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

Irvin Lim Fang Jau


Singapore, the modern secular city-state, has had its fair share of acclaim and animus for its rapid urban development and modernisation over three decades of almost uninterrupted economic growth. The inordinately topistic [1] and 'revolutionary' nature of its urban redevelopment and social transformation continues to preoccupy many social critics concerned with the need for greater 'democratisation of Singapore's public arenas' (see Kong, 1994) and social issues related to the design, use and management of public spaces in Singapore (see Chua & Edwards, 1992). Urban development is therefore a site of struggle over contradictory interests and meanings surrounding space in Singapore. Such a politics of meaning about space also necessarily undergirds the representation of imagined social realities and relations around which the discourses of space are perceived, articulated and appropriated. Set against this problematic of spatial epistemology, my thesis will revisit and problematise the politics of meaning concerning the representation and production of Singapore's city-space in the disparate contexts of travel writing and urban planning. The discrepant ways in which Singapore's spatial enterprise has been represented by recent travel writers on the one hand, and by Singapore's spatial managers on the other, demand to be examined for the contradictory discourses that seek to represent and produce Singapore. But, before commencing this examination, it is necessary to have a diachronic and discursive overview of the development of Singapore as a modern city-state in order to have some understanding of the historical and geographical milieu in which the representations arise.


Singapore's urban settlement history spans less than 170 years. It was only with the establishment of British rule in 1819 that the development of the modern city actually began to take root and grow apace with its entrepot role as the commercial hub and crown colony of the British Straits Settlements in Malaya. As William Lim (1990: 191) tells us, British colonial Singapore was "a planned city from the very beginning". Singapore's founder, Sir Stamford Raffles initiated large-scale resettlement of the population in 1822 through his ambitious town plan to instill some rational control into what he witnessed to be a "disorderly mushrooming of houses and godowns" (Wee, 1972: 216) with an influx of indentured labour and immigrants from the surrounding British settlements, India and China, which in turn precipitated the rise in Singapore's population from 150 in 1819 to 8,000 by 1823 (Wee, 1972: 216/7). Urban resettlement was achieved by the modern planning practice of urban district zoning for government offices, residential areas along racial and ethnic lines and the construction of road transport networks amongst other British town planning measures, whose imprint continues to be evident in the heart of the city today (Lim, 1990: 191). As a direct result, Singapore's colonial legacy led to the rise of "a city of technical order" or a "heterogentic city", the product of "the development of the modern industrial worldwide economy" and "the expansion of the West" (Redfield & Singer, 1954; King, 1990). To be sure, Singapore's urban project of city planning owes as much to the emergent global economy of capital accumulation and economic growth through industrialisation, that followed the era of European colonisation, as it does to the epochal introduction of 'Western' urban forms and city models into its spatial make-up. By incorporating elements of both the 'traditional' (indigenous) and 'modern' (international) worlds, the development of the colonial city, sited in the periphery of the Eurocentric core, can be conceived as a "cultural hybrid" (Wheatley, 1969) of combinatory urban formations that has influenced and continues to inspire the 'technical order' of modern Singapore's urban fabric up till today. The intrinsic global link between contemporary city formations and the historical growth of industrial capitalism has been described by Harvey (1975: 99) in this way: "Urbanisation is economic growth and capital accumulation, and these processes are global in their compass". The compass of global urbanisation took a major turn from the European colonial core to the colonial periphery with the rise of post-colonial nationalisms around the world after World War Two. The Modern City-State

Following the relinquishment of British colonial rule and the establishment of self-rule in 1959, Singapore's short-lived merger with Malaysia in 1963 and subsequent separation led to Singapore becoming an independent modern city-state in 1965. The modern city-state can be understood here as a discursive conflation between the physical city and the political state. As William Lim (1990: 199) succinctly puts it: "Singapore is a city-state, the state is the city itself". The political space of the state becomes a syllogistic, if not tautological narrative construct: The state is irreducibly territorial and its "[p]olitics is rooted in territory" (Anderson, 1992: xiii). With independence, Singapore's urbanisation through city planning reforms took on an even more urgent political dimension; that of nation-building. [2] Given this political dimension, the state assumes an increasingly "patent" role in binding economic production and social activity into "a spatial unity - that of the nation" (Lefebvre, 1991: 378), in an attempt to construct itself out of a colonial past. What is important here, is the way this spatial unity of the nation continues to undergird Singapore's postcolonial project of urban modernity.

What then constitutes this spatially unitary yet abstract idea of a national Singaporean republic as a modern city-state? For to speak of spatial unity is to risk abstraction. Perhaps, it would be useful first of all to separate the abstract tripartite conflation into its three constituent parts to tackle the question; beginning with the city-state, followed by the modern city and the modern state. An understanding of these distinctions is crucial to an understanding of Singapore's city-space and its corollary development and representation, as I will show.

In his comparative analysis of 'Singapore - the City-State in History', Yong (1992) makes the observation that while history has shown that the Free Swiss city-states [3], as "corporations of privilege" and sovereign state power, waned and declined with mass migration and competition from new regional markets driven by the impact of industrialization, the Singapore city-state (and a few others) remains an anachronism and anomaly, in that it continues to be a "citadel of privilege", "conveying upon its citizenry the right to live, eke out a living and play a political role" (Yong, 1992: 44). This sovereign space [4] of the city-state as a "citadel of privilege" constitutes Singapore's political status as a territorial entity in the global community of independent nation-states. The spatial logic of sovereignty is such that "[t]he city state...establishes a fixed centre by having to constitute a hub, a privileged focal point" (Lefebvre, 1991: 235) of citizenship and permanent residency (dwelling).

Castles (1993: 49) tells us that the modern city developed out of "the twin projects of industrialisation and nationalism". The myths of ethnic and cultural homogeneity, coupled with the political and economic space of national power and manufacture respectively, are said to be emblematic of the modern city. In contrast, the emergent post-modern city of today, as a result of "globalisation of the economy and of culture", is described by Castles as a multinational space where claims to ethnic and cultural homogeneity are irrelevant and the decline of national capital and manufacturing power is palpable. When set against these normative definitions, classifying Singapore as a city which is simply modern, or even post-modern is ambiguous, if not problematic. This is because Singapore's incipient information and services economy is increasingly headed towards the latter direction of a global 'postmodern' city, while its political economy is still firmly rooted in centrist national power, which is far from declining or decentralising in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, despite recent attempts by its political leaders to valorise an 'Asian' identity, Singaporean nationalism does not and cannot claim to be one based on ethnic or cultural homogeneity due to the formative multiracial character of its diasporic citizenry at the onset of independence.

Consequently, the idea of the modern city would be better served if it is not assumed to be synonymous with that of the modern state. The modern concern with the control and exercise of political power is implied in the idea of the state. A post-Hobbesian conception of the sovereign State as Leviathan, an all pervasive paragon of power embodying a plurality of voices and interests into one unity, 'one will' (Held, 1989: 17), continues to have resonance in the modern state's executive function of producing order and control over the legislative space of its society (see also Foucault's "governmentality", 1991). The process that is crucial to the modus operandi of the modern state is that of production. In terms of this production, Bauman (1991: 20) metaphorically defines the modern state as a "gardening state", "born with a crusading, missionary, proselytizing force" to transform its subjects into "an orderly society". This notion of the "gardening state" is particularly useful in describing Singapore's urban development, where the production of space is largely directed and controlled by the state urban authorities. With popular slogans depicting Singapore as the definitive 'garden city', the 'green city', the rejuvenated verdant 'concrete jungle', the metaphor of gardening vis-ˆ-vis cultivation, would clearly be appropriate for the role that the modern state plays in Singapore's spatial production. Consequently, the process of production (of space, of order), that is implicit in the gardening state, brings us back again to the attendant political questions of agency: "Who produces?, What?, How?, Why and for Whom?" (Lefebvre, 1991: 69/116).

Viewed in this way, Singapore's political project of urban planning serves as a vehicle for nation-building. Therefore, if the idea of a nation is a discursive construct of narrative or stories which we tell each other about our "imagined community" (see Anderson, 1983; Bahbha, 1994), I would like to propose that the nation is also a discursive construct of space; a spatialized story about a politics of identity. [5] An understanding of this spatial dimension of nation-building, in any representational analysis of Singapore's city-space must be recognised if it is to avoid making - as Abbas (1994: 445) notes in another context - "a complex space disappear into a one-dimensional image" or "a fetish of the material surface instead of the three-dimensional depths" (Jay, 1993: 24). This idea of 'disappearance' belongs to what I shall call 'a scopic regime of disappearance' which has been fetishised by many theorists on contemporary city spaces, variously inflected with 'postmodernist' concepts such as "overexposure", "simulation" and "hyperreality"; apropos of which I will be explicating in Chapter One.

Overall Scope

It is with this in view, that three recent travel-writings on Singapore by Reginald Berry (1986), Kim Dovey (1993) and William Gibson (1994) will form the foil for my argument that the representation of Singapore's urban space is fraught with anxiety and ambivalence. The use of a scopic regime of disappearance, as is manifest and implicit in the three travel writings, I would argue, is unhelpful if not inimical to a more critical understanding of Singapore as an urban space. To acquire such an understanding, we need to take account of Singapore not only as a city per se, - that is, an urban space - but also as a material consequence of the state's articulation of its national project in the production of urban space for its citizens ie. a city-state. The government's representation and production of urban space and how meanings of place as 'home' for the Singaporean imagination are charged with the discourses of national identity, sovereignty and centred spaces of stability, security and order should not be glossed over as if it is of little significance other than maintaining passive patterns of consumption for political manipulation. The lack of attention given to the role of urban space in providing the "possibilities for different kinds of consciousness for the representation of different kinds of cultural, ethnic, or national identities" (King, 1990: 129) in the three travel writings mediated thorough a scopic regime of disappearance is a political lacuna of intellectual concern. Though the refrain raised by the three writers in drawing attention to the dangers of an increasingly overt high capitalist consumption culture and concomitant overregulated society encapsulate in themselves moral and ethical merit, I argue that their platitudinous appeal to an explicit Orwellian and implicit neo-Orientalist narrative impulse is regretfully remiss, if not regressive, and emasculates possibilities for other less totalizing or teleological ways of engaging with the complexities of urban spatial formations of planning and housing policies; without obscuring or obfuscating the crucial role they play in constructing a national identity in a modern secular state like Singapore. This thesis, then, is a criticism of the scopic regime of disappearance within which the three travel texts are written, as much as it offers a critical account of the scopic regime of appearance within which Singapore's urban planning discourses are represented and produced. Consequently, there is a critical need to forestall pejorative sense of narrative closure from ossifying into an Orientalising doxa. This can be done by recognising, contextualizing and reconciling the information and capital flows of a rapidly changing geopolitical space with the experience and production of the space of 'place' in at least some 'non-western' societies like Singapore. [6] A necessary first step is the acknowledgement of the contradictory and ambivalent nature of spatial representation and production of the contemporary city, without being fettered by the reiteration of the familiar binary cultural logic of modernisation theory or colonial discourse whereby the 'Western self' always assumes the high moral ground from where the 'Eastern other' is always adjudged to be wanting or lacking. At this point, I cannot stress enough that my proposal for a critical examination of the common scopic regime of city representation adopted by the travel writers does not stem from a post-colonial desire to canonise "De-Orientalism" [7] as a new orthodoxy; as Jeff Lewis (1994: 26) cautions. Instead, it stems from a desire to want to engage more fully with the contradictory meanings of urban representions and policies that the spatial managers of Singapore's urban development are no doubt aware of, and anxious to confront in their project of nation-building. My emphasis on contextuality in spatial analysis should not be mistaken for a claim that Singapore's urban development is unique. Rather, it echoes Lefebvre's (1991: 31/2) call for an acknowledgement of 'specificity' (context) and accountability of 'variants' (differentiations) in the representation and production of space. As he writes:

[E]ach society offers up its own peculiar space, as it were, as an 'object' for analysis and overall theoretical explication. I say each society, but it would be more accurate to say each mode of production, along with its specific relations of production; any such mode of production may subsume significant variant forms, and this makes for a number of theoretical difficulties...in the shape of inconsistencies, gaps, blanks in our general picture. How much can we really learn, for instance, confined as we are to Western conceptual tools, about the Asiatic mode of production, of its space...?"...The role of space will need to be examined in its specificity.

(Lefebvre, 1991: 31/2)
(Emphases mine)

I will begin Chapter One by assessing some recent approaches and assumptions taken by theorists in analysing the contemporary city as a global postmodern "space of flows" and the resultant problematic of privileging, in this vision, what I have called 'a scopic regime of disappearance' tout court. The importance of the scopic regime of disappearance as an exemplification of the postmodern discourse of city representation - as is operant in the Baudrillardian metaphor of "simulation" manifest in the writings of the three travel writers on Singapore - will be explicated. The critical limitation and influence of metaphorical tropes such as Baudrillard's 'simulacra and simulation' employed by the travel writers to describe Singapore's urban development as a hyperreal themepark in negative and denunciatory terms will be discussed in the context of travel writing and a scopic regime of disappearance in Chapter Two. This scopic regime of disappearance is tempting but tenuous if it does not take into account the 'scopic regime of appearance' which is, I would argue, manifest in the representations and rhetoric of contemporary Singapore's urban planning discourses. An argument for the latter will provide me with the sine qua non for my subsequent analysis of Singapore's urban development representations and its policy discourses. I will militate against a postmodern aesthetics and poetics of space that does not match an ironic appraisal of the urban text with a corresponding critical appreciation of the state's political project committed to the construction of a 'stable meaning of place'.

In the final Chapter, I will anchor my argument for a critical engagement with the on-going production of urban space in Singapore. The state's spatial representations and policies of Singapore's public housing programme and proposed Concept Plan for future urban developments will be examined with a particular interest in foregrounding the political assumptions and social implications of those same policies and plans. Of particular interest will be an examination of how "(t)his modern state promotes and imposes itself as the stable centre - definitely - of (national) societies and spaces" (Lefebvre 1991: 23), while at the same time confronting the challenges of providing a qualitatively stimulating urban environment for an increasingly demanding citizenry, as the building-block for sustaining its "imagined community" (Anderson, 1983) of a multiracial Singaporean national identity. As Lefebvre (1991: 143) puts it, space is produced "in order to be lived by bodies and lives in their own particular urban context". The affective (memory) and asset (material) investment made between the space of place (that of 'Home') and collective identity (that of a 'Singaporean nationhood') at stake in Singapore is an ambitious yet ambivalent and on-going one. Its significance demands that the spatial project of modernity in the Singapore city-state be critically engaged with as a dialectical process of nation-building, whose ideological work, like the allegorical analogue of a second-hand ticking away on a clock-face, races for an illusory completion by projecting, willy nilly, its interminable moment of arrival into the Next Lap [8] of a utopic post-modernity.


1. Aristotle's doctrine of place, adopts the topistic assumption that people (contents) can be separated from places (containers). Such a doctrine is implict in the policy of urban resettlement and renewal like Singapore's, for it "supports the idea that people can be moved without any harm to their experience, and it assumes that the qualities of their lives may be improved by giving them new containers anywhere" (see Walter, 1988: 205). See also Lefebvre's (1991: 152) critique of the complicity between economic goals and political rationalism as instruments for the violation of an existing space.

2. Zygmunt Bauman (1991: 69) describes nation-building as "that specifically modern variety of the task of constructing collective identity which every human grouping confronts". Johnston (1994: 118) provides us with an insight into the link between nationalism and territory when he argues that "(e)ven if nationalism per se is a 19th century creation, however, its roots in the links between cultural identity and place are much more deeply sedimented in time."

3. The Swiss Free Cities which developed between the ninth and sixteenth centuries were made up of Basel, Bern, Fribourg, Lucerne, Schafhausen, Solothurn, Zurich and Geneva. These city-states have been equated with the modern city-state in that each Swiss Free City was characterised by a central walled urban core, economic self-sufficiency (some with control over a hinterland), political independence and a citizenship predicated on wealth. See Yong (1992).

4. Singapore's Minister for Information and the Arts BG (NS) George Yeo (1993) has argued that "Singapore is, in a sense, a weak state but a strong city" because of its lack of a hinterland, natural resources and vulnerability to the vicissitudes of global trade. Nevertheless, I would want to argue that it is precisely because of the political consolidation of a strong state in lieu of the aforementioned vulnerabilities, that guarantees, underpins and upholds the economic stability and territorial sovereignty of Singapore as a strong global city. See Lefebvre (1991: 278-82) for a historical dialectic of state, sovereignty and space.

5. Lefebvre (1991: 112) makes a similar suggestion in a different way when he argued that any question about the nation should not "leave space out of the picture."

6. Mark Gibson's (1994) discussion of the relevance of 'Western theory' in the Eastern context of Japan and call for "a greater understanding of Asian cultures", is useful in informing the outline of the present work here.

7. Jeff Lewis (1994: 26) contends that "sorts of analyses, which attempt to deconstruct Orientalist stereotypes and attitudes, might usefully be called De-Orientalism."

8. Singapore is constantly constructed as being involved in an endless race or competition by its political leaders. Singapore: The Next Lap (1991) is actually the title of a government publication which draws inspiration from Prime Minister Goh's speech at his swearing-in-ceremony on 28 November 1990: "The torch has passed from one generation of runners to the next. But the race continues...I therefore call my fellow citizens to join me, to run the next lap together". The temporalized and spatialized metaphor of the 'next lap' projects a serialised sense of imaginary space in the designated place of a unilineal future.

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