21 Jan 2013

In land-scarce Singapore, the contestation for space has ignited a robust debate on what it means to belong.

In land-scarce Singapore, the contestation for space has ignited a robust debate on what it means to belong. Geh Min, a former president of the Nature Society (Singapore), adds her voice to the cacophonous conversation.

The dialectic over Singapore’s much-debated White Paper for 2030 has been split over the size and composition of the projected population then, and what would be needed in infrastructure and land use to meet that need. I would like to look at the interface between the two, and look to that complex, dynamic and unpredictable interface where the two essentially interact. A society is more than just the quantum of populace and services to meet their needs. It is about a sense of home and identity.

Without a shared sense of home, we cannot achieve social cohesion. A population of five, six or seven million on this island would be stressful and ultimately intolerable. Yet high density and proximity has its advantages, including creating ease of access, greater choices and dynamism when calibrated to the benefit of the majority. Such a sense of belonging and shared space requires preconditions.

Founding Vision

Fresh from the heady days of independence, with the people defined by what they did not want (colonial rule) rather that what they wanted, our founding fathers had a vision to link people & place –namely, an ambitious aim of having everyone own his/her home. This bold idea turned into a reality of a world-class model of public housing that anchored one’s sense of belonging, a sense of home.

It was not without its downside. In the abrupt shift from rural to suburban, from river, coastal and village communities to a highrise city-state existence, the mass upheaval of moving people into flats also created a sense of ownership hard to translate beyond the doorstep of an urban apartment. This demonstrated itself in public apathy and anti-social behavior such as littering. There is enough anecdotal evidence that the expanded sense of ownership is selfishly rather than socially motivated.

Fortunately we have also seen an increase in the number of social and communal initiatives for the larger good. Some of the have aligned well with government policy (Community in Bloom, Waterways Watch), others have been more contentious such as the movement to protect Bukit Brown Cemetery from development. A few more, such as the move to protect the Chek Jawa mangroves and the railway land handed to Singapore after decades of Malaysian ownership, called the Green Corridor, started off controversially but have had, for now, a happy outcome. All should be viewed as expressions of a desire to protect and enhance our shared ownership rather than judged by whether they fit into current government policy. Indeed, government policy makers including land use planners should consult far more widely before coming up with their blueprints and white papers.

What was in the past an effective top-down approach may not be as appropriate as seen by an increasing number of policy U-turns recently. Certainly, a reflection of courageous admissions of past mistakes may address the trust deficit needed to ensure genuine consultation and discussion to help formulate future policies. Policies are more effective when the constituents feel engaged and respected.

A rapidly growing number of educated and articulate Singaporeans with a strong sense of national identity are clearly frustrated by the insufficient avenues for them not just to speak up but to actually make a difference, an encouraging sign of growing nationhood, rather than of impending chaos.

The government initiated an outreach called the Singapore Conversation to “listen to one another’s views on the issues and challenges we face today” in the hope of forging “a better Singapore”. The call emphasises choices. It clearly tries to address concerns beyond the economic model and physical infrastructure that make up the city. For this exercise to succeed, it must be inclusive, continuous and productive.

In short, a home goes beyond a place where you have invested your money to one where you have the freedom to make choices and the desire to exercise this responsibly.

Social and Spatial Justice

In a country as land scarce as Singapore, spatial justice is as important as social justice, creating a level playing field in jobs and educational opportunities. The government was far-sighted in perceiving this at the onset of independence and implementing it by its public housing policy.

Beyond housing, there must be an equitable use of land for transport and other essential amenities, for industry and investment, and for nature and recreation. Through the Land Acquisition Act, the state is by far the biggest land-owner by which the Urban Renewal Authority is both the arbiter and implementer of land use. By far, this law has been critical in transforming Singapore in the early days of independence, clustering former villagers into suburban housing for cost-effective shared amenities while releasing land for industry and investment to build a new economy. It’s worthwhile looking at this more closely.


Land Use Authority

The concept of application of the Public Trust Doctrine is critical here. “When applied to the State, it draws a distinction between ordinary land generally owned by the State as a corporate entity as though it were a private landowner, and public trust land held by the State as the sovereign as though it were a trustee for specific purposes in the common interest of the public,” Joseph Chin wrote in his 2005 journal article, Reclaiming the Public Trust in Singapore.

This distinction is crucial in any analysis of whether the Singapore government has been a wise steward of this scarce resource. It is not an easy balance. Broadly speaking, the government has done an effective job, bar perhaps a disproportionate number of private golf courses for a minority. But the question arises as to who makes or should make the critical decisions as to how land in Singapore is used? What has been lacking is a stringent need for environmental impact assessments (EIAs) that would not only provide valuable information on impacts and carrying capacities but also help determine what the majority of Singaporeans want.

Particularly worrying is the premise of the White Paper to build in anticipation of demand, namely to build infrastructure and amenities well in advance of a forecast 6.9 million population in 2030. One should pause and ask if we really need to use valuable land and taxpayers money to provide for this hypothetical increase in population.

When land becomes scarcer and population density increases even more, how is the state going to maintain the precarious balance between land use for the public good and private developments and amenities affordable only by the affluent? Even expanding our roads and highways may be scrutinised in the context of spatial justice with cars one of the least efficient and most inequitable forms of transport in a land-challenged country.

One of the most embarrassing oversights perpetrated by our planners is the lack of proper housing amenities for foreign labourers – the construction workers, cleaners and domestic workers who contribute enormously to making Singapore the envy of many cities. Yet they lack access to decent housing or recreational amenities. While public housing provides ample parking, the same foresight has not been given to privacy for domestic helpers. Construction and other workers are housed in third world tenements that even they find intolerable. In addition to one of the highest Gini coefficients, a sign of widening income inequality, this deficiency is another polarising factor in our society today.

A Sense of Continuity

While change has its challenges, a sense of continuity is essential to our general wellbeing.

Indeed very few Singaporeans have the luxury of growing old in or even revisiting their childhood home or neighborhood. Such has been the pace of change. It was acceptable in exchange for a dynamic economy and upward mobility. As the latter is sacrificed, the old social compact cannot hold. As upward mobility declines, and economic growth slows, it is even more essential that we conserve as much of our natural and man-made heritage, shared memories and familiar landmarks as possible.

The strong public reaction, across the age spectrum, to the potential loss of historical landmarks such as the Railway Line and Bukit Brown are indicators of this growing need for visible and palpable proofs of our shared past. A rapidly changing landscape may be a developer’s dream and entertain tourists but stressful nightmare for those who choose to make Singapore home.

Chan Chun Sing, the Acting Minister for Social and Family Development, said recently that “while it is important to preserve Singapore’s heritage, this has to be balanced against the need for redevelopment” as this “adds new buildings and new areas which in turn allows future generations to create new memories”. Sadly, many of these historic buildings or places have been or will be replaced by roads, highways and other amenities (National Library, Bukit Brown, Khatib Bongsu).

He also argued that because “the previous generation has… given up some of their memories for us to be where we are today, then I think it is also incumbent upon us to pay it forward.” This linear train of thought is deficient. Memories are not a commodity to be bartered or traded. As with the relationship between wealth and happiness, there is a diminishing rate of return in constant change to the physical environment in the pursuit of “development”. The value of heritage is for subsequent generations to add fresh layers to existing treasured memories to enrich the narrative, not trade old memories for new ones.

Heritage and national values cannot be transmitted by textbooks and political rhetoric alone. A society is defined as much by what we choose to preserve or destroy as by what we create. The Singapore Conversation after all focuses us on the choices we have to make.

A society that places no visible value on continuity would create future generations who are adrift on market forces rather that secured by a shared loyalty to the country and fellow countrymen. How would such a place produce people who are prepared to invest emotionally, to stay long-term, to start a family and to make sacrifices to defend their country? It would be much easier to trade one country for another.

Singapore has evolved from a nation by chance to nationhood by choice. Let us not deteriorate to a city-state of convenience: A hotel rather than a home.

Dr. Geh Min is the former President of Nature Society in Singapore. She was formerly a Nominated Member of Parliament from January 2005 to April 2006.In 2006, Geh was one of the three recipients of the inaugural President’s Award for the Environment, along with Singapore diplomat Tommy Koh and the Waterways Watch Society (WWS).