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Five-year plan to rejuvenate

the Singapore River

by Arti Mulchand & Chong Wan Ping

The Singapore River has had a long and winding history, with varying fortunes along the way. Now, Singapore River One (SRO), a new not-for-profit, private sector-led organisation, hopes to bring new life to the river by bringing the three quays on its
3 km stretch together with a single vision.

SRO’s five-year business plan is the culmination of 18 months of brainstorming involving URA and stakeholders comprising property owners and business operators. This includes the previous Singapore River One Task Group (SROTG), a voluntary working group comprising stakeholders, which was formed to provide inputs to the business plan. SROTG also kick-started a series of projects such as the “A Better Singapore River Campaign” at Boat Quay to discourage touting and overcharging.

In the initial years, the funding for the SRO will come from voluntary contributions by property owners, businesses and residents in the Singapore River precinct together with co-funding from the Government. The URA will provide seed funding for the first three years to allow SRO to roll out initiatives and projects. Mr Ng Lang, Chief Executive Officer of the URA says, “URA’s aim is to help the Singapore River fully realise its potential as a premier mixed-use recreational destination in Singapore. However, this cannot be done top-down, but in close partnership with business operators on the ground. We are happy to be able to support the setting up of the SRO, and we look forward to working closely with it to realise our vision for the Singapore River.”

The SRO is led by a Board comprising 10 directors made up of stakeholders along Singapore River, with Mr Wilson Tan, Director of CapitaLand Retail Management Pte Ltd, at the helm as Protem Chairman. Day-to-day operations is being led by Mr Tyrone Tabing, who most recently ran the Chicago Loop Alliance, where he received international acclaim for his leadership in creating dynamic events, cultural celebrations and public art installations.

Destination for everyone

Mr Tabing has a formidable task ahead of him. Based on the latest available data from the Singapore Tourism Board, in 2009, just 18 per cent of tourists to the country visited the Singapore River. In comparison, close to half went to Orchard Road.

What he hopes is to be able to re-establish the Singapore River as a destination in its own right. “The area needs an identity to compete with other destinations in the city such as Marina Bay and Orchard Road. Currently, the three quays are viewed as discrete destinations. We hope our efforts will result in the area being viewed as a holistic mixed-use destination that offers something for everyone,” he says.

One of the key challenges, though, is the precinct’s diverse range of stakeholders and stakeholder interests — there are 500 property owners, 700 businesses and 10,000 residents within the precinct. To date, there has been no platform that brings them all together, nor a comprehensive approach to manage challenges and change, or future evolution.

“One of our biggest challenges is to implement projects that benefit the entire district…what’s appropriate for one quay might not always be appropriate for another,” says Mr Tabing, adding: “We recognise that funding from the Government and stakeholders allows us to operate — which means all our cards are on the table for everybody to see.”

Mr Tabing’s background lends him an edge, he says. Like at SRO, he had to bring together the diverse stakeholders on Chicago’s landmark State Street and unite them around projects that brought people and media attention to the area. He hopes to be able to do the same for the Singapore River.

Quay considerations

Each of the three quays has their unique selling points, which Mr Tabing hopes to capitalise on. “In Boat Quay, we want to promote the history of the area and attract business crowds from the adjacent Central Business District,” he says. “In Clarke Quay, we want the many visitors, especially youths, to linger longer and explore the retail, F&B and other offerings in the area. And we want to promote Robertson Quay as a family-friendly destination.”

How? Feedback from over 150 face-to-face interviews, three surveys and six stakeholder forums indicated the need for “supplemental services” over and above what the Government has already done, which includes stepped-up security. “While stakeholders feel that existing services are good, they aspire towards higher levels of excellence. Singapore River One aims to go that extra mile,” explains Mr Tabing.

SRO also hopes to press the “refresh” button with new signs and heritage markers to help visitors find their way around, as well as a downloadable mobile app that tells the history of the river while providing direct links to Singapore River businesses. It is a prospect that excites Ms Samia Ahad, 53, owner and chef of Coriander Leaf, who feels the app, particularly, will help more people discover her cooking school-cum-restaurant. Coriander Leaf has been at Clarke Quay for nine years, though its second-floor location means it tends to draw those in the know. “We get more locals because the tourists generally eat what’s downstairs. Only tourists who do their research prior to arrival dine here. The mobile app is good because then maybe more people who come to the area will know about us, not just through reviews online.”

There are also plans in the pipeline for year-round events along the river to keep the buzz going. While the initiative will take inspiration from American examples such as the San Antonio River in Central Texas and Providence in Rhode Island and Melbourne in Australia, the idea is not to mimic them but to retain Singapore’s distinct identity.

Celebrating river’s authenticity

Admittedly, some issues will be harder to tackle than others, including tenant mix, says Mr Tabing. Some business owners in Clarke Quay feel that it now has too many bars and clubs, and too few restaurants and other businesses that would give the area a daytime buzz. Similarly, Boat Quay business owners lament the existing mix, saying there are simply too many seafood restaurants. It will mean having to work closely with the landlords who own the warehouses and the shophouses.

Still, Mr Tabing remains hopeful that the various stakeholders will come together to ensure the success of this important part of Singapore history and draw back not just tourists but Singaporeans as well.

Citing his Chicago experience, he understands the competitive advantage that history, architecture and culture can provide. “I’m fascinated by the history of story-telling on the River and how travellers from distant lands would tell stories of their journeys and discuss issues of the day while a joss stick burned. It would be fantastic if we could bring that tradition back in a modern way,” he says. “I feel Singaporeans are in search of authenticity and the River offers it. We need to find ways to put a fresh spin on the River’s authenticity and celebrate this rich history.


Skyline is a bi-monthly publication by the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Tyrone Tabing, Executive Director of SRO

From left to right:
Rainer Tenius, General Manager of Swissotel Merchant Court; Tyrone Tabing,
Executive Director of SRO; Jason Pope, Director (Owner) of Dallas; Devin Otto Kimble, Managing Director of Menu Pte Ltd; Ng Lang, Chief Executive Officer of URA; Lee Yi Shyan, Senior Minister of State for National Development; Wilson Tan, Director of Capitaland Retail Management Pte Ltd; Poyan Rajamand, Director Barghest Partners; Mdm Fun Siew Leng, Group Director (Urban Planning & Design) of URA; Andreas Koch, General Manager of Riverview Hotel (Keck Seng Group); Tan Siong Leng, Deputy CEO of URA and Philip Su, Executive Director of Far East Organisation