Power to the Planners: Pros and Cons of the Singaporean Planning Model

The case of Singapore presents somewhat of a conundrum to city planners that warrants further exploration. As western-educated students of the post-modernist era of urban planning, our educations provide us with many examples of well-intentioned yet horrendously failed efforts of technocratic planning, which remind us to be ever wary of ourselves. We are taught that the both the client-expert model and the rational comprehensive method should be questioned for their presumed technocratic nature, the implications of embedded power relations, as well as the impossibility of solving what Webber and Rittel called “wicked problems”–the unsolvable problems of society. As planning professionals, the power, expertise, and respect that the planner yields in Singapore is enviable, and yet, the meticulously planned city-state is accomplished through a completely authoritarian process. The conundrum is, in the case of Singapore, do the ends justify the means?

Firstly, Singapore is unique because it is both a city and an entire nation, therefore many of the issues associated with vertical and horizontal plan inconsistency are a non-issue in Singapore. This contextual detail of national governance structure is of great importance to explaining the success of Singapore. Unlike compromises that must be made between federal, state, and municipal governments, as well as between political factions in the United States, the Singaporean government, which has been dominated by one party since its independence in the 1960s is not confronted with the political reality of “muddling through”, or even of “coalition building” to the extent of policy makers in democratic, multi-leveled, multi-party nations (Lindblom 1959; Mollenkopf 2010; Molotch 1976)

The complexities of negotiating an encumbering political atmosphere a non-issue, the Singaporean government is free to concentrate its efforts in optimizing its competitiveness in the global economy (Newman and Thornley 2005). Planning in Singapore originated as a way to transition the post-colonial country into manufacturing economy driven by Foreign Direct Investment, and later again transitioning into a knowledge-based economy. At each transition, the authoritarian government handled social and economic planning in a skilled and timely way, so that Singapore is now the fourth largest financial center in the world, and consistently ranks very highly in human development indicators. In just 25 years, the transformation of Singapore from a colonial port full of slums to the global metropolis of today has been an incredible feat of urban planning.

A spread out of Singapore's
A spread out of Singapore’s “The Concept Plan 2001”. Although emphasis is still on ensuring continued economic development, this ten-year update to the city-state’s overall land use blueprint began to recognize the importance of public participation, livability and neighborhood identity preservation.

Singapore’s growth and development policy, and therefore urban planning, has been and continues to be strongly grounded in ensuring that economic growth continues. Policies administered by various agencies have jurisdiction over everything ranging from human capital investments in education and job training to population control and family planning programs to racial balancing, and environmental and spatial planning. Like Hong Kong, Singapore has been described as a “property state”, in which public agencies, such as the URA, work with private real estate developers both to fulfill public, national goals and generate income to support government function (Haila 2000). 

The planning culture in Singapore is very centralized, top-down, and authoritarian. It does not claim to be a participatory or democratic process although some say that democratic involvement may be a critical next step in providing Singaporeans with the kind of environment that they wish to live in. Newman says, “One of the issues facing the state is whether the move into an increasingly open information age, with more innovation and creativity, will have a spillover effect in the socio-political dimension” (Newman and Thornley 2005).

So what is there to criticize in this model? Many would argue nothing. But Singapore may be showing signs of weakness in its planning culture, especially as the tastes of what Richard Florida has called the “Creative Class” calls for interesting urban experiences and places. Although plans in Singapore have been successfully implemented for securing economic growth, it is unclear whether the same model can result creating interesting, organic places, where the creative class would want to live and work. Now that Singapore has reached its status as a world-class city with a high standard of living, transitioned to the knowledge economy, will the same kind of planning that brought them from post-colonial entrepot to this point work to keep them competitive in the global market? With birthrates down and strong emigration trends out of Singapore, this is certainly an issue.

At least one source questions the quality of redevelopment that occurs in an authoritarian manner where individuals’ property rights are virtually non-existent compared to the government’s strong “visible hand” in shaping how land is developed. The method of large-scale government land aggregation, direction, and cooperation with private real estate has streamlined the process of development in Singapore by reducing the transaction costs, thereby fueling Singapore’s rapid development. However, redevelopment of culturally and historically significant places with no organic, bottom up input from the community has resulted in sterile, touristy, and tokenistic development (Zhu, Sim, and Liu 2007)

Singapore's Chinatown
Singapore’s Chinatown “Niu Che Shui” is one of the neighborhoods redeveloped by the Urban Redevelopment Authority that has been criticized as “sterile” and “un-organic”. Critics also state the business interests are more likely to pursue greater returns on investment through catering to tourists than to fostering neighborhood vitality and resident-serving urban planning. 

So is Singapore’s planning culture strong or weak? I believe the answer is both. In its transition from port city to industrial manufacturing to knowledge economy, a strong centralized land ethic and vision for economic development and provision of public goods such as housing were reflections of the strength of the planning culture’s vision. But as we see in the subtle differences starting to emerge between the Next Lap plan and the 2001 Concept Plan, wealth is starting to set a new standard for Singaporeans in the global economy; as their basic needs are met now Singapore as an interesting place that is made will need to compete against other global cities to keep their creative class. If words like “sterile” or “identity-less” continue to describe the projects produced by the visible hand of the paternalistic authoritarian guiding the invisible hand of the real estate market, then it will be very difficult for organic, uniquely Singaporean urban places to emerge. And although, they will still have control, the planning culture will be weak, and the city will suffer for it. 

The above article is based on a paper I wrote this semester on Singapore’s planning culture. The original includes a full bibliography of references, as well as a comparitive analysis of Singapore’s 1991 master plan and its 2001 master plan. It can be downloaded here.

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