~ By William S.W. Lim and Faith Wong ~

Extracted from Lim’s forthcoming article ‘Spatial Justice & the Happiness Index’.

Contesting Urban Spaces

The struggle over geography and place is not new to Singapore. It is just that the Internet has made it harder to ignore the voices of those who are embracing their right to shape the environment they live and work in and those who recognise the value of conservation and the necessity of sustainability. This has resulted in renewed vigour in urban spatial contestations.

Contestations of public spaces should not be viewed as antagonistic anti-establishment actions but opportunities for ordinary citizens to present alternatives as stakeholders. The sense of common ownership is enhanced when citizens become responsible for crafting the use of public space. Notwithstanding the fact that the values and meanings of spaces may differ across different groups, collectively they feed into the wider narrative of nation-building.

Many public housing slab blocks retain an open area at the ground level that does not have a specific usage. This is known as the ‘void deck’. The void deck is one of the most ubiquitous public spaces in Singapore. It hosts important events like weddings, festivals and funerals, catalyses chance meetings between homemakers and workers, provides a place for residents to socialise, or simply functions as an open space for passers-by.

The malleable space of the void deck is constantly being negotiated by its myriad users, forming different meanings for those who temporarily occupy it. However, the void deck is now being invaded by competing uses.[1] Annexing void decks for permanent and inflexible facilities has to be strictly regulated to preserve the community-oriented, multi-faceted characteristics of the void deck.

Protect the present to enhance the future

Most ‘public’ areas in Singapore are either privately owned (e.g., shopping malls, theme parks and ground floor lobbies of commercial towers) or owned by the government (e.g., large tracts of state land and numerous smaller plots of open green). However, being state-owned does not automatically make a space ‘public’. The recent ideological debates between the state and members of the public has brought to the fore the struggle to maintain access to public areas and highlighted the dangers of decreasing public space. Tapping into public concern to contest ideas on future land use is a positive exercise in citizen engagement that defends public space.

Bukit Brown Cemetery (BBC) – The Singapore Heritage Society has published a compelling position paper strongly arguing the case to preserve BBC.[2] However, the for-preservation camp seems to have lost the battle to keep Singapore’s last traditional Chinese cemetery. The authorities have announced that the new road ‘will proceed as planned’ after the documentation of graves is completed, effectively relegating one of the few surviving vestiges of our heritage into a virtual black hole. The road is really the precursor to the clearance of the entire site for residential development. Singapore is not short of land for residential development. However, BBC is clearly suitable for upper-income private housing. The issue under contest is whether this site should be assigned for elitist housing or for acknowledging the spirit of the recent awakening for an inclusive society. This is not just a nostalgic exercise for the preservation of the past but for present and future generations to enjoy the unique environment of ourselves. A quote from a letter to the Today paper befittingly sums up the case:

As we face new challenges, including how to redefine Singapore and its people, we should again seek more than mere expedience and see beyond buildings and roads.[3]

Save Old School (SOS) at Mount Sophia (formerly Methodist Girls’ School) – The campaign began as an effort to save an alma mater but has since widened to include the land use and development of the Mount Sophia site. Presently, the area is zoned for high-end residential development. An ambitious counterproposal may not just be about deciding which buildings are more deserving of conservation but preserving the whole site as an art enclave to provide and promote art-related activities, including much-needed affordable performance art venues. The art enclave can be leased to a non-profit setup to be managed by representatives of the local art community.

The Rail Corridor (former KTM railway track) – As of January 2012, the fate of the Rail Corridor remains undecided. Three sites along the dismantled railway line have been identified for ‘interim community use’ and the URA is still deliberating over whether to maintain the length of railway as a green corridor. The Rail Corridor is an incredible environmental and recreational site filled with historical memories. The authorities and citizens must work together to mould the area and create vibrancy. It is undoubtedly a national heritage site of incomparable importance.

Golf courses – A letter to Today by Mr Liew Kai Khiun, ‘Golf courses, not history, should make

way’.[4] opens up another debate on spatial justice: the disproportionate amount of greens for golf courses in Singapore. A golf course is about 80-100 hectares, easily the size of a BBC (86 hectares) or the Singapore Botanic Gardens (74 hectares). It is a spatial injustice when more than 20 golf courses take up a large amount of land while servicing only the privileged minority. A conceptual planning strategy should be made to progressively reduce the number of golf courses to meet the increasing public demand for more parks and recreational facilities.

Reuse the old and alternate activities

The adaptive reuse of older buildings is a good way to conserve the scale of the urban environment and preserve collective social memories. To date, conservation in Singapore includes mainly ethnic and religious architecture such as Chinese shophouses, significant temples and mosques, and buildings from our colonial past. This scope should expand to include older HDB blocks and industrial warehouses, as well as other ‘nondescript’ buildings. By avoiding the unnecessary and environmentally wasteful process of demolishing and rebuilding, adaptive reuse can positively contribute to sustainable development. Such buildings can provide affordable work space for small businesses and social entrepreneurs. It is no secret that artists often turn low-rent half-empty warehouses into work lofts. However, a flexible policy by the planning authority is required. This can be achieved with a new strategy to transfer unused plot ratio/ density to new developments on adjoining sites.

There are also spontaneous forms of appropriating urban space, or what Jeffery Hou has termed ‘guerrilla urbanism.[5] Such phenomena are often associated with negative connotations of nonconformity and are viewed as fringe events. However, they occur everywhere. Examples in Asia include residents of Beijing performing yangge dancing in choice public spaces, Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong occupying prime downtown sites and Singapore’s foreign Indian workers overwhelming the open spaces of Little India during weekends, and exercise groups adding life and vibrancy to the quiet Singapore Botanic Gardens. These activities have turned into ‘urban takeovers’ that have challenged notions of officially designated public usages. Some have acquired over time their own brand of legitimacy in occupying their spaces. Furthermore, conscious effort must be made to find new ways of using ‘gap spaces’ dotting the island and lying among, above or underneath existing buildings and infrastructure. An adventurous idea in Singapore is to permit and encourage art activities along Orchard Road and Robinson Road during weekends and public holidays. Collectively, the spontaneity of these alternate activities in the urban environment will mitigate the rigidity of top-down official decisions and create a vibrant city life for all.

Mode of Commuting

In Singapore, one in two residents commutes to work by public transport.[6] MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) ridership, bolstered by the opening of two new train lines, has doubled to over 2 million and daily bus ridership has remained consistent at around 3 million. Around 25% of commuters travel to work by car. Although the average travel time of 25 minutes is still acceptable, one in five commuters still take more than 90 minutes to get to work.[7] Long commutes affect work-life balance and in turn, individual well-being. It is therefore not surprising that we have witnessed a strong public response to recent transport fiascos such as the SMRT train breakdowns, taxi fare hikes and complaints of poor service from foreign bus drivers.

A successful people-oriented transport system allows the commuter to explore other means beyond the main lines of public transport. Cycling is an effective alternative that transforms the often stressful commute to work into regular exercise. It is a strong, progressive symbol of our times and is an increasingly accepted form of commuting that is catered for in many cities around the world. To date, Singapore’s cycling culture is almost non-existent. The sentiment of road sharing is also missing in Singapore, where the car is still king of the road, making roads especially dangerous for cyclists – another reason to re-examine our car-biased attitudes.[8] Policies favouring the automobile are out-dated and obviously untenable. The rate of car ownership in Singapore is 1 car per 9 persons, which is not as high as in other developed countries.[9] However, Hong Kong has fared better with its car ownership rate at half of Singapore’s; this has been credited to its pro-public transport policies.[10] We need to question longstanding practices of allocating such significant resources to the enlargement and construction of vehicular roads and the over-provision of car parks.

The position of Singapore’s city core has hardly shifted since the 19th century, when Singapore was then the regional centre for entrepôt trade, albeit farther from the shoreline because of land reclamation. The combined effect of centralising the Central Business District (CBD) with two Integrated Resorts (IR), and the agglomeration of high-end retail brands, malls and hotels in a single zone of the island means that the majority of new jobs are concentrated in the central region. The consequences are clear: vehicular traffic gridlocks on the roads and human traffic bottlenecks at the MRT stations or bus interchanges during peak hours. With the present centre/periphery planning model of the city, mass migration of the labour force from the periphery to city centre and back will remain unavoidable. Furthermore, this urban configuration clearly favours the affluent as only they can afford the high property costs of centrally-located residences, thus reducing their travel time to work.

The goal is to establish an integrated public transport infrastructure with high operational standards that is complemented by bicycle lanes and pedestrian walkways. In addition, transport nodes and workplaces should provide auxiliary amenities for cyclists. Stringent policies for deterring car ownership and usage should be instituted. The public must reverse its unsustainable, misguided predilection towards the automobile; the advent of electric cars may reduce air pollution but not traffic congestion. Car trips to the city centre must be effectively curtailed in order to convert car lanes for cyclists. Existing policies are contradictory and ultimately self-defeating; they will only lead to more frustration for road users. Contesting the right of private vehicles using urban public roads will be tough and unavoidable. Political leaders and citizens who are strongly committed to building a people-oriented transport network with highly reduced car-dependency must pull through the initial painful stages of implementation to ensure the success of a sustainable, friendly and vibrant urban environment for everyone.


WILLIAM S.W. LIM is an independent writer and urban theorist.

FAITH WONG is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Architecture.

[1] Pauline Ang has concisely traced the shifting roles of the void deck and how it is being replaced by other new designated and designed public areas. In ‘The Disappearing Void: Reflections on the Common HDB Void Deck’, in SA Singapore Architect magazine, Issue 265, (Oct 2011): pp. 58-65.


[2] Singapore Heritage Society's Position Paper on Bukit Brown can be found here: http://www.singaporeheritage.org/?p=1930


[3] Chan Kah Tim, ‘Important Not to Trivialise Bukit Brown Debate’, in Today, (10 Mar 2012).


[4]Liew Kai Khiun, ‘Golf courses, not history, should make way’, on Today, from http://www.reach.gov.sg/YourSay/DiscussionForum/tabid/101/mode/3/Default.aspx?ssFormAction=[[ssBlogThread_VIEW]]&tid=[[4529]] (25 Oct 2011).


[5] Jeffrey Hou, ed., Insurgent Public Space: Guerrilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities (Routledge,2010)


[6] Transport statistics for Singapore are taken from the Department of Statistics Singapore unless otherwise indicated.


[7] ‘1 in 5 Take More Than 90 Min A Day to Get to Work’, on AsiaOne, from

http://www.asiaone.com/print/Business/News/Office/Story/A1Story20100818-232770.html (19 Aug 2010)


[8] Matthew Allen, ‘Cycling in Singapore: An Uphill Battle?’, on The Wall Street Journal’s Driver’s Seat blog, from http://blogs.wsj.com/drivers-seat/2012/02/03/cycling-in-singapore-an-uphill-battle/?mod=google_news_blog (3 February 2012)


[9] The ratio of cars to persons in the US is 1:1.3, and for rising giants China and India, 1:17.2 and 1:56.3, respectively.

John Sousanis, ‘World Vehicle Population Tops 1 Billion Units’, on WardsAuto, from

http://wardsauto.com/ar/world_vehicle_population_110815/ (15 Aug 2011).


[10] ‘Hong Kong Cars: Sub-sector Update’, on The Economist Intelligence Unit, from

http://www.eiu.com/index.asp?layout=ib3Article&article_id=587536243&pubtypeid=1112462496&country_id=1560000156&rf=0 (12 Oct 2010).




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