The Improbable Resilience of Singapore
Singapore has given its painful birth, limited natural resources and at times challenging neighbourhood come far. It sets an example, particularly for probity and competence, that stands head and shoulders above anywhere else in south and southeast Asia.
However, while the authors draw attention to some of the methods employed by the governments of the People's Action Party over the last half century they omit reflection on matters regarding free speech and political participation. The opposition, despite often garnering over 40 percent of the votes in recent elections, holds less than ten percent of the seats in the 87-seat parliament. Gatherings of more than four people without a permit appear to still be illegal. The press is state controlled and dutifully follows the party line. Indeed the case made by this paper is very much what one hears from the government. Freedom House, Amnesty, HRW, etc, offer more detail. The Gini co-efficient also raises interesting questions.
The authors fail to critically appraise the development and trajectory of Singapore in the light of the paradigmatic challenge of our time: sustainability.
The city state might appear resilient but on what foundations does this rest? It's assessment by the Global Footprint Network is telling. The size of Singapore's footprint relative to its land area is among the highest in the world. Of course as an island it is something of a special case. But as the authors argue it is not entirely a special case. The scale of he footprint implies that the city is appropriating an outsize share of global ecosystem resources relative to the claims of others with less power in the system both in today's generation but also in future generations. The price of Singapore's imagined resilience is high and perhaps rising.
Two additional expressways are under construction coating about S$12 billion. They are being built it seems in response to a rise in car ownership of about 40 percent since 2002. That is a function of the expansion of permits for car ownership, rising affordability of car ownership and use for a portion of the population, and immigration by prosperous people who also found a car not only affordable but something of a necessity. Public transport is good compared to its neighbours but lags comparable cities such as Hongkong, Shanghai, London or Zurich. Bicycle lanes remain confined to a few parks. Trams are nowhere and buses still run on diesel.
A significant portion of water is now processed from sea water, an energy intensive process contributing to energy imports and carbon emissions. Desalination has been developed to offset a reduction in supplies from Malaysia because the two sides could not agree to renew a water supply agreement. Given relative abundance of water in Malaysia it might suggest that relations are not highly resilient. Moreover, by deploying desalination Singapore has locked in exposure to the vagaries of global energy markets and eventually a rising price on carbon. Curiously, unlike any other advanced country, environmental impact assessments, including comprehensive public participation, are not mandatory in Singapore because the government believes it has taken care of the issues in various laws and regulations and is of the view that this approach is more efficient for developers and investors.
Perhaps the best that can be said about Singapore, despite the fine parks and lush roadsides, is that it is a fine exercise in ecological modernization. However, as a case for emulation in resilience and sustainability it falls short. That may not always be so. The government is quite competent and has the resources. What it has so far demonstrated is a lack of a grand, daring and even revolutionary vision for a genuinely resilient and sustainable city. For now it remains a laggard. For serious efforts in this regard one has still to look to various cities in Europe and North America.
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