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Where I live… Singapore

A series of boots-on-the-ground blogs from the hometowns of our research team

I am writing to you from Singapore. This is the last stop on my “Where I Live…” journey, which previously took readers to Manila and Bangkok. I am intimately familiar with Singapore. My mom is Singaporean, and I spent my childhood shuffling between Singapore and the Philippines. This is my first time returning in over a decade, and I came just in time for the Chinese New Year’s festivities.

Singapore is a city entrenched in mythology and contradiction. In the West, progressives idealize it as an effective welfare state. It has universal healthcare, strong public education, reliable public transit, and equitable housing (over 90% of Singaporeans are homeowners). Conservatives applaud Singapore for its market-friendly economic policies, low taxes, weak labor laws, and public services that discourage freeriding. Although Singapore offers universal healthcare, much of an individual’s cost is financed by state-mandated individual health savings. Authoritarian governments like China and Russia look to Singapore as a path to success outside Western democratic norms. Yet, Western democracies also champion Singapore for its low corruption and technocratic bureaucracy.

At the Charter Cities Institute, we often frame Singapore as clear evidence for the charter cities model. It is a city that succeeded by importing “good institutions” to a low-income country, which lifted impoverished people like my family to middle class wealth within a single generation. Likewise, Singapore exemplifies how a single city, when given effective institutions, can drive tremendous economic growth despite a lack of natural resources. Singapore further embodies the power of good urban planning and sustainable design. Governments in developing countries are captivated by the Singapore experience, and on a few occasions, officials have interpreted CCI’s model as “building a Singapore in Africa.”

Growing up with a Singaporean family, I have different memories. The Singapore I knew was certainly more developed than Manila, but it wasn’t as clean, pedestrian-friendly, orderly, interesting, or utopian as international perceptions suggest. Singaporeans are quick to criticize their own country, and since joining CCI, I have asked myself to what extent Singapore should be the benchmark for charter cities. In this “Where I Live…” post, I will take you around Singapore. However, I cheated a bit. I want to show you both sides of the city, so I visited two neighborhoods.

The first is the central business district (CBD), which is the Singapore most visitors know. I stayed at a hotel a block from Orchard Road (a stretch known for its shopping), and I walked towards Bugis Street. The hotel is on a small one-way side street. I first made my way to the main road, which is flanked on one side by a mall. Malls are common in Singapore. Almost every Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station has a mall (often more than one), and they provide a respite from the brutal equatorial humidity.

I crossed the street towards Orchard, which took me through a dedicated bus stop and MRT station. The bus stop’s design felt formal and comfortable. This is in contrast to the American bus stop, which is usually a single pole marker without accompanying infrastructure. Every bus stop I have seen in Singapore, even at the fringes of the city, has an enclosure to wait in.

Bus stop and MRT station

Past the MRT station is Orchard Road. I turned right towards Bugis, which was a 30-minute walk away. I immediately noticed Orchard’s congestion, both in cars and pedestrians. The street alternates between shopping malls, sidewalks lined by green spaces, and shops. Almost everywhere is covered by an awning, which protects against the sun and rain.

Street awnings

I continue towards Bugis. The surrounding adheres to many of the Singapore stereotypes. Modern infrastructure, tall skyscrapers, green scenery, integrated public transit, and dense amenities. Although an improvement over Manila and Bangkok’s downtowns, things felt somewhat “sterile.” Singapore’s preference for malls, large structures, green spaces, and awnings creates large setbacks. This increases public spaces, but it also increases the distance between amenities and makes the streets feel less intimate. However, it is pleasantly quiet walking along roads full of cars, and there is no stop-and-go traffic even though it was rush hour. I suspect these are consequences of Singapore’s vehicle regulations, which caps a car’s life to 10 years and regulates the number of cars allowed on the road (the government has not increased the number of allowable cars since 2017).

Singapore Streets

Soon, I reached Bugis Street. Bugis is marked by narrow streets and roadside stalls. There were festive decorations to celebrate Chinese New Year, and the smell of durian filled the air. The area was once a popular red-light district before being redeveloped in the 1980s. Today, it retains some “Southeast Asian chaos,” although this is certainly regulated by the government.

Bugis St, Singapore

An interesting characteristic of the CBD is the harsh division between pedestrian and vehicle spaces. Given limited space and entrenched infrastructure, many cities make trade-offs between traffic flow and pedestrian safety. Singapore however, had the luxury of foresight and planning. In the downtown, they built wide roads that efficiently move cars and broad protected sidewalks. Pedestrians are buffered by malls and green spaces, so one rarely has to walk on the edge of a sidewalk. If there is no buffer, the sidewalks are protected by a metal fence or bollards. These design choices have influenced social etiquette: Singaporeans expect everyone to follow the rules, so pedestrians don’t jaywalk and drivers are aggressive. This is in contrast to Manila and Bangkok, where poor planning forces pedestrians and cars to share space. This encourages cautious jaywalking and defensive driving.

pedestrian and vehicle division

The next neighborhood I want to show you is Bedok. This was where my grandparents lived, and it was where I spent most of my childhood in Singapore. Bedok was redeveloped in the 1960s into one of Singapore’s “New Towns,” which are government-planned self-contained communities (CCI’s upcoming New Cities Database includes these new towns). New Towns are defined by blocks of public housing surrounding a central plaza with recreational amenities. Most were designed to accommodate more than 300,000 residents. This is the Singapore that most Singaporeans know, and it is one rarely seen by visitors.

I started my walk at the Bedok Town Square, a community plaza that includes an MRT station, shops, a public library, and hawker centers. The area is developed, but the infrastructure feels less modern than the CBD. There is litter, and I noticed a couple of panhandlers (Singapore has an elderly poverty rate of 41%).

Bedok Town Square

The plaza is surrounded by monotonous blocks of public housing (colloquially called “HBDs” for the Housing & Development Board that manages them). HBDs are placed in layers within a block. The buildings adjacent to the roads have stores, businesses, and hawker centers on the ground floor. Those placed in the middle of the blocks have open-air courtyards. HBDs are connected by covered paved paths, which makes it easy to travel when raining, and the buildings are usually situated on elevated hills, which minimizes flooding.

public housing

The urban environment is incredibly functional. There are few trendy stores or hip cafes. Stores focus on daily amenities, and with a few exceptions, hawker centers serve standard fare. The sidewalks are wide and bland. As a child, I found Bedok incredibly boring. However, as an adult, I appreciate the convenience that stands in contrast to American car-dependency.

Singaporean urban design

Zooming out, these two walks sketch a basic (if not oversimplified) urban fabric. Singaporean urban design is structured and agglomerated. If you want trendy shops and restaurants, you have to travel to the CBD or a local commercial hub. Residential buildings are clustered together with minimal amenities for daily needs. Cars and pedestrians are strictly divided into their own spaces with few overlaps. Is this ideal? Compared to the single-use zoning prevalent in North America, Singaporean design feels more human-centered. But I also think Singapore is over-designed. Compare it to European and Japanese cities, where dense housing and diverse amenities are woven together. In these cities, people are incentivized to “wander” and “explore” local neighborhoods. The Singapore urban experience is better described as trips between pre-defined hubs.

What does this mean for charter cities? As we argued in our Planning Guidelines, cities must strike a balance between top-down planning and bottom-up spontaneity. In chaotic regions, imposing top-down order can be incredibly rewarding. Singapore benefited by offering reliable financial services, medical treatment, and professional managers to a region with few alternatives. However, it left little room for emergent creativity. Singapore was built on harsh decisions that may have neglected some voices. As my uncle told me: “in the early days, Singapore did not listen to the people. We had to be practical to survive.”

Countries trying to “become Singapore” should ask themselves how many “Singapores” do we need. Does it make sense for every country in Africa to race to build the same kind of top-down ordered city? Or is emphasizing bottom-up spontaneity a safer, if not more democratic, approach? Should countries make “big pushes” to development, or should they be slow, cautious, and inclusive? Would Singapore be as successful as it is if there was a regional competitor?

While these are valid concerns for the charter cities movement, and ones I have grappled with, they also run against the undeniable fact that Singapore works. Not just compared to the Global South, and not just compared to its authoritarian peers. Singapore is a success by any benchmark. It grew from a meager GDP per capita of $428 in 1960 to the 8th richest country in the world with a GDP per capita of $73,000. In 1970, my grandfather, a Chinese Civil War refugee, supported 10 kids on a vegetable farmer’s salary. Today, my family is solidly middle class. Without Lee Kuan Yew’s – Singapore’s “founding father” – ambition to rapidly develop Singapore, with all the risks that entails, I might be living on the other side of this international development relationship.

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