Singapore residents angered by development plan

Koh Gui Qing
International Herald Tribune
19 Jul 07

With their white-washed walls and black timber frames, the “Black and White” bungalows in Singapore are the most distinctive architectural remnants of the city-state’s colonial history.

Built mostly between 1890 and 1950, the bungalows have broad verandahs, stucco columns, high ceilings, tall shutter windows and wide, overhanging eaves to keep out the tropical heat.

Black and Whites are among the most sought-after housing in Singapore, and soon they will be even harder to get as the government plans to raze up to a third of the 500 to 700 remaining bungalows to make way for an industrial park.

“Singapore has very little to conserve in terms of heritage. It’s really unfortunate that they are going to demolish them,” Uma Maheswaran Cheyyar Ramanathan, a visiting fellow at the architecture department at the National University of Singapore, said.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority estimates there are about 500 state-owned Black and Whites while the Singapore Land Authority estimates there are 700. A handful are also privately owned.

The grandest Black and Whites are in the prime districts. With rents of about S$20,000, or US$13,000, per month they typically house ambassadors or other highly paid expatriates.

But around Seletar Camp, a former British air base in out-of-the-way northern Singapore, a few hundred Black and White bungalows are occupied mainly by Singaporeans and rented out at about $3000 per month.

Seletar Camp, where many streets have London names like Oxford Street and Hyde Park Gate, is a unique part of the architectural history of Singapore, and its village-style living provides a rare oasis of tranquillity in the frenetic city-state.

But not for much longer.

JTC, the state-owned landlord, plans to knock down 174 of the 378 bungalows around Seletar to make way for an industrial park that for aerospace companies.

Seletar residents are bemoaning the imminent loss of their charming houses and spacious gardens amid towering old trees, so different from the government-built housing blocks in which more than 80 percent of Singaporeans live.

“Singapore is now so crowded, we are not going to get this kind of space anywhere else,” Manonmani James, 85, who has to vacate her bungalow by the end of 2008, said.

Residents say the government plan will destroy the close-knit community in Seletar, where residents leave front gates unlocked and allow their children to roam freely in the overgrown gardens.

But they rule out any protest.

“What are you going to do? The government will stamp out the fire before it can even start,” one resident said.

JTC said the new complex would create 10,000 jobs and expand the Singaporean aerospace sector by an estimated $3.3 billion when it is completed in 2018.

“We share the residents’ and public’s desire to retain as much of the architectural heritage and the environmental charm of Seletar as possible,” JTC said in an e-mailed reply to questions.

It said that 204 bungalows would be spared and that “great effort was spent to balance economic and infrastructural space needs with the preservation of the architectural and environmental heritage.”

Razing landmarks to make way for development is common practice in Singapore, which has a population of 4.5 million on an area of about 700 square kilometers, or 270 square miles.

Although Singapore has preserved more of its colonial heritage than Hong Kong, critics say that too much has been lost, and that the city-state keeps destroying valuable buildings.

The latest example is a plan to raze all but the facade of a 95-year-old Neo-Renaissance-style bungalow in eastern Singapore.

The facade and porch will front a new, gleaming condominium – an awkward mix that has led some to call the proposed block a “Frankenstein building.”

“I don’t know whether sometimes we are modernizing too fast,” said Chan Yew Lih, an associate professor from the architecture department at the National University of Singapore. “A building reflects our country’s development. By retaining old buildings, you retain the memory of the place.”

Many have urged the Singapore government to be more conservation conscious.

“The sense of home and of belonging grows best from the chemistry of old and new, past and future,” a Singapore academic and long-time Seletar resident, Simon Tay, wrote