Lee Kuan Yew: Urbanist
Singapore's founding father on greenspace, traffic, mixed use, land prices, chewing gum bans, and Europe.
Like most interesting people, Lee Kuan Yew has his ardent fans and rabid critics. But there’s no denying he could talk.
Startup Cities reader Zane Austen has made a 12,000 page compendium of Lee Kuan Yew’s words.
The collection is brilliant, but many of the documents were old and not formatted for search. I worked with Zane to apply some OCR technology to make the archive fully searchable. So here it is: a new and improved motherlode archive on Lee Kuan Yew’s career. All credit goes to Zane.
While those interested in Singapore’s story will find much to explore, one thing stands out: Lee Kuan Yew is a world-class communicator.
He's crisp, straight to the point. He shrinks from no questions, minces no words. He admits when he’s wrong. He talks about what he doesn’t know. There’s a pragmatism, a clear-eyed candor that, honestly, sounds refreshing from a politician.
LKY’s most famous speech might be the day he stood down an illegal strike by Singapore Airlines pilots.
This short speech is a masterclass in what made LKY so effective. On average, he uses fewer than 10 words per sentence. He punctuates like a wicked left hook: "Stop it!" "Give it up!" He has marvelous parallelisms: “This is not a game of cards. This is your life and mine!”
And there's his aesthetic. LKY looks like someone's angry grandpa, with modest clothes and rolled up sleeves. There's no pomp. No big music. No fireworks. No ridiculous tank parade. But, somehow, this combination of strength and casualness – as though he hopped on stage en route to the grocery store – makes him more formidable.
LKY on Cities
So without further ado, here's some fun snippets on urbanism from Lee Kuan Yew.
On building practical community centers rather than "impressive monuments"
In the past, the community centres were the few expensive and impressive buildings, largely in the suburban areas where the population is sparse. One such monument is the one at Buona Vista Road costing over $400,000 in what is a thinly populated area.
The policy of the P.A.P. government is to build many modest, small and medium sized community centres costing about $15,000 each, and to have one at every thickly populated area to provide the escape valve for the recreation of children in the day, and adults in the evening.
...[t]he lack of land and building space mean that every piece of land and every building must be utilised to its maximum ... In the mornings, the building will be used as children's social centre where some education will be given to the tens of thousands of children who have not been able to find places in schools in the past.
One room will be set aside as a creche to serve the needs of working mothers. In the afternoons, the building will be used as a youth club and a sports centre for the older children. In the evenings and at night, the building will be used by adults as a community centre in which there will be literacy classes, classes in singing, dancing, drama and other forms of healthy recreation.
On the unavoidable reality of land economics
Everyone likes to live in the centre of the city. It is easier and quicker to get to places and generally more convenient. We are planning to rebuild the old city and we have for our second five-year plan, starting in 1965, a target of 60,000 housing units at a cost of $194 million.
For the present first five-year plan we are spending the same amount of money for only 50,000 units. We expect to make this new target of 60,000 units for the same cost because the experience that we have gained will enable us to cut down costs and increase efficiency in building.
Even so, there is one factor which we cannot change, i.e. the price of land. Land is much more expensive in the central urban area than in the suburbs. If we are to rebuild the old city successfully, then our policies must be practical and realistic.
I know many people would like to get these flats in the city area at $20/m for one-room flat, $40/m for a two-room flat and $60 for a three-room flat, instead of $30, $60 and $90 respectively. But it is not possible because of the price of land.
We are also experimenting in these two blocks of flats with shops on the ground floor and a creche. If this is successful we shall adopt this in other Housing Board schemes. By next year, over 2,000 units for Singapore Harbour Board workers would have gone up on the land opposite these two blocks, and shopkeepers doing business here will find business better. (2434)
On crushing cost curves
We spend 15 times as much as Kuala Lumpur on social welfare benefits ($8.9 per head as against Federation's $0.59), about three times as much on health benefits ($37 per head as against Federation's $13.5) and twice as much on education ($52 as against Federation's $32) per head of population.
What is more, we get more worth out of every dollar than Kuala Lumpur. We build a two-room flat at $4,100 whilst Johore builds the same type of unit for over $7,500. We build a three-room flat for $4,900 whilst the same type of unit in Malacca cost $9,000.
And so it is with the cost of all the schools, hospitals, clinics, creches, and community centres. We have over 150 community centres, both urban and rural type, for an island of 220 square miles. We have over 25 clinics, including maternity and child health centres, to ease the pressure on five hospitals. (2479)
On building green
I have always believed that a blighted urban jungle of concrete destroys the human spirit. We need the greenery of nature to lift up our spirits. So in 1967, I launched the Garden City program to green up the whole island and try to make it into a garden.
After 30 years of sustained effort and learning on the job, the Parks and Trees Division, now called the Parks and Recreation Department, have turned Singapore into a verdant metropolis. Trees and colourful shrubs line the roads.
Flowering plants and creepers brighten up concrete structures. Green open spaces and parks soften the urbanscape everywhere we go. We have created a pleasant living and working environment for Singaporeans. It is good for morale.
This green transformation required political will and sustained effort ... In the 60s and 70s, we planted fast-growing creepers like “vernonia elliptica”, and “maiden’s jealousy”, and "instant" trees like angsana, rain tree and eugenia grandis, for quick results. Once we had greenery over the main parts of the island, we added dashes of colour with free-flowering trees such as the Yellow Flame, and the deep pink frangipani.
We planted colourful bougainvillea on our overhead pedestrian bridges creating hanging gardens across our roads. To get variety, I encouraged the Parks and Recreation Department to send men to visit Botanic Gardens in other equatorial and tropical regions of the world to select new species of trees and shrubs which can grow in our climate. The results of this active search became visible in the 1980s, when swaths of colour began to appear along many of our major roads and in our HDB new towns.
We also developed our parks. In July 1973, we formed the Garden City Action Committee, which is still doing good work. Existing parks were replanted, expanded, and spruced up. New ones were developed. In 1967, we had 700 hectares of parkland. Today, besides the nature reserves, we have some 2,400 of parkland, in 57 regional parks and 313 neighbourhood parks spread throughout the island. (11846)
On underground highways and being wrong about rail
The one other project I associate with Ong Teng Cheong [ZC: an architect who was hired as a Minister] is the MRT. Because of his training as a town planner, when I had lunches with him before he joined the government as a Senior Minister of State, he would urge me to build an MRT to maximise the use of our limited land and avoid traffic jams.
I was not enthusiastic. I believed that our problems would be better solved by upgrading the bus service and giving buses priority on the roads through reserved bus lanes. When the roads became inadequate, we could build underground roads. This would give more flexibility in the destinations.
An MRT had no flexibility, people had to get in and out at fixed points. As the traffic situation worsened, he again pressed for an MRT this time as Minister for Communications.
I was still not convinced that fixed rail was better than underground roads. We had an American team of transportation experts to study the alternatives. After many discussions and a thorough study of our traffic and road situation, they put up their report.
They convinced me that underground roads would not be able to carry the same high volume of people as reliably as underground rail. In rainy weather, as roads became slippery, traffic would slow down; worse any break-down of any bus or vehicle in the tunnels would seize up the underground road system. Under all weather conditions, rail was very reliable and could move large numbers of people with punctuality and speed. So we decided to fund the MRT. (236)
On the source of the infamous chewing gum ban:
We banned chewing gum after we started our metro. Young boys stuck chewing gum on the sensitive parts of underground train doors so that they would not automatically close, but would spring open.
It is not the end of the world to live without chewing gum. We have thrived for thousands of years in Asia before the Americans introduced this disgusting habit to Asia. If the West finds that amusing, I am happy to oblige because it’s at no great cost to me. (258)
And we also know that we were in for great traffic problems because we had, through lack of traffic planning, to match our city planning. We have built a city just like the city of London, which is dead at night. So, everybody comes into the city from all directions, and they have only one entrance without having to cross water. (Three sides of the city is water – our office, centre, what we call the CBD).
And, therefore, an unpleasant decision has to be made. There are buildings now going up which, when they are filled, will cause an enormous traffic jam, even if everybody goes by buses. And we cannot get the underground trains before ten years. So, we have to take some very tough measures, which we did last year in June, and again this year, to keep the cars down, which is very unpleasant. Although we've had complaints, the people understood. If we don't do this, then everybody suffers.
Their business will come to a halt. So, the preference must be given to the buses, to the vehicles which carry goods to the harbour, to the airport, and that we must put up with something convenient -- either you share your car with three other persons in which case you can go in or you pay for the privilege of going in alone or you take a bus. But there is an understanding -- and we tried to accommodate. We spent millions of dollars building fringe car parks on the city edges. So you can park your car and take a bus in. But the people decided, "No, if I have to take a bus, well, why should I leave my car in the sun and the rain? I take a bus from home." Well, so much the better.
So, the roads are absolutely clear from 7.30 to 10.15. Everybody gets over. And I hope we can hold this until we got the underground system working, at least in the centre of the city, which we must get going within ten years or a tremendous jam will be caused. (8039)
On laid-back European culture (sorry, I couldn't resist)
I watched the Europeans with a certain fascination and sympathy. They were great civilisations. They still are civilised. In fact, culturally, they are much more congenial, more elegant in their manner of life. But they have lost that sense of importance which drives the people.
[Questioner]: "To the outside world..?
No, to themselves. They knew that they no longer decide the events of this world, that it is decided in Washington, in Moscow. So they have become preoccupied with trivial, irrelevant things – with the consumer society, with how to enjoy life, how to enjoy the weekend. (8041)
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