The Rise of Singapore

The economic rise of Singapore from “third world to first” is widely cited as evidence of Singapore’s success more generally as a city-state — and yet more generally still as a social and political project. This is understandable. It’s hard to talk about Singapore without talking about its economic successes (and that’s certainly been true for me as I write posts here).

But just how far has Singapore come under the watchful guidance of the PAP? Has it really moved, from a backwater network of villages, to a shiny modern metropolis? And, more importantly, has it thereby become better? On the whole, I think the answer is “yes”. But I have at least two reservations about the standard expression of this answer; one is about Singapore’s past, the other about its present.

On the past: it’s important to note that pre-independence Singapore was not, as a matter of historical fact, a mere backwater network of villages. I think it is better characterized, instead, as one of the crown jewels in the global British empire. Indeed, Singapore played a role in the region — as an oasis of wealth and Western influence in the middle of Southeast Asia, as a shipping hub, and as a popular destination for foreign investment — much like the one it plays today. A picture is worth a thousand words. So I present for you several images of pre-independence Singapore, with a few comments above each. I got these images from “On a Little Street in Singapore“, a fun Facebook group dedicated to nostalgic and historical posts about Singapore (of which more later!).

The Telok Ayer Basin (1952). Notice the busy port; on the water side of things, this doesn’t look all that different from the crowded shipping lanes that characterize the Singapore of 2014:

Telok Ayer Basin 1952

Kallang Seafront (~1960). Notice the densely populated city area and the lovely mix of colonial and vernacular architecture. When I see this picture, I get a sense of a clean, efficient, and busy little city. Take away “little city”, and that’s not all that different from the features that now characterize Singapore:

Kallang Seafront. 1960s

Raffles Place and Boat Quay (1955). More of the same:

Raffles Place and Boat Quay - 1955

City Center (~1959). Note, as above, the ships in the background (signs of a bustling port) and the charming and varied architecture (including the spire of St. Andrew’s Cathedral).

City Center

All of these pictures are centered, of course, on the city area of Singapore. Prior to independence, the rest of the island was much less developed, and many residents of Singapore were indeed quite poor and lived in kampongs (villages) without any of the niceties of modern living that virtually all residents of Singapore now enjoy. But the lesson I draw from pictures like the above is still salient, I think: Singapore was, prior to independence, a charming and thriving colony. Its later social engineers, technocrats, and capitalists had plenty of raw materials with which to work, then, when growing Singapore into its current state. Sure, Singapore’s economy grew dramatically after independence. Indeed, GDP went from 650 million USD in 1960 to 275 billion USD in 2012 — a remarkable feat, even taking into account inflation and a similarly explosive growth in population. But it’s quite misleading to think of Singapore as a place that grew from a nothing and a nowhere circa 1960 into its current status as a gleaming modern metropolis.

On the present: fast economic development (of the kind Singapore has seen) has tended to engender placeless homogeneity. When you build a metropolis in less than half a century, it’s bound to feel a little less than organic. And the more centrally and carefully planned this building operation is (and Singapore’s has been carefully planned indeed), the more sterile (and accordingly, less charming and unique) it’s going to feel to its residents and visitors. Such results are, unsurprisingly, widely objectionable.

What is placeless homogeneity? Here’s an exercise: visit a random mall in Singapore (there are many from which to choose). Look around. If you took a picture of your surroundings, would you be able to tell from that picture alone where it was taken? Probably not. Asia? Maybe. North America? Possibly. Europe? Probably not… but maybe! Such an exercise evinces the placelessness of modern Singapore; public spaces in Singapore often seem to lack distinctive markers of where in region or even where in the globe they might be. And that’s something many find both sad and boring. Thus placelessness. The exercise also reveals Singapore’s homogeneity:  you could do this exercise in pretty much any Singaporean neighborhood (they all have malls, after all) and get the results I predict.

There’s a lot more to say about the problem of placeless homogeneity. Singapore has, it seems, paid a price (and a rather intangible one) for its rapid economic growth. Since the price is intangible, it’s hard to assess; but in my next post I shall take up that project in some detail. My sense is that the price, though quite real, is not nearly so bad as many think.

So to sum things up: the standard narrative about Singapore emphasizes its economic growth. This emphasis is warranted. But the standard narrative requires qualification: Singapore’s growth did not emerge from a vacuum; and that growth has also brought about some interesting problems.

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