Two weeks ago, Singapore celebrated its 47th year of independent statehood. Yet young as we may be (in both relative and absolute terms), in recent years there has been a healthy burgeoning discussion around what the strands of Singapore culture are.
Certainly, there are many strands when it comes to a country’s culture. Yet, one key building block of cultural identity is the country’s built environment. In this aspect, however, Singapore’s cityscape has often been derided for its hollowness underneath a patina of newness and modernity. Perhaps the most scathing critique of Singapore’s approach towards its built environment comes from Rem Koolhaas, who in his seminal 1995 essay “Singapore Songlines – Portrait of a Potemkin Metropolis” paints a picture of Singapore as “one huge housing project”, a tabula rasa on which government planners, in the name of ‘urban renewal’, ruthlessly unleashed the construction of soulless uniform housing blocks which today covers much of Singapore.
‘In Singapore, each perspective is blocked by good intentions.’
In the 1960s, abandoned by her colonial masters, Singapore was suffering from problems of high unemployment and poor living conditions for much of its population. (A 1947 British Housing Committee Report had noted Singapore had “one of the world’s worst slums – ‘a disgrace to a civilised community.’) The government then launched a series of land-related policies underpinned by a discourse on economic survival. The government wooed foreign investment into the country, and designated swaths of land for industrial activities.
Meanwhile, an ambitious plan to resettle the population into public housing blocks was started with fervour. Starting with the Queenstown housing estate in 1961, the Housing & Development Board (HDB) completed 21,000 flats in 3 short years. Throughout the next few decades, the HDB kept up its pace of construction, and now even a cursory drive around Singapore would expose first-time visitors to the thousands of public housing blocks that stand around the island and which over 80% of the population call home.
First blocks of flats along Margaret Drive at the Queenstown estate. Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore
On one hand, this housing project should be seen as a hugely successful solution to an urgent problem of survival. However, Koolhaas argues that the ubiquity of HDB flats meant ‘each Singaporean perspective [was] blocked by good intentions… the entire operation combining the fulfillment of some basic human needs with the systematic erosion of others – tradition, fixity, continuity’. Arguably, the mass government-directed resettlement of original dwellers into these identity-less housing blocks stemmed the natural, organic development of Singaporean culture through its built environment.
“What is more precious in this country, sand or gold?”
This process of government-directed urban renewal continues in full force today, and with greater pertinence, as the problem of Survival is coupled now with the challenge of Scarcity. Blank slate no longer, our urban planners today paint the issue as one of numerous competing demands on woefully limited land. Even land reclamation is less and less an option – land reclamation will foreseeably reach its limits when it comes to Singapore’s sea boundaries; and the export of sand to Singapore (traditionally from Indonesia, though banned in 2009) remains a thorny issue.
And so, in Jean Tay’s play “Boom”, the Director of the fictional Ministry of Land asks rhetorically, “What is more precious in this country, sand or gold?” Neither does he hesitate to harp on the Ministry of Land’s motto of “Reduce, Reuse and Re-allocate!”
Certainly, the powers which the state has for land re-allocation (and acquisition), coupled with the private sector’s own relentless drive for the new (i.e. = higher returns), give Singapore’s built environment ‘the tenuous quality of a freeze-frame’ (Koolhaas). This is especially true of commercial and business districts – many older buildings have been, or are now under the risk of being demolished to make way for the next new air-conditioned mall or office block. Even in the private housing sector, Singapore’s permissive collective sales policies, together with the widespread perception of apartments as economic investments rather than as homes, have also led to the demolition of iconic private estates the likes of Beverly Mai, Futura, and Habitat, to be replaced by shiny new ‘shoebox’ condominium units. Again, all these changes couched in the name of good intentions of urban renewal and growing the wealth of Singaporeans.
All this is ironic given that buildings, even if not permanent, often serve as durable cultural totems. The pragmatic and consumerist view of land and property in Singapore, and the resultant slash-and-burn wreaked on both public and private buildings, will stifle the development of a local culture and erode the collective memories of Singaporeans. Even now, iconic landmarks such as the National Library and Rochor Centre have been torn down, whilst more sites – Bukit Brown, the railway lines – are being put up for eventual ‘renewal’.
“After the pavement, the beach.” After the beach, a casino?
Granted, the government is mindful of the need for Singapore to develop a unique identity, a Singaporean culture.
When Goh Chok Tong took over from Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister in 1990, his ‘Next Lap’ vision aimed to recast Singapore as a ‘tropical island city’. Parallel to the urban renewal process, the garden city campaign was carried on in earnest. In the 1990s, the Ministry for Information and the Arts was set up order to “pursue the subject of fun very seriously, if we want to stay competitive in the 21st century…” (George Yeo)
This ministry of ‘fun’ has indeed taken bold and laudable steps to support the development of culture – for example, setting up the Esplanade, a national arts centre which is today a hotspot for a myriad of international, regional and local theatre and music performances.
However, in the topiary state that is Singapore, even recreation, fun and culture has to be planned for. And, George Yeo’s quote above reveals that in Singapore, economics comes first – Singapore needs to remain ‘competitive’ in the world economy, it needs to become a ‘global city’, and if fun and culture is a part of that equation, you can be sure the government will pursue that with vigour.
Economics remains paramount, thus, in priorities for urban renewal. This phrase uttered by Liu Thai Ker, the former Chief Planner of the Urban Redevelopment Agency (URA) encapsulates Singapore’s priorities: Not “under the pavement, beach” but “after the pavement, beach”. Ever since the 1960s, the discourse of survival and scarcity rings true.
But, even if monetary value could be assigned to intangibles such as language and the arts (…and that would be a feat indeed!), it is to be expected that these intangibles will be supplanted by more ‘profitable’, yet perhaps less culturally enriching alternatives. The domination of our new flagship Marina Bay Sands, a casino, hotel and shopping complex, in the new Singapore skyline, which in some ways overshadows the Esplanade located just across the river, is perhaps a visual representation of this tension.
Stirrings from the ground
Koolhaas focuses in his essay on the dangers of an externally-imposed process of urban renewal. But it would be wrong to conclude then that Singapore’s culture is wholly asphyxiated by these government or profit-driven initiatives.
Even if ways of living are determined to a large extent by the built environment, these ways of living evolve within the context of the built environment to take on a life of their own, creating unique memories reflecting the thoughts and behaviours of all who live there. And certainly, in Singapore, all the more so driven by the rapid pace of change in the built environment, we see numerous efforts by the local community to collect and retain these memories.
Some of it may seem laughable when viewed from a foreign perspective – a video commemorating the East Coast Park’s McDonald’s outlet appears at first glance to speak more about the relentless march of western capitalism rather than the development of a local Singaporean culture. But, surely we Singaporeans need not be apologetic for making these our memories – as they truly are authentic memories of living in Singapore.
Another example is Mosaic Memories – a project celebrating the beautiful old mosaic-tiled playgrounds in the older housing estates.
Old Places, a documentary shot by local director Roystan Tan featuring the forgotten places in Singapore, received such popular support that it was slated for a rerun soon after its was aired on local TV.
In an interview, when asked why he decided to film this documentary, Roystan’s reply was “I wanted to capture all these places.. I was in the transitional generation, saw a lot of things disappearing. So what I cannot control in reality, I want to capture at least on film.”
The Bonsai State
These grounds-up initiatives have been effective in fostering a sense of closeness amongst those who share these memories. Certainly, these efforts are laudable and must be encouraged.
However, in preserving culture across time and generations, the built environment remains a key pillar. And yet, in Singapore because the built environment remains so heavily controlled by public policy (and perhaps too important to devolve to individuals/ private players), the government must make good on its intentions and truly lead in efforts of culture-building through the cityscape. Otherwise, grassroots efforts face the danger of remaining on the sidelines of public discourses of Singaporean culture, watching only as the old continually gets demolished to make way for the new.
Yet, such change within the establishment requires new ways of discourse and assessment of value to evolve. And here civil and public servants play a pivotal role. First, they need to move from their perceived (or real?) roles as ‘apocalyptic horseman of demolition’ bent only on economic survival and competitiveness. (Source: R Koolhaas, ‘Singapore Songlines’ in S, M, L, XL, R Koolhaas, B Mau, H Werlemann, Monacelli Press, 1995) They must take a broader, more sensitive view to urban renewal. Importantly, they need to bridge the gap between the lofty and philosophical discourses of architects and the pragmatic well-intentioned discussions within their own government offices.
Ensuring that Singapore remains competitive whilst treading scarcity issues remain important government priorities. But, if we acknowledge that cultural identity is important too, and if the built environment plays an important role in allowing that culture to develop, there needs to be greater engagement and conversation between the establishment, urban planners, architects and the public.
Just as the trimming of a bonsai plant is painful, mistakes will be made along the way in this social compact. And the way that a bonsai teeters between the natural and unnatural may very well be an image for what Singapore with its constraints will be – in a strange fluid state, always tending to balance in favour of the modern and the calculated, yet unique and alluring in its own way.
This entry was posted on Monday, September 3rd, 2012 at 5:06 pm. It is filed under All Posts, People, Photography and tagged with Beverly Mai, bonsai, Bonsai state, Cityscape, Elly Chiu, HDB, Margaret Drive, Marina Bay Sands, Mosaic Memories, Roystan Tan, Singapore, Singapore urban planning, Urban redevelopment authority. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.