Singapore / Government’s power over Boat Quay Development

The entrepreneurial Singapore government is far more influential than private enterprises in urban development. Singapore is arguably as an “entrepreneurial city” with “relentless drive to establish the city-state as an economic powerhouse” (Pow, 2002) In past centuries, state departments such as Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) guided the urban development and landscape transformations, under the objective of increasing city competitiveness and attracting inflow of capital. However, the idea of “public-private partnership” emerges as a new form of urban governance these years. The new form of coalition helps to converge and reconcile both public and private’s interests, as well as facilitates the government to engage in local-urban relationship.

Boat Quay’s development in past centuries reflects both form of urban governance – 1977 Clean Rivers Project and 1989 Urban Regeneration Project.

The 1977-1987 Clean River Project was an aggressive, entirely top-down act from the Government. Initiated by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the river cleaning was in conjunction with the Tourism Task Force Report, which pointed out that the decline of tourist was related to the demolition of historical buildings. The Government thought that cleaning the river could provide opportunity to develop new attractions. The Clean River Project was a transitional act which helped Boat Quay to transform from industrial to recreational area. In the face of industry’s declination, the Clean River Project included resettlement of squatters,  heavy industries and removal of pollutants and sewage. Refer to table 1, the squatters cleared in the Singapore River significantly dropped for 40000 in ten years.  In the project, the collaboration between government and citizens were in form of leader-and-follower, while the government controlled the big picture of redevelopment for the sake of economy, the old merchants were forced to leave Boat Quay.

Map of Clean River Project, 1977, National Environment Agency Singapore
Map of Clean River Project, 1977, National Environment Agency Singapore




The active participation from private sectors did not happen until the conservation and restoration of Boat Quay. Boat Quay was designated as the first urban regeneration area by STb at 1983 (Boey, 1998). The government conserve the area with “an iron hand in a velvet glove”. URA has released a set of conservation guidelines with 3R principles (maximum Retention, sensitive Restoration and careful Repair). Those guidelines were extraordinary detailed that it controlled nearly all architectural elements of the heritage buildings, and any restoration has to be approved by URA beforehand. The guidelines were implemented strictly and law is invoked to ensure any violation could be prosecuted. Hence, every private properties owners had no choice besides follow. As a softer approach, the government provides waivers in order to compensate the owners, and a variety of incentives of encourage restoration, for instances, the waiver of development charges, car park deficiency charges and repeal of rent control. The outcome was successful, the owners responded positively and completed the restoration plans on time. Although both public and private sectors contribute to the success of the project, the government’s initiative was the key of it. The government provided appropriate punishments and compensations, which efficiently motivated the private sector.

Looking back the past decades, the Government entirely controlled the urban development of Boat Quay and implement its plan through both tough and soft approaches. Both Clean River Project and Regeneration Project showed the influential power of Singapore Government. While in Clean River Project, the government banned all water-activities and forced all industrial business to move; in the Regeneration Project, the government set mandatory guidelines for property owners. Despite the controlled long-term development, the Singapore Government allows local engagement in smaller scale. The only private influence could be seen was in the Regeneration Project, where owners were allowed to rent out and re-program their properties freely. This has gradually built up the characteristics of Boat Quay.


  1. Authority, Urban Redevelopment. 2016. Boat Quay.
  2. Lin, Eunice M. 2016. Adaptive Re-use of the Historic Boat Quay.
  3. Wang Jingyao; Heng Chye Kiang. 2011. Urban Entrepreneurialism in Conservation Redevelopment: the case of the Boat Quay Historic District in Singapore. Singapore: National University of Singapore.
  4. Yugal Joshi; Cecilia Tortajada; Asit K. Biswas. 2000. Cleaning of the Singapore River and Kallang Basin in Singapore: Economic, social and environmental dimensions

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