Is Singapore a Successful City?

What a question? Is there any doubt? Singapore is seen as the poster child of successful urban and economic development.

But it is good to revisit such certainties, if only to reassure oneself that the case continues to hold.

The reason for this particular revisit springs from an article in the New York Times published on January 3, 2009 (Singapore Prepares to Gobble Up its Last Village). Readers should look at the short article which describes how Singapore’s last village (Kampong Buangkok – 28 houses in an area the size of three football fields) is being acquired for high-rise development.

Three statements reflecting three perspectives stand out in the article:

The Government: “We will need to optimize land use, whether it is though reclamation, building upwards or using subterranean space.”

The owner: “If there’s a change, I won’t have my friends any more,” she said, but added: “We must not cling on to things. If the government wants to take the land, they will take it.”

The citizen: In modern Singapore, few neighbors know each other, said Sarimah Cokol, 50, who grew up in Kampong Buangkok and now lives in one of the apartments that people here call pigeonholes. “Open door, close door,” she said in the terse speech of no-nonsense Singapore. “After work, go in. Close door.”

These statements provide us the frame for our revisit. What we take away is that the government is focused on optimizing land use, the owner feels helpless against the State, and the citizen is unhappy with the outcome.

So, how do we look at the choices and tradeoffs implicit in this story? First, Singapore is renowned for the efficiency of its land use. But is efficiency everything? Should we forget that we are dealing with human beings in the pursuit of efficiency? Would it be preferable to give up some efficiency for a little bit more happiness? If so, how much?

Could the starting point be wrong? A successful city might not be one with the highest land use efficiency or the highest GDP growth but one with the most satisfied and unafraid citizens. How would we rate Singapore if this became our criterion for urban success?

Let us begin with the owner who is 55 years old. If there is a change, she will not have her friends anymore – she clearly does not wish to sell. Could there be some compromise at the cost of some land use efficiency? Could only part of the village be developed now and the rest after the owner reaches an age when she wishes to move voluntarily or dies? Have we lost the imagination to think in these terms? If so, is that a good thing?

And then look at it from the perspective of the citizens living in what they call pigeonholes. That is not a description of happiness but of resignation – a one-word verdict on the model of development. Should we be listening to these voices? Would they have preferred a slightly less rich Singapore that gave them slightly more room to live?

Suppose, East Asia were to become like the European Union with the choice to live anywhere in the region and suppose there was a rapid transit link between Singapore and Johor Bahru across the strait in Malaysia. How many Singaporeans would prefer to live in Johor Bahru and commute to work in Singapore? Have we tried to elicit that opinion?

This lack of choice, this constrained unhappiness, the feelings of helplessness are not revealed to us by the statistics of GDP per capita that we use to measure success. But these are dimensions we should think about too because, in the end, life is about people. People do not exist to maximize the GDP of cities; cities exist to give people the kind of lives they want for themselves.

If we look at cities through this lens, which cities would you rank as the five most successful cities in the world? Or to make it more concrete, if nothing else in your life changed (you had the same assets, the same education, the same skills), only there was freedom to live in any city of the world, what would be your first five choices in order of preference?

Would these two lists be the same? If not, why not?

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 16:57h, 08 January Reply

    Our notion of success depends on where we stand to judge it. A saturated Singaporean may question his artificial state of cramped creative freedom while most of the third world will laugh at the question it self. Another point is if you not happy, are you unhappy?

    I view Singapore as an answer to environmental alarmists. Some centuries ago it must have been like the Andaman Nicobar islands. Is Singapore an ecological disaster?

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 17:27h, 09 January Reply

    I received the following comment via email and am posting it here for the benefit of readers. Every one is welcome to submit a response.

    “The choices made by Singapore might have not led to happiness of its citizens, as the piece claims. Nevertheless, in order to play the devil’s advocate one could ask, why then, are the people unable to change this?

    Why have they not been able to influence the decisionmaking process and protest – while Singapore is not a democracy, it is also not a totalitarian regime per se. So the question is back to you – why has Singapore developed in the way it did? So order oriented?”

  • Vikram
    Posted at 02:08h, 17 March Reply

    Is Mumbai a successful city ?

    Well, any cursory observer and a middle class Mumbaikar would give you an emphatic NO.

    But then why do people keep pouring in from the countryside. Yes, life in the country can be very hard but I am sure a decent chunk of the migrants are not impoverished peasants. Indeed many young men run away to Mumbai. Why Mumbai ? Why not other metros in North India that are closer ?

    Its because Mumbai is in many ways a very professional city in a mostly unprofessional country. It is amazing how many job-seeking migrants it has absorbed. And the slums, as horrendous as they might be, are one of the keys to the city’s economic success. Think of them as a free hotel.

    Having said that, the city has no quality of life to speak of and is almost an ecological disaster. The middle class grievances and fears are well placed in many ways.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 11:18h, 17 March Reply

    Vikram, I hope readers in Mumbai respond to your question without letting their loyalty to the city come in the way of the answer.

    My interest in raising this issue is to broaden the criteria by which the success of a city is measured. The economics literature over-weights efficiency but surely efficiency is not everything. Something is not right if the majority of the citizens do not feel fulfilled. They may continue residing in the city because all the alternatives are even worse but taking that as an indicator of satisfaction is also a problematic economic conclusion. So, if some economic efficiency is sacrificed for increased human happiness would it be a bad bargain.

    Leaving home is the most difficult of decisions and when people have to do so it would be natural to go where the returns are greatest. In that sense Mumbai might be more attractive than any other place in India. But this is still a relative measure. The question to consider is how can Mumbai be made a better city for the majority of its citizens?

    A related thought: When people migrate outside South Asia many go to the Middle East. Can Middle Eastern cities be considered successful cities simply because people choose them as a destination to earn a living?

  • Vinod
    Posted at 16:55h, 17 March Reply

    A very well thought out piece with some thought provoking questions. I’ve been in Singapore for nearly half my life now (11 years). I can tell for certain that although Singapore has a clean green environment, fine streets, public transport, schooling system, a robust economy with low unemployment, estates with parks there is something lacking that is eating at the soul of the city – the city State is too efficient – to the point of taking away the humanity of the lives in the people. There is a mechanistic existence. There is no real sense of commuity. Big chunk of the population feels marginalized (the Malays). The races live in uncomfortable tolerance to each other. The govt tries to manufacture vibrancy and entreprenuership and unity. The citizens feel helpless in front of the govt. In the corridors of private academia it is well known that Singapore’s democracy is not very deep. It is more of an elite oligarchy. The model will work as long as the the real metal of the nation is not tested.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 21:58h, 17 March Reply

    Vinod, Thanks. It is invaluable to hear from someone who is present on the spot. You have drawn attention to the key issues very succinctly. I hope you have read the two other posts about Singapore on the blog:

    Singapore: The Voice of Citizens
    Singapore: Evidence from Bollywood

    Unfortunately the blog is very poorly organized (reflecting my limited technological skills) and readers more often than not find a post randomly not realizing it may be part of a series.

    I hope to hear from you again.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 02:43h, 18 March Reply

    I also want to emphasize that this dissatisfaction on the loss of the rural hamlets is not the bigger issues of Singapore. I do not believe that the loss of the rural hamlets, notwithstanding the occassional mullings of the 1940-60s generation that have them in their memories, are the real issues of Singapore. Nobody would want to return to the chaos of those settlements. The bigger issues are to do with the whether the citizens are participative enough in the governance of the country or whether they have been reduced to sheeps. There is also an identity crisis faced by the population that do not recall any shared histories.

  • P G
    Posted at 03:56h, 29 July Reply

    Singapore may be successful , but what defines successful , only GDP . For the rest Singapore is an ecological disaster , a concrete jungle , the land reclamation , destruction of mangrove areas , unecessary destruction and rebuilding , and most of all no clear policy on energy economy , with simple things like building insulation and double glazing , doors left open with airon running in malls .
    And when the world redefines GDP ( which they want to do) and also includes ecology etc in the calculation , Singapore will dramatically drop in the ratings.

  • Singaporeality
    Posted at 01:13h, 17 November Reply

    I think about 90% of SE Asia would gladly to move to Singapore if given the chance. The government, though not perfect, takes good care of its people and the standard of living far exceeds all it neighbors. Samuel Huntington said, “You can have order without liberty, but you cannot have liberty without order.”

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 03:19h, 17 November

      You are no doubt right about the first claim but that was not what the article was disputing. People even move to Saudi Arabia if given the chance – not because it is a great place but because most other places are so wretched. The article was asking whether a single-minded focus on maximizing income was warranted – given a choice would people who live in Singapore want to trade off some income for more of some other element of life?

      Re Huntington, the ideal is to have both liberty and order. If one were forced to choose would you prefer a little more liberty and a little less order or a little less liberty and a little more order?

  • Kiran Venkatarao
    Posted at 17:15h, 19 December Reply

    Thank you SouthAsian for this wonderful discussion. I have lived in Bangalore, India, all my life. Someone above had mentioned ‘90% of south asia would prefer singapore if given half a chance.’ It made me chuckle 🙂
    I beleive that a success of a country should be measured on how it treats the poorest of its people, how they treat their sick and elderly which singapore has done so well so very quickly. The country is hardly 5 decades old. am I correct?
    People blaming the concrete jungle and massive consumption of energy, I would bet safely they stay in a good condo and drive a relatively posh car.
    As a person gets older he will remember only the first two decades of his life with wistful nostalgia. All people go thru it, the disease is called life.
    From what i have heard and read bout Singapore, you guys ROCK.
    How do I compare Singapore and India, two very different places I would say :).
    No matter which race, place, people all over the world are the same, be it California, Singapore or Bangalore or Karachi. They need a bit of money to fullfill their basic needs and a few souls to ask them ‘how you doin ?’, ‘are you feeling ok ?’, rest everything does not matter.
    Everyone would appreciate a nicer car or a holiday to a posh location, in the end if they dont get it, it still would evoke only a slight shrug.
    sorry if i took off on a tangent….

    • Vinod
      Posted at 02:18h, 20 December

      Kiran. Thanks for the post. There is something about simple truths, like that of your post, that is irresistably charming.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 12:56h, 20 December Reply

    SA, you may not like this comment.

    The ladies have surprised me. First Radhika with her description so real as if happening in front of you and now Kiran with her disarming truth.

    SA, you are brutally logical and packed with information but something coming from a machine. No complaints though.

    I am at peace.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 15:32h, 20 December

      Anil, agree with you fully.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:03h, 20 December

      Anil: Your observation is accurate. Radhika and Kiran can be themselves. I have to shed my persona when I step into the role of the moderator. When you go to a court of law you want the judge to be a justice machine not swayed by anything except the merits of the case and the arguments presented. It doesn’t mean the judge is like that at home. Hopefully we can all meet at a blog party and get to know each other at the personal level.

  • jan
    Posted at 09:53h, 16 April Reply

    Singapore is a small country and it will only take few years for them to be developed.

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