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Dr Liu Thai Ker

Dr Liu is currently the Chair of Morrow Architects & Planners. He is the former Chief Executive Officer of the Housing and Development Board, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and former Director of RSP Architects, Planners and Engineers. You can listen to our conversation with Dr Liu in two podcast episodes on The DNA of Singapore.

Photo credit: Mike Enerio via Unsplash.

Caitlin Morrissey

Dr Liu, what is the DNA of Singapore?

Liu Thai Ker

I would say that, if I understand your question correctly, first of all, we are surrounded by sea - we're an island - so we plan with that in mind. Our city - although, it's high density - but closely related to the sea.

And second is, ours is a tropical environment, so everything we do must take the weather into account. And in fact, precisely because of that, Lee Kuan Yew, when he was prime minister, he pushed for the garden city approach because he worried that if Singapore doesn't handle the tropical hot environment well enough, it may not be an attractive area. So he planted a huge amount of trees, of course, with our help. And I've been told that because of his tree-planting effort, our temperature in Singapore is now lower by four to six degrees. Had there been no trees, it would be hotter. And of course, when we are under the shade; it's a lot cooler. So we have trees everywhere in Singapore.

And the third thing is that Singapore is a multi-ethnic society, so when we plan the city, we plan for-- or we respect the different culture, and we capture the different cultural characteristics. It makes our city a lot more colourful and a lot richer in culture. For example, when you come to Singapore, we have a Chinatown, we have Little India, we have Kampong Glam. Kampong in Malay word means village. And also, we have, to be respectful to both of you, we have a European town. In other words, there's one part of the city, during the British time, they create a kind of European type of architecture, and we preserve that as well. I hope that answers your question.

Caitlin Morrissey

Dr Liu, what is it that really makes Singapore, Singapore? And you've mentioned there are a few enclaves, but how many Singapore's are there?

Liu Thai Ker

Oh, actually, my view about a city is that it is not a human body. A city is not. A city is a family. In fact, when a city is planned like one body, like one human body, then it gets into trouble. For example, some of the bigger cities we see in the world, it's just gigantic city plan as one body. It's like putting the weight of five or six people on the body of one person. That person, of course, becomes sickly.

So in Singapore, as small as it is, currently, we have about 5.7 million. I divided into five regions. That means each region-- at that time, we made a kind of long-term plan-- was estimated to be around one million each. So it's like a small city. And then below the city, the region will have new towns. Each new town is about 150,000 to 200,000 people. And below that, we have neighbourhoods, and below neighbourhoods, we have these precincts. So it's subdivided this way. 

But in my work around Asia, because a lot of cities are much bigger than Singapore - for example, one Shanghai has a population size of the entire Australia - so you cannot treat it as-- even if you treat it as a family and not a human body, this is not a family; I treat it as a clan. That means you have several families.

Let's say a city is like a grandfather. Below that, region is like the son and grandson. But for mega city, I put them as family clan, just several grandfathers living together. And actually, when you have such a large population size, each of them can live, can actually survive on its own. So instead of having the weight of five or six persons on one body, I've subdivided the weight of five or six people onto five or six bodies, and each one of them will become very, I would say, with a beautiful, healthy, good looking body. That's what I planned. And Singapore, of course, we have very beautiful, healthy, good looking children and grandchildren. How is that for propaganda?

Greg Clark

Well, Dr Liu, it's beautiful. We're going to come on, of course, in a few minutes, to talk about inventions and shocks and leaders and other things. But I think we must ask you, because you've been so directly involved, to talk about the recent evolution of Singapore, the last 40, 50 years, perhaps even the last 56 years, but importantly, perhaps to ask you, what have been the characteristics of how Singapore has developed?

And I'd be particularly keen to hear about your views about the role that planning has played. Does Singapore have its own distinctive kind of planning? And what is it about the way that the city and the nation have evolved that you think is distinctively Singaporean, that's not like anything that's happened anywhere else?

Liu Thai Ker

Okay. Personally, I feel that if you plan a city properly, it can be applied universally everywhere. So I often tell people that the correct planning principle of urban planning is like the grammar of a language. If you master the grammar, you can use that skill in grammar to write any kind of story of any length anywhere in the world. So I feel that the fact that Singapore is so much well-liked is because we found the grammar for city planning and then we planned that. And that is, I would say, the key to it.

But just like writing a story, even though you got the grammar correctly, but you have to write the story in the tone that is sympathetic to the storyline that you're writing about. And therefore, in Singapore - just now I mentioned about our DNA, you know, like our tropical environment and sea environment - and we use a grammar, but we write a story with that kind of DNA in mind.

In fact, I want to just explain that, under the British time, in Singapore, now, one of the most famous open public space is called the Padang - Padang means a big field - in front of an old city hall. It's just a simple rectangular space. And I call that 'the tropical piazza' because, in the cooler weather, you just pave with stone. But in Singapore - I would say, a compliment to the British government - they created that piazza with grass on top and that is really using the same grammar. We still have piazzas but for the tropics, we don't pave with stone; we pave with grass. So I hope that helps you understand that the fundamental principles are the same everywhere, but the application of the grammar depends on the DNA of the city itself. Yeah. 

Greg Clark

Wonderful, Dr Liu. And I want to encourage you to say a little bit about the multiple cycles of planning in Singapore. Some people might say that the planning and development of Singapore has been both inspired, but also very disciplined. You have on a regular basis, at clear intervals, developed a new plan but based on the same grammar, the same vision, the same ideas. How did that come about, and what does it tell us about Singapore?

Liu Thai Ker

Actually, I would like to say that I was greatly inspired by Mr Lee Kuan Yew and also by his colleagues in those days. I feel that Mr Lee Kuan Yew is unable of doing short-term piecemeal plan; He's incapable of. Every time there's a problem, he will look for the fundamental causes of the problem and make a long-term plan.

For example, when he discovered that 43% of our female university graduates did not get married, that worried him. So then he created a so-called Social Development Unit to help matchmaking. And of course, that was greatly opposed by the younger people because they felt that the government was interfering with their private life. But anyway, a few years later, when over 100,000 couples were married, that protest, of course, was-- well, we don't hear any protest today, okay? So everything he did, first, is to solve the fundamental, the basic causes and second, find a long-term solution.

So I would say that, certainly, under his guidance, under my time of serving Singapore, his guidance was to provide me 'what' he wanted. My job is to take the 'what' and respond with 'how'. So he never crossed a line of 'what' to tell me 'how', never. So he give me a free hand to do the how. But of course, in the process of doing the 'how', I also discover some 'what' that he did not realise. Then I would let him know.

But I would say that among the various 'what' that he wanted, one of the most important things is he was absolutely dedicated to making sure that every Singaporean would have a home because in 1960, when the British left us, we had 1.6 million people, and three out of four persons lived in squatter huts. And he felt that for Singapore to be a modern country and to be able to compete and stand tall among the larger nations, the most important thing is to make sure that citizens will have a home so that they would then not worry about the daily life problem. They would then focus their attention on nation-building. So that is a very, very important, I would say, contribution,

But in my case, under his influence, worried about the fact that Singapore is such a tiny island and what happens if we run out of space because if we run out of space, then we have nowhere to build. That would be a disaster. So when I was asked to plan the masterplan of Singapore in 1989, I proposed to plan for a hundred years. That means not due till 2091 for a population size of 5.5 million. But little did I know that Singapore, having been planned well, having good policies, our economy grew so fantastically fast that the 5.5 million was reached three years ago, about 70 years ahead of time. And therefore, nowadays, I'm in some kind of controversy in Singapore. I proposed that we should plan-- the next plan should be for 10 million people, and there's a lot of argument about that. But anyway, being an old, stubborn man, I insist that we should plan for 10 million.

Greg Clark

Dr Liu, that's absolutely brilliant, and I know that your proposition to plan for 10 million is very wise. I'm going to go back to Caitlin now because she has three or four other questions we need to ask.

Caitlin Morrissey

Everything you've just been saying has really prompted two questions in my mind. The first is, who are the other key leaders in Singapore? And also, what are the other key inventions that have emerged from Singapore? Because so much of what you've been saying is a lot about social invention. So those are the two. So I'd love to start with, firstly, the key leaders in your mind.

Liu Thai Ker

Definitely, I would say Singapore was just absolutely lucky that when we became independent, we had really brilliant leaders. The credit, of course, first go to Mr Lee Kuan Yew. And a lot of Singaporeans, as well as overseas people, felt that he succeeded because he was like a dictator, autocratic, and I totally disagree with that because when I was in the government, he used to ask me to take him around to show the new public housing we did, and we had a very even level type of discussion; he never overruled me if I disagreed with him.

And every year, he will invite me for lunch - it was about two or three lunches - and the lunch consists of three types of conversation. One is update him how we were doing; second, explain some of the things he read in the newspaper; three, he gave me instructions. Now, those instructions that I agree, I said, "Yes, I'll get it done." Those that I did not agree with, I said, "Sorry, I don't agree for the following reasons." And for about ten, eleven years, every year, two or three lunches, 100% of the time, he immediately withdrew his instruction. So he's not the dictator as people see him because I also know some of the major decisions he made in Singapore.

There's a selection of airport location. They argue in the cabinet for two or three years. Some of The decision on whether to build the metro line, they argued in the cabinet five or six years because some of the ministers just did not agree, and he would just wait for the argument to come to a rational decision. And that's why Singapore's successful because he was not a dictator, but he was a highly rational person, and therefore, he will wait for the good reason to come out and then will make decision.

I often tell people that the success for Singapore can be summed up in two words. Two words only. It's clarity equals courage. If you think through the problem clearly, you have the courage to do things that other countries, other experts would not allow.

For example, when we started in 1960, he knew that Singapore public housing-- to house everybody, we must have high rise housing; we could not have low rise housing. And Singapore, at that time, was a desperately backward country. And all the world experts in the West condemned high rise housing, but he insisted that if we didn’t build high rise, we could not house everybody. So that was the 'what' he decided.

So my 'how' was to, when I took up the job in public housing, went to England, France and Scandinavia to study their public housing, particularly some of the high-rise housing, to find out what's wrong. Why was it that they couldn't succeed? And found out the sources of the problems, came back, in my planning and design, we removed those problems, and therefore, now, people from all over the world come to Singapore to see how we make high rise housing, public housing successful. So I would say the first-generation leader made a big difference.

And also, I think, at that time, Singapore private sector was very weak because it was a very backward country, so a lot of the talents were in the government. We inherited none of the professional and technical people from the British government, so we had Public Works Department and also myself coming back from overseas.

So this group of people, I would say, with very strong practical experience. They are not theorists; they were implementers. So we also had a strong group of technocrats to deliver the 'how' for the government. So I don't know if that-- yeah, I think that is an important story to tell, to say that we must make long term plan. We must think through the problem clearly and don't just follow the fashionable trend. But after having a good idea, we must have develop the skill to deliver the idea.

Greg Clark

And one of the things I think you're saying, Dr Liu - I invite you to clarify - is that Singapore created a strong culture of shared leadership amongst the professional civil service, the public officials. If you like, there was a determination to build a really professional public service. Can you say something about that?

Liu Thai Ker

Yes, I would say it is less evident now than before. In the early days, under Mr Lee's time, a lot of overseas people, when they visited Singapore and met me, they would always say, "Well, why is it that your civil servants are so cooperative?" I said, "Very simple." I said, "Singapore is a small place. Our president's office is just five-minutes taxi drive from here. If we don't cooperate, they would immediately hear about it." But actually, this is just a kind of joke.

The key reason is that Singapore, unlike many other cities-- in other city, below the city you have districts, you have counties and so on, and they each would have its own plan. But in Singapore, even though we are one country, but it's one country, below there is one city and no other subdivisions. So everybody works for the same plan, number one.

Number two, because there are very few countries in the world as small as Singapore in terms of territory size and population size. On top of that, we do not have any natural resources. In fact, in Mr Lee's words, the only resource we have was human being. We don't have any underground resource.

So the common slogan on the lips of every civil servant in those days was 'in search of excellence'. And therefore, to do so, we had to work together. So we have a crisis mentality. We want to work together to help this country survive. Not only survive because for us to be compatible with other bigger country, we had to do everything in an excellent way. And of course, as you heard earlier, in the cabinet, they argue, but they did not divide; they argue to solve the solutions. So that kind of example was passed down to civil servants, and we did our things in the same way. Yeah.

Greg Clark

Dr Liu, it's very clear, and I'm delighted you've said that. What do you think are the greatest inventions of Singapore? What are the things that have had the biggest impact?

Liu Thai Ker

I think, on the political side, because Lee Kuan Yew-- as you probably know, when he graduated from Cambridge, he got the first-class honours but ranked number two in the world. And who was the number one? His wife. So the woman power in Singapore is very strong.

So anyway, he was a brilliant lawyer. And as I mentioned earlier, he has a bad habit of thinking through a problem thoroughly. He has a bad habit of solving the problem with a masterplan and not in piecemeal, and therefore, I will say-- what was your question again?

Greg Clark

The greatest inventions of Singapore.

Liu Thai Ker

Yes. So I would say that that is a very key part of Singapore's invention. Because in many cities I have come across, whether East or West, the tendency is to patch up problem, patch up symptoms. But in Singapore, we try to solve, find the causes of the symptoms and solve the problem on the long-term basis. To me, that is a very important one.

And at the professional level, I would say that-- I say, in my case, urban planning-- I often tell people that Singapore was my urban laboratory. In other words, I was given a chance not only to plan the new towns or design the buildings but also to develop the buildings and do the property management. With property management, the beauty of doing property management is that the residents give us lots and lots of complaints. Now, I had the wisdom to see what the complaints were to find out what were the flaws in our previous plan and what were the ideas that we had not thought of and then plough it back to the next plan, next design and so on.

So in other words, we actually treated urban planning, not as something creative but a science. So I often tell people, to do urban planning, we must have the scientist head to treat the design of a city like designing a perfect machine for living. Now, if you want to design a machine, you must know all the machine parts, you must know the dimensions of the machine parts, you must know how many parts of each type you'll have, you must know how to put them together.

Now, I would say that I was very lucky to have that opportunity to use this urban laboratory. And I would say if you asked me, a lot of my planning theories, like what I said about a city is not a body but a family, came out of this kind of learning and investigation. And one of the reasons that I continued to work at this ripe old age is because I really want to share the experience with other people.

Greg Clark

Dr Liu, this is a very, very helpful answer.

Caitlin Morrissey

Dr Liu, are there moments that stand out in Singapore's history as either being positive or negative shocks and what has Singapore learnt from those?

Liu Thai Ker

In terms of urban planning, I don't think we had major shocks. I would say we went through a few rounds of economic downturn. And being a small country, when the larger countries have some economic downturn, we get immediately hit. But we also learned our lessons this way because, in the beginning, Singapore being so desperately poor and backwards, we try gingerly to have our surrounding countries as our partner.

But after a few shocks like that, we decided that for us to survive better, we must take the whole world as our economic partners so that if one region has some downturn, another region can help us. So we actually make friends with the whole world to kind of buffer this kind of shocks. Obviously, this is the biggest one.

But there are some good things coming out of that. For example, in the early days, when we were so desperately poor and we were so worried about a shortage of land, we pay attention on building new buildings and actually pulled down quite a few beautiful historical buildings. But in the late 70s, there was an economic downturn, and our government in the bad habit of solving the problem by looking at the root cause rather than symptom.

So I had a big, long discussion and among the recommendation was that we have to develop tourism, and one of the only ways to do tourism is to save our historical buildings. And that was an opportunity for me because I'd been kind of trying to save historical buildings, but this method fell mainly on deaf ears.

But after that, I never looked back. And that's why in Singapore now, despite this-- we probably had about a total, when the British left us, a total of maybe 15,000 old buildings. And today, nearly 8,000 of those buildings have been preserved as historical buildings. And obviously, they survived partly because of the economic shock we had in the late '70s. So every bad news can be turned into opportunities.

Greg Clark

That's a very important statement, Dr Liu. Now, the final question is to ask you about whether there are any legends or commonly told folk stories or whether there are any myths, things that are believed about Singapore that are actually untrue, as you would see it. Are there any ideas or stories that are important in Singapore and any things that are commonly believed that are untrue about Singapore?

Liu Thai Ker

Yes, I would say the most common belief is that Singapore succeeded because Lee Kuan Yew was a dictator. And just now I took trouble to explain that it's not. He was actually-- I often tell people that the highest authority of Singapore is not the prime minister nor the president; the highest authority of Singapore is rationality. If you speak rationally, you can argue with the prime minister; you can argue with the president. At least in those days, I succeeded in doing that. Because if you have an autocratic leader bulldozing his own ideas, Singapore will not be as successful as it is today.

He was actually-- one of his really-- he had a few bad habits. One, he was a hopeless worrier. He worries about things. In fact, when he smell something bad happening, he would start getting people together and try to create a plan to tackle the problem before the problem got worse. And he was also a very good student. You know, every time I met him, he want to learn something from me, really ask, often, some questions I can't even answer. I had to-- I says, "Oh, let me go and check and get you feedback." And the third, of course, he's incapable of doing short-term plan; he can only do long term plan. So, he was really a very rational leader.

But I want to just maybe take the opportunity to say that, at the moment, my personal hope - it's not widely talked about in Singapore - is that actually, we are now 55 years old. Next Monday, it will be 55 years old. But I would like to tell-- and then more recently, we celebrated Singapore as being 200 years old because Raffles, I would say, built Singapore, created Singapore 200 years ago. And I want Singaporeans to really feel that our history is not as desperately short as 55 because if you have a longer history, you have a greater sense of self-respect.

But to go further - there are archaeologists in Singapore - we know that we had a 13th- or 14th-century Malay Sultan's mosque-- not mosque. Some graveyards, and therefore, we are at least 700 years old. And more recently, they found some porcelain pieces and think that our history goes even longer than 700 years. And I am very happy to hear that because if the citizen of a city of a country know that they have a longer history, then they now realise-- I think their sense of pride will be greater.

And maybe to round it up, the word Singapore came from a Malay word. It's Singapura. Pura means city. Singa is Lion. So that's a Malay word. We are Lion City. Ages ago, apparently, we must have some Lion in Singapore, but now, you can't find them.

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