Monday, 5 February 2018

Why Singapore needs to build big: National Development Minister Lawrence Wong

Bold moves in infrastructure: Thinking big pays off for Singapore planners
Some ideas end up being shelved, but it is part of the challenge in the planning of infrastructure, as Insight finds out
By Ng Jun Sen, Political Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 4 Feb 2018

Whatever happened to Singapore's Long Island Project?

A natural reaction to that would be, "What Long Island Project?"

Over time, it has become largely forgotten. But decades ago, urban planners envisioned building an island using reclaimed land off East Coast Park for recreation and with beautiful waterfront housing.

But this plan - known as the Long Island Project - has since been put aside as there was little demand for it, reveals the Urban Redevelopment Authority's (URA) chief planner, Ms Hwang Yu-Ning, in an interview with Insight.

"People love East Coast Park, so do we really want to commit to the plan if we don't need it? Some of these options can be safeguarded for future use," she says.

"If we need to dust off these plans later on, we would have already studied the idea."

The decision underscores the changing and complex nature of infrastructure planning.

It is hard to say when is the right time to build ahead of demand, says Ms Hwang. There is a risk that the demand for a project may never come, if plans proceed too quickly.

Even so, Singapore has bet big in the past - and seen those bold gambles pay off in a big way.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, in his interview with Insight, cites several examples - moving the airport from Paya Lebar to Changi, which made Singapore an aviation centre; building the region's first container port; and converting Jurong from swampland to an industrial estate.

Infrastructure has always been a key part of Singapore's economic strategy, says Mr Wong, who is also Second Minister for Finance.

"We are building for practical needs, to enhance our hub status to attract more investments and create more jobs for Singaporeans."

He stresses the importance of being prepared to think big and make decisive moves, instead of just incremental changes.

This is because Singapore has to navigate an uncertain global environment and the threat of other countries bypassing the Republic as a regional hub, Mr Wong says.

For instance, other countries are building new ports, and new shipping routes are being created.

To future-proof Singapore against intensifying competition, the Government is - once more - betting big by embarking on billion-dollar projects such as the upcoming High-Speed Rail between Jurong and Kuala Lumpur, the mega port in Tuas and a fifth airport terminal in Changi.

These "big-ticket items" are a key reason why government spending on infrastructure is slated to rise in the coming years.

On these mega projects, Mr Wong says: "It's about giving us the best possible chance of attracting investments, remaining a competitive, attractive regional centre, and giving Singapore the best chance of success in an uncertain world."


A steady stream of public-sector projects is being rolled out, from MRT projects to new Housing Board blocks.

The total value of construction contracts to be awarded this year is projected to rise from last year's $24.5 billion to up to $31 billion.

Pointing to the pipeline of infrastructure projects in the coming years, Mr Wong says: "That's the nature of infrastructure. From time to time, you will need new projects, new spending in order to refresh and update your infrastructure."

Replacing ageing infrastructure is another reason why spending will go up over time, he adds.

"From a longer-term perspective, we do also need to plan for asset replacement of existing infrastructure, besides spending on new projects," he says.

He describes public infrastructure spending as cyclical, with similar spending increases in the past.

This is unlike healthcare spending, which has seen significant increases and is expected to rise sharply because of Singapore's rapidly ageing population, he notes.

On ageing infrastructure, he says people have to expect more issues as infrastructure gets older.

"All of us have to be mentally prepared for that, and anticipate and respond to the issues and rectify them. It's no different from when we buy a household appliance or a new car. (The) first few years (when) it's new, you don't expect a lot of issues," he says.

But deterioration and wear and tear are normal as equipment ages, he adds. This requires more repair work, replacement of parts and, eventually, buying an entirely new asset.

Asked if Singaporeans are prepared to accept the idea that things are ageing and will break down, he replies: "Part of it is recognising that as assets get older, this is bound to happen. It's natural.

"But even though we know that this would happen with older assets, we're not simply saying there's nothing we can do about it.

"We're not saying, 'Everybody, you've got to live with more faults.'"

He lists several ways the authorities are tackling the issue, including beefing up the pool of technicians here and training them well, doing predictive maintenance instead of simply reacting to faults, and tightening regulations if needed.

Besides high-profile MRT disruptions, there has also been a series of lift breakdowns. On lifts, Mr Wong says breakdown rates have been coming down overall.

"At the national level, if you look at our assets - infrastructure as a whole - we're not doing too badly," he says. "But still, we should work hard to improve."


The URA's Concept Plans provide the long-term blueprint for Singapore's land use and major infrastructure developments.

They are revisited every decade, with the next one due in 2021.

In between - every five years - the Master Plans will "dust off" these ideas and set them in motion when the time is right, says Ms Hwang, who is also URA's acting deputy chief executive.

While the Concept and Master Plans follow a regular schedule, URA's approach to urban planning has changed greatly over the years, she says.

One notable change is the increased use of data analytics to guide policymakers.

"Using data, we can actually look at the real travel patterns of people and see if (the plans) are working or not, and where there could be tweaks to improve the plans," says Ms Hwang.

EZ-Link data, for example, is being used by URA to look at how the elderly move around, alerting planners to where there is a need for more elderly-friendly facilities.

The Government has also noticeably changed its approach to urban planning in some districts.

Where planners had strived to optimise individual parcels of land in the past, they are now doing so with a broader brush.

"We have to look at it from the broader district level and see how we can achieve better connectivity seamlessly, better integration of utilities," says Mr Wong.

He cites the upcoming Jurong Lake District and Punggol Digital District as two projects that will boast "whole of district" features which require years of planning.

An underground district cooling system, for example, can pipe chilled water to air-conditioning units in the entire district.

Other big moves occurring beyond 2030 include the relocation of Paya Lebar airbase to the expanded Tengah and Changi airbases. This will free up around 800ha of land, an area bigger than Toa Payoh. The development of the Greater Southern Waterfront can also begin after the city port terminals move to the mega port in Tuas, which will extend the downtown area beyond Marina Bay.

"We don't have very concrete plans yet for these, because these are indeed very long-term, but we know that we want to do these things from an urban planning point of view," says Mr Wong.


With the bill for major infrastructure projects amounting to billions of dollars each, Insight asks Mr Wong what safeguards are in place to ensure the right calls are made.

He replies that each project is first considered by the ministry overseeing it, examining the outcomes, whether the project is beneficial and what are its costs.

The Finance Ministry (MOF) then scrutinises the individual projects again, and financing is worked out.

Larger projects that cost more than $500 million have to go through a "gateway process", where civil servants pore over details, asking difficult questions about cost, revenue sources and feasibility.

Mr Wong says a technical panel is formed to review projects at every stage, from design to the scope of works to cost effectiveness.

"Those are processes we have put in place to make sure that every project is done in a way that achieves value for money," he adds.


There are also plans that never make it to MOF, with some shelved indefinitely or even scrapped.

Last year, the authorities scuttled a 20-year-old plan to build an underground ring road system under central Singapore, freeing up subterranean space that was previously safeguarded at 295 properties.

The URA and the Land Transport Authority say enhancements to the public transport network and changes in land use policies have removed the need for it.

Asked about the cost of discarding such plans, Mr Wong says money may have been spent on preliminary design work or feasibility studies."But we have to do our due diligence, we have to study all options. We have to consider all possibilities as we go about planning for the future," he says.

"When we do that, you may not want to embark on everything."

And while Singapore is often lauded for its robust planning, its much-vaunted system has come up short in several instances.

Indeed, planners failed to anticipate the population surge in the 2000s, resulting in congested MRT trains and buses.

The Government was also unable to respond in time to a surge in demand for public housing, and had to ramp up supply later.

Asked how the Government can ensure it is able to anticipate future demands, Mr Wong says the issue is not just about planning, but also implementation and execution.

Raising housing as an example, he says building flats ahead of demand could result in under-utilisation, under-occupation and potential wastage.

"If you wait till demand is there before building, you will minimise the wastage, take-up will be very good. But because (building) infrastructure takes time, you may be behind the curve," he notes. "So we have been on both sides of this before."

Mr Wong adds: "We know it's a difficult balance to strike.

"How to get that balance right, and that implementation and execution right... it's not easy. But we're always working to see how we can improve our processes."

He acknowledges that the authorities "have not gotten it right in the past, we have not been perfect in the past".

Getting the timing right is not easy, he adds, "because the market moves in cycles and we can't predict exactly when is the right time".

"We just have to understand that this is part of the dynamics of the market, and try to get the balance right," he says.

On why the Government misses its construction spending estimates, Mr Wong says the estimates will be affected by delays of major projects such as the North-South Corridor.

The Corridor is a 21.5km expressway with integrated cycling paths, continuous bus lanes and greenery features that will run from Woodlands to the city. Insight understands that it was delayed as more time was required to finalise plans.

Mr Wong says delays could be due to various reasons, including tighter project scrutiny.

A lot more time is also being spent on a whole range of studies and assessments, he adds, from environmental impact to noise impact, and what mitigation measures may be needed before construction begins. "We have to do all of these things to get broad support for new projects," he says.


As Singapore seeks to embark on these ambitious projects, Mr Wong highlights three challenges seen in other countries which could derail these plans.

First, fiscal constraints that prevent governments from renewing or replacing necessary infrastructure.

Second, political gridlock, where disagreement at the political level prevents projects from being carried out. And third, a "not in my backyard" or "Nimby" mentality, where ready plans are shelved due to strong public opposition, he says.

These are the three main reasons why ageing infrastructure does not get renewed or replaced in quite a number of developed cities, he says.

"New infrastructure doesn't come in and, as a result, it does have a significant drag on productivity, on competitiveness, and it ultimately impacts liveability," Mr Wong adds.

"We must never allow that to happen in Singapore," he cautions.

While he did not give specific examples, the Nimby effect reared its head in 2012 when 40 Bishan residents petitioned against the Health Ministry's plans to build a 260-bed nursing home, stating it would deprive them of an empty field for recreational activities and the flow of fresh air into their homes.

Says Mr Wong: "If there is strong opposition to anything in your backyard, it will be very hard to keep rejuvenating our city.

"You need the Government, people and the whole of society to work together to share that same vision of wanting to build a better Singapore."

New ideas to feed a growing island
With a goal to reach a total land size of 76,600ha by 2030, compared with the 71,990ha last year, this little red dot still has some growing to do.This will help accommodate around 6.5 million to 6.9 million residents by then, as set out in the 2013 Population White Paper and Land Use Plan. Insight looks at how Singapore is striving to find more space.
By Ng Jun Sen, Political Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 4 Feb 2018


It was across the globe, in the Netherlands, where Singapore found an answer for land reclamation.

It is not to buy sand. Instead, the Government has been studying a 2,000-year-old Dutch reclamation method that can reduce the need for imported sand.

Known as empoldering, the method is expected to save Singapore 40 per cent in sand volume and construction cost, reveals National Development Minister Lawrence Wong - the first time such figures have been made public since works began in 2016.

The Government has adopted the method in reclamation works in Pulau Tekong. When completed in 2022, the island will grow by around 810ha, the size of Toa Payoh, to be used for military training purposes. This frees up space on the mainland - the Housing Board is already developing the upcoming Tengah New Town in that space.

"I think that looks very promising," says Mr Wong about the method. "We always look for alternatives. Because we know that land is limited and one of our strategic objectives is to preserve our options for future development."

Empoldering involves building a dike around the area to be reclaimed, then draining the water from it, creating a low-lying tract of land below sea level known as a polder. Water levels in the polder are controlled by drains and pumps.

Empoldering is likely to grow in use amid challenges that Singapore is facing in finding sand.

A 2014 United Nations Environment Programme report described Singapore as the world's largest importer of sand.

Last year, Cambodia banned all sand exports to Singapore on environmental grounds. Despite a temporary ban already in place since 2016, local environmental groups alleged that sand had still been exported illegally to Singapore.

Asked about this, Mr Wong says the government agencies which conduct land reclamation do not procure from illicit sources.

"The key thing is that all procurement agencies that procure sand from commercial providers will require requisite permits from the source countries - that is the ultimate check.

"We will not allow any commercial provider of sand to come in without a valid export permit."

On how Singapore decides on its reclamation works, he says that while potential areas for reclamation have already been identified, not all are carried out at once.

"If we are clear that there is a developmental need to expand, for example, in Tuas or Changi, then yes, we will embark on reclamation.

"In doing so, we make sure that we do all the necessary impact assessments, environmental impact assessments and a range of studies to make sure that whatever we are doing is sustainable."

These demands for land come from different agencies with various needs - ranging from residential and military to commercial and industrial.

But land reclamation is not the only option to maximise Singapore's land use.

An underground master plan is currently in the works, mapping out what lies underneath Singapore's surface and how much can be stored there.

Some plans have already taken shape, such as the storage of petrochemicals in the Jurong Rock Caverns under Jurong Island.


Building higher is a possibility too, though there are height restrictions near airports and military airbases.

By 2030, the relocation of Paya Lebar airbase to Changi and Tengah airbases will free up a town-size 800ha of land, and also remove the height restrictions imposed by the airbase.

The next Concept Plan in 2021 will likely look into the potential for this newly freed up space, as well as for surrounding towns, says Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) chief planner Hwang Yu-Ning.

Questions to be asked include whether Paya Lebar airbase can be replaced by a town that emphasises living, working and playing in the same space.

The blank canvas also gives planners an opportunity to explore how infrastructure can support the latest ideas and technologies.

"I think we'll also be asking ourselves what will the future of mobility look like in the (next Concept Plan) and how it would influence travel patterns as we know it today," says Ms Hwang, referring to new advances such as driverless cars and drone pods to carry people, a la The Jetsons, the American futuristic animated sitcom.

These wild ideas were inconceivable for the 2011 Concept Plan, but seem ripe for exploration now.


Planners are also "actively looking" into potentially co-locating multiple services within the same estate or development, with some ideas taking shape on a smaller scale for now.

Our Tampines Hub, which is run by People's Association (PA), is the first example of how various agencies can share the same physical location, instead of taking a parcel of land each.

Completed in 2013, the $500 million building features a Public Services Centre that connects residents to seven different agencies: PA, North East CDC, the Housing Board, Workforce Singapore, Ministry of Social and Family Development, ActiveSG, and National Library Board

Ms Hwang also cites how Pek Kio Community Centre, which was undergoing redevelopment, found an opportunity to co-locate with Farrer Park Primary School, becoming the first such project to do so.

"Now that they are co-located, there are potentially more synergies in the way the community can use the space," she said, adding that students have been using the community centre's cooking studio.

Co-location reaps the most benefits when it comes to planning for the aged. The integrated HDB development Kampung Admiralty, which opened last August, brings together medical and nursing care services within the residential development. This means a doctor is only a few steps away for an elderly resident living at Singapore's first retirement kampung.

Space-saving ideas like these are not new around the world. In Japan, there are proportionally fewer nursing homes per elderly populace as most live within the community.

If planners should keep pace with this trend of integrated living, then they should be asking the right questions, Ms Hwang says.

"As Singaporeans age and see a larger number of elderly in our midst, the question is whether separate institutional care provides the best quality of life and sense of belonging in the community.

"Are accessible locations like Kampung Admiralty the best way? Or do people want more quiet respite?" asks Ms Hwang.


In trying to make better use of available space, one exciting idea is to tap maritime space - building structures on large "floating vessels".

While these concepts have not yet reached the realm of a city perched on a vessel, known as seasteading, this may be the way for Singapore to expand outwards without the need for land reclamation.

There are some explorations and research projects, but the rub is that there is currently a lot of demand on maritime space from ports and container ships, says Ms Hwang.

But it is still possible. The authorities are now exploring ideas on how to make vessel anchoring at offshore anchorages more efficient.

Currently, ships do not "park" neatly like cars as they drift in a circle around a single anchor, says Ms Hwang. One idea is to remove this drift by anchoring the ship at four points.

"With proper anchoring, we can make our sea space more efficient and potentially make ideas like floating vessels (that one can build structures on) be more practical to implement," she says.

Whether the future may resemble The Jetsons or seasteads, all government agencies are in a "constant conversation" to decide what is the best way to use available land, says Mr Wong.

Be it through reclamation, building underground, or land optimisation, Singapore wants to "ensure as many options as we can in terms of maximising our development space", he adds.

Masterplan of Singapore's underground spaces ready by 2019
It will provide the first comprehensive look at subterranean spaces and their potential uses
By Ng Jun Sen, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Feb 2018

An underground masterplan that maps out Singapore's underground spaces and their potential uses is set to be unveiled next year.

It will be released as part of the next Master Plan guiding Singapore's development in the medium term, said Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) chief planner Hwang Yu-Ning.

This subterranean masterplan will provide the first comprehensive look at what lies tens and hundreds of metres underground.

Ms Hwang said the URA is working towards having a more complete 3D map of the underground spaces and infrastructure here.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong told The Straits Times that the Government has to take stock of what is underground, including pipes and power grids.

"We have to take stock and have a good database of information, and are compiling it as a central repository so we have a good basis plan," he said.

Then National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan had raised the idea of a plan for Singapore's subterranean development in a blog post in September 2013.

Ms Hwang, who is also URA's acting deputy chief executive, cited underground oil storage as a way to use underground space and free up surface land for other uses.

Already, the Government has made the necessary legislative changes empowering it to acquire stratas of underground space under private land in 2015, paving the way for a future underground metropolis.

The authorities also have to plan for new items at the district and national levels.

Government agencies are already actively pursuing some ideas, including relocating common utilities found above ground, such as refuse systems and electrical substations, underground.

National water agency PUB is studying if underground water storage is viable on a large scale.

On Jurong Island, hazardous petrochemical materials are stored in the 130m-deep Jurong Rock Caverns, freeing up more than 60ha, or 84 football fields, of development space on the island.

But Jurong Island consists mostly of reclaimed and island land managed under a single agency. Bringing that scale of project to the mainland has far more complications.

Currently, details of what lies underground are known only to each relevant agency.

The Energy Market Authority, for example, keeps track of where its power grids are laid around the country, while PUB manages its own database of its water pipes.

When a developer tries to build underground, it can be difficult to figure out whether there is scope to do so as the information is spread out, said Institute of Real Estate Studies director Sing Tien Foo.

Said the National University of Singapore associate professor: "With more emphasis in future on building our infrastructure underground, it is critical for the developer, building consultants and the public to know and have access to this information."

While the URA intends for anyone to be able to see a complete map of what lies underneath, Ms Hwang noted that not everyone can access this information freely. This is due to security concerns.

"If we share too much, we are concerned about the security threat of having unsavoury people use this information. We are still thinking how precise and how much information we want to make available to the public," she said.

Mr Tony Khoo, president of the Singapore chapter of the International Facility Management Association, hailed the emphasis on underground utilities to save space, though he noted that they will be far costlier than their terrestrial counterparts.

He also pointed out how an underground water pipe rupture today often leads to an entire stretch of road being dug up, disrupting traffic and residents. "This is why these facilities must be designed for easy maintainability, with ample access points above ground, to make sure that they are really sustainable in the long term," said Mr Khoo.

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