fbpx
Singapore city skyline dusk panorama (Image - Chensiyuan, 2011, Wikimedia Commons)

The paradox of metropolis

Singapore city skyline dusk panorama (Image - Chensiyuan, 2011, Wikimedia Commons)
Singapore city skyline dusk panorama (Image - Chensiyuan, 2011, Wikimedia Commons)

Aloysius Chia

If you have not noticed already, we are in a headlong rush towards a particular vision of a city.

This city, envisioned as one that is a harbour of modernity and often compared to the likes of Tokyo, London and Hong Kong, desires the qualities of speed, capital and energy.

Within this mentality is the idea that the future will be rapid, one in which productive capital promises an endless stream of pleasurable activities.

This particular vision of the future, which drives almost all the economic plans of the current moment and the foreseeable future, sets our daily lives to work.

Ideas of stability, population policies, tax rates, the investments of funds, and even environmental policies, all serve to service this idea of a hub for capital and a transitioning place for it to develop.

The argument is that, being a small country with no resources, there is nothing else. And even if one chooses not to, one cannot but be affected by this so that one has to adapt to it. This is apparently the realist account of what options are available.

But the paradox of this is equally apparent. The problem of a small country with no resources is exactly the problem that this vision seems not to see.

How much can a country without resources develop physically, before leading to unhappiness, social disorder, over-crowdedness and vulnerability to external threats that leads to internal problems?

Has the drive for a particular vision of the future jeopardised the reality that there will eventually be real limits, even if it does not happen now?

The problem is not that the need to build higher and deeper is bad, or terrible for the well-being of people. In fact to a large extent it is a good thing that there is a flourishing economy rather than a dismal one. It is good that unemployment is low and there are investments, and there is focus on competitiveness.

But the real gist of the question is what happens when a small country really runs out of space. What sort of compromises must adhere in the future so that when the time comes, there is a real alternative that can be amiably considered, without leading to a deterioration of the state?

If one thinks that takes too long, just imagine the changes that has taken place to the physical landscape in the last 30 years. The momentous changes in the use of space means that at some point in time in the medium term this transformation will not be tenable.

It is important for everyone to think about this and other possible ways of living, without accusing others as anti-development or growth when such problems are discussed. In fact, leaders, instead of just reciting a growth-at-all-costs mantra, should take the lead. There needs to be a vision that takes into account not just the next 10 or 20 years, but beyond, partly because many of us will still be here.

This is because even if everyone avoids the problem now, the problem will resurface again, if the current trajectory keeps pace. Already the government is building underground caverns and envisioning underground shops, offices and research spaces for future use, as well as considering opening up areas that were never thought of before as places for use, that were a means of reserve for the future (such as MacRitchie Reservoir and Lim Chu Kang).

And physical space is perhaps only the peripheral concern. Issues like increasing aggregate wealth, a growing population, an ageing population, and a more educated and well-heeled population that is easily mobile will require new ways of envisioning identity and compromising with one another, as more space gets privatised and prices of it increase, while public spaces are shared by more people. What future arrangements will we need to plan for in order to maintain the legitimacy of the state and allow it to remain effective and independent?

Will a disenchanted population move out? Will there be social conflicts caused by social and economic disparities? Will there be external military conflicts that will lead to the internal collapse of the economy beyond a small state’s control? Will people be willing to defend the country?

The vision of a metropolis envisioned above makes it seem as there are no limits. But the real limits are there, as warned by Lee Kuan Yew himself who said that a small state will collapse if it is weak internally, which undergirds his political views.

Are these now being addressed adequately and honestly? These are all very difficult questions, and are surprisingly hardly discussed. The current discourse has not been very good at accommodating views about this matter, without degenerating into accusations of anti-growth.

The question is not just whether one is for growth or against growth, the question is what kind of growth will this look like in the next 50 years, what it will result in, and more importantly, whether people are willing to compromise when presented with possible alternatives.

It is not possible to rely simply on the Urban Redevelopment Authority or some statutory board for such concerns to be expressed, for their concerns do not yet represent different conceptions of achievements and ideals that can be envisioned, and in any case, should be discussed by those who are concerned.

The realist account will continue to hold true. What was used in the past as a justification for a particular type of economy and growth will paradoxically present itself again as its very limit and force reconsiderations again in the future.