Desmond Lee stresses balancing act in land use for Singapore’s present and future generations

Desmond Lee stresses balancing act in land use for Singapore’s present and future generations

Balancing the needs of today’s generation and future generations is crucial when making decisions about land use and infrastructure in Singapore, said Minister for National Development Desmond Lee during the 52nd St Gallen Symposium held in Switzerland on Thursday.

Mr Lee was speaking at a plenary session on the age of perma crisis at St Gallen University, which also featured Deputy Mayor of Huon Valley in Tasmania Toby Thorpe, former Future Generations Commissioner for Wales Sophie Howe, and was moderated by Bertelsmann Stiftung Vice-President and political scientist Cathryn Cluver Ashbrook.

To illustrate the scarcity of land in Singapore, Mr Lee mentioned that the city-state has two-thirds of Switzerland’s population, squeezed into less than 2 per cent of its land area.

He added, “We’re a city-state, which means there is no Plan B, there’s no alternative city. The city is the country and (whether) the city succeeds or fails, that determines the fate of the nation.”

When asked about the role of love or the heart in the decision-making process, Mr. Lee recounted emotional moments during the Covid-19 pandemic when life-or-death decisions were made.

He shared an example when the government had to convince nursing home staff to quarantine with their patients during the 2020 circuit breaker.

Reflecting on the experience, Mr. Lee said, “It is not just about the technocratic decision-making. Crisis or no crisis, a decision is an act of faith based on the best-known data that you have and, working with your public officers and the private sector, you make a call and you stand or fall with it.”

In response to a question from a British audience member, Mr Lee highlighted the hard trade-offs Singapore faces due to its small size, which makes everything “magnified and intense.”

Mr Lee shared, “I met one of my predecessors in my department and he said, no way we cleared this land we were tempted to just build housing because there was need. But we bit the bullet. We kept it vacant for your generation. Please make good use of it and touch it only if you need to.”

He went on to say, “And sometimes it means making difficult decisions, but it’s land use and land use versus housing, land use versus conservation, land use versus health care. Making people upset sometimes because it is in the interests of some other group or another generation not yet born.”

In 2010, Singapore allocated 14 per cent of its land for housing use and plans to increase it to 17 per cent by 2030 with land reclamation and clearing of green spaces.


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