Singapore: The Voice of Citizens

So: Is Singapore a successful city or not?

Depends on how you look at it, doesn’t it?

If you think about it you will realize that the design (physical and otherwise) of all cities reflects the preferences of their elites and other elites decide what criteria are to be used to define success. When you alter the criteria, you can reach somewhat different conclusions.

Therefore, in any situation we have to ask ourselves: Whose preferences are we looking at and whose criteria for evaluation are we considering?

The preferences of ordinary citizens do not enter into the plans that shape the design and nature of cities and the feelings of ordinary citizens do not enter into the calculations regarding the evaluation of their success.

You can read all the histories you want and you will reach the same conclusion. Read how Robert Moses (who said “if the ends don’t justify the means, what does?”) transformed New York and how Baron Haussmann transformed Paris and you will be convinced. Nobody asked the opinion of thousands of people who were displaced or cared for the neighborhoods that were uprooted for expressways (Moses said “cities are for traffic”). So who is going to register the feelings of a few more unhappy people in Singapore if a skyscraper with pigeonholes will increase the GDP per capita of the city? Or who even thinks it is important to register such feelings?

[Note for readers in Mumbai: What do you know about ‘Bombay First’? What do you think about Bombay First? What do the residents of Dharavi think about Bombay First? Do you feel they will be happier in the highrise pigeonholes that are being promised them? If Yes, why? If No, why not?]

A reader of the previous post has asked why the citizens of a city do not protest if they are not happy, especially if they are living in a democracy?

One answer could be that the development of a city is so incremental and so fragmented that it never impacts the entire population at once. As it is, it is extremely difficult to mobilize an effective coalition of citizens even when one is dealing with neighborhood level initiatives. And when there is the slightest fear that civic action would lead to unpleasant consequences for the activists, the prospect of civic protest diminishes greatly.

So, what can be done to involve ordinary citizens more in the decisions that are important for their cities? And what can be done to ensure that their feelings and aspirations are reflected in the judgments that are made about the success or otherwise of the cities?

Up until recent times this has proven to be virtually impossible because individuals felt alone and isolated in cities. Whatever sense of neighborhood there used to be was destroyed by urban modernizers like Robert Moses and Baron Haussmann. The disappearance of the last village in Singapore will be one more chapter in a familiar story. The only time that citizen voice is heard is when things get so bad that people riot in the streets out of desperation. Who can forget the urban riots in American cities in the 1960s when marginalized African-Americans could not bear their misery and humiliation anymore in the very successful cities in which they had been forgotten as statistics?

But now there are some surprising developments underway with the availability of networking software. Virtual neighborhoods are emerging in cities as large as New York enabling citizens to leverage the strength of their numbers. Who knows what might be in store for Singapore ten years from now?

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4 Responses to “Singapore: The Voice of Citizens”

  1. Vinod Says:

    there is food for thought here. I ran this idea with a 50 year old Singaporean gentleman and he was nodding his head in agreement.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod, Could you elaborate on what idea you discussed with the Singaporean gentleman.

      What I find quite telling is that most discussion of cities or urban planning simply leaves out the people. There is such a one-dimensional focus on economic efficiency. I suppose it is assumed that economic efficiency would translate into human satisfaction but my feeling is that more often than not, human beings are sacrificed at the altar of economic efficiency.

      I have recently been reading a study of urbanization in China by the McKinsey Global Institute (Preparing for China’s Urban Billion, 2009). The issue being discussed is that China will have one billion people living in urban centers by 2025 – an addition of 350 million of whom 240 million will be migrants. The question posed is what should the future urban landscape be like? The report says that without any policy change, a dispersed growth scenario will emerge with midsized cities having the largest share of residents.

      However, the report recommends a landscape of concentrated urbanization with 15 supercities having average populations of 25 million people or 11 urban networks of cities with populations of 60-plus million each on average. This configuration is likely to yield the maximum overall productivity of the urban system.

      The report extends over 540 pages but not once does it ask how and where the people themselves might want to live and spend their lives. I don’t understand why a little bit of economic efficiency cannot be given up for a better quality of life and freedom of choice. After all human beings are more than cogs in some huge economic machine.

      So what I really wish to explore is how we can get the aspirations of human beings to be taken seriously in all this planning. Are there new technologies that can help us make our voices heard?

  2. Vinod Says:

    SA, it is quite often that one hears about how Singapore seems uncaring to live in. Neighbours, who live closeby and even across each other, rarely visit each other or call on each other. The community in each estate does not feel like a real community. It feels artifically constructed – something being layed over as a decoration. Even recently a man died in a flat and it was discovered only after the stench from the flat became unbearable!! I ran the idea of Hausmannisation with him and he seemed to agree that the rapid pace of change with no regard to people’s wishes could partly have contributed to the sense of disaffection. But he also insisted that even today this could be overcome if the individuals opened their minds and tried harder to make Singapore a little bit more of a caring society.

  3. SouthAsian Says:

    Here is an interesting list of rankings. Singapore is top of many but is also the unhappiest place in the world:

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