The Stats Guy: Four lessons from Singapore to improve Australian cities

It may not be perfect, but Australian cities should take a good look at Singapore.

It may not be perfect, but Australian cities should take a good look at Singapore. Photo: TND/Getty

Lucky me just spent a week holidaying in Singapore. I couldn’t let such a trip go to waste without squeezing a column out of it.

Here are four lessons that cities in Australia (or anywhere else) should learn from Singapore.

To make it very clear from the start, the goal is not to make Australia into Singapore – that would be silly. Singapore is a unique country, a tiny city state, navigating global financial and commodities flows and can’t easily be compared to Australia.

However, Singapore is home to as many people as Melbourne or Sydney, so urban planning comparisons are quite relevant.

Formally defined as a parliamentary democracy, Singapore is often described as a technocratic autocracy. Aussies are a much more egalitarian bunch, but should still follow Singapore’s lead on a few things without giving up our freedoms or larrikin spirit.

Cleaning up the river

Let’s start with an environmental challenge. As a Melbournian I am always disappointed that I can’t go for a swim in the Yarra. Our national ambition should be that all waterways are swimmable.

The Singapore River was disgusting due to all the usual problems. The big cleanup involved the relocation of polluting industries, tighter regulations, and new water treatment infrastructure.

The Singaporean government loves a good public awareness campaign and talked about the issue relentlessly. The cleanup effort began in the 1970s and has since transformed the river from a polluted waterway to a vibrant tourist destination and a source of pride for Singaporeans.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say our waterways should become swimmable – maybe not open for swimming everywhere, but we could create designated areas. This would make our cities more liveable and allow residents to tell a positive story about their town.


Singapore is perfecting the art of ‘going green’. Photo: Getty

Urban green spaces

Singapore is much cleaner and greener than most cities. Its longstanding obsession was to be Asia’s cleanest city.

Greenery was an important part of establishing Singapore as a top destination. We have all seen the ads for new precincts in Australia  where every new building is covered in lush greenery – yet somehow the finished buildings never end up being greened at all.

A strong government like the one in Singapore can simply force developers to provide and maintain green space. New buildings must provide the same amount of greenery and vegetation that it takes from the land.

The “Greenery Provision” policy improves the quality of life for residents, cools and shades the local environment, and promotes urban biodiversity. Developers can meet these requirements through rooftop gardens, vertical greenery, and landscaped areas within each tower (think gardens in the middle of the building).

The city is now much greener and is considered a “city in a garden”. I love that functional infrastructure, such as highways, are greened too. Granted, Singapore is essentially on the equator and plants grow at record pace with relatively little upkeep.

Australian cities are unlikely to install the same level of greenery, but our cities must become much greener. We are currently building heat islands on the urban fringe.

Homes without gardens stand tightly packed next to each other with no trees, green roofs, or green walls in sight. As average annual temperatures rise, these areas will become unbearably hot and poorer residents won’t be able to afford cooling their homes. We could cool these suburbs by several degrees if we had a tighter regulatory framework in place.

Fixing traffic

This is a big one!

I had lunch with Parag Khanna, author of Move (the best book on globalisation in the 21st century), who moved to Singapore a decade ago. Parag claimed to not have been stuck in traffic in the last four years.

Singapore implemented an electronic road pricing system in 1998. Charging motorists for using congested roads during peak hours pushed users to public transport. That obviously only worked because Singapore has a world-class public transport system in place.

In Singapore, you don’t have to wait for more than a few minutes for a bus or a train. Such frequencies are only possible in a high-density city.

Our Australian cities sprawl like crazy, making public transport extremely expensive to run and high frequency of service out of the question due to a lack of local ridership.

The simple lesson here is that continuing our urban sprawl will make things worse. Singapore also keeps the number of cars down by charging high fees to operate a car.

A new car in Singapore requires you to buy a ten-year operating license for the equivalent of $60,000. These measures wouldn’t fly in Australia, but they are a reminder that traffic can be fixed even as a city is experiencing strong population growth.

Improving traffic flow was linked to an even bigger structural shift. Singapore realised that having just one CBD  wasn’t practical. Several secondary CBDs with specialised functions such as manufacturing, technology, banking, entertainment and trade were established.

Travelling between these hubs is fast and efficient due to uncongested roads and fast public transport. Urban planners in Australia will not be surprised by this.

Melbourne’s strategic plans, for example, have been trying since the 1950s to establish multiple CBDs. Australian cities tend to lack the power to push through such changes though. Maybe we need stronger planning authorities?

Public facilities, community centres

Singapore utilises public facilities, such as the Marina Barrage pump house, to provide spaces for public use.

The pump house, which controls the water levels in the Marina Reservoir, houses a rooftop garden and an event space that is open to the public.The space offers panoramic views of the city skyline, locals fly their kites, and community events such as open-air movie screenings take place.

By repurposing infrastructure for public use, Singapore creates more opportunities for community engagement and promotes the sustainable use of resources.

If land is expensive, you might as well make the most of it. In Australia, we could just hide away facilities without thinking about multiple-use scenarios. As land prices go up, we should seriously consider revamping existing infrastructure in prominent locations to be used in alternative ways.


They’re not fast, but cable cars are certainly fun. Photo: Getty

Another perspective

As a bonus, here are the urban planning lessons that my three-year-old would like to see implemented from Singapore.

  • We desperately need orange juice vending machines at every street corner. For just two Singaporean dollars you get a cup of freshly squeezed Australian orange juice. Big hit. We have street corners and Australian oranges. Make it happen!
  • Cable cars should replace most modes of transport. Hear me out. Cable cars might not be fast, or carry many passengers, but toddlers love them. How could we possibly say no? Trams out, cars out, cable cars in!
  • A higher density of inner-city playgrounds in Australian cities would be highly welcome. Sure, toddlers love playgrounds, but so do parents. If our goal is to encourage more young families to live in the inner-suburbs we need more family-sized apartments, but we also need to make the inner-city more kid-friendly. Building more playgrounds is an easy way to start, plus they offer free entertainment – a rare opportunity to do something in the inner city that doesn’t cost money.

I hope at least one of these lessons can be applied to your local town and maybe you might bring up one of these idea when you run into your local decision makers.

Demographer Simon Kuestenmacher is a co-founder of The Demographics Group. His columns, media commentary and public speaking focus on current socio-demographic trends and how these impact Australia. Follow Simon on Twitter, FacebookLinkedIn for daily data insights in short format.





Topics: Singapore
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