Minister wants to make S'pore truly home

What is your job at the Ministry of National Development?

I'm focused on the push to keep Singapore as a city in the garden. We started off many years ago as a garden city, but "the city in the garden" is not just a play on words but literally a change in thinking.

In the early years, we focused on issues of survival, on existence. Housing, roofs... But we have some space (now) to focus more on issues of soul, of spirit, issues that make Singaporeans cherish what we have as home. We are talking more in terms of building homes, communities, living spaces, as opposed to infrastructure and amenities.

I'm also working on heritage issues. In the past, we had no problem with protecting places of national significance, like City Hall. But increasingly, people might feel a bit disoriented if the pace of change is such that they lose a building, a school, or a corner of an estate that they hold personally dear to themselves.

For example, Rulang Primary School in Jurong West (Mr Lee's constituency) is a place with 80 years of history, set up by villagers with their own funds for their children. It was re-sited a long time ago, but they still cherish very fond memories, and I asked them if they would consider finding the former location and placing a marker, so that alumni and future generations will know how the school started.

Finding innovative ways to allow people to retain personal memories in a way that will balance the needs of development for the wider population of Singaporeans: that is the challenge. How to retain a sense of place and the memories that go with that, in the pace of change that we have here.

Many see the Government as not on the side of conservation.

That is a narrative that comes from a particular angle. But I think you have to look at it from what we are actually doing on the ground, and what more we can do. It's not really a case where it's polar opposite demands of on the one hand, you must develop, and on the other hand, you must conserve. We want to do both. It's not an easy line to tread. We must find new and innovative ways to do so. We must take time. The process will be slower than in the early days when development moved faster.

Ultimately, a decision has to be made, and we need to move, but we need to do so in a sense which weighs the things that are very hard to measure. Memories, heritage, sense of rootedness, sense of the here and now, sense of where we are.

It's not like goodwill - like this brand attracts X amount of value. What I just described is very hard to value and to put on the weighing scale. But my personal sense is that it is something extremely dear and important. It's the sense of who you are, and no amount of development can compensate for a loss of identity. And therefore this is something that I would like to focus a lot more on.

You watched the fight for Bukit Brown as a backbencher. What did you take away on how to handle such issues in the future?

Ultimately, the decision - to build a costlier green bridge to limit the damage to the site - took two years. In every plan, there will be people who raise their concerns, some of which we know exist, some which we don't know exist. It's a process of bringing people to the table, having a conversation and then trying to build a consensus.

It was not a case of, let's just build and if people don't stir it up, we will go ahead. Not the case where you just bulldoze through, that was not how the Bukit Brown story developed.

But Singapore is a young nation, and as we move into the future, the things that Singaporeans hold dear to themselves change. Their perspectives change, and so, too, does the Government have to change its processes to accommodate this.

It was a learning journey for everybody - as much for the Government as for the heritage groups and the planners, and for all Singaporeans - that when you feel passionately about something, speak up and be counted. That is the positive lesson we all can draw from this.

What were the lessons you took away for your own engagement with conservation groups?

I think, announce your plans at a very early stage if you can, let people know, be transparent.

I come from the point of view that, when some groups appear adversarial, ask yourself why they feel the need to be adversarial. Let them vent, then ask them, put yourselves in their shoes and let them show you very clearly the value of what they are protecting.

And we must show them that we want to have a genuine conversation without a preconceived destination. There is no orchestrated intent.

And hopefully, when cooler heads prevail but passions undimmed, we can move closer to a win-win situation, not a compromise that satisfies no one, not a cop-out, but that sweet spot. If you can achieve that, that would be a major triumph for nation-building.

What is an example of such a win-win?

Pulau Semakau. I recently went there with a youth group, and the Nature Society people took us around to see the intertidal mudflats. The interesting thing is, there is a dump for all the rubbish that's been incinerated there. They're so careful about measuring the border between the dumping site and the nature area. We have fulfilled the needs of Singapore's waste management and in a way that's absolutely sensitive to the fragile ecosystem that is at its very door.

We have been able to preserve the spirit of old buildings while renewing them. Like the Cathay cinema in Bras Basah. It's not perfect, but if you ask anyone who has been to the old cinemas, they can recognise that frontage.

To me, a successful city-state, one that endures, must have depth, have identity. We don't have a hinterland for people to let off steam and come back. Even Hong Kong has the Lantau islands, the hills, for people to recharge. In Singapore, we don't. So we must have that cultural ballast, that weight of history.

My kindergarten is now a junction under a highway. I have a picture of me receiving an award from (former law minister) Eddie Barker when I was in that kindergarten.

Some say, who cares? But in the end, I'll tell my kids, Papa graduated from K2 under that highway.

You are following in your father's footsteps. He also started off as Minister of State for National Development, in 1983. Do you think you'll have a tougher time in Government than him?

Everyone says that. I once thought so, but it's not true. First, the issues are so different. They were fighting the communists back then in the 1960s. That was a different ball game. It was your life, you could get killed. Later on, there were policies that got people very passionate, CPF or the graduate mothers' scheme.

That's no different from today. People are people, and they have a sense of what affects them.

Maybe back then people had more of the same goals, and the issues, of housing, water, electricity, you could clearly see which policies benefited the majority. But it was painful - relocation, for example.

Till today, there are people who feel the angst of having been forced to leave their farms decades ago.

It may be harder today to tell which are the policies that clearly benefit the majority. And it is perhaps easier for people to express their views today. But I wouldn't dare say that last time, they were more compliant or more willing to accept pain.

I wouldn't be arrogant as to say that my job now is tougher than it was for my father or his compatriots. For all politicians who want to bring Singapore to a better place, there will always be these challenges.

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