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Keeping the big picture in mind

It takes more than textbooks and lectures to fully understand something like urban planning.

Even as a student, Ms Rachel Liu knew she had to gain a well-rounded exposure in her field of study, and not to just rely on classroom learning. That was why she took a gap year after her A levels, and did a range of internships in the architecture, urban planning and real estate industries.

The manager with the Ministry of National Development’s Strategic Planning Division is glad she made that decision as it helped her to identify her areas of interest and the aspects of urban planning to focus on.

Ms Liu applied for an MND Undergraduate Scholarship for overseas study in 2014. It took her to Cornell University in New York, where she completed a four-year Bachelors of Science in Urban and Regional Studies.

“I applied for the scholarship because I realised that policymaking is where changes happen. Also, the scholarship offered the opportunity of rotating within the family of MND agencies, which was attractive because it provided flexibility within a scope of work I was interested in.”

Her time spent at Cornell was valuable – there were the urban studies-related modules, ranging from more theoretical ones like economics, anthropology and history, to more applied approaches such as community-based planning workshops and design studios.

But what really opened her eyes were the activities that took her away from the classroom,such as the summer she spent studying conservation
biology and field ecology in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, outside of São Paulo. During her second summer break, she did a horticultural internship with the Cornell Botanic Gardens.

“Both these experiences changed my perception of the potential of natural spaces in Singapore, to offer value for both conservation and people,” she says.

Ms Liu also spent a semester in Rome, studying architectural history and “discovering the layers of architecture, art and planning history in Rome, with the city itself as the classroom – juxtaposed with contemporary Italian society facing issues such as ageing and immigration”.

Bridging theory and practical
All these out-of-the classroom learning experiences allowed Ms Liu to bridge academia and practice, and provided her with a new way of
understanding urban planning.

Last August, she returned to Singapore and took up her current post, where she handles policies on land use. She describes her job as a
balance of regulation and aspiration.

“Part of my work is to ensure that land and space in Singapore are used accordingly to the Government’s plan. And the other part – the aspirational part – is to set the direction for Singapore’s growth for the next 10, 20, 50 years – and then putting in place the policy structures to help us get there.”

Ms Liu is convinced that even though Singapore is already well-planned, there are opportunities to do more.

“Singapore is such a young city. There is much potential for reinvention, just like what much older cities have had to do to remain relevant. I believe we can meet the challenge of reinventing Singapore to remain competitive and relevant in a shifting global context, without compromising on our identity and heritage.”