12 Jan 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?