5 governments, 5 HDBs, 5 MOEs: Tay Kheng Soon on decentralisation for creativity

5 governments, 5 HDBs, 5 MOEs: Tay Kheng Soon on decentralisation for creativity

The veteran architect goes "On The Record" on why he thinks splitting the country into five, along the lines of the Swiss cantonal system, will inspire competition and, in doing so, the best ideas to flourish.

Tay Kheng Soon 4
Veteran architect Tay Kheng Soon. (Photo: Singapore International Foundation) 

SINGAPORE: Mr Tay Kheng Soon says he cares about Singapore to the point of obsession.

The veteran architect, who is the man behind several iconic structures in Singapore including the People’s Park Complex and KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, has also never been one to be shy about his views. From the 60s, he has been public on a range of issues, from where Singapore’s airport should be situated, whether it’s possible to build low-rise, high density housing here and the scale of land scarcity.

Indeed, over the years, Mr Tay has published material to show that land scarcity may not even be an issue in Singapore, if the city’s urban planners had done a better job.

In the 70s, he asserted that by building perimeter blocks, high-rise dense housing would not be necessary. He contended that with careful planning, there is more than enough space for almost two million more people in Singapore, with adequate space for nature to boot.

Today, he is an Adjunct Professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and founder and principal partner of Akitek Tenggara. Over the years, he has formulated original planning concepts such as Rubanisation – which integrates city elements in rural areas. He is also co-founder of Kampung Temasek, an educational and recreational destination in Johor with a mission to bring back the kampung days to visitors.

Among his other projects overseas is a school made of bamboo in Thailand for a community of poor students.

Mr Tay went “On the Record” about going beyond hardware when it comes to urban planning, why he cares about issues beyond his field of expertise and his run-ins with the Government. They first spoke about the Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group (SPUR), a group he set up in 1965 to discuss issues related to the physical planning and development of Singapore.

Tay Kheng Soon: Architecture is really only about buildings, individual buildings. I think much more important to society and to environment is planning, the entire way in which we organise space. How do we transport people, how do we deal with the community, livelihood and all the interrelated things about living?

So SPUR became a natural expansion from architecture. And I've always been a comprehensivist in the Buckminster Fuller sense. You cannot see anything in isolation. Everything is related to everything else. So it's a whole interconnected web of issues, and as you follow the logic of anything, it inevitably expands into a whole network of interconnected matters - politics, economics, the environment, people, education. It's the huge web of life, isn't it?


Bharati Jagdish: Your engagement with the Government on planning issues wasn't always positive. Why so?

Tay: We didn't set out to be negative at all. Unfortunately, the Government at that time, and to some extent even now, is rather unaccepting of alternative points of view. So inevitably, we came into conflict. 

I mean, take the case of the expansion of the Paya Lebar Airport. SPUR took it up very publicly, because we got a map that showed the expansion of Paya Lebar Airport with two additional runways, including the existing one, which would have meant that the whole of the Katong, Mountbatten areas, and the Pasir Ris, Tampines areas would have been totally sterilised as a result of the entry and exit of the flight paths, the noise, the crash zones, etc. That would have killed one quarter of Singapore. 

Bharati: You wanted for it to be in Changi, and it did end up there.

Tay: We simply went public on it and said it ought to be moved to Changi because the British had announced a pull-out east of Suez and Changi RAF Airport would become available, so why not move it there? And then all the flight paths will be over the sea, and the noise and the dangers would be handled much better.

Bharati: And it is in Changi today. So what exactly led to that? Earlier you mentioned that the Singapore Government in those days, and you said even today, is not very accepting of ideas that don't concur with their own. But the airport ended up in Changi as you had suggested and is still there today.

Tay: Not only ideas that don't concur with their own, they have a monopoly … They want to maintain a monopoly of wisdom. So any other wisdom that comes out from other sources has to be proscribed.

Bharati: But we should acknowledge that the airport is in Changi today.

Tay: Yes. So the initial reaction by the Permanent Secretary of National Development at that time, Mr Howe Yoon Chong, was to really scold us publicly. He said that we shouldn't bother ourselves with such important issues. We should just spend our time looking at drains and maintaining the roads. But to his credit, it was he eventually who championed the move to Changi.

Bharati: So, doesn’t this show that the Government is open to considering other ideas?

Tay: Yeah, they're open to ideas provided there is a decent period of burial…

Bharati: Decent period of burial?

Tay: There must be some time lag, so that people forget. And public memory is usually very short. Once they've forgotten, then the good idea or whatever that may be, would be resurrected by the Government as their own ideas.

Bharati: So you feel that's what happened in this case?

Tay: I think so because the imperatives of power demand, at that time, even now, the dominance of the centralised wisdom.

Bharati: How did that make you feel at that point?

Tay: Disappointed, but also gratified that eventually the idea was accepted and implemented.

It’s hard to say, because take another case, where I very strongly advocated that the expansion of Collyer Quay Road should not take place. There was an attempt to connect the east of Singapore to the west of Singapore by a road that cuts across the city, and that would have been disastrous to the city because what was planned at that time was a 12-lane highway, and that would have meant a travesty that would have bisected the city.

So I made a lot of noise about that in public, and then again got the usual scolding, public scolding, and then the matter was put to rest. And many years later, Benjamin Sheares Bridge was built. Whether what I had said or what we had said earlier made that happen, we cannot say for sure.

Tay Kheng Soon 1
Veteran architect Tay Kheng Soon at the Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group (SPUR) reunion. (Photo: Tay Kheng Soon/Facebook)


Bharati: Why not join politics? You could have tried to change things from within.

Tay: My temperament. I cannot subject myself to party discipline or to be a henchman of somebody. So the only way to make a contribution to society was just to be very open and public about it.

Bharati: Why do you take up these things publicly? Haven't you ever considered engaging the Government in private? Maybe that would go down better.

Tay: The culture then and I think to some extent it still exists, is a petitionary culture. When you approach Government, you must do so with a certain degree of demonstrated deference, and that again, is not in my character. I always speak on the basis of equality. It's the cogency of the ideas that matters. It's not the position or the power relations between people that matters. It's the cogency, and I insist on that.

Bharati: It’s been many years since these things happened. To what extent do you think the Government’s approach has changed? It’s consulting more with the public and stakeholders.

Tay: I think to some extent it still exists. They believe that there has to be a pecking order. It's the Confucianist notion.

Bharati: Since your approach has not worked, why not try engaging with them differently?

Tay: I don't care! I will continue, and I have continued all the time, to develop ideas and analyses of realities and make proposals publicly, and whether the Government accepts it or not, is their prerogative. I'm not concerned.

Bharati: But if your approach is causing them to not listen, shouldn't you modify it? What's the point of coming up with wonderful ideas when you cannot engage people enough to consider them or to implement them? Then those ideas are wasted.

Tay: That's not in my thinking, you know. My attitude is the cogency of ideas. That's the most important thing.


Bharati: But shouldn't there be some sort of aim …

Tay: I'm not out there to succeed. I don't care.

Bharati: But wouldn't you like to see those ideas implemented?

Tay: If they are not implemented, and if the ideas are good and not implemented, it is a condemnation of the implementer, the potential implementer.

Bharati: One could also see it as a failure on the part of the ideas generator to convince the implementer ...

Tay: You see, the framing from which you come from is that there is a trading process between parties. I'm not interested in trading. I'm interested in being very clear and very cogent and make a case, and that's it. If people cannot accept the virtue, the value of an idea in its own merit, it's their problem. It's not mine.

Bharati: Don't you get disappointed, though, when it doesn't happen?

Tay: I don't!

Bharati: Not at all?

Tay: Not at all. The joy of finding things out for me is number one. This is a famous book by Richard Feynman.

Bharati: In the last few years, you’ve been saying that you don't want to build anything in Singapore. You are doing architectural and education projects in neighbouring countries instead. This might indicate you've given up on Singapore.

Tay: At my stage of life I shun having to deal with the bureaucracy. The compliance requirements to get a design approved is a tedious process I want to avoid.

Tay Kheng Soon 2
Mr Tay Kheng Soon being welcomed at a seminar in Jabalpur, India. (Photo: Tay Kheng Soon/Facebook) 

Bharati: One should note, though, that you clearly still have ideas for Singapore and we’ll talk about some of them in a moment. You’ve said in previous media interviews that you still care about Singapore. You can’t explain why but it’s a part of your being. How would you reconcile this with what you expressed earlier about not wanting to work here anymore?

Tay: Besides the tedium, I feel that my ideas are too far out.

Bharati: Over the years, you have criticised a number of structures in our country. This includes SOTA (School of the Arts), the Supreme Court building, and various other structures. Is there anything you like in Singapore?

Tay: Not much.


Bharati: Your own work?

Tay: No, if I say one of my own buildings, it would be too much like patting myself on the shoulder, right? In fact, at a recent architectural conference, people asked me this question - what I thought about my own work. I said, from my point of view now, looking back at the work, most of it is just trivial. Architecture is trivial.

Bharati: Why do you say that?

Tay: Because the way it's framed, architecture is basically a formalistic exercise in which, like the obsession children have with toys, that architecture is just visual toys. It's to me, very trivial. It's much more important than that.

Bharati: What's much more important than that?

Tay: The shaping and forming of an environment in which human capabilities can emerge. That is the most important thing.

Bharati: And what is required to create that environment? Isn't architecture part of that?

Tay: Architecture is only a small part of that. The big part of that is the human settlement itself. The human settlement must be conceived of not as a well-functioning mechanism, as it is now, but to be conceived of as a living organism. The highest form of living organism is the human body. Why is it high functioning? It's because it has an extensive nervous system along which huge amounts of information and stimulus are processed, which enables the human being to be highly responsive and creative.

The environment that we have, the so-called liveability that we are so proud of, is not an intelligent kind.


Bharati: So tell me what you consider an intelligent kind of liveability.

Tay: Let's take a typical HDB estate. The typical HDB estate is well-planned from the point of view of, things are put in the right place, so-called “right places”, so that they don't conflict. Let's take, for example, schools. Schools are always put on the edges of the town, in quiet places, in the false belief that children learn best in quiet places.

Completely wrong! Schools should be where the action is. Schools should be right in the centre of the city. Think of the old Raffles Institution …

Bharati: St Joseph's Institute (SJI).

Tay: SJI, you know, Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) and so on.

Bharati: Today, Singapore Management University (SMU).

Tay: Yes, but SMU is another tragic story which I want to talk about.

Bharati: I'll come back to SMU. But you're saying that there is a problem with the way neighbourhoods are designed.

Tay: Yes. So when children, in their very important formative years, live close to where the social actions are, the cultural activities, the civic functions, the commercial goings-on, they become much smarter.

The big issue today is, how do you connect book-smarts with life-smarts? This is our problem now. In the HDB estates, they are only book-smart, if they are book-smart at all. 

So what it means is that, when you introduce to the central nervous system a housing estate, it means that the schools must be stretched out along the nervous system, which connects all the civic and the cultural functions along which, as people go about the routines of their everyday life, they will bump into each other, learn new things and increase their intelligence. Where the schools are is the absolute central issue!

The school is the integrator of community and cultural life. And that's where the basic intelligence of people is formed.

You take another situation. All our school classrooms are empty during the evenings and during the weekends. Why? It's a terrible waste. If it's in the central nervous system, adult education, social functions and so on can be held in those classrooms which are otherwise empty. This is the kind of bad planning that we have and it’s based on really wrong thinking.

Tay Kheng Soon 3
Mr Tay speaking at a seminar in Jabalpur, India. (Photo: Tay Kheng Soon/Facebook) 


Bharati: You’ve said before, that the real issue in housing today though, is empowerment.

Tay: The issue has got two aspects. Well, certainly much more than two aspects, but I’ll just focus on two. One is the physical, which I have talked about the introduction of the nervous system as the organic planning model, and the other is the software. Now, that’s much more complicated. How do you actually increase the participation level of citizens? Make them want to get more involved, help the community, develop their capabilities? In other words, how do you change the political model. I think that’s what’s needed.

Now, the elitist model that we have, which is part of Lee Kuan Yew’s “Hard Truths”, is that in order to keep this country intact, you need centralised power. Centralised power means with all the intention of what they call inclusiveness and all those motherhood statements.

But centralisation is by definition, exclusivism, right? The future of Singapore means, if you want to have increased participation, you must decentralise. Take the Swiss model, divide Singapore into five parts. Turn the five community development councils into governments! So, we have five governments in Singapore, with one central government – the Swiss canton system. And let them compete with each other.

Two things will happen. When you decentralise like that, it means the total number of people employed in government will increase dramatically. So, you have five HDBs, you’ve five MOEs, you’ve five whatever planning agencies that you have. Let them compete. When you compete, you will bring out the best. So, imagine that in one of the CDCs, you have a different school system that produces incredibly smart kids. The other schools will have to innovate also. So therefore, we would have a better system.

Bharati: But we’re such a small country, do we really need something like that? I mean, this sounds a lot like larger countries that have many states and cities within them.

Tay: Well, the issue of diversity is even more important in a small unified state like Singapore because, the biggest problem in Singapore is human resource development. Kuan Yew has always lamented the fact that we don’t have enough talent because our population is small. Therefore we need a lot of foreign talent. I agree with him; we do need foreign talent to some extent. But, more importantly, we need to develop local talent.

Epigenetics, which is the new science that has been around for the last 15  years, is a very important contribution to genetic thinking.  Epigenetics is a part of the human genome that switches on or off various genomic capacities, and this switching on and off in epigenetics is conditioned by the environment. Therefore, there is an interconnection between how you plan your physical environment and how you run the society and how the individual develops.

That means the hardware and the software that will switch on or switch off various kinds of capacities is important. My argument is that we’re not switching on enough of our creative capacities.

Bharati: So, if it were up to you to switch this on, how would you suggest we do it? Decentralised government?

Tay: That’s the point, five constituencies, five separate governments – we must do that! That is the future of Singapore, provided we dare to move in that direction. But this is where Lee Kuan Yew has made, to me, the greatest error. Because, it is logical in his point of view, that the selection of leaders cannot rely on idealism because idealism is unreliable. Secondly, unless you pay people highly – you pay able people very highly – you will lose them. That’s the formula.

Bharati: What’s wrong with that? Some might say there is merit in that argument.

Tay: Exactly. Good question. What’s wrong, is that there is an unintended moral hazard. When you have so much high pay, you don’t want to risk anything. This is a flaw in the Lee Kuan Yew model. In fact, I’m writing about this right now, and I’ll be publishing publicly soon. So, the moral hazard has institutionalised a conservatism that is not serving us very well.

We need, at this point, particularly because the global economy is in a shaky situation, a really robust culture that is able to liberate the suppressed capabilities in our own people. It should not be limited by size or genetics. If we do create that kind of environment, we will produce incredibly savvy and capable people without which we would not be able to deal with the unpredictable and difficult situations that the global situation will throw at us. So, this is our fundamental challenge.


Bharati: Clearly you feel there needs to be more risk-taking in policy-making as well. What is needed today to change all of this considering we don’t have the benefit of a tabula rasa?

Tay: We need a system revolution, right? Where the revolution is going to come from – it’s going to come from crisis. Crisis is opportunity. Things don’t change if there’s no crisis. So, I think that the global economy is going to hit us, because the Singapore economy is based entirely on export; because the domestic economy is minuscule. Therefore, we need to face this fact, and we have to start early to prepare our people and to prepare our capabilities for the inevitable.

The inevitable is that the global system is already in a state of what I would describe as “slow-motion collapse”. The problem with a slow-motion collapse is that we always tend to defer the issue. When Lee Kuan Yew and his group of pioneer leaders faced the sudden collapse in 1965 of the divorce or expulsion from Malaysia, it was a crisis that hit everybody. And therefore, that crisis gave the pioneer leadership group the opportunity to define a new future.

The problem is that global crisis now doesn’t come like that. It’s insidious. It’s creeping and people can always excuse themselves and say: "Yes we need to change, but in good time." I am sorry. Don’t have “good time”. We have to change now.

Bharati: While you have ideas for engendering a culture of creativity and human initiative, what do you think it will take for the Government to be more accepting of alternative ideas and engagement with activists such as yourself?

Tay: I really believe it will happen but only when the economy crashes. The problem is we are going through a slow motion crisis so the urgency is not there.

Bharati: You talked about planning issues - where schools should be situated, the concept of nerve centres, etc. However, with recent moves towards being a Smart Nation, and with ICT solutions to improve liveability and connectivity between people and agencies, how relevant really do you see the physical environment continuing to be and why?

Tay: ICT will only augment direct human interaction. The example of loneliness of urban Japanese is telling. As people rely more and more on electronic forms of interaction and information and entertainment, they become fearful of direct contact.

Singapore must never get into that situation.

Therefore, the concept of the nervous system is an important means of organising physical social space whereby as people go about the routines of everyday life, they naturally come in contact. The key means is for the schools to be the natural social nexus. Once students become involved in the daily life or the activities of the community, a natural cohesiveness arise. Moreover, the kids will not only be book smart they will be life smart as well.

Singapore Polytechnic
Students at Singapore Polytechnic. (File photo: TODAY)

Bharati: Some people might say, you’re an architect, why don’t you stick to the buildings and the landscapes. What makes you a political, social or economic expert?

Tay: As a comprehensivist, how can you block off areas of inquiry? The kind of meritocracy we have is very insular, very narrowly defined: If you’re an architect, just be a good architect; if you’re a doctor, just be a good doctor. No. I’m sorry. It cannot be that way. You’ve a good lawyer, Lee Kuan Yew, who’s also a mastermind for the nation in its formative years. So, it’s completely wrong to think that capabilities are necessarily only to be focused in their own area of interest, area of knowledge.

A capable person must exceed the boundaries of his discipline, right? He or she has to be able to join the dots and produce a set of cogent ideas that are relevant to the situation and the society.

Bharati: Why do you care about such issues so much?

Tay: Why did Lee Kuan Yew worry about having more trees in Singapore? Because it makes money? No. Because he could see that the kind of densities that we are living in, the kind of concrete we are exposed to, it’s not a good thing. Therefore, we must soften the environment. It was something that came out of his own emotional reaction to the environment.

Bharati: And it’s the same for you - an emotional reaction to the environment.

Tay: Of course.

Bharati: There’s been a lot of debate lately about heritage and nature conservation. Where do you stand on this issue? Some of the reasons cited for the loss of nature areas for instance are related to space constraints, but knowing that you believe that with careful planning, we wouldn’t actually experience a space constraint, I wonder what you think.

Tay: The public has been voicing out their concerns. The Bukit Brownies, Nature Society, Heritage Society, all these people have been voicing out. And so on so forth. These are very important and good efforts on their part. But I want to attack the problem at the core of it: At the physical planning level.

The planning methodology is flawed, is totally flawed. We are not short of land. Based on my simple arithmetic years ago, there are ways to house more.  So the argument that we have a shortage of land is a false justification for why we need to encroach into much of our nature areas. 

Bharati: I want to go back to something you said earlier. You said you are not quite happy with the way SMU has been built even though it is situated in the city.

Tay: Yes, I’ve argued for a long time that education should be where the action is. So, I totally agree that we should put SMU in the city. Unfortunately, the city has changed. In the past, that area was a living city. People were living there. Most of the people have now moved to the housing estates. So the social ecology around SMU is now not the same as it was before. So therefore, the kind of interaction possibility between the students of SMU and the surroundings to that extent is depleted. Worse still, the number of live-in students in that area is not a lot because of building costs, available land, so on and so forth. 


Bharati: You have been rather critical of many, many things in Singapore over the years. Is there anything you think the Government has done right?

Tay: The Government has done right in terms of, and this is Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s great achievement, the greening of the whole city. That has been most important. The Government has also achieved a lot in terms of social housing.

But unfortunately, somewhere in the 80s and 90s, the narrative changed. It became asset enhancement. This is a big mistake. Because the issue of asset enhancement has changed the people’s expectations. People are now doing what S. Rajaratnam had voiced, had feared. An issue which Rajah said in the early days called ‘Moneytheism’ - worship of money. OK, so now there’s a very strange situation that is arising. People are now discussing, what happens when the lease runs out.

It was brought up in Parliament recently. It alarmed everybody because of the false expectation that was created - asset enhancement. People believed that. Such is the trust that people have in the Government. Believing that the asset will be continuously enhanced.

It’s not going to be enhanced. It’s going to drop off. Actually we are going to have a very interesting discussion on Saturday (May 13) with “The Future of Singapore” group that I have set up - a modern-day SPUR - and we are using the Internet to multiply the ideas. The lease buyback scheme is not popular. Why is it not popular? That is one issue. Can it become popular? What is the implication if it becomes popular? Will it bankrupt the state? These are the questions that we have to worry about.

Bharati: I asked you earlier whether or not there is anything of your own work that you are proud of. You didn’t really answer the question.

Tay: What I’m most proud of is the bamboo school that I built in Thailand where the poorest children in Thailand in the Buriram province go. It’s poor because it’s the driest place. The agriculture is very low-yielding. The kids learn through experiential learning and interaction. I am very proud of that. When I met the kids and talked to them, they are so proud of the school. Many of them come back to school in the weekend to do their own projects in the school campus because they love the school. 

Tay Kheng Soon 5
Mechai Bamboo School's multi-purpose dome made of bamboo designed by Mr Tay Kheng Soon. (Photo: Mechai Bamboo School/Facebook) 

On a micro-scale, I designed a house in Saigon for a couple. Husband is a German and the wife is a Vietnamese. This was 15 years ago. And they have remained very good friends all these years and continue to be good friends. Then I visited the house and I have visited the house many times; but this time, I met the grandchild who was born in that house. When I met her, she was 8 years old, and she took me by the hand and walked me through the garden. She was very proud of the house. She showed me her homework and she had very beautiful handwriting and was very happy. And then finally we had lunch. She kissed me and told her grandfather that she is so happy about the house.

To me, this is most important endorsement of my work, more than anything, by a little child. It’s a large three-generation home set in a walled garden. The house is a series of pavilions with courts and gardens in between. Lots of nooks and corners for the kids to hang out. It has a large kitchen designed for adults and kids to work together. There are picnic areas and several different places for different kinds of meals. All the spaces flow into each other. The pond is a favourite place for wildlife. The swimming pool is where friends and family chill out.

The vindication is because it’s a beautiful child who expressed herself that way.

Source: CNA/kk