For many Singaporeans, the idea of a 6.9-million strong population by 2030 as outlined in the Population White Paper is still hard to swallow. So when Singapore’s former chief planner, Dr Liu Thai Ker, recently said the country should aim for 10 million instead, there were howls of protest and disbelief online and off.
But the former head of both the Housing Board and Urban Redevelopment Authority is adamant that his controversial estimation, made at a recent seminar, is correct.
In an hour-long interview at his Scotts Road office, he says: “As urban planners, we should look at the need. We must plan long-term so that we will not run out of land. Because if you run out of land, nobody is going to help you. After we focus on the need, then we should find a solution.
“But the voices that I hear from social circles, newspapers, is to look at limitations first. ‘We don’t have land, so how can we look at population?’ If that’s the case, would people say since we don’t have money, we don’t eat tonight? But eating is the priority.
“… would people say since we don’t have money, we don’t eat tonight? But eating is the priority.”
-Dr Liu Thai Ker
“City planning is the same. The need is to plan for 10 million and then break the limitation, rather than say, ‘oh, we have a limitation and then we don’t plan for 10 million.’ That’s getting the priority wrong.”
(READ MORE: Former NMP and current law professor Simon Tay’s alternate perspective on Singapore’s next 50 years.)
Currently senior director of RSP Architects & Engineers as well as the founding chairman of the Centre for Liveable Cities, Dr Liu, 76, has some ideas although he declines to be drawn into a discussion of what the city will look like when it hits the magic 10-million mark – it would be too “irresponsible”, he says.
His broad vision includes keeping all the green spaces, landed properties, heritage areas and existing medium and high density areas, then scatter people across the island.
How? By going further on to the suggestions made in the White Paper and the Singapore Concept Plan of the country being divided up into five regions – central, north, south, east and west – with their own regional centres.
With 10 million residents, Singapore will become a megacity, made up of five smaller cities. He envisions that each city will have a population of two million, “just a little less than Kuala Lumpur… with its own Central Business District, hotels and cultural centres”.
He points to the fact that in 1960, Singapore’s population size was 1.89 million, “equivalent to each of these regions”. “When you plan like this, your whole concept of MRT lines must be different from now… You also have to build universities in the eastern region, for example, and redistribute facilities.
“But we must try. By not looking long-term, we may at best be doing remedial work. It’s like giving aspirin to a patient. When you talk about 10 million, you are doing surgery.”
Dr Liu, who is the first to admit that he is “talking as an outsider” since he’s no longer in government, clearly has lofty ideals. It’s in him when he says: “Everything I’ve said is to aim for creating a city that functions perfectly.
“By not looking long-term, we may at best be doing remedial work. It’s like giving aspirin to a patient. When you talk about 10 million, you are doing surgery.”
-Dr Liu Thai Ker
“We have to aim for perfection so that we can live with human failures. But if we aim for imperfection, it will be worse. Singapore functions almost perfectly. It’s one of the most efficient cities in the world, because we planned long term.
“The story of Singapore’s urbanisation from 1960 to today is a story of how when we face a problem, we face a problem bravely and squarely and created our own solutions, such as home ownership for all.
“In terms of urban planning, clarity equals courage. The story of our achievement in urban planning today comes from the fact that the political leaders and the planners and engineers thought through the problem very carefully, not in piecemeal but in totality until we achieved clarity.
“When we achieved clarity, we had the courage to implement (policies) even when we acted against world trends.” Singapore, despite being poor in the 1960s, introduced pollution control, a radical decision at the time.
Asked to name the challenges that Singapore has if it faces a 10-million population and Dr Liu shoots back. Think big picture, he appeals, saying: “Don’t try to immediately picture the worst scenario. Can you use your imagination to picture a nicer scenario?
“Our natural instinct to look at the worst possibility. But when you are always looking at the worst possibilities, you get nowhere. You convince yourself to do nothing, to bury your head in the sand. But that’s not a responsible way of doing things.”
Ultimately, for Singapore to remain sovereign, it must plan for the long haul. The 10-million figure is just a start. “If we plan for anything less than that, I just feel that we will be sorry.
“If we run out of land and population needs continue to increase, what do we do? Then we have to take away the parks, the landed properties and heritage buildings, and we also find that the MRT lines don’t really work. Is that something we want?
“We need to focus on the need rather than the limitation, and our achievement as a city in the last 50 years shows that we are capable of finding solutions.”
Read more thought-provoking opinions from movers, shakers and visionaries in The Peak Interviews.