Monday 18 January 2016

Veteran civil servants share lessons learnt from Old Guard

Pioneers speak on planning for the future of Singapore, to full-house crowd
By Cheong Suk-Wai, Senior Writer, The Straits Times, 16 Jan 2016

Two pioneers of Singapore's success gave big hints yesterday as to how it could glow even more as a global city in future.

But far from crystal ball-gazing, former Chief Planner and HDB chief executive Liu Thai Ker and founding Singapore Airlines chairman J. Y. Pillay drew from their bedrock of lessons learnt from the Republic's founding fathers, namely former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, his deputy Goh Keng Swee and its first finance minister Hon Sui Sen.

They did so at a dialogue with The Straits Times' editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang, to a full house of more than 250 people, including more than 20 ST readers. It was the second of six forums this year, run by the EDB Society and ST to show how "economic development is everyone's business", said the society's president Lee Suan Hiang.

Messrs Liu and Pillay joined the civil service when, as Mr Liu said, Singapore was "more backward than Yangon, Saigon and Manila". But their ministers had given them much "leeway" in shaping Singapore, which would surprise many Singaporeans, who tend to think of the Old Guard as authoritarian.

Added Mr Liu, who developed 23 new towns here in his 24 years with the HDB: "While we were very inexperienced, our political leaders gave us a lot of freedom to find our ways to solve problems."

In his case, for example, he would meet Mr Lee at least six times a year to think through how to house Singapore's 1.15 million squatters rapidly, resulting in the HDB building one flat every eight minutes.

"Clarity equals courage," he said, underscoring what enabled the Old Guard to launch headlong into efforts to build high-rise, high-density public housing, which was globally disdained but necessary for Singapore.

Yet even with such courage, Mr Pillay said, it was not always plain sailing, especially in the inflation-fraught 1970s. "We made errors all the time," he recalled. "We are not perfect... governing is not pretty, upward, rising. It's full of hurdles. That's life."

In future, Mr Liu, who is director of architectural and engineering firm RSP, said urban planners here should plan for the long term, say, 150 years and not every 15 years. Likening the long view to creating a "bird of paradise" and short-term designs as "turkeys", he said: "If you plan for the next 16 years, some of the roads will be secondary. But if you plan for 150 years, some of these roads may need to be expressways and if you are not thinking long-term, you may need to keep chopping and changing."

Asked how anyone could plan ahead for 150 years when technology was ever-changing, Mr Liu said technology should enhance, not replace, good design. "One of the reasons for global warming today is that architects depend so much on technology that their buildings are not based on good orientation and when the buildings do not work, they just pump in cold air. That is abuse of technology."

When ST reader Eileen Bygrave asked if happiness should be factored into future economic growth, Mr Pillay said: "I find the pursuit of happiness very odd. Profit is what you get from the difference between revenue and expenditure. It's exactly the same for happiness - create the provision for it and eventually it will come to you."

Summing up, Mr Han noted that part of Singapore's improbable success was thanks to its having civil servants such as Messrs Liu and Pillay. He said: "They have been strong in character, strong in intellect and strong in having great empathy for people."


What puzzles me is, why hit on the reserves because, even before you touch the reserves, the Government can help industries. So, I don't think we need to go that far.

- MR PILLAY, on the Singapore Business Federation's proposal last week that the Government should tap Singapore's reserves to help suitable firms expand


The competition is indeed severe, and very difficult to control. One of the carriers is fuelled by gas, another by coal and a third, by Monopoly money.

- MR PILLAY, on the Gulf carriers that are competing fiercely with SIA for passengers


The word 'survival' would appear in the newspapers every week because the political leaders kept reminding us of it... There was a sense of desperation, but also a clear sense of mission.

- MR LIU, on what civil servants faced in the years just after independence


If you plan long term, you plan, physically, for a bird of paradise. If you plan a bit every 15 years, and then for another 15 years, you are creating a series of small turkeys, and when you put turkeys together on a small island, it will not be a paradise.''

- MR LIU, on the importance of taking the long view when designing a city

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