Bukit Brown and Rochor: Development for Who?

800px-Rochor_Centre_Jan_06

Debate concerning the clearance of Bukit Brown Cemetery to make way for a new four-lane dual carriageway and new housingdevelopments will likely be revived with the recently announced plans to evict and relocate residents of Rochor Centre to make way for the North-South Expressway. The central argument made by the authorities is that such changes are necessary for Singapore’sdevelopment. Change is inevitable – that has formed the core of Singapore’s development ethos for much of our history as an independent nation. But it is worth considering for a moment what exactly development stands for.

Development is almost always assumed to be positive and progressive. I will question that assumption further into this note, but will grant for now that development does indeed involve beneficial change. But it is important to also understand who benefits fromdevelopment

In the case of the Bukit Brown and Rochor developments, the extension of Singapore’s road network will undoubtedly benefit vehicle-owners by easing traffic congestion. Car-owners stand to benefit most, since cars account for the largest proportion of all vehicles. Car-owners can safely be assumed to be in the middle and upper strata of society, simply because of the economic demands associated with purchasing and owning a car.

Large swathes of what is now Bukit Brown Cemetery has also been slated for residential use. The question then is: for who? Singapore’s resident population is shrinking due to our low fertility rate, and the Government has promised to stabilize and control the foreign resident population. Production of Build-to-Order flats in existing residential estates has also been increased recently to meet the demands of first-time flat-buyers. If there is no need to house a growing population, one can assume that future residential projects in the Bukit Brown will cater to those looking to upgrade their homes, perhaps to a condominium or a DBSS flat. These again are likely to benefit those in the middle and upper strata of society.

The general understanding then is that the benefits of development in Bukit Brown and Rochor are most likely to accrue to Singaporeans that are financially better-off.

But what of the costs associated with development? The case for Bukit Brown has been made by heritage associations, historians, and concerned Singaporeans in general – the cemetery is one of the last remaining links to our past, and preserving it can enrich our understanding and appreciation of our culture and heritage. Development is multidimensional, and should be approached from perspectives beyond simple economics. The intangibles, culture in this case, are equally important for a holistic consideration of a country’s level of development. An economy that is not rooted in such intangibles is no different from a simple corporation – soulless, and without character.

The cost of the Rochor development, on the other hand, will be borne by over 700 residents and shop-owners of Rochor Centre who will be uprooted from where they have lived, many for decades, some since the building was constructed in 1977. Despite the offer of relocation and compensation, many of the affected are senior in age, and will find it challenging to have to adapt to new and alien living environments. The anxiety, stress, emotional trauma and sense of dislocation are important considerations that are often  not accounted for in the economic calculus of Singapore’s development narrative.   

To compound matters, it is likely that the residents of Rochor Centre are not likely to benefit much from the new North-South Expressway, despite bearing the brunt of the cost of development. As explained earlier, the benefits of the expressway are likely to accrue to Singaporeans that are financially better-off. My assumptions here are that most of those affected in Rochor do not drive, and are less well-off financially and thus not able to afford a car in the first place. Is it fair then that the interests of the more vulnerable among us be sacrificed for the benefit of those who are fortunate enough to be in the upper rungs of society?

There are also other costs associated with these upcoming projects in Bukit Brown and Rochor. Blogger Mr Brown stated in a recent post that such projects feed Singapore’s car culture. A burgeoning car culture will most certainly worsen air quality in Singapore, which in turn may increase healthcare costs with a higher incidence of respiratory diseases. Once again it is the lower-income groups that are least able to cope with an increased healthcare burden.

Development may not necessarily entail progress, especially when the purported benefits are not equitably distributed, and the costs disproportionately shouldered by the more vulnerable groups in society. Neither is development, in the typical bulldozing Singapore-style, necessarily inevitable. The authorities must seriously consider less disruptive alternatives to solve a stated problem. All this must start from us thinking beyond simple economic cost-benefit analyses when considering the impact of development. 

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