Protecting our Commons

The Online Citizen
Nov 16, 2011

Protecting our Commons
by: William S.W. Lim and Faith Wong

The impassioned public response to the LTA’s announcement that a road will be built through Bukit Brown cemetery can be viewed through the prism of the larger issue of Singapore’s dwindling pockets of active public space – the accessible, shared spaces for citizens traditionally known as the Commons. (This does not refer to the pseudo public realms of shopping malls, theme parks and golf greens, which are highly regulated and monitored.)

Voices of dissent to recent development plans have been increasing in volume. This is partly due to the fact that social media has provided an effective platform for mobilising public sentiment and partly due to growing demand among Singaporeans for open engagement and participation in policy-making. Examples are the campaigns to save the Bukit Brown Cemetery, the Rail Corridor, the Old School at Mount Sophia and numerous other instances involving national issues of land scarcity and urban transport.

Case 1: Bukit Brown Cemetery (BBC)

There is no need to further espouse the historical value of the cemetery to the nation’s culture and identity and its importance for collective memories. These issues have been highlighted by the Heritage Society and Nature Society, as well as in myriad letters from the public. One only wonders whether this is enough to rouse the nation from its familiar apathy towards the government’s pro-developmental strategies that often throw the nation’s heritage under the bus.

The eventual development of the cemetery land may have been publicised in the 1991 Concept Plan but one should recognise that concept plans only serve as a guide. If present conditions make some developments unsuitable, it makes no sense to carry them through. Plans regarding the physical environment should not be cast in stone but should be a flexible incomplete urban framework that is able to adapt to unforeseen changes and accept new conceptual ideas in the contingent urban environment. Also, in the race to beat the 2013 deadline, the frenzy of calling for volunteers to document the graves has conveniently blanketed the fact that this decision was thrust upon us. Open active public discourse would facilitate a transparent participatory process that will build trust in governance.

The recent proposal to digitise the cemetery involves a dystopian concept where real urban experiences are simulated in hyper-reality. This future where history and urban space is a matter of a click of the mouse is a horrific thought. We really are in trouble if this becomes the preferred solution to our urban contestations. We support the letter to Today by Mr Liew Kai Khiun, ‘Golf courses, not history, should make way’. A golf course is about 80-100 hectares, easily the size of a BBC (86 hectares) or Singapore Botanic Gardens (74 hectares). It is a spatial injustice when so many golf courses take up a large amount of land while servicing only the privileged few.

Case 2: Vibrant Rail Corridor

In contrast, the government’s ready engagement of the public regarding the fate of the KTM railway land should be applauded. The various design schemes and ideas proffered in the consultative process provide a clear directive towards any potential development, that is, to keep the 26km tract as a public green to be defended from acquisition for commercial use. The Rail Corridor is an unprecedented historical opportunity to provide wonderful experiences to all income and age groups, whether as a leisure and recreation site or a venue for art and cultural activities. A vibrant people-oriented corridor will generate a strong and unique image of our physical identity. It can become an iconic place with a long and complex history that all Singaporeans can be proud of.

The Myths of Land Scarcity and Urban Transport

‘Land scarcity’ and ‘transport needs’ are often used as the rationale for development. We require more imaginative solutions to these needs, for the day will arrive when we will have finally run out of land. We need to stabilise our population between 5 and 5.5 million, minimise our carbon footprint and work towards achieving environmentally sustainable lifestyles. It is critical that we change this singular mindset of “destroy-and-rebuild” that the nation has perfected into a treacherous art form.

How many roads do we need to achieve maximum flow of vehicular traffic? Infinite! New and/or bigger roads would only induce demand for more roads, a common illusion with automobile-oriented cities. In an age concerned with the carbon footprint, this car obsession is a great obstacle to achieving a sustainable city. Public transport remains the most effective, affordable and reliable way to move people for long distances. Cycling and walking are important complementary alternatives that are seriously under-explored here. There must be a “reset” in urban design towards a people-oriented integrated transportation network capable of meeting the needs of the majority of citizens.

The Save Old School (SOS) campaign began as an effort to save an alma mater but really concerns the land use and development of the Mount Sophia site, an area that is in the process of being transformed into a high-end residential district. This is yet another contestation that foreshadows the insidious losing of our Commons. It is not about deciding which buildings are more deserving of conservation but whether any building should be torn down for redevelopment at all, versus say refurbishment and retrofitting. For BBC, it is not how the graves should be researched or archived, but whether the site should be preserved and improved as a memorable public space. These urban contestations form part of the fight to protect the Commons. One should not mistake these efforts as reserved only for sentimental conservation buffs and idealistic dreamers; they are matters that concern us all.

WILLIAM S.W. LIM is an independent writer and urban theorist.
FAITH WONG majors in architecture, and is currently Lim’s researcher.