“A seemingly perfect system is often the most fragile, while a dynamic system, subject to occasional failure, can be the most robust. Resilience is, like life itself, messy, imperfect, and inefficient. But it survives.” – Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back
The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has unveiled the Draft Master Plan 2013, which is the land use plan guiding Singapore’s development over the next 10 to 15 years. This Master Plan aims to feature a highly liveable, economically vibrant and sustainable home for all Singaporeans.
We applaud URA for their efforts in addressing liveable and economic needs in this Master Plan. There would be greater diversity of housing choices, a wide range of amenities, and integration of heritage areas and nature spaces. We would see more industrial clusters and commercial hubs being developed, jobs being closer to homes, and the growing Marina Bay area as the next city centre.
In terms of sustainability, there would be more walkable places, a well-connected network for cycling, and an improved public transport system. We would also see more nature areas, ecological corridors, parks, gardens, and waterways. In addition, we would have more sustainable public housing and residential developments, and green buildings.
While we applaud this draft Master Plan, at the same time we also worry that this plan might not encourage and build resilience in Singapore.
Resilience and Responsibility
Resilience refers to the ability of a system, community or person to withstand and recover from sudden shocks or dramatically changed circumstances.
Researchers in Singapore’s Centre for Governance and Leadership in the Civil Service College (CSC) shared in their Developing Resilience in Singapore article last year that: “Research reveals a corresponding relationship between resilience and the ability of individuals in a society to take responsibility. Societies with a sense of community tend to be more resilient and better able to recover from crises, than those with a tendency to push responsibility onto their governments.”
After decades of efficient and top-down governance, most Singaporeans have developed a culture of depending on the government to look out for problems, and to plan and implement solutions. Having said that, there is a growing trend for citizens to take it upon themselves to embrace responsibility and solve problems in recent years.
On big government policies such as the population white paper, climate change strategy, or this draft Master Plan, there is a sense from the ground that important policies are “already set and pushed down” to the people, and the public consultation process is about consulting “selected people and groups” and accepting feedback which “falls within the boundaries”.
To be fair, the government agencies and civil servants are putting in efforts on citizen engagement and public consultation before and after planning policies, although the average citizen thinks more can and should be done. The CSC researchers commented that: “Governments are beginning to realise that greater efficiency and better delivery on their part do not necessarily translate to public satisfaction and trust. Even if targets are met, citizens may not necessarily be grateful or share in the sense of accomplishment.”
If citizens treat the draft Master Plan as a plan to view, admire, hope and wonder where next to buy hot properties or whether their area will increase in value. Or if comments are made mostly about the beauty of the plan, and how jobs and housing needs would be met, then we think this Master Plan will not encourage and build resilience in Singapore.
When Singaporeans think that a Master Plan, which is an important land use plan guiding Singapore’s development over the next 10 to 15 years, is something that the government introduce, gather feedback, and implement without much changes, then where is the sense of responsibility of being a citizen? As we keep on outsourcing responsibility to the government, we are gradually losing our sense of belonging to our community and nation.
We worry that Singaporeans would continue to feel that the government has “masterplanned” everything and what citizens need to do is to just live in this “Master Plan” and get on with their lives and contribute to GDP.
When we don’t take responsibility, we don’t build resilience.
Resilience and Resources
As the world faces increased risks from environmental challenges such as climate change, energy and food shortages, waste, and biodiversity loss, it is important for Singapore to develop resilience for the country’s infrastructure and systems, and also for our supply and treatment of resources.
In Singapore, there is a disconnect between our country’s development and the input and output of resources. Where do we get our energy, water and food? Where do our waste end up? What are our carbon emissions? Most of our essential resources such as food and energy are currently imported. Citizens don’t really see the need to be concerned about energy and food supplies, or our waste disposal or carbon emissions, as the government will take care of these issues.
Singaporeans don’t really care about how to grow food or generate our own energy, and we don’t really see the need to conserve water and energy, or reduce waste. We know the government will provide the supply of resources and handle the waste, all we have to care about is how much we have to pay.
The draft Master Plan describes Singapore’s development over the next 10 to 15 years. In that future, we have a larger population and require more energy, water and food, and generate more waste. Are we still importing most of our food and energy? Or are we taking measured steps to reduce our import dependency and strengthen our resilience? Do we need more urban farms, water treatment plants and distributed renewable energy generation facilities? Do we need more waste disposal and recycling facilities, or landfills?
The Master Plan did not show land use for those resource considerations. If we divorce the use of resources from our land use plan, we are not telling the full picture of how our country functions, instead we give a rather misleading picture and a false sense of security that resource needs would continue to be met by the government, despite the global environmental challenges and risks ahead.
If we narrow the disconnect between our country and the use of resources, we would better appreciate our resources and use them wisely, thus conserving them and building resilience. When we learn how food is grown locally or how renewable energy can be generated locally, we increase knowledge and build capacity and resilience. When more food is grown locally and more renewable energy is generated here, we increase our food and energy security and build resilience.
When we are not mindful of our resources, we don’t build resilience.
Developing Resilience in Singapore
The Draft Master Plan 2013 deserves praise for featuring a highly liveable, economically vibrant and sustainable home for all Singaporeans. As we view and provide feedback on the plan, we must also remember to take responsibility to partake in the development of Singapore, through active participation in community and government initiatives.
We should help out in our community and partner with the government so that we can build a stronger and more resilient Singapore. The government can also increase its efforts in public engagement and consultation. Let the Master Plan be the beginning of more public participation in the development of Singapore, and not just another major government plan that citizens follow.
We also hope that the government would address the issue of resources in this draft Master Plan and other future major government plans. Whether it is this master plan, the population white paper, the climate change strategy, or the upcoming sustainable blueprint, how would each plan affect the other plans in terms of resource consumption and the resulting environmental impacts? The public service has a whole-of-government approach towards policy making, let this approach also be more visible in this Master Plan and other future major plans.
Singapore as a small and open country is open to shocks and risks, and with the increasing complex risks of social, economical and environmental challenges around the world, how can we build a more robust and resilient society? To quote the CSC researchers again: “Developing a more resilient Singapore may require the government, public organisations and officers to re-frame the purpose of their work, take on new roles, build new relationship, create new structures, and acquire new capabilities. At times, this may also mean stepping back and refraining from getting in the way once an enabling infrastructure is in place, so that society has space and opportunity to mature.”