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URA – Taking The Long Road


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!

URA Scholarship
Age: 23
Attained: BA in Geography (Hons), University College London, UK
Now: Planner, URA
From: Hwa Chong Institution