Professor Cheong Koon Hean
Professor Cheong is the Chair of the Centre for Liveable Cities Advisory Panel at Ministry for National Development, and she is the Chair of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. You can listen to our conversation with Professor Cheong in two podcast episodes on The DNA of Singapore.
Photo credit: Mike Enerio via Unsplash.
So, Koon Hean, what is the DNA of Singapore?
Cheong Koon Hean
Well, I think if you want to understand the DNA of Singapore, you really need to understand both its geography and its history. And I always say that Singapore is really an anomaly. It is a very small island city-state in the middle of South East Asia. The city's the country, and the country is the city. We have no sovereign hinterland, no natural resources and we're highly land constrained. And everything we need for our country has to be accommodated within our very small island of 720 square kilometres, which is, by the way, just about half of metropolitan area of London, but we are a country.
The second point is about its history. We need to understand that, of course, in the 1950s, we were only a very small trading port that was part of the British colony. We were a British colony, and then we attained independence from the British, and we merged with Malaysia in 1963. But then, just after two years and within the period that was really filled with social and political strife, Singapore separated from Malaysia and became independent as the Republic of Singapore in1965.
Now, this separation signalled a period of great uncertainty; how was this tiny city-state with only 1.8 million people then going to survive? We have no natural resources and hardly a local economy to speak of. The situation was really further exacerbated when the British forces withdrew from Singapore in 1968 and overnight, 20% of our GDP disappeared. Unemployment became rampant, and as for living conditions, Singapore in the 1960s was just filled with slums and squatter settlements lacking sanitation, proper infrastructure, even lacking adequate water supply and affordable housing.
The only resource that we have to our advantage is actually our strategic location. We are located in the heart of South East Asia and at the crossroads of trade between Europe and Asia. Our strategic location position us well as an air and sea hub, and eventually, this really helped us to develop one of the largest air and port hubs in the world.
At that time, well, we had our founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. We actually built on the ideas of a United Nations Development expert when they first met in the early 1960s, and we decided to focus on an export-led industrialisation which was to attract multinationals to invest in Singapore. This really enabled Singapore to leverage our expertise to open doors to global markets. And basically, it was to leapfrog countries in the region which were then actually hostile to Singapore's independence. So Singapore strived to create an environment that was safe, corrupt free and tax-friendly. It had to become an oasis that is attractive for living and working in order to attract investments and talent to our shores, and that's why the big emphasis on the living environment.
But where is Singapore today? In the 1960s, Singapore's GDP per capita is actually less than US$320. After some five decades, the GDP per capita today has risen to an incredible US$60,000, making Singapore one of the wealthier and stronger economies in the world. So for a very small country with hardly any natural resources, I think Singapore's growth is really nothing short of remarkable. By embracing globalisation, free-market capitalism, education and very pragmatic policies, the country was able to overcome its resource disadvantages to today becoming a leading air and sea hub, an international financial centre and a tourist destination. And in terms of living quality, Singapore is often ranked as one of the most liveable cities in Asia.
So what is the DNA that has enabled this transformation? I'm just going to pick four short ones and maybe expand on this. I think, firstly, it's really a strong belief in very long-term integrated planning for resilience. Having understood the history, to a large extent, you will understand why our leaders and policymakers in Singapore exhibit a sense of paranoia. The need to plan ahead and to anticipate problems were really crucial to ensuring Singapore's survival.
And actually, you can look at some of the examples - and I'm just going to name a couple, all right? - of this sort of mindset and the thinking of always very long term. First is urban planning. One is this very forward-looking, comprehensive urban planning. We are very methodical and have a very integrated process of urban planning. We have a very forward-looking orientation and is very comprehensive in the way we do our urban plans. You have many government agencies coming together, for example, to formulate what we call the strategic Concept Plan every 5 to 10 years with a horizon of something like 30 to 40 years. So these are rolling plans, and these are really broad strokes in this plan, in safeguarding land for all major land use and infrastructure to facilitate social and economic strategies. This structure plan, the Concept Plan is then cascaded into a Master Plan with a shorter horizon of like 15 years to guide more detailed development, providing transparency and certainty to the public and businesses.
Now, such a planning approach is really critical. Why? Because we need to ensure we have sufficient land to meet all our development needs, given our very limited size. They actually also helped the decision-maker to make the necessary trade-off between competing land use and to prioritise infrastructure investments to support our physical growth. So a long-term view also help us to identify problems in the future and to take steps to pre-empt the problem as much as possible.
A second way of looking at long term is really in the way we have our forward-looking fiscal planning. Not just urban planning. Now, we believe in building up a nest egg for a rainy day, so expenditure in Singapore, fiscal expenditure is highly disciplined, and the country generally strives to maintain a balance or a surplus budget where possible. And every term of government has to develop very prudent fiscal policies to support its own programs without drawing on our reserves unless approved by the president. The surplus generated is very carefully invested through sovereign funds to generate more income so as to build up savings.
Now, this prudent approach has proven to be a lifesaver as the country went through multiple shocks, whether it is economic shocks and even pandemics. And in fact, we actually experience the pandemic SARS in 2003, and now, we're hit by COVID-19 like the rest of the world. We are able to draw on our reserves to tide the country through this very difficult period, to support businesses and to save jobs so that, for example, since February of this year, when COVID-19 struck, Singapore has rolled up four budgets totalling S$193 billion dollars within 100 days. Four budgets. And of this, S$93 billion will be spent on the COVID-19 response. Now, of this, S$52 billion dollars will be drawn from past reserves and no borrowing is necessary. We tap on our nest egg. So this is about the long term, prudent fiscal planning that we have in place.
Another good example of this long-term mindset and thinking is really preparing for climate change, which is really an existential issue. Because we are an island city-state, we face the risk of being inundated by sea level rises. In fact, we've already started looking at both adaptation and mitigation measures against climate change. And we've done a lot of studies, and we're looking, now, at what are these measures that we need to put in place. For example, coastal protection. So interestingly, Marina Bay is an area whereby we have planned very well, and much of the city is actually on reclaimed land. And when we reclaimed the land, it was a form of flood protection when we put in a barrage. At the same time, we've also created the world's largest freshwater reservoir, so this is really long-term planning.
I think the second important DNA point is there's this mindset of pursuing liveability and sustainability. Really, from day one, Singapore placed liveability and sustainability as top of our agenda. This is in recognition that a quality living environment and homeownership are really critical elements to give Singaporeans a stake in this young country, and it is a strategy to attract and retain talent. Sustainability, of course, is very important for a land and resource-starved country.
So even though the economy was weak, initially, in the 1960s, we rejected bringing in pollutive industries. We selected what we wanted to bring in investments very carefully. We did not want to do it at the expense of our lived environment. So through very careful and creative urban planning, I think we have put in a lot of policies which focus on, say, rail transit and congestion pricing. We kept vehicle quotas and that kept a lid on vehicle growth. Singapore is really a city of greenery and water, providing a very pleasant environment despite our very high density. And of course, public housing is a very important part, which we can talk about later.
I think the third DNA point is, we believe in the need for good and dynamic governance: corruption-free, transparent, building up strong institutions led by competent people. I think dynamic urban governance is really the manner in which the public leadership interacts with our citizens and stakeholders and having oversight on how the city plan develop, utilise and manage our physical environment resources to achieve national outcomes.
So I think being visionary is important, being pragmatic is very important. It's not ideology, but just having very pragmatic policies, depending on what the challenges at that time are rather than ideology. Ideology is an interesting point, where people fight over COVID-19-- whether to wear a mask because of ideology. But the fact of the matter is, the science tells you that you have to wear a mask, so wear a mask, right? That's pragmatism. And so, you know, we were very pragmatic. So, for example, even in the 1960s, we had massive land acquisition of private land. And this, of course, can give rise to huge debates, whether you can do that. But it seemed draconian then, but these policies really helped to secure the land for the much-needed infrastructure improvements and to build public housing, to give affordable housing to people, and this is to benefit the masses. So we took a very pragmatic policy then.
And of course, we believe in building strong and competent institutions and public service. Institutional set up really plays a very critical role in coordinating and executing effective planning and development processes to deliver policies. You need very strong institutions led by highly competent people with high integrity, and you really need to work together, as, what I call, a 'Whole-of-Government Approach' in order to contribute to very effective policy and to execute your policies.
And I always say that policy is execution. You can have lots of policies - and many cities have lots of policies, and there are no lack of plans in the drawer - the problem is that it may remain in a drawer and never get implemented if you do not have strong institutions that have very good people to actually implement these policies.
The fourth point I like to make is that there is a drive to innovate continuously because apart from a good geographic location, our only other resource is our brain. Innovation is a key to creating value from overcoming our constraints and to ensuring our relevance to the world. We're really a small little dot in the world. How can we continue to be relevant unless we're very, very innovative?
So perhaps we can talk about some of the innovations. I think one of the questions was, so is Singapore highly innovative? Well, the last I checked, innovation and invention really is integral part of our business culture. And in fact, the 2019 Global Innovation Index ranked Singapore as the most innovative country in Asia and eighth globally, while the 2020 Bloomberg Innovation Index ranked Singapore third globally.
Now, as a result, we have invested significantly in innovation and research. So, for example, in science and technology, we've invested something like 19 billion Singapore dollars from 2016 to 2020 in the Research, Innovation and Enterprise plan. And at the moment, this cover four areas called advanced manufacturing and engineering, health and biomedical sciences.
So since we're talking about cities, some S$900 million has been set aside for the Urban Solutions & Sustainability domain, covering energy, water, land and liveability. In fact, the next tranche of the Research, Innovation and Enterprise grants will be coming out soon, and I do not think it will be reduced. In fact, it might be about the same or even increase. So that should be announced quite soon for the next five years, so we continue even COVID-19 or not.
Now, there are also a lot of urban planning innovations, and a lot of it is centred around giving the illusion of space, given that we don't have space, right, not much space. And as I said, the way we reclaim land is both not to only create land, but also as a climate change innovation to block the sea and to protect ourselves. And we create freshwater reservoirs from Marina Bay to collect water.
Another urban innovation on how to give the illusion of space is a simple device called the Park Connector. We develop a lot of Park Connectors to connect up hundreds of parks in Singapore. So again, one park is a very small park, but you connect a few hundred parks, you seem to have a lot of space. You probably could cycle around Singapore for hours and hours from one park to another, So we've done this quite interestingly, and you should come and visit Singapore to walk on some of these parks. We connect hill parks, create bigger parks, so it's quite an interesting innovation. And that's from the planning point of view.
Another innovation is really resource management. And Singapore's water story is quite amazing as part of urban planning. We are a small country with hardly any natural resources. And we still buy water from Malaysia, but we're trying to work towards being as self-sufficient as possible because it's quite difficult to continue to always rely on someone else. Although, if we can, we will continue to, of course, work with Malaysia to get water.
Every drop of rainfall is captured by a vast network of drains and stored in freshwater reservoirs. So if you are looking for a sponge city, Singapore is a very good example. We are indeed a sponge city.We also have desalination. We do desalinate water, and all water is recycled and treated to produce new water. There is an extensive deep tunnel sewage system, some 60-metre underground which collects all used water. It is treated at water reclamation plants using membrane technology. And in fact, because of our need, we have developed this technology and exported it around the world, the way we deal with the reclamation of water. And through the Active, Beautiful and Clean Water Program, we have really softened and converted our concrete drains to naturalised rivers with soft edges for plants, creating a city of greenery and water for Singapore. So we create multifunctional uses out of infrastructure. And in fact, interestingly, when we had periods of droughts, we cooperated with Malaysia, and we had to pipe water to them as a result of having multiple ways of ensuring that there is water. But water continues to always be a challenge, but so far, I think we have adopted some pretty good strategies to deal with it.
Now, the other innovations we talked about is really on policy innovation, and I think I'd like to touch on two of these. One is the public housing policy. Singapore has managed to house almost everybody in affordable housing, and public housing plays a very, very big role. Public housing in Singapore houses more than 80% of the population in affordable, quality housing. And of this 80% whom we're housing in public housing, about 94 to 95% actually own their own homes. We actually only have 5% who's renting because we believe that homeownership is important to give people a stake in this country as a young nation.
And we developed very innovative policies to help people to own their own homes. Now, one of the most innovative policies is, while you want to provide public housing and is highly subsidised, most cities in the world cannot afford high subsidies, so you need to find a way for people to also pay for part of the highly subsidised housing in some way, right? So the other pillar that supports public housing is the Central Provident Fund.
The Central Provident Fund is actually a compulsory savings scheme. So everybody in Singapore who works contributes to the Central Provident Fund which is a little bit like a pension fund under your own name. So when we work, we will contribute a certain percentage of our pay to the Central Provident Fund, and our employer also contributes a certain amount to our CPF, Central Provident Fund. Now, this means that every Singaporean has a saving rate of almost 37% in the CPF. And from this CPF, we are able to divide the three tranches, a certain percentage is used for housing, one is used for medical insurance, and the final tranche is used for your retirement. That sum you cannot touch.
So when we price public housing we take into consideration that you have a savings of 25 to 27-- about 25% in your CPF for housing use, both public and private. So for public housing, when we price our flats, we make sure that you can pay from your CPF. So if we price our flats, working the subsidies in, we try to price it such that you will spend no more than 25% of your income to pay your mortgage, so it means that more than 80% of the people who buy public housing, if they make a prudent choice, they can pay the mortgage entirely from the CPF without any cash outlay. So mortgages are completely catered for. So this device of a compulsory saving scheme is very, very important as a social safety net for all Singaporeans, not to mention that everybody is covered by medical insurance because they use their CPF as well. And on top of that, we have annuity schemes that is paid out of the CPF and which means, in essence, a Singaporean will not only have a roof over their head, they will be covered by medical insurance and they will have an annuity sum for the rest of their lives when they retire. So I think that's what governance is about, isn't it? Taking care of the citizen.
Koon Hean, I want you just to say something, if you will, about what that means for housing affordability in Singapore because other successful cities have big housing affordability challenges. Just speak a little bit about that, please.
Cheong Koon Hean
So every Singaporean can use almost about 25% for buying housing. So when the public housing authority, the Housing & Development Board, prices public housing, we ensure that the price is such that most people, if they make prudent choice based on their income and what they can afford, they can pay everything out from the Central Provident Fund for their mortgage without any cash outlay. So we make sure that it's no more than a quarter of the income that people have to pay for housing. So this makes it very affordable, and that's why homeownership rates is more than 90% in Singapore which is one of the highest homeownership rates of any city in the world. And in a way, we have solved the housing problem in Singapore. So it is a very deliberate policy intervention.
And of course, the public housing authority has a very, very complicated and sophisticated set of policies to ensure we can make housing affordable. So we design housing of all sizes from two-room, three-room, four-room, five-room flats to match income levels, and they are located all over Singapore. So there is always a home for you to meet every income depending on what you can afford. So this has contributed significantly to affordable housing in Singapore, so these are some examples of the types of innovation. I think in Singapore, really, policy innovation is one of the most interesting aspects, mainly because we believe in very strong governance.
The other innovation is really, in particular, in services, and the digital economy lately that we have focused on. We have aspirations to be a smart nation, and being a very land and resource-starved country, in fact, the digital economy is key to us, because it involves mainly the brainpower. And in most technology, that overcome your geography constraints and it reaches out internationally to the world. So I think this is something we have been nurturing as part of our economy. And I think today 80 of the top 100 tech firms have a presence in Singapore, from Amazon to IBM, and they do a lot of pilot, ground-breaking new projects here before they're rolled out globally.
And there are some enablers that help to make this happen. Firstly, it's lightning-fast modern IT infrastructure. I think if you work in Singapore, the IT infrastructure is really excellent because we invest a lot in the IT infrastructure. And for your information, all public housing has broadband and Wi-Fi, and this has come in really handy because of COVID-19. And when we talk about the concern of social inequity, this is where we are trying to level up everybody to have access to IT infrastructure.
Secondly, what helps us in this quest to be a smart nation is we have very rigorous intellectual property protection, good laws, and we're very committed to a strong IP regulatory framework. I believe Singapore ranks first among all Asian countries according to the World Economic Forum.
Next is that we have a deep and highly skilled talent pool. As I say, our main strategic resource are our people and brain power as much as possible, so we do have and we offer one of the most well educated and highly skilled talent pools in Asia. And in fact, the most recent Global Talent Competitiveness Index ranked Singapore second in the world and the only Asian country in the top 10 when it comes to attracting talent. And we are very highly cosmopolitan. And I think speaking English also helps in ensuring competitiveness. So we have many smart nation aspirations. I won't talk about it now, unless you're interested, and then we can go a little bit into it. So I think these are the key DNA that, in a way, powers and drives us.
Koon Hean, thank you so much for putting together this really coherent answer because this will shape the whole podcast, and it gives us so much. I'm going to ask a couple of quick short questions, and then Caitlin will continue with the line. I wanted just to ask you about the tropical dimension of Singapore. And you talked, of course, about rain and rain capture, and you talked a lot about the parks. But is there something else you want to say generally about Singapore's tropical nature? Is there anything important to say about that, maybe even the 'city in the garden' idea?
Cheong Koon Hean
Well, I suppose the climate poses both challenge and opportunity. In terms of opportunity, it can make us a green city, a green Garden City very easily. Things grow here very well. Within two years, you can have a forest, you know, and having a lot of rain helps us to create water bodies. So the Garden City is something that we latch onto-- the good climate that we have for growing green in the city very easily, and this actually helps to alleviate the very high-density nature of our city. So in that sense, it is a great opportunity and a big plus for us.
And in fact, we're also looking at food resilience. We can grow food quite easily except we don't have the land. So one urban innovation that we are going to ramp up is urban farming, and we are already trialling and testing a lot of these. And I think in a couple of years, you will see a lot more growing on our rooftops because we also have a goal to achieve at least 30% of our nutrient needs through local production of food.
But on the other hand, this climate also does pose certain challenges. We are in a hot tropical climate. But this also drives innovation, Greg, because we have to overcome some of these things. The urban heat island effect is something that is a challenge for hot tropical climates, on top of the concern with sea-level rise, which I talked about and which we are dealing with.
So let me share one innovation that we're working on, and it marries technology to help us to turn something that may be a challenge into something of an opportunity. So in the planning of my Housing Development Board towns, HDB towns, we have developed very good computer simulations that help us to plan better. So this very complex urban modelling enable us to model the wind flows through our towns and our city, and we make use of it in what we call 'smart planning'. By modelling wind flows, and using urban design together with computer simulations to ensure that there's very good wind flows through the town, This will cool the town down and give us better air quality. Urban designers can also, understand where to place public spaces and our high-density building and how we place them to encourage wind flows. So this is something we've been working on. And in fact, we have been applying this for many of the new areas that we are planning, so this is where technology can help you to overcome many, many of the challenges that we face in this type of climate.
And in fact, a lot of the modelling-- for example, we test out solar irradiance. We do a lot of shadow analysis so that in the planning of my town, I will place parks in the shadow. Actually, we don't like the sun very much, not too much, so the children can play in the shade at certain times of the day. And the solar irradiance studies help us to place solar panels in the best parts which can generate as much renewable energy as possible. In fact, the HDB is the largest procurer of solar in Singapore, and because of our scale, we are able to bring down the price of solar panels because we can buy in such large quantities.
And as you know, in Singapore, we don't have a lot of choices. There's no geothermal energy; there's no gas. We have to import everything. So solar is about the only way we can generate some renewable energy. And we are trying very hard to use all the roofs and maybe even to place some of the panels on reservoirs and in the sea as solar farms. So I think this is innovation, trying to turn something which is a challenge into an opportunity, do the best we can with the help of technology.
Koon Hean, wonderful answer. Thank you very much. I've got two or three other quick points. So one of the things I wanted to ask you about is the social mix. My understanding is that one of your policy innovations has been to deliberately create Singaporean identity at the level of the district, the housing block, the community by ensuring a cosmopolitan mix of people from different backgrounds. Can you talk a little bit about this policy innovation and why it's important?
Cheong Koon Hean
One of the interesting policies in public housing is the Ethnic Integration Policy. Now, what is this policy? First, let's understand a little bit of the history. Singapore is a multiracial, multireligious, multicultural country. We are really a nation of migrants, and what happened is we were a port city, so people just migrated here from all over the world. When we became an independent nation, we have this motley crew of migrants from all over the world coming here, with different languages, different religions, different culture. And partly, this was the reason why we made English the first language in schools because it helps us to have a single common language to talk to each other and to have a business language to make a living.
Now, in 1965, when we became an independent nation, we had racial riots Singapore has a mixture of about 70% of Chinese, maybe about 15% or 20% of Malays, and then another 10% Indians and the rest. Now, after the racial riots, we realised that it came about because there were many racial enclaves formed in the physical built environment. So we made use of the public housing program to try to establish a spread of people that reflects the national demographic and to enable people to mix around so that they understand each other. In every HDB town, we have a quota system that reflects the national demographic. So in every town, we would set aside housing for 60% or 70% of housing for Chinese, another 10% - 15% for Malays, another 10% for Indians and then the rest of other races. Now, this means that every town has almost the same social mix of different ethnic groups.
And not only that. We also mix income groups. So in our towns, we have big flats, small flats. They are all integrated into the same blocks; we do not segregate. So this means that all incomes and all nationalities are mixing. So people go to the same schools, they eat at our favourite hawker centres together, they shop together. And they look at how other races celebrate festivities. In fact, we always celebrate with them, because at certain celebration, fantastic food come out and all of us enjoy them.
So this mix has been very important because people grew up with neighbours who are Indians, Chinese, Malays, and they go to the same playground, they eat together in the same places, they go to school together. And this has given people a pretty good understanding of the different races. So over the years, we have managed to maintain harmony as best as we can.
But we are also realistic. Some of these things are very deep, and we work very hard to establish racial harmony. So in schools, this is emphasised even up to today because this is something that is very deep-seated, and is something we have to recognize. Now, when we first introduced this policy in the 1960s and 1970s, I'm sure people find this quite difficult to accept in maybe the Western world, because this seems like social engineering and may not be acceptable in many countries.
But let me say that, in recent years, I've had a lot more visits from Western cities, asking about this policy because, for example, in Europe, they've experienced a big wave of immigration, and I think social enclaves may be becoming a problem. And the question is, how do you get races to integrate with each other? So, in fact, I have several mayors from some of the European cities coming here and asking me about this policy which probably would not happen two decades ago. So this is an interesting innovation on policy.
I think it's an amazing innovation, Koon Hean, and you can see why the rest of the world becomes so interested in this. And of course, it connects with the public housing policy that makes it possible to do that. But I want to ask you about one other thing, and I realise time is running, so I don't want to take all of the time on questions. But you said something very, very important about governments. And, of course, I learned the phrase 'Whole-of-Government Approach' from speaking with you maybe 15 years ago.
And I suppose one of the things we should say something about is that there is a single unified government for the whole country which is both a national government, an island government and a city government, as well as you having the local mayors. Maybe you could just say this in a very clear way because even though it's so logical to you, it's so unusual in relation to the rest of the world to have a singular government for the whole place. So perhaps you'd like to just say something about that.
Cheong Koon Hean
The fact that we're a city-state and we're so small also has certain advantages because we can have a single-tier government, unlike cities that have to exist within a regional context and a national context. And that complicates policy, doesn't it, because you have national policies flow down to state or regional, flowing down to cities and then flowing down to even districts. So that really complicates governance.
But because we're so small, a single-tier government just makes sense. You have a cabinet which is very collegiate. I think that's very important. It sets the tone. And at the multiple ministries and agencies that deal with different municipal and different parts of government, there is a lot of conversation to make sure the policies are clearly aligned. So we do not have several tiers of government - the national is also the state policy, which is also the district policy – a single-tier government is a lot easier.
But having said that, there are cities where agencies do not necessarily agree with each other, so that is where the governance , in terms of the public service, the way we are organised becomes very important. There is actually a lot of effort in Singapore to get every agency, senior leadership to get together to understand national issues. There are many administrative structures that encourage a lot of conversation amongst ourselves to settle trade-offs. This is because, in every city, there are trade-offs because resources are always limited. So how do you decide which agency or ministry would have more or less? Just as in a national and state government, there are all these conversations.
So even though we're single-tier government, these conversations still take place. The ability to be able to bring civil servants and key leadership together to understand the national challenges, to debate the policy trade-offs at the cabinet ministers’ level and also at the ministry and agency level is very important. A lot of training and networking and a lot of multi-agency committees are formed. This is the way we carry out governance to enable a clear understanding. And cabinet also does a lot of discussion on issues. And in the end, the trade-offs are clearly made and that cascades down to all the ministries and agencies. So I cannot overemphasise this type of administrative structures and leadership. They are able to discuss and make those trade-offs. I have worked and dealt with many cities, and I can tell you that there is a lot of conflict within the same city even with the same mayor.
So bringing on board the same understanding of, what are your national imperatives, your national goals and your national priorities become very important because resources are always limited. And you have to decide where to give the resources to because most of the conflicts always come from the allocation of resources. But that's also what politics is about, isn't it? It's the allocation of resources. So I think this is a very important part of establishing a certain culture and governance structure that enables you to de-conflict, to sort out these conflicts. For a very small country, the ability to integrate as a whole, to move forward is very, very important because your resources are limited.
And that's why, in a way, in Singapore, I would say that, even in my own plans, the majority of plans do get implemented, and that is because of many conversations working as a whole of government. Otherwise, there's no point if the Housing Development Board develop its plans but they never get implemented. We rely on all our partner agencies to work together.
And let me just reiterate, long-term planning is important because it helps you to decide on your priorities and where to actually divide up your resources and to prioritise your investments. Without clarity on where you're going, you will have these conflicts, and you will not be able to prioritise nor to understand the trade-offs. So those conversations exist when you take a very much longer-term view. And that is, I think, the secret to being able to implement policies, long-term policies for the greater good. Otherwise, the focus is always on very short term and highly political short-term gains.
I completely agree, Koon Hean. Thank you for saying that so clearly. I have one final question.
You spoke very comprehensively about the public housing policies, the green space policies, the Providential Fund, the social integration policies, and you also spoke implicitly about high-density, high-amenity neighbourhoods. And in my way of reading Singapore and telling the Singapore story, I think that there's another element to this story which is your high-capacity public transport system. And I wonder if you want to say something about the important role of high-capacity public transport in delivering this broader spatial development outcome that you have achieved so successfully.
Cheong Koon Hean
Well, in Singapore, we take a transit-oriented development approach. This means that-- well, we're very small. And like most high-density cities, traffic congestion is a major challenge and with that comes pollution and all the disamenities to the built environment. So from day one, we were very clear that our development has to be transit-oriented. This means putting in place a very good public transit system. Of course, you still have your roads, but we emphasise a lot on public transport, mainly the bus and the rail.
And we have an extensive network of transit systems. And what we do is, we will put the high-density developments in places that are well served by public transport. So we have a good network of rail. In fact, we are doubling our rail network from about 150 kilometres to 300-over kilometres. And we have built a lot in the last decade, and we're still building, and this has helped us to actually make travelling very convenient.
But at the same time, once you've built this infrastructure, you also need certain policies in place. And congestion pricing is one of them. Actually, we did this years ago in the 1970s. Singapore was one of the first cities to start congestion pricing and a vehicle quota system. It is very expensive to own a car in Singapore, but to wean people off the car, you must give people an alternative, right? There's no point restricting cars when you are not able to give people an alternative, so the two need to go hand in hand.
And I think with the public transport infrastructure being built up over the last two decades, you are seeing more and more people taking public transport and leaving the car at home or no car at all because you save a lot of money by not owning a car. And of course, we are encouraging walking and cycling.
So herein lies another governance issue in that, in the way you plan, you need to marry transportation planning with land use; planning together, not separately. It is one and the same exercise, and I can tell you there are huge discussions and huge debates on the trade-offs all the time. And this is where, again, back to governance. The Whole-of-Government Approach becomes very important to understand those types of trade-offs. And the policy needs to go hand in hand. As you put in public transport, you then tighten the car ownership. So these policies must go in parallel.
Wonderful, Koon Hean.
I would love to ask you two things. First, is given all of this very deliberate action to make the city of Singapore that it is today and the city that it is kind of still evolving to become, who is driving that? Are there key leaders that you can pinpoint as being real visionaries in that process?
And then the second question I'll ask is, when you're going around the world and you're having conversations and telling people about Singapore, do you ever encounter any myths or misconceptions that people have about the city and what the impact of those might be? But let's start with the key leaders or key institutions.
Cheong Koon Hean
Well, I think this, probably, everybody knows. Our founding prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, was the key driver in many of the things that happened. He was very visionary. And even though he was not a planner, he was the one who thought a lot about the planning of Singapore. And he was obsessed with the water issue, because it is an existential issue for us. He was the key driver in pushing us to come up with all these innovations to try as best as possible to ensure we will eventually be self-sufficient in water. He was our gardener actually. The whole idea of the Green City and the Garden City actually came from him. And he was the one who looked at urban planning and the public housing story. He was the one who set up the HDB, believing that you must have affordable housing for people to build a nation. For nationhood, it was important for people to have a stake in the country.
Well, of course, not just him. There were all the pioneer generation leaders at that time - I won't name all of them - who really led us. There were great ministers who led us through our economic development and gave us very, very good ideas. Now, as a result, it has spawned a whole generation of very strong public institutions. And I'll just name a couple. One is the Economic Development Board which drives investments to Singapore. They have been very, very effective. Another is institute-- so the Economic Development Board is on the economic side of the house. You have the Jurong Town Corporation that drives a lot of the industrial development. On the social side, you have the Public Housing Authority, the Housing and Development Board-- which develops public housing and make housing affordable. And the National Parks Board, is a fantastic organisation that's helped to green us. The Public Utilities Board, that really helped us to close the water loop. So many, many strong institutions have come into the picture.
And of course, Singapore has an interesting political leadership and succession plan. It's almost like Singapore is run like a corporation. After different succession of political leaders, they are well-groomed before they come on board. So we're into the fourth generation of political leaders, and every generation is training the next generation. And therein also lies the secret of Singapore's success: that you have a very stable political leadership of highly competent people, so it's not just you're elected in. But the choice of the political leaders before you stand for election is also very important because these leaders, it's not just political, but they have a very good understanding of, nationally, what are the issues and how do you bring together policies. Policy-making is a very important part of very good political leadership.
That's a brilliant answer. And now the question about myths or misconceptions. Are there any that you've encountered?
Cheong Koon Hean
I think there are many. The first is that the planning in Singapore is very top-down, and it seems rather autocratic. The answer is yes and no. In the early days, because of the big existential problems that we faced, comprehensive planning needs to be done very much at the government level. And at that time, we also had a population that was not very well educated and probably understand less of the intricacies and complexities of making a city work.
But we have actually opened up to engage the public interest groups for more than, I think, two-- more than two decades, all right, maybe even three decades, where we've been involving more and more of the public in the way we want the city to be built in the built environment. And now, there is a huge movement on what we call Singapore Together. We are roping in businesses, general public, public interest groups to hear many, many different views before we put forward plans and policies. So it has changed, and I think the changes need to take place according to what the country is prepared when you have very good people who are now able to give you a lot of good ideas and suggestions. So many of the policies are actually developed together with many, many of the general public and different professional and interest groups as well, so I think that has shifted.
Another myth is that Singapore is a boring city. Perhaps in the old days, we were quite focused on efficiency and just trying to make a living, you know? But I would say, in my own experience of urban planning and as an architect-planner trying to make the city as interesting as possible, we have changed quite a bit in the last two and a half decades, and Singapore is actually quite an interesting city to visit.
If you haven't been here, please come. I always say the best test of a city is to be here. Unfortunately, you can't come now, but when we can all fly again, please come. And the best test of a city is to be in the city? And I often have many people who used to think that you could just transit through and leave; they always regret that. And then they say they only give three days to visiting Singapore, and then, when they come, they regret it and they say, we'll come again.
And so it is a very interesting city because it is cosmopolitan. It has different cultures, architecture is interesting, food is interesting. The arts and culture has grown tremendously. We have some of the best museums and galleries now, and we have great art offerings, so I think that has completely changed.
And so the other thing is, people think that it's just another city with very little built heritage. That is also not true. Singapore has protected our built heritage since the seventies. We had very difficult trade-offs. And again, urban innovation is important. We were facing a lot of urban pressures, and land is limited, right? But though forward urban planning, we carried out reclamation. And we plan for the extension of the city - Marina Bay is a very good example - so that we could relieve the pressure of the expansion of the city onto newer areas like the reclaimed areas, and it actually protected a lot of our older districts.
So Singapore actually has a very comprehensive conservation program. We have protected more than 7,000-over buildings and structures, and a lot of these are not single buildings, but in complete districts. So you have Little India, you have Chinatown, lots of monuments, beautiful buildings that we have protected. Why? Because we were able to do this because we relieve the urban pressure through forward planning, enabling a relief valve for the city to grow into new areas without having to pull down the old areas. So, again, this is the benefit of forward long-term planning.
So it is a city that is rich in culture. I mean, I could talk a long time about this topic. If you look at Marina Bay, it has the beautiful aspect of the old, which is Singapore River - that's why you need to visit us - which is all about the old, and it burst out into the new city which is the image of an international hub. But you just walk next to it, and it is the old part of the city. So you have this beautiful mix of the old and the new and a mix of the East and the West, and it makes for a very, very interesting city. So I would say you have to visit Singapore, and I hope that these myths will go away.
It's a very good point, Koon Hean. Caitlin, I'm lucky enough to have visited Singapore about 30 times now, and it's one of the most fascinating and interesting places on the whole planet. And yet, some people do have this idea that it's not so interesting; it's completely wrong.
So Koon Hean, if we were to have asked you the right question, what else would you have wanted-- what else would you have wanted to say about the DNA of Singapore?
Cheong Koon Hean
That's a tough question. I think one of the interesting things about the DNA is, smallness, certainly, has a lot of constraints. But it has its advantage in the sense it's the national identity. I think that people in Singapore, because we're a very small nation of about 5.7 million people -with an indigenous populations, probably less than 4 million - you have that sense of having to be together as a nation to face the type of challenges you have going forward.
And this national identity is absolutely essential to survive as a small country, and that's why we talk about whole of government, right? I would say it's actually a whole of nation, the ability to get people to understand our challenges and to be able to persuade people that sometimes there are tough policies that are needed in order to secure survival and growth, prosperity and racial harmony in the country.
You have to have some trade-offs. and to be able to accept that these are needed so that as a nation, you can survive and prosper, I think this is a very important part of Singapore. Perhaps in other countries which are very large in terms of diversity, it's not so easy to achieve that, right? But for us, I think it's very crucial.
I give an example: the COVID-19. The COVID-19 challenge shows up cities and countries in how cohesive you are as a country and as a city. And in Singapore, I can tell you that different people from all walks of life, and not just the government, all chipped together to try to play their part and to help out - . with the government taking the lead, to interest groups to NGOs and to just the general community and the public trying to do their bit to help each other, to help different segments of the community. I think this is absolutely essential.
And tackling COVID-19 requires social resilience in the country, and the sense of the individual versus the common good is a very important aspect of being able to overcome COVID-19. To actually all agree that you may need to wear a mask, to stay home when you need to stay home, I think all these requires a certain social resilience. I would say Singapore has a certain social resilience and national identity, and this is something we really need to build on. It's a strength that we have; we need to build on this.
That seems to me to be a very important point, Koon Hean, that social cohesion, social capital that you get from this national identity that relates to being small and compact and-- yeah, very, very important point. Koon Hean, we have really loved this. Caitlin and I have learned so much. Was there anything else you wanted to say that you didn't say?
Cheong Koon Hean
I think I've said a lot.
You have. You've given us almost a whole chapter on Singapore, so we're very grateful.
Cheong Koon Hean
Actually, there was one interesting point about innovation. Many people don't realise this, that we always make something out of nothing, and it's really about innovation, We actually have no oil or gas resources, but Singapore is the world's largest jackup rig manufacturer in the world for oil exploration. We actually design a lot of rigs.
And we have many interesting little innovations that a lot of people don't even realise it comes from Singapore. For example, those of you who play games, we have a company called Razer that invented the gaming mouse that you play computer games with. And there's a company called Creative that invented the Sound Blaster card three decades ago which enabled the early computers to play music. And today, we all look at the thumb drive, The USB flash drive or the thumb drive was originally developed by Trek 2000 International from Singapore.
And I think with a lot of pandemics, we're becoming quite good at inventing things for pandemics. A lot of this infrared fever screening systems was actually also produced here because we were fighting SARS at that time,It's come in handy. And recently, because of COVID-19, we have actually invented many, many swab and test kits, quick test kits, diagnostic kits, ventilators, and we're working on vaccines with other companies. So these are very interesting medical devices that are being looked at. These are just “trivia” that you might be interested to know about.
These are very important because the ecosystem of innovation in Singapore is so rich that you're capable of producing things, firstly, that you don't need yourselves but somebody else does, and secondly, capable of producing things that you really do need and to do it in such a way that you create scalable innovations for the rest of the world. It's like Singapore's role for the world is almost to be an urban laboratory for the whole world. And it's a very interesting part, I think, of what has emerged.
Cheong Koon Hean
We are indeed a laboratory. And just one interesting little trivia again - we design and made this machine called Rotimatic. It's a device that make the roti. Roti is actually the flatbread that many Indians eat - and there are a lot of Indians in the world - and we have this machine that makes it, another interesting little trivia.
Wonderful, Koon Hean.