Guest essay by Joanne Leow
Supertrees, green spaces and urban development: strange yet compelling connections between the impending demolition of Bukit Brown and the public relations blitz accompanying the opening of the new Gardens by the Bay, with their $1 billion Supertrees and cooled conservatories. One space has been made significant by a spontaneous, communal outpouring, newly cognizant of both its historical and environmental specificity – the other has been planned by the government, designed by a British firm and built by (exploited) foreign labour on land that has been reclaimed from the sea. The latter also dramatically alters the urban landscape of the city – hoping to capitalize on the “nature” that must act as what the Straits Times argues is “an inspired decision” [Footnote 1] to include “green breaks” in Singapore’s frenetic development. The Prime Minister has called the decision to provide this park space for the downtown area a “difficult one” given the land values and “the opportunity cost of using the premium land around Marina Bay.”
As a visionary combination of environmental science, architecture and landscaping, it’s true that the Gardens by the Bay have to be heralded a feat of engineering and planning. However, I’d argue that euphoria about a new “green” space in the city aside, it’s important to cast a skeptical and reflective look at the significance of these new Gardens. This is especially so given the recent public outcry over the exhumation of graves in Bukit Brown, and the imminent destruction of real-life Supertrees and other forms of local flora and fauna in order to construct a new highway.
I think it’s important to scrutinize some of the implications of the construction of the Gardens by the Bay and understand the space as ultimately an imposed, artificial construct of nature and history that is in line with the marketing of Singapore as a globalized tourist destination while simultaneously acting as a kind of psychological safety valve for an increasingly urbanized population. I think that it is crucial that we examine the human, environmental and social costs that may be obscured in the celebratory, self-congratulatory haze of the Gardens’ launch.
History of botanic gardens
Perhaps it would be useful here to first consider the history of botanic gardens in the context of Empire and colonialism. Many scholars like Richard Drayton and Lucile H. Brockway have made extensive studies of how British colonial power in particular was inherently linked to and manifested in the botanic gardens in the empire. These gardens were spaces where colonialists attempted to assert their authority over the nature of other countries, returning from the colonies with samples that had to be classified and categorized. In particular, Brockway considers how a “worldwide network” of these gardens “contributed significantly to the colonial expansion of the West through active participation in the transfer of protected plants and their scientific development as plantation crops for the tropical colonies of the mother country.” [Footnote 2]. A more general observation that may be made: botanic gardens are spaces where the colonial authorities attempted to assert their power over nature itself, to master it – both in terms of knowledge but also spatially, as it is contained in fixed, manicured environment.
How might this be relevant to the new Gardens by the Bay? Consider how there are 225,000 species of plants in the new Gardens, the vast majority of which were chosen because they were “not commonly found in Singapore.” In essence, the Gardens represent an attempt to mimic globalization in the specific geographical location of Singapore as it strives, above all else, to be a hub of transnational capital and investments. What exactly were the costs in terms of the carbon footprint to carefully ship all these plants to Singapore? Further, like colonial botanic gardens of old, the Gardens are a vision of governmental mastery over nature, dictated by planners, scientists, botanists and capital. They are experimental spaces for technology and environment modification, and attempts to combat the equatorial climate of Singapore.
And even more significantly, the new Gardens’ attempt to exercise power through knowledge extends directly into the realms of race and culture. Indeed, the racial categorizations that were produced and reinforced during Singapore’s early colonial history and racially divided urban landscape re-inscribed spatially and culturally in the Gardens. Ostensibly a means of learning about history through the different plant species, the Malay Garden, the Indian Garden and the Chinese Garden reinforce disturbing racial and cultural stereotypes. For example, the Malay Garden seeks to emphasize the myth of an essentialist and traditionalist culture situated in a “kampong” or village. This is in contrast to the Chinese Garden that seems to reflect a more sophisticated culture, as its garden is a place of “inspiration for writers, poets and artists, through seclusion and tranquility.” Even more telling is the Colonial Garden that sees only the plants themselves as “Engines of Empires” – the “lucrative crops, spices and plants that formed important trade routes between the East and the West.” At the very least, these seem to be idealized and stereotypical versions of history – omitting not least any mention of the colonized labour that enabled much of the harvesting and processing of raw materials from these plants, and how the colonies were in fact exploited for the wealth of the metropole.
Social justice and environmental impact
These omissions seem less grave when we consider how the larger human and environmental costs of the project might be obscured as well. We might do well to reflect on who exactly was doing the heavy lifting in the transformation of site that did not have roads, drains, sewers or electricity. In a 30 June 2012 Straits Times article, the chief executive of the Gardens, Dr. Tan Wee Kiat reveals that of the $1 billion spent on the gardens, 80 percent went to the infrastructure works while the 700,000 plants were less than 20 percent of the budget. While we might assume that some of the money that went infrastructure went into labour, I would argue that this is optimistic at best. Consider another article: “Injured worker goes home, loses 13 kg in 7 months” [Footnote 3] this time by the organization Transient Workers Count Too, dated April 2012. This article chronicles the misfortunes of Asad who was injured while commuting to the work site at Gardens by the Bay. His painful injuries aside, Asad’s revelations of his working conditions makes us question the sustainability and humanity of relying and exploiting foreign labour. According to the article, Asad worked 24 hours every other day in May and April 2011 for $1,600 a month. What exactly were the working conditions for the 1,000 workers then, who were reportedly working “around the clock” to ensure that the Gardens could have their official opening without a hitch? What kinds of human costs are justified here?
Another hidden cost is the environmental one – the Gardens project is a spectacularly green one – in the sense that it has created a spectacle (in the Guy deBord sense) of nature itself. The Supertrees also have what is said to be an amazing light show, literally nature as entertainment. However, while green spaces like Bukit Brown and the Bukit Timah Reserve act as the literal lungs of the island, cooling and purifying the atmosphere – could the same be said for the Gardens? According to the press releases, NParks commissioned an energy modeling study to “ascertain the environmentally sensitive energy requirements of the conservatories” which showed that “the energy consumption for the conservatories is comparable to that of an average commercial building in Singapore of the same footprint and height, normalized to a 24-hour cooling period.” So at least where the conservatories are concerned, we might see them as a net loss for the environment, since they are consuming energy much as they would if they were ordinary commercial buildings [Footnote 4]. But an examination of a diagram that shows how the “cycle” of the Gardens works also raises questions about where the heat expelled by the cooled conservatories is going to as it seems that it is just being released into the atmosphere:
(Above diagram can be enlarged by clicking on it)
Globalization and the manufacturing of a Tropical City
One other aspect of the Gardens that I found strangely fascinating and a little off-putting was the intense obsession with creating other worlds and other globalized spaces in Singapore. What are the cooled conservatories if not versions of indoor air-conditioned bubbles that we have become so accustomed to? And why was the masterplan of the gardens inspired by the Valley of the Giants in south-west Australia? What does that have to do with Singapore as a specific space and locality? Would it have made a difference if more Singaporeans had been involved in the aesthetic direction of the initial planning stages? Does a UK-based team really have the local knowledge and feel to create something that is unmistakably Singaporean as opposed to an idea of what a tropical garden should be? If these Gardens are supposed to fundamentally change Singaporeans’ relationship to the downtown core and the newly reclaimed bayfront area, what kinds of artificially induced expectations are they creating? In other words, will we become inured to unadorned natural sites and instead always hoping to always be “wowed” (in the words of the Gardens’ Dr. Tan). In a country that refuses to slow down, will we now extend that momentum to nature itself, expecting instant Supertrees made from concrete and steel instead of appreciating the reality of the old trees that we do have?
I’m optimistic that many Singaporeans can see past the light shows, exotic plants and dramatic architecture. I’m hoping that the outpouring of genuine emotion and engagement that we witnessed when faced with the irrevocable alteration of Bukit Brown is the start of a new relationship with the spaces of our island. We need, in fact, to create and live in spaces that are conscious of our immediate geographical and ecological contexts – finding solutions that don’t need extreme recalibrations of environments or an overuse of resources (human and otherwise). Any development that requires learning how to live in our tropical spaces means claiming them from the bottom up, understanding the value of slowing down and being aware of the human and environmental costs of development. Consider also how the high cost of admission fees to the cooled conservatories and the OCBC Skyway, and the park’s location in the expensive downtown area mean that this space is a fundamentally discriminatory one. Further as the Skyway’s corporate branding suggests, the Gardens risks becoming more of a private business venture, albeit one heavily subsidized with taxpayers’ money, than a public commons.
One of the UK-based designers responsible for Gardens on the Bay had a memorable quip in the promotional video, saying “On a plate, this is what Singapore is about.” While I am not against Singapore becoming a more cosmopolitan and diverse place, we need to ask some hard questions as well: Do we need to be served up on “a plate”? Who defines and decides “what Singapore is about”? Is it a breathlessly instant garden, planned to exploit the tourist market, built on occasionally shaky reclaimed land without much regard to the foreign labourers’ welfare or the decadence of spending hundreds and thousands of dollars on importing plants from all over the world? When we are simplified and contained “on a plate”, what other stories and issues are obscured from this self-presentation? Could we have a more honest and fair spatial relationship with this land that we call our home?
1. “Editorial: Gardens an inspired decision.” The Straits Times. 3 July 2012
2. Brockway, Lucille. “Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens.” American Ethnologist, 6.3 (1979): 449.
4. Tellingly, the Gardens has refused to divulge the cooling costs of the conservatories, but it does estimate that the site will require $50 million a year to be maintain it. See Cheong, Suk-Wai “No walk in the park. Escalating costs fuelled by building frenzy dogged Gardens by the Bay.” The Straits Times. 30 Jun 2012