City Profile

Ho Chi Minh | Hong Kong | Manila
Mar-Apr 2013

A Reflection on Singapore’s Recent Urban Development

by Ng Wai Keen

Change, it is said, is the only constant. We need to look no further than at the pace of Singapore’s urban development post-independence (particularly over the last two decades) to find the embodiment of this platitude. However, where Greek philosophers spoke perhaps of the implacable cycles of nature, where everything changes while remaining the same, the urban growth and development that Singapore is experiencing seems to be on a linear trajectory. Between 1997 and 2010, I was based outside Singapore. Even though I made regular trips back, I could not appreciate how much the city-state had changed during the intervening years, and how it continues to change, until I relocated back to Singapore.
People, People Everywhere
Between 2000 and 2012, Singapore’s population grew by one-third from 4 million to 5.3 million, primarily due to immigration. There are also about 140,000 tourists in Singapore every day (up from 90,000 in 2006). The initial visceral reaction upon my return was that there were suddenly a lot more people everywhere: on the expressways, on the trains, in the parks, on the pavement, in the workplace, etc. This growth is being fuelled by economic conditions and aspirations. Singapore was founded as a trading outpost, and this ‘historic DNA’ is evident in today’s highly developed market-based economy. The country takes pride in having one of the freest and most competitive economies in the world. The prevailing ideology since independence is that continuous economic growth must be pursued vigorously in order to guarantee the future of the country. Social, cultural and environmental concerns have often taken second place to the economic ones. The capacity to attract and retain human capital is a major competitive advantage for any city and country, and given the global competition for talent, Singapore really has to keep itself open, particularly in light of the low fertility rate of Singaporeans.
However, attracting new residents is certainly not a risk-free proposition. From the urban planning viewpoint, more people means more services (housing, education, health, transport, leisure, etc.) are required. The country is still coming to terms with the societal impact of the sudden presence of so many new citizens and residents from foreign lands. The impact on the urban condition is similarly dramatic. For starters, deficiencies in transport infrastructure and public housing were exposed, and these are rushing to catch up. The increased number, presence and proximity of different ethnic immigrant groups are forcing an evaluation of the role and the design of ‘public’ or ‘community’ space. 
Revisiting the “Cosmopolitans versus Heartlanders” Debate
As Singapore society becomes more plural than ever, the cosmopolitan/heartlander divide is likely to become less relevant. This divide was first raised at a National Day Rally speech in August 1999 by the then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, neatly describing what he sees as two largely mutually exclusive societal groups. Truth be told, reality is more nuanced, and into this mix there exists now a large group of immigrant newcomers who are a little bit of both. A hundred years ago, in 1912, Singapore had a lot more first-generation immigrants who were of all ethnic groups. They were not just the Chinese, Malays and Indians, but also Armenians, Parsis, Jews, Bugis, Arabs—with names and surnames that live on in many street names—who came to eke out a living, or to make a fortune. It might be that Singapore is heading back to its immigrant roots. Hungry. Entrepreneurial. Can-do. These are evident in the newcomers, and are welcome additions to a society where such immigrant traits have been inadvertently weeded out over decades of being ‘settled’ and over-reliance on a paternalistic government. The challenge facing a new immigrant Singapore remains the same as a century ago: getting a group of multicultural people to become rooted in the land and to become fellow citizens.
More American and East Asian, NOT SO BRITISH
The socio-political context of a city is of course very different from one century ago. Indeed it can change quite significantly in just a few years. I lived briefly in Hong Kong a few years before the handover in 1997. When I had the chance to revisit Hong Kong about a decade later, Hong Kong was palpably a lot more ‘Chinese’ and perhaps a little less international. In post-independence Singapore, like in Hong Kong, the United Kingdom also exerted an influence over language, education and culture: spelling, GCE examinations and the BBC. The early Housing and Development Board (HDB) new towns also bore the imprint of British town planning traditions. However, the British influence was gradually waning, and by the late 1990s, the major cultural influences and references had become undoubtedly the United States and, to a lesser degree, East Asian countries such as China, Korea and Japan. Singaporeans watch the US version of the X-Factor, even though the original is from the UK; our brightest scholars aspire to Ivy League universities; and American spelling is increasingly prevalent. In the building industry, we look to the US for LEED accreditation, engage American ‘starchitects’ to design our skyscrapers, and listen eagerly to American urban theorists and thinkers whom we invite to talk to us about their latest books. The East Asian influence is also perceptibly greater, and this is certainly due to the economic and cultural clout of Japan, China and lately Korea.

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