When Lee Kuan Yew seized the moment

The candid memories of civil servants and others who helped Singapore's founding premier transform the country physically are captured in a new book

A CHANCE OF A LIFETIME: LEE KUAN YEW AND THE PHYSICAL TRANSFORMATION OF SINGAPORE By the Centre for Liveable Cities in collaboration with the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities

Editions Didier Millet/Paperback/152 pages/$29.85 with GST at major bookstores or on loan from the National Library Board under the call number, English 959.5705 CHA

Amid buzz about the Zika virus and five straight days of hiccups with Circle Line MRT services, it is easy to forget that Singapore is still one of the world's best-run cities.

Such amnesia is, perhaps, a back-handed compliment to Singapore's founding fathers who, with the help of local and international experts, turned a mud-logged island into a gleaming metropolis within 30 years.

This relatively sudden sea change has since lulled most who live in the city-state into taking their surroundings for granted.

Everyone remembers, for example, the photograph of a thoughtlessly discarded fishball stick which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted in his National Day Rally speech in August 2014.

  • Join The Big Read Meet on Sept 28

    Whenever public housing pioneer Liu Thai Ker asks his friends what they like most about Singapore, their answer is invariably: "Everything works."

    That has been possible because two generations of Singaporeans have had a clear vision and a strong stomach to apply a lot of elbow grease towards making, as Mr Lee Kuan Yew had it, a home in which everyone would feel safe and comfortable, and of which they could be justly proud.

    Join senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai to discuss this at The Big Read Meet from 6.30pm on Sept 28 in the Central Public Library, Basement 1, National Library Board (NLB) headquarters at 100 Victoria Street. Sign up for it at any NLB e-Kiosk or go to www.nlb.gov. sg/golibrary and look for "The Big Read Meet".

Residents near Bukit Gombak MRT station, where the stick lay, remarked on it only because it was there for days, with cleaners seemingly oblivious to it.

In September 2013, about a year before that rally, Singapore's ambassador-at-large Chan Heng Chee and the Centre for Liveable Cities held a day-long conference to commemorate founding premier Lee Kuan Yew's 90th birthday.

Beside being an ambassador-at- large, Professor Chan also chairs the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, a think-tank at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. The centre turns four this month.

The focus of that conference was on how exactly Mr Lee and those who worked with him managed to transform Singapore's surroundings so fast and so well, albeit tweaking their ideas constantly along the way.

While Mr Lee himself was not at the conference, some of those who led this transformation were, including former civil service chief Peter Ho; engineer-turned-corporate chieftain Liew Mun Leong, who helped build Changi Airport; and Mr Khoo Teng Chye, the Centre for Liveable Cities' executive director and former PUB chief who turned monsoon drains into public oases.

I was among the 200 people at the conference and marvelled then at the wealth of insights from all the speakers, including Mr Ho on Mr Lee's approach to planning, which was "hard-nosed, with an economy of effort and a view to the long term".

Happily, the book of that conference, which PM Lee launched at the World Cities Summit on July 11, captures faithfully the eight key speakers' candid and evocative memories.

It takes readers into the minds of some of Singapore's sharpest bureaucrats and thinkers, yielding stories for the ages.

Its bonus is the Aug 31, 2012 interview which Centre for Liveable Cities chairman Liu Thai Ker had with Mr Lee, which gave the book its title.

When Mr Liu asked Mr Lee what about developing Singapore pleased him most, he said: "That we redeveloped the city when there was a chance to do it… That was a chance of a lifetime."


1 Why were many Singaporeans against making the Republic a Garden City at first?

2 Why is it highly unlikely that anyone could clone the city of Singapore elsewhere?

3 Why should policy-makers really listen to what Singaporeans want before shaping their future?

4 How might Singaporeans get along even better with foreigners who live here?

5 How should Singaporeans prepare themselves for a future in which 40 per cent among them are elderly?

Just a minute


1. This book is chock-a-block with rare insights on how clear-eyed and persuasive Mr Lee Kuan Yew was in working with Singapore and international professionals to turn an island of slums and kampungs into a globally coveted jewel. From clean rivers to all-in-one housing estates to manicured parks, transforming the landscape here is the one legacy of Mr Lee's which everyone in Singapore can see, feel and be moved by every day.

2. There is very little jargon in this book, which is quite a feat in a tome of such technical complexity. Instead, each of its commentaries comes across clearly, concisely and personably, and the tone is often heartfelt.

3. This book rose from a day-long conference in September 2013 to commemorate Mr Lee's 90th birthday. In that conference, each speaker was paired with a commentator who would add to, or critique, the speaker's remarks. That warts-and-all approach has been captured in the book, with sociologist Chua Beng Huat, lawyer Simon Tay and diplomat Burhan Gafoor as the commentators.

Chua, notably, proves to be the book's conscience. His incisive musings on why Mr Lee decided on certain directions in developing the city, and where these directions would likely take Singaporeans in the long run, are required reading. Witness, for example, Chua on the biggest drawback to life in HDB estates, which were meant to level the playing field: "The unfortunate thing about the homogenisation of daily life in HDB estates is that, because inequalities had become invisible, there was also a progressive neglect of poverty. It is only in the 2010s, when the inequalities had become so pronounced that poverty became a public issue. In my judgment, it's because we did too good a job of covering it up, that is why it has taken so long for it to become obvious."


1. The vital cog in the engine that is the city is public transport. This book gives it only glancing mentions, such as why the MRT system, Area Licensing Scheme, Electronic Road Pricing and certificate of entitlement came about.


1. The book's perspectives would have been rounded off well if there was a firm acknowledgement in it that the miracle that is Singapore today was possible because it was simply small enough to overhaul and reshape quicker than most other cities. Doubtless, Mr Lee's strong political will was integral to making that happen, but, in general, political will is not the linchpin in developing cities.

Fact File: Learning from Singapore's Renaissance Man

Chan Heng Chee

At the Chicago Forum on Global Cities in June, Singapore's ambassador-at-large Chan Heng Chee was at a session chaired by journalist Gillian Tett, the United States' managing editor of The Financial Times who is familiar to The Big Read fans for her 2015 book, The Silo Effect.

In a recent interview, Professor Chan recalled how Tett asked her to speak on Singapore's whole-of-government (WOG) approach, something which non-Singaporeans found "unusual" and hard to emulate, as WOG needed strong political will and a concerted effort by everyone towards bringing about the best outcomes for all.

Prof Chan chairs the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, which she calls "a start-up".

The centre is celebrating its fourth anniversary this month. In September 2012, she set it up, after 16 years as Singapore's ambassador to the US.

Six months into raising funds and hiring staff for it, people around her were talking about Mr Lee Kuan Yew's 90th birthday on Sept 16, 2013. "It occurred to me that I should do something," she recalled.

From a lifetime of studying Singapore's history and political developments, she saw that Mr Lee's ideas on politics, the economy and social organisation were very widely known. What, then, was missing?

"It didn't take me long to think about it - Singapore's physical transformation," said Prof Chan, who is adept at organising thought- provoking pow-wows. "So I just sat down, listed down the agenda and topics for a conference on it and, as I listed these, the speakers occurred to me."

Three among these speakers, former civil service chief Peter Ho, public housing pioneer Liu Thai Ker and water czar Khoo Teng Chye, were all from the Ministry of National Development. Prof Chan asked Mr Khoo, executive director of the ministry's Centre for Liveable Cities, if his centre would work with her on the conference. He said yes.

In fact, she stressed, her centre was all for collaborations with any relevant institution, including A*Star and the five local universities here, on finding ways to rely less on air-conditioning; and, separately, studying cities and innovation and smart cities in a programme funded by China billionaire Chen Tianqiao, who admires Mr Lee hugely.

So the two centres split the cost of the conference and Prof Chan saw to getting sponsors for the event, as well as "pulling in" speakers from outside the ministry.

About 200 people attended the Sept 2013 conference and, though Mr Lee could not be there in person, it was a great success.

"I was surprised at that. I did not realise what a gap the conference filled," she said.

Mr Khoo saw the value in filling that gap for a wider audience, by capturing the conference in book form.

But as Ms Joanna Tan, 42, the Centre for Liveable Cities' project manager for the eventual book, A Chance Of A Lifetime, said the idea languished for two years after the conference because, among other things, prospective publishers groaned: "Not another Lee Kuan Yew book."

She added that they also found it hard to see how a book on urban planning could sell widely.

Prof Chan had had greater access to founding premier Lee than most others and said her lesson from him was: "That Mr Lee was a human being with a comprehensive appreciation of life around him. And he was also a person who was not too proud to learn from others... Mr Lee didn't always know that much, but then he learnt very quickly and knew more. So we were very lucky to have him as a founding father who, in many ways, was a Renaissance Man."

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 04, 2016, with the headline When Lee Kuan Yew seized the moment. Subscribe