Reflections with Hwang Yu-Ning

By Lin Min Htoo and Maple Ee

As Chief Planner, Hwang Yu-Ning oversees the urban planning and conservation of built heritage of Singapore. She is also a Deputy Chief Executive Officer with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), Singapore’s land use planning and conservation authority. Prior to this, Yu-Ning has served various roles in Singapore’s public service including the Strategy Group of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of National Development. She studied architecture at the National University of Singapore and has a Master’s in Public Policy & Urban Planning from Harvard University. In this article, she shares about her career experiences, insights on urban planning in Singapore and offers valuable advice for youths aspiring to be a part of the URA. 

My work involves overseeing the urban planning of Singapore. This is tremendously exciting for me since I get to shape and influence the built environment we live in. Another reason why this is so interesting is that no two days are alike – I get to experience different issues every day. 

Essentially, most of my day can be characterised as yesterday, today and tomorrow

Yesterday involves overseeing built heritage and conservation. This process ensures that we retain places and elements with shared memories and experiences that are precious to people and our nation. Another aspect of yesterday is how our past planning experiences and post-implementation reviews guide us to craft better plans for the future. 

Today refers to the variety of new proposals that come across our table, including ones for new buildings and new ideas impacting land use that the public and agencies have. These help us shape a better outcome when we look at the nation’s needs from multiple perspectives. 

Lastly, Tomorrow is crucial since urban planning is focused on the long term and we look at plans 50 years and beyond. We tackle the issue of balancing different land uses by taking changing needs and trends into consideration. More importantly, we ask ourselves – how do we provide the necessary safeguards to ensure that we will have those options in place not just for ourselves, but also for our future generation? These plans will be shaping Singapore for the next 50 years and many of them will take rather long to unfold. So, we must make provisions for potential needs in the future.

I think the challenge is really about balancing different needs across different users, as well as across time dimensions. Thus, we have to work on multiple levels. 

Land constraint is a big challenge for Singapore. However, this is a blessing in disguise, as it forces us to ensure that we manage our land well. To help us visualise how land constrained we are, if Singapore’s land area is the size of a single piece of A4 paper, our neighbour Malaysia would be a whole ream which is 500 sheets of paper. 

This highlights the need for us to be judicious in our use of land and how we can safeguard cherished places while accommodating Singapore’s needs. We need to be very careful in how we balance sustainable development while taking care of our social, economic and environmental needs across time. Additionally, it can be difficult to plan for future needs that have yet to arise. 

The second challenge I face regularly is figuring out how we can better understand public aspirations. After all, we are planning for people. To tackle this issue, we have been reviewing our plans regularly, and involving the public. We use a wide variety of methods, including engagement polls, workshops, surveys and ideas competitions. It is vital that people from all walks of life participate. The challenge is to ensure that we reach a wide cross-section of people and understand their needs in a more holistic manner. 

Using the Rail Corridor as an example, we had done extensive outreach over the years and received a range of feedback and proposals. Fascinating ideas include one which suggested having a tiger sanctuary! From the ideas and feedback, we need to try to get to the heart of the idea – back to the tiger sanctuary – it is about introducing a sense of wonder and adventure. So in the broader sense, sometimes, conducting public engagement during our planning reviews is not only about gathering specific ideas, but also about distilling the vision and values that people are looking at. Essentially, we ask – what are the characteristics that people want us to emphasise in that place? 

What is there not to like? The nature of the work and the topics that we discuss differ every day. We get to influence the built environment that people enjoy and appreciate. Urban planning in Singapore has a proud history – I am standing on the shoulders of giants and building on the work that my predecessors had put in place for us. Furthermore, our nation has quite a good reputation for our urban planning. Whenever I host visitors, they would praise our city for its well-thought plans. 

However, what we have achieved goes beyond planning. The Singapore we have today is not just about the plans, but about the processes. When we gained independence, Singapore had a lot of challenges in our urban environment including squatters, congestion, and unemployment. We received help from the United Nations Development Programme office, which provided us with experts from around the world to help us shape a game plan. This became a blueprint for Singapore’s urban development and put in place many of the elements that you see in Singapore now. These elements include having Changi Airport in the east, keeping our central catchment green, and having a whole series of satellite towns around Singapore joint by a network of expressways.

Having a team to carry the plan forward and regularly review it for continual relevance have also been crucial in our urban planning efforts. Our predecessors were very strategic in ensuring that there was a local team learning alongside the international experts to understand the approach and putting in place a whole framework for us to take the plan forward. Pioneers included Singapore’s former President Mr Ong Teng Cheong and former Speaker of Parliament Mr Abdullah Tarmugi. 

Once every five to ten years, we revisit our plans to update them because there will certainly be new requirements, changing trends and changing needs. For instance, the 1991 Concept Plan birthed the idea of connecting parks, green spaces and waterways through a network. More recently, the idea of shifting out Paya Lebar Air Base to free up the land for future redevelopment also came up. However, having a plan alone is insufficient. We need a whole system and framework for regular review. This helps us ensure that stakeholders from across the board and the government work together in an integrated approach towards planning for our land spaces. 

I started my journey at the National University of Singapore (NUS) where I majored in Architecture. Although I enjoyed the course, it made me realise that I preferred macro planning as compared to going into the micro-details. So, I thought urban planning would be a more suitable career for me. I had tried to get a mid-term scholarship from URA but I was not successful in my application. However, I was not deterred and still very determined to work in this field. Where better to start than in URA, which is at the centre of Singapore’s urban planning? Upon my graduation, I applied to work at URA and that was my first and only job application thus far. I think it is important for young people to recognise that even if you are very interested in a field or working for a particular organisation, sometimes you may not get in on the first try. Do not let that deter you. You can work elsewhere to gain experience before trying again. At the end of the day, getting your foot in the door and proving yourself on the job is the best way for the organisation and yourself to assess your fit. 

When I first started out at URA, I worked on spatial planning which involved urban design and urban planning focusing on the Singapore River. With a little bit of luck, I was able to learn from excellent mentors in my formative years like Mrs Teh Lai Yip, Dr Cheong Koon Hean, Mr Michael Koh and Mrs Koh-Lim Wen Gin. After doing spatial planning for about three to four years, I was fortunate enough to be awarded a postgraduate scholarship by URA. With the scholarship, I went to Harvard to pursue a Master’s degree in Public Policy and Urban Planning which I felt would complement my training as an architect. 

When I returned, I was given the opportunity to try out a different portfolio and work on larger urban planning issues. Previously, I had worked on small urban areas like the Singapore River. Upon returning to URA, I was tasked with taking care of entire planning regions like the West and the North East regions. These were much larger than the kind of spatial planning and urban design I had done. I also had the opportunity to oversee the set-up of a new Geographic Information System (GIS) for URA which proved to be a valuable experience for my future involvement with the digitalisation of urban planning.

I subsequently served in the Ministry of National Development and in the Strategy Planning Group of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). These experiences gave me different perspectives on urban planning, and with the Strategy Group, I also had the opportunity to be part of a new setup that was akin to being in a start-up. The Strategy Group was set up to strengthen strategic alignment across Government. Even though it was a whole new set-up and I was not so sure how I could contribute, I took it up as my belief was to default to yes when it comes to new job assignments. Every role is an opportunity for growth and discovery.

I am glad I took up the job, as this posting was an eye-opener for me. I had the chance to work very closely with colleagues from other sectors, such as social, economic, climate change and it allowed me to better understand the different perspectives held. Prior to that, my perspective was solely through the lens of urban planning.  

I was fortunate that the Chief Planner position in URA opened up and I was given the opportunity to take on the role. So, I appreciate the chance to step into this. This role is not unfamiliar to me, as I have been in URA for quite a long time, and I know what the role entails. I am very thankful for the opportunity to play this leadership role in URA and to shape Singapore’s urban planning. 

I feel that I have always been lucky in having excellent colleagues to work with. These range from supervisors who had guided me, and colleagues that I have worked with for many years. I have worked with my current CEO for more than 10 years. I have been working together with many of my colleagues for many years so we know each other well. I think the beauty of working in URA is that we are all very united in our mission to deliver good work for Singapore, and Singaporeans. So, office politics is totally alien in my own experience. I find that colleagues across different agencies are also very focused on trying to deliver the work and outcomes. So, the work environment is very supportive. 

As for personal challenges, it would certainly be leadership for me. I do not think all of us are natural born leaders but some of us are made over time. We learn from our experiences and grow into our roles. When I was first given the chance to formally lead in the early stages, fresh from graduate school, I found myself suddenly leading 3 departments at the same time as I was also covering for a colleague for a period. Suddenly, I was in charge of 60 people of varying ages and experiences even though I was only in my early 30s. I did go into it with some trepidation, but as time passed, what worked for me was to continue as I always have – working collaboratively with my colleagues, treating everyone with respect and being humble to learn from everyone. Of course, as a leader, you have to make certain decisions and give them guidance. 

However, it is equally important to understand their perspectives first, as they may know more about the subject matter than I do. I do not pretend I know all the answers. Instead, I try to be collaborative and understand where people are coming from. 

I also learnt that, as a leader, it is important to find ways to build people up and give others the opportunity to develop and grow in their careers. It is about understanding where their interests lie and finding good career challenges for them to take on. Aside from opportunities to give talks at international platforms, it could also be assigning them to interesting projects that are hard to come by, such as planning for the redevelopment of Paya Lebar Airbase. One joke I always have with my colleagues is that if you are not developing your successor, you are going to be stuck in your current role. 

This is something that we in URA are very excited about because we think that technology, whether data analytics or artificial intelligence (AI), can enable us to pursue evidence-driven urban planning. In urban planning, a lot of what we did in the past was based on principles and seemingly logical things to do. For example, if I do not want to create too much congestion in the Central Business District (CBD), I will put jobs outside the CBD, like in Changi Business Park and hope this allows more people to work near their homes, thereby reducing commuting. Intuitively, this makes sense. However, back then, we did not have the data to analyse its effectiveness. We could only observe from the level of congestion and concluded that the solution was working. Fortunately, for the last 10 years, we were able to utilise EZ-Link and ERP data to conduct analysis and validate that half of the people working in Changi Business Park and Tampines came from the East region. So, this confirms the approach taken and would help us further model possible outcomes from the creation of other job centres. 

Data can also inform planning. One example is when we worked with the Ministry of Health (MOH) and Agency for Integrated Care (AIC) to locate healthcare amenities such as polyclinics and drive targeted outreach efforts. To better serve Singapore’s ageing population, we can visualise local data on the senior population using our in-house digital platform, ePlanner. By better identifying “hotspots” of needs via the ePlanner, such as areas with high concentrations of seniors living alone, we can better serve Singapore’s ageing population by being more targeted in working with healthcare providers and community-based organisations to plan well-located facilities and relevant health and social outreach programmes.

We have been making steady progress over the last decade. We started the digital planning unit with people who had planning, data analytics and computer science backgrounds. This was because they understood the business of planning and knew how the digital tools should be built to support planning. They would also be able to effectively “evangelise” digitalisation of planning which was very important, especially in the early days. We had to reach out to convince partners to support these efforts. For example, while you want to ask stakeholders to provide us with their data to analyse, in reality, it can be very time-consuming to retrieve the data and check its quality. There was reluctance for stakeholders to provide us with the data. However, once we shaped the use cases to address issues of joint interest, the reception was far more positive. For example, MOH, just like us, is very interested in how to improve the placement of our healthcare facilities to better serve residents. So, they would partner with us to work on such analytics together.

Once we started some projects, other agencies saw the potential usefulness for their own area of work and got interested. Thus, we started to run training programmes for our own and other agencies’ planners, so that they can learn together, build networks and work on the same projects.

Now, we are progressing into looking at how AI can help us improve our planning work. We are not doing AI-driven planning yet but taking baby steps first, to use AI in areas such as information retrieval to support our planning work. When we do any planning assessment, we do a lot of precedent studies and background analysis. If we can use AI to develop a knowledge base, which can then be used to model planning information and establish relationships between topics and cases, this would assist planners in sieving out relevant information from large volumes of data.

So, at this early stage, we envision AI as a planning assistant to do this grunt work for our planners. This can also allow planners to do more in-depth analyses and community engagements. We want to start in a place where it is currently a pain point for all our planners, so that AI can demonstrate its value to our work. However, we do expect AI to support more aspects of urban planning going forward such as in the area of optimisation models, scenario assessments. AI is still in a nascent state, especially when applied to urban planning but we are excited to be taking off in this journey.

To be honest, I did not have career goals. I did not start out wanting to gun for the Chief Planner role. I was just very interested in the work, and I continue to be. My interest took me on different assignments, and I was given many opportunities as well that helped me build different knowledge and skills. For instance, seven years into my career, I was given the opportunity to lead the formation of our Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which is the backbone of our planning system. I was already quite interested in technology back then, in fact, I was the first person in NUS Architecture School to do my final year design thesis using computer-aided design! 

My involvement with URA’s GIS project as the business owner has yielded dividends because I continue to be very involved in this technological space. Even though I am not a tech expert, I understand conceptually its potential and I have some appreciation for how it can be applied to urban planning. I can contribute meaningfully to how we might want to resource and build up this area, like when we were setting up the digital planning lab. My experience also helped me understand early on the importance of having the right leadership to get the lab off the ground. It gave me the confidence to make the painful decision to give up key staff to lead this new unit. To me, they were the most suitable, having not just the urban planning domain knowledge but also the technical background. One of them was a computer science graduate who had worked on the GIS project with me and transferred to do planning subsequently. Another planner was one of the few who has a degree in GIS.

Over time, URA has gained recognition as the centre of excellence for digitalisation of urban planning because of the expertise we have built up. This is only possible because we have managed to attract people with passion in this area both within and beyond URA community who continue to journey with us. Within URA, from an initial start-up of three people, today, we have about 50 people and the team is still growing. Beyond URA, as we continue to explore how technology can support our work, we engage with people from universities and the industry to advise and collaborate with us. I am privileged to be involved in leading this effort.

With an interest driven approach, when you are doing well, you will be given more opportunities. I also always advise – to develop your staff and train up successors so that one can then move on to other roles.

I think interest is even more important today than in the past because our working careers have become longer. Even though I have been working for almost 30 years, I still have at least 15 to 20 years for me to contribute. 

The landscape is also always changing. 10 years ago, bringing AI to urban planning would have seemed like Sci-Fi. That would not have been a real career option. However, presently, things are moving so fast that I am not sure you really want to do such a detailed mapping of your career goals and milestones. However, it can be interest-driven, and it can cut across different sectors with the same skillsets that you have. For example, if you are an expert in AI working in a logistics company, you can still do a subsequent switch to join URA, because there are many adjacencies in the expertise. So, I do not think we need to lock ourselves into any predetermined, linear career path but should think about a portfolio career where your skills and experiences can be combined in new and exciting ways.

You need to be quite analytical. You need to be able to think and present your ideas logically. Curiosity is also very important. I think whatever we learn in school is not static and enough to get us through our entire careers. Along the way, we are always learning new skills. It is not good enough to know what you already know. If I am curious enough, say when I work with my MOH colleagues, I will be asking questions, probing them and trying to find different ways to look at the problem. Can we break through and have other perspectives? Are we able to adopt solutions that are more relevant to Singapore?

You should not just be curious about your current work, but also about things out there that may or may not be immediately relevant to what you are doing. To give an example, I remember reading about embodied carbon some years ago and found it very interesting, although I was not sure I understood it fully and how it was relevant. Some years down the road, I realised that it has a strong relationship with the conservation of built heritage. Embodied carbon is the carbon footprint associated with the construction of a development. In any new building project, there is a carbon footprint, such as the footprint from shipping steel and cement from their sources. So considering embodied carbon can strengthen our case for conservation. These are the kinds of concepts you pick up along the way and they become stores of information.

Lastly, you have to be curious about what other people are working on. It helps you make connections, understand the industry and what others are doing better in. At some point, it may come back to help you.

The last soft skill, other than being analytical and curious, is collaboration because planning is not done alone. You can easily cook up a plan alone, but in order to actualise it, you need many players. You need the developers, designers, consultants, and of course, the public to enjoy the building and to give you feedback about whether it works. So, collaboration is also very critical as a soft skill.

One of the misconceptions is that you have to be architecture- or urban planning-trained to join URA. In reality, even for the planner role, we take in applicants from a variety of disciplines. We have people from geography and engineering, which seem to be more natural because we can see that relationship. We also have people from social sciences such as sociology, economics, and anthropology. We also recruit people with backgrounds in data science and AI. All of these are relevant for URA because planning is both an art and a science.

What I really want from people who join URA is to have curiosity and passion for the environment around us. URA provides good foundational training in urban planning. It is the best place for you to get an overview of the way Singapore approaches the built environment and urban planning, and appreciate the challenges, tensions, trade-offs and considerations. You also get to collaborate and be involved with the whole array of government agencies and the community. So, it is a perfect starting point for people with an interest in this sector.

We welcome people to do internships as well because it is a great way to learn about the organisation. We try to give our interns interesting and challenging projects. That is why we like interns to be with us for at least a couple of months because they will get to work on projects which serve as building blocks to shape our planning.