This evening I thought of the New Year countdown and fireworks at the Bay while walking with my son and his dog around Seletar air base, where we live. The disparity is stark and tells me how the city is changing and affecting our lives.
The Bay and Countdown are new creations that aspire to be national icons: a place and an annual event that can gather attention from thousands of those who live in this city. They are potentially svelte emblems for the new exciting global city that is planned and emerging in Singapore.
There is, however, a contrast between public and private spaces in Singapore. When Singaporeans think of our country, collectively we may see the image of our skyline, the Padang, Orchard Road on a busy afternoon and, perhaps in time, the new Bay.
Yet, when Singaporeans individually think of home, it is a much more particular and varied space, dependent on individual and differentiated memory. To some, it could be a luxurious bungalow or condo in the prime districts. To others, it is an HDB apartment and neighbourhood they grew up in. In my case, this individual picture of home is Seletar Air Base, where we have lived for a decade.
LIMITS TO PLANNING AND THE VALUE OF THE UNPLANNED
Seletar Air Base has for many years been a place that has prospered from neglect, from being on the fringe of things. It is an unplanned space, spontaneous, accidental; it evolved from an English and military enclave to become quite a cosmopolitan bohemia with a mix of peoples in Singaporeans and many different nationalities, diverse in ethnicities and outlooks. It is a green and gentle place that calmly defies the norms of Singapore as a fast-paced and compact city.
Why should we value such unplanned places? Planning must be thorough, rational and holistic enough to take into account social and environmental costs. Even so, Humanity's power is so magnified by machines and technologies that we must be cautious of the unintended and unforeseen consequences of plans. Understanding the complexities of nature and of change, we must try to account for the things we cannot plan for, even if there is less than full evidence that they are likely to happen. Environmentalists call this the precautionary principle.
The sociologist, James Scott, in his book, Seeing Like A State, reminds us many follies can otherwise follow. In lesser hands and minds, planning led to long queues and shortages and the eventual collapse of the Soviet system.
Planning is fundamentally built on projections of the present, made into the future. The planning of the domestic industries, of jobs, and for public housing in Singapore have — implicitly or explicitly — made these calculations. All may have seemed logical and rational at the time, given what we knew then. But there are many surprises and revolutions in our expectations. Planning cannot account for that. The unplanned is a hedge, an insurance policy in times of revolutionary change.
The unplanned also has its value. All societies have a mainstream that is supported by government plans. But this is not natural and permanent but created and subject to change. The relations between periphery and centre are many and complex. Within a society, habits from a minority can come into the mainstream like fashions and dance forms, from tango to disco. What we consider as peripheral influences and helps shape evolution in the mainstream. The unplanned, the spaces between, are a necessary balance, not in terms of a static and fixed balance, but in a moving and changing balance, like the Yin and Yang.
The peripheral influences and helps shape evolution in the mainstream.
We should allow diversity in our landscape and society. The unplanned provides surprise, texture and serendipity. This can be physical: in a modern city, a conserved building; or in the heart of an old city, a gleaming tower. It can be mental and social: in a busy business day, an hour for coffee with a person with an interesting story or even the prospect of falling in love, like the famous photograph by Robert Doisneau, where amidst the milling, bustling crowd, a couple kisses. Planned schedules are disrupted, put on hold, for something — romance — that no one can really plan for, even if we can hope for it.
We can draw cities on a clean slate, on a blank page: we can plan a city of 6.5 million, with Integrated Resorts and expensive, shiny apartments downtown. But the sense of home and of belonging grows best from the chemistry of old and new, past and future. Planning is best when it allows for the organic and unplanned, what pre-exists, and takes the best of those qualities to inform what is new.
LOVING THE CITY
Planning can make or unmake images and memories of home. It has now come to my home at Seletar. But planning will not create and reinforce the special qualities of this place. Instead, the plan to grow an aviation hub will, in the process, destroy much of the green and quiet spaces and old black and white houses, dispersing the community that thrives here. My home will go. This story is not mine alone.
There are many others who live here who can tell of markers of their memories — houses, schools, favourite restaurants, neighbourhoods — that have been removed. There are those involved in en bloc sales, in which homes are sold collectively even if a minority of owners may vote against it. There are selective en bloc redevelopments too.
In the macro calculations of mega projects and national interest, these trade-offs of course make sense. What is the loss of one person's home? When we see as a state sees, the interests of individuals are merely digits. But the lens of memory is individual.
I once wrote in a poem about Singapore that, "if you cannot learn to love / (yes love) this city / you have no other."1
In a society that puts rational calculation first, the idea of loving Singapore is emotive and radical. So often we hear of people rationalising the cost of buying homes abroad, the quality of education here versus there, the opportunities to get ahead — and make a decision based on bottom lines.
In contrast, the idea of having "no other" is to recognise that these cannot be real options, and calls for dedication to this country, this city and the places we know. Yet, it can also be a desperate call if the city no longer resembles the one you have known and grown to love.
We are trying to create national identity and national spaces. We can belong to the nation for one or two days a year. On such days, we will recite the national pledge with our hand over our heart. But on many other days, each of us belongs to other more personal places, to home in this smaller more immediate sense.
We cannot achieve a national or collective sense of home at the expense of personal identities and spaces that create that individual sense of home. That individual sense of home is the everyday anchor to the collective. The state and the individual both must have their respective and interlinking places in Singapore.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Simon S. C. Tay is a law professor, environmentalist and former Nominated Member of Parliament. He co-chaired the 2001 Concept Plan focus group on conservation and currently chairs the National Environment Agency. He is also a published writer of poems and stories.
- Tay, Simon, "Singapore Night Song," "5" (Singapore: Dept of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore, 1985), pp137. Re-published in "No Other City: The Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry," Eds., Lee, Aaron and Pang, Alvin (Ethos: Singapore, 2000).