I have been invited to speak at Singapore’s Archifest forum on October 17, on the topic of “rethinking cycling”. This is one of those honours you know belongs to someone who has gotten their hands dirtier, like Francis Chu. But then Frank will, I’m sure, get the last word on the topic, before Archifest ends.
Thinking back, I can thank my experience working as an architect in Singapore, for my decision to be an academic instead. I would never have noticed the degree to which architects work in the service of invisible forces, had I only ever designed buildings in Australia. Working for Singapore’s Housing and Development Board (HDB) in the mid 90s, I wasn’t just struggling to see the invisible hand of the market, determining what I could or could not design. I was watching the actual hand of our chief architect—two steps on the hierarchy down from the PM—ripping apart models I presented for his approval. Why was he ripping up my permitter blocks and standing them on end to make towers? Why was he insisting I leave so much open, indefensible, space at the base of each tower? I got the sense my boss’s boss was Napoléon, and my boss was Haussmann. Where power operates invisibly in some place like Australia, it’s not so easily ignored in an ideal Platonic Republic, led by philosopher kings.
Having been given 18 years now to settle down, I’m far less paranoid. I’m assured too, by a younger generation of Singaporeans, that restrictions on free speech there are far less draconian now. The place is probably less like a battlement, than a very big company town. Think Saltaire near Bradford, only with giant glass shopping centres in all the new architectural styles.
Like any company town, Singapore has to provide some semblance of a life there, or risk losing half its smart workers. It’s doing a fine job pleasing the average Mr Tan, with laser shows over Marina Bay every night and gigantic arcades, but those are the very things that would make some university educated Singaporeans cringe, perhaps lose faith in their country, and maybe even think about leaving.
Smart people don’t mind that bread-and-circus exists for the masses—every city has spectacles of one kind or another. What is maddening about Singapore is how you can’t move without having consumerism put in your path. The best example, is how you can’t walk along Orchard Road just looking at people and buildings. You have to go into the shops. You get to Scotts Road, and are forced into an underground network of shopping arcades that send you off of your path. This is not to preserve vital traffic flow on Scotts road. Those cars could easily be made to stop a few minutes for pedestrian traffic. Rather, pedestrians are forced underground to preserve the flow of money to the shops below ground.
Much of Singapore’s underground train system has been conceived as a labyrinthine shopping arcade, such that just getting to work can feel like being trapped in Ikea. Educated people—Singapore’s greatest assets—don’t mind there being maze-like arcades. They just don’t want to be funnelled through them every day of their lives.
Singapore’s alternative to the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit), has been UPD (User Pays Driving—my acronym, sorry). To its great credit, Singapore-Company-Town is the most progressive place in the world when it comes to taxing driving proportionate to this mode’s greedy consumption of public land. Back in the 90s when I lived in Singapore, I would have said trains took care of the working classes, who were charged indirectly via shopping, while driving met the greater aspirations of Singapore’s middle classes, who were charged in a more transparent manner with fuel tax, sales tax, vehicle registration, parking, congestion tax, “certificates of entitlement” just to put cars on the road, and maybe other taxes I wouldn’t know of, because I never drove there myself.
There is a new class of Singaporean though, created by the internet and foreign travel, who one might call the “aware class”. They are watching the rise of bicycle transport in major cities like New York, Paris, and London, and aren’t content to live some place that doesn’t have cycling as well. Singapore simply can’t afford to ignore a phenomenon hitting all the great cities it sees itself being in league with. If it is too hot to cycle in Singapore (a claim I dispute) then it must likewise to be too hot to wear Chanel, Fendi, Armani and other fashions that are given centre stage in this country.