Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Building a fine balance

Good urban design will enable S'pore to take off first when recovery comes

THE brisk sales at last month's Natas travel fair brought some respite to the travel sector, but it also got Mr Mah Bow Tan a little worried.

'Maybe people are not worried enough. Maybe they have too much confidence in the Government...Maybe the recession hasn't quite hit home yet,' the National Development Minister wonders aloud. The travel fair crush, he feels, could mean people have not yet adjusted their mindsets and lifestyles to deal with the current slump.

'I still get people who say, 'I want to stay in my own line, I've been retrenched but I don't want to change'. Or people saying, 'I still need my car'.'

Still, he takes heart from the fact that the previous downturn has provided key lessons for dealing with the current one. The 60-year-old took over the reins of his ministry in 1999, when the property market was reeling from the effects of the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis.

Since then, the ministry has introduced credit counselling for buyers of Housing Board (HDB) flats, which helped to avert the deep slump in flat prices seen in the 1990s, he says. In 2007, it also scrapped the deferred payment scheme (DPS) - which allowed people to secure properties for as little as a 10 per cent deposit - hence reducing the chances of a bloodbath in the private property market this time round.

Mr Mah is adamant that the DPS will not make a comeback despite the possibility of property prices continuing to slide.

'If people are worried about their jobs, the economy, the future, are they going to come back into the market, just because there is a DPS? The fundamentals of the real estate market are really confidence in the future and in their own ability to service their loan. Until such a time that those fundamentals return, it is futile for anybody to try to artificially jumpstart the market.'

Against this backdrop, his ministry, which oversees housing, construction, urban planning as well as food safety, has widened the aid for some of the poorest Singaporeans by pledging to build 8,000 more rental flats by 2012.

It has also tightened rental criteria to keep out undeserving cases like retirees with enough savings. This group had caused the queue to balloon in the past four years by treating rental flats as cheap retirement accommodation. They were eligible because the HDB used to assess applicants almost entirely on the basis of their monthly income.

Mr Mah does not blame the retirees for joining the queue. 'Collect $200,000 from the sale of your home, and pay rental of $26 (a month) for a one-room flat. That was a very pragmatic alternative for them. That was a sensible thing to do. The rules said you could do it.'

Clearing the logjam was a matter of creating alternatives to allow retirees to earn an income from their property. The HDB allowed homeowners to let out their flats, take out reverse mortgages, and - most recently - let them sell a portion of their lease for a regular monthly income.

The financial storm, says Mr Mah, is ripe with opportunity if only people allow themselves to see it.
'This is probably the time to recalibrate people's thinking on how much they invest in property and how they look at property. It will be a salutary lesson for everyone, lessons of the excesses of the past and why it's important to live within our means.'

The Ministry of National Development (MND) is bringing forward plans to upgrade the infrastructure of Jurong and Paya Lebar to take advantage of lower construction prices now.

And Mr Mah is also keeping an eye on the horizon. 'After the waves have crashed over us, when we have provided the life rafts and coconut trees or whatever to hang on to, what happens after that? When the sun comes up again, what do we do?

'When it comes, we must be ready. Not just ready, but first off the blocks.'

Long-term urban planning, says Mr Mah, allows Singapore to do just that. He dismisses recent criticism from former architect and urban theorist William Lim that Singapore's rigid state control and clean-slate approach has cleared the streets of their colour and vibrancy.

'It's probably an overstatement to say that we overplan,' he declares. The Bras Basah-Bugis arts and entertainment district, which Mr Lim felt was too artificial, won an award from the Washington- based Urban Land Institute for its planning work, he points out.

Like Mr Lim, he feels that Geylang and Little India are the most vibrant parts of Singapore. 'But vibrancy is not the only thing. It's fine for us to visit and go past Little India, and say, wah, how nice and vibrant it is. But we had this issue in Joo Chiat when Joo Chiat also grew and became more vibrant, almost like Geylang. Go to the streets at night and you see it's full of life, full of activity,' he says, eyes crinkling with bemusement at the memory of the uproar caused by the arrival of pubs and streetwalkers in the gentrified district in 2004.

'You ask the residents of Joo Chiat what they thought about that. They were really up in much so that they formed this watch group, created a community, mobilised, lobbied their MP, lobbied their agencies, so we had to make it less vibrant.'

It boils down to balance, he feels. 'We need to have certain spaces which are a little bit more lively, which are a little bit more vibrant. But it all comes back to planning. We've got to decide which are the places which can be left alone a little bit, and which are the places where we need to be more proactive.'

At times, some of the life on the ground needs to be sacrificed for possibly greater creations. 'The final irony is that the two complexes that William is most famous for, the Golden Mile Complex and People's Park Complex - which people generally accept to be good examples of new
developments in the 70s - were built in areas which were actually very vibrant and very lively.'
Golden Mile Complex, for example, was built in an area where old shophouses fronted the then less-than-pristine Kallang River, with wooden boats plying its waters. People's Park Complex, meanwhile, rose from the ashes of an open-air market 'a little bit like Bangkok's Chatuchak (market)'.

Mr Mah gathers from his conversations with planners and architects in other countries that Singapore authorities 'have a reputation for being much more rigid and much more comprehensive in our planning'. But he is quick to add: 'They envy our ability to do long-term planning. And we actually look very far ahead into the future.'

The MND has set its sights on making Singapore one of the most liveable cities in the world and last year invited Canadian media mogul and style guru Tyler Brule here to share his ideas on what it takes to get there. Mr Brule, whose international affairs magazine Monocle advocates regularly for good urban planning and design, cited 'density, diversity and design' as the three main elements that made an urban environment attractive.

Asked which of the three Singapore possesses, Mr Mah picks the first two. The Republic, after all, is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, which allows a multitude of services to be delivered efficiently to its residents.

And Singapore 'is probably one of the most diverse cities in the world'. 'You can actually get anything from anywhere in the world - east and west, lifestyle, food, fashion, whatever, you name it.'
In fact, he reckons Singapore trumps American cities like Washington and Chicago, as well as Asian ones like Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo on this score.

Design, however, is something that Singapore needs work on.

'We are probably weak in the area of good design and the appreciation of good design,' he says. 'It's probably a reflection of maybe our young history or a reflection of a more pragmatic side of Singapore, where the idea of form is subservient to function.'

But change is afoot. The design of the Marina Barrage, which was in 2002 merely a basic and functional pump room at the edge of the downtown reservoir, was subsequently modified to become the grass-topped attraction that it is today.

'We are now incorporating design into our public facilities. It could also be other public fixtures and fittings. It could be bus stops, it could be air-conditioning vents. It could be substations. It's all part and parcel of what we want the city to look like.'

How Singapore eventually shapes up, he says, will also ultimately depend on the attitudes of its residents.

'Tolerance issues' were cited as Singapore's Achilles' heel when it slid from the 17th to 22nd position in Monocle's annual ranking of the world's most liveable cities last year. Mr Brule remarked then: 'If Singapore wants to push itself from a creativity perspective and wants to build a greater design community, you don't have to read Richard Florida's book on the creative class to know that cities need to be much more tolerant of other lifestyles, be they gay or otherwise.'

On this point, Mr Mah conceded that tolerance made a difference in a city's overall environment.
'I guess we have to decide. Every society has to make a decision about what its values are, what are the social norms and how far it wants to tolerate different lifestyles.

'And by 'we' I am talking about the people of Singapore. But it's becoming a very big 'we' as we are becoming much more cosmopolitan. There's a much broader diversity of views.'

That 'we', he stresses, includes 'people who live and work here, even if they are from other countries'.
A scholar and a minister
MR MAH Bow Tan, 60, has been Singapore's Minister for National Development since 1999. He was Minister for Communications for eight years before that. He studied at the University of New South Wales on the President's and Colombo Plan Scholarships, and graduated with first-class honours in industrial engineering and a master's in operations research. He is married to Dr Sheryn Kaye von Senden, 59, a former doctor, now a full-time volunteer. They have two sons and two daughters aged from 18 to 30.

On good design
'Good design doesn't just mean just good buildings. It also means good public spaces, it means good connectivity, it means good transport, it means good parks.'

On our constraints
'As we become more affluent, as we become more successful, people don't realise the constraints we face, that demand for things will actually become much greater. That's where the problem will be, the disconnect between the expectation of what they should have in the future versus the reality of what they have here.'

On why deferred payment schemes will not be revived
'Imagine people buying five, 10 properties just by paying 10 per cent and hoping that next week or next month they would be able to sell it at a big profit. It's very tempting. But if everybody starts to do that, it's musical chairs, one day you will end up with no chair to sit on. You will be stuck. Then what happens?'

Source: Straits Times, 18 Mar 2009

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