Planning for the future

Behind every development of public spaces in Singapore is a dedicated group of civil servants tasked to ensure the best use of the city-state’s limited land. Among them is 25-year-old Ms Rachel Liu.

She works as a manager at the Strategic Planning Division at the Ministry of National Development (MND). Ms Liu collaborates with government ministries and agencies, the private sector and the local community to ensure that matters related to land use are managed to build a better Singapore.

She was awarded the MND EDGE Scholarship in 2014 and studied at Cornell University in United States. She received her Bachelor of Science in Urban and Regional Studies in 2018 and joined the ministry soon after.

Q: What made you apply for the scholarship?
I have always been interested in architecture in the built environment, but becoming an architect was not how I envisioned my future. When I was younger, I liked to draw but also enjoyed maths and science, so I was looking for something in the middle of these two.

Before pursuing my bachelor’s degree, I took a gap year from 2013 to 2014. I was fresh out of junior college and was interested in the field of urban planning.

Thus, I spent the (gap) year doing internships in the architecture, urban planning and real estate fields at an architecture firm, a private developer and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

As a student, it’s hard to understand the role that policy plays in the larger system of planning a country’s growth and development. But after having a taste of what the real working world was like in the industry, I became more open to the idea of taking up the scholarship offered by the ministry and applied for the MND EDGE Scholarship.

Q: How did the scholarship prepare you for your current role at MND?
Part of the scholarship commitment involves an internship during one of my summer breaks in university. I did an internship with MND’s Strategic Planning Division, which helped me to contextualise many things I had learnt in school.

For example, the roles of public, private and local communities in developing and delivering urban solutions is quite different overseas, where there are more layers of government on the municipal, state and federal levels, and more land is privately-owned. In Singapore, by contrast, the government plays a bigger role in shaping the urban landscape.

By the end of the internship, I was more familiar with local policy issues and was better able to adopt a comparative lens on such issues in my final year of study. Coming back, I have taken up a full-time position in the same division and the transition has certainly been easier because of my internship.

Q: What have you learnt in the last one year or so since you started your role in MND?
The range of work that I handle provides many opportunities to develop new skills. One example is in learning to take a strategic angle to work that might otherwise appear regular or mundane. I’ve found that your role is just a platform and whether you meaningfully influence the eventual decisions and outcomes is a matter of approach and perspective.

For instance, I was involved in URA’s Draft Master Plan last year, which was a huge multi-year effort on their part to review the island-wide urban development plan for Singapore. It was satisfying to see the full plans exhibited and the many Singaporeans who came to look at the plans and provide thoughtful feedback. I appreciate that my work bears relevance to the experience of places and people you come across every day – everyone has a stake in our built environment.

Q: How does it feel like to be able to shape Singapore’s urban landscape?
At first, I found it quite challenging to work with a wide range of stakeholders across different agencies and outside of the government. I’ve since become more comfortable working with different parties to find common ground among our concerns and priorities. Ultimately, we are all doing our best to ensure that Singapore has the best chance of doing well now, and in the future.

I’ve gained a deeper understanding of the different stakeholders that are involved in shaping our built environment. And I’m interested to continue to engage in this process and to see how our vision comes to fruition through joint efforts of the government, public stakeholders, interest groups and developers.