Remaking Singapore

Thai Ker Liu is a celebrated architect and planner from Singapore. In a recent interview with Indian news site Livemint, Liu said, “Every city needs a plan." For large cities--of which Asia has many--he notes that “the skill of putting roads together and putting industries in the right place becomes quite overwhelming.”

Compared to megacities of 20-30 million people, Singapore’s population of 5.3 million would seem relatively manageable. But the city-state has faced many unique urban planning problems since World War II. Japanese occupation during the war had destroyed Singapore’s civilian architecture and caused a severe housing shortage during the war and after. Unsanitary, overcrowded squatter settlements were rife and only 9% of Singaporeans lived in government-built homes. 

Singapore’s Housing and Development Board (HDB) was established in 1960 to address this problem. During Liu’s 20-year career with the Board (including ten years as CEO), he helped clean up urban slums and built low-cost housing for millions of Singaporeans. Liu helped build over a half-million apartment units grouped in self-sustaining towns, each complete with schools, hospitals, parks, and other public services. Today, Liu's legacy stands and 82% of Singaporeans live in HDB units.

Asia Society will host Thai Ker Liu for events in San Francisco on May 28 and Los Angeles on May 29. The events mark the official launch a new Asia Society/Urban Land Institute report, Tomorrow's City Today, which showcases ideas and concepts presented at the Pacific Cities Sustainability Initiative (PCSI) Annual Forum held in Hong Kong in February 2013. In the lead up to his visit to California, Asia Society asked Liu about his decades-long experience as an urban planner.

What inspired you to devote so much of your professional career to public housing and the Housing and Development Board of Singapore? What was one of the most challenging problems you worked to solve in that position?

In 1969, I left New York City and returned to Singapore to join the Housing and Development Board with the desire to help build the newly independent Republic of Singapore. I soon realized there were enormous challenges facing Singapore in those early days. For example: how to plan a highly self-sufficient new town, how to create meaningful communities beyond bricks and mortar, how to design and build good architecture on very low budgets, how to upgrade construction techniques to world standards, and so on. These were exciting times. Together with my colleagues, we soldiered on. My 20 years in HDB thus went by very quickly, until the government posted me out to become the Chief Planner.

What is one of the biggest challenges facing Singapore's urban landscape today and how do think it should be addressed?

In the last five decades Singapore has done well in its urbanization effort. Today our environment is sustainable, our infrastructure works reliably, traffic flows, and the city is green. In addition there is no pollution, no homeless, no squatters, no ghettos, and no ethnic enclaves. However, success brings new problems, such as the very rapid population growth due to a large number of migrants from other countries to help us develop our burgeoning economy. The new challenge we face is to plan for a much larger population at higher density to accommodate the anticipated future population growth on our tiny island while maintaining a quality environment and high liveability. It is a tall order. However, given the experience accumulated in the recent past, I believe that these apparently conflicting goals can be achieved, albeit with a lot of hard work.

Which Asian cities or city plans can sustainable cities professionals look to as a model? What makes them such great examples of sustainable design?

In term of satisfying basic human needs, such as convenience and comfort, there are quite a number of cities in Southeast Asia, Japan and Korea that have done well. However, if one sets the goal higher to identify a city with high livability, convenience, comfort, safety and economic prosperity, then Singapore stands out very well among them.

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