Singapore’s infrastructure creaks

Joe Cochrane
The Diplomat

It was a scene that’s a common enough sight on any New York City subway platform.

A tardy office worker attempted to squeeze into an overpacked train carriage during the morning rush hour, but the doors closed in her face. In frustration, she banged her fist on the train’s windows as it pulled away.

Such behaviour wouldn’t draw a second look in New York or even London. But in this case it did turn heads because it occurred in Singapore, the socially conservative ‘nanny state,’ where public displays of anger simply aren’t the done thing.

According to one expatriate journalist who lives here and witnessed the incident on the MRT platform, the irate female office worker and her sore hand are symbolic of a growing reality in uber-modern and efficient Singapore: the city state’s infrastructure is under stress and beginning to crack at the seams.

Consider June 16, when unusually heavy rains actually caused flooding on the upscale Orchard Road, one of the most famous shopping streets in Asia. Singapore officials had to endure the embarrassment of keeping sand bags on the sidewalks in certain locations for weeks afterwards, given the unseasonably heavy rains at that time.

And the concern is about much more than just ensuring access to Gucci bags and Clinique cosmetics. Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper reported on Wednesday that the country’s expressways are now seeing 100 traffic mishaps a day, a 40 percent increase from just three years ago. The increase is blamed on a 10.3 percent increase in vehicles, according to the report.

This simply won’t do for a model modern city that’s also a global financial hub and attracts more than 11 million visitors a year. But what can be done? Singapore is an island, and even though the country has carried out successful land reclamation projects, it doesn’t have infinite space to grow, lest it bump into Malaysia or Indonesia.

It might just come down to population control. Last February, the Singapore government announced measures aimed at reducing the number of foreign workers.

‘There are social and physical limits to how many more (foreign workers) we can absorb,’ Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said at the time.

But Singapore’s native population is also growing at three percent, and things like public transportation, housing, roads and other public services will have to grow along with them. Given the massive sea of people milling around Orchard Road last Sunday—early Christmas shoppers, Western tourists, Filipino domestic workers on their day off—the number of potential fist-slammers will only grow.

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