“Singapore is now at a turning point. While the past 40 years are about transforming Singapore into a clean and green city as envisioned by the nation’s founding fathers, the next 40 years will be about becoming a model sustainable city.”
~ Former Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean
The mall at Punggol, Waterway Point, is bustling on the Tuesday when I visit. Shoppers chat and meander past designer stores, juggling savory pastries from Old Chang Kee with shopping bags. At the top of one of the escalators, I stumble upon a model of a miniature village: an old fishing village, with tiny square houses and muddy trails. Throughout the entire mall, the miniature village seems to be the only reminder in the bustling complex to passerby of how far Singapore has come. Once a fishing village, a Malay kampung, Punggol is now a busy, happening neighborhood on the east coast of the island of Singapore. Once a neighborhood where the last pig farms in Singapore were cleared in the 1980s, later speculated on as a site for a landfill, Punggol is now characterized as a modern, technologically innovative, model sustainable town. The narrative connected with the development of Punggol reflects how former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew characterized Singapore’s overall development trajectory: In a few short decades, Lee writes in Third World to First, Singapore developed from a small fishing village to a country with a GDP per capita higher than that of the United States.
Much of Singapore’s developmental story has to do with public housing, where eighty percent of Singapore’s population resides. Housing was a priority for a post-colonial Singapore: In 1960, just a year after independence, the Housing and Development Board was formed to address a housing shortage in the country. After constructing over 54,000 units over the course of the subsequent years, the worst of the housing shortage had been resolved by 1965. As these housing units are constructed by the Housing and Development Board, they are referred to as “HDBs.” Initially, HDBs were constructed to house low-income populations, but transitioned over time into serving a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. HDBs make up the primary organizational unit of Singapore, and are essentially small towns, with schools, hawker centers, clinics, malls, transportation hubs, and sports facilities incorporated into the design.
In Singapore, public housing has been a crucial tool for the state to realize visions of what a modern, developed city should look like (Kong and Yeoh). Through the construction of HDBs, the urban landscape has been shaped by the government’s nation-building objectives as it pursues both an aesthetically modernized cityscape and a modern lifestyle for its citizens. The Punggol housing development marked two milestones for the Housing and Development Board: it is home to HDB’s one millionth flat and its first Eco-Precinct. In Punggol, the state’s visions have incorporated technological innovations for greener living through verdant park landscapes. Punggol serves as a model, a “laboratory” for urban sustainable design, exemplified by the Treelodge@Punggol, a housing unit that incorporates technical solutions such as a rainwater harvesting system, solar energy-powered electricity, a community garden, an “eco-deck” that channels winds to create a cooling environment, and a centralized recycling chute. A path runs through the center of the housing units, with vines and overgrowth wrapping around the arches to create a green, verdant atmosphere. Such architecture is performative, reflecting the sustainable development narratives Singapore has stressed since independence. In performing sustainability, the Singaporean state seeks to gain legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens as well as foreign entities. In shaping the construction of Punggol’s HDBs around sustainability initiatives, Punggol residents’ lives are altered. The planners behind Punggol made an effort to introduce a feeling of ownership through their design: the river that snakes through the residential buildings is called MyWaterway, and the path alongside it is MyWaterfront. Further research might look at the ownership, or lack thereof, Punggol’s inhabitants feel over the sustainable innovations at Punggol.
This architecture, and the marketing effort that goes into it, is as much about tourism and foreign direct investment as it is about Punggol’s inhabitants. Singapore has chosen to brand itself as a sustainable, innovative, “clean and green” city. This goes back to Singapore’s initial post-independence period. Former PM Lee Kuan Yew describes in his book, From Third World to First, how he “searched for a dramatic way to distinguish ourselves from other Third World countries,” until he “settled for a clean and green Singapore.” The strategy, Lee elaborates, “was to make Singapore into an oasis in Southeast Asia, for if we had First World standards, then businessmen and tourists would make us a base for their business and tours of the region” (Lee). Because sustainability is part of Singapore’s brand, sustainability efforts could be understood as a sort of Corporate Social Responsibility, a nationwide “green-washing.” Across Singapore, effort has certainly been made to transform the city into a regional oasis: from the Botanical Gardens to the multitude of parks in residential neighborhoods, the “Garden City” is breathtakingly green. In these spaces, the natural world is heavily managed, and allowed only in controlled spaces– Under government control, natural relations can be remade in the service of modernist technological aspirations (Whitington). Rather than sustainability for sustainability’s sake, these green initiatives serve as a deliberate purpose, as part of the way Singapore markets itself.
In the global and regional competition for investment and other resources, Singapore distinguishes itself from other countries in the region, as well as other “developed” countries, using “heritage” landscapes to escape from the homogenizing forces that are assumed to come with modernity and globalization (Kong and Yeoh). In Punggol, Singapore’s attempt at distinctiveness can be seen in the architecture of the buildings themselves: the layered levels of the HDBs stretching across the horizon are meant to reflect rice paddies, an attempt to inject localized, Southeast Asian, constructions into the urban landscape. In the mall at Punggol, the old replica of the miniature fishing village invokes a shared cultural past. A “heritage” trail runs along the waterway, reflecting Singapore’s unique development trajectory from “village to farm to HDB flats.”
A plaque on this heritage trail describes how the pig farms in Punggol were soon replaced by “non-pollutive” hydroponic farms. In the modernist vision of Lee Kuan Yew and the Housing Development Board, the pig farms and old fishing village seem to be inflected with a sense of backwardness, pollution, and waste, while the housing developments of today are green and sustainable. A book released by the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, entitled Forging a Greener Tomorrow: Singapore’s Environmental Journey from Slum to Eco-City, narrates Singapore’s history as a trajectory in which the city-state’s environmental standards had been raised “from a rural backwater to one befitting a First World City” (Cheam). The narrative that Singapore has evolved from “Third World country” to “Clean and Green City” or from “slum” to “eco-city” projects a modernist logic onto sustainable development: The past was dirty while the present is clean and green. In this logic, sustainability is not just an effort to identify the least-carbon intensive lifestyle, it also requires a certain modern, “developed,” and technology-infused aesthetic.
Despite the effort that has gone into building urban landscapes reflective of sustainability, green innovation, and environmental consciousness, metrics to assess fossil fuel consumption are pretty dismal. As one of the top three export oil refining countries in the world, Singapore is known as the “oil trading hub” of Asia. Home to one of the world’s busiest ports, Singapore is also the largest consumer of bunker fuel oil–fuel for ships–in the world. Considering these metrics, the tension between economic development based on fossil fuel-based sectors and environmental sustainability is undoubtedly present.
Yet Arcadis Consulting Group still ranked Singapore as the second most sustainable city in the world in 2016, with a ranking of 15 in the Planet Sub-Index. John Keung, CEO of the Building and Construction Authority of Singapore, responded to the news of the ranking by claiming that it “was not just a conscious, top-down approach but also the commitment and close collaboration of the public, private and people sectors that made such an achievement possible for Singapore.” By defending the sustainability efforts as collaborative rather than top-down, Keung seems to be attempting to obscure one of the distinct characteristics of Singapore’s model: Both economic development efforts and sustainability initiatives have been primarily initiated by the government. Both can be seen as efforts to maintain political legitimacy in a political context in which the ruling party, PAP, has retained power since the nation’s independence. For Singaporean citizens, “Clean and Green” Singapore offers a fresh and beautiful city to live in. For investors and tourists, sustainable Singapore is a pleasant place to visit and conduct business. The government’s political incentives for these sustainability initiatives are not the result of lobbying by environmental nonprofits or democratic protests by citizens–Rather, the incentives for Singapore’s sustainability can be seen as rooted in the foreign direct investment and tourism sectors. This has consequences for the types of sustainability policies that Singapore enacts (gardens, parks, and housing), as well as the degree to which Singapore is committed to reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
For now, sustainable public housing projects like Punggol reflect a commitment to appear environmentally conscious to both an international and domestic audience (which is much more than, for example, the United States can say). But to build a sustainable model city, gaps between appearance and reality will cast doubt onto the country’s authentic commitment to sustainable environmental futures.
This blogpost is based on research in Singapore in January 2018 with support from the Horn Fund for Environmental Research.
Cheam, Jessica. Forging a Greener Tomorrow: Singapore’s Environmental Journey from Slum to Eco-City. Straits Times Press, 2012.
Kong, Lily and Brenda Yeoh. The Politics of Landscapes in Singapore: Constructions of “Nation.” Syracuse University Press, 2003.
Lee Kuan Yew. From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000.
Whitington, Jerome. “Modernist Infrastructure and the Vital Systems Security of Water: Singapore’s Pluripotent Climate Futures.” Public Culture 28.2 (79) (2016): 415-441.