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Bold moves in infrastructure: thinking big pays off for Singapore planners

04 Feb 2018

Some ideas end up being shelved, but it is part of the challenge in the planning of infrastructure, as Insight finds out

Ng Jun Sen

Political Correspondent


Whatever happened to Singapore's Long Island Project?


A natural reaction to that would be, "What Long Island Project?"


Over time, it has become largely forgotten. But decades ago, urban planners envisioned building an island using reclaimed land off East Coast Park for recreation and with beautiful waterfront housing.


But this plan - known as the Long Island Project - has since been put aside as there was little demand for it, reveals the Urban Redevelopment Authority's (URA) chief planner, Ms Hwang Yu-Ning, in an interview with Insight.


"People love East Coast Park, so do we really want to commit to the plan if we don't need it? Some of these options can be safeguarded for future use," she says.


"If we need to dust off these plans later on, we would have already studied the idea."


The decision underscores the changing and complex nature of infrastructure planning.


It is hard to say when is the right time to build ahead of demand, says Ms Hwang. There is a risk that the demand for a project may never come, if plans proceed too quickly.


Even so, Singapore has bet big in the past - and seen those bold gambles pay off in a big way.


National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, in his interview with Insight, cites several examples - moving the airport from Paya Lebar to Changi, which made Singapore an aviation centre; building the region's first container port; and converting Jurong from swampland to an industrial estate.


Infrastructure has always been a key part of Singapore's economic strategy, says Mr Wong, who is also Second Minister for Finance.


"We are building for practical needs, to enhance our hub status to attract more investments and create more jobs for Singaporeans."


He stresses the importance of being prepared to think big and make decisive moves, instead of just incremental changes.


This is because Singapore has to navigate an uncertain global environment and the threat of other countries bypassing the Republic as a regional hub, Mr Wong says.


For instance, other countries are building new ports, and new shipping routes are being created.


To future-proof Singapore against intensifying competition, the Government is - once more - betting big by embarking on billion-dollar projects such as the upcoming High-Speed Rail between Jurong and Kuala Lumpur, the mega port in Tuas and a fifth airport terminal in Changi.


These "big-ticket items" are a key reason why government spending on infrastructure is slated to rise in the coming years.


On these mega projects, Mr Wong says: "It's about giving us the best possible chance of attracting investments, remaining a competitive, attractive regional centre, and giving Singapore the best chance of success in an uncertain world."




A steady stream of public-sector projects is being rolled out, from MRT projects to new Housing Board blocks.


The total value of construction contracts to be awarded this year is projected to rise from last year's $24.5 billion to up to $31 billion.


Pointing to the pipeline of infrastructure projects in the coming years, Mr Wong says: "That's the nature of infrastructure. From time to time, you will need new projects, new spending in order to refresh and update your infrastructure."


Replacing ageing infrastructure is another reason why spending will go up over time, he adds.


"From a longer-term perspective, we do also need to plan for asset replacement of existing infrastructure, besides spending on new projects," he says.


He describes public infrastructure spending as cyclical, with similar spending increases in the past.


This is unlike healthcare spending, which has seen significant increases and is expected to rise sharply because of Singapore's rapidly ageing population, he notes.


On ageing infrastructure, he says people have to expect more issues as infrastructure gets older.


"All of us have to be mentally prepared for that, and anticipate and respond to the issues and rectify them. It's no different from when we buy a household appliance or a new car. (The) first few years (when) it's new, you don't expect a lot of issues," he says.


But deterioration and wear and tear are normal as equipment ages, he adds. This requires more repair work, replacement of parts and, eventually, buying an entirely new asset.


Asked if Singaporeans are prepared to accept the idea that things are ageing and will break down, he replies: "Part of it is recognising that as assets get older, this is bound to happen. It's natural.


"But even though we know that this would happen with older assets, we're not simply saying there's nothing we can do about it.


"We're not saying, 'Everybody, you've got to live with more faults.'"


He lists several ways the authorities are tackling the issue, including beefing up the pool of technicians here and training them well, doing predictive maintenance instead of simply reacting to faults, and tightening regulations if needed.


Besides high-profile MRT disruptions, there has also been a series of lift breakdowns. On lifts, Mr Wong says breakdown rates have been coming down overall.


"At the national level, if you look at our assets - infrastructure as a whole - we're not doing too badly," he says. "But still, we should work hard to improve."




The URA's Concept Plans provide the long-term blueprint for Singapore's land use and major infrastructure developments.


They are revisited every decade, with the next one due in 2021.


In between - every five years - the Master Plans will "dust off" these ideas and set them in motion when the time is right, says Ms Hwang, who is also URA's acting deputy chief executive.


While the Concept and Master Plans follow a regular schedule, URA's approach to urban planning has changed greatly over the years, she says.


One notable change is the increased use of data analytics to guide policymakers.


"Using data, we can actually look at the real travel patterns of people and see if (the plans) are working or not, and where there could be tweaks to improve the plans," says Ms Hwang.


EZ-Link data, for example, is being used by URA to look at how the elderly move around, alerting planners to where there is a need for more elderly-friendly facilities.


The Government has also noticeably changed its approach to urban planning in some districts.


Where planners had strived to optimise individual parcels of land in the past, they are now doing so with a broader brush.


"We have to look at it from the broader district level and see how we can achieve better connectivity seamlessly, better integration of utilities," says Mr Wong.


He cites the upcoming Jurong Lake District and Punggol Digital District as two projects that will boast "whole of district" features which require years of planning.


An underground district cooling system, for example, can pipe chilled water to air-conditioning units in the entire district.


Other big moves occurring beyond 2030 include the relocation of Paya Lebar airbase to the expanded Tengah and Changi airbases. This will free up around 800ha of land, an area bigger than Toa Payoh. The development of the Greater Southern Waterfront can also begin after the city port terminals move to the mega port in Tuas, which will extend the downtown area beyond Marina Bay.


"We don't have very concrete plans yet for these, because these are indeed very long-term, but we know that we want to do these things from an urban planning point of view," says Mr Wong.




With the bill for major infrastructure projects amounting to billions of dollars each, Insight asks Mr Wong what safeguards are in place to ensure the right calls are made.


He replies that each project is first considered by the ministry overseeing it, examining the outcomes, whether the project is beneficial and what are its costs.


The Finance Ministry (MOF) then scrutinises the individual projects again, and financing is worked out.


Larger projects that cost more than $500 million have to go through a "gateway process", where civil servants pore over details, asking difficult questions about cost, revenue sources and feasibility.


Mr Wong says a technical panel is formed to review projects at every stage, from design to the scope of works to cost effectiveness.


"Those are processes we have put in place to make sure that every project is done in a way that achieves value for money," he adds.




There are also plans that never make it to MOF, with some shelved indefinitely or even scrapped.


Last year, the authorities scuttled a 20-year-old plan to build an underground ring road system under central Singapore, freeing up subterranean space that was previously safeguarded at 295 properties.


The URA and the Land Transport Authority say enhancements to the public transport network and changes in land use policies have removed the need for it.


Asked about the cost of discarding such plans, Mr Wong says money may have been spent on preliminary design work or feasibility studies."But we have to do our due diligence, we have to study all options. We have to consider all possibilities as we go about planning for the future," he says.


"When we do that, you may not want to embark on everything."


And while Singapore is often lauded for its robust planning, its much-vaunted system has come up short in several instances.


Indeed, planners failed to anticipate the population surge in the 2000s, resulting in congested MRT trains and buses.


The Government was also unable to respond in time to a surge in demand for public housing, and had to ramp up supply later.


Asked how the Government can ensure it is able to anticipate future demands, Mr Wong says the issue is not just about planning, but also implementation and execution.


Raising housing as an example, he says building flats ahead of demand could result in under-utilisation, under-occupation and potential wastage.


"If you wait till demand is there before building, you will minimise the wastage, take-up will be very good. But because (building) infrastructure takes time, you may be behind the curve," he notes. "So we have been on both sides of this before."


Mr Wong adds: "We know it's a difficult balance to strike.


"How to get that balance right, and that implementation and execution right... it's not easy. But we're always working to see how we can improve our processes."


He acknowledges that the authorities "have not gotten it right in the past, we have not been perfect in the past".


Getting the timing right is not easy, he adds, "because the market moves in cycles and we can't predict exactly when is the right time".


"We just have to understand that this is part of the dynamics of the market, and try to get the balance right," he says.


On why the Government misses its construction spending estimates, Mr Wong says the estimates will be affected by delays of major projects such as the North-South Corridor.


The Corridor is a 21.5km expressway with integrated cycling paths, continuous bus lanes and greenery features that will run from Woodlands to the city. Insight understands that it was delayed as more time was required to finalise plans.


Mr Wong says delays could be due to various reasons, including tighter project scrutiny.


A lot more time is also being spent on a whole range of studies and assessments, he adds, from environmental impact to noise impact, and what mitigation measures may be needed before construction begins. "We have to do all of these things to get broad support for new projects," he says.




As Singapore seeks to embark on these ambitious projects, Mr Wong highlights three challenges seen in other countries which could derail these plans.


First, fiscal constraints that prevent governments from renewing or replacing necessary infrastructure.


Second, political gridlock, where disagreement at the political level prevents projects from being carried out. And third, a "not in my backyard" or "Nimby" mentality, where ready plans are shelved due to strong public opposition, he says.


These are the three main reasons why ageing infrastructure does not get renewed or replaced in quite a number of developed cities, he says.


"New infrastructure doesn't come in and, as a result, it does have a significant drag on productivity, on competitiveness, and it ultimately impacts liveability," Mr Wong adds.


"We must never allow that to happen in Singapore," he cautions.


While he did not give specific examples, the Nimby effect reared its head in 2012 when 40 Bishan residents petitioned against the Health Ministry's plans to build a 260-bed nursing home, stating it would deprive them of an empty field for recreational activities and the flow of fresh air into their homes.


Says Mr Wong: "If there is strong opposition to anything in your backyard, it will be very hard to keep rejuvenating our city.


"You need the Government, people and the whole of society to work together to share that same vision of wanting to build a better Singapore."