While visiting Singapore last week to attend the 80th birthday celebration of a dear friend, the architect and urbanist William Lim, I wondered what it was that a traveler would find most beguiling in a small city-state like this. I started to count Singapore’s ways: its orderliness, its predictability, its cleanliness, the all-round safety it offers, and the visible effort it exerts to create diversity under regulated circumstances. When I was younger, these were the same contrived qualities I associated with dead places.
Lim did a lot to make Singapore alive and liveable—meaning, a place for people, especially the young, the migrants, and the less privileged; a sanctuary for traditions, for inventiveness, the imagination, and the arts in a world overrun by excessive consumerism. He waged a campaign to preserve the syncretic architecture of the Straits Chinese, Malays, and Indians—against the relentless drive to create more space for modern high-rises and new towns. At the same time, he designed office buildings and shopping centers that were as modern as they were Asian, think pieces that defied the conventions of globalized architecture. He fought for the rights of people to parks, and the provision of open areas he calls “spaces of indeterminacy” that could host a variety of human interactions and events.
Without being overtly political, Lim’s dissident call for spatial justice produced echoes in Singapore’s urban policy. One sees that immediately in the great care that government gives to produce a garden city effect. It is what a first-time visitor notices from the moment he picks up his luggage and takes the taxi from Changi airport. The ride into the city takes him through an avenue lined with well-trimmed acacias on one side and endless rows of bright bougainvillea on the other. The effect this produces on the visitor is one of spacious calm, the kind that soothes a harassed tourist after spending hours in a crowded plane.
I had quietly avoided visiting Singapore for almost a decade in protest against the government’s handling of the case of Flor Contemplacion, who was convicted and hanged for the killing of another Filipino maid and the drowning of the latter’s ward. I thought then that the total lack of compassion for this Filipino woman who had left her own children to take care of her Singaporean employer’s family spoke volumes about the kind of society this was. This personal feeling reinforced my initial views of Singapore as a police state that had no qualms about sacrificing the humanity of its own people at the altar of rapid development.
But, at the same time, I also felt that what happened to Flor could have been avoided if our own government had been less dependent on remittances from overseas workers and had not practically pushed young parents like Flor to work as maids abroad. Surely, no one in her right mind would feel compelled to leave her family behind if there were decent opportunities to earn a living at home. The key is economic growth. Grudgingly, I began to recognize that Singapore’s economic success could not have been achieved without the rigor in which it enforces its draconian laws. Of course, coercive rule in itself is not enough; it can well lead to unchecked corruption rather than to development. The Marcos martial law regime attests to that.
Singapore certainly has had better luck with authoritarianism. It is no mean achievement to build a modern cosmopolitan society without much natural wealth. Its first problem was how to create a harmonious and functional unity out of the fragments of diverse racial communities. It is a problem that is never fully put to rest, as recently acknowledged by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. But the ethnic diversity becomes a great asset when society is able to offer equal opportunity to everyone based on merit. Governments of small nations with big dreams, like Singapore, have little choice but to spend more time than others figuring out the details of what fairness entails in every aspect of daily life.
In such a society, one can spend one’s whole life planning how to get ahead under a regime of rules and penalties. The exacting discipline that is inculcated in every resident may, after a while, become sufficiently internalized as to function like a second skin. But this is not something that can be precisely engineered the way temperature and moisture can be controlled in an artificial “Cloud Forest.” People can be so obsessed with working, making a profit, and forging ahead as to forget that there are other things in life worth pausing for. I was struck to see, on this last visit, street posters urging Singaporeans to perform simple acts of kindness for others in their daily lives. I thought it was a poignant testimony to the limits of social engineering.
Over the weekend, my wife and I went to see the newly opened “Gardens by the Bay,” a theme park featuring two huge domes astride one another like gigantic cone shells. The first showcases flowers and ancient trees from all over the world. The other houses a 35-meter vertical forest covered with all kinds of plants, orchids and ferns. At its center is a waterfall. Cool mist continuously flows from blowers hidden inside the cavities of the manmade mountain, creating the sensation of being surrounded by clouds. I heard bird calls but could not find a single winged friend. The chirping chimed with the piped-in music.
As we followed the winding steel platform, and posed and took photos, I wondered what was lacking. I realized it was the experience of stillness and solitude that true mountains alone can give. In an instant, I remembered the magic of Banahaw and Sagada, and felt wealthy.