S(t)imulating Singapore: Representing the City (-State) in Travel Writing and Urban Planning

Irvin Lim Fang Jau


Urban space in Singapore which has no doubt undergone and still continues to undergo rapid development must be recognised as "an active, constitutive, irreducible, necessary component in the social's composition" (Keith & Pile, 1993: 36), and as I have emphasised, acknowledged as more than a flat surface of simulation mediated by a scopic regime of disappearance. As Lefebvre (1991: 212/229/412) goes to great lengths to argue: "In space, nothing disappears - no point, no place...In space, what came earlier continues to underpin what follows...No single place has disappeared completely; and all places without exception have undergone metamorphoses". The developmental idiom of urban metamorphoses and its relation to questions about place and identity are brought into analytic focus by a recognition of the scopic regime of appearance.

In situating my analysis between contrapuntal scopic regimes of disappearance and appearance, it is difficult to avoid alluding to a fixed analytic and heuristic binarism. However, this is not the intention. Instead, my aim has been to highlight the contradictions and ambivalence of both scopic regimes of city representations in the context of travel writing and urban planning, to allow for further critical inquiry and clarity. This has been done by situating reified theoretical conceptions like "simulation" against a context of contradictory discursive representations, drawing inspiration from Edward Said's call for a "critical consciousness" which is ever mindful of the "ideological trap" of theory: "it transfixes both its users and what it is used on. Criticism would no longer be possible. Theory in short can never be complete, just as one's interest in everyday life is never exhausted by simulacra, models or theoretical abstractions of it" (1983: 241).

Therefore, this is not at all to suggest that one scopic regime somehow has more veracity or verisimilitude than another, though this may seem to be the claim. It is rather to insist that the historical continuum and political contingency of Singapore's urban development, as an attempt to foster the formation of national identity and the fixing of its place in the nation space, is inherently a problematic question of representation and politics; an issue which a scopic regime of disappearance has tended to eschew and elide rather than to elucidate and explain. The quotidian and contextual dialectic of social-spatial ubiquity and utility is too often taken for granted when it should be taken to pieces.1 But taking to pieces entails a critical problematizing practice as much as it is about ironic play.2 What we need to acknowledge, as Caws (1991: 6) reminds us, is that "[t]here is no easy reading of the city...no shuffling about of ironies as covers of the situation". And the sooner this is realized, the sooner urban spaces and their representations can be recontextualized and critiqued as "the place of our meeting with the other" (Barthes, 1981: 96) and more significantly, our ma(r)king of the self.3

Nevertheless, this ma(r)king of the self ascribed to the urban discourse of Singapore's nation-building, as some critics have rightly argued, is far more than the mere transcendentalization of 'comfortable' traditional values or cultural roots, or even reification of shared aspirations and destiny in utopic urban representations, exemplified by a scopic regime of appearance. It is about the fostering of an urban identification, of belonging, of participation, in an open political climate which promotes and encourages individual involvement in shaping ideas of what constitutes a strong civil society and determines the powers of the political institutions of the city-state as part of a necessarily dialogic and integral process of nation-building; seeking to realise Mumford's (1961: 552) ideal of the city as "a theatre for active citizenship". As Lim observes:

The identity of a city or nation has to do with the nature of its present existence, the way it looks to the future, its sense of mission, its relation to the goals and desires of its people, and its orientation to the rest of the world. This cluster of ideas defines more than the psychological sense of the place in our hearts; it has the power to change geography and history...The fostering and nurturing of a climate and environment for thinking among its citizenry is an indispensable issue for Singapore. (Lim, 1994: II)

To be sure, the affective proposition of home, represented through the scopic regime of appearance, and staked in home ownership policies and promises of a stimulating 'tropical city of elegance and excellence', does not necessarily guarantee the desired development of a strong national identity; that politically valorised sense of belongingness and loyalty that 'genuinely' constitutes the Singapore city-state as a place of the heart and the home. If anything, political critic Chee (1994: 146-9) contends that heretofore Singapore's nation-building is metaphorically more akin to the construction of a transitory hotel rather than as a permanent home. He even suggests that Singapore is 'more of a place to stay in rather than a place to live in'. Chee's concern has also been put differently by Nalbantoglu and Wong (1993), who argue that ideal concept-city plans are "programmes of misplaced optimism" (ibid: 121), and that the enthusiasm over the 'stimulation of appearances' in Singapore's urban representations and developments "seem to indicate the triumph of a deceptive conviction of well-being" (ibid: 122). Accordingly, they wonder: "Is it possible to speak through the city rather than to be spoken by its master narrative[s]?" (ibid: 122). These refrains are significant not only in their political aspersions but also in highlighting the contradiction between ambition and ambivalence, aspiration and anxiety with which utopic urban representations about the Singapore city-state continue to be produced by its spatial managers. The contradiction, as Singapore's Minister for the Information and the Arts, BG (NS) George Yeo acknowledges, remains an integral process and ineluctable challenge of Singapore's nation-building; one that is intimately concerned with constructing the imaginary place-ness (home) of national identity (citizen) as against the illusory placelessness (hotel) of nomadic identity (tourist?/traveler?):

The problem is how to make Singapore more than just a nice hotel to stay in, how to make it a home worth living and caring for...it is not enough to have a good hotel or a well-run state...If we are not to be only a hotel, we must have a soul. To develop that soul, we need a lively civic society. The State must pull back some so that the circle of public participation can grow. When Singaporeans in their little platoons struggle to make life better for themselves and for their fellow countrymen [sic], they develop the affections and traditions which make our hotel a home. (Yeo, 1991: 79/81/86)

Given that the affective proposition of home, in the spatial narrative of nation-building and national identity through the 'stimulation of appearance' in Singapore's city space is an important and paramount feature of its urban representations and planning policies, what needs to be acknowledged is that this "affective level" (Lefebvre, 1991: 224) of the city-state as home is primarily addressed to its citizens, if not its visitors.4 Therefore, what appears to the (tourist gaze of the) postmodern fl‰neurs in their travel writings' simulacrum leit motif "to be empty may turn out to be full" (ibid: 224). That is to say, 'full' not with parodic irony or a pejorative sense of the urban as fake (empty mystification), but significantly full (steeped in depth) with political stakes of sovereignty, spatially contingent identities and contextually consequential social realities which endeavour to promote not sacrifice or neglect the idea(l) of the city as a site of community and human connection. Perhaps, the irony of the two scopic regimes of city representation is the unintended collusion in the anxiety that Singapore's high consumer society promotes a view that the city-state is more of a hotel than a home. This may surreptitiously account for the problematic of 'disappearance' that remains manifestly palpable even for Singapore's spatial managers despite their ambitious attempts to make Singapore appear on the global cognitive map as a nation of homes.

Investments and interventions which represent and produce city spaces, as conscious efforts of politically constructed fictions, are far from being incidental or innocent. They are inevitably interested, intentional, instrumental and ideological. As we have seen, official Singaporean discourses of urban representation are also invariably about a nationalist politics of identity and place. This politics of identity and place, like the notion of home, is neither fixed, immutable or definitive. Even if Blanchard (1969: 4) once suggested that "[o]ur home is our corner of the world", that existential corner is an ambivalent space subject to dialectical struggle and a dynamic process of appropriation and representation. Understand that, and we understand how the unifying and sovereign concepts of nation as home (place) and citizenship (identity) through housing policies and urban planning are spatially negotiated and socially significant. Contrary to Virilio's (1991: 120) claim that the notion of homelands and the geomorphological unity of the State has dissolved, or Baudrillard's (1983: 43) insistence on "the unreality of the stakes and the omnipotence of manipulation", spatial citizenship through urban agglomeration has not 'lost its reason for being'. Singapore's nation-building continues to be staked in the realities of citizenship to the city-state as a "citadel of privilege" (Yong, 1992: 44). Consequently, the crucial understanding of contingency and ambivalence in the two disparate urban representations of the Singapore city-state discussed here, if not a definitive point of conclusion, is as good as any a point of departure to begin asking questions about the city as a contradictory and lived space of negotiated identifications5, examined in its concrete social specificity rather than its abstract simulacral superficiality or assumed spiritless sterility.


1. John Fiske makes a similar comment with regards to the study of communication. See O'Sullivan et al (1983: x). See also Soja's (1989: 248) 'playing with the pieces' in his chapter on 'Taking Los Angeles Apart', where he suggests that the compelling challenge for us is "to take it all apart and reconstruct the context". Reconstructing the context (specificity) is a necessary step in any critical analysis of spatial deconstruction.

2. We remember Baudrillard's (1984: 24) flippant exhortation : "All that remains to be done is to play with the pieces. Playing with the pieces - that is postmodern". Best & Kellner (1991: 138/9) describe Baudrillard's 'postmodern play' in his America (1988) as "'trans' manoeuvres of an idealist skimming the surface of appearances while speeding across an environment he never contextualizes, understands, or really comes to terms with". See Hutcheon (1988: 222-31) for a critical account of postmodern theory and praxis away from poetics to problematics. See also Lefebvre (1991: 413).

3. An exercise in which no doubt, I myself, as a Singaporean, am intimately and intellectually implicated; critical distance notwithstanding.

4. Singapore is also constructed as an interesting intellectual and cultural habitat to live and work in for its visitors: "No matter where he [sic] hails from, every visitor finds a little home in Singapore" (Yeo, 1992: 211).

5. The recent turn by many cultural geographers (Soja, 1989; hooks, 1990; Shields, 1991; Duncan & Ley, 1993; Bhabha, 1994) away from the metanarrative of modern geography towards a new cultural politics of difference, identity, and resistance under the exhortative banner of 'postmodern geographies', as distinct from the Baudrillardian postmodern elegy of loss and displacement, is concerned with adding to the humanist and Platonic conception that space has agents, the distinctively postmodern caveat that space has agency. Or as Bhabha (1994: 170) contends, "it is the city which provides the space in which emergent identifications and new social movements of people are played out". Bhabha's use of the term 'identifications' instead of 'identity' per se allows for multiple subjective affiliations and negotiated agency formations; emblematic of the ethnographic turn in Cultural Studies. Also reminiscent of de Certeau's (1984) emphasis on exploiting the 'tactics of the everyday' ('making do') in practices of consumption, this nuanced view of identity politics in and of space is offered in Yao's (1994b: 141/2) analysis of Singapore's new urbanism, where he postulates that "urban consumers are not mere victims of ruthless commercialism but possess the ability to script our [sic] identities and empowerment". See also Yao (1994c).

New: 9 August, 1997 | Now: 27 April, 2015