In almost all the government communications concerning the National Conversation and the associated population issues in Singapore, one consistent theme emerges – Singapore needs to have a “vibrant” economy. The implication is that a “vibrant” economy has “exciting” jobs and industry, is “dynamic” and has “buzz”. A few examples:
Teo Chee Hean’s opening address to a recent townhall dialogue, when published in TODAY, was titled, “Creating jobs for a vibrant Singapore.” In it, he suggested that “Singaporeans want exciting, interesting, and well-paying jobs” and “If we have a shrinking and ageing population, it will be much more difficult for us to bring in exciting new industries, to attract new investments… …Singapore will become a much less dynamic and vibrant place… …”
In the recent Issues Paper released by the National Population and Talent Division, designed to inform the public about the government’s thinking on population issues and to solicit public feedback, one of the three pillars of the “Sustainable Population Vision” was “A Sustainable and Vibrant Economy”. They suggest that “A multi-pronged approach is thus required to sustain the economic vibrancy necessary to generate the good employment opportunities for Singaporeans.”
When PM Lee met overseas Singaporeans in Australia, he noted that Singapore was “getting more developed, crowded but also filled with vibrancy and buzz. When meeting overseas Singaporeans in New Zealand, he suggested that there needs to be “vibrancy and buzz so that there will be opportunities for Singaporeans.”
But what exactly does “vibrancy”, “exciting”, “dynamic” and “buzz” mean?
From the government’s perspective, the vision is rooted in no less than the aim to secure the continued relevance of Singapore’s economy in the global marketplace. With the rise of China and India’s mega cities, Singapore needs to stay ahead of the pack and strive to be a global city of capital, akin to the likes of New York, London, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. With continued relevance in the global neoliberal economic order, national security and the survival of the polity is partly secured. In contrast, ageing mega cities like Tokyo are treated with mild contempt at best and regarded as relics of a nearby past.
Yet, such an understanding of “vibrancy” from the government’s perspective is limited. While we can partially attempt to envision what “vibrancy” entails in real life from the examination of other global cities, it still does not quite inform us what it means, how it originates, and most importantly, what are the implications of relying on such a paradigm.
I had previously worked for a consultancy that wanted to and was planning to expand into Singapore. The justification was clear. Singapore was where almost every important person “passed through” on their way to somewhere else and so, it was a convenient hub to locate at to meet these people to get business. Also, many large companies also had important people here, so it was important to be here to stay in touch, so that our consultancy’s services were always at the back of their mind. Of course, you need cool places to meet at and nice things to do, hence, witness the rising popularity of brunch places, pubs, bars, business restaurants and salad bars in the CBD area. And of course the associated sin industries such as high-class escorts/prostitutes. We can’t get enough of them. In the neoliberal economic order then, “vibrancy” and “buzz” means the daily-lived experience of the conduct of capitalism – flirting, consuming, wheeling and dealing.
To be sure, New York, London, Hong Kong and Shanghai are not much different. Yet I would argue that the “vibrancy” and “dynamism” of those global cities are of a different form as compared to Singapore. In those cities, cool places and spaces for the daily conducted of capitalism are much more a result of organic development and less “directed”. For example, compare the trajectories of development of the Meatpacking District in New York , and Clarke Quay in Singapore. The former was much more of a result of entrepreneurs drawn by the prospect of an organic rejuvenation of the area, whereas the latter was Capitaland directed. Capitaland has a profit-motivation to rejuvenate a piece of real estate – they come in , renovate, and carefully select the right mix of tenants to project an a “cool” image. Remember Crazy Horse? I am not familiar with the history of Canary Wharf in London, but I believe it should stick closer to the New York story than the Singapore one.
In any case, I’m of the view that one of the important implication is the top-down “vibrancy”, “dynamism” and “buzz” of Singapore will almost always be under-appreciated by locals and over-appreciated by wealthy expats. The former needs to be sold by the government on the “happiness” of the “buzz” whereas the latter are enraptured by neoliberal Disneyland. For Singaporeans, “This medicine it is good for you! You should have it!” For expats, “Bring it on, baby!”
But, most importantly, the problem with such a “vibrant” view of the economy is that it promises to paper over some of the ugly facets of the periphery and of the within. By the ugly periphery, I mean that the fringe (both in terms of geography and in sheer volume) economy is often neglected. Locals need housing in our peripheral HDB estates. They need to be able to commute. Poor locals need help. Now, more obviously than ever, it appears that the government may have forgotten about the heartlands in the relentless pursuit of the supposed “vibrant” economy. By the ugly within, I mean forgetting the thousands of service staff who work in the “vibrant” industry. Who is this person who serves me my gin and tonic at Pumproom? Who cleans up my vomit when I puke outside Zouk? Who cleans up the abandoned beer bottles at the bridge at Clarke Quay after we have our fun and merry? The show doesn’t simply end when the audience returns home.
You see, I think we’re all very happy knocking back our beers at the pubs, watching the next play at Esplanade, and munching on our $18 eggs benedict. But behind the apparent simple cycle of ordering, consuming, and paying in the “vibrant” economy, I think we’ve forgotten about the enormous social costs of servicing the “vibrant” economy, and it is now biting us in our backside.