A day in Singapore, Part I: Urban identity
April 19th, 2018
Epistemic status: My personal impressions from wandering the city for a day. Very likely that I'm missing important nuance in lots of places. If you notice a gap, please let me know! I'm so curious to learn more about Singapore. This is more of a diary entry than a worldview. Not sure how to put a confidence interval on that. 🙂
Epistemic effort: I jotted down notes throughout the day in the city and wrote up this post without lots of editing on an airplane without internet or patience. Not going for a Pulitzer—again, think of this as a diary entry rather than an essay.
I spent Wednesday, 7 March 2018 in Singapore. I may have only spent 24 hours in the city state, but Singapore warrants more than just one post. It's the place by which I've been most fascinated for years, and the day I spent wandering the tropical metropolis sparked yet another obsession with the city that's consumed me since then. As with Beijing and Saigon, I was excited to build my mental map of the city.
The focus of this post is Singaporeans' unparalleled level of civic engagement, which is what struck me most while I was there. In the car ride into downtown from the airport, I wondered aloud if we were on LKY’s famous airport boulevard. I was amazed when the driver jumped into the conversation to say we were not on that route—I thought that the story about the airport boulevard was just a bit of urbanist nerd trivia. Nope! He knew exactly what I was talking about. This was the first hint of just how in-touch Singaporeans are with their urban infrastructure, governance, and history.
The Singapore City Gallery
This impression was immediately emphasized again at my first destination, the Singapore City Gallery at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). It showcases the past, present, and future of Singapore’s urban planning. Even more striking than the exhibit itself is its central location. It’s right in the heart of the city next to Maxwell’s, the famous hawker center that is a major tourist destination as well as where lots of workers in the city's central business district grab their daily lunch. Few cities have permanent exhibits focused on urban planning let alone locate them in such a prominent location. (In fact I can’t name another city or country has a permanent exhibit telling story of its land use over time.) I expected to trek somewhere tucked somewhere out of the way to get to the gallery, but instead it was located in one of the most well-traveled parts of the city. In fact it was so centrally located that actually stumbled across the URA before the time I'd planned to do so in my itinerary.
Admission was free, and several student groups were on tour while I was there. This history and expertise is clearly important to Singaporeans. This may not be mirrored in democratic representation or empowerment though. It feels more like a really weird, nerdy version of propaganda. Curious to hear locals' perspectives on this. If that's an accurate assessment, I can’t say I’m complaining though, as it results in arguably the highest-quality technocracy the world has ever seen.
The URA exhibit had two awesome scaled models of the city. I'm not sure if they're terribly useful, but they are beautiful and immensely detailed. I bet Kids love them too, which is a good enough reason to have them on its own. You can see one of the student groups (all in adorable yellow) in the background of the fourth picture here!
Interesting constraints on Singapore’s land-use policy I hadn’t considered:
There was a lot more to the gallery than what I captured in photos here. I highly recommend a visit!
Thanks to Steve Waldman for the awesome URA recommendation! Another recommendation of his that I wish I'd had a chance to see is high on my list for next time:
I’d also like to visit some of the very creative high-density housing structures there, such as (upscale, privately developed) The Interlace [theinterlace.com] and the public Pinnacle @ Duxton [pinnacleduxton.com.sg].
Later that day, I overheard a conversation between two girls who were picking up Ofo bikes. They looked to be about 15 years old, and they were discussing the effect that bike share will have on mobility in Singapore in the long-term. Maybe I just happened to come across some NUMTOTs, but more likely this random sampling was yet another indication of how ingrained an appreciation for urbanism is in Singapore's psyche. I can't imagine teens in California having that kind of conversation!
The city was also covered in what could only be called infrastructure propaganda. Every second advertisement on the side of the road was something about the SG’s Land Transport Authority’s plans or successes around expanding transportation. I'm not complaining! Transit propaganda is the best kind. But it was weird.
The advertisements' optimism was accurate, too. All of the modes of transit I took (the metro, a train, and several buses) ran on schedule, were clean, and came at frequent intervals. The metro system was particularly impressive, with some of the best wayfinding I've ever seen. Singapore is a very multicultural and international place, and they did a great job of incorporating several different languages while maintaining simple signage.
However I must say I was similarly impressed by wayfinding when I traveled to Berlin and Zurich a few years ago. Since then I've done more transit tourism—experiences in China, Japan, France, the Netherlands, and more — and I'm no longer impressed. I now realize that these are not anomalies, that it's not that difficult to get wayfinding right, but rather that San Francisco is just uniquely bad at it.
The pedestrian experience
I generally love walking around cities, but I'm not a fan of heat and humidity, so I was dreading the tropical weather. Singapore far exceeded my expectations here. The pedestrian experience around the city was fantastic. Despite it being a rainy day, I was comfortable walking everywhere. I managed to do so without getting wet, because the pathways are covered continuously. I imagine on a hot day they're a nice shield from the sun, too.
The heart of the city, near URA and Chinatown, was preserved with many of the original colonial buildings and narrower, human-scale streets. This was my favorite part of the city. It also felt very layered, with little alcoves and charming passageways.
Outside of the old colonial core, the city had more of a towers-in-the-park feel, though quite tastefully done, and still with a focus on pedestrians rather than cars for the most part. It felt surprising like Vancouver. A tropical, more assertive Vancouver.
Appreciation of good urbanism and good governance
Another fun fact I learned that day when I met up with my friend Visakan for coffee was that Singaporean students learn about the world history of city states in primary school. They spend time studying Venice in particular. I shouldn't have found this so surprising—the historic parallels are obvious in retrospect. It had a strategic harbor that positioned Venetians well for international trade; much of the land was reclaimed from the sea; it was run like a corporation; and it was a small set of islands that had to defend themselves from unstable, aggressive neighbors. The list goes on I'm sure, but I'll leave it there. I find it fascinating to learn about the history curriculum from other places. It tells you so much about what the country values, how it sees itself, how it intends to mold its identity. I now want to get my hands on the standard reading lists for Singaporean schools...
Overall, I was blown away by how central and present urban policy is in daily Singaporean life. Systems thinking pervades the nation to an extent I’ve never seen before. The only place I've seen that comes close is Switzerland, but even the Swiss seem to have more of a set-it-and-forget it mentality—the systems there work so well that they don’t have to think about them. Singapore functions extremely well too, but somehow the mentality remains very active and constantly looking for places to improve. It feels like very much a Jeff Bezos sort of "always day one" mindset.
A few years ago, Tyler Cowen noted, "The citizens and leadership of Singapore have an unparalleled knowledge and understanding of economics, engineering, and public policy. In this regard the polity is distinguished in world-historic terms, and anyone who visits is enjoying a remarkable privilege to see this in action." When I first read this, I thought it was likely a bit overblown, more a result of the image Singapore broadcasts to the world as a sort of advertising, or at least that it's not something that would be evident just from walking around the city without some sort of inside access to someone in the know. But now that I've visited the city state, this quote is spot on. Every person I interacted with in my (admittedly short) time in Singapore was exceptionally knowledge about how the place worked, about the country's history, and about nuanced tradeoffs ranging from transportation infrastructure to monetary policy to the philosophy of free speech. Even the most educated people I know in San Francisco rarely have that level of knowledge or appreciation about the built environment and governance around them. Tyler also described that there's arguably a "brain drain" into the government, and that this is probably the only place in the world this is true. This seems like a better problem than the inverse.
Keep in touch!