Conversations with Joycelyn Yik

By Lin Min Htoo and Maple Ee

Joycelyn Yik is a Senior Planner at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). As a planner in URA’s Strategic Planning Group, Joycelyn is part of a team that plans for Singapore’s long-term land uses over the next 50 years. She has an extensive background in multiple aspects of planning, having worked in several departments across URA, and is currently involved in URA’s Long-Term Plan Review. Joycelyn has also played a part in various planning projects, such as the siting of the Singapore University of Technology and Design and the planning of the Thomson-East Coast MRT Line. She was awarded the URA Undergraduate Scholarship in 2003 to read a Bachelor of Arts in Economics at Yale University and was awarded a postgraduate scholarship in 2017 to pursue her Master of Arts in Public Policy at Claremont Graduate University. In this article, Joycelyn shares about her journey in URA, her transition from being a student to a planner, and valuable advice for youths aspiring to join URA.

I am part of the Strategic Planning Group, which deals with Singapore’s long-term plans in the next 50 years. My typical workday revolves around meetings, emails, and presentations. These could be with colleagues in my department, or in other departments within the Strategic Planning Group. Since our Group focuses on long-term, big-picture plans, we also work with more downstream departments within URA like the Physical Planning Group. They work on the Master Plan, which guides the urban landscape of Singapore over the next 10 to 15 years. Another group we work closely with is the Development Control Group, which focuses on regulating and facilitating developments on ground to safeguard our living environment. Together, we work towards realising the planning vision that is set out in both the Long-Term Plan and Master Plan.

I am currently a team leader in the Planning Policies Department. I enjoy working with my team because they are a dedicated, hardworking and action-oriented bunch who are eager to make things happen. This is a common vision that helps to gel the team together. As part of the public service, I feel that I am part of something larger, and we are united by a common goal – to make things work for Singapore’s good.

Having had the opportunity to hear the experiences of people from all around the world during my studies and in the course of work, I have come to feel quite proud to be part of the Singapore planning and governance system. At the risk of sounding like I am singing our own praises, being part of such an effective system is something I truly feel for and appreciate.

It feels best when I get to achieve something with my team – something that I could not have done on my own. This is especially so when we pull off a major project or achieve a significant milestone, such as having a thoughtful policy discussion which leads to a sound and strong recommendation going forward. Of course, a good day at work can also be because of something smaller, such as helping a new teammate understand an issue or find another way to achieve an objective.

This is a very exciting question for me, as I happen to be the team lead for this public engagement project. One of Singapore’s strengths is our ability to integrate the whole planning process, from long-term to medium-term, with implementation and regulation. The whole process starts with having a long-term vision for how our country should be in the far future. We undertake this Long-Term Plan Review every 10 years, and part of this review process involves engaging the public.

In the current exercise, we are going all out and putting in even more effort to engage the public. The times have evolved, and public inputs are more important than ever in policy making. Public engagement is not about disseminating information to the public, but rather, having two-way interactions and really listening to what people have to say, and understanding why they are saying it. We also started our public engagement much earlier in the review process than we had in previous years, so that we can better incorporate the public’s feedback and ideas into the plans.

Broadly speaking, the public engagement for the Long-Term Plan Review will take place in phases over a year. We launched our engagement in July 2021, and started by gathering the public’s opinion on their dreams and vision for Singapore in the next 50 years. These could be broad values, such as for Singapore to be inclusive, flexible and adaptable, having a distinct Singaporean identity, or for Singapore to be sustainable. Following this “visioning and values” phase, we then consulted the public on the strategies they thought we should pursue, that would help us get to the Singapore envisioned.  We also heard from the public on how the strategies would have pros, cons, and involve certain trade-offs. 

Currently, we are about halfway through the year-long engagement exercise, and we are in the process of converging on the long-term land use strategies, trade-offs, and considerations that will shape the LTPR plans. The plans will be exhibited starting from around mid-2022, and subsequently, inform the next review of the Master Plan.

I wish I could say yes, but unlike some of my colleagues, I did not grow up knowing that I wanted to be an urban planner.

I had just finished Junior College, and received an acceptance offer to my dream university overseas. All I knew then was that I wanted to do whatever it took to get to study there. So, I applied for various scholarships from agencies. At the time, I was interested in Economics, and set on working in the public sector, although I was unsure of which agency to apply to.

While I did not have a background in urban planning (other than from having fun playing the game SimCity!), I did appreciate the attention to detail and the thought that went into the planning of our city.   Even small things, such as the design and location of a park connector or a neighbourhood park, can make a big difference to people’s lives, even though they may not realise it. Cumulatively, little details like these come together to have a significant impact on the larger urban fabric. This reflection made me eager to play a part in the urban planning of Singapore. I applied for URA out of curiosity when I was 18, and never looked back.

For those who are entering the workplace for the first time, I hope they can bear in mind that the school environment that they have spent all of their lives in is very different from the work one, and it is a big transition which deserves time and attention to play out. Try not to worry too much about excelling at work from the start, and just give yourself some space to make mistakes, grow, and trust that you will gradually find your own balance. Work is a microcosm of life in general – there will be highs and lows, good days and bad days, and at the end of the day, you will get through it in one piece. Just do your best, and do not be too hard on yourself, or on those around you.

The culture in URA is energising and encouraging. In general, almost everyone is willing to go above and beyond for their work. Colleagues are supportive of one another, always willing to lend a hand and be part of the team, and it feels like we are part of a family. There is relatively little turf-guarding here in URA. I find people to be genuine and sincere, and that we are all striving together to do our best to achieve URA’s mission.

Having an overseas experience exposed me to the wider world. Not only did I get to meet people from the United States, but also the international community there. Having stayed in Singapore my whole life, at the time, it was difficult to imagine how people from other countries lead their lives and develop their outlooks on life (this was before the internet became part of our everyday lives!). It also helped me understand how countries work together, and how Singapore fits into the larger global picture.

At the same time, it gave me the opportunity to connect with people from around the world. When I was in school, teachers often said that the people who are your classmates today will be the leaders of tomorrow, but it did not quite sink in for me. Now, I have some friends who are prominent contributors in their fields and are located all over the world. In that very broad sense, I am immensely grateful for my undergraduate education, because it gave me the exposure to start developing my worldview. That helped me get a better idea of how people see Singapore, and what role we must play as a country. It also made me consider what role the government plays in Singapore’s environment, and what role I should play.

I chose to take my master’s degree in Public Policy because I always found that while I am an urban planner by title, I am also effectively working as a public policy administrator who needs to work with other government agencies and craft public policies beyond urban planning. My Masters in Public Policy gave me a theoretical framework to conceptualise my ten years of work experience and understand the whole process of public policy. Since I got to do my master’s degree in the US, I got to see how public policy differs greatly between countries. The concerns of a bigger country, like the US, are so different from the concerns of Singapore. What is considered a “win”, and the level of influence over varying levels of detail, differs because they have many levels of government. My education overseas deepened my appreciation of our unique context much better.

I was fortunate enough to be given a scholarship for both my undergraduate and my postgraduate studies. Without URA, I would not have had the chance to study overseas, in my dream university, care-free. The scholarship application process was smooth, and I went through a few selection rounds after application. The scholarship officer who was assigned to me always checked in with me to ensure that I was doing well, academically and emotionally.

My goal has always just been to be good at what I do, and be useful to my team, my department, and my organisation. Taking on the team leader role has been interesting and challenging, because it has required me to develop people management skills, so that the team can achieve shared objectives. That was a big leap for me because, before this, I just had to perform in my own role and duties. Now, I must guide people and help them develop in a way such that they can grow confident and able enough to do the work themselves. In a strange way, the objective of a manager’s job is to become redundant, because you are working to reach a state where your team can be completely independent! For me, this is more fun than only working on your technical skills, because people are interesting.

I do not see myself in any particular role or department in the next five years. I am happy to be able to continue contributing to my organisation. I think this sums up my career – just going with the flow, putting my best into every task, rolling with it, and seeing where it takes me to. It has been working out quite well so far.

During my career, I have been given exposure to planning projects that have nationwide implications, and issues that are high on the public’s agenda.

For example, I was involved in the Thomson-East Coast Line project. That was deeply rewarding for me because everyone can resonate with an MRT project. I remember I was working with the Land Transport Authority on the planning approval back in 2008. Until now, only the first two stages of the line have been open for operations. That made me realise that an immense amount of time, effort and care goes into planning work, and that urban planners need to be prepared to adopt a long-term mindset.

I also remember being involved in the search for a location of our fourth public university. At that time, we only had NUS, NTU and SMU. We had to search the whole island for a site, and we eventually decided on Changi. It was an eye-opening project for me because we had to brief high-level government officials to get approval for the site.

More recently, I was also involved in the Ang Mo Kio Town Cycling Project where we implemented a more comprehensive cycling network. It was refreshing because it was not as abstract as finding a site. Instead, there was much more in-depth planning involved. For example, we had to consider the exact widths of the road sidetable along Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1, including the exact locations of the trees and the lampposts, to plan the details of the cycling route. We also had to brief the MPs for the area as their support was critical to the project’s success.

To summarise, I have been in four groups in URA during my career here. Currently, I am involved in long-term planning. When I first started off, I was involved in medium-term planning, followed by development control, where we inspected every single floor plan of a development. Subsequently, I moved to the training department – the URA Academy. This was interesting because I got to meet foreign planners who were visiting URA to see how planning is done in Singapore and shared their experiences with us.

Human relations and empathy are crucial. Our work as part of the government is different from work in the private sector. When a government agency promises something to the public, unlike in the private sector, there is no binding contract. A big measure of success for us as an agency is our ability to keep the promises we have made to the people. We must make sure we can meet these promises, and keep (or gain) the trust of the public.

We also must work well with other agencies. In URA’s case, other land planning agencies like NParks, HDB and JTC are our everyday counterparts. To work together well, we must align our objectives. We have to understand why an agency is saying no or pushing back against our request, understand their concerns, empathise with them and work out how to convince them or get to a position where everyone’s needs are met. Ultimately, this is to deliver the outcomes that we promised to the people together, as one government.

Mostly on the job. I did extra-curricular activities based on interest, and did not have a huge plan for how my school record would pave the way for my career. I had fun playing in a rock band with my friends and drawing and uploading my own comics online. One exception is that I did an internship at the Prime Minister’s Office’s (PMO) Strategic Planning Office after junior college. During this internship, I got a better feel for how the Singapore government works and how the PMO thinks. That experience did help me decide that I want to work in the public service.

When I first started work at URA, the buddy programme helped in acclimatising me to my new role. Under the buddy scheme, they assign someone to us each time we move to a new department. On top of that, your team leader and director will also be there for you. The availability of such a thought-through support system helped me adapt to my new job.

To an extent. While interest is the most critical, you need to back up the interest with skills, such as analytical skills, as well as writing and presentation skills. As I had mentioned, we are only as good as our words. For example, documenting our work is critical, because I must know what my predecessor was thinking when they recommended something 10 years ago. When I make my recommendation today, it is important for me to have accountability and transparency. Solid reasoning skills and the ability to get your reasoning across to others are also critical.

Definitely. There is an entire department in URA, Design and Planning Lab, that is dedicated to this. I feel that URA had a lot of foresight in setting this up early, compared to the other agencies at the time. We invest heavily in our digital planning capabilities. The members of the lab have job titles just like in the tech industry, such as Data Scientist. I think that shows how much we value these skill sets. Also, in URA, all planners undergo a training course on data analytics and Geographic Information System among other skill sets, where we are trained to come up with data-based solutions to planning problems.

Having said that, no matter what tools you use to achieve it, the objective is what matters. Whatever we do, with data or otherwise, must serve our objective and our mission, which is to plan better for the people. Some people tend to forget that data and numbers, while appearing objective, can also be subjective, or not tell the full story. We have to be aware of these limitations.

I usually give this advice to our interns – If I could do it all over again, I would tell myself to value the relationships that I built with people in university, because being an undergraduate is a special time in your life. Once you finish your undergraduate studies, you will never get this part of your life back again. It is not the same when you do your master’s degree, where your classmates have a variety of objectives, and can be at different stages of their lives. I know that young people are busy preparing for their careers, but please also remember to build relationships, experience things, and get to know a wide range of people from various backgrounds. Challenge your worldview!