Can space in Singapore be more equitably distributed?

By Ravi Philemon

Singapore

A recent Wall Street Journal article ranks Singapore as the richest city in the world. That ranking did not happen by chance. In recent years, Singapore has thrown open its doors to high net worth individuals, making it easy for them to establish residency in our country.  The migration of these high profile wealthy individuals to the country, has contributed to Singapore being listed as the country with the most number of millionaires in the world, and ranked at only second as the country with high net worth household.

Did the accommodation of such high net worth individuals come at the expense of middle-class citizens? There is a huge imbalance between the benefits available to these uber-rich and to the rest of the citizens of Singapore. And one such imbalance is the imbalance of space in Singapore.

You have a privileged group conveniently located in the heart of the city, where 1000 sq ft, 99-year leasehold public housing, can cost over $800,000; and the rest of an increasing mass of Singaporeans pushed to the corners of Singapore in rapidly expanding outlying housing estates like Woodlands, Punggol and Jurong. While one group can whizz at the convenience with their fast cars between Sentosa Cove, Shenton Way and Orchard Road, the rest of the population finds itself having to take more time in commuting longer distances between their HDB flats in outlying areas and their places of work.

Excluding the cost of land, the Government spent over $1 billion to develop Gardens by the Bay, and the annual operating cost for this Garden is estimated at $53 million. While spaces in Marina Bay and Sentosa area are publicly accessible, they should not be counted as privately owned public spaces, because privately owned public spaces don’t only mean sidewalk, which only serve to move people from one place to another, it also mean common spaces which serve as meeting places and as spaces where experiences are created, with minimal worries about costs. There are cost considerations to accessing many spaces in the Marina Bay and Sentosa area. So, when you build a police station in Marina Bay and a fire station in Sentosa, and staff it, all using taxpayers’ money, who does it benefit more?

In 2011 the Singapore Government announced that it will be acquiring 2 plots of land in the Rochor area, to build the North-South Expressway (NSE), which will mean that hundreds of families from the 4 Housing & Development Board flats in Rochor Centre will have to be relocated. What will happen to this space after the NSE has been built? According to the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the Ophir-Rochor corridor will be redeveloped into a vibrant Grade-A office cluster. Will condominiums be built in this area as well? If so, who would be more able to afford the homes that get built there? In a social and built environment that is in­creasingly changing, where buildings are demolished and re-constructed to serve different functions, it becomes that much difficult for a sense of civic identity to emerge.

Similarly, when the Tuas Port becomes operational in about 10 years, the container wharves currently situated in Tanjong Pagar area are expected to shift there. Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said recently that this move will free up prime land for redevelopment. How will this prime land be redeveloped? At least one real estate developer already advises its stakeholders that that area is a new waterfront city in the making, and that ‘the precinct holds long-term real estate value for discerning homeowners and investors who seek world-class properties with exceptional quality, design, lifestyle and amenities’.

As Singapore is at this crossroads, it is time to relook the differences in the availability of spaces between the richest and poorest in Singapore, in order to contrast the availability of space between the uber-rich and the rest of the citizens of Singapore. Can such freeing up of space be more equitably distributed or priced right so that there can be different groups within the same area?

Perhaps, to address this, there is a need to develop an index of dignified spaces; a set of indicators which will enable the legislators to reconsider the design, creation and management of privately owned public spaces – spaces which should reflect our ideals as a society and encourage participation by all people. The development of such an index will better assist to address the private provision of publicly ac­cessible spaces, if such private provision reduces the ‘publicness’ traditional­ly associated with public spaces.

Public spaces pro­vide citizens with a sense of continuity, reliability, and predictability through time. Public spaces are also crucial for a democracy and civil society, but besides Hong Lim Park, the public spaces we have in Singapore are fragmented and many are hostile to public use.

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Ravi Philemon is the Executive Director of a charitable organisation and a member of National Solidarity Party. The opinion expressed here is his own.