher density, I mean that we will still need to continue to retain our open spaces, golf courses, institutions, amenities as well as a range of low, medium, high and even higher density housing and so on.

These are the core hardware issues. Let us not be unduly distracted by the current symptoms such as the present problems of short supply of public housing, rising property prices, congestion on our MRT, and the occasional flooding of our streets. Though irritating, these are not fundamental issues. Given careful monitoring of supply and demand, as well as timely implementation, these matters can be resolved professionally with imagination and technology.

But we should not pin our hopes unduly on technology to solve our fundamental problems. Nor should we be persuaded by temporary feel-good factors such as pretty park designs, iconic buildings or busy shop streets. We want them, of course, but on the solid foundation of successfully achieving quality macro-environment, at higher density that is sustainable for a long time.

Looking ahead, the issue of the future population size of Singapore is complex: on the one hand we want a good environment; on the other hand we must continue to grow economically with an additional labour force, domestic as well as foreign, in order to maintain our hard-earned position in the world. What we have achieved is truly remarkable.

Despite our extremely small size, we have managed, over the last 50 years, to earn many and diverse accolades among the world's top cities. This is the position that we must not only try to maintain, but to enhance as well.

Any alternative to this scenario is to run the risk of becoming marginalised if we stay in our present comfort zone. It is not something we wish to see for the long-term future of our country, and for our children and grandchildren.

We have attained this highly enviable status not only by foresight, determination, consummate skill and sheer hard work, but above all, also by looking at our problems and needs squarely in the eye. In many cases we have found solutions that were against the fashionable trends of the time elsewhere in the world.

One good example of this special attribute of ours is our public housing policy. Against all criticism, we resorted to building high-rise, high-density public housing as far back as in 1960. We knew that we had no other choice if we were to break the "Backbone Of Housing Shortage" and achieve the seemingly impossible goal of "Home Ownership For Everyone".

Our public housing is now studied by nations all over the world. By 1985, Singapore had become a city with no homeless people, no squatters, no poverty ghettoes, no ethnic enclaves. Not many cities around the world today can make that claim.

We must therefore soldier on to solve our unique problems as we have done many times before.

In summary, we need to look past 6.9 million people and look past 2030. We should tally up how many more buildable sites we have (as big as possible) while retaining our quality environment.

However, while physical planners will play a crucial role in shaping the physical environment, their effort should be complemented by a whole of Government effort.

That is, being mindful of our limited land supply, we should try to accommodate population growth, local and foreign, at as slow a pace as possible, towards the distant future.

To achieve this, we need to take an even harder look at our education system to nurture smarter talent to drive an even higher value-added economy at increasingly higher productivity.

In the end, we have quality talent, high-yield economic activities, very slow population increase, manageable population density, and quality environment - not only to provide a good home for citizens but also to attract foreign investment and foreign talents with their families.

The writer is a director of RSP Architects Planners & Engineers.
By Invitation features expert views from opinion leaders in the region and Singapore.

No comments:

Post a Comment