Even in the midst of urgent urban renewal efforts in the 1960s, Alan Choe, the first General Manager of the Urban Renewal Unit had draft conservation plans in the drawer.
Alan Choe was the first architect-planner in the Housing & Development Board (HDB) when he joined in 1962. HDB was on a race against time to build 10,000 flats each year in the first five years. He later headed the urban renewal unit in 1964, a forerunner of URA (formed in 1974), tasked to oversee urban renewal efforts particularly for the Central Area. He started as a one-man operation which later grew to 15 people when the unit became a department.
Alan Choe (in the middle with the pointer stick) hosting foreign guests in 1978
He worked with United Nations experts who were engaged to offer critical planning and other expertise in support of renewal efforts. Erik Lorange, a Norwegian town planner was tasked to assess if Singapore was ready for urban renewal in 1962. He did suggest that Singapore was ready and recommended that the Central Area be systematically redeveloped.
Erik also proposed to form another team of experts that was later engaged. Otto Koenigsberger, an urban planner, Charles Abrams, a legal and land expert and Susumu Kobe, an economist and traffic engineer (commonly referred to as the “KAK team”) came up with specific action programmes in 1963 to drive renewal efforts for the city centre.
While renewal efforts elsewhere which began in the United States from 1949 onwards was about tearing down older parts of the city, Alan recognised that Singapore’s situation was unique. Thus, even while addressing practical needs, a range of smaller rehabilitation and conservation efforts took place and more extensive conservation plans were prepared behind the scenes.
Can you describe how the city was like in the 1960s, especially the housing situation? How did the Rent Control Act1 add to the problem?
Alan: The problem of the bad housing shortage in the 1960s was aggravated by the fact that immediately after the Second World War; there was a great shortage of housing. A lot of the people went out to Malaysia, Johor and elsewhere to escape the occupation of the Japanese. So, after the war, they came back. But when they came back, there was a great shortage of housing.
So the British government decided to impose the Rent Control Act. It was the right move at that time but it served a different purpose. Rent control was to prevent people from increasing the rent. The owners of housing cannot increase the rent; so with that, there is no urge for them to do any improvement. That aggravated the degradation of the housing; all the housing became slums overnight.
How did the focus move from public housing to urban renewal in the Central Area?
Alan: Soon after the government achieved the public housing target, the team realised that you cannot improve total public housing without clearing the Central Area slums. It was directed that we should form an urban renewal unit in HDB. So I started as a one-man show in HDB. Through the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), the government appointed Erik Lorange, a very nice chap. He came in, his objective was to try and tell government whether Singapore was ready for urban renewal or not. He came down, one-to-one, I was almost learning everything from him. Through him, I was able to walk every street in the Central Area.
What were your thoughts about urban renewal and preservation then?
Alan: I was very fortunate that in the course of doing a study on urban renewal, I went to many cities to see urban renewal. I have seen the state of urban renewal where they literally tear down all the old parts of the city. And I realised for Singapore, we have all the more reasons to preserve because we have so little. You can only preserve core areas where you think it fits in with the plan and where you think it has a role to play. If you preserve everything, then there is no urban renewal.
What were some of the areas identified for conservation then and why?
Alan: Right from the beginning in urban renewal, we have already designated areas for preservation. We have identified Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Gelam for conservation more from an urban design and planning point of view. When we talked about the conservation of an area, we had immediately thought in terms of our rich cultural heritage which can also add to the tourist attraction that Singapore has to offer. It will give visitors a chance and also young Singaporeans a taste of what Singapore was like in the early days.
You spent a lot of time walking around the city centre with Erik Lorange. What stood out to you in those walks?
Alan: Through our daily walks, not only did I get to know every nook and corner, I was awakened to the beauty and charm in some old buildings and sites.
To the initial opponents to conservation, what were your thoughts then?
Alan: The counter argument I offer is that it is because the very reason we have so few that we have to be even more concerned and conscious about preserving what little we have. Because if we just let go, we have nothing to conserve.
What is one thing you are proud of?
Alan: One of my greatest pride was that, once the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew asked whether we have plans for the preservation of old buildings. The next day, I sent him my documentation, my plans for the conservation of Chinatown, Little India and also the Serangoon area. I remember the next day; he wrote me a nice letter, which I kept till today.
A copy of Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s reply to Alan Choe about conservation plans
© Alan Choe
1The Rent Control Act was introduced in 1947 to restrict a landlord’s right to increase the rent or to remove the tenant from a rent controlled property. This was to protect tenants from unscrupulous landlords during the housing shortage of the post-war years
Responses to this interview have been taken from the following three sources with permission from Alan Choe:
1. Extract from Low Eng Khim’s Oral history interview with Alan Choe, 20 May 1987, Accession No. 001891, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.
2. URA, Architectural Heritage Singapore (Singapore: URA, 2015), Pg 4.
3. Choe, Alan. “Interview by CLC”, Centre for Liveable Cities, Ministry of National Development, 26 September 2014, transcript, accession number CLC/023/2014/005.
This article is part of ’30 Years of Conservation in Singapore since 1989′, a special supplement that presents 30 reflections and stories of personal and collective struggles and triumph in charting Singapore’s conservation efforts in the last 30 years. The complete supplement will be coming to our website soon.