Be Willing to Try Out New Ideas

Be Willing to Try Out New Ideas
A letter from Gopinath Menon

Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Nanyang Technological University
Chief Transportation Engineer, Public Works Department and later Land Transport Authority (1991 - 2001)


Whenever I conduct the occasional training course for foreign transport officials, I am often queried on how Singapore has managed to progress in an impressive manner in building, maintaining and operating transport infrastructure over a short period of five decades. There is no one answer – but good governance and the willingness to try out new ideas feature high on the list.

I was an engineer in the Roads Division of the Public Works Department in the late ’60s and ’70s. We did not have the luxury of getting adequate funds for some of the lofty plans we had for the transport infrastructure. The Ministry of Finance, which called itself the Treasury in those days, considered that we were profligate in our spending, while we thought the ministry was parsimonious. A meeting of minds was not always possible and we had to be resourceful to make do with what we had.

Hence, the recycling and reuse of structures such as bus shelters and pedestrian overhead bridges became common. Road development had to continue, but not always at the government’s expense. We had to approach residents of private estates to get them to meet the cost of improving their frontage roads. Under the Local Government Integration Ordinance, this was lawful, but persuasion was the first step. As expected, the exercise met with a lot of resistance initially, until many realised that the values of their properties increased with the road improvements.

In those days, road construction was labour-intensive and wages were low. When we did the right thing by pushing for mechanisation in the mid-’70s ahead of many others, there were howls of protests from contractors that construction costs would go up. Indeed, construction costs escalated, raising eyebrows, but the process improved the quality of infrastructure and increased labour productivity.

That period in our career educated us on the importance of the political leadership having a vision and a blueprint; proper administrative and legal controls; teamwork; being receptive to new ideas; aiming for good technical standards in planning, construction, maintenance and operations; and getting feedback from the public – in other words, “good governance”, as it is popularly known today.

The willingness to try out new things, make mistakes, admit them and make modifications as we went along gave us courage to start on many ideas.

The willingness to try out new things, make mistakes, admit them and make modifications as we went along gave us courage to start on many ideas that were being floated around. We were fortunate to have leaders who appreciated the risks of being the first on the block. While many cities were pondering over such schemes, we introduced bus lanes, road pricing and computer control of traffic signals much earlier than many of the rest.

It was not a given that new ideas would take off, as we found out to our dismay: when we built car parks around the city to persuade drivers to park their cars there and ride to the city in a shuttle bus to mitigate traffic congestion, the vacant car parks had to be put to other possible uses finally and the shuttle buses had to be deployed as normal buses.

Many practices are ephemeral. However, good governance is unlikely to go out of fashion. Singapore has always been a laboratory for new ideas, whether in private or public transport infrastructure and operations. Let it remain that way.

    May 12, 2014
    Gopinath Menon
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