interview with dr cheong koon hean 5th s r nathan fellow

DR CHEONG Koon Hean is the Institute of Policy Studies’ 5th S R Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore. Currently the Chief Executive Officer of the Housing Development Board (HDB), Dr Cheong oversees the development and management of some one million public housing flats in 26 estates. She led the planning and development of Marina Bay, and has received many accolades for her work, including the JC Nichols Prize for Urban Visionaries by the Urban Land Institute.

From March to April 2018, Dr Cheong will deliver three IPS-Nathan Lectures, collectively titled, Seeking a Better Urban Future. We caught up with Dr Cheong to talk about her plans for the upcoming lectures, her reflections on urban planning principles, and her favourite cities.

Dr Cheong Koon Hean at the HDB Hub in Toa Payoh 
Dr Cheong Koon Hean at the HDB Hub in Toa Payoh.

Q: What do you hope to achieve with the S R Nathan Fellowship and your upcoming lecture series?

Dr Cheong Koon Hean: I chose the theme for this lecture series as, Seeking a Better Urban Future, because we are all living in the century of cities. More than half the population of the world already live in cities. But cities face many challenges, so I thought, being an architect-planner, the theme would be quite an appropriate one.

Through this lecture series, I hope to create a greater awareness, particularly among Singaporeans, of the complexities and difficulties in managing a city. Secondly, I hope that people can understand that Singapore is quite an anomaly—we are a city and a country. That means that we are very land and resource-constrained, and so, in developing the city, there are actually a lot of trade-offs and considerations. This means that sometimes, you cannot have everything you want.

Thirdly, I hope to help people to understand that developing the city is not just the job of the government. It takes two hands to clap. We need both the government (working together with the stakeholders) and the citizenry to truly develop a wonderful place for us to live in.

Q: You mentioned the difficulty of managing Singapore, being both a city and a state. Could you elaborate?

Dr Cheong: As a city-state, we face many land and resource constraints. Singapore is actually smaller than the metropolitan area of London. But everything about the country has to be in this city. So we are resource-constrained, and that is the first challenge. We will need to be highly innovative to develop a liveable and sustainable city.

The second challenge is that Singapore has a very small market. We make our living from the world and we are completely open, meaning that we will always be affected by fluctuations in the global economy. That makes it quite difficult because many things are sometimes not within our control. We compete with other cities and have to make ourselves economically competitive and ensure we remain an attractive place to live, work and play.

The third point is, because we are small, we will be tremendously affected by climate change. For example, sea level rises will affect us because we are an island city-state. On the other hand, when you are small, you can be highly nimble. You can have a well-integrated government and system, and that helps you to make decisions and move quite quickly.

Q: You are one of the founders of the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize. Cities, however, tend to be shaped by their particular history, geography, and cultural milieu. Is there a way to judge “best practices”, or what makes a good city?

Dr Cheong: The Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize was first conceived because we knew that cities face many challenges, and the idea was really to see whether we can distil some traits or best practices from these cities to learn from.

Of course, all cities are different. They have a different culture, they have a different context, scale and size—including the size of population—and they are also at a different level of economic development. But from my experience, there are certain special traits that do run through the successful cities. So even if you are New York, a very rich mega-city, or Medellin, which is an emerging city in South America, you will be surprised to find that there are some common traits that run through them, but in different degrees.

The idea is not about finding a formula for cities—there is no one formula. But it is about learning and understanding what makes a city work and then try to adapt some of these best practices which are suitable to the context of your own city.

Q: How have urban planning principles changed over the years, internationally, and how has Singapore adapted our principles to the changes around, internationally and also within our society?

Dr Cheong: Urban planning actually came about because conditions in cities were deteriorating, especially after the Industrial Revolution. There was a lot of pollution and slums. Cities were unhygienic—there was no sanitation, water, and people were not living in very good conditions.

So if you look at the history of planning, it started with people trying to make a much better living environment, giving rise to concepts like the garden city by Ebenezer Howard. That is how it started—even Singapore aspired to be a garden city. Then planning moved on to other ideas, such as modernism, which is about looking at the city like a machine—so people started to think about zoning and the functionality of cities.

Then people reacted to this, because they asked, “Where is the human being in the city?” So you have the new urbanism concepts coming in, which talks about putting more of the human part of the city, back into the city. This included ideas from people like Jane Jacobs, who argued for the need to think about people in the city and how urban design can be used to shape the city to be more walkable and friendly and help to improve street life. And, of course, the latest concerns in urban planning are about resilience and sustainability, because of climate change. These are some of the stages of development in planning thought over the decades.

What about Singapore? In fact, we went through all these stages. Public housing is pretty much influenced by modernism—the idea of “towers in a park” by Corbusier. However, we made modernism work by bringing on board ideas from new urbanism—with greater focus on people, creating communities and vibrant life in the city. Recently, we are also looking at developing a more sustainable and resilient city. Singapore is interesting because we are a microcosm of all these different planning thoughts over time, and they are all there because we have to deal with different challenges. The main task for urban planners is to remain dynamic—to not be stuck with one concept but adapt the principles as the needs change.

Q: Related to the aspect of humanism, IPS recently released some survey data on social capital and the class divide in Singapore. What are your thoughts on that, especially considering how our planners and HDB have stepped up their efforts to promote interaction among residents in recent years?

Dr Cheong: HDB does not only build buildings. We are very much a community builder as well. So HDB pays attention to two aspects. One is about developing the hardware and spatial design—the way you plan the town, where you put different uses and aesthetically, how things look—but always with community centricity in mind. We plan for a lot of spaces to encourage people to interact and to do things together. The other pillar is the heartware, because HDB also works with the community to facilitate events, and to nudge people to think about things like, “What is a good neighbour?” and to encourage an ethos of being considerate to one another. That is the soft part of the work we do, and both these two pillars are equally important for us.

Aside from HDB, planners in Singapore also think about how to encourage community interaction and bonding. Take Marina Bay as an example. When I planned Marina Bay, we were very mindful that it cannot just be for the bankers or for the richer people who live there. We wanted to bring people from all walks of life to the bay, because it is for everybody. To me, it is like a people’s bay. When we designed it, we put in place many free public places. Even now, URA tries to organise a lot of events and activities, a lot of which are free, like the New Year’s Eve celebrations. These are ways in which planners can try to reduce the social divide through spatial planning, by enabling people greater accessibility to shared places.

Q: HDB flats are ubiquitous, and a vast majority of us live in them. Despite this, do you think there is something that is misunderstood or not immediately obvious about HDB?

Dr Cheong: I think because HDB is everywhere, there is a great expectation on HDB. We are all things to all men. Indeed, we are not just builders of the housing—we are builders of townships, and a lot of the social services are actually delivered through our towns. The fact that you have childcare centres, schools and other facilities all integrated into the town means that HDB is almost delivering everything that you need in your life, through the life of the town.

Further, because HDB has been around for almost six decades, there is also a change in inter-generational expectations over time. The older folk, who back in the old days were all living in kampungs and slums, were very grateful when we built simple HDB flats for them. These were simple slab blocks with just basic sanitation and water. People were very happy to receive their keys. But that generation is passing, and you have a whole new generation that grew up in HDB flats. To them, it is natural to turn on the tap and have water, press a switch and have light, go downstairs and have a playground. They are also more educated and as their income levels rise, they want more and expect more. I think this is a fact of life. You have to meet the changing lifestyles and expectations of people.

But, in life, we do work within limited resources. For HDB, you have to build, plan and develop based on specific given resources, and decide who should be allocated these resources based on their needs. You try to optimise the resources that you have and still build the best environment for our people. Maybe sometimes people feel that is not good enough and they want HDB to do more. But that is the trade-off that we have to make, because HDB does not exist alone; the government has to allocate its budget to different priorities and not only to housing.

Nevertheless, given the resources that HDB has been given over the years, you can see a vast improvement in the way we have built and designed. This will be an ongoing journey and conversation we will need with our stakeholders and our residents.

Q: For young people trying to make their way in life, what would be your advice on how to have a balanced career and family life?

Dr Cheong: I think it’s important that you do what you love. Because when you do what you love, you are going to be very good at it, because it comes naturally. It is not work; it is something you are passionate about.

The second thing I would say is that life is not all about work. Maybe my colleagues may find it hard to believe since I work quite hard, but it is true! It is also about family, friends, and the things that you like to do. It is also about making sure that you find purpose in what you do. Your job cannot just be a job. If something is just a job, then it is just a job. But if you work in an area that you believe in, then I think you will enjoy doing it.

Q: What is your favourite city (besides Singapore) and why?

Dr Cheong: Actually, I do not have a favourite city. I have many favourite cities. Because cities are all different, and there is no perfect city. Every city has specific attributes that they are generally very good at, but they may be weak in other things.

If I look at very mature cities, I like New York and London for their inventiveness. They are always changing, always innovative even though they are old cities. They always come up with new ideas.

The Spanish cities are very flamboyant cities. If you go to Barcelona, Madrid, Bilbao, or Valencia, they actually have a flamboyance about them and it is all about design. It is so nice to be in those cities because you can see that they have paid attention to the design of the built environment.

For tradition, culture, and history, I would look to some cities like Suzhou and Kyoto—beautiful cities that have not forgotten their culture and their tradition.

Some of the European cities like Copenhagen or Helsinki, I look to for inspiration on being a sustainable city.

Australian cities do very well with the urban waterfronts. In fact, when I was planning Marina Bay, I looked at many Australian cities and waterfronts, and we learnt quite a bit from them. So I would say, we must continue to learn from many different cities to improve ourselves.

Dr Cheong’s first lecture, “What makes a Successful City? Lessons from Inspiring Cities”, will take place on 26 March, 6.45 pm. Register here.

Fern Yu is a Research Assistant (Special Projects) at IPS. She contributes to the work of the S R Nathan Fellowship for the Study of Singapore.