Tay Kheng Soon and SPURS : Activism in the early days of Singapore History
Tay Kheng Soon is a well known Singaporean architect. He started the society call SPUR (Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group) whose member once included Prof Tommy Koh & Prof Augustine Tan. SPUR put forwarded many ideas concerning a civilian new airport, a MRT system and so on. This interview was conducted in Oct 1998 by Philip Bay and transcribed by Dinesh Naidu. It was removed from Sintercom due to some complications. Now, again with the kind help and permission of Mr Tay, Sintercom is honoured to bring it to you.
P: Kheng Soon has very nicely agreed to come and talk to us about SPUR, and the struggles that went on at that time, the vision, the disappointment, for the planning for Singapore development, the alternatives that were put forth before the government. Of course we'd like to ask Kheng Soon later to highlight what some of those ideas that were put forth were used by the government, or was it all totally just an alternative that fell on deaf ears? You see, so I think with that we leave it to Kheng Soon to tell us about SPUR.
T:I think before I talk about SPUR I just feel the need to talk about the atmosphere of those days. The kind of people that were around and then set the whole development of SPUR in the context of the human condition at that time. To start with, SPUR was started in '65: the year Singapore joined Malaysia. So bitter, bitter political campaigning by PAP against the left-wing political parties, especially Barisan Socialis , about the conditions of merging. So it was a time of uncertainty.
The economy was... the economy did very well from 1951 to '55. That was a decade earlier and Singapore was living off the fat of those years. That was because of the Korean War: tremendous purchasing of rubber and tin for the American war effort. So that caused a huge boom in the economy and a tremendous amount of building housing estates. Estates like Serangoon Gardens Estate, Braddell Heights, Frankel Estate, Sennett Estate, these were all the huge estates that came up after the war.
Um... '65. Actually Singapore joined Malaysia in '63 - a mistake there.
And came out in '65. So SPUR was formed at a time when Singapore came out of Malaysia.
So that was a great trauma. Suddenly Singapore had no hinterland. The economy was really down and a few years later the British announced the pullout east of Suez - of British forces east of Suez - that the pullout date was 1971.
T:And that was absolutely a double whammy because the British military expenditure - in Singapore at that time accounted for 30% of the total economy. So suddenly 30% of the economy was to be wiped out, so it's a very big trauma.
Now, the type of people that we were. My generation never went to the PAP schools. We finished off from the school system at the tail end of the British school system, by which time the British school system had already lost a lot of its colonial attitudes. The teachers we had, were extremely good teachers, they were very dedicated. Today many of the teachers would have become top professionals but in those days there was no opportunity for them to become a lawyer or doctor or architect or anything. So they became teachers. So we really had top-flight brains, teaching in the schools. And then there were expatriate teachers from America and England who stayed on and they were extremely good and dedicated teachers too. So we had a damned good education.
And also the most important thing - I want to say this because I want you to understand the kind of people that we were in relation to the times that we lived through - our school days were a lot less pressured than your school days. We had homework, but we didn't have that much homework, we never took tuition, we had a lot of free time. Every afternoon was on a sports field.
And school days had its ups and downs of course, but basically we had a great sense of, initiative. We felt that if we wanted to do something we'd do it. We never had to ask permission from parents or to ask permission from teachers or anything like that. We just did it. For example, we wanted to build a raft, you see, to go sailing. So we just went down to Sungei Road, scrounged up some old rubber tubes, went to the forest nearby where we were living, cut the bamboo, got some ropes and lashed it together and we went sailing. That was it. We never even looked at a book on how to sail or anything like that. We just did it, you see. Do first and then study it later: that was the idea. Do first, think later. Now you all think first, do later. So that was the feeling that we all had, that we could do things.
T: So I graduated in '63 and went to work. Then myself, Ho Pak Toe (who was the former director here), William Lim and Tan Jake Hooi (Tan Jake Hooi was the then Chief Planner of Singapore); we were in the editorial committee of that issue of 'Rumah', the SIA journal.
T:That issue was, the editor was William Lim and we were to... that issue was on planning in Singapore. I think you can find it; it's the light green cover.
So, we were having meetings, editorial meetings and at that particular meeting many of the other members didn't turn up. So there were only 4 of us. So we decided to adjourn the meeting, we went to Willie's house. This was in Ngee Ann Building, you know, where Wisma Atria is now, there used to be a block of flats there. So we went to Willie's apartment, just to have a drink of beer or whatever, we were just talking. Then someone said, "Hey, don't you think that we should start a study group on planning in Singapore?" So it was agreed there and then, OK, start. So you can say that SPUR grew out of SIA's publication committee. That's why the first... the first... was it... is it in... in here? The first committee?
[Flips through the two SPUR journals on the table]
T:So Willie was the Chairman of the first committee. So, for 1965, we spent that whole year doing self-study. I think Sunny Chan joined us, Wee Chwee Heng joined us. Charles Ho - Charles Ho was from Van Sitteren Architects.
T: Yeah. I think Chew Weng Kong from URA joined later.
P:But Chew Weng Kong was involved in this publication?
T:No. Then we divided ourselves into groups. One was to study housing in Singapore, another on industrial sites, another one transportation, another one on education, another one on industrialisation and so on. And we had weekly meetings. So, at every meeting, one of the groups would present its findings. So this went on for a whole year, you see, by which time we felt we were fully equipped to discuss planning in Singapore.
Besides members, we also co-opted people from outside to join us. So, from the beginning, we conceived the group as a multi-disciplinary group, not just architects. We had geographers, economists, political scientists, town planners, even some journalists, and lawyers. Tommy Koh was a member at one time.
P:Would it be possible to get a full list of these people, for anybody who do research?
T: I think there is a list here actually in the second volume, at the back here.
[Flips through SPUR journals]
Yeah. So I'll just read out a few names. Chu Tee Seng - you do not know. Chu Tee Seng was an executive of Shell operations. Eric Cromby was a QS. Agnes Fung was a literature major; Robert Gamer, a political scientist at Singapore University; Koh Seow Tee, economist at Singapore University; Rudolphe de Koninck, geographer at Singapore University; Lau Yu Dong, engineer; Tim Manring, lawyer; Howard Quan, town planner; C J Shaw, QS. George Sicular is a multi-dimensional person. You see, he's a lawyer, he's an economist - Renaissance man. Tan Jake Hooi, Chief Planner; Nalla Tan, Department of Social Medicine at Singapore University; Amina Tyabji, economist at Singapore University; and so on and so on. Koichi Nagashima was a member; he used to teach here at the architecture school. George Thompson: Director of Political Studies Centre . We brought George in, in order to diffuse some of the political backlash. Peter Weldon: sociologist, suspected CIA informant.
T: Donald Moore was a supporter. Donald Moore was Singapore's first musical impresario and art entrepreneur. Yeung Yue-Man, geographer, now Professor of Geography in Hong Kong University.
So you can see that it's a very wide, broad sweep of people and their intellectual level was extremely high. And the attitude was a can do attitude, dare to do, dare to say, dare to think. That was the whole thing. That was in sharp contrast to the kind of disciplining process that was going on in Singapore nation building under PAP rule. The disciplining process meant that all dissent had to be strictly channelised through proper channels. And also that sensitive issues should not be discussed in public to disrupt public confidence. And criticism of the government's efforts should not be too loud because it will shaken the confidence of investors and also upset the bureaucrats who the politicians were relying on to carry out the political programmes.
But this was the kind of culture that we were not used to, you see. We were used to a more open, liberal culture. We were not brought up in those PAP schools remember? We were modern people, we believed in ourselves, we believed in the concept of free speech, open discourse. We believed in an open society. Our naivete was to believe in an open society when the society was not open at all. And so of course we ran foul of the powers that be and a lot of us got hammered for it.
P:Was the populous a modern populous or...
T:No, not at all. The building... I mean from '65 onwards, the slum clearance was accelerating at tremendous speed. Bukit Ho Swee was burned down and the rebuilding of Bukit Ho Swee... I myself saw the squatter area burning in Siglap near Pulau Buloh Perindu - that area opposite Frankel Estate - it's a squatter settlement there. I saw the fire and it was incredible. And then immediately, equally incredible was within 6 months there were blocks of flats there. So you can imagine the kind of political will and the need for housing was so great.
So there was no time - from the government's point of view - there's no time to dwell on niceties, which they regarded what we were saying as niceties. Even then we were asserting that housing should have identity, you know, place identity, community feeling, you know, and so on. And they thought that this was all a lot of misapplied thinking.
Industrialisation was just starting so the job creation meant you know, bringing in big investors. Initially the PAP government tried to bring in the investors from the tycoon class of investors from Indonesia and the result of that was National Iron and Steel Mills. The idea was that it would be the backbone of the heavy and light industries in Jurong. That was basically Indonesian capital.
I think at that time there was still an idea that opening the doors to Western multinational corporations would somehow lose for Singapore some degree of dominion. Anyway that was basically a left-wing notion - that the Western multinational corporation is a rapacious animal. But after '71, because the British pulled out, Singapore went all the way to bring in the multinational corporations. And I think Singapore government pioneered the notion that you can work out a reasonable deal with the multinational corporations, to service their interests as well as our own. And that was the subject of a lot of left-wing PAP struggles over this issue through the labour unions. I mean I got to know all this because I was studying industrialisation; that was my portfolio.
P:What year was that when you start to open up?
T:'71. And I think by '72 or '73 there was this famous speech by Rajaratnam. S. Rajaratnam - Minister of Foreign Affairs, was it? Or Minister of Culture at that time, not sure - on Singapore as a global a city . So that was the first time at the intellectual level, the idea of an open economy, open to big international finance, industrial capital, capitalists would be welcome and Singapore, having lost the Malayan hinterland, now sought the world as its hinterland, and that was a big conceptual shift.
P:And you are saying that it happened only after '71?
T: No, no, no: after '65. After '65, the separation from Malaysia.
P:But there was some inhibition or rather reservation for MNCs and it took a while for them to reconcile that?
T:Yeah. So pushed by the British pullout announcement - announcement was in 1969... '68. And then with the expulsion from Malaysia there's a crisis situation where you had to really think fast: how was Singapore to survive? I think it's all detailed out in Lee Kuan Yew's book , in that part on it. So there was huge movement of people, you know. Jurong was being set up, people were moving out there, factories were being set up, housing was being built. Slum clearance was starting in Chinatown. 1968 saw the first URA land sale. On the People's Park site, where there were lots of hawkers, these were cleared out and moved to a hawker centre built behind at People's Park Centre.
So against that kind of political, feverish political activity, and economic activity it must have irked the government quite a lot to hear a group of us - middle class, white collar, upper middle class - mouthing 'platitudes' about place, environment, identity, community...
T: And culture.
Then there was another crisis in '71: the closure of the Nanyang Siang Pau; the withdrawing of the licence and the jailing of the editor. Then the withdrawing of the licence, soon following that, of Eastern Sun, another English language tabloid. Then the closure of the Singapore Herald, another English-language paper. Licence was withdrawn. All on the charge that these were front operations for foreign interests who were seeking to further their cause against the Singapore cause. But no solid evidence was produced by the government. But the government said that we had to take their word for it because they could not reveal the truth of it. Because the truth of it was too sensitive.
So I organised a co-operative to buy over the newspaper and to run it as an alternate voice to The Straits Times.
P:Was that approved?
T:[laughing] Of course not. You see in the latest book by Francis Seow entitled Media Enthralled published by Yale University Press, a large section of the book deals with this - the whole Herald and the press episode.
Now I'm saying all this because these are the overlaying events that happened you see, to discuss SPUR, which you find the discussion of SPUR in the Koolhaas book was rather more technical. I'm now giving you the kind of political overlay and you have to see the two interplaying, because the politics of SPUR itself was conditioned by that overlay.
So then I organised the co-operative to buy over the paper on the grounds that the co-operative structure will be run by a board of purely Singaporean trustees. Of which the Chairman will be Tommy Koh, Francis Thomas, who was the school principal of St Andrew's School, Dr Lee Soo Ann who is Professor of economics at the university here and myself would be the Board of Trustees. And there will be a Charter that declares exactly the position of the paper in relation to news and its commitment to the Singapore cause. But the most important thing is that the share structure, the ownership structure, the equity structure, is a co-operative, meaning no matter how much capital you have in the co-operative, you only have one vote.
This actually would prevent the paper from being controlled by any single power group, just because they have the money.
So I thought that on these grounds the government would not find it easy to object, because their first concern was that the Herald was funded by foreign sources, and that the paper was being manipulated by these foreign sources. With such a structure it could not be manipulated. So in other words we took them at their word.
So I went to see the Minister. I went to see Rajaratnam. Rajaratnam said "good idea." Dr Goh called, set up a meeting with me and at that meeting Dr Goh said "good idea to have a second English language paper, but it won't succeed." It was very funny. And how he called the meeting was really funny because he called it at the Pyramid Club at the - what's that place? Pyramid Club... Goodwood Hill. Goodwood Hill together with a whole coterie of Singapore University dons.
P:Goodwood Park itself?
T:Behind Goodwood Park. And he had called for a whole bunch of university lecturers to meet there because he wanted to talk to them about... wanted to get ideas about, you know, what is Singapore about and all that. So the list was submitted, the person was organising it and university submitted the list you see. Then the phone call came back to this person: why am I not on the list? "Why is Tay Kheng Soon not on the list?" The reply was given that "he's not a member of the staff here."
I wasn't a member of the University and yet Dr Goh asked why I wasn't there. So I knew at once. He just wanted to call up everybody else as a reason for his meeting with me. So we had a meeting and he told me "good idea, but it won't last." That was his warning, and he was right. So, in retrospect, I think the government was split on this issue. To what extent to control the press; to what extent there should be a more liberal press. I think the question now is academic.
Then what happened? So we applied for the licence. Raja made all the right noises, "very good, apply." Turned down. Turned down on the grounds that we don't want such a cumbersome structure, we only want a simple structure where one or two people we can deal with. That's it. So I felt the issue was clarified and the story ended there.
Being non-business minded, I tell you, is a ridiculous thing. I negotiated to buy the newspaper for $250 000 from the official receiver J. Lee. The paper's stock itself was worth 4 million at that time. Having not got the licence I just chucked the whole deal. I should have just paid the $250 000 and sold the newsprint for 4 million bucks. The irony of course is the whole printing plant plus the paper stock was sold to the Indonesian Golkar Party after that, it became an instrument of Golkar.
P:When you could have got it for quarter of a million?
T: I could have got it and sold it to them for double the price. Such was our idealism.
Now, the overlay again. I dealt with Raja on the Herald issue. By the way, the Herald, during its lifetime, the editor was Francis Wong, who was an extremely good writer and also a good friend and one sympathetic towards architecture and planning an urban environment and a man with a social conscience. So he gave a lot of space in the Singapore Herald for SPUR matters. So we had the press support you see. So that was why it was quite natural for me being at that time - by that time I was Chairman of SPUR - to do something about the paper, the Herald.
But that is not the first connection I had with the newspaper issue and Rajaratnam. Because I think 6 months earlier during the closure of Nanyang Siang Pau, during the prelude to the closure of Nanyang Siang Pau where there was a lot of exchange of letters and arguments in the press between Lee Yew Seng, the Editor, the Managing Director of Nanyang Siang Pau and the government. Government accused Nanyang Siang Pau of being a chauvinist paper, fanning up leftwing and Chinese sentiments, and therefore was verging on sedition and therefore had to have severe actions taken against them.
Interestingly is that during that period, Willie got a call from Rajaratnam's office to say "I want to see you, all of you, so please arrange." So we had a meeting, sat around like that in Willie's garden, in his house. He was then living in - what is that place called? Coronation Road. In his garden, we sat around and Raja's sitting there. Then he was telling us about the whole press problem. "We are trying to develop the country, get the country in the right direction. We had to discipline the paper and we want you to support us, you, as SPUR, to support us." And then he said, "we are sick and tired", these are his exact words, "we are sick and tired of you liberal intellectuals sitting on the fence, cheering and jeering. If you don't come out in support of us we shall regard you as political elements."
So we protested. I mean, we said we are not political, we are only a planning group. Why should we write this kind of statement. "You take your choice." So he left. So, together with, I think, Tommy was around at the time, we drafted a very polite, very non-committal statement, basically to say that planning in Singapore or planning anywhere depended on the good management of the urban environment and so on, and this cannot be achieved without political stability. This was a kind of a concession, which we could make to the demand for support. And if indeed it is true that the Nanyang Siang Pau is working against national interests, then indeed the government has to do the right thing. If it is true, we said that.
Of course - the feedback came back after the statement was issued to all the press, it was published the next day - the feedback came that that's not exactly what the Minister had in mind. So the relationship between SPUR and the government, already bad, became even worse. I guess it got worse and worse.
T: I mean for example, I can't remember the date but during the debate, to move the airport - is it here?
[Flips through SPUR Journals]
Yes, as a consequence of the 1971 British pullout, Changi Military Airport - British Royal Air Force airport in Changi - would revert, would become available. Now at that time, we had a member (who I shall not name) who was in PWD. He mentioned that there were some plans showing 3 new runways to be built at Paya Lebar Airport.
[Flips through SPUR Journals]
[To PB] Where is it? You found it just now. I can't find it.
Paya Lebar was the civil airport at that time, Paya Lebar International Airport. So they wanted to enlarge the airport, to increase the capacity with another runway on this side and another runway on the other side. We had a drawing that showed the runways. Some of our engineers had experience with acoustic planning. We drew the acoustic diagram showing the flight path coming in, the noise level contours. It meant that the entire Mountbatten Road and - from Kallang Basin right up to Changi Road - that whole section and then on the north Hougang to Tampines, this whole strip would be sterilised. Impossible to live there, because of aircraft noise, plus the danger zone, the crash zone and so on. Because airport planning needs to have all these safety provisions. That will immediately make it unliveable for 1 million people. And PWD were planning it that way!
So when we saw this, we said this is no way we can accept this. So why not move the whole thing to Changi where the aircrafts will be coming in and taking off over the sea and not over populated areas. Man, they got so mad with us, you know, when we proposed this, because we were interfering you see, in their thinking. And this particular person in PWD subsequently left.
But anyway finally the logic prevailed because we had given full publicity to this report. It was in the newspapers, everybody knew. All the people living in this area must have complained to their MPs and created a big fuss that this is not going to be acceptable, blah, blah, blah. So the plan was scrapped. This was SPUR's first success.
P:First major conflict with PWD?
T:Yeah, right. And they have hated us ever since. Because their prestige, you know, their prestige was dented, and they were caught with their pants down. And it was Howe Yoon Chong, actually at that time Perm. Sec. of National Development, that forced the issue in government, to have it moved to Changi.
Now the story of the relationship between SPUR and Yoon Chong is also very interesting, because Howe Yoon Chong was the CEO of HDB, subsequently became Perm Sec of Ministry of National Development, and then later on became Minister of National Development. So he's a very powerful character. To his credit he was very interested in what SPUR could do to contribute to government's thinking.
So in 1965 - I'm jumping back and forth, because it's an overlay -- in 1965, after we had done our own internal studies, we felt we were ready to tackle a real project. And the opportunity came when Yoon Chong asked us to plan Woodlands New Town. And he even offered us a working space in Upper Pickering Street where the Housing Board was, at that time. And the Liaison Officer to help us get the information from the government was Chew Weng Kong.
Then towards the end of '65 - '66, I went away. I went travelling for a year, I came back in early '66. So in the meantime there were studies being done on Woodlands by SPUR. And you know we were - you know I went to England to do town planning and that's why I can comment about why we failed in Woodlands. Because we didn't deliver you see. And we didn't deliver because we wanted such a lot of data that did not exist and that this is where now on reflection I realise that what happened is that Willie was running the project, and myself, and I think a few others, were purists, you see. We would not speculate without accurate data.
We had this idea that if you don't have all the data you cannot make decisions you see, which is totally wrong. In the real world, most decisions are made without full data. And then you find the data later on to substantiate what you've done, justify backwards. But we were not in that position, you know. I was, what, in 1965 I was 25 years old, your age. So we asked for more information. Chew Weng Kong was cornered; he had to get the information from Yoon Chong and all the other officers, that did not exist and they did not want to admit that it did not exist, and so we read it as 'you don't want to give us the information'. So if you don't want to give us the information, how can we produce the plan? So in the end the project by SPUR was scuttled. And I think that had long-term negative effects on SPUR - their view kind of froze in their minds, is that we were all talk, we can't do.
So now I'm learning from that lesson. I definitely say that if any government department asks you to do something, you do it the best way you can, with or without data. Because, if you're smart enough, you can always cook up the data. That's how it's done, everywhere in the world. Then you employ all the PhDs after you've done it to justify it.
Some of the other battles, which we fought, was, for example, transportation. We argued for a mass transit system, either buses or railway, and it was turned down for years. But finally, I think the logic prevailed and Ong Teng Cheong pushed it through and we got the MRT. We also fought the case for pirate taxis, that is to say shared taxis; today they have kind of implemented it, 30 years later.
The issue of housing, identity and nation building: I wrote a long paper on it which was presented on radio, I think in '72 / '73. No, no, no, earlier - sorry - presented in '66 / '67.
T:Yes, I remember it well because the impact of that paper must be early '68, because soon after the paper was published I got a call from Lee Kuan Yew's office asking to see me. Then I had a meeting with him; had an argument with him. The argument was about kampongs. I said, you must not destroy the kampongs, because the kampongs are the only places left where you have the spirit of gotong-royong, and you need it for the future. He said, 'ah! the kampong is a backward environment, we must modernise'. So the last kampong that was removed was this one, isn't it? The one near the university, the little one down by Pasir Panjang Road.
T: That was the last.
P:The big PSA thing.
T: Yeah, and Bob Powell did the documentation of that kampong. That was the end of that.
Anyway, after that, to his credit, he didn't think badly of me because I got a message to stand for election in '68, which I turned down.
So what can be said? Planning is very political. Politics is very much contingent on economics. And the scope for human initiative is very great - provided you can, provided you have the courage to take action, you can influence events. My paper "Housing Identity and Nation-building " argued for every estate having its own identity, that the building block of the nation is the home. Now it's funny, because all this sentiment is part of the political rhetoric today, isn't it? I think I was the first to articulate it in '68, and I think the renovations, to my regret, the making of identity, the physical design of identity has gone mad in the upgrading of HDB estates.
P:A question I have is that we have gone through good motifs, all kinds of motifs, all kinds of different forms and built forms that reference different kampongs with pitched roofs. Is there other alternatives to, you know...?
T:Oh yeah, but by that time - what happened - so many things. I was also studying housing because I was doing housing and industrialisation. Housing was... yeah, I think about '70 - in the 70s I met Meng Ker, this is my partner, he was a student here, I was his tutor. Then Rory Fonseca, the Head of the Urban Planning Course, here. What was the other thing? Yes, Rory. Through Rory and Meng Ker, Meng Ker introduced me to the book - Lionel March "Urban Space and Structure" and from there we did some morphological studies together and he did his thesis on Woodlands, one neighbourhood of Woodlands. And he redesigned a neighbourhood, the typical HDB neighbourhood which was 10, 12, storeys at that time. He redesigned it to 5, 6 storeys, with one-third of the dwellings having gardens. So, to answer your question, are there alternatives to HDB, there are plenty of alternatives.
So in, I think, '75 I was invited by Rotary Club Central to give a talk at Mandarin Hotel on "Alternatives to Public Housing" and I already completed my research on that. So I presented slides and photographs and documentation and everything. And the whole thing was 2 pages, front page Straits Times and the Chinese papers as well. And the headline was "No need for high-rise housing in Singapore any more" - and HDB was so mad. Because I showed that if you were to use a perimeter block - at that time the plot ratio was 1.75 for Toa Payoh - you could build a 4-storey block around a football field and that would be enough. And half the houses - because they were maisonettes you see, 2-storey maisonettes - half the houses would have a garden. So they were very upset, and the press asked Liu Thai Ker, who was then the Chief Architect, "What do you think of these ideas?" His reply to the press, and the press told me, is - which was not published - is that "he obviously has a different kind of calculator from mine." "Calculator." [Laughs] That's a political answer to a technical proposition.
By the time from 1975 till now, the plot ratio has been creeping up because the unit size has been getting bigger, because the per capita floor space required has increased as income and affordability levels have increased. Europe today is 38 square metres per person, average. Singapore is now already close to 25. Singapore now is 25, moving close to 30, so we are coming to developed nation status, in terms of per capita floor space. So with the increased plot ratio it still means that there are still possible alternatives, although the possible alternatives are more restricted.
We proved in the Chua Chu Kang C6 N6 Design & Build Project, that if you increase the block depth from the present 11 metres to 13.6, you can achieve a 20 per cent drop in the height, in the average height of the building. From the average of 15 it could drop down to 11. No, sorry, it would drop to 8, average of 8. That's more than 20 per cent. It's almost 40 per cent, 50 per cent. Which means that if we have an average of 8, then we could have some 15 and some 4 and we can vary a lot. So therefore the design possibilities of variety is much greater and further more there will be a large integrated open space on the inside, because we're using a perimeter block morphology. So that was proven.
And after that they changed the rules so that you cannot do it again. Which was quite clever. Because, in the C6 N6 case, we put the car park underneath the block. So that way we avoided the necessity of a separate multi-storey block, plus we have a covered walkway access to every lift lobby from the car, which makes it much more convenient. Plus it's cheaper. All these plus points don't seem to matter because the idea is from outsource. It's an affront. So they changed the rules very cleverly to say that, in future, all car parks, the columns in a car park must be at the edge, not in the centre, and not set in. If you wanted to build a car park underneath a block of flats, the column system for the flats must naturally derive from the column system of the car park, isn't it? If you put the columns at the edge, it's impossible to have a broad span apartment structure above. So with one simple technical rule, they've eliminated that possibility forever. Incredible. They're very intelligent. But who suffers? The people suffer.
And this problem, which SPUR has been fighting for, for a more liberal and a more open and more transparent dialogue process between the outside and the inside. Between the private sector and the public sector, for the good of Singapore, is an ongoing battle, which even though SPUR has closed down (I closed it in 1976), the issues are not closed. The organisation is closed, but the issues not closed at all.
I closed it down in 1976 because I learnt that the SPUR magazines - these two magazines [motions to SPUR Journals] - were proudly displayed in our foreign ministries overseas, in the waiting section. If you had gone to the New York office of Singapore Foreign Affairs, you find all these put down there, as examples of democracy in Singapore. So I said, "To hell with it, I'm going to close the darned thing." So I closed it. That's it. No more bluff.
P:You decided to close it, which year again?
T: '76. '75 / '76, around there.
You see, by which time a lot of members had already resigned. Those academic members were doing research work in the university, people like Rudolphe de Koninck. Rudolphe was one of the top geographers of this region. Rudolphe has published an atlas on Singapore, has written extensively on agriculture and rural development in Sumatra, Indonesia, Malaysia, expert on agriculture. When he was doing research in Singapore, he was told - point blank - that if you are a member of SPUR, you will not get any research data. I was so mad, I wrote a long letter to PM, Lee Kuan Yew at that time, to say that this is totally unacceptable. And these people resigned. So we lost our intellectual community.
T:By that time, you know, everybody was kind of a bit worn out by the whole negative feeling and the activity level was quite low. So when I saw this being published, being displayed, I said that's it, close it.
Yeah? [In response to a student's question]
S:When you presented the alternatives, to sort it out, they still want to build HDB. Is it possible, is it one person, Liu Thai Ker, who is trying to create a certain city image at that time of tall buildings, or is it collectively?
T:No, no, no. First of all, Liu Thai Ker was not involved at that stage. Liu Thai Ker came back in I think in '68 or something like that. This was Teh Cheang Wan. Teh Cheang Wan was the Chief Architect, HDB, at that time. He later became Minister and then he committed suicide. You know the guy who committed suicide - Teh Cheang Wan, the Minister - for corruption, right? We knew all along he was corrupt and nobody would listen. And he was the guy who was, I can tell you definitely, he was one of the most important people who has suppressed the architectural profession. I have written about this. It is in the SIA, the little black book on "The State of the Profession". It's in writing, about the role of Teh Cheang Wan, and the suppression of the architectural profession by him.
So he was the architectural counterpart, so to say...?
T: Oh yeah!
S:The voice for the government?
T: Yeah, yeah, yes, yes.
S:He was the one person?
T: Oh yeah.
You see he was from a poor family from Penang, and he was very envious of the so-called well endowed rich architects, you know, people like Alfred Wong, William Lim, Lim Chong Keat, Victor Chew. They were also people with a sharp tongue, you see, particularly Victor. And so there was this jealousy, this class conflict, between the working class architect and the private architects, you see. Working class architects of course had to work in government, because they had no social contacts, they had no business contacts, no family background, to get jobs. So they went to work for the government and the rest were outside. So whenever the architects outside criticise government work, government architects' work, it is regarded as an attempt to get work from the government, you see. So that's the animosity you see. It's a conflict of interest.
And how Cheang Wan used Thai Ker is very interesting because Thai Ker is a talented architect, and he wants to design. A lot of government jobs, which would otherwise have gone to the private sector, went to the Housing Board as agency jobs for Housing Board. So projects, like community centres, markets...
T:Cinemas even, you know, all went to Housing Board as agency jobs you see. And this of course suited Thai Ker very well because he wanted to design. So Teh Cheang Wan used Thai Ker, used his design ambition to displace the scope of work for private architects, thus suppressing private architects. So that when you suppress private architects, they cannot come and criticise you. That's the strategy. That's why the profession has suffered all these years.
T: These were the... so there are 3 layers, I will say, there's the political layer, there's SPUR and there's the professional layer.
Interestingly is that the professional layer was against SPUR. Chong Keat, aspresident of SIA, saw SPUR as a splinter group from SIA that was taking away SIA's manpower to run SPUR. He didn't understand that SPUR was actually ultimately protecting the profession by increasing the level of dialogue in terms of how you make the urban space, and therefore reduce the monopoly of the making of urban space by the government architects, therefore giving more scope for private architects.
Actually we did not see it as government versus private architect. We saw it as increasing the scope for better work whether it's done by government or by private sector. It would have happened if that situation was created. It would have created a better working environment. Both for the government architects, some of whom were very talented and dedicated people, not all of them are monsters - some of them are monsters, so are some of the private architects monsters [laughs] - but a better situation would have come about. And Singapore would have, in the last 20 years perhaps, become a much better place than it is now.
S:What about the parallel developments in Malaysia? I know you went to Malaysia in '75. How was your set up of this low-cost housing project down there? Were you able to influence developments in Singapore?
T:No, no, no. There was no influence. The only strange situation was there was a delegation from Singapore, from Housing Board, to Kuala Lumpur to see my scheme in Kuala Lumpur. And I was representing Kuala Lumpur City Hall to show them around. What a bloody joke! [Laughs] Michael Fam was there, Liu Thai Ker was there and a few others from the HDB; and I was representing Malaysia! And there of, course, we proved that you could build 60 houses per acre of land, which was the same density , in terms of units per acre, as Toa Payoh at that time, with 2-storey houses. Why do you need 15-storey houses? Maybe you don't quite understand this thing when I say 2-storey versus 15 storey, or 2-storey versus 10-storey buildings. At that time, HDB was building a plot ratio of 1.75. That means the total floor area of the buildings of the flat in a given neighbourhood expressed as a ratio against the land of the whole neighbourhood is 1.75 times the land. You're familiar with plot ratio, right? It took me by surprise one day when I suddenly did some calculations for Chinatown, the plot ratio. You know what's the plot ratio of Chinatown, say Temple Street?
P:Oh, definitely, less than 1.
T:1.5. Then it hit me, damn it, 2-storey buildings - 1.5, HDB 10-storey building - 1.75. Just a bit more - what's gone wrong? So you do arithmetic, shit, it was all wrong. The whole assumption is all wrong. So I did the Cheras Housing design in exactly 24 hours. I mean I was so fired up by the mathematics of it, so I sketched it out, with a photocopy machine, multiplied it out. I went to KL, saw the Mayor. The Mayor approved it - built it in 6 months. That was it, you know, as fast as that, before we were there he had commissioned a study which had already gone on for 12 months with a whole team of architects and engineers and QS, and they could bring the price of the unit down to 6800 dollars.
P:Is it in Ringgit?
T:[b]Ringgit, Ringgit, at that time the Ringgit was one to one. Mine was 5000 dollars. 1800 cheaper. And I knew the contractor, Low Keng Huat. Low Keng Huat signed the contract. I did the design. Low Keng Huat signed a contract with City Hall and immediately he signed the contract, Keng Huat sub-contracted it to two other sub-contractors for 3500 dollars a unit. He made 1500 just like that. I got 50 bucks per unit! [Laughter] Which wasn't bad. That helped me to survive my expulsion from Singapore in 1975.
P:That was about how many per cent less, the cost?
P:The cost they started and they're talking about 6800...
T:Mine was 5000. But you got to use the real cost, which is 3500 against 6000. Less than half! And then he went on and he used - Low Keng Huat used - asked me to be the architect, we redesigned. In the end we built about 10000 units, and he asked me to adapt it for sale. Because the first 600 units at 5000 was for rent. It was built for the City Hall, you see and for the private sector - to give it to the developer. At the end of the day I made him a hundred million dollars.
P:Then he gave you only how many per cent fee?
T:I was just happy to survive, you know. I had no work to do. Can't work in Singapore - the Planning Department will turn down every plan I submit and all the clients thought that I was a leper, so cannot. Cannot work in Singapore -- caput!
P:Why did the situation change after that? You managed to come back. After Cheang Wan left?
T: After Cheang Wan died, we had a celebration in New York. That guy is really rotten, hundred per cent rotten from day one.
P: Because from what you said, to your becoming the President of the Institute of Architects, I mean that's...
T: That... you know the story. Even that - the battle to take the SIA presidency - was hard fought.
T: They sent notices round to all the government architects not to vote for me. Can you imagine that? But we trounced them, we got double the votes.
So if there's any lesson to be learnt it is that if you want to do anything you must have courage and you must have knowledge, but you also must have wisdom. That we didn't have. We were brash, you know, gung ho, we wanted to get things done fast, can't be bothered with these obstructionists. You've got to have wisdom. But if you have wisdom without courage, it's a waste of time. Wisdom without courage is just to make yourself happy.
P:There was, in the 60s, talk about a different idea of developing the housing estates and that there should be identity, culture and so forth. The typical answer is that, the plan is that, initially, it's emergency housing and subsequently things will be upgraded with sort of a super structure all built. Now that's a typical answer given by various people. How do you feel about that strategy for Singapore? I mean the mid-60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, building onto the basic super structure.
T:The assumption in your question is that the solution is a design solution. I'm afraid it's not. The real issue in housing today is empowerment. Empowerment; how to encourage and how to allow people to take power to run their own lives. Because if they have no power to run their own lives and to run their own communities, they have no power to imagine any possible future except the one prescribed to them. That is the problem. And if Singapore is going to survive and do well into the 21st century, where the competition is going to be more severe, then Singaporeans have to be more creative. They cannot be more creative without empowerment. That is the central issue.
People have become so timid and so scared, so lack of initiative, that they cannot do anything unless they're told what to do. This is not a survival formula. This is a disaster formula. So this is the issue. How do you empower people in housing?
Number one, Housing Board's role should be changed to that of Planner and Manager. That is to say, to manage the allocation of land resources for private initiatives to build the housing under terms and conditions, which are similar to the present Housing Board allocation rules. So the qualifications to buy a house, all these must be the same.
Then, all the housing land, which the Housing Board owns, should be divided into plots - this is planning, because you divide the lots - which will then be given to people like you and any average Singaporean who qualify to buy an HDB flat, to appoint their own architect to design their own houses and their own housing environments that's suitable to their own expectations of how they want to live, how they want their children to be educated, where do they want the schools to be, how do they have garden allotments or workshops where they can carry out hobbies, where they can set up small businesses close to their flats, where the kindergartens can be part of the centres where the mothers can go to and so on and so forth. These are all issues about living. And it's about creative living, about living well and about empowering people in order to make this possible.
So I envisage project sizes of about hundred units per project, instead of, at the moment, typically about a thousand to two thousand units per project, which are very big. So smaller communities of hundred families or so having their own little kindergarten and school around which parents can participate with their children in their education, and appoint their own architects to design the place. This proposal I made actually to the Minister, Dhanabalan at that time, and Dhana agreed. But since then, that has not been pursued by the institute.
P:I was at the council meeting with the Minister just after you stepped down and it was brought up again, but the answer given by HDB there, around the table, was just that it's not feasible.
T: Of course it's not feasible, because it's against their interests.
P:So the answer given was just that it's not feasible.
T: Of course 'not feasible.'
Now, talking about that is very interesting. When I was appointed as architect for development of this Dairy Farm Estate, the condominium was my major job after coming back from Malaysia you know, where I was testing whether I would be able to get the job through. The only reason I got the job was because the landowner had appointed me as the architect and then he sold the land to Robert Kuok with me as the architect as a condition of sale. So Robert had no choice but to employ me as architect. He knew the story of course. He knew the dangers of using me as the architect because the plan might not get approved, and to my horror, the plan was rejected. And it was rejected for some very trivial reasons. I re-submitted, rejected again, so I suspected something was wrong.
So I asked one of my PAP MP friends, who was a good friend of Teh Cheang Wan - at that time Teh Cheang Wan was alive - to find out what's going on. So this friend came back to say that, yes, he had a meeting with Teh Cheang Wan and Teh Cheang Wan said this to him, "Since he is so clever in high density low-rise, he should make it work, what?" You see the requirement was that I should not exceed 4-storey height with a side coverage of 12 per cent. Mathematically impossible! So I knew that it was a set up. So I asked my friend to go back to see Teh Cheang Wan, "what shall I do?" Reply came back - "Recant!"
That means -- remember, '75 I gave this speech at the Rotary Club that no need for high-rise housing any more - so he wanted me to publish a statement that I retract that statement, that I no longer believe that we can build high density, low-rise. So I was caught. If I don't write this letter, my plans will not be approved. I cannot re-start my practice in Singapore. If I write this letter I would be reneging on what I have said - a bloody jam, you see.
So I wrote the letter, I wrote it to him, "Dear Minister, under the circumstances, I hereby declare that under present circumstances, it is impossible to build high density, low-rise." Signed.
T: Under present circumstances, impossible to build high density, low-rise.
T:He was so happy to receive it, he went round the HDB office - I have architect friends in HDB - waving this letter, "that guy has recanted." So I got my plans approved. This is the kind of person he was.
P:I thought that was the obvious answer, or rather obvious statement, and of course in those days where the plot ratio was lower, of course the...
T:No, I worded it much more carefully. I mean, what I said was not quite right. I worded it -- if I remember the words correctly -- "that under the present circumstances I now feel that high-density, low rise is impracticable." Impracticable. Exact words. He thought it was a retraction.
P:It can mean so many things. Impracticable because...
T: Because of you, lah! [Laughs]
I was actually absolutely terrified because if this thing didn't go through, the Kuoks would immediately, you know, feel that this guy's really done for.
T: And the news would have spread round the whole of Singapore; that's it, finish, no more practice!
P:You'd be in the States or elsewhere. Or Malaysia.
T:I mean this is really tough. I mean, the reason why I say is that you will have to have guts, you have to have wits, you can't play a public... make a contribution in public if you are scared. Forget it.
But I don't know also. It's a personal choice. Personally I don't see how it's possible to say that if I have a good idea I should keep it to myself. I can't say that to myself.
You see, your answer just now to better housing wasn't an architectural answer so therefore it is really beyond an architect to try and solve that kind of problem.
T:No, not at all. I think only an architect can solve that problem. Because only an architect knows how to spatialise those activities, so that they actually create a synergy in the life of people. That is your architectural skill. An architectural stylist has no role because the stylist doesn't concern himself with such things. To me, I never consider stylists as important. To me they are dispensable.
P:What you're saying is that the architect can, at his level, promote that empowerment of the people.
T: Through spatial design.
P:Through spatial design.
S: Does this means empowerment of lifestyles look at the present state of this generation which is so conditioned, as you have said, so conditioned by the kind of dis-empowerment that HDB has already conditioned us for so many years. The change is very hard in the government itself. Like you said, the HDB won't change its own policy or its own role, it will never open. It will never happen at a larger general level, to the whole of Singapore. But only, maybe, you start to have greater separation of kinds of housing, like the condominiums or the private housing with the public housing, which is going to be so separated because one is planned collectively by the government and the other by private.
T: I don't understand what you mean.
S:What I mean is, unless the HDB changes...
T:No, no, I've come to the conclusion that HDB will not change - of its own. HDB is like the guy who's frying inside the kitchen. The guy who's frying. The restaurant manager is the one who is setting the menu. He's telling him what to fry, right? So if you expect the fellow at the frying to change the menu, forget it. He's not the right man. So to me, those guys are a waste of time. They're not the strategic group.
The strategic group is the Prime Minister, Tony Tan in particular, Deputy Prime Minister. Because Tony Tan's task today is how do you shape the mindset of Singaporeans for the 21st century? And he's targeting the universities, changing the creativity mindset. But I have been having discussions with TDB's office - they ask me to come for discussions - you cannot change their mindset without changing the home environment so therefore there is a connection between university mindset and home environment mindset, correct? Therefore you must change the housing, so if at that level they set the menu right, the cook will cook it.
The instruction will come down; you cook it. If you can't cook it - sack you. That's all. Change cook. Simple, don't bother with these down stream chaps - waste of time. So the issue of empowerment is from that level, not from the HDB. HDB will never empower you because they want to dis-empower you. They want to take away your power so that they have the power, you understand? So you ask those who take the power from you - to give you power is asking the wrong person. Change the menu; if necessary, change the cook.
Because nowadays - let me give you another analogy - we are now getting ready for the Olympics - 21st century is the Olympics, where you need real muscle power. You need a high protein diet and this cook keeps on insisting to feed you with bubor. How are we going to have the strength for the Olympics, eating bubor? That's exactly the problem. So somebody must tell the cook, "change the diet lah, please."
P:Somebody must tell the manager to change the diet.
S:But do the managers know of the problem?
T: They know, they're beginning to know. That's why they want to change the university.
S:And there's this overall change that's happening...
S:...towards transparency of the 2 bodies between the power and the people.
T: I don't know how to describe it but...
[Stands up to draw on the blackboard]
P:Yeah, there's a chalk.
T: [Draws an 'S' curve on the board]
What the Economic Development Board have said is that Singapore has achieved the first S-curve right. We are now here, in that position.
[Highlights the apex of the 'S' curve]
There's a crisis position. From the 60s to the 80s, we were on this double digit growth. Twenty years of rapid economic growth; discipline, clear direction, no nonsense, get on with it, we did all that.
[Draws a second 'S' curve, picking up from the tapering apex of the first]
But now, suddenly, we are in that position. All systems go through S-curves, every system. Now the EDB is saying that there is a need to think about this one, what is this transition? We are in that situation. That's why I said don't be frightened of the cook. Don't worry about the cook. The cook will either change his menu because he's told to do so, or he gets sacked, finished. Cooks are toothless, waste of time.
P:I want to bring this argument of the people's participation in housing with the architect. Let's look at the condominium situation. Is it possible to explore that dimension where people who say, bought a unit, still have a chance to decide how certain things can be changed in the units?
T:No. Condominiums are designed according to the condominium guidelines, which is controlled by the Planning Department, which is influenced by the URA, which is controlled by the HDB. That's it. So if you expect the condominium or the private sector housing to be the vehicle of empowerment, forget it, it's not on the menu. We have to change the menu.
[Pointing to the gap between the two 'S' curve diagrams]
This is a tremendous opportunity in this area here now, right now, for a serious dialogue. This is strategic dialogue, between SIA, the school - and you have to select the right people. Lots of people in SIA are closed minded, because they are products of the system. They are not empowered. They are intellectually not endowed. What I say is that they have no courage, they are frightened, they dare not use their imagination, that kind of stuff. They're not stupid, but they're shaped that way, you see, frightened. So you've got to select the right people from the school and so on, and to start initiating a dialogue at the highest level, at the level where these issues, strategic issues of change are being considered.
The mistake SIA made is to keep on talking at the lower level. They will keep on failing, you see, because they are talking to the cooks. You want to change the menu; you're talking to the cook who can only cook a certain kind of menu, waste of time. Now we must talk to the dieticians, the guys who are planning what is it that you need to have for the 21st century. What are the ingredients?
S:So the only way is for SIA members to become PAP leaders?
T: No, not true.
S:So as to work from within.
T: I'm not a PAP leader.
S:It's always difficult to work from the outside.
T: On the contrary.
[Points to the gap between the two 'S' curves]
In this type of situation, they also realise that within their group they have their own mindset, and if they want -- and they are very intelligent people, the dieticians are very intelligent people - if you want to have real change you must cast your net wider.
If you want to have a re-look at the system, you must not look only from the inside, because the inside group have all been schooled in a particular frame of mind, right? So if you want new ideas, you cannot get it from inside, you know. You must get it from the outside. That's why I said "on the contrary". On the contrary, if you have good ideas and if you can express it clearly and you have the courage to express it clearly, you can make an impact more than you believe possible.
I tell you, if a young person today is able to articulate very clearly the problems of the young today, you will have a damned good hearing, because they are frightened like hell of your generation. They are frightened for your generation because they have made you into a bunch of dough, fluffy, weak. And when they look at this, "God, we're going into 21st century with this bunch?" They're worried; they're worried like hell.
I've talked to these people, some of these dieticians. The word they use is, the younger generation now are cynical. I said, "you created it." "They have no ambition." I said, "you created that." They said, "they don't have future outlook." I said, "you created that too." But I asked them, "Do you think they're stupid?" Definitely not, because they're damned smart, that's why they act blur. Unfortunately if you act blur long enough, you get blur. Then they say, you know, you look at your army fellows. In the old days when you had army, very tough, when the Israelis were here, training was very tough. Now, a little bit only, parents ring up, you know, complain, talk about bruises, got cuts, you know. This is what's happened to your generation, our young generations now.
When I was running the scout camp, there's a public telephone in the camp. All the kids are ringing home, because they've been told by the parents, you ring home at 9 o'clock. So one of our scout leaders is an electronics expert, he disabled the phone. So the kids cannot ring home, right? So we're all happy, the scout leaders happy. 12 o'clock, a whole chain of cars came up. All the mothers came to check up on their kids. This is the situation, how to bring Singapore into the 21st century? Terrific problem, massive problem and they know it. Look at the Commonwealth Games. Whatever we say, Malaysia did well, Singapore - zero. Ridiculous! Lost to a small island - was it Kiribati? Some small island in the Pacific - lost by one gold, or one silver or something.
These are all crisis, symptoms of crisis. So, I mean in some way, SPUR is all about space. Two things: one is space, the other is human space, psychology. It's about participation, about people, these are the two main concerns
Politics is the process by which groups of people make decisions. It is the authoritative allocation of values. Although the term is generally applied to behavior within governments, politics is observed in all human group interactions, including corporate, academic, and religious institutions.
CRITICISM AND AUTHORITY
Can any meaningful discussion of an open critical climate of discourse be undertaken without positioning it in the context of the modern state? What is the modern state in any case? Are we a modern state? Even Habermas argues that the "modern project" is not complete in the context of Western Europe although the theory of modernism is well understood. On our part, we have to admit that our situation has only the surface trappings of the modern state.
How much openness can there be in such a situation when the levers of power are centralised and increasingly interlinked by mutual obligations? The relationship between the critic and authority has therefore to be seen within the specific configuration of such an authority structure.
This therefore constitutes the formidable conditions under which the relationship between the critic and authority is defined and has to contend within the dynamics of the transition. The fact that it is now possible to begin to openly discuss the nature of the state as it relates to criticism is an indication of the present stage in the dynamics of change itself.
If we begin with the proposition that open criticism is valued as a function of the modern state, then we need to highlight not only the fundamental ideology of modernism but also examine its basic opera-tions as well. Here, it is necessary to restate the obvious. The obvious is that an open objective critical culture is derived from the western intellectual tradition and it has to be understood in the context of the historical developments leading to and subsequently from the high Renaissance in Europe of the 17th century.
Singapore is poised at a turning point. Even though criticism runs counter to power inte-rests, the value of criticism can be argued in terms of the release of creative potential. Not only for its own sake, but if it increases competitiveness. If on the other hand, it is argued that critical minds can always be bought and transplanted to Singapore, then the urgency to produce our own critical minds for our competitive advantage is obviated. We are in danger of this argument. What this will do to a nation's identity and the sense of well-being of its own people is hard to calculate. The subject belongs in the nebulous realm. It is also difficult to administer.
The dilemma of nation-hood in new states such as Singapore at a point in time when its basic administrative and national infrastructure is in place is the choice of how to handle its increasingly educated population. Because of the economic means available to buy talent from the world, the need to foster its own talent seems like a choice of second best.
It is a problem of the new rich. The gap between the mass and the ruling elite must also surely widen too as the levels of ex-posure and involvement in the process of development are experienced unevenly.
Given that pragmatism and practical utility are key aspects of Chinese-ness reinforced by Con-fucianism, exhortations by the state are couched in a particular kind of pragmatic language. This language functions as logos within the logic of practical utility and rationality.
As such, it becomes impenetrable when, through its sheer dominance and mass appeal, it displaces all other logic. Terms such as "upgrade, market-force, nation building, multi-racial policy, development" all acquire an inexorable logo logic as they are echoed and amplified by media. It will appear that unless there is a counter-veiling rediscovery of language, any critical discourse cannot even begin. The domination of language is, after all, the domi-nation of thought itself. Success invests the domi-nant language with such powerful success symbols that any attempt to refresh language must seem peevish and un-worthy - even disruptive.
Unless intellectuals insist that intellectual space is not equitable to politics and therefore to power seeking, no widening of the intellectual space will come about. My view is that the enlargement of intel-lectual space is both the duty of intellectuals and professionals and there is a price to pay. Unless, in the case of profes-sionals, they insist that professional space extends beyond the boundaries of technical concerns and that professional judgement includes value implications embodied within professional ethics, professionals accept to be reduced to mere mercenary operatives and technicians.
I am concerned that there is very little architectural criticism. This illustrates the problem of centralism and dominance. Government architects undertake at least 7 times the volume of work compared with the private sector. This is one reason why there is no expressed critical opinion on public housing, school designs, sports complexes and other public buildings. Until there is a diversification of design agencies engaged in such projects, it is not surprising that the centralised agencies undertaking public projects are not thrilled by alternative views.
U know the old man... he came to power on the back of first world democracy (British) and when he acquired power what happened?Originally posted by Atobe:This is an interview with Tay Kheng Soon, a well known architect and a young social activists from the 1960s.
From this interview perhaps one can sieve some information on the political experiences amongst the politically active adolescent of the 1960s in Singapore.
We should ask ourselves why were the 25 year olds of the 1960s more readily accepted as politically mature than the present 25 year olds in 2007 ?
LKY was involved in politics from the mid-1950s when he was only 25 years.
The student activists from Nantah and Chinese High School ( ??? at Upper Bukit Timah Road) were arrested for political activism that even brought them to boycott their examinations.Originally posted by AndrewPKYap:U know the old man... he came to power on the back of first world democracy (British) and when he acquired power what happened?
He could be politically active at the age of 25 but for everyone else? students... must concentrate on studying
The plots of 'Animal Farm' have been neatly excuted into reality by a "dirty 'Hairy' Napolean " - he even castigated some of his own comrades, and even went to the extent of recruiting the young pups to be grown separately - so as to be obedient and loyal servants to keep the general discipline tight within 'Animal Farm'.
IOW - everyone is equal but some people are more equal than others... dishonorable.
For what? So he can get away with making statements like "the ministers, hor, if you do not increase their (million dollars salaries) they and their families suffer..." and get away with taking public money based on this kind of logic...
Merlin03 wrote:What people want all these years had been to ask the mercilessly mercenary leaders to govern the country with objectivity and professionalism without any ulterior motives or self-centredness in whatever they are doing to benefit the elites or cling on to power.
another 7 years, no more LUP for older flats,
votes will get lesser for the PAP.
who cares if they did something nice outside home like IUP.
It was probably due to his late brother's credit that the Internal Security Act was never used against such an outspoken activist - three decades before CSJ arrived on the Singapore Political Scene, and two decades before NUS Student's Union President Tan Wah Piow was temporarily incarcerated.Originally posted by countdracula:interesting chap, always knew he was a radical but not this caustic....the irony is that his late brother eng soon was a pap mp and minister of state....it was said pap used the brother to check on him....
Singapore 'bigger than PAP'
By Susan Long
Time to get off the autopilot, says a former civil servant
SINCE Mr Ngiam Tong Dow retired from the civil service in 1999, affairs of state have weighed heavily on his mind. The highly respected former Permanent Secretary worries about Singapore's long-term survival and the kind of society the next generation will inherit. At 66, the HDB Corp chairman insists he is 'no radical', just a concerned Singaporean with three grandchildren, who wonders 'whether there will be a Singapore for them in 50 years' time'. In Tea with Think, a weekly interview series, he gives a candid appraisal of the civil service, and his prognosis of what the lack of an alternative political leadership means for Singapore. The interview will be continued next week.
Q. With all this pessimism surrounding Singapore's prospects today, what's your personal prognosis? Will Singapore survive Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew?
A. Unequivocally yes, Singapore will survive SM Lee but provided he leaves the right legacy. What sort of legacy he wants to leave is for him to say, but I, a blooming upstart, dare to suggest to him that we should open up politically and allow talent to be spread throughout our society so that an alternative leadership can emerge. So far, the People's Action Party's tactic is to put all the scholars into the civil service because it believes the way to retain political power forever is to have a monopoly on talent. But in my view, that's a very short term view. It is the law of nature that all things must atrophy. Unless SM allows serious political challenges to emerge from the alternative elite out there, the incumbent elite will just coast along. At the first sign of a grassroots revolt, they will probably collapse just like the incumbent Progressive Party to the left-wing PAP onslaught in the late 1950s. I think our leaders have to accept that Singapore is larger than the PAP.
Q. What would be a useful first step in opening up?
A. For Singapore to survive, we should release half our talent - our President and Overseas Merit scholars - to the private sector. When ten scholars come home, five should turn to the right and join the public sector or the civil service; the other five should turn to the left and join the private sector. These scholars should serve their bond to Singapore - not to the Government - by working in or for Singapore overseas. As matters stand, those who wish to strike out have to break their bonds, pay a financial penalty and worse, be condemned as quitters. But it takes a certain temperament and mindset to be a civil servant. The former head of the civil service, Sim Kee Boon, once said that joining the administrative service is like entering a royal priesthood. Not all of us have the temperament to be priests. However upright a person is, the mandarin will in time begin to live a gilded life in a gilded cage. As a Permanent Secretary, I never had to worry whether I could pay my staff their wages. It was all provided for in the Budget. As chairman of DBS Bank, I worried about wages only 20 per cent of the time. I now face my greatest business challenge as chairman of HDB Corp, a new start-up spun off from HDB. I spend 90 per cent of my time worrying whether I have enough to pay my staff at the end of the month. It's a mental switch.
Q. What is your biggest worry about the civil service?
A. The greatest danger is we are flying on auto-pilot. What was once a great policy, we just carry on with more of the same, until reality intervenes. Take our industrial policy. At the beginning, it was the right thing for us to attract multinationals to Singapore. For some years now, I've been trying to tell everybody: 'Look, for God's sake, grow our own timber.' If we really want knowledge to be rooted in Singaporeans and based in Singapore, we have to support our SMEs. I'm not a supporter of SMEs just for the sake of more SMEs but we must grow our own roots. Creative Technology's Sim Wong Hoo is one and Hyflux's Olivia Lum is another but that's too few. We have been flying on auto-pilot for too long. The MNCs have contributed a lot to Singapore but they are totally unsentimental people. The moment you're uncompetitive, they just relocate.
Q. Why has this come about?
A. I suspect we have started to believe our own propaganda.
There is also a particular brand of Singapore elite arrogance creeping in. Some civil servants behave like they have a mandate from the emperor. We think we are little Lee Kuan Yews. SM Lee has earned his spurs, with his fine intellect and international standing. But even Lee Kuan Yew sometimes doesn't behave like Lee Kuan Yew. There is also a trend of intellectualisation for its own sake, which loses a sense of the pragmatic concerns of the larger world. The Chinese, for example, keep good archives of the Imperial examinations which used to be held at the Temple of Heaven. At the beginning, the scholars were tested on very practical subjects, such as how to control floods in their province. But over time, they were examined on the Confucian Analects and Chinese poetry composition. Hence, they became emasculated by the system, a worrying fate which could befall Singapore.
Q. But aren't you an exception to the norm of the gilded mandarin with zero bottomline consciousness?
A. That's because I started out with Economic Development Board in the 1959. Investment promotion then was all about hard foot slogging and personal persuasion, which teaches you to be very humble and patient. I learnt to be a supplicant and a professional beggar, instead of a dispenser of favours. These days, most civil servants start out administering the law. If I had my way, every administrative officer would start his or her career in the EDB. Hard foot slogging.
About Mr Ngiam Tong Dow : -
1959: Obtained First class honours in economics from University of Malaya.
1959: Joined Administrative Service. Postings to the former Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Finance Ministry, and the Economic Development Board.
1964: Topped his Master's in Public Administration programme at Harvard University.
1970: Became the youngest-ever Permanent Secretary at age 33 at the Ministry of Communications. Subsequent postings as Perm Sec in the Ministries of Finance, Trade & Industry, National Development, and the Prime Minister's Office.
1990: Appointed chairman of Development Bank Of Singapore. Later also of the Central Provident Fund Board and HDB.
1999: Retired from the civil service as Permanent Secretary (Finance), a post he held for 13 years.
2003: Named chairman of HDB Corp. Currently also a director of Yeo Hiap Seng Limited, United Overseas Bank and Singapore Press Holdings.
Stop dancing to the tune of the gorilla
By Susan Long
Part Two of the much-talked-about interview with ex-civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow
Q. YOUR idea of creating an alternate elite is not new. What do you think of the oft-mooted suggestion of achieving that splitting ranks within the People's Action Party?
A. Quite honestly, if you ask me, Team A-and-Team B is a synthetic and infantile idea.
If you want to challenge the Government, it must be spontaneous. You have to allow some of your best and brightest to remain outside your reach and let them grow spontaneously. How do you know their leadership will not be as good as yours? But if you monopolise all the talent, there will never be an alternative leadership. And alternatives are good for Singapore.
Q. In your calculation, what are the odds of this alternative replacing the incumbent?
A. Of course there's a political risk. Some of these chaps may turn out to be your real opposition, but that is the risk the PAP has to take if it really wants Singapore to endure.
A model we should work towards is the French model of the elite administration. The very brightest of France all go to university or college. Some emerge Socialists, others Conservative, some work in industries, some work in government. Yet, at the end of the day, when the chips are down, they are all Frenchmen. No member of the French elite will ever think of betraying his country, never. That is the sort of Singapore elite we want. It doesn't mean that all of us must belong to the PAP. That is very important.
Q. What do bad times mean for the PAP, which has based its legitimacy on providing the economic goods and asset enhancement? Is its social compact with the people in need of an update?
A. Oh yes. And my advice is: Go back to Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew's old credo, where nobody owes us a living. After I had just taken over as the Housing Board's chairman in 2000, an astute academic asked me: 'Tong Dow, what's your greatest problem at HDB?' Then he diagnosed it himself: 'Initially, you gave peanuts to monkeys so they would dance to your tune. Now you've given them so much by way of peanuts that the monkey has become a gorilla and you have to dance to its tune. That's your greatest problem.' Our people have become over-fed and today's economic realities mean we have to put them on a crash diet. We cannot starve them because there will be a political explosion. So the art of government today is to wean everyone off the dispensable items. We should just concentrate on helping the poorest 5 to 10 per cent of the population, instead of handing out a general largesse. Forget about asset enhancement, Singapore shares and utility rebates. You're dancing to the tune of the gorilla. I don't understand the urgency of raising the Goods and Services Tax. Why tax the lower-income, then return it to them in an aid package? It demeans human dignity and creates a growing supplicant class who habitually hold out their palms. Despite the fact that we say we are not a welfare state, we act like one of the most 'welfarish' states in the world. We should appeal instead to people's sense of pride and self-reliance. I think political courage is needed here. And my instinct is that the Singaporean will respect you for that.
Q. So what should this new compact consist of?
A. It should go back to what was originally promised: 'That you shall be given the best education, whether it be academic or vocational, according to your maximum potential.'
And there will be no judgment whether an engineer is better than a doctor or a chef.
My late mother was a great woman. Although illiterate, she single-handedly brought up four boys and a girl. She used to say in Hainanese: 'If you have one talent which you excel in, you will never starve.' I think the best legacy to leave is education and equal opportunity for all. When the Hainanese community came to Singapore, they were the latest arrivals and the smallest in number. So they had no choice but to become humble houseboys, waiters and cooks. But they always wanted their sons to have a better life than themselves. The great thing about Singapore was that we could get an education, which gave us mobility, despite coming from the poorest families. Today, the Hainanese, as a dialect group, form proportionately the highest number of professionals in Singapore.
Q. You say focus on education. What is top of your wishlist for re-making Singapore's education system?
A. Each year, the PSLE creams off all the top boys and girls and dispatches them to only two schools, Raffles Institution and Raffles Girls' School. However good these schools are, the problem is you are educating your elite in only two institutions, with only two sets of mentors, and casting them in more or less the same mould. It worries me that Singapore is only about 'one brand' because you never know what challenges lie ahead and where they will come from. I think we should spread out our best and brightest to at least a dozen schools.
Q. You advocate a more inclusive mindset all around?
A. Yes, intellectually, everyone has to accept that the country of Singapore is larger than the PAP. But even larger than the country of Singapore, which is limited by size and population, is the nation of Singapore, which includes a diaspora. My view is that we should have a more inclusive approach to nation-building. We have started the Majulah Connection, an international network where every Singaporean - whether he is a citizen or not, so long as he feels for Singapore - is included as part of our diaspora. Similarly, we should include foreigners who have worked and thrived here as friends of Singapore. That's the only way to survive. Otherwise, its just four million people on a little red dot of 600 sq km. If you exclude people, you become smaller and smaller, and in the end, you'll disappear.
Q. What is the kind of Singapore you hope your grandchildren will inherit?
A. Let's look at Sparta and Athens, two city states in Greek history. Singapore is like Sparta, where the top students are taken away from their parents as children and educated. Cohort by cohort, they each select their own leadership, ultimately electing their own Philosopher King. When I first read Plato's Republic, I was totally dazzled by the great logic of this organisational model where the best selects the best. But when I reached the end of the book, it dawned on me that though the starting point was meritocracy, the end result was dictatorship and elitism. In the end, that was how Sparta crumbled. Yet, Athens, a city of philosophers known for its different schools of thought, survived. What does this tell us about out-of-bounds markers? So SM Lee has to think very hard what legacy he wants to leave for Singapore and the type of society he wants to leave behind. Is it to be a Sparta, a well-organised martial society, but in the end, very brittle; or an untidy Athens which survived because of its diversity of thinking? Personally, I believe that Singaporeans are not so kuai (Hokkien for obedient) as to become a Sparta. This is our saving grace. As a young senior citizen, I very much hope that Singapore will survive for a long time, but as an Athens. It is more interesting and worth living and dying for.
Ngiam Tong Dow was a trusted aide in LKY's Government, and rose through the rank and file from the early days of Singapore Politics.Originally posted by countdracula:i believe ngiam and lky are related....possibly why he can get away with stating the truth.....
Mr Ngiam Tong Dow is currently Chairman, Surbana Corporation Pte Ltd.
Prior to this, Mr Ngiam had a long and distinguished career in SingaporeÂ’s public service. He was Permanent Secretary in several key government ministries, including the Ministry of Finance, the Prime MinisterÂ’s office, and the Ministry of National Development.
He was chairman of various statutory boards and companies, including the Economic Development Board, Development Bank of Singapore, Central Provident Fund Board and Singapore Technologies Holdings Pte Ltd.
He was the director of numerous companies including Yeo Hiap Seng Ltd, United Overseas Bank Ltd, Singapore Press Holdings Ltd, Precious Land Pte Ltd, Overseas Union Bank, Temasek Holdings Limited, Health Corporation of Singapore Pte Ltd and Singapore Airlines Ltd.
He was on the board of the Port of Singapore Authority, SMRT Corporation Ltd, Post Office Savings Bank, Singapore International Foundation, and Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore.
He was awarded numerous public service awards including the Distinguished Service Order in 1999.
Mr Ngiam graduated from University of Malaya (in Singapore) in 1959 with a Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honours) in Economics where he was awarded the Departmental Book Prize in Economics.
He obtained a Master of Public Administration (MPA) from Harvard University in 1964 and the Public Service Fellowship.
In 1985 he was awarded the Eisenhower Exchange Fellowship in USA.