Singapore skyline

Housing for Local Culture, Housing for Global Esteem

An Interview with Liu Thai Ker on the development of Singapore by James Schrader

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An interview with Liu Thai Ker

An interview by James Schrader

On the final day of this year’s Moscow Urban Forum, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Dr. Liu Thai Ker. Born in 1938, Dr. Liu is an urban planner, policymaker, and architect based in Singapore. Dr. Liu was an influential figure in the development of Singapore’s public housing, which encompasses approximately 85% of Singapore’s housing stock. He was in the public service from 1969 – 1992, eventually becoming CEO of the Housing Development Board and then CEO and Chief Planner of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. In 1992, he reentered the private sector by becoming a director at RSP Architects, Planners, and Engineers. In 2008, he became the founding chairman of the Centre for Livable Cities.

I wanted to ask Dr. Liu not only about his ideas for the future, but also about the passions and decisions at a young age that led him on his life trajectory. Our discussion then went into the defining characteristics of the Singapore model of housing, and how other countries can learn from the experience of Singapore in order to undergo successful and sustainable urban development.
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I. Looking into the Deep Past

I’m curious about your early history. How did you become interested in cities and architecture? Why was architecture alone not enough? Why did you choose to pursue your passion for cities through a career in crafting Singapore’s housing policy?


I’ll go back even earlier than that. My father was a well-​known artist in Singapore, one of the pioneer artists. I used to watch him painting, and from a young age, I learned to draw and paint through his teaching. So, I grew up wanting to be an artist.

After I finished high school, I was worried about my future education. During the 1950s, my artist father also doubled as a schoolteacher to get income and our family was still desperately poor. When I asked my parents for a bicycle, they had to save up for six months to buy one.

I still thought I would be an artist. One day I told my parents, I just bought the passage to go on a freighter to China to enroll in an art school to be an artist. My mom said, no way. That was even before the Cultural Revolution. She said, if you go there, we will never have the chance to see you again.

Was China considered an unstable and tumultuous place at that point?

It was a country in massive transition. But I had no other choice if I wanted to study to be an artist. I couldn’t go to a Western country because my parents were desperately poor. So my only choice was to go to China. Anyway, my parents said, no way.

Then my mother said, let me think of something. And two days later she said, okay, we just found out that there’s a part-​time architecture course in Sydney. Part-​time means out of the six years, you attend classes full time for one and a half years, at the beginning and the end, and for the other four and half years, you work while attending school. She said, this is something we can afford. Would you consider it? And I thought, she did such a marvelous job to keep me away form the risky China trip, so I said okay, I’ll do that.

You hadn’t thought of being an architect before that? It was your mother’s idea?

Never thought of it before. It was my mother’s idea. So I went to the architecture school but also immediately enrolled in a part-​time course at the East Sydney Technical College to do art. I would go there one half day every week in addition to architecture. And I did very well because I befriended a very well-​known New Zealand artist called Godfrey Miller. He was 72 when I was 20 or something. We became close friends and he gave me personal instruction. Anyway, to cut a long story short, by the time I went to fourth year, I realized that I did like architecture, and I wanted to make it a career. Therefore, in the fifth year, I dropped the art school, because by that time, the homework was just too heavy, and I couldn’t cope with both.

So, I graduated and began working full time. I thought, for a couple of reasons, that I wanted to do city planning. One reason is that Singapore at that time was so desperately backwards. I wanted to do something to help Singapore become a world-​class city. Second, even if I were to stay as an architect, I felt that an architect with some understanding of city planning would more likely become a good architect. In fact, even today, you see some architects doing their design scheme as if it’s an island with the rest of the paper blank. But I believe that you cannot produce a good building when you see your site as an island, because you have to relate it to the surrounding buildings and the surrounding streets. But many architects’ plans are just islands. So I thought, I must do city planning to make myself a better architect.

I wrote to Harvard, Columbia, and Yale. Yale was the first to reply, accepting me with a scholarship. So that’s how I ended up there.

Singapore skyline

II. Enduring Influences

Were there any experiences during those years that strongly influenced your view of cities?

When I was in Sydney, before I went to Yale, the person I worked for was a champion for protecting the natural environment. I was also under his strong influence to respect and protect nature. He even took me on many trips into the Australian bushland, which ended up profoundly influencing my thinking about respecting the natural environment.

In fact, currently, I consult in China quite a bit. I was trying to figure out how to get the Chinese to respect nature more, because they tend to bulldoze a lot of things which stand in the way of development. So I came up with a catchy phrase: a city planner, when he plans a city, must remember to romance with the land. That means you don’t take the land as a heap of earth. You take it as something with feeling, with character. When you romance, you don’t destroy the person, you actually enhance the beauty of the person.

Singapore and the United States seem like very different places. For example, housing in the US is very market-​driven, almost to the point where planners don’t really have power to do much at all besides tweak municipal zoning codes, whereas over 80% of housing in Singapore comes from the government and is very tightly planned. I’m curious what you might have taken back with you to Singapore from your American experiences, first studying urban planning at Yale and then working for I.M. Pei.

I learned a few things from working closely with I.M. Pei. One thing is, when you’re an architect, you don’t just work for the aesthetic effect, you also work to make sure the project makes commercial sense. Pei began his career by working directly in a developer’s office. And that influenced me profoundly. So when I produce a piece of work, I don’t just look at it as an aesthetic exercise. It must make developmental sense. It must bring benefit to the users and the investors.

The second thing is, Pei designed all his buildings by considering them in the urban context. Which I would have done without working for Pei, but working with him reassured me that’s the right thing to do.

Third is that Pei conducted a lot of technical research for his buildings, often for aesthetic reasons. For example, when they built the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, he went all over Upstate New York to look for a quarry that would produce the pinkish color stone which he needed for the building. And that quarry was opened and shut just for that one project. And within the office, he did a lot of research on how to make off-​form concrete look beautiful with the right color. And so on and so forth.

The spirit of an architect doing research, rather than purely just drawing pretty pictures, has influenced me. Architects need to do research. When they encounter a problem, if they simply say ‘oh I like it this way, so I draw it this way,’ that to me is not architecture, because architecture is inseparable from technology, from construction, and from craft. In fact, sensitivity to craft, despite modern technology, tends to be neglected in modern architecture. But in Pei’s office, I picked those things up.

At Yale, I was very lucky because Professor Arthur Row, who was in charge of the urban planning department there and used to be the deputy director of the Philadelphia Planning Commission, was a mentor for me. He was not an academic but was a practitioner. I must say, I am indebted to him. I also studied under Christopher Tunnard, who wrote ‘The City of Man’ and was a very important urban theorist in those days. I became very good friends with both of them. One is on the practical side, the other on the theoretical and historical side.

From my experiences at Yale, I learned a few things. One, I realized that there’s a difference between academic planners and practical planners, of course. I also appreciated the importance of the influence of history, specifically planning history, on a person’s work.

Also, America, much more so then than now, was way up as the most successful and powerful country, with the highest sense of self-​dignity. So I told myself that I wanted to do something to boost the dignity of Singapore. And that was a driving force for what I’ve been doing since I went back to Singapore.

Singapore housing construction

III. A Principled Approach to Developing Singapore

So, the career intention became to help raise Singapore from its post-​Colonial condition into a fully developed, global city?

Yes. In fact, by 1985, we had already turned Singapore into a world-​class city. In a lot of my talks, particularly to developing countries, I say that we develop a city for many reasons. All of which happen to start with the letter ‘E’.

How you can earn esteem from the rest of the world is to let people come to your city and feel that your city has value. They respect you because your city is so well planned

We care about city Ecology, improving the Environment, improving the Economic prosperity, Education, and so on. But most important is to earn Esteem from the rest of the world. Unconditionally. How you can earn esteem from the rest of the world, unconditionally, is to let people come to your city and feel that you have a city that has basically done well with the other four E’s. That people automatically respect you because your city is so well planned. Because, to get a city done well, you must have good politics, good administration, good planners, good engineers, and good aesthetic sense. So, if you can get all these things right, people cannot help but respect you. So I tell many people, the ultimate goal in city planning is to earn esteem for your own country.

I went to Singapore a few years ago. It felt foreign in a fascinating way but it also felt so welcoming and accessible.

Yes, that was our plan.

Singapore void deck / Choo Yut Shing / flickr.com

IV. Lessons From Singapore to Moscow

There is a big contrast to Moscow, which to me also feels foreign in a fascinating way, but has a long way to go to be welcoming and easy to navigate for visitors.

Yes, the human side and the creative side of Moscow are fascinating, and very exciting because it’s a big city. Of course, Russia has a long history, a long cultural background, and is also technologically very advanced. So, I can definitely imagine being excited in a city like Moscow. But the hardware part is not as well done or well put together as one would wish to see.

Have you visited the Microrayon housing areas outside the city center of Moscow? These Soviet-​era prefabricated-​block neighborhoods make up the vast majority of the periphery that they’ve been talking about here at the Moscow Urban Forum. Because they were developed by the government and were designed to be self-​contained communities, I saw a parallel between them and the housing in Singapore that you worked on. And in both Moscow and Singapore, these massive housing areas seemed to avoid the poverty and social problems that architecturally similar projects in the Western world have.

I haven’t visited them in Moscow and also was not aware of the large extent of them. If possible, I’d like to visit some of them.

In the last couple of days here at the Moscow Urban Forum, various people have been presenting new housing schemes for Moscow, still on the drawing boards. From the schemes I saw, they still went too much for the grand design. But a grand design is not something suitable for a housing environment. It must be more intimate, more romantic, not just really grand.

These designs they showed had gardens, but they did not have community and civic spaces. In Singapore, we took great care to developing those things. And even though the buildings in Singapore are quite huge, the activity spaces are a little bit more romantic, a little bit more intimate.

Could you attribute this difference to the different priorities between public development, as in Singapore, and private development, as we see in contemporary Moscow?

Quite possibly, but I don’t think that’s the main reason. I think the main reason is the perception of what a residential community really should be. In Moscow, like I said, I feel that there’s still too much of the grand design concept. Whereas, I personally was influenced quite a lot by the British urban design approach, which is more romantic, more quaint, more intimate. And in looking back, I feel that’s a good approach because people are happy.

Singapore coffee shop / Allen Brewer / flickr.com

V. The Present Day in Singapore

Being in charge of the Singapore Housing and Development Board, you were able to institute your ideas extensively in housing throughout Singapore. I’m curious, if you had chosen a different career path, if you had become an artist, and Singapore was left to develop without your influence, what do you think it would look like now?

In the hand of a different person, our environment would most likely look somewhat different. But as long as we all work for the many needs of the people rather than sexy urban images, Singapore would still be a livable city.

What has changed in Singapore housing since you left the public policy sector? Have the newer projects paid less attention to creating intimate public spaces?

Nowadays in Singapore housing, there is undue emphasis on emulating the look of the more expensive private housing. Whereas the basic purpose of architecture should be less about showing off, but more about creating a good living environment.

The approach is somewhat different now. There is now an increased attention on clever architectural design. But during my time, we were preoccupied with creating a way of life. To take a small example, we provided commercial spaces for what every Singaporean thinks of as low class things, called the coffee shops. We also took great care to create traditional shops, small-​unit shops, because in my concept, when you create a shopping center, like the American type of shopping center, it’s impersonal. We have a little bit of that for efficiency, but we also have these individual shops. So that people would linger there, spend their time there, and it becomes a way of life.

One reason for this is that we are envious of the French café by the roadside, because that is a French, Parisian way of life. I hope that these coffee shops, with small tidbits to eat, and so on, will contribute to a Singaporean way of life. If you go to Singapore and visit our older estates as planned and designed by me and my colleagues, there is a distinct Singaporean way of life. In fact, a year ago, when CNN wanted to interview me in Singapore, the interviewer chose to do it in one of the coffee shops. I was very impressed by this choice. And the interviewer just loved it, enjoying our Singapore coffee and Singapore cake while talking to me.

And there are shops like this in all of the new towns?

Yes, in all of the new towns, but much fewer in the newer new towns after I left. So that means the way of life is changing. Another reason, among many others, is that in America, despite the modernity and the emphasis on economic efficiency and profitability, you actually have lots of small shops. When I was living there, I did a survey by talking to some of my friends and to shopkeepers. I asked them, how can you survive when you have big shopping malls? They said, oh no, we are not just shops, we are gossip centers. That means people come not only to buy things, but to gossip with the shopkeepers about what’s happening in the neighborhood. So there’s a role for the small shops despite the shopping malls.

How can government and public policy promote that kind of unique local culture? By creating spaces in the new developments that facilitate it?

Well, we had no problem. We just specified those features in our planning brief, and got them built. Our government has one great virtue: they only lay down broad policy and broad strategy. They don’t interfere with the professional and technical issues. We had a free hand. And of course my successors have a free hand too.

So, to my mind, the town center in a new town is not just a shopping center. It’s a shopping center plus a civic center. We took the trouble to create civic spaces in the town center.

Ghim moh estate / JJ Yeo

VI. The Future of Singapore and Beyond

Perhaps we can conclude with a few ideas about the future. Do you see Singapore and housing in Singapore going on a trajectory that will totally erase that unique local culture you were speaking of? What does Singapore look like in fifty years?

I don’t think my successor can totally erase it. Because, if they do, there will be people complaining. Because it is a way of life. I’m confident that, to a certain degree, the old tradition will stay on. In fact, recently I took some foreign friends to one of the coffee shops, and it was still lively, full of life. And it won’t die out.

Brick and mortar is just an agent for me to create communities

What will Singapore be like in the future? Personally, I feel that we are not just building hardware. We are building communities. I sometimes say to people that brick and mortar is just an agent for me to create communities. For example, a new town is a community. You break down the new town into neighborhoods, with a walking radius of 350 – 500 meters. You can easily walk to the neighborhood center. That was not by accident. We did a survey to see what would be the desirable maximum, optimal maximum. I refused to make any decisions based on my so-​called creative or imaginative thinking. Everything was based on research.

And then I asked my sociologist colleagues: I want to break a neighborhood into smaller units, what would be a good territorial size for a community? They suggested that we break it down to, say, 3 to 5 hectares, because a human being, according to sociologists, can relate to a space of 3 to 5 hectares, and can feel an emotional tie with the land at such a size. So that is also not by the stroke of genius. It was a result of consulting the sociologists.

So, I feel that our public housing communities are really people-​oriented planning. And people’s habits and needs do not change in a matter of decades. They’ll probably change in a matter of several centuries. Human needs are basically the same through the ages. So I believe that, if my successors agree with this kind of thinking, the planning principles will continue, assuming they understand how to translate the principles into physical environment.

Do you feel that with your new role in the Centre for Livable Cities you are still able to have a voice and an influence? Or is substantially different because it’s not a government organization?

It is actually a government organization. I am the first chairman. During the first meeting of the advisory committee, there were a few academics there, and they suggested we put the Centre in one of the universities. And I begged to disagree. For the first fifty or forty-​five years of developing Singapore, we were so busy working that nobody had time to sit down and record what we did. This is the first time we are doing this in a systematic way. The wealth of the information is in the government, not in the universities. If you park the Centre in the university, it will be more troublesome to get ready access to the information in the government. So, anyway, they took my advice, and it’s still part of the government.

Ground amenities at Tanjong Pagar / Ronald Lim

And my hope is that my colleagues will do several things. One is to review or recall what we did that made us successful, and the information must be easily accessible from the government archives or from former or current government officials. This includes interviewing the remaining old guards, because the most valuable part of Singapore’s story is to tell the world how we got started.

A lot of other countries and cities want to be like Singapore. The key is, they are not able to copy Singapore as it is today, because it costs too much to do that. What they need to know is how did we get started. If they get that right, the rest can just go on by itself. So, we are focusing on recording this experience and having it published.

At the same time, we are building up our international relationship. Every two years, we organize the World Cities Summit in Singapore plus several other concurrent meetings. The Centre also conducts training courses as well as joint research projects with other international institutions. Given my age, I know what happened behind the scenes in the early days of our nation building. I am sharing that experience with my younger colleagues.

For example, why is our public housing so successful? The starting point must be right. What are the right starting points? Just one example, but it’s full of wisdom. And that is: to build the smallest rentable flats for the poorest people who could afford to pay rent. Because if you are softhearted and built the smallest flat for the desperately poor, after they move in they can’t pay rent, then the housing development would have gone bankrupt ages ago.

So the intention of the Centre for Livable Cities is not just an archive, but also to be a lesson and point of departure for other countries? In part because there are so many countries around the world that are rapidly urbanizing now.

We hope to share our experiences with other cities. It’s up to them to pick and choose whatever they need. But we think we have good experiences that are worthy of sharing with others.

China, if it will be as developed as usa, has to build the equivalent of three americas. If they do a bad job, it adversely affects the whole world. If they do a good job, it benefits the whole world

The amount of urbanization yet to be developed in the world is frightening in quantity. China, in the next thirty or forty years, if it will be as developed as USA, has to build three Americas. Meaning, every single building you have in America today, China has to build three of them. Every road you have, they’ll build three of them. India has to build five Americas. Indonesia has to build one America. Among them, that’s already nine Americas. Not to mention Africa and South America. If they do a bad job, it adversely affects the whole world. If they do a good job, it benefits the whole world. That explains why our Centre is more than eager to share the Singapore experience.

That sounds like a good purpose, and beneficial to the world.

It is meant for a good purpose. You know, because, at my age, I really should be retiring and just going skiing and swimming. Why should I be here in Moscow being interviewed by you? I consciously choose this life. It’s meaningful.

The job of a planner is to find the most effective, simple solutions to a problem. Solutions which are able to meet the very complex needs of the society. It’s a tall order, but I think in Singapore we’ve done it quite well.