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Speech by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for National Development and Second Minister for Finance at the launch of the "Making Places Great" exhibition and seminar at the URA Centre

  Published: 05 September 2017

A very good afternoon to all of you. I am very happy to join you today for this “Making Places Great” exhibition and seminar.

The idea of place management is not new. Property owners, developers and shopping mall operators have been doing it for years. Even in our HDB town centres, merchant associations come together and organise promotional events like lucky draws and festival celebrations. However, if we look at the Singapore landscape, our current efforts are not sufficient and we will need to step these up considerably. 

Consumer expectations and demands are changing rapidly. People are doing more shopping online and also ordering more food for home delivery. The impact is being felt across all retail and F&B outlets today. This is not just in Singapore, but a worldwide trend. We are only starting to experience the start of it. It will get more pervasive in the future.

Businesses must adapt to this reality. We cannot continue with the status quo approach, and must adapt to changing consumer sentiment. Surveys everywhere indicate that the expectations for the younger consumers – the millennials – are very different. They prioritise personal experiences over material things. One American study found, and I quote, “[Millennials] not only highly value experiences, but they are increasingly spending time and money on them: from concerts and social events to athletic pursuits, to cultural experiences and events of all kind”. This is not just for young people; the trend is catching on with older consumers too. In America, if we look at consumer spending since 1987, the share of consumer spending on ‘Live’ experiences and events relative to total consumer spending has increased by 70 per cent. There are similar trends in other countries in the world, including Singapore. Instead of accumulating material possessions, people are spending more money on experiences – to create memories that can be shared with family and friends, as well as on social media.

This is why place management is more important than before. Good place management will help us come up with activities and programmes that are appealing and entertaining. It will also help to attract people and anchor customers with positive experiences.

Such programming can’t be done by the Government alone. Government-led programmes will not be able to fully capture the unique characteristics and flavours of our diverse local areas. For place management to be effective, we will need ground-up ownership and participation, especially from local businesses and stakeholders who are more familiar with the local identity and needs of the precinct.

In other countries, we have seen the formation of Business Improvement Districts or BID for place management. The businesses in a local precinct come together to form the BID. Everyone within the precinct makes a financial contribution. The resources are used to fund programmes throughout the year, including a team of full-time professional staff to oversee the place management work. This is a common practice found in other countries worldwide.

For example, in the UK, the New West End Company is the UK’s largest retail-led BID. It brings together 600 retailers, property owners and businesses spread over 25 streets at the West End in London. They have a dedicated management team, 40 per cent of annual income set aside for marketing and street events. They even employ their own security team to patrol the area as well as Welcome Ambassadors to assist visitors to move around. This is a very successful BID; they are self-sufficient through the contributions of their members and they are organising these things to make the whole West End area vibrant for businesses.

Another good example is the Times Square Alliance in New York City. They pushed for the pedestrianisation of Times Square and transformed it from a congested road into a public space for more than 300,000 people. They are also responsible for coordination of major events around Times Square such as the world-famous New Year’s Eve celebration. Other countries such as Australia, New Zealand and all over Europe also practice such Business Improvement Districts.

In Singapore, we started something similar for the Singapore River in 2012 with the formation of Singapore River One (SRO). SRO is a not-for-profit, private sector-led company comprising stakeholders such as property owners and business operators in the area.

At the time when SRO was formed, conditions around Circular Road and Boat Quay were not ideal. Negative business practices such as touting and overcharging gave the area a bad reputation. The common areas along the waterfront were not well maintained, and it was not a very people-friendly place. SRO went about making changes to the place. They created awareness on good business practices, and initiated weekend car-free zones at Circular Road which has made the place more vibrant. They also launched new events, like the annual Singapore River Festival, which has created more interest and brought in new attractions and visitors. They have also recently revamped the public promenade and outdoor dining areas to help businesses along the waterfront to attract customers.

All of this has helped businesses around the waterfront to attract more customers. Today, visitor footfall in the Singapore River precinct has gone up and business has improved. SRO itself has grown, from just 12 members at the start, to 110 members today.

Businesses in other precinct associations are organising themselves to do more place management.  One example not far away from here is Club Street and Ann Siang Hill. The stakeholders formed the Club Street Association which administers the car-free weekends in this area. This transforms the area into a people-friendly pedestrian zone with outdoor dining areas, boosting footfall and promoting Club Street as a new dining destination in the city area.

Another example is One Kampong Gelam. Over the last three years, they have organised many initiatives that have made the precinct more vibrant. On a typical day, cars and delivery trucks will pass through the narrow roads, affecting pedestrians visiting the shop houses along the streets.  Now, several roads including Bali Lane, Haji Lane, Baghdad Street and Bussorah Street are transformed on the weekends into car-free zones for community activities, bazaars and outdoor dining.

Last month, One Kampong Gelam also initiated their first precinct-wide car-free zone in conjunction with the National Arts Council’s Aliwal Arts Night Crawl. It offers a full range of activities like Silat, Wayang Kulit, Malay dance performances and community yoga. It attracted many more visitors to the area, where they could roam the streets freely and discover the charm of the neighbourhood. The stakeholders are clearly reaping the benefits of these efforts, and more business operators have come on board over the years.

These are positive signs, and we want to give this a further push; so we will do two things to support businesses in their efforts to promote place management in Singapore.

First, we will launch a nation-wide BID pilot scheme. Under this BID pilot scheme, we welcome all businesses to participate and indicate their interest. Businesses will need to submit an Expression of Interest (EOI) to URA. In the submission, businesses will need to develop a business plan. They will need to outline the BID precinct boundary, ideas to bring vibrancy to the precinct, the proposed membership fees, modes of collection and other funding sources to sustain the business model. Precincts with good business proposals that have obtained majority support from their stakeholders within the BID precinct boundary will be invited to form pilot BIDs. The Government will provide dollar-to-dollar matching for the collected membership fees, up to a cap of $500,000 per year, during the first four years of their pilot BID programme.

The Government is prepared to put money into this, but this depends on the proposals from the businesses. We await submissions from interested stakeholders, and there is no limit to the amount of BIDs that we will support. This will depend on the number of businesses which are interested and are able to get support. We will welcome the formation of BIDs and will support this as much as possible.

Second, we will study new legislation to provide legal backing for the BID. This is an important requirement for the long-term success of the BID. Without legal backing, the BIDs have to rely on voluntary contributions, which means funding will always remain uncertain. Moreover, under a voluntary scheme, stakeholders may not be equally invested and represented, and they may then lack the confidence to work together effectively.

Without such legislation, it will be difficult for precinct associations to expand their business plans or sustain long term plans. Legislation will formalise the setting up of the BID concept in Singapore, but there are complex issues will need to be studied. For example, we will need to determine appropriate thresholds for the minimum level of support and funding needed among stakeholders in the precinct before a BID can be set up. Ultimately, we will need to ensure that both smaller and larger stakeholders are protected and have a say in decisions concerning the BID. Our experience from this BID pilot scheme will guide us in crafting these rules and provide adequate safeguards.

Ultimately, it’s our people who help make our places distinctive and vibrant. We want more people to be involved in place making and enlivening our public spaces. Hence, URA has been creating various platforms for Singaporeans to make a difference in their local precincts, which includes different programmes such as their “Streets for People” and “Our Favourite Place” programmes.

In fact, URA recently concluded the third edition of the “My Ideas for Public Spaces” competition, which attracted more than 100 entries of creative ideas from individuals. I understand that the youngest person who entered such an idea was only 11-years old! This is a testament that anyone can contribute to place management.

What these individuals have contributed are just ideas. What we hope to see are these ideas being translated into actual projects on the ground. URA intends to implement these winning ideas, and we welcome local precinct associations and community partners to adopt these pop-up projects and bring them to life in their neighbourhoods.

We also want to recognise the business leaders who are championing place management efforts. Today, we will be awarding the Place Champion Award to the chairman of One Kampong Gelam, Mr Saeid Labbafi. Mr Labbafi has been instrumental in setting up One Kampong Gelam in 2014 and is the man behind many of their initiatives. He also co-chairs the Kampong Glam Work Group, which brings together the business community with other key institutions such as the Malay Heritage Centre, Sultan Mosque, as well as other arts groups and stakeholders within the Kampong Gelam precinct. By bringing all the different partners together, it provides a common platform to facilitate interaction and cross-collaboration to guide the development of the precinct. I think he is a very deserving recipient of this Award, and his dedication, tireless energy and vision for the precinct are an inspiration to many of us. 

In conclusion, we are now living in a different time – the old ways of doing retail are not tenable anymore. We are now in the age of the experience economy. Businesses must adapt to this new reality. For building owners, developers, retailers and shopping mall operators, this means investing more in place management in their respective precincts in order to create a special memory and experience for your consumers. The Government will do its part to help you in this process, but all of us have to work together.

I hope today’s event will inspire more business owners to step forward and join in this journey to create many more great places all over Singapore. Thank you very much.