Since I posted my blog post on Electoral System Reform, some people have started following this blog, thanks to The Singapore Daily. Much thanks to these people for supporting this blog and I’ll try to write more in the future as compared to the sporadic postings that grace this page.
In other matters, the past few months has seen some semi-controversial issues with regards to urban planning in Singapore.
One, there is the “fight” over Bukit Brown, which is not really much of a fight because the government has basically “won” quite easily. Make no mistake that the “compromise” to set up committees to document the heritage of the place is really a not much of a compromise at all, because in the end, the project will still go through. Why, despite numerous opposition voices of the redevelopment, did the project still go through?
Second, there is also the “fight” over Old School at Mount Sophia. Again, the feeble attempt at a facebook campaign did nothing to twart our urban planners. Once something has been zoned and planned, it seems like almost nothing can stop that plan.
These two “failed” incidences is in stark contrast with the the fate of the Rail Corridor, where the URA seemingly embraced the collective front of The Green Corridor project, back by the Nature Society, to sustainably redevelop and conserve the land parcels along the old KTM railway tracks. There’s even a showy exhibition at URA that details its plans for the future!
So, what explains the variation between the success and failure of attempts to conserve Singapore’s urban landscape against the threat of economic development? Having not worked at URA and having spoken to no one about their various attempts to negotiate with the government, I tentatively speculate two reasons to explain success and failure.
First, do you have a organized collective front with clear proposals for the future? The Green Corridor was supremely organized to reach out to a broad spectrum of Singaporeans. Look at their awesome website! The other opposition voices just said “no” to development and did not articulate clear alternatives.
Besides, having clear proposals for the future also saves URA from the burden of thinking. The incentives of civil servants run towards getting lots of flashy credit for promotion but not having to do most of the work. Just look at the publicity poster for the URA exhibition for the Rail Corridor. Notice that at the bottom, the difference between “Organized by” and “Supported by”. In this sense, “organized” probably means providing the intellectual firepower and manpower to collate ideas and set up the exhibitions. “Supported” probably means “Hey we got a whole lot of money in our budget. We can give you money for this exhibition lah. As long as we get the credit for citizen engagement with our bosses.”
Of course, I’m not saying that the civil servants at URA are purely self-interested. They may certainly have overlapping interests to preserve the land parcels of the KTM railway tracks. But my analysis above simplifies the rational interests of URA.
The second determining factor that explains the variation between success and failure, is whether the URA already has a prior plan for the site. If there is no prior plan, as per the case of the land parcels of the KTM railway tracks, assimilation of civil society’s plans is easy. If there is indeed a prior plan, such as the URA Master Plan 2008 in the case of Old School, or plans with LTA to develop the road in the case of Bukit Brown, it will be much harder to dislodge these prior plans. Do you really think the civil servants will change their course of action that they have spent months working on simply because a few citizens with specific interest suddenly come up and say “no”? If anything, the usual bureaucratic reaction will be to treat these voices as “noise” and pretend to listen, eek out some stop-gap compromise, but proceed with the plan anyway. You just need to see how many of the PAP leaders treat citizen voices as “noise”.
So, if these two explanatory factors – collective front with clear proposals and existence of a prior plan – can indeed explain the difference between the success and failure of conserving Singapore’s urban heritage, what does this spell for future attempts by common citizens for other sites of contention? One can easily anticipate that these “sites of contention” will rise in the future as Singapore attempts to negotiate the preservation of memories of its past against the unrelenting drive towards an imagined modernity.
First, Singapore needs civil society leaders more than ever to solve collective action problems and organize clear alternative proposals. Second, civil society leaders need to pre-empt sites of contention and formulate alternative proposals prior to them surfacing to the public sphere, instead of being reactionary to the government’s announced plans.
So, who will be the brave souls?