Sunday, 27 May 2018

Tan Gee Paw: Singapore's bid to be a top global city and the loss of engineering expertise in the public sector

Why a three-day week in the office is enough
By Elgin Toh, Deputy Political Editor, The Straits Times, 26 May 2018

At 74, veteran public servant Tan Gee Paw still thinks about how Singapore should develop as a city.

After retiring last year as chairman of water agency PUB, he was near the city centre one day when the sight of skyscrapers led him to the idea that a three-day week in the office is enough to get work done, as it is possible to work the other days from home. That might revolutionise "the shape and structure of our urbanisation" as office buildings will consume less utilities and workers commute less.

The engineer behind the cleanup of the Singapore River in the 1970s spent most of his 50-year public service career in water resources development. Since retiring, he has advised Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan on rail transformation. He was recently appointed distinguished adviser to the government think-tank, Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC).

After the appointment, Mr Tan spoke with The Straits Times in an interview, moderated by CLC executive director Khoo Teng Chye, about Singapore's bid to be a top global city and the loss of engineering expertise in the public sector.

Q: What is the next task for Singapore as a city?

A: When we started urbanisation in the late 1960s, I was a young engineer in the public service. We were guided by a consuming national psyche of survival. As our founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew often said: "No one owes us a living." There was urgency in all that we did. We had to make up for lost time.

As squatter colonies were cleared, we built HDB flats frantically. Low-rise six-to eight-storey blocks, one flat every 45 minutes, no frills. Our street hawkers were hastily re-sited to hawker centres with basic amenities of water, sewerage system and waste removal. Our schools were classrooms, a canteen and a field.

As I drive along expressways today, I see a dense forest of new HDB flats, rising 20 to 30 storeys, gleaming white in the sun. It fills me with pride. It underscores a new psyche: "The race has begun." This race is not just about survival, but also about becoming a top global city.

A focal event of the race is disruptive digital technologies that will impact almost every aspect of our lives and the economy. One example is artificial intelligence (AI), which has been around for many decades but is only recently maturing.

Q: Are we embracing such technologies with enough boldness?

A: Singapore's stance of being open to and yet cautious about the large-scale adoption of such technology is the correct one. It is best to try it offline on a pilot scale before plunging in. We have only one city - we can't mess it up. But we must be aware of advances and keep our infrastructure flexible so we can incorporate the technology when it becomes proven.

Q: Some won't like the idea of a top global city. Why not be a comfortable home for locals, where prices are not so high and life is not so hectic?

A: I used to feel the same way.

Q: What changed your mind?

A: The catalyst was my visit to Shanghai 20 years ago. I was truly awakened. It was like 10 Singapores on the move with everyone hungry for success. It must be more so now, and for many other Chinese cities.

As a small country with no natural resources, we either remain a top city or we will spiral to the bottom. There is no halfway rest stop. Cities with a large hinterland can find comfort in a rest stop. We don't have the luxury. If we spiral downwards, we may return to the poverty of the 1940s: A family of six living in a windowless rental room filled with the acrid smoke of burning incense. The preferred toilet is a sheet of paper on the floor, in a corner.

These were my cousins in a Havelock Road shophouse. I was only slightly better. My family room in Waterloo Street had windows. I used to look up at the moon and wonder if there is a God and if life can ever be better.

Let me clarify: This does not mean life must be hectic. But it means we must evolve and stay relevant. We must be aware of changes in our external environment and discern the future. We must continue to have leaders with great foresight to lead.

Q: What are some obstacles that may confront us in this race?

A: As a nation, we must not be consumed by domestic issues. This is a fatal flaw of democracy. It is seen in many Western countries, and we are in imminent danger of it here.

We must spend more time looking outward - and not close the windows of our house because we are concerned only with sweeping the dust off the floor. There were more pressing domestic issues in our pioneer years, but we refused to be consumed by them.

Q: Why do you say we are in imminent danger of being consumed by domestic issues?

A: Listen to what is being said on the ground today, compared to 40 years ago. It has changed dramatically, from international issues that affect our economy to very local issues.

The intensity of views on local issues puzzles me most. We are very inward looking, centred on me and my family for this year, and not our nation and our future generations.

The next big domestic issue will be our ageing population. If we are not careful, it will take up much of our time and resources. Bigger issues like the shape and structure of our urbanisation may then take a back seat. It could lead to the closing of the Singapore mind. I am not suggesting we abandon the ageing agenda. Rather we put it in its right perspective and take corrective actions without too much fuss.

Q: What corrective actions? Increase healthcare spending?

A: Not increasing spending, but reminding families and friends to take care of one another, educating our young on traditional values like family responsibility. I see less of these.

Q: You spent decades thinking about engineering issues. What unique perspective on urban development do engineers have?

A: Engineers inject systems thinking into urbanisation. This prevents the formation of silos, whether for hard infrastructure, like transport and utilities and telecommunications, or soft infrastructure, like education and social services. Integrating them with systems thinking allows us to reap the benefits of synergy.

At PUB, we applied systems thinking in managing our water resource. It makes little sense to operate reservoirs, Newater plants, and desalting plants as stand-alone units. PUB manages the water cycle in an integrated way. It helps us identify areas where research funding is best spent to bring about integration.

Systems thinking should span all aspects of our city. One day, driving towards the new city centre in Marina Bay, I saw high-rise office towers, packed side by side, with many more under construction. I was struck by the sheer challenge of transporting thousands of office workers to the towers, each consuming 1 million gallons of water for air-conditioning. More trains, more water treatment plants, more power plants - billions of dollars needed.

But what do they do in these buildings? Three things: make a phone call, work on computers, convene a meeting. All three can be done at home today. So why go to the office to do what you can do at home?

No doubt, there will always be a need to meet in person. But perhaps three days a week is sufficient. That means half as many commuters, less peak loading, less air-con water. The face of the city can change from New York-style skyscrapers to gardens in the air, with cafes and informal meeting places scattered across many floors of a building.

In each building, we also need a rethink. We draw warm air from outside, cool it and send it into the building. But from time immemorial, people in hot desert countries lived in caves, as it was cooler. We should draw cool air in at night and seal the buildings against the heat of the day - recycling indoor air with minimal additional cooling. This can be done if we have the technology to remove pollutants economically as we recycle the air.

Q: The loss of engineering expertise within Government has been talked about in recent years. How did it happen?

A: The decline began in the late 1970s, when my engineer colleagues received letters from the Public Service Commission (PSC) asking them to give reasons why they should not be dismissed!

I was shocked. They were practical and diligent engineers you would want for the supervision of construction work. Their academic grades were somewhat wanting, but you don't need scholars for most engineering jobs. In the end, they left, quite happily, for the better-paying private sector which was experiencing a construction boom.

The PSC replaced them with foreign engineers who were supposed to be more experienced - from Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Hong Kong. Most left after several years. Some took us to be a stepping stone to other countries. Others fled Singapore after being questioned by the CPIB (Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau) on practices involving contractors they supervised.

The final straw came when the Public Works Department was corporatised and sold, without retaining a core group of engineers for the planning and implementation of projects. All this left a vacuum in our ranks that cannot be easily filled.

Q: Did this impact the quality of projects - say, in housing and rail transport? Was there an impact on the quality of urban life here?

A: It is difficult to say with certainty if it irreversibly impacted upon our quality of life, as we are still a young nation. But we should always retain sufficient engineering work within the Government so that we keep abreast of changing technologies and retain our ability to check the quality of our outsourced work.

We are grappling with how to redress the loss. I am certain we will find our way out. The Government is aware of the problem and has taken action, for example, by giving out more engineering scholarships and building a pipeline of engineering leaders in the public service.

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