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News Reports

The LKY method

I have always enjoyed reading The Straits Times on Saturday. Full of insight, guest writers, topical issues that are well-discussed. I sometimes think the ST is better-off as a magazine than a daily newspaper…

Anyway, I want to single out an excerpt of an interview with former PM Lee Kuan Yew by architect Liu Thai Ker, chairman of the Centre for Liveable Cities. For those who don’t subscribe to ST, you can download Urban Solutions magazine at
ST re-produced it – and it made me wonder what would have happened if Mr Lee was the one who had to preside over the debate on the White Paper on Population (if he wanted one, that is..)

In the interview, he talked about how he built Singapore, the city. It’s damn near amazing. To paraphrase him, he looked at Hong Kong, saw it was so crowded with tall buildings that sunshine can’t get through, and said “we can’t have that’’ or something to that effect. So we have a development plan with well-spaced buildings and people were sent to find plants that can survive here.

He saw soot on bushes, and said we’d better have European emission standards – for Malaysian lorries too. He went to Osaka and smelt the chemicals in the air, and decided we can’t allow such chemical factories to spoil our environment – put them in the right places (by which I suppose means somewhere far from people)

He saw homes with seafronts and wants to stop developers from cornering such prime space. So laws were passed to allow Government to acquire the plots without compensating for the sea view. Then we have the whole stretch for the airport and the East Coast Parkway.

He saw that South Korean and Taiwanese wage earners struggling to pay rent, and decides that Singaporeans must be made to own their own homes so that they will defend them.

I am sure it wasn’t as simple as all that, or was it? But clearly, he didn’t have a problem realising his vision for Singapore.

There were a few takeaways for me – he did what would have unpopular things while it was still “early days’’. So land acquisition laws were put in place when property prices were going down. The COE system was put in place when there weren’t that many cars on the road. In other words, choose the timing carefully when the people won’t resent the change so much.

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Also, he went round the world to look at the good and bad points of cities before making decisions for Singapore. (Till today, I still don’t know what our planners behind the Population White Paper looked at for inspiration, except numbers.)

Would the Lee Kuan Yew method have worked today with today’s generation of Singaporeans? After all, the principle is the same: Anticipate future problems; act now.

Probably not. We can’t put up a nursing home these days without the NIMBYs protesting. Probably not because the people want to have a say in their lifestyles and how they live. I mean, try acquiring private property on the cheap. Probably not because the people don’t quite trust the Government to do what is right.

Did our earlier generations trust their Government to do what is right? I suppose Singapore was so down-and-out at that time that our forefathers appreciated any kind of leadership; there was also so little that was “personal’’ to protect. Maybe we should look at the Population White Paper debate not as something divisive or a fracture in the social compact between the government and the governed. The governing style is under-going change (the G wants to sell policies but stumbling over the how to) The governed is showing an interest (which includes displeasure of course) in the way they are governed. For a nation, this might well be a good thing. We are breaking down the old structure of the G-population relationship – and trying to build a new one.

Still, I wonder if the G has really learnt any lessons from the White Paper debate or is hell-bent on making people unhappy. I ask because we now have the Transport Minister talking about a fare review – that will be ready in May. You can be sure fares will go up for most. And you can bet that won’t go down well.

One of the sticking points of the White Paper debate was whether the G should be trying to fix the strain in infrastructure first before trying to get people on board with its population projections. In the same vein, ST’s Christopher Tan suggested deferring the results of the fare review while we fix the leaky tunnels, change cables and what have you – so that people will first enjoy a smooth ride before asking to pay more.

That seems like a good suggestion.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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