Thailand vs Singapore: Why long-term planning does matter

PHOTO: Bloomberg

In mid-2013 I got the chance to visit the office of Singapore's Urban Development Authority, which is housed in the same building as the City Gallery.

In the gallery, futuristic technology partners concise and easy-to-read text in telling of the city-state's rise to glory.

Particularly striking is an electronic display-wall of the old China Town.

Move your hand in front of the wall and up pops a photo revealing what the corresponding part of the town looks like now.

But what makes the gallery worth a visit is its story of how the youngest nation in ASEAN grew so quickly to become its most prosperous.

Both foreign and local visitors learn how Singapore's physical development has changed since 1819 when it became a British colony and what's in store over the next few decades.

Successful efforts to reclaim land from the sea have seen the city-state steadily expand from 581.5 square kilometres in the 1960s to 719.1 sqkm today.

Each land reclamation project must be supported by a solid development plan. For example, work to create 360 hectares of prime waterfront began at Marina Bay in 1969.

The aim was to encourage a mix of uses, including commercial, residential, hotel and entertainment.

The result today is exactly what was planned for decades ago. Singapore's land development masterplan is reviewed every 10 years, during which time smaller plans are introduced to make necessary changes. 

This is how Marina Bay Financial Centre was required to add q work-live-play concept during the process of its development.

Contained in its 3.5-hectare area is all that office workers and condominium dwellers could want, from a department store and food shops to an underground train station.

Look down from one of the windows of its buildings and you will see vast plots of land lying vacant nearby.

But take a look at the model on the ground floor of the gallery and you see tall buildings on the same land.

Yes, the authorities are planning more skyscrapers, though their shapes might not be the same as those in the model, which is modified to reflect changes as they come.

A map in the gallery also reveals much about how Singapore plans to expand its land area in the coming decades.

The masterplan has been published to give the public a chance to participate. Another room is devoted to the state's vision to make the island greener.

Condominiums have been directed to give over more space to greenery.

In another bid to make the island more liveable, authorities recently unveiled the "Street for People" initiative, which encourages communities to forge and engage in their own activities.

Is it too much to expect the same long-term planning and initiatives for better living in Bangkok or any other major city in Thailand?

Helping to block out such enlightened thinking is the mushrooming of shopping malls in the Thai capital over recent years.

City-dwellers tend to learn about the projects from newspapers, before walls are erected around the plot of land with a sign that reads "Coming Soon".

By that time, it's usually too late for local residents to complain to the authorities about disruptions such as noise or traffic.

Meanwhile the city is expanding, yet the infrastructure - particularly mass transit - is failing to keep pace.

Developers' plans are shaped by land prices, not by long-term development policies.

Residents settle down wherever they can afford to, but then often have to shoulder high costs for travel.

This in turn becomes an economic cost to the country and is a major reason why carbon emissions remain high and Bangkok's pollution problem acute.

The situation is similar in other major cities. Recent trips to Chiang Mai and Khon Kaen revealed the magnitude of uncontrolled development and the problems it brings.

Housing estates are springing up everywhere.

In a small village near Hang Dong district in Chiang Mai, housing estates boasting nearly 1,000 residences have mushroomed from the fields.

The units are being sold for more than Bt3 million apiece, no doubt representing a handsome return on what the developers paid villagers for their land.

The orchards have been replaced by houses that wouldn't appear out of place in a plush Bangkok suburb.

They come in modern architectural styles that look alien compared to the simply-designed and decorated houses of the local villagers.

Meanwhile the once-serene surrounds of Khon Kaen University have also been marred by a chaotic jumble of shophouses and housing estates.

The evidence is plentiful and plain: there is little if any long-term planning in Thailand.

Some might blame the frequent change of governments. I would rather point to a general ignorance and submissiveness.

The drafting of the Constitution provides one illustration: How many of us care what the autocrats are enshrining in our latest national blueprint?

The answer helps explain why, in the 83 years since Thailand embraced democracy, we have had 20 Constitutions, each of which has lasted an average of only 4.15 years.

Contrast that with Singapore, which has maintained the same constitution that was written at independence six decades ago.

I would, however, stop short of saying I'd like to be a Singaporean. I still prefer being Thai.

But my being Thai would be more enjoyable if more people in power really thought hard about the future - and planned accordingly.

That would be the very best of New Year gifts for all of us.