Professor Khoo Teng Chye
Professor Khoo is the Practice Professor and Director of NUS Cities at the National University of Singapore, and he is a Fellow at the Centre for Liveable Cities Singapore. You can listen to our conversation with Professor Khoo in two podcast episodes on The DNA of Singapore.
Photo credit: Mike Enerio via Unsplash.
I'll kick off, Mr Khoo, what is the DNA of Singapore?
Khoo Teng Chye
Well, I think it's very hard to describe the DNA of Singapore as we are basically a work in progress. We are a city-state that is barely over 50 years old. But I guess you can say that what makes Singapore tick comes from the fact that we are known as the little red dot in South East Asia, simply because we are a tiny island that doesn't even show up in world maps unless you are highlighted as a red dot. And that's why we are called the little red dot, right? So perhaps our DNA, that's probably still evolving, is about that fact that we are a red dot that has got very little land, practically no resources. Something as basic as water, we haven't got. We've got to buy all our food from the world, energy. And so we have had to somehow make this place work, and we have had to survive and make ourselves relevant to the world.
So our traits, I guess, I'm not sure you can call it DNA. Our traits are hard-working, thrifty, self-reliant and awareness that the world doesn't owe us a living. We are open. When Raffles founded us as a port in 1819, 200 plus years ago, he made Singapore a free port. So we are kind of free. There's no taxes and so on for goods that come into Singapore. We are open to talent, to people from all over the world. We are a migrant nation, right?
So we have moved economically, progressively from an entrepôt to a cheap manufacturing centre to higher value-added industry and now increasingly a hub for knowledge; for innovation, particularly urban innovation, like water; urban planning; transport. So that's kind of more the economic aspect if you like.
But we are also a distinctive city-state with a multicultural identity where most people own their homes. Most people live in high-rise, well-integrated, self-contained communities that make our city-state, I think, one of the most liveable in Asia, despite the high population density. And at the same time, the city is also clean. It's also green, it's blue, like the picture behind me, and sustainable.
And we are always kind of almost paranoid about having to tackle difficult challenges all our lives. And right now, we are in the middle of another crisis, right, COVID-19 with its not just public health impact but very, very serious economic impact. And we have to kind of always try to figure out ways to respond to all these challenges, right?
So in terms of climate change, for example, we have had a sustainable Singapore blueprint and a Climate Action Plan. So we try not to be a very urbanised, hard, concrete jungle because of our identity, so we've always tried to be a Garden City, a City in the Garden, a City of Gardens and Water, and now, we are kind of aspiring to be a City in Nature. So it's a constantly evolving need to kind of keep on trying to be something else, different, to be better, to be more liveable, even as we get more organised, even as population increases and density keeps increasing.
So the idea is, how do you continue to be liveable, how do you continue to be sustainable, how do you continue to be resilient, right? And I think resilience is also one of those things that we strive to be, right? So I think we've been able to achieve all these outcomes because, I guess, of the traits that I spoke about. And I think, over the years, we've kind of learned how to kind of systematically innovate, right, with programs like Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme which turns ugly water infrastructure into beautiful urbanscapes, water urbanscapes where we enhance liveability with density.
So it's this ability, I guess, to work together as a society, not just the government but the government with the business sector and the community, in a very kind of integrated approach, right, to governance, to planning, to develop, to running the city. We call it an Urban Systems Approach. And we, at the centre, kind of captured the idea in what we call the Singapore Liveability Framework, which I think Greg is very familiar with. And underpinning, then, all this, really, the-- I don't know whether you'd call it DNA, but it's good governance and a good approach to planning and development.
Teng Chye, if I may, I want to just ask you to say a little bit about what you think created the conditions for what you've just described - your answer, by the way, is brilliant - and this combination of an Urban Systems Approach, this systematic approach to turning challenges into innovations and turning innovations into advantages and combining that with good governance. What is it that led to Singapore adopting this approach that has been so successful? Why did that happen in Singapore?
Khoo Teng Chye
I guess it's to do with our starting point. We were kind of from a British colony, we became part of Malaysia in 1963, and then we were suddenly forced to become an independent nation, just a little island. People were kind of aware that it was going to be an extremely difficult challenge, so we were rather paranoid. We knew that the survival of our country, this little island, to make it work as a country was going to be a huge challenge.
And I guess that that was in the minds of people like Lee Kuan Yew, who was the founding prime minister, and his generation. I'm kind of a little bit after that, but I was born in 1952, so in '65, I was a teenager. So all of us kind of carry with us that sense that we got to make this place work somehow. The world doesn't owe us a living. We've got to somehow make this place work. And I think it's that ethos, that need, I guess, for survival and to kind of make ourselves relevant to the world that I think continue to drive us to this day because we know that it's an eternal challenge, to make Singapore what it is.
And the prime minister just made a fantastic speech yesterday in parliament because of our response to COVID and what lies ahead. And it's basically still the same message, right, that this is-- Lee Kuan Yew used to say, "This is like a house of cards, and we are vulnerable, and we have to work very hard to kind of make sure that this place continues to work."
Thank you. It seems to me that this awareness of vulnerability that you've described, coupled with this grand shocking challenge in 1964, as it were, this combination--
Khoo Teng Chye
'65, '65. Yeah.
'65. Very interesting that the nation evolves that way. One other quick question. You talked about the little red dot, and I've also heard you talk in the past, of course, about the City in a Garden and also the idea of the Lion City. Are there any other key phrases or what we might call pseudonyms for Singapore, any other words that are used to describe Singapore?
Khoo Teng Chye
Lion City is, of course, the literal translation of what Singapore means, right? Singapore comes from Sanskrit, Singapura, which is Lion City. And so the myth or the fable is that there was this Parameswaran prince from Indonesia who kind of, when he landed on the shores of Singapore, saw this animal that he thought was a lion. It probably wasn't a lion; I don't think you get lions in this part of the world. But ever since then, we've been known as the Lion City, right?
Little red dot, well, okay, I think that's something that Singapore kind of-- Singaporeans love to describe themselves-- kind of just remind ourselves of how vulnerable we are.
Any other terms? I'm not sure. I can't think of any off-hand. There's the Merlion, of course, which is kind of created for the tourists, right? But I don't think we say it's Merlion City, but the Merlion is kind of a symbol of Singapore, if you like, yeah.
Mr Khoo, how many Singapore's are there and what differentiates them if there are more than one?
Khoo Teng Chye
All right. So by that, I presume you mean how people perceive of Singapore, right? I guess. So I guess the most obvious one is the impression that Singapore leaves with business people, who come to Singapore for business, or tourists and that Singapore, that impression of Singapore, is the picture that you see behind me, right? This is the Marina Bay. This is all the gleaming skyscrapers-- what makes Singapore tick economically, if you like, as a financial centre, as a port. The Singapore skyline, right? So that's, I guess, one Singapore, economic Singapore if you like. The city, right?
I think the second Singapore-- and here I'm going to kind of-- I know this is not going to be video, but I want to show you a different background so that I can explain to you this other Singapore. Yes, this is the other Singapore. We call it the heartland. This picture is actually both the second and the third Singapore I'm going to talk about. But the second Singapore is really where most Singaporeans live, right? In the UK, you might call it a suburb, right? So most Singaporeans don't live downtown; most Singaporeans live in what we call HDB towns. Housing and Development Board, they are the kind of national housing developer. So most people, 80% of Singaporeans live in HBD towns which are high-rise communities, multicultural-- Singapore is a very multicultural nation: Chinese, Malays, Indians and many other nationalities.
And in the heartlands, you will find different religious buildings - churches, temples, Indian temples, Chinese temples, mosques - different cultural facilities - community centres, sports facilities, schools, parks, like the one behind me, so this is kind of the one Singapore that most Singaporeans know of: their neighbourhood, their homes. Okay, so that's the second Singapore, if you like, which maybe most business people or tourists who don't quite visit these parts of Singapore are not aware of. But this is kind of where most Singaporeans live.
And then the third Singapore is kind of the one that perhaps maybe differentiate us environmentally, sustainably - the Green and Blue Singapore, the City in the Garden, the Garden City or the City of Gardens and Water - and you see that behind me. It's a park, but it's a park with a water feature that was actually a concrete canal that was naturalised, turned into a stream under a programme that we call the ABC Waters Programme: Active, Beautiful and Clean Waters. So we've tried to be very green. In fact, if you take a picture from the satellite, and the satellite shows the green cover, everything there is green in Singapore. It's about 40% to almost 50%, the green cover. It wasn't always like that. I mean, 20, 30 years ago, it was probably less than 30%. But even as the population increase and even as we urbanise and build more buildings, we have tried to keep Singapore more and more green, right?
And then with the blue, with the water, trying to kind of turn our water infrastructure into soft landscape. I think we are making Singapore, not just a Garden City or a City in the Garden but also increasingly, a City in Gardens and Water. And what we are now aspiring to be is to be a City in Nature, right? So as we grow more dense, more urbanised, we endeavour to be more than just a City in a Garden, more than just a City of Gardens and Water, but a City in Nature, right? I think that's kind of the direction in which we are hoping to make Singapore.
So anyway, in the earlier picture, you saw the otters, right, in the background. So what we found is, as we made Singapore more green and more blue, biodiversity came back, right? So these otters were native species to Singapore. But I think 10 years ago, they returned to Singapore. I think they probably swam across to Singapore from Malaysia, and they found their way home. And so now there are several communities of oysters-- oyster, what am I saying?-- otters. There are oysters too, but there are several communities of otters in Singapore. So I think we are consciously trying to bring back nature into the city. I think if you have watched Richard Attenborough's series on the Wild City, on Singapore, I think you will get a sense of what I mean.
And how important has Singapore's geography and its size and its location been as the city has evolved, and how has that shaped Singapore's traits or its DNA as you see it?
Khoo Teng Chye
I think the location, historically, has been extremely important for us because we are kind of right in the pivotal point in South East Asia between South China Sea, on the one hand, the Indian Ocean on the other side. And the Straits of Malacca and the Straits of Singapore is really the narrow channel that connects these two giant geographic masses with their rich history, culture and trade. So over the centuries, I think trade has always gone through this part of the world.
And so Singapore, even historically, as far back as the 13th century, been a port, right? And so when Raffles founded the Singapore that we know of today, the modern Singapore that we know of today as a port in 1819, he saw the strategic location of Singapore as a hub port in South East Asia, and I guess we have been kind of capitalising on that over the years. We became a very important entrepôt for South East Asia, and we are still a very important port, a transshipment hub for sea container traffic.
But increasingly, I think geography is perhaps no longer as important as other ways of connectivity, right? So connectivity now, in today's world, is achieved not just through the port or through the airport, for that matter, but as we are now doing, the connectivity is now digital, right? And so for us now, it's no longer just about taking advantage of a geographic location but probably taking advantage of all the things that geography has brought us - made us a financial centre, a port, a logistics hub - but building on that now with digital connectivity, right, so that we could, with investment in knowledge, in digital technology, make Singapore a hub and a kind of a global city and a global centre where geography is not the only thing that mattered.
That was a really interesting answer, and it's brilliant to see how Singapore is now using its geography in many different ways and progressing that. Greg, I wonder if you have any questions for Mr Khoo.
Well, are we going to come on to asking Mr Khoo about landscape architecture, sort of urban design? Because I thought it was brilliant to use the two pictures, Teng Chye, in your answer because you really communicated what is the local, the neighbourhood Singapore. I suppose what we should ask, just to be clear, is whether there's a kind of urban design character that is more than what you've already said. Because you describe very brilliantly, I think, the green and the blue, the garden, the city with nature, the combination of the high-rise with the human scale. Is there more to say about the urban design of Singapore and how that creates this amazing liveability?
Khoo Teng Chye
Okay, I think you're going to speak to some people who can probably talk a lot more authoritatively on that than I. Dr Liu Thai Ker maybe could. But I'll give it a shot, too, anyway, and then you can take your pick.
Well, in terms of the way we have conceived of Singapore, from the point of view of an urban planner, it has not always been like that. When I was a child, I mean, Singapore was kind of a basket case of urbanisation gone wrong. We had slums in the city. We had very polluted Singapore River. Famous stories when Lee Kuan Yew say, when he drove by the river, even his blind clerk in his legal office could tell that he was by the river from the smell. It was an open sewer. We had disease - tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid - very, very poor living conditions, no sanitation, very little anyway, and then we had severe traffic congestion and so on.
So the transformation has been one that we have turned ourselves-- and mind you, the population at that time was less than 2 million people, right, and yet it was not a very nice city. But today, we have 5.7 million people essentially on the same island - although, we have reclaimed a little bit of land here and there - but it's a much more dense situation. Three times, right? The population density has increased three times. And yet, I dare say, we are a lot more liveable and a lot more sustainable than what we were, right, 50 years ago.
And so how did that come about? I mean, a lot of it is leadership, a lot of it is kind of the right kind of policies. But on the urban planning side, I think what happened was there was a boldness, a willingness to say, "All right, what does it take for us to make Singapore a modern city that's liveable?" And so the-- I'm not going to talk about the political side, which is Lee Kuan Yew, but I'm going to talk about the kind of technocratic side, right, what did the urban planners think?
And the idea that the urban planners-- and it was not just Singapore urban planners; we had a lot of help from the United Nations, UNDP (the United Nations Development Program). They assembled a team of planners from all over the world, and they kind of guided our young urban planners, and they created that first strategic plan or strategic blueprint for Singapore. It was called the Concept Plan, and that was drawn up in 1971. And that really envisaged the Singapore that we see today: that you will have a nice city centre connected to satellite towns - the HDB towns that I talk about - and all of these will be connected by a network of roads and MRT. And this was '71, mind you, and we didn't build the MRT until the mid-'80s, right, so that's how difficult and how long it takes to transform a plan into reality, right?
And of course, the idea was also to have the airport. The old airport was in Paya Lebar in the middle of the island. And if we had expanded the airport, it would have been a disaster because planes would be taking off and landing over densely populated parts of Singapore. And that's why the decision was made to move the airport to Changi, where it is today, right, where you guys land when you come to Singapore. And then the port was in the west; the industrial areas were in the west. So that was kind of the strategic blueprint of Singapore.
And of course, the idea was to be sure that it's not just concrete jungle. So you have loads of intense development in the city centre around the town, and then in between the nodes, we had huge pockets of green: the national parks, the regional parks, town parks, right? But most importantly was the idea that the towns would be self-contained community, right? The towns would not be high-rise-- they would not become high-rise slums.
I think Lee Kuan Yew was very clear about that. I think he had seen some of these high-rise public housing elsewhere, maybe even in the UK, where he studied, and he could see that they were not very successful because there was a lack of social integration. You only had a particular category of demographic living in these. So he wanted to be sure that our communities, the high-rise communities they were building were integrated in terms of income, all right, so that you had middle-income people, even upper-middle-income, as well as the poorer people all living together. So the flats had to be designed to cater to these different demographics and then, later on, even ethnicity so that you create a multicultural, multi-ethnic identity.
And then you make sure that you have all the community facilities, right? You have the shopping, you have the schools, the library, the sports complexes, the parks so that they are self-contained towns. I think that was the vision, and that, I think, in a way, was the way in which the planners conceived of our housing and for development.
And so over the years, I think we, of course, have improved on the plans, developed new corridors, come up with new ideas and so on but that, essentially, was the kind of grand vision of design in Singapore, if you like, as a city. I don't know whether that is clear enough.
It's another brilliant answer, Teng Chye, if I may say. It's leading me to have one very big question about what other cities can learn from Singapore, but I think we should leave that a little bit towards the end. And Caitlin, you should carry on with the next couple of questions, and then I'll formulate this other question in a minute. So let's keep going.
I know, Mr Khoo, you've mentioned Lee Kuan Yew but I wonder if there are any other leaders that stand out in your mind as having shaped this process, whether that's within the public sphere or out of it?
Khoo Teng Chye
Of course, the various people who left Singapore - I mean, starting with Lee Kuan Yew - I mean, they all, of course, had a great influence on Singapore. The prime ministers. So after Lee Kuan Yew, we had Mr Goh Chok Tong, his successor, and then currently, the prime minister is Mr Lee Hsien Loong who is also Mr Lee Kuan Yew's son, right? But there were other people who were very instrumental in shaping Singapore.
So the person who is kind of known as the economic architect of Singapore was Dr Goh Keng Swee. He was kind of our finance minister, and he's always known as the economic architect. And he was the one who kind of broke the prevailing economic wisdom at that point, that you've got to be self-reliant and build your own things, make your own things, start your own manufacturing, which, of course, in many countries proved not to work. We went down that path for a little while, and we very quickly discovered that we haven't got the market, we haven't got the skills, and there's no way we could make our own television sets and so on, or cars for that matter.
So he was the one who started the idea that we should open Singapore to multinational companies from America, from Europe, because these companies bring with them the market, the technology, the talent, right? But for that to happen, you've got to be open to them. You must be prepared to welcome them and maybe even giving them some economic incentives. So that was very unorthodox in those days. Very few developing countries did that. We were one of the first that welcomed foreign investment. So that's why he's always remembered in Singapore as the economic architect of Singapore.
There were others. And I think the person I would want to mention is one of my former bosses, Mr Joe Pillay. He was the guy who founded Singapore Airlines, right? Singapore Airlines is kind of Singapore's airline that I think has carved out a name for itself as one of the best airlines in the world, and Mr Joe Pillay was kind of the founding chairman of Singapore Airlines. I mean, he's the one who kind of made Singapore Airlines into what it is reputed for today, the excellent service, etc. Yeah, but-- okay. So I think there are many others, but I think I'll stop there.
And then I'd love to pick up on our question about Singapore's greatest inventions. You've spoken about some innovative ways that Singapore has planned in the past to turn kind of, as you call it, ugly water infrastructure into these great natural parks. And I wonder if there are any other things that stand out as being kind of proud Singapore inventions or ways of doing things?
Khoo Teng Chye
I would say ways of doing things rather than inventions because I don't think we've been extremely inventive in the way people talk about. We haven't got any Nobel Prize winners in the realm of science, but I guess we have been inventive as a city. I think that's, perhaps, what distinguishes us. And in a lot of kind of urban endeavours, these are the places where we have been innovative. And as we explained to Greg earlier, we've been innovative because we had to. We had to kind of somehow find a way to make things work against sometimes seemingly impossible odds.
So housing is one of those. I think the idea of 80% of Singaporeans live in what I mentioned earlier, HDB, Housing and Development Board towns or flats, right? So 80% are in public housing, and it's a roaring success because they are good quality homes. They're in great demand. Very often, people buy them as they become a wonderful investment because when they kind of get one of these flats as a young couple, they will probably buy a small flat. And then as they begin to earn more and they raise a family, they will upgrade, right, to a bigger flat. And then when they sell the small flat, they often make a bit of a profit. And with that profit, they can afford to buy a bigger flat.
So it's been a wonderful story in the housing of not just creating communities, as I mentioned earlier, but also in terms of affordability and a wonderful asset for Singaporeans to invest in, in a way, sharing in the growth of Singapore because as Singapore has grown and done well, everybody kind of, in a way, shares in the growth because everybody owns their property. So that, I think, has been one of the good achievements, innovation, if you like.
Urban planning, I talked about that. The way we green Singapore - I think I mentioned that a bit - and then the port, right, the transshipment hub, Singapore Airlines and so on. But it's kind of mostly around the idea of, how do you make this place work even though it's got all these constraints? And that, in a way, has forced us to innovate.
At the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), we like to call it 'urban systems innovation', right, so it's a rather technical term. And very often people look at me and say, "What the hell are you saying?" But we try to kind of train the urban planners to think that, okay, these are systems innovation; therefore, your job as an urban planner, planning for Singapore in the future, is to think systems, to think systemically so that you can kind of help to solve the problems that we are now facing, like climate change, public health, COVID and therefore, continue to systematically innovate or systemically innovate.
Teng Chye, this is probably a good moment for me to ask you the other question. And I realise - you know, we've known each other for ten years - I've never asked you this question, which seems to me to be very silly. But let me phrase it like this: so everything you've been saying concurs exactly with what I understand, that Singapore is an inspiring place that has learned not just how to make a city work but how to make a city work in so many ways and to be inspiring and, I think, reassuring for lots of people as well. And of course, logically, therefore, there's been a lot of effort to help the rest of the world learn from the Singaporean experience. And the Centre for Liveable Cities is an absolutely critical agent of that global learning and knowledge exchange which personally, I value hugely. What is--?
Khoo Teng Chye
And, yeah, you have been very much a part of that, too, Greg.
Well, and what an honour that has been. But what is it, when other cities try to learn from Singapore, that you think are the really difficult things for them to approximate or to copy or to acquire? Which of the traits that Singapore has are, in a sense, easy to copy and which ones are really difficult to copy?
Khoo Teng Chye
Okay, so I talked about the liveability framework, right? And the liveability framework is really, in a nutshell, describing the idea that if you are a city that wants to achieve liveability outcomes, right: quality of life, competitive economy, sustainable environment. I think you know that as well as I do; we forced you to learn that. But we always say that that liveability, these liveability outcomes--
And if you remember, the diagram of the liveability framework, the three bubbles are always kind of above the waterline, right, so outcomes are measurable. You can tell the liveability-- a liveable city. You just go there, and you know it, you feel it, you can measure it. So the liveability outcomes are obvious when you achieve it, but what is less obvious is below the waterline, right, what we call the systems approach, right, the Urban Systems Approach.
And then there are two layers, right? One is governance - we call it dynamic urban governance - and then the other one is integrated planning and development. I think the one that's easier to copy is the integrated planning and development, right. Although even that is not so easy because it's still about, you know-- it's not just about building homes; it's about, how do you make sure it's a community that you're building and not just a block of flats?
You want to solve the water problem. It's not just about building water treatment plants; you've got to kind of worry about the water catchment and how do you manage the environment-- environmental management,, right? You've got to get people on board to conserve water, etc., etc. But that is the easier part. A lot of bureaucrats and technocrats understand that; they have been taught that. It's a lot of technical knowledge, right? So that's easier. And a lot of the city leaders that we talk to, they are very familiar with those things.
Of course, the tougher is, how do we get a few agencies to work together in kind of a positive way, right? And that's where the more difficult part for cities is: the governance question. And governance is-- it's not just government; it's not just leadership, right? It's also about the way the whole society works together - the government, the private sector and the community - how the treaties, as we call it, work together to come to a certain consensus about what its issues are, what its challenges are, and then to design solutions, design policies, design programs, plan and executing those plans to kind of achieve the outcomes that you need.
It sounds easy when I say it, but we all know that in most places in the world, that governance is kind of the hardest thing to achieve, and you almost, usually, cannot do it overnight. So when we talk to our friends, when we bring them to our training programs and so on, they all kind of, yeah, get it from Singapore, but they find that the governance part, they think it's the most challenging for them.
Fantastic answer, Teng Chye, and I'm glad I asked you the question, finally, after 10 years.
Khoo Teng Chye
But you know the answer, right?
Well, but you've said something, if I may, very, very important, that, as it were, some of the things that you have invented are now, in a sense, technical tools and skills that can be learned and borrowed and used. But some of the other things that you have invented have, right at their heart, trust, organisational agility, alignment, consensus building, something that's about common purpose, and these things are a little bit less tangible. And as you've also said, other urban governance systems sometimes militate against those things. So I think you made a very important point that, in a sense, hadn't been explicit in our conversations before. So back to Caitlin with, I think, a couple more questions and then we'll wrap up.
That's great. I have, I think, two questions on my list that I'd love to ask. The first is, Mr Khoo, are there notable shocks or events that have happened in Singapore's life - COVID might be one, and you mentioned independence as another - that have either wounded Singapore or shaped the way that it does things in a way that has had a lasting impact on it?
Khoo Teng Chye
I think the biggest shock was really the shock of what I mentioned before, the shock of independence, the shock of separation from Malaysia. But there have been others which have kind of influenced the way we have developed as a city, as a country.
One of the most important - and I experienced this as a child - race riots. You know, we are multi-ethnic, so in the '50s and '60s, sometimes there have been tensions between the different races, you know, particularly the Chinese and the Malays that have resulted in racial riots where many people died. And I experienced some of this in my childhood. We were all kind of dead scared, and there were all these rumours going around that there are people going around with knives and slashing people to death. And actually, some of that actually happened. And that, I think, has kind of shaped the way Singapore is today.
And that's why I mentioned the building of this multi-ethnic, multicultural community, a very, very conscious effort to make sure that different races live closely together. And there are no pockets of racial enclaves, where a particular community are kind of all together, because that was kind of what happened in the '50s and '60s. And so there's a very, very conscious effort to get the different communities to understand each other better, to appreciate each other's cultures, religion. It's something that's kind of very, very strong and very much part of our ethos as well.
Since then, of course, economic shocks, we have had, I mean, and that's why this idea that we can always be paranoid about our future, our economic future. We had various recessions. One in the mid-’80s, we had the Asian financial crisis, 1997, and then the global financial crisis that everybody suffered in 2008.
Then in terms of public health, we had the SARS scare in 2002, and we thought that was bad. That shut us down for a few months and then recovered very quickly. So when COVID happened, we all thought maybe that's going to be a SARS, but I think COVID has proven to be far worse than SARS, as all of us are now experiencing. It's really a global pandemic, the likes of us-- the likes of which, I think, many of us have not seen. And I think next to 1965, the independence, this is probably about the most serious crisis that we are now in.
And I think it's affecting us a lot more seriously than many other countries because we are a city-state. Singapore Airlines, for example, is probably more badly hit than many other airlines because it's only got international routes; there are no domestic routes. You can't fly domestically in Singapore at all, right? It's too small. So all of its business has been impacted. So we are a city that's plugged into the global grid. And so when there's a global shutdown, we, of course, feel the brunt of it tremendously.
And Teng Chye, there's an obvious quick follow-up question which is, given that Singapore has always innovated in the face of crises before, do you think that Singapore will innovate in relation to COVID-19 in ways that will prove to be noteworthy?
Khoo Teng Chye
We hope so. I don't know. But whether it's noteworthy or not is not, perhaps, the key question for us. But the key question is that we innovate in the way that can continue to make us relevant, right, so we'll come out of this-- the phrase our politicians use, 'emerge stronger', right? So the idea is a lot of the extra budget that we are now putting into the economy, a lot of it is to help the people who are affected by COVID: the airline workers, the airport workers, those in the F&B trade, the hospitality trade. I think huge numbers of people are impacted and businesses are impacted.
So a lot of the government money has gone into kind of support schemes. But I think a big portion of that has also gone into preparing us for a post-COVID future, and that's called the Emerging Stronger From This programme. And they have actually set up groups of industry and public sector to look into, okay, how about spending more money on training, on digitalisation? Because there are certain parts of the economy that's actually doing even better. All of us know that. Pharmaceutical industry is doing very well; all the e-commerce part of business is doing well.
And so the question is, you know, what are the other opportunities that will present itself that Singapore can take advantage of when we emerge out of this crisis? So I think we are really hard at work trying to figure out a way forward for us.
Wonderful. I think Caitlin's going to ask the last question. Thank you very much. And I'm going to say one of the things I really enjoyed in everything you've said so far is this sort of idea of useful paranoia, which I think has come through quite a lot. But Caitlin, back to you.
Khoo Teng Chye
That's a phrase I should keep. Useful paranoia..
So, Mr Khoo, if we were to have asked you the right question, would there have been anything else you would have wanted to say about the DNA of Singapore?
Khoo Teng Chye
Oh, yeah. There's one bit that I thought perhaps-- actually, it's a very important bit that I kind of left out. I mean Greg talked about trust, right? And you can only have trust-- and I think Singapore has kind of earned the trust in the world by being what we are.
But I think the kind of fundamental quality ethos that has now earned our trust in the world, I guess, is the value of integrity, the value that this is a place where people are professional, the public service is not corrupt, people follow the rules, the rules clearly enforced strictly, no one is above the rules or the law, everyone is treated fairly. I think that idea of, that in Singapore things are open and transparent, and you can be assured that when you deal with Singapore, you are dealing with a trusted entity, you're dealing with a trusted nation, trusted country, I think that idea of integrity, I think, is so fundamental to Singapore's ethos.
And very important to the relationship between Singaporeans and the government as well, this sense of trust. So it works domestically and internationally, I think.
Khoo Teng Chye
Exactly, yeah. So that trust between the public and the government and also the private sector, I think, is an extremely important one.
Do we have time for one other quick one, Teng Chye? Two minutes? So one of the questions we've been asking people is whether there are any sort of uniting myths or ideas that help Singaporeans, as it were, to really feel this sense of common purpose, and equally, whether there are any untruths or distortions or misunderstandings of Singapore that are commonly held by people. Can you talk about either of those?
Khoo Teng Chye
Well, the first one, I guess, I think what, as you say, makes Singaporeans proud of Singapore and identify with Singapore, you know, is the fact that we are all proud that, you know, we are kind of a bit of an exceptional nation, right? We kind of punch above our weight; we have done very well in the world. But of course, there's also the consciousness that, you know, it's all very vulnerable, right, I mean, that we can lose it all very quickly. It's that sense that we are proud that people recognise us for what we have done and that we have a place in the world, I guess. I can't find a punch phrase for that.
The myth, I don't know. There are many, many myths about Singapore. One of the myths, which I kind of always get slightly annoyed with, especially when I listen to BBC or the Western media - and I hope, Greg, you don't share that view - is that, "Oh, Singapore is a dictator. It's not a democracy." All of us are kind of subservient people listening to the dictator, Lee Kuan Yew, and he just tells us what to do. And you have been in Singapore long enough to know that it's not quite like that, right?
Nothing like that.
Khoo Teng Chye
We have good leaders; we have strong leaders. But if you have seen what happened in the latest general election, 40% of the people voted against the ruling party; they got 60%. Well, maybe that's normal in many other countries, but for Singapore, that's kind of-- two out of five people actually voted against the government, which is not-- let's be clear, which is not a bad thing. It means that there's a diversity of views, there are people who are willing to try out-- who want to try out different policies and different pathways, and that's good for Singapore as long as, as the prime minister said yesterday, in the process, we do not get overly polarised, right? Because if we get overly polarised, then that would be difficult for Singapore.
If you did get overly polarised, this wonderful, unique ingredient of this common purpose and integrated governance and all of that might experience some threat, so I think that's an interesting point.