Model city S’pore shows symptoms of urban stress

Philip Lim


Flash floods along posh Orchard Road. Packed subway trains. Traffic gridlock in the morning and evening rush hours. Intensifying competition for public flats.

What happened to squeaky-clean, smooth-flowing Singapore?

Widely acclaimed as one of the world’s most “liveable” cities, Singapore is now experiencing urban growth woes as it moves to expand its population to 6.5 million in 20 years, up 30 percent from the current level of five million.

The target was first cited in 2007 as an optimal population size for long-term economic competitiveness, but strains are already beginning to show as more immigrants and guest workers jostle for space with the locals.

Not to mention an invasion of tourists, with arrivals surpassing the one million mark in a single month for the first time in July, thanks to two new massive casino resorts that opened a few months ago.

Singapore, one of the world’s richest cities, has a land area of just 710 square kilometres (274 square miles) but until recent years, it had avoided the congested feeling of places like Hong Kong and Tokyo.

“It’s crowded, very crowded,” commuter Anthony Chua, a 47-year-old accountant, said after getting off a train near the banking district.

Despite increased train frequency during peak demand periods, Chua felt trains were more cramped than before.

“There’s a certain level of frustration but I suppose we learn to accept it,” he added.

The government was left red-faced in June and July after an unprecedented three flash floods inundated houses, drowned cars and damaged shops, with insurers estimating 23 million Singapore dollars (17 million US) in claims.

The Public Utilities Board attributed the freak floods to regional squalls and clogged drainage, but questions remained over whether Singapore was equipped to handle the side effects of rapid urbanization.

The city-state’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, shocked many when he said occasional floods were inevitable in constantly rain-drenched Singapore because it could not afford to convert roads into canals.

Insurance companies subsequently said premiums might be raised in flood-prone areas including the shopping belt around Orchard Road.

But the floods formed just part of Singaporeans’ urban gripes.

Traffic has slowed amid an explosion in car ownership even though Singapore is one of the costliest places in the world to own a vehicle due to high taxes and quotas.

As of July, there were 936,311 vehicles plying the roads of Singapore, with cars accounting for 61.5 percent of the total, compared to 755,000 vehicles just five years ago.

The Land Transport Authority said daily journeys on private vehicles and public transport were expected to increase by 60 percent from the current 8.9 million to 14.3 million by 2020.

Demand for homes in Singapore’s public housing blocks, where 80 percent of the population reside, is also straining supply.

National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan said there was an “imbalance” in supply and demand in July, with many first-time flat-buyers such as newlywed couples unable to find affordable homes.

Resale prices of four- and five-room flats, the most popular among Singaporeans, ranged from 331,500 to 682,500 Singapore dollars (243,190 to 500,773 US) in the second quarter.

Foreigners who enjoy permanent residency and are eligible to purchase public housing totalled 533,000 in 2009, a 37.8 percent increase from 2005.

Singapore’s total population numbered 4.99 million last year, a 17 percent increase from 2005, according to the latest government data.

Urban expert Seetharam Kallidaikurichi said Singaporeans should be prepared to pay more for public services if they expect the government to meet their expectations.

“It’s like you live in a five-star hotel. What happens? You just check in, you get your bed ready, new linen given to you, you come down, breakfast is served for you… (but) you pay for it,” said the professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority, the agency in charge of city planning, said it was devising new methods of maximising Singapore’s land space.

They include utilising underground space, building new commercial hubs away from the city centre and doubling the train network.

“As Singapore is a small city-state with limited land resources, the scarcity of land has been and will continue to be a challenge we face,” it said in reply to queries from AFP.

“The challenge of balancing growth with liveability is not an easy one, but we are confident that this can be done for Singapore.” it said.

Kallidaikurichi said Singapore was still leagues ahead of many other cities in terms of living conditions, and particularly praised the emphasis on greening the dense landscape.

“Many other cities including the big cities in the US and others, they have ended up as concrete jungles because they put so much roads and buildings and so on that they forgot about real life in terms of living,” he said.