Jane M Jacobs is a Professor of Urban Studies at Yale-NUS College. This is an extract from a recently published commentary in H. Koon Wee and Jeremy Chia (Eds.) 2016 Singapore Dreaming: Managing Utopia. Select Books, Singapore.
Like many post-colonial nation states, Singapore began its early development with a focus on futures thinking and vision-making. The late Lee Kuan Yew was renowned for being a strong visionary, and much of that early visioning was in the twin name of modernisation and development. Visions are future-oriented ideologies, and it is perhaps unsurprising that the architect Rem Koolhaas (1995) referred to Singapore as “the most ideological of all urban conditions”. Visions usually stand above the complexity of operationalisation. Because they mark out an endpoint to be reached, they can be somewhat vague about how to get there. Not so in Singapore, where visioning and the pragmatics of realisation are closely linked.
One of the most striking features of Lee Kuan Yew’s vision-making is that many became visions realised. Visions in Singapore are rapidly integrated into a pragmatic “administrative state”, where they are shored up by bureaucratic systems, secure budgets, well-trained professional expertise, and finely calibrated targets. And, because Singaporean bureaucracies have increasingly been influenced by global corporate culture, their visions are nowadays often refined into publicly stated strategic goals, mission statements, and action plans.
Pragmatism in the Singaporean context is not the opposite to, or even a benign operational handmaiden of, visioning. Rather, pragmatism itself is part of the nation’s urban vision. It is the legitimating logic for any number of urban decisions. State pragmatism in Singapore can at times be writ large, such as in the heroic state interventions that solved emergencies such as the post-independence housing shortages. But it can also pervade a more quotidian, “do what works”, mode of governance.
Singapore is not a nation of half-completed buildings, or freeway overpasses left hanging unfinished in anticipation of a future journey never to be realised. It is not a nation of snail-paced change and reform, or of spaces left blighted or forgotten. In Singapore, visions have little trouble turning into operationalised plans embedded in institutional bureaucracies and materialising as instruments, services, and infrastructures. This is not so elsewhere, where visions far more routinely become stalled or distorted in the process of their realisation. In many democratic contexts, urban visions can fall prey to the whim of the electorate. Also, the agonistic character of robust democracies means that citizen opposition can routinely, for better or worse, bring a vision to its knees. And, in other contexts where governance is weak, it might be corruption that perverts the course of vision. To quote Rem Koolhaas (1995) again, Singapore is distinct because it stands apart from the “near-universal pessimism about a makeable future” and can “avoid the debris and chaos that democracy leaves in its wake elsewhere”. The state and, in large measure, the citizens of Singapore are proud of the fact that their visions do not suffer such truncated destinies.
In Singapore, the realised visions of the state are entangled with another kind of futures thinking, that of aspiration. Policies, plans, and services are constantly being revised to meet externally-benchmarked economic or environmental performance targets. They are fine-tuned to respond to state-interpretations of changing citizen aspirations and needs (themselves often derived in some global comparative frame). The media reports daily on policies shifted this way; internationally-benchmarked targets met or exceeded, state-run supply services recalibrated, road infrastructure realigned, housing markets cooled. This routine tweaking of operationalised visions is often done in the name of economy, efficiency, rationalisation, and, increasingly, a state-based interpretation of what its citizens aspire to.
The often beautifully realised urban visioning of Singapore has significant benefits. It produces efficiencies and quality of life, it meets aspirations and sets new benchmarks, it generates national pride and wealth, it creates pleasure, as well as a diversity of experience. All these things are urban and national goods.
But what if, in its competence, it sucks the air out of other kinds of future-thinking? And at what cost to a more sustainable, creative, and diverse Singapore? What place is there in Singapore for future-thinking that is not packaged as a national vision, or a set of shared values, or a series of agreed upon benchmark targets, or earnestly reached-for aspirations? What room is there for other kinds of dreaming? How might Singapore enhance its capacity to cultivate such creative dreaming? And how might these other dreams supplement and extend official visions?