Petir Explains: How does the Long-Term Plan guide Singapore’s urban future?


“We have to make difficult choices between the many needs and the unlimited wants of today, versus setting aside enough space and resources to meet the uncertain challenges of tomorrow,” said Minister for National Development Desmond Lee at the St Gallen Symposium Singapore Forum on Jan 13.

Singapore is a small place. Getting from one end of our island to the other takes about an hour.

This simply isn’t possible in most other countries out there. The Boon Lay to Changi journey isn’t far; not compared to a similar cross-island journey from Exeter to Canterbury in the United Kingdom, for example.

At the same time, we are also a busy metropolis that’s consistently one of the world’s top best cities for living. That’s remarkable. There just aren’t much land resources for building homes, offices, commercial districts, ports, green open spaces for us to relax and recharge, and all the other developments which make Singapore into a place worth living.   

Land, in other words, is a national asset of which Singapore doesn’t have much. It is part of our finite reserves and needs prudent management from the PAP Government. Not just for today, but for the future: these decisions linger.

Source: URA

The Long-Term Plan, accordingly, is the PAP Government strategising Singapore’s land use and transport plans. It safeguards how land gets used in Singapore for the next 50 years and beyond. A review happens once every decade and when the Long-Term Plan is translated to the Master Plan, that in turn is reviewed every five years.

“Long-term planning for any city is important, but especially for one with unique traits and unique constraints such as Singapore,” said Minister Lee when he launched the Long-Term Plan Review public engagement exercise in July 2021.

“We have to think creatively to fit all the needs of a typical country, within the confines of our city limits.”

That is especially true now. Most of Singapore is currently built-up areas and uncertain times are coming.     

“We are also facing more uncertainties, with emerging trends and complex challenges that will impact how we live, work and play, and how we interact with the countries around us,” noted Minister Lee.

“The existential threat of climate change, economic and technological disruptions and change, and the Covid-19 pandemic and future pandemics, are just some examples of significant developments that will change how we plan for our future city.”

Problems, then, which need solving. So how exactly does the Long-Term Plan Review help Singapore plan — and prepare — for all these eventualities, though? How does the Party steward our nation’s land?  

The Government always delivers on national development

Part of the answer involves looking at how the Party government has always planned for Singapore’s cityscape.

These urban development strategies were based on what was available and needed.

For instance, the very first Concept Plan (these Concept Plans were the precursors of the Long-Term Plan) back in 1971 was mainly for building basic infrastructure in our new nation. These included new housing towns around the Central Catchment area, industrial estates and recreational spaces across the island, expressways and preparing for a modest Mass Rapid Transit system (just for the city centre and its satellite towns) someday.

Source: URA

Plus, the PAP leaders designing this first Concept Plan decided that Paya Lebar Airport would be replaced by an upcoming one at Changi. This although Paya Lebar Airport was completed less than two decades earlier (in 1955) and had been Singapore’s main commercial airport ever since.

“With the airport in Paya Lebar, the planes flew right over dense residential areas like Geylang and Katong, causing a lot of noise pollution,” noted Minister Lee.  

“If instead the airport were to be placed in Changi, near the coast, planes could arrive and depart near the water. And there would be more room to reclaim land and expand the airport, as passenger and cargo traffic continued to grow.”

So: an early example of the PAP Government planning for the long-term future. Pragmatism, after all, is one of our core Party attributes.

It turned out excellently. Changi is now one of the world’s best airports and a national symbol. Paya Lebar Airport, soon repurposed, is a longstanding national defence asset as Paya Lebar Air Base. The residents of Geylang and Katong (and other towns in the East) sleep well over noise-free nights.

Later Concept Plans served different needs.

1991’s was about creating an island city for balancing work and play. Different cultural, commercial and technological corridors were proposed, as was the expensive work of combining seven small offshore islands into what is now Jurong Island.

The 2001 one, quite literally building upon the earlier two, focused on growing Singapore as a financial hub with ample spaces for recreation. The 2011 iteration set aside land for national needs beyond 2030 and also envisioned high-quality living environs — we were now very far advanced from the 1971 days of planning for basic infrastructure.   

What’s common in all these plans? Well, they all had different PAP Governments of the day looking out for the nation by seeing beyond the problems of their immediate present. This so that other Singaporeans (read: us and our descendants) will keep inheriting one of the world’s best cities.

Seven guiding principles and four strategic developments

The current Long-Term Plan, naturally, comes from a similar ethos, with Guiding Principles.

Quality Living and a Sense of Well-Being is about diverse housing and recreational spaces which foster health, safety and comfort for people. In the same vein, Inclusive Spaces for Stronger Communities caters is for making Singapore an accessible space where diverse groups can bond.

Distinctive Spaces to Cherish works along much the same lines, creating delightful everyday and heritage spaces (think the glow-up for the Civic District from years past).  

Meanwhile, Connected and Thriving focuses on keeping Singapore a well-connected global hub with a vibrant economy. Climate-Ready and Sustainable answers the challenges of the Anthropocene, supporting sustainable living and taking care of Singapore’s natural green spaces.

And Flexible and Resilient sees the Government preparing for (and adapting to) the era’s emerging challenges, needs and possibilities.

“Learning from this pandemic, do we need to set aside buffers in our land-use plans, that we can quickly convert and pivot for contingency uses? During this pandemic, we needed land to rapidly set up quarantine and isolation facilities, to safeguard public health,” Minister Lee said as an example, when he invited the Singaporean public to the Long-Term Plan Review.

“So there are many questions, questions that we will need to address for today’s needs, questions that we need to address learning from this pandemic, so that’s in the mid-term, and we must always keep an eye far on the future, even if it is for an era where we are no longer around,” he explained.

For now, the Long-Term Plan includes four particular strategic developments.  

Most visibly, five Identity Corridors, each designed to preserve and enhance the unique characteristics of the areas they run through, are scheduled.

The walking and cycling spaces of the Inner Ring corridor running from Zion Road to Balestier and Lavender will connect the city fringe districts, for example. Closer to the sea, the Southern Ridges and Coast corridor will be a 10km-long promenade connecting Marina Barrage to the Southern Ridges. More, the Historic East corridor will reinforce the historical character (all those pre-independence low-rise shophouses!) of Geylang-Changi Road.  

Source: Wikimedia, Calvin Teo

A City in Nature approach has resulted in plans for the ecologically-sensitive Khatib Nature Corridor, and three other potential ones around Lim Chu Kang, Kranji and Seletar. And perhaps another where Paya Lebar Air Base now is; it will relocate from the 2030s onwards for a new generation town on its current site.

In fact, relocating Paya Lebar Air Base is part of a third strategy which involves reclaiming or redeveloping large parcels of land. These large Future Development Areas also include Tuas Port (it’s being consolidated so that there’ll be space for the Greater Southern Waterfront) and will have many uses — anything from housing to industry.         

Building more subterranean facilities, like at the Jurong Rock Caverns and Underground Ammunition Facility, is also in the works.

“We will also explore building more caverns for storage, specialised utility infrastructure or perhaps even to house automated industrial facilities below ground,” said Minister Lee.

All in all, these Guiding Principles and strategic developments cater to the diverse, growing needs of Singaporeans, making the best use of the land we have.

Space for our dreams

The Government invited contributions from Singaporeans from all walks of life before the Long Plan’s launch; it’s important to work together when creating a home.

The Long-Term Plan, that said, is better with stability.

A seismic shift on well-laid housing plans while construction’s ongoing? Major U-turns when building transport infrastructure like in other countries? Those just aren’t the Singaporean way; the Government commits to all these development projects.

Never mind that we might not see all these developments completed during our lifetimes. Our descendants will. Just like we currently enjoy the results of the previous Plans, which often grow. That preparation for a modest MRT system back in Concept Plan 1971? The system’s much bigger and better now and ranks, like our city overall, as one of the world’s best.   

This is what you, me and our loved ones get with the Party safeguarding our resources wisely and prudently.

“There is always a temptation to exhaust all our land and consume our fiscal reserves to make popular choices to meet the needs of today’s generation,” said Minister Lee in his Jan 2023 speech. 

“But that was not the approach our pioneer leaders took. Instead, they were disciplined and far-sighted to make the difficult trade-offs and long-term plans that have set our generation up for success.”

Singapore’s small. But the Long-Term Plan is in place so that we can all dream big.

Cover photo credit: URA