Reflections with Jan Seow

By Ng Wan Jee

Ms Jan Seow is currently Director of the Strategic Planning Department in the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

As the lead of this department, she oversees medium- to long-term land planning in Singapore, making use of geospatial analytics, research and various studies to improve urban planning outcomes. Ms Seow has also previously worked in other departments under URA, including the Development Control Group, and the Corporate Development Group. She enjoys spending time with her children outside of work, and believes that family and health should always be prioritized first.

Since we are in the public service, one of the important things is to have the desire to serve the people. There is some sense of altruism in what we do.  As we balance the interests of different stakeholders, there will always be someone who will be unhappy with our decisions at any point in time. So for us to find the meaning in our work, it is not about getting public recognition, but rather being willing to serve the people as we find that balance amidst differing needs.

This portfolio gives me a sense of satisfaction because we are planning for the future generations; my own as well as the next one or two generations. What we aim to do is to ensure the future generations have the option to make their own choices. This means we don’t use up every piece of land now, instead leave room for future generations to decide the physical landscape they want for Singapore, especially to accommodate new trends. This is personally meaningful to me since I have children. Having said that, not everyone has kids, so it is really more about how we are answerable to the future generations in how we plan for Singapore.

I am grateful to be given the Director role in URA as it gives me the chance to build talent and shape perspectives. I spend about 30% of my time building talent, whether it is through mentoring them or refining their urban planning analyses. I hope to inspire them and help them understand why we do certain things, because sometimes when we are locked in the midst of tight deadlines or when plans and policies iterate, it can get overwhelming. My team leaders also do their part to reinforce the teaching to the junior ones. My team has many smart people, both young and senior people. This generational diversity enables them to learn from one other – the young ones who are fast in picking up things can share what they have learnt e.g. new technologies; the senior ones share their wisdom and insights gained over experience. Humility is also one of the key things that I always emphasize – we need to have the humility to keep learning from one another, because everyone can bring something to the team, whether it is knowledge or experience. Diversity is double-edged, so we just need to find a way to work together by communicating our different preferences and respecting one another.

Although we do long-term urban planning, our timelines to get the plans reviewed regularly are tight. As we work with different government agencies, everyone debates productively about what they want and we have to find a balance amidst conflicting needs. The timeline is short because we need time for agencies to understand one another’s perspectives and find a joint solution. This is critical especially when we need to push beyond comfort zones for new solutions beyond business-as-usual for the people’s benefit. Long-term planning gives us a lead time of 20-40 years, to start thinking about the difficult urban planning and infrastructure solutions and how to put them in place. Many of my agency counterparts agree that we should always think beyond our own agencies’ boundaries for the good of Singapore, and that we should plan for the future, now.

One interesting challenge in terms of building a team is working with many smart people. I enjoy working with them. We just need to remember that smart people usually have strong views, and sometimes their views may conflict with one another. It is not just about trying to mediate, but also sometimes just letting the young and the senior members hear one another. The challenge of conflicting views comes when certain decisions need to be made quickly. I may be able to convince some of them, but not all. At the end of the day, everyone has their own perspective. My view is that urban planning is subjective, an ’art-science’ even though we do evidence-based urban planning. When people have different views, sometimes it’s not about whether who is right or wrong, but rather finding the best decision based on the available evidence for that particular stakeholder. That challenge is overcome by getting them to hear one another’s views before we settle on a final informed decision.

‘Work-life balance’ is defined differently at each life stage – from singlehood to marriage to having kids. Each stage requires different strategies. As I have young kids now, on days when the kids contract high fever while there is an important meeting to attend, I feel a little torn deciding if I should stay at home or work. So a few critical factors that help me through these conflicting periods are:

  1. Having very enlightened bosses who are pro-family and who trust me. They give me the space to find a way to deliver my work even if I’m not there physically.
  2. Having capable team leaders who can take over when I am not around. They can contact me anytime even if I’m not physically in office.
  3. Technology is critical, as we discuss urgent matters by video call or messaging.
  4. Over the years with experience, I learnt to work faster and more productively. That helps when we have more roles to play.

When my staff go through similar things, we have the same expectations that family and their own health should be put first, especially for conditions that people cannot see such as mental illnesses.

My definition of work-life balance may be different from others. It is not about how many hours in the office versus at home, because sometimes certain responsibilities may cross over to e.g. engaging the public over weekends. There’s a give and take. We don’t really count the hours anymore but rather what we deliver, so it is more performance-based. At the end of the day, I want to ensure I have done my best as an office worker and for my kids, which may not correspond with the amount of hours.

Humans are adaptive, and we don’t realise this fact until we are forced to take a new role, so at that point, the only way out is to stay focused, decide what is important and stay positive.

Currently my life outside of work is very much just bringing my kids for their whole routine of classes. They have not reached the age where they can take public transport, so life outside is mainly being a chauffeur, tuition teacher, and nurse for my kids. I have my own religious gatherings as well.

Our industry is basically land-use planning in civil service. With limited land and sea space, urban planning for Singapore to be sustainable and resilient for the future is key on the minds of the planning agencies in Singapore.

Some of the challenges are how to meet people’s aspirations which will keep changing and rising over time, how to use our limited land prudently with population and economic growth, while still maintaining a good quality of built environment. This is coupled with another challenge of figuring how to best use limited resources (e.g. manpower, money) to build the needed infrastructure. With technology advancing rapidly, how to leverage on it to deliver better urban planning outcomes for the people while addressing cybersecurity issues is an important aspect not to be forgotten.

Last but not least, our physical landscape changes over time. How to accommodate growth, facilitate redevelopment to refresh jaded locations while not losing the character or sense of place of various parts of Singapore is a challenge that warrants more thought.

There are no easy solutions. But one of them is about getting the best data available, for agencies to share that data to avoid work duplication, respecting legislations and data privacy of course, so that we can plan more robustly. As there may be more than 1 right answer, we should ask critical questions that ensure we drop those solutions that are not appropriate for the prevailing operating context.

The planning agencies doing land and infrastructure planning have a common goal of planning the best that we can. We are working for the common good of Singapore, there is no political agenda, so it is not hard to work with one another.

On hindsight, I wish that someone told me that urban planning is subjective, because I used to get frustrated when decisions change. Looking back, I realise that things change because evidence, people’s perspective and views change. We can’t say that people’s perspectives are wrong. If we manage our own expectations, there will be a lot less struggle and angst, and therefore a lot less cynicism. I often tell my team that urban planning is subjective. It won’t take away their stress when they go through it, but at least they hear about it early so that they can manage their expectations.

My advice to youths is this one quote that I always tell my department: When we see a cup that is one quarter full and three quarters empty, train our minds to focus on the one quarter full, as that gives us the energy to figure out how to solve the three-quarters empty. If we spend too much time being upset about the three-quarters empty, the negativity zaps the energy needed to solve the issue. Though it may take time for our brains to take a positive perspective as a habit, the brain is adaptable.

The advice I would give is that we need to believe in what we do. If we don’t believe in some of the decisions that the senior level positions are making, then we should, at that time when it is discussed at our level, raise our views and give the necessary evidence to support it. As long as we voice it out, if decision-makers choose to overrule us, that’s fine because at least they made an informed decision. Urban planning requires teamwork, so that every level value-adds to one another.  Sometimes things work in cycles: a recommendation that is not suitable today because the climate is not ready, may get adopted 5 years later. So we shouldn’t give up too early, and don’t take the rejection of the idea personally or cynically. Instead move on and find the right time to revisit it again.

The other important thing is learning to take the perspectives of different people. We cannot just put out things that we want to say, as the target audience may not be ready to hear it. For example, between government agencies, if we can see from their perspective the interest that they are trying to protect, we can see how we can pitch an idea that’s also in their interest. Putting ourselves in people’s perspective and showing that we are sincere in trying will always go a long way.

I think knowing how to do spatial analytics is an advantage. If not, come in and learn quickly. We have planners from all sorts of disciplines, e.g. urban planning, architecture, geography,  economics etc. An urban planning degree is probably one of the more relevant training, but there are not a lot of people with such degrees because it is a course only offered overseas, and the knowledge learnt needs adjusting when it is translated to the Singapore context.

At the end of the day, I think the most important thing is the soft skills, of being able to learn and having humility. Even after 2 decades of working, I remind myself to keep that humility, because there will always be things we don’t know. Even for the smart people, there are things they learn from others who are ‘less smart’.

That attitude of never becoming negative easily and having perseverance are also important – sometimes we just have to grit our teeth and go through it to solve the issue as best that we can, instead of passing it to someone else to solve. Sometimes when you solve the problem with your team, there is a great sense of achievement.

In fact, (this could be good or bad), my team just went through 3 years of very stressful times but with a good product through a good process. 3 years ago, I was preparing them for it mentally, but I don’t think they foresaw how hard it was going to be. We went through the thick and thin together and when completed, they felt a great sense of satisfaction.

Skills must be combined with the attitude of humility, positivity and grit. Combined, they can bring you anywhere.

In urban planning, other than seeing how the island has been structured over the years, the extent of public engagement that URA does has also changed. When I first started in 2000, URA engaged the public for views on our long term plans, and that was a pleasant surprise because before that we were mainly just providing information to the public. But for the Concept Plan 2001, we started holding public forums which the Minister chaired, for people to freely give their views even though we didn’t know what they would say about certain plans. We recognised that people are more educated and sometimes they want to voice their opinions. We had a room of about 200 people with the Minister then in fruitful exchange. Over the years, the extent of engagement that URA does has widened and deepened. Widened because there a lot more aspects that we talk to the public about, and deepened because we no longer just ask their views on preliminary plans, but also collaborate with local stakeholders. For example we are now forming Business Improvement Districts where local stakeholders decide how they want to do place-management for their local areas. Also, because of technological advancements, we now scan social platforms as another place to hear people’s views and respond, when necessary, through social media.

I think land-use planning is a core work that the Singapore government will always have to do, and because it is not profit-generating, it is not something that you can give to the private sector to complete. Urban planning work will continue involving the community and the professional bodies and private sector to get different views. The fact that we have to balance between conflicting views will stay. Hence all the more we have to work closer within government so that we build on another’s efforts. We also need to ensure that the way we plan is such that the future generations have room to exercise their decisions when they take over, so that much shouldn’t change.

I would say go and try what you want to try – whatever that you are passionate about. If you fail, just get up and try again or try something else. Don’t give up, unless we reach a stage where you no longer find it fulfilling and meaningful.

The worst thing to do is to ‘stand still’, which is not the same as resting. We must find the proper time to rest, whether your recuperation is from socialising or from reading a book at home. Whereas ‘standing still’ is when you give up and become cynical. So try not to reach that point; take it as a norm to fail in some things since the process is not easy, and that’s how we learn and improve, so keep trying!

Sleep! That’s a physical need that everyone needs to try and do, for at least 6-7 hours a day.

On a more serious note, the thing that I really value most is time for myself. I need that time so that I can reflect on what I have done right or wrong, when I need to stop and/or change direction. I often ask myself, what do I hope that the people who are important to me say at my wake? If I can live a life such that they will say what I hope, then I can sleep in peace.