02 April, 2020

Mercer had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Khoo Teng Chye, the Executive Director of the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC). Mr. Khoo Teng Chye was more than happy to discuss his vision on the quality of living within his city, as well as the various challenges, opportunities, and successes he’s experienced throughout the past 20 years.

About the centre for liveable cities

Executive Director of the Centre for Liveable Cities

Set up in 2008 by the Ministry of National Development and the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC) has as its mission “to distil, create and share knowledge on liveable and sustainable cities”. CLC’s work spans four main areas – Research; Capability Development; Knowledge Platforms; and Advisory. Through these activities, CLC hopes to provide urban leaders and practitioners with the knowledge and support needed to make our cities better.

Over the past 20 years, Singapore has been considered a smart city and is continuously improving the living standard of its residents. In your opinion, what have been the primary challenges to overcome?

Cities with the highest quality of living standard, based on Mercer indices, are cities with a low population density. Therefore, it is even more challenging for a city such as Singapore to be at the top for high living standards since very few cities have both a high quality of living and high population density (above 7,700/km²). Singapore is one of those cities, and due to its geographical position and scarcity in resources, the city had to think differently and strive for improvement by implementing specific policies, which would enable us to develop economically and infrastructurally, while keeping in mind the safety of residents.

"  Singapore’s main issues will remain the same over the coming decades – Singapore is an island; therefore, resources have been and will continue to be one of the main challenging drivers. Should Singapore want to remain competitive, it will need to grow both its economy and its population. There is a need to find more innovative ways to increase our liveability, even though our population will continue increasing in an already highly-dense city. "

Read more about the new 2019 Mercer Global Quality of Living report.

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The below chart depicts the correlation between a highly dense city and a high living standard (using Mercer Quality of Living data).

correlation between a highly dense city and a high living standard

Chart courtesy of the Centre for Liveable Cities

There are 3 main components which can be perceived as the biggest barriers that the city of Singapore has to face.


First, by and large, Singapore is an island where resources are scarce. Hence, the city needs to continuously seek innovative solutions in order to overcome these challenges, and at the same time, strive to pursue the best living standards for inhabitants. The lack of land, potable water resources, land for agriculture enabling self-sufficiency, and availability of energy, are all constraints that Singapore needs to overcome and keep in mind for the future development of the city.


Second, economic issues also impose constraints on Singapore. The Singapore market is relatively small in comparison to neighboring countries, so the city is often questioning: “To whom can we sell our products? What type of products do we need to sell? What type of internal and foreign market penetration can we have in Singapore?”


Third, Singapore is ethnically and culturally diverse. It’s a cultural melting-pot and constant effort is necessary to ensure social integration The main portion of Singapore inhabitants and citizens are of Chinese origin, followed by Malay and Indian origins. Furthermore, expatriates and tourists bring a great many foreigners to the city.

What have been the three most successful initiatives which have truly made a difference in the living standard of Singapore?

First, structured housing policy, making sure that everyone has an adequate home in Singapore.


Second, to have a clean city with adequate sewage and waste removal infrastructure. 


Third, to thrive in building a Green Singapore. A clean and green city has often been used by Singapore authorities to promote and define the city as one of their highest achievement.


While infrastructure, safety, and provision of goods and services are all considered as basic needs for Singapore, they are not the core elements that form the backbone of Singapore’s success.

If you could provide 3 tips for thriving cities to improve their quality of living standard for their citizens, what would they be?

The Quality of Living is the tip of the iceberg and is indeed an important component of the overall holistic and integrated approach of city planning. The diagram below depicts the success which has driven Singapore:

The desired outcomes (the “what’s”) include high quality of life, a competitive economy, and a sustainable environment. All three of these are interlinked and are a result of the underlying systems (the “how’s”), which include an integrated approach to master planning and development, and dynamic urban governance. Without a clear urban strategy, it would be difficult for a city to be competitive, sustainable, and have a high quality of life for their inhabitants.

Chart courtesy of the Centre for Liveable Cities
Chart courtesy of the Centre for Liveable Cities

Talent and business attractiveness in a city often correlate with high living standards. Would you agree with this sentence? Could you please provide us with an example or initiative that Singapore achieved during the last years?

Talent and business attractiveness are indeed correlated to high living standards of a city. Singapore has pushed to attract businesses and talent through various strategies, of which four main ones are:  

  1. Making sure the Singapore economy has its competitive advantage by providing opportunities and ease in setting up businesses, and having competitive taxation.
  2. Making it easier for companies to set up their regional and worldwide headquarters, such as IT companies from around the world, including more recently, China and South East Asian nations, and financial companies, hence attracting talent from all over the world.
  3. Providing adequate infrastructure with regards to the international connectivity from, and into, Singapore and leveraging Singapore’s favorable geographic location.
  4. Emphasizing and developing the logistics of the Singapore port, hence enabling the transfer and transit of goods through it. Several e-commerce companies are envisioning using the Port of Singapore as their logistics headquarters.

According to you, what would be the main priorities for Singapore in the next 20 years?

Singapore’s main issues will remain the same over the coming decades – Singapore is an island; therefore, resources have been and will continue to be one of the main challenging drivers. Should Singapore want to remain competitive, it will need to grow both its economy and its population. There is a need to find more innovative ways to increase our liveability, even though our population will continue increasing in an already highly-dense city.


We are conducting several research initiatives and launching innovations to make sure the city can continue to foster a high living standard for its residents. A key objective of Singapore is to become a city that is nature friendly through various initiatives such as clean transportation and clean energy. Singapore aims to be aligned with nature and as well as to be sustainable in the long term.


Through the sharing of information and forums, we have been able to learn from other cities around the world about various best practices. At the same time, we’ve provided guidance based on our experiences, challenges and successes that Singapore went through and may continue to face in the future.

Are there any cities which you think have done a lot towards improving the living standard of their residents and citizens over the past decades?

Awarded biennially at the World Cities Summit (WCS), an exclusive platform for government leaders and industry experts to address liveable and sustainable city challenges, share integrated urban solutions, and forge new partnerships, the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize honors outstanding achievements and contributions to the creation of liveable, vibrant, and sustainable urban communities around the world.


The Prize is awarded to cities and recognizes their key leaders and organizations for displaying foresight, good governance and innovation in tackling the many urban challenges faced, to bring about social, economic and environmental benefits in a holistic way to their communities.

  • Bilbao, Spain, the inaugural winner in 2010, was acknowledged for transforming the city from an obsolete and dilapidated industrial city into a knowledge-based economy through an integrated and holistic approach. One key example is the transformation of its river, from a physical and social barrier, into a hub for social and cultural integration and a centre for innovation and creativity through a successful balance of the twin aims of infrastructure investment and social integration.
  • New York, United States of America, was given the prize in 2012 in recognition of the city’s ability to transform itself by adopting key strategic urban planning initiatives post 9/11, enhancing New York City’s stature and demonstrating its resilience.  
  • Suzhou, China, was given the top recognition in 2014. Known as the “Venice of the East”, the city was awarded for efforts to transform itself rapidly in the last two decades from an agricultural, export-oriented economy into an innovative, high-value, service-oriented city through proper planning and investment in key physical infrastructure. It is also known for its efforts to preserve and maintain the historical and cultural heritage.
  • Medellin, Colombia, the prize recipient in 2016, was recognized for its transformative efforts. Within two decades, a city plagued by violence and inequality has turned into one that seeks to empower every member of society, putting the needs of the people at the forefront of planning and policies. For example, the Unidades de Vida Articulada (UVA – Life Articulated Units) program invites citizens to be actively involved in the building of sports, recreational and cultural venues on previously inaccessible plots of land set aside for various utilities.

As a city decision maker, what have been the key challenges and concerns you have had to overcome to implement ideas, best practices, and improve city quality of living in Singapore?

Singapore sought to create a garden city as it started developing in the 1960s. Since then, as Singapore’s density continues to rise, the city strives to keep up with high living standards for its inhabitants. Singapore has intensified efforts to embrace nature in order to achieve its vision of becoming a City in a Garden. In the future, the Centre for Liveable Cities envisions that Singapore would work towards being a city that is fully integrated with nature.


Chart courtesy of the Centre for Liveable Cities


Rank City Country/Region
1 Vienna Austria
2 Zürich Switzerland
3 Vancouver Canada
3 Munich Germany
3 Auckland New Zealand
6 Düsseldorf Germany
7 Frankfurt Germany
8 Copenhagen Denmark
9 Geneva Switzerland
10 Basel Switzerland

This ranking indicates differences in quality of living factors affecting expatriates in popular assignment destinations and should not be used as the basis for determining hardship premiums, as many complex and dynamic factors must be taken into account. Please contact us about developing your international assignment program.

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