Having The Right Edge

MND Edge Scholar Rachel Liu Yunyann Steps Into The World Of Urban Planning And Real Estate In Singapore

Why did you choose the scholarship?

After completing junior college and before starting university, I took a gap year during which I did a range of internships in the architecture, urban planning and real estate industries to better understand the field. This helped me to more clearly define my interests and expectations of what it was like to work in the field of urban planning in Singapore. I took up the MND EDGE scholarship as I found that policy work was where I could tackle issues at the most fundamental level and thereby push for change. The scholarship also offered the opportunity of rotating within the family of MND agencies, which was attractive because it provided flexibility within this scope of work I was interested in.

Would you advise others to take up a scholarship?
It depends on your interest and fit. My advice would be to be as informed as possible on what a commitment to this field of work means; whether you’re interested in the intersection of the built environment and social and economic issues. If you’re passionate about such matters and can see yourself finding this field meaningful, then the scholarship may be the right choice for you.

What made you decide to choose your course in your university?
I was interested in both architecture and social issues, so urban studies seemed to be a good middle ground. The College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University also had a very strong reputation.

What do you think set you apart from the rest of the candidates applying for a scholarship?
My experiences working in various companies in the architecture, urban planning and real estate fields, allowed me to be more grounded and passionate about my choice of study and expectations about work. This likely distinguished me from other applicants and helped me to articulate how the scholarship would be a good fit for me.

Have your views/expectations changed once you stepped out into the working world?
Yes, school and work are very different places. The internship with MND’s Strategic Planning Division in my last summer of college helped me to contextualise a lot of the things I had learnt at school. For example, the role of public, private and civic actors in developing and delivering urban solutions is quite different overseas, where there are more layers of government (e.g. municipal, state and federal) and more land is privately owned. Private and civic actors tend to play a bigger role. This is the context I was more familiar with in my experiences at school. In Singapore, by contrast, the government plays a bigger role in shaping the urban landscape, in partnership with the private sector and community.

Each category of actors perceives urban issues and solutions differently. Over the past year and a half in MND, I have become more familiar with how issues are viewed from the lens of a policymaker. You have a responsibility to consider widely the implications of any issue and to balance competing interests. You also work with a specific set of tools, such as legislation.

How are you enjoying your time at the organisation?
I have enjoyed working at MND. Particularly, the Strategic Planning Division, which I’m in, has a strong team culture and handles issues that are very meaningful to me. For example, I was involved in URA’s Draft Master Plan last year, which was a huge multi-year effort on their part to review the island-wide development plan for Singapore and conduct public engagement. It was satisfying to see the full plans exhibited, and the many Singaporeans who came through to look at the plans and provide thoughtful feedback. I appreciate that my work bears relevance to the experience of places and people you come across every day – everyone has a stake in our built environment.

What issues do you handle?
I work on a range of portfolios, handling policy on matters relating to land use. My job is a balance of regulation and aspiration. Part of my work is to ensure that land and space in Singapore are managed in accordance with the Government’s plans in a fair and consistent manner. Another part of my work is more aspirational – helping to set the direction for Singapore’s growth in the hard and soft aspects for the next 10, 20, 50 years – and then putting the policy structures in place to help us get there.

What are the most demanding responsibilities you have and how do you cope with them?
The challenge of my role lies in shaping policy within real constraints and competing interests. You have to make sense of complex circumstances, tease out your objectives, and balance the key considerations in order to make your recommendation, taking into perspective the ‘bigger picture’ of shaping Singapore to be a distinctive global city with a high-quality living environment. It can be demanding to manage both issues as well as stakeholders, but often when you look back at the results and what has been achieved, the effort is worth it. I continue to find new challenges and things to learn through the issues I handle. My colleagues and bosses help me out a lot.

How have you been able to use what you learned in school for your job?
Singapore is a unique place for land use planning and policy in so many ways, not least of which is the degree of control that the Government has over development, so our approaches and solutions may be different from that of other cities and countries. My education has taught me process, context, and critical thinking, and these have been relevant to helping me find the best strategies for planning for Singapore’s future growth.

What kinds of career and personal development opportunities does the organization provide its scholars?
The path for scholars is quite flexible and you can shape your career path according to your own background and inclinations. My bosses and peers have been encouraging me to take courses that are both practical (such as working on legislation) and interest-based (such as a course on the use of data analytics in planning).

We understand you did your undergraduate studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Did you venture further outward for any student exchange programmes? What was it like?
I spent a semester in Rome studying architectural history, in a programme organized by my college. It was wonderful to discover the layers of architecture, art and planning history in Rome, with the city itself as a classroom – juxtaposed with contemporary Italian society facing issues such as ageing and immigration, which are challenges very real and relevant to Singapore and many other cities globally.

I also spent part of a summer studying conservation biology and field ecology in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, outside of São Paulo. The experience really shifted my perception of the potential of natural spaces in Singapore to offer value for both conservation and people.

I would highly recommend study abroad experiences because there is always value in applying a comparative lens to issues you study vis-à-vis real-world application, both in Singapore and in other cities and countries, to see how different cities cope with challenges that can be similar.
MND EDGE Scholarship
Rachel Liu Yunyann
Age: 25
Attained: Bachelor of Science with Honors Urban and Regional Studies
Now: Manager, Strategic Planning Division
From: College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University