4 key lessons from Singapore’s success

4 key lessons from Singapore’s success

The remarkable achievements of Singapore are a testament to the dedication and perseverance of its people to overcome the national challenges and go beyond the achieved, the accomplished, the done. Mr. Nguyen Do Dzung, Co-founder and CEO of enCity Urban Solutions, has distilled the four crucial lessons that this Lion City teaches us about urban development as an urban planner with experience in both Vietnam and Singapore.
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Singapore has always been a great source of inspiration for enCity, an international consulting firm focusing on providing urban solutions and transforming places. While our main headquarters are located in this Lion City, it is not just the bustling streets, umbrella-like tropical trees, or structures only seen in science fiction novels that fascinate us. Rather, we take inspiration from Singapore’s intangible qualities: it is the commitment and self-reliance in the face of challenges, the ability to establish effective and transparent institutional frameworks and management systems to realize development ideas, the consistency and continuity of grand visions coupled with the flexibility of specific solutions, the balance between prioritizing central development objectives and being receptive to novel ideas from the community and investors, and the pragmatism to turn meaningful ideas into reality. These foundational components are equally integral to enCity’s professional achievements and organizational growth.

The history of the development of human civilisation has been associated with great rivers, which shows the irreplaceable value of water to urban growth. Today, the challenges of unprecedented floods, droughts, and water pollution caused by urbanisation and climate change have spurred research to utilise non-traditional water resources, including stormwater and wastewater, in coping with these urban issues. As a result, the trend of planning and designing cities with focus on water is becoming more and more popular. Although this principle is labelled with alternative terms such as Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) in Australia, Sponge Cities in China, Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS) in the UK, Stormwater Best Management Practices (BMPs) and Low Impact Development (LID) in the US, they are generally aimed at integrating the water cycle into urban design for the purpose of improving the ecological environment, creating functional landscapes and enhancing quality of life.

  1. There is no one-size-fits-all universal blueprint for urban development. However, successful cities share a common trait: the commitment and political will to tackle the challenges they face with a sense of urgency. These cities then share their accomplishments with others, offering valuable lessons that can be adapted to different contexts. During an interview about Singapore’s successful strategies, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asked what advice he would give to other countries seeking to learn from Singapore’s experience. In response, he humbly stated that he just focused on tackling pressing national priorities (1). Singapore’s transformation into a global leader in water filtration technology, for instance, is a result of its government’s commitment to high environmental and urban design standards in transforming 70% of the island territory into a rainwater catchment area for the primary source of clean water. The island state has also diversified its economy through the creation of vast industrial parks, supporting high-value manufacturing sectors such as offshore oil rig installation, oil refining, aerospace, semiconductors, and biomedicine. Singapore now supplies up to 80% of the world’s drilling rigs and is ranked as the world’s 6th largest refining center. This model has been so successful that Singapore has exported it to other countries, including China’s Suzhou and Vietnam’s 12 Vietnam-Singapore industrial parks.
Map of Singapore’s Local Catchment (light blue area, 70% of the island territory with most urban areas). Source: PUB
  1. Planning needs to be linked with implementation to bring about real-life impacts. Therefore, a plan’s quality depends on the institutional capacity, transparency, and dedication of those who develop and implement the plan. In Singapore, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) is responsible for tendering state-owned land as a primary tool to implement its plans. Approximately half of the nation’s hotel rooms, office space, and commercial centers have been developed through the tendering of public land. The Marina Bay financial center, with a vast floor area of nearly half a million square meters, was developed by a Hong Kong investor through bidding to compete timely with London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo in attracting large financial organizations. Similarly, the iconic Marina Bay Sands commercial and service complex was not developed through a land auction (valued at $1.2 billion Singapore dollars by the government in 2006) but, rather, a competition organized by URA for innovative investment ideas to create a landmark and increase international tourism. To ensure that land auctions serve the market’s urgent needs and optimize public assets rather than addressing short-term government issues, the incumbent government only auctions land upon investors’ request. Proceeds from such auctions are then transferred to the national reserve fund rather than being used for balancing the budget or other short-term government needs.
Concept Plan 2022 (a long range spatial strategy that plans over the next 50 years) identifies reserve sites and future development areas, revealing the potential for expansion right in the central area of Singapore. Source: URA
  1. To ensure the government’s commitment to its people and investors, continuity and consistency are crucial components for any planning project. However, when it comes to implementing those plans, flexibility is essential, and it must be backed by empirical data to achieve the desired results. Singapore’s first concept plan, formulated in 1971 following its independence, has undergone refinement in a consistent manner over the past 50 years. Its strategies have played a crucial role in shaping the nation, including the transformation of its core into a lush tropical forest with numerous water reservoirs, bringing nature closer to every urban area. Additionally, the plan led to the development of new urban towns along high-capacity public transportation routes, pre-dating the Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) concept (2), and strategically placing an international airport in the east and a seaport alongside large industrial zones in the west to alleviate logistics and manufacturing impact on the urban areas. As planning perspectives have evolved over the past half-century, updates to the concept plan have also become necessary: green buffers have been removed as environmental risk control can be achieved through management regulations, the scale of urban development in river basins has increased with regulations on managing surface water resources in construction, and advancements in building technology have allowed the emergence of the biotech industry in the city center.
One north, the high-tech area of Singapore, which encompasses the Biopolis biotech center, came into existence due to major regulatory modifications that permitted the amalgamation of diverse functions within a single structure. To prevent any environmental or health-related mishaps, stringent safety measures are implemented. Source: Wilmar
  1. Urban planning is a tool used by the state to optimize the country’s benefits and mitigate the negative aspects of the market, therefore imposing core objectives but at the same time, urban planning also allows room for market creativity. The land area of Singapore is divided evenly into five main land use functions (approximately 20% each): residential, workplace (offices, factories), technical infrastructure (roads, ports, airports, power plants, etc.), social infrastructure (sports facilities, hospitals, schools, etc.), and open space (including parks, waterways, and military bases). Compared to other cities that typically dedicate 50% of their land to housing, Singapore’s residential areas occupy only a modest proportion. Meanwhile, infrastructure (technical and social) and workplaces receive a much larger land allocation, reflecting the government’s priorities for economic development and building a foundation for national development (healthcare, education, sports). Moreover, social and industrial facilities are evenly distributed across the island, creating job opportunities closer to residential areas while increasing land value and investment opportunities. Singapore’s abundant and evenly distributed reserve land bank within the city center is a testament to its commitment to being a green city that is always ready for new opportunities. This land bank is constantly being refreshed from expired infrastructure terms of use and reclamation works. The government also recognizes that effective urban planning requires some flexibility, and it does not over-regulate areas that have high land values, such as the city center, or risky development models like the one-north technology hub or integrated resorts such as Sentosa Island. Rather, such areas use a “white site” approach that allows investors to determine the type of land use themselves.
A common sight in Singapore is the intermingling of small factory buildings within residential areas. This strategy creates employment opportunities in close proximity to residential areas, reduces commuting demand, and assists small and medium enterprises, which often struggle to secure affordable rental space in large, centralized industrial hubs. Source: Colliers

The Singaporean urban landscape is not without criticism: a sterile city with a lack of surprises, artificial scenery, and a disregard for land ownership rights (3). However, these criticisms do not place Singapore’s founding context into consideration. It was a young nation facing risks to its own existence, high unemployment rates, low rates of durable housing, cramped living conditions, and pollution. What the Singaporean government and planners have achieved is a high-quality living environment at a low cost for the majority of Singaporeans, rather than catering to the needs of a small elite group, while also being a top global investment destination.

“Dream big, aim high, act wisely” is the conclusion about urban planning in Singapore from a veteran planner that I will always remember, especially the last statement. Around the world,  there are numerous grand plans, limitless ambitions, and visionary proposals for cities, from Baron Haussmann’s Paris plan and Daniel Burnham’s Chicago plan to Patrick Abercrombie’s London plan. Yet, Singapore sets itself apart from the rest with its unifying, persistent, ambitious, yet practical effort that has spanned over the past five decades to become one of the world’s most attractive cities while caring meticulously for its citizens.

This article is an excerpt from the Introduction section by Mr. Nguyen Do Dzung, Co-founder & CEO of enCity Urban Solutions, for the Singapore Chronicles: Urban Planning, the second book on urbanization that enCity and Nhã Nam would like to introduce to you. The book’s co-author, Professor Heng Chye Kiang, is the Deputy Dean at the College of Design and Engineering at the National University of Singapore. He has supported enCity since our establishment and is now our senior advisor.

  1. Khoo Teng Chye and Koh Buck Song interview Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on April 3, 2014. Urban Solutions issue 5, 6/2014, page 24.”
  2. TOD stands for Transit-Oriented Development, which is an urban development model with high floor area density around railway stations or express bus stops to leverage large transportation capacity and encourage public transportation use.
  3. The Land Acquisition Act of 1966 allowed the government to purchase land below market prices and become the owner of nearly 80% of the land in Singapore (previously only slightly over 30%). This law was only amended in 2007.
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The history of the development of human civilisation has been associated with great rivers, which shows the irreplaceable value of water to urban growth. Today, the challenges of unprecedented floods, droughts, and water pollution caused by urbanisation and climate change have spurred research to utilise non-traditional water resources, including stormwater and wastewater, in coping with these urban issues.

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