Speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong

05 Apr 2018

The SUTD Ministerial Forum, SUTD Auditorium


Professor Chong Tow Chong, President of SUTD, members of the SUTD Board of Trustees, distinguished guests, Professors, students, ladies and gentlemen.

Very happy to be back here again. The last time I was last here was in 2015 to open SUTD. Now, three years later, I’m glad to be back to speak to the SUTD family at your first Ministerial Forum.

SUTD is a valuable addition to Singapore’s higher education landscape. For a long time, we only had two publicly-funded universities – NUS and NTU. Then as our economy grew and society progressed, we had to expand higher education to provide more university places, but more than just numbers. To create multiple pathways for young people to develop their skills and fulfil aspirations. 

We did not simply clone another NUS or NTU. Each university which followed – Singapore Management University (SMU) in 2000, SUTD in 2011, the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) in 2014 and most recently the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) in 2017. Each one had its own philosophy, its own approach, its own role in the landscape.

SUTD made a strong start by partnering the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Zhejiang University. You capitalised on their expertise, networks and branding, and MIT and Zhejiang University also benefited from the collaboration. They tried out new approaches, new curriculum ideas and pedagogies in SUTD, green fields, free hand, things which were very hard to do in their established home campuses. So you benefited from being a new growth, being able to take advantage of the experience of what was done in MIT and Zhejiang, to do something here which is not the same but different, and hopefully better.

The relationship with MIT has now moved on into a new phase. The education tie-up has ended, but SUTD continues to cooperate extensively with MIT, especially in research. 

I would also especially like to mention SUTD’s founding President, Professor Thomas Magnanti. Tom had been Dean of MIT’s School of Engineering. SUTD benefitted from his years of experience in engineering education, as well as his familiarity with Singapore’s research environment. Tom led SUTD to develop a unique curriculum and research agenda, and made it one of the world’s most innovative engineering schools. I’m glad that Tom will stay on as Emeritus President, and I’m confident that he will help your new President, Professor Chong Tow Chong, to take SUTD to greater heights. 

You have chosen an apt topic for me this evening: “A Better Nation by Design.” Design is not just part of your name. It is the organising principle that cuts across all four pillars of your curriculum: architecture and sustainable design, engineering product development, engineering systems and design, and information systems, technology and design. The whole institution of SUTD is focussed on identifying and analysing real-world problems, and coming up with comprehensive, systematic and analytical solutions, practical solutions.

At the national level, design is similarly a core element of our nation-building. Singapore is a nation by design. Nothing we have today is natural, or happened by itself. Somebody thought about it, made it happen. Not our economic growth, not our international standing, not our multiracial harmony, not even our nationhood. Nothing was by chance.

When we first became independent, our founding fathers had to solve many basic and pressing issues. In defence, they built up the SAF from scratch. In the economy, they created EDB, attracting foreign investments from MNCs to create jobs and growth. In housing, they set up HDB, building hundreds of thousands of flats to house our population. In water, they exerted every effort to move towards self-sufficiency. In the process, they created major components that make up modern Singapore – the physical landscape, the infrastructure, the organisations, the systems, the values – all the key components that make Singapore work, and that today we often take for granted.

We didn’t call it design thinking then, but with each of these major policies, our founding fathers had to understand the issues, define the problem, come up with creative ideas and solutions, prototype the idea, test out the innovations, and constantly review the thinking and solutions. And that is the essence of design thinking.

Designing and Building a Nation
Public Housing
Let me take from the list, two of the items to talk about in a bit more detail to give you a sense of what I mean - public housing and water. 

With public housing, when the PAP took office, housing the population was one of its top priorities. Many people in Singapore lived in slums or squatter settlements. There was a British Housing Committee Report which called Singapore “one of the world’s worst slums – a disgrace to a civilised community.”

So the PAP Government set up the HDB in 1960, and launched an ambitious building programme to house Singaporeans. It was a massive exercise, and not just massive in terms of scale. It went way beyond putting a roof over people’s heads. We were building not just flats, but homes. We were building not just housing estates, but townships and communities. HDB had to consider many factors in their plans. The configuration and size of each flat, to serve big and small families and different income levels. 

Local amenities like wet markets, hawker centres, schools, neighbourhood centres, places of worship. Common spaces like void decks, common corridors and parks, so that people of all races and religions could interact socially, and keep the ‘kampung’ spirit alive. Besides physical buildings, we came up with policies that gave Singaporeans a substantial stake in the country. The Home Ownership for the People Scheme. The use of CPF savings for the down-payment and mortgage instalments on their HDB flats.  

In short, public housing was much more than an urban planning exercise, or an engineering and construction project. It was a social, economic and political endeavour. The aim went beyond housing the population, to creating a sense of nationhood and community among Singaporeans of all races, religions and income levels.

Today, more than 80% of us live in public housing. The quality of HDB flats is high. We have no slums or ghettos anywhere in Singapore. It is a major achievement, unique in the world.  We continue to build new townships and to upgrade existing ones, so that public housing continues to meet the needs and aspirations of Singaporeans, and to reflect the nation’s growth and progress. 

Today’s flats today look very different from the first batches of HDB flats along Stirling Road in Queenstown, which were basic. For example, TreeLodge@Punggol, not only is it well designed, but also green and environmentally sustainable. We have moved with the times and we must continue to do so.

The Water Story and River Clean Up 
Another example of our founding fathers’ ingenuity and design thinking is the water story. In this case, the problem definition was very clear. Singapore relied heavily on water from Johor. We had limited domestic sources of water. We were vulnerable to blackmail. We had to overcome this urgently. 

The Government came up with many ideas to tackle this problem. We implemented multiple solutions simultaneously. We enlarged reservoirs and catchment areas so as to retain “every single drop of rain.” We dammed up river mouths to create new reservoirs – Lower Seletar, Kranji, Murai, Poyan, and others.

We launched “Save Water” campaigns to make people conscious how precious water was. We priced water to reflect its scarcity, and to give everybody a financial incentive never to waste water.

Later on, we developed new technology to reclaim and reuse water from waste water treatment plants. We came up with NEWater, which effectively doubles our water supply. If you want the mathematical explanation, it is because every drop of water, half of it is reclaimed. And of that half drop, another half is reclaimed. So one plus half plus one quarter plus one eighth, and there’s geometrical series converges, and the sum is two. We are almost there; we are at about 40 per cent now but we will get there.

We also put PUB, which was always in charge of drinking water, now also in charge of waste water treatment, to make one organisation responsible for the whole water cycle: from supplying clean water, to collecting back the used water, cleaning it up, processing it further, reusing it as NEWater. So the organisation is aligned with the mission and everything is done in one place, in one look. We don’t have complicated coordination and quarrels and mismatches between two different government agencies.

Therefore, because we did all these things, now we have what PUB calls our “four taps” – Johor water, Singapore reservoirs, NEWater, and also desalination.

One achievement we are particularly proud of was cleaning up the Singapore River. The Singapore River was severely polluted. The water was black, toxic, and notoriously smelly. Very different from the Singapore River where couples now go strolling in the evenings. My mother’s law firm was at Malacca Street near Raffles Place, next to the Singapore River. She had a blind telephone operator who came to work every day by bus. He is blind but he knew every day exactly when to get off the bus because he could smell when it crossed the Singapore River. Today, he would have a problem.

Cleaning up the river, this mess, was a difficult engineering and political exercise. It was not just dredging up a dirty seabed, or dirty riverbed. We had to clean up the whole catchment area, which was built up and densely populated. We had to disrupt the lives and livelihood of tens of thousands of people. Remove farms and pollutive industries. Sewer up every premise, house squatters, move population, house squatters in HDB flats. Move street hawkers to new hawker centres. Relocate shipyards, not shipyards building oil rigs, shipyards building tongkangs to Pasir Panjang. It took ten years but we succeeded. We could then build the Marina Barrage, and realise the dream of getting drinking water out of the Singapore River. As a bonus, we created the beautiful setting for Marina Bay. 

A Better Nation by Design
Had SUTD existed when HDB started building public housing, and PUB started building our water supply system, all your graduates would have found jobs on these national projects, and put their design skills to very good use. Because good design thinking was a key reason for our successful journey from third world to first. With design thinking we turned adversities into opportunities, and even strengths. Now, as a first world country, design thinking will be critical for us to transform Singapore again, and to stay an outstanding city in the world.

It is time for us to reimagine and rebuild Singapore. You may find this comment odd because nearly every inch of our land is developed or planned for, and there does not seem to be anymore empty space for development. So how can we reimagine and rebuild further? But we can, and the answer is by freeing up new parcels of land, and enabling already developed parts of Singapore to be redeveloped, modernised and improved. With imagination and determination, we can do it.

One of the most transformative moves is to move Paya Lebar Airbase to Changi, beyond the airport. This will take us 15 years or more but when it is done, Paya Lebar will be available for redevelopment – 800 ha of land, which the Airbase is now occupying, bigger than Ang Mo Kio town, which is only 640 ha. Even more important, once the Airbase has moved, we free up height constraints all over the eastern part of Singapore. Because right now, the airbase sits there, we need the funnel to come in for the aeroplanes to land and to take off, and to the south and to the north. All along the funnel, the heights of the buildings are constrained. You cannot build a 50-storey building just south of the Paya Lebar airbase runway. The Air Force will come and look for you. But if the Paya Lebar airbase has moved, all those height constraints can be lifted from all over the eastern part of Singapore and we can redevelop, and progressively rebuild the whole eastern region. It will take another 50 years or more, but it offers enormous possibilities because there will be literally no limit to the heights of our imagination.

There are many possibilities to refresh the urban landscape for the rest of the island too. For example, the PSA ports at Tanjong Pagar and Pasir Panjang are moving to Tuas. At Tanjong Pagar, they have already moved out. You can see it if you drive along the waterfront or along the Keppel viaduct. This will free up prime land to be redeveloped and there will be an opportunity to develop the Greater Southern Waterfront, which is three times the size of Marina Bay.

Therefore, we should think boldly, and think long-term. Develop a visionary plan that takes Singapore from SG50 to SG100 and beyond. Take full advantage of the experience we have gained, the resources we have accumulated, the imagination and skills of our people, and the vibrancy and opportunities of the region around us. We should create an outstanding living environment, a well-planned, technologically advanced, green and sustainable city. Not just well-designed buildings, structures and infrastructure but also good fine-grained urban design – adaptable public spaces, immersive greenery, people-friendly walkways – all well integrated into the neighbourhoods. It will be a new city built on a human scale with distinctive local identities, and a place where the human spirit can flourish.

In recreating our city, we are not starting with a blank slate. We are enriched by what previous generations have built, by the history that we have accumulated. We should preserve the most important parts from the past, to maintain a sense of history and continuity, and add on the ideas and contributions of a new generation. So that like other great cities in the world – London, Paris, Shanghai, New York, Tokyo – Singapore can become a multi-layered city, a metropolis with a rich history, and yet is vibrant and alive, always changing, always fresh.

Public Transport System
This grand project to rebuild and reinvent our city will involve many major infrastructure and policy pieces. We need to conceive, design, and implement each piece with the same attention to detail and yet at the same time, the same sense of its relationship as part of the whole. One important piece is the public transport system. Let me talk a bit more about this because it is on Singaporeans’ minds. I would like to sketch for you how we should think about it beyond the immediate issues, and the immediate things we want to do to it, where we want it to go, what we should think about. 

Public transport is another multi-level design problem. At one level, public transport is an engineering problem. We have to map out the network to have the right connections and coverage, use the right technologies and engineering methods, and build in sufficient capacity for the present and the future, as well as redundancy, reliability and flexibility. Design the system for easy and effective maintenance, so that trains can run safely and reliably. That is an engineering problem, but at another level, public transport is an economic problem. How can we structure the industry so that the different players – the operators who operate the trains, the asset owners who own the trains, the Government and the commuters – will have the right incentives to do the right things, so that the whole system will work well? Who should own the trains or the buses? Who should be responsible for maintaining them? For replacing them when the trains grow old? For buying new trains when ridership increases and you need new capacity? How should each party be paid for their services? Should they be incentivised by profits so that they watch the bottom line and save every dollar or reimbursed for costs so that they do not hold back when they need to spend and when costs really go up? How much should commuters pay? How much should the Government subsidise fares? These are all difficult questions. There is a range of answers to each one but we have to think through carefully when we design the system. 

Beyond the economic level, there is yet another, even more difficult level, because public transport is also a socio-political problem. It is more than just buses and train carriages. It is an economic mobiliser, it is a social equaliser. It connects places, and more importantly, it connects people. Millions of Singaporeans ride buses and trains every day. All Singaporeans, regardless of where we live, and how much we earn, we need to move around and interact with one another in the city with ease, for work, school and recreation. It is part of the shared experience of living in Singapore, and being Singaporean. We all want a high quality, efficient, reliable and cost-effective public transport system. None of us like it when fares go up. So how do we give the public the assurance that the system is fair, that it is well run, and that when fares have to go up, they have to go up for a good reason, and the increases are necessary and justified? 

That is a political problem. You can do the sums, you can make the audits, and you can consult the managers. But finally you have got to talk to Singaporeans, the users, the population, and persuade people the system is working well, working for them, and they have to support it. They have to do their part, use it responsibly. Do their part, pay for their fares. Do their part, make sure that you uphold the system in Singapore, which enables trains, buses, water, housing, everything to work. There are no simple or easy answers to these questions. Each possible answer has its pluses and minuses. We have to evaluate the trade-offs carefully and holistically, decide what will work best, on the whole, for Singapore.

Actually, there are many other policies which will benefit from design thinking. If you think about it, healthcare, education, CPF, national service and even our political system. How should they be designed? How should they be operated? How should they work? But I will save these for future lectures! I hope my brief description of the two examples of planning Singapore’s future, the future Singapore city, as well as public transport, will convince you that there are many design issues we have to think about as we reimagine and rebuild Singapore. 

My general point is: good design does not happen in a vacuum. We need to amalgamate experiences and views across many disciplines. It is not just the hardware aspects of engineering and architecture but the software as well. It goes beyond the application of technology, economics and sociology. It needs a deep understanding of human beings, their emotions and psychology – how individuals behave, how society works. As Professor Lim Sun Sun wrote in an opinion piece in The Straits Times recently, effective design thinking needs to “marry creativity with empathy, and innovation with responsibility”. Because that is the way we can create a collective sense of national pride and mission. We have come so far, overcoming the challenges as one people, and we will continue to have what it takes to endure and succeed, to design and build a better Singapore together.

This is where you, as SUTD students, come in. I am glad that SUTD puts aside more than 20 per cent of your design and technology curriculum to humanities, arts and social sciences. I am not surprised that SUTD students, as you have heard from your President, are highly sought after in the job market, with more than 90 per cent finding employment within six months, with good starting salaries, and starting salaries going up year by year. It is a strong validation of your curriculum and teaching approach. You are studying now, soon you will be graduating and it will be your turn to paint the canvas, to sketch out the next blueprint and masterplan, to create a new roadmap and skyline for Singapore. I hope that amongst your generation, you will together master the range of skills and disciplines to design, build and run tomorrow’s Singapore.

Recently, I met a bunch of bright young students studying at Tsinghua University. It is a university in Beijing but the students came from many different countries, about 20 of them, including several Singaporeans. They asked me what advice I would give to people their age. Since you are also their age, I will give you the same advice. I told them “Follow your passion, don’t follow the money”. 

You are talented, you are being well-educated, and you will be well-educated. With your skill sets and talents, you should not have difficulty finding a good job after you graduate. But here, talking to you, you must have chosen SUTD not just to get a degree, but because you had an interest in engineering, or architecture, or systems, or above all in design. Pursue that. Not necessarily in exactly the same discipline and courses that you are studying or specialising in now, but applying the mindsets and design thinking that you have learnt, to whatever field you decide to make your own. Once you have been educated as an engineer and you have acquired that way of looking at problems, of analysing them, of taking them apart, exploring what you can do to solve them, trying it out, you can apply that in many different fields, and in many different phases of your life.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew gave similar advice to university students a generation ago, 20 years plus earlier. He urged them to “follow that rainbow”, and he himself did that throughout his life, pursuing goals and pushing boundaries with passion and drive. Building Singapore, and making it better.

I hope that as you embark on your career pathways and take on the future, you too will be audacious in your dreams, imaginative in your planning, and tenacious in your execution. Be rainmakers, create new and exciting possibilities for yourselves, your children, and also for Singapore.

Thank you very much.

Source: Prime Minister's Office (PMO)