ETHOS Issue 02, Apr 2007
While having a picnic lunch at the reservoir park, your spouse spots a kayak booth and thinks it would be a novel idea to tour the reservoir on boat. After a leisurely paddle and a stop for ice-cream, it is time to head home. Your in-laws drop in for a visit, bringing presents and sharing how they hopped from one mall to another along the shopping belt, never having to leave the air-conditioned comfort of the newly opened underground linkways lined with interesting shops and cafés.
Could this be Singapore in the near future? While Quality of Life tends to be associated with fashionable cities such as Sydney and Vancouver, mention Singapore and the first impression tends to be: too hot and humid; too few entertainment options; too urban and built up. Singapore has even been caricatured as a sterile "police state" where censorship is rife and individual views suppressed.
It may come as a surprise to many that Singapore is ranked first among Asian cities in Mercer's 2006 Worldwide Overall Quality of Living Survey. The Economist Intelligence Unit's (EIU) Worldwide Quality-of-Life Index, 2005 accords Singapore 11th place in a list of 111 countries. The Country Brand Index has also ranked Singapore second-best city in the world for dining and night-life!
Having said this, Quality of Life is no guarantee of economic growth or success. Still important are our national fundamentals: our safe and politically-stable environment; good connectivity within and out of Singapore; and quality educational opportunities for our young. Furthermore, the primary draw that retains Singaporeans and attracts foreign talent is and will continue to be the availability of vibrant and diverse economic opportunities.
But when Singapore is in competition for global talent (international as well as our very own), what could make all the difference is a compelling Quality of Life. Singapore should be an interesting place where the talented can participate in intellectual discourse, let their hair down, and fulfill their aspirations. By enhancing our Quality of Life, we hope to create a Singapore that all Singaporeans can be proud of; at the same time, we want to offer differentiating factors that may attract those who are seeking a new investment location for their businesses or a conducive place to raise their families.
In recent years, investments and developments have been undertaken to further enhance Singapore's attractiveness as a city in which to live, work and play. To this end, arts and entertainment options have increased. The Esplanade showcases esoteric international fare and pop culture performances, while nightlife hotspots, such as the Ministry of Sound in Clarke Quay, Café del Mar on Sentosa, and the newly transformed St. James Power Station, have the potential to rival those in Europe. More recreation options are now available, from wakeboarding at beaches to rock climbing in disused quarries.
Those who pine for green spaces might be surprised to learn that there are some 300 parks and gardens in Singapore, 70 kilometres of park connectors that link up various parts of the island, with another 130 kilometres planned by 2012. Rich ecosystems of biodiversity exist in our secondary rainforests, mangrove forests, and coral reefs, many of which are accessible to the public. The recent vision to make Singapore a "city of gardens and water", with high-rise gardens and lush, landscaped waterways, can only reinforce our green image.
Quality of Life for some is about freedom of expression and avenues for fulfilling their dreams. In this respect, Singapore has liberalised over the years. Our censorship approach has become more liberal in terms of content standards for mature persons. For example, the film classification system has been refined. The content of arts entertainment need no longer be vetted. There is also greater tolerance for diversity of views and public debate. Our education system is gradually evolving towards one that encourages multiple pathways to success.
WHERE WE CAN GO FROM HERE
Planning in Singapore is about making the most effective use of limited land resources to create a distinctive, attractive and vibrant city, not only for now but also for future generations to enjoy. Long-term planning for all our various land needs provides the assurance that population and economic growth can be accommodated. This includes providing a choice of different housing types and locations, space to grow businesses, attractive and accessible recreational amenities, and a comprehensive and efficient road and rail system to meet transport needs. Planning also enables Singapore to retain its natural and built heritage, helping to create a world-class city which is not only attractive, but also distinctive and authentically Singaporean.
SINGAPORE'S PROSPECTS AND CHALLENGES
While developments have been promising, there are opportunities for Singapore to do even more in the area of Quality of Life.
Hardware: Capitalising on our Tropical Attributes
While heat and humidity have often been touted as inconveniences, Singapore has done much to mitigate these effects with pervasive air-conditioning. Plans are underway to pursue greater integration in our development of townships and urban areas, with covered linkways and bridges between transport nodes to ensure that pedestrians are sheltered, come rain or shine. Just as underground cities have flourished in Montreal and Osaka in response to the cold, underground malls in Singapore would also offer a choice to visitors — enjoy the tropical sunshine or a cool climate-controlled environment. Singapore can also do much more in terms of turning our tropical attributes into our strengths. For instance, heat-trapping glass houses have no place in the tropics; we can do more instead to promote tropical design and architecture. We can also encourage vertical greening to soften our urban sky-rise landscape and high-density living environment.
Software: User-Centric Development
There is room to adopt a more user-centric perspective in urban planning. Functionalities and features should be led by the needs and desires of users and the community, not only by what is most expedient. We have been doing this more consistently: for example, universal design features are now incorporated in our public housing projects to cater for the elderly and disabled. But the answer to improving identity and culture, according to architect Tay Kheng Soon, does not entail a "design solution" but rather "empowerment". In a 1998 interview, he argued that the challenge lies in "how to encourage and how to allow people to take power to run their own lives. Because if they have no power to run their own lives and to run their own communities, they have no power to imagine any possible future except the one prescribed to them."1 Greater community ownership and the development of common spaces would be desirable outcomes.
Heartware: More Voices, More Choices
The intangibles matter as well. We need to move away from prescriptive rules toward risk management: instead of taking an ex-ante view that people need to be "protected" from themselves, we need to balance safety concerns against opportunities in order to cultivate buzz. Where possible, a negative-list approach to rules and permits should be adopted: for example, instead of stipulating what mobile hawkers can sell, we could specify a minimal list of what they cannot sell. Where people have turned public spaces into spontaneous hives of activity (such as the use of unused urban spaces as skate parks), officialdom should refrain from discouraging such impulses, particularly when they are not creating public nuisances or impinging on the rights of others. There should be greater room for spontaneous and organic development. To address any misperceptions about "restraints" in Singapore, we also need to become savvier in marketing and public communication, and in engaging the international media.
As with other public policy objectives, the pursuit of Quality of Life must be balanced with other imperatives, including economic ones. To ensure that our strategies for enhancing our Quality of Life do not inadvertently impinge upon other important goals (and vice versa), we may do well to adopt a "triple bottom line" approach, which demands that we take a holistic view of economic, social and environmental considerations in evaluating our projects and making decisions on major developments.
- Bay, P. "Tay Kheng Soon and SPURS: Activism in the early days of Singapore's history," (interview conducted in October 1998), http://www.newsintercom.org/index.php?itemid=57 (accessed 7 March 2007).