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  Straits Times 29 Jun 07
Mah Bow Tan: 'You ain't seen nothing yet'
People & Politics: Mah Bow Tan on Re-Imagining Singapore the City

Singapore was ranked among the world's 20 most liveable cities recently by a European lifestyle magazine. National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan speaks to LYDIA LIM about what the new Master Plan has in store, and holds out the prospect that life here will get only better even as the population grows

AS HE marks his eighth year as National Development Minister, Mr Mah Bow Tan knows to expect shock and horror each time he announces that planners are gearing up to house a bigger projected population.

This time, the figure is 6.5 million, up from the 5.5 million figure set out in the last Master Plan review in 2003. The Master Plan is the statutory land use plan which guides Singapore's development in the medium term of 10 to 15 years. It is reviewed every five years.

Worries about being squeezed like sardines, of not having green spaces to retreat to on weekends, and sky-rocketing property prices that put homes out of reach of locals are among the top fear factors.

Mr Mah wants to quash these worries.

The island is not about to be overrun by a population of 6.5 million overnight, he says. The figure is a planning parameter, the 'upper bound' that Singapore's population could hit over the long term of 40 to 50 years, based on current demographic trends.

Planners need to have in place such scenarios in order to work out if and how the island can accommodate a population of that size, he says.

And there is no doubt, at least in his mind, that the answer is yes - and comfortably too.

'If we look ahead as far as the eye can see, based on the technologies that we know today - building up, building down - based on the land bank that we have; based on putting all these jigsaw puzzle pieces together, schools, roads, MRT, reservoir, Mindef, office, everything you can think of, sewerage plant, gardens.

'We're not compromising, you know. We are keeping to our standards for parks and gardens, our greenery spaces. We are keeping all those standards. We're not compromising our quality of life. And yet, can we fit this number of people in? The answer is yes.'

He explains that it is only when the issue of physical space has been resolved that the population planners can re-look migration policies, taking into account other factors such as job supply and whether newcomers can assimilate.

The trade-offs to having a larger population are inevitable, but he assures Singaporeans these 'are not unbearable'.

Future population increases notwithstanding, the Government will continue to provide public housing that is affordable. 'We will have, we must,' stresses Mr Mah on this non-negotiable commitment.

Despite the current red-hot property market, he declares that he is 'comfortable' with the steady, sustainable rate at which public housing prices have been appreciating. HDB resale prices have in general risen by between 3 and 4 per cent recently, he says, compared to 30 to 40 per cent for private housing in the Core Central Region, the island's most prime location.

Such steady growth is to be welcomed, as property is after all 'a very major store of wealth for Singaporeans'. He

is eager to assuage people's fears about the future as his ministry starts the one-year countdown to the unveiling of Master Plan 2008, which he hopes Singaporeans will look to not with trepidation, but anticipation.

More choices, not fewer

EUROPEAN lifestyle magazine Monocle recently ranked Singapore 17th on its list of the world's 20 most liveable cities.

Mr Mah highlights the fact that Monocle is not just any magazine but the brainchild of Mr Tyler Brule, International Herald Tribune columnist and founder of design magazine Wallpaper.

'Wallpaper is the type of very chic lifestyle magazine read by the arty types. 'For people like that to start to take notice of what's happening here, I think it's quite significant,' he says.

The focus of the survey was not on the fun quotient of cities but on a combination of all the things that make life in a city better, so Mr Brule had explained.

Monocle described Singapore as 'still conservative' but said the city had in the last decade enjoyed a flowering in its arts and architectural scene. It also praised Singapore's 'First World standard of living' which was extremely affordable, save for exorbitant prices of cars and land.

The city's communication, health, public housing and transportation systems were 'first-rate', it added.

Interpreting the results, Mr Mah says: 'What they're saying is that in Singapore, there are many little things that make a difference, not the big things.

'We don't have the biggest building or the most lavish; we're not Dubai, but the small things matter and collectively they make a difference: connectivity, airports, transport, safety, schools, health care, housing, roads.'

Such reports, and the recent Time magazine cover story entitled 'Singapore Soars', are encouraging, Mr Mah says, but they describe the start, not the end, of the transformation.

'They haven't seen anything yet because there are still going to be changes, more developments, more exciting things happening.'

Master Plan 2008 is what will tie all these various new elements into a coherent whole. In housing, for example, the next generation of HDB flats to be built in Dawson Road in Queenstown will be the first of its kind - high-rise homes in a park.

Based on what he has seen of the designs, Mr Mah is confident these flats will bring the evolution of public housing 'to another level'. 'We have to keep pace with people's expectations and lifestyle changes because we want public housing to remain an attractive option for young Singaporeans,'' he adds. The public will get to view the design at an exhibition in September.

At the luxury end of the residential market, buyers can look forward to yet more city living options, complete with spectacular water views, when land around the Gardens on the Bay is released for new housing.

For businesses, there will be two new regional centres in Jurong and Paya Lebar coming up over the next five to 10 years, offering high-quality office and retail space outside the Central Business District.

Leisure options will also multiply. The southern HarbourFront, where VivoCity is located, has been earmarked as a new rest and relaxation hub. One highlight will be a new running path linking the island's southern ridges, from Mount Faber to Kent Ridge.

Even as development gathers pace, conservation remains a priority, Mr Mah says, because all these efforts aim to build an 'endearing home' for Singaporeans.

Many may not be aware that over the last decade, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has conserved close to 6,500 buildings. The URA does not decide on its own which buildings to preserve but consults independent experts who sit on the Conservation Advisory Panel. Decisions are reached through an exercise of 'collective wisdom', he says.

Members of the public will get a close-up look at the new housing, business, leisure and conservation plans when Master Plan 2008 is exhibited in the middle of next year. Changes may follow a period of public consultation, after which the plan will be gazetted.

Planning makes perfect

JOB satisfaction for Mr Mah, 58, a political office holder since 1988, comes from watching carefully laid plans for Singapore's physical development take shape.

He cites the Marina Bay area as a prime example. Reclamation began in the 1960s and went on until about 1990. By 2000, the URA started developing the area and then selling off sites for what would become the NTUC Centre, 1 Raffles Quay, The Sail, the Business and Financial Centre and, finally, the integrated resort.

While architects may chafe at a lack of flexibility because of strict guidelines, Mr Mah remains convinced that good planning is the key to Singapore's successful transformation.

He believes it will give the country a good shot at becoming one of the few cities in the world not to suffer a drop in living standards, even as its population swells.

'If any country can make it, Singapore can, because we have the planning parameters, we have the process in place.'


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