What lies beneath glass, concrete and steel.

Singapore Badly Needs Her Soul

What lies beneath glass, concrete and steel.
What lies beneath glass, concrete and steel. (Credit: Woon Tai Ho)

Soaring housing and car ownership prices, diminishing personal space and intensely cramp public transport services have led to a series of outcries from Singaporeans. We feel threatened and smothered with little space to move. As the population white paper was routinely passed after some fanfare in parliament, the result is the same. We are focused very linearly on ‘do’ or ‘do not’ options. There is a dearth of innovative solutions and the ability to solve problems laterally.



The White Paper

It is understandable why Singaporeans reacted to the estimated population size of 6.9 million by 2030 in dismay. We have already felt the strains of a very dense city for the past 5 to 8 years. Employment opportunities are harder to come by, school placement slots are ever more competitive and newly weds can’t seem to buy their first home. The pressure was building but there was nothing we could do. And by ‘we’, I include the government.


In order to get what we wanted, we had to do what seemed counter intuitive. And we did exactly that.


There are economic targets to be met. These targets are not just for making money and increasing our already generous surplus in public savings. These targets are for social stability, attempts to create new jobs and the imperative need to upgrade and expand infrastructure to support growth. In a sense, it did seem like we were caught in a catch-22 situation. In order to get what we wanted, we had to do what seemed counter intuitive. And we did exactly that. Singapore continues to grow. Our unemployment rates are extremely low and most needs were generally met.

But in these attempts to grow and induce further growth, we raced towards soft limits. Limits that were always there but had to be breached because of long term policies that were already in motion. This is perfectly understandable. No long term policy ever goes as planned. There must exist tweaks along the way and these were put into action. Cooling measures and changes in home ownership rules were examples of such tweaks. Staunchly reducing the growth of car ownership even in face of ridiculously high COE prices was a bold move that had to be done. Changes post GE2011 were made to limit the benefits of being a Permanent Resident in order to show more favour to Singaporeans. Many small steps were taken but the bigger ones that Singaporeans wanted did not occur. Simply because it is illogical and unsound to do so now.


There’s no use crying over spilled milk.


The Workers Party called for such extremes which led to PAP MP Khaw imploring the WP to not push for a 180 degree change in policy. In a sense, I believe he is right. At this point, deep within a set policy, there is no way we can reverse such plans and avoid even worse consequences. You can say we are paying for some degree of shortsightedness and single mindedness in decisions that were made years ago. But, there’s no use crying over spilled milk.




Khaw implored the WP to not push for reversal.
Khaw implored the WP to not push for reversal but didn’t offer much otherwise.

What was disappointing were the solutions and ideas put forward in parliament. It was a narrow debate that didn’t offer much. It showed two things. The ministers in attendance were either unable to look for other solutions or they were simply there to spar along party and populist lines. Both of which were not very productive.

As my Twitter and Facebook feeds filled up with a mixture of anger and hopelessness from Singaporeans, I asked what were their solutions to avoid or cope with the now ‘worst case scenario’ figure of 6.9 million. There were none.

I feel that there is an option. An option that doesn’t require us to back peddle and severely disrupt both social and economic spheres.



The Soul

A nation needs more than just prosperity and economic growth. It is like how a family isn’t defined by the size of their home nor the number or make of their cars. A nation is bonded by people, culture and other human centric ways of building social ties. It is nothing more than a shared identity that is cherished and breeds familiarity and safety which is imperative as the country kicks into another gear and rapid changes threatens the very fabric of society.

Our choice to overlook the arts and sports scene of our country is biting us now. We have cultivated generations of people who are disconnected and uninterested in local arts. Local media programmes are very often looked down upon. We’ve entered a viscous cycle of belittling the elements that gives Singapore her soul.


Singapore Rugby prepares for imports. (via TodayOnline)
Singapore’s Rugby team prepares for imports. (via TodayOnline)


We made a huge error of importing foreign talent in our arts and sports scene. You can use your body for economic gain but you must never give up your soul. You just can’t import everything. In doing both, Singapore became a rapidly changing canvas that had little to tie its people home. It is true that small countries face an uphill battle in keeping its people bonded. After all, globalization has made it ever so simple for influential cultural giants to permeate through new found boundaries. But what was disappointing was the manner in which we left ourselves completely open and hastened the process.

The population density and high ratios of foreigners to Singaporeans are not scary figures. They are normal for a highly developed metropolitan city. Examples abound in cities both in the United States and also in Europe. These are areas with high transit rates in the foreign community but a stable and consistent local population. These cities work but the case of Singapore is different.


What was disappointing was the manner in which we left ourselves completely open and hastened the process.


We have and are expecting higher numbers of foreigners in Singapore. Some will stay and some will leave but the key difference is the worrying number of Singaporeans that are leaving the country. Instead of keeping the local population constant and allowing the foreigners to vary, we do seem to be gradually replacing locals with foreigners. This has to change.




Singapore needs to refocus its efforts on naturally promoting the local arts and sports scene. We don’t need trophies nor do we need Hollywood grade entertainment. Foreign TV channels already serve those. We want cultural motifs and icons that we can relate to. Stop pushing our local talents aside by filling up prominent venues with international performances day in and day out. There’s no need to import foreign sportsmen and women en masse because many Singaporeans find it difficult to identify with any success they bring.

It doesn’t matter if our local talents win little. They are the very elements that remind us who this country is built for and why we should keep our feet firmly planted here. They make up our soul and we cannot afford to leave them by the wayside.

It is in difficult times like these that one hopes for the elected to find an array of solutions and not to simply bicker back and forth along the same lines. More lateral solutions please.

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