After having travelled widely, Sharon Chua is using her experience to help shape Singapore’s urban landscape.
I always had a keen interest in travelling, cultivating a .love for Geography in me. The interactions between people and places, and how this varied geographically, intrigued me, as with the evolution of physical and human landscapes across space and time.
Perhaps this was why, amid the myriad of scholarships on offer at school fairs and talks, I found myself drawn to the one by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). I was drawn by how the URA, the national land use planning and conservation authority, had transformed Singapore from a little fishing village to a blossoming city of distinction and excellence. I also learnt that the agency constantly strives to formulate plans and policies that would support economic growth while maintaining a quality living environment for us and generations to come, which is an issue close to my heart.
I accepted the URA Scholarship, for it not only offered the opportunity to engage with these issues while helping to manage Singapore’s urban environment, but also the chance to study at University College London, which houses one of the best Geography departments in the world.
‘There is in London all that life can afford’
When the great English author Samuel Johnson made the above statement in the 18th century, he probably did not expect London to become the sprawling metropolis it is today. Nonetheless, these words held as much truth for me as they presumably did for Johnson all those years ago.
The three years I spent in London were some of the best times of my life. Despite its status as a global financial capital, there was still a quaint charm about the city, expressed in its beautiful parks and winding lanes, lined with independent cafes and bookstores decorated in an endless number of ways. Many an afternoon was spent wandering around the city, admiring the Victorian and Edwardian buildings and perhaps enjoying a musical in a similarly styled theatre thereafter. London’s proximity to the rest of Europe also made jaunts to France, Italy, Greece, Iceland and other nearby countries affordable and possible, which certainly pleased the travel bug in me!
Academically, University College London opened up a new world of learning opportunities. My professors were all experts in their fields and used a variety of teaching methods which were both interesting and enriching. A single school term could see me going straight from poring over century-old records from London’s archives, to taking photographs of graffiti on a field trip to Berlin. Listening to debates by prominent geographers and urban theorists such as Professors Peter Wood, Jennifer Robinson and Ulf Hannerz had also stretched me intellectually, during the module I took at the leading Bartlett School of Planning.
Beijing And Hong Kong
Having been exposed to Western theory throughout my university years, I was also grateful to the URA for sponsoring my participation in a travel study programme to Beijing and Hong Kong the summer before I started work. Organised by the University of California, Los Angeles, the programme let me gain valuable insight into the urbanisation and planning strategies adopted by these two cities, as well as benefit from having studied urban issues in both Western and Asian contexts.
The diversity of my current role as a planner with the URA’s Development Control Group allows me to put all these academic knowledge to practical application. University education gave me an excellent grounding in the various planning ideals such as the need to green a city and to enhance its community spaces. However, it is by being on the job that I learnt the need to constantly engage and interact with the industry and public to ensure that they benefit from our planning work.
This is a key aspect of my work in development control, which is to facilitate the continuous rejuvenation of Singapore’s urban landscape. We ensure that the proposals of the private industry fulfil long-term planning intentions and safeguard public interests. A typical working day therefore sees me engaging with architects, developers and engineers through phone conversations and face-to-face meetings to better understand their project proposals and marketing concepts. We then evaluate these proposals while balancing the needs of businesses, homeowners and the general public.
Undoubtedly, this balancing act is sometimes difficult, and a complicated project can involve months of work, endless chains of emails and even some sleepless nights. But there is nothing like the satisfaction of seeing a development move from plans to reality and take shape right before my eyes. It is this sense of fulfilment that I value most.
The Right Decision
Although I have only joined URA for just over a year, I know I made the right decision signing on that dotted line all those years ago. The URA has given me so many opportunities to not only develop myself as an individual, but also to play a part in helping to shape the future of Singapore. Of course, the fact that my job often brings me on site visits is a plus, for I can do exactly what I love – observing people and the evolution of urban landscapes – all in the name of work!
Attained: BA in Geography (Hons), University College London, UK
Now: Planner, URA
From: Hwa Chong Institution