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HDB Chief Cheong Koon Hean

HDB Chief refuses to answer opposition member’s question on planning principle behind high population density

At the 3rd IPS lecture on "Shaping The Future of Heartland Living" in NUS yesterday evening (23 Apr), HDB Chief Cheong Koon Hean refused to answer question posed by former opposition candidate for Hong Kah, Ravi Philemon. Mr Philemon used to be the editor for The Independent online news blog but now writes for iCompareLoan.com.

During the Q&A session at the lecture, Mr Philemon asked Cheong what was the urban planning principle behind the higher population density plans, espoused by her at the last lecture when she said that Singapore’s population density would increase from 11,000 people per sq km to 13,700 people per sq km between now and 2030.

"HDB chief today (23 Apr) chose not to answer that question," Mr Philemon revealed what happened at the lecture.

Earlier, an ST reader, Cheang Peng Wah, had also written to ST Forum expressing his alarm after hearing the 13,700 people per sq km density figure quoted by Cheong. In the letter, he pointed out that Singapore’s land area is only about 720 sq km. Hence, with this high density figure, Singapore's population size could go up to 9,864,000, or nearly 10 million, by 2030. He said this was not the figure projected in the Population White Paper of 2013, which talked about 6.9 million population.

Cheong: I have the right to answer whichever questions I want

This was what Mr Philemon asked Cheong yesterday, "In the last lecture you mentioned that Singapore’s population density will increase in the future. I can understand and appreciate that your views on urban planning are based on your role as a planner – not policy maker. But planners too don’t plan in a vacuum. My question is, 'what underlying principles/philosophies guide your planning process.'"

The Q&A session was moderated by Professor Lily Kong, Provost of SMU. Because of the brevity of time, Prof Kong suggested that a few questions be asked before Cheong replied them. There were several other questions asked, including those from former Minister of State for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Zainul Abidin, an RGS student, a representative from an NGO, and a property agent.

However, after the questions were asked and when it was time for Cheong to answer, she told the audience that she had the right to answer whichever questions she wanted to.

She then went ahead to answer all the questions, except two - one by Mr Philemon and another by a property agent. The property agent had asked about HDB flat resale price which has increased over the generations and is now viewed as a "ticking time bomb".

High population density idea comes from politics?

Mr Philemon continued, "At the end of the lecture as I was leaving the venue of the lecture, another participant (who was a total stranger to me) stopped me at the hallway and remarked with a wry smile: 'she didn’t answer you did she? It was an important question.'"

"I agree with him that it was an important question, which the HDB chief should have considered answering," Mr Philemon added.

Urban planning is often described not only as a technical process, but also as a political one, which is concerned with the development and use of land protection and use of the environment, public welfare and the design of urban environment, including air, water and the infrastructure passing into and out of urban areas such as transportation, communication and distribution network.

Mr Philemon surmised that the philosophy behind the higher population density could be due to politics. That is, the PAP government is asking urban planners to cater for a larger population with a view of dramatically increase Singapore's immigration levels so as to get more new citizens in, who undoubtedly would be more "appreciative" of the PAP.

"The urban planners in HDB are indeed guided by prevailing political philosophies such as the Ethnic Integration Policy, Permanent Resident Quota policy, car-free town centre, etc," Mr Philemon remarked.

HDB has a clearly stated pricing principle – “to keep homes within the reach of the majority of flat buyers”. But he noted, "Besides the overarching policy principle of 'universal home-ownership', it (HDB) does not seem to have an urban planning principle."

In any case, Cheong's predecessor, Dr Liu Thai Ker, has been touting a 10 million population figure for Singapore on and off in public media.

HDB: 13,700 people per sq km is living density, not population density

Meanwhile, Cheong's subordinate Jaffrey Aw, the Director of Strategic Planning for HDB, replied to Mr Cheang Peng Wah in ST Forum today (24 Apr):

We refer to Mr Cheang Peng Wah's letter (Alarmed by population figures; April 20).

Housing Board chief executive Cheong Koon Hean's lecture was about how Singapore can anticipate its urban future and develop "liveable density". The figures cited were, hence, on living density, and not population density.

Living density takes into account only the land available for urban areas, and excludes land used for ports, airports, defence and utilities, among others. It would be inaccurate to extrapolate the population size from the living density figure.

Still, we are talking about some 25% increase in "living density" for Singaporeans in the next 12 years or so.