One man’s home may be another man’s garbage dump: In response to Amanda Lee Koe

by Donovan Choy

I am so out of sympathy with opinion pieces by artists. As if it was an intentional ironic joke, Amanda Lee Koe’s article “If this is home, truly, it should look like home” published on April Fools’ Day is yet another opinion piece in the mill of opinion pieces penned by artists who see no problem with venturing out of their field, eagerly opining on politics and economics.

Just like most commentary by artists on arts and culture, Lee’s attempt to make a case for government preservation of public sites and buildings is so completely lacking in substance that no possible merit can be derived from this write-up full of flaws, even in a generous reading.

Claim number one: Iconic buildings in Singapore — People’s Park Complex, Golden Mile Complex and Tower, and Pearl Bank Apartments, the “Big Four” — means something to our cultural heritage and is therefore a public good that governments should step in to preserve.

Firstly, the claim that these buildings mean something to “our cultural heritage” is not at all evident. How each Singaporean perceives the abstract notion of “cultural heritage” is subjective. An elderly Singaporean who has lived in People’s Park Complex all his life may rank it highly on his value scales, a millennial who has scarcely step foot in this Complex may not. The preservation of these post-independence buildings may greatly please those with a fondness for Singapore’s history, but the tearing down of these buildings to give way to new modern buildings filled with avant-garde art, hipster cafes and posh bars will please others.

The problem with Lee is that she believes herself to possess an authority to determine whether something is part of the Singaporean cultural heritage and that it is of great import — she does not. Neither do the “Architectural experts, social historians, heritage enthusiasts and practising architects” that she casually mentions in a surreptitious appeal to authority, nor the government statutory boards whom are put in-charge of making the very same decisions that she wrestles with: “what is the counter-evaluation and due process that People’s Park Complex, Golden Mile Complex and Tower and Pearl Bank Apartments have not cleared? Alternatively, why have they not been considered?

Given the fact that individuals subjectively value different things, government action — by definition of its top-down centralised approach — can never satisfy everyone; it can only always appease some at the expense of others.

In other words, all that can be surmised here is Lee’s implicit smuggling of her own individual subjective values, followed by a wholehearted imposition of these values on Singaporeans at large in a bid to pressure the government to preserve these buildings. Just as Christians have no right to force their ideal conception of a religious life onto Buddhists, Muslims or atheists, Lee has no right to force her personal idea of “culture” onto other Singaporeans.

As far as this notion of cultural heritage being a “public good” goes, we have already dealt with the gross fallacies involved with such a leap in logic. For the sake of argument, let us hypothetically assume that all Singaporeans robotically value the cultural heritage of these post-independence buildings equally. From the conclusion that these buildings are widely desired, Lee argues that markets do a poor job of providing such goods due to lack of incentives and therefore governments must intervene to protect it. She writes and I quote: “the free market is never incentivised to defend a public good, and it is the role of centralised entities like governments to mitigate laissez-faire shortcomings.

This already demonstrates a poor understanding of how markets actually work. Lee’s view stems from the textbook definition of public goods where because it is not possible for private entrepreneurs to exclude non-payers, the good goes under-provided in the market (think a fireworks show), therefore governments should intervene with the taxpayer’s dollars. The error in this way of thinking is that market entrepreneurs have long devised ways to overcome such problems of non-excludability.

For instance, so-called public goods can be tied to purchases of private goods in a way that makes the good an entire package. In the case of a fireworks show, it is plausible that the costs that go into supplying the fireworks are tied to a monthly membership with a community centre, or a kind of contractual arrangement with adjacent property owners.

Other goods that are often traditionally thought of as “public goods” such as cable television, roads or the infamous lighthouse, have seen ways by which markets have excluded non-payers through transmission scrambling, toll booths or the aforementioned method of packaging with port fees. Even in cases where exclusion is not relied upon, entrepreneurs have found ways to finance these goods through advertising. Broadcast television, radio, YouTube, information-based products like search engines (Google) are all prominent examples of it at work today’s market economy.

It is plain to see that Lee’s assertion that “the free market is never incentivised to defend a public good” is thoroughly flawed; the idea that the incentive mechanism is lacking on the market in regards to so-called “public goods” is really a theoretical myth that any student of the relevant empirical facts and historical evidence would be aware of.

Present in the tone of the article is also the author’s apparent disdain for putting the properties for sale on the market: “Should nothing be done, the collective sales of the Big Four will all eventually go through, for exorbitant sums to private developers. I concede: In an unfettered free market, private interest is king.”

Private interest is king in a free market? That’s correct, except that private interest really means private interests (plural), since the market reflects the interests of the many property owners. Not just the fat cats who will buy up the property mind you, but the hundreds and thousands of working-class Singaporeans who may choose to purchase a home if such a housing apartment was constructed, or patron a shopping mall or park if it was built.

Is cultural capital eroded in the free market? Perhaps, perhaps not. If Singaporeans truly treasured the cultural heritage of these old buildings, then the private developer has an incentive to preserve it as the way it is with minimal changes to maintain high patronage. That is ultimately dependent on the price signals generated by the market.

For instance, Golden Mile Complex, one of the oldest buildings in Singapore is known for its nightlife pubs, Thai food stalls, and massage parlours. The very fact that the government or its private owner has not intervened to demolish this relic of a building is evidence that there are customers on the market who like to keep it the way as it is; we know this from its steady customer patronage that eventually reflects itself in the rent revenues of Golden Mile Complex through market price signals.

The point here being is that at the very least, consumers on the market at least get to “vote” for cultural goods with their purchase choices. When governments are in the business of making decisions, these decisions are left to the bureaucracy that is relentlessly subjected to regulatory capture.

As is abundantly clear again, Lee’s contempt for “private interest” reflects only her own subjective self-interests. What makes it inexcusable is the means by which she seeks to put into effect her goals: the coercive mechanism of the state, where the bureaucrats up in the respective statutory boards (NHB) can decide what is “worthy” of preservation based on their own subjective valuations, and therefore arbitrary whim.

What of Lee’s side-claim that architecture should be driven by “ideas”, and that the profit motive with its emphasis on “metrics” and “practical considerations” erodes this ideological purity?

Now this strikes me as a seriously puzzling claim. Open any architecture magazine and count how many of these feats of art are projects of private funding. The best works of art in the world whether its film, music, literature or architecture are often privately funded. It is precisely when art is privately funded that its creative boundaries are wider and artistic freedom is enabled, that art can be driven by ideas, not political motivations. In contrast, put a state bureaucrat in-charge of demarcating artistic constraints and making funding decisions, and you are sure to have a death knell in artistic innovation. Mediacorp, anybody?

Lee concludes her article by cautioning the reader not to be “bystanders to the destruction of things we hold dear — things that make us us”. I pray she understands that the things she holds dear is not equivalent to what everybody else holds dear.

This article was first published at Donovan’s Medium account