On the ground, strangely depopulated

With a general election on the way, I spent the weekend snapping — and I mean snapping, not bothering much to compose for line and light — photos I may find useful for blogging purposes. The plan was to visit a fair selection of constituencies to build up a collection of stock photos.

The first difficulty was the travelling time involved. Perhaps I was too ambitious in wanting to get to as many places as possible. However, since I had no deadlines to meet, it didn’t matter that much. At worst, I’d have to devote another weekend making more trips.

The greater difficulty was that one part of our “heartlands”  looks very much like any other part, thanks to the massive role played by the Housing and Development Board in building satellite towns. After spending an hour on the train from Bukit Batok, one arrives at Tampines only to find it looks no different.

I need local colour, I tell myself. But everywhere I look, it was generalised bland.

I reckon I should feel vindicated. One of my arguments for proportional representation is that Singapore is too homogenous. Our unvarying physical appearance is a good indicator of demographic uniformity. . . . but I shan’t go there in this article.

The biggest headache over the photography weekend was: Where is the demos (in the Greek sense)? Where are the people that characterise the land?

The above picture, for example, is quite typical. Inhabitants are stacked 15 layers high and yet there is nobody on the ground. I waited five minutes (the most I could spare) for some life to appear. A few cars drove past, but no one was seen walking. The Singapore of that picture looks like it has been hit by a neutron bomb.

Why aren’t there men kicking a ball around on the field? Why aren’t there boys joy-riding their bikes? Where are the little girls playing hop-scotch or zipping around on their foot scooters?

It’s the same from one suburb to the next.

We tend to think of Singapore as overcrowded. For goodness sakes, we have a population density in excess of 20,000 people per square kilometre in our built-up areas, many would exclaim. But over the Saturday and Sunday, I walked kilometres randomly weaving in and out among void decks and along minor roads between blocks. I didn’t see many people; and if you ignore the constant hum of airconditioners and the distant traffic, it’s relatively quiet.

In a way, it’s a bad sign. We know there are people, but they must be cooped up in their homes playing computer games or watching mind-numbing movies. The sedentary lifestyle has its effects: obesity, as we know, is on a steady upward curve. Another bad sign:  few know their neighbours and sense of community is weak. Simply because socialising does not exist. I’m not sure what to make of the ruling party members of parliaments’ claims that ethnic integration is progressing well when I don’t see any integration, ethnic or any other kind.

So why do people feel crowded upon? Because we all go to the same few places: shopping centres. We don’t wander aimlessly among void decks. We pack into trains and head directly for airconditioned shopping malls like tens of thousands of others. But I’ll come back to them later.

* * * * *

Both afternoons, it rained. It made my mission harder, becoming more difficult to get from one place to another and washing out whatever potential pictures of “typical scenes of constituencies” there might have been.

On the other hand, it also showed up something else: we’ve got a long way more to go to truly connect up our buildings with sheltered walkways. With our climate that is either baking or drenching, this is an important consideration if we’re ever to encourage walking. Undeniably, over the years, we’ve done a lot of retrofitting, but most times, the connections are meant to lead to bus stops, which then means people are funnelled into carbon-emitting modes of transport. And then we complain the buses are too crowded.

What is needed is a more comprehensive plan to allow people to walk up to a kilometre from train nodes under shelter. Encourage people to walk from their homes to town centres rather than take buses; it’s healthier and greener.

* * * * *

Shopping malls were like a world apart. The noise, the muzak, the human load! With half the population from all those flats packing into these commercial boxes, it’s hardly any wonder we complain Singapore’s too crowded. Other than the computer, the shopping mall is Singaporeans’ chief form of entertainment, offering scope for consumerism (shopping) and nutritional self-destruction (eating), all achieved with no loss of anonymity, despite being elbow to elbow with others.

But let me not knock shopping centres. I had use for them myself, not to take pictures, but when I needed clean toilets. Others, like quite a few elderly people I saw, were probably there to enjoy the free airconditioning for an afternoon, the outside being warm and muggy — though having nowhere to sit (as is often the case in many places) was a constraint.

The attraction of airconditioning was obvious at dinner time. Inside Compass Point shopping centre in Sengkang, the food court was jammed with people and in front of almost every restaurant, there was a queue for tables. But just across the road, another food court, without airconditioning, had plenty of vacant seats. The outside tables, as we you can see, are half occupied, but inside where it was warmer and noticeably stuffier, less than 5 percent of the seats were taken.

However, cast your eyes to the mid-ground. The field is empty again. It’s the same neutron bomb look.

* * * * *

So, is Singapore too crowded? Many people, especially those with eyes glazed over by anti-government sentiment, would roar “Yes!”. The reality is a lot more complex, with two important angles.

The first is that geography is not two-dimensional, but four-dimensional. We have a habit of seeing urban layout as two-dimensional, like on a map. In actual fact we inhabit three-dimensional space, like all those people in the 15 floors of flats, never interacting with each other being on separate layers and leaving the ground devoid of human life. Even in a shopping centre, humans are distributed on multiple floors. If we collapsed them onto the same floor, the density would be such that we might not have space to move, but by expanding two-dimensional shopping streets into three-dimensional mega-buildings, we have created room to shop and eat and otherwise kill ourselves and our planet with our “modern lifestyle”.

There is the fourth dimension: time. Different spaces fill up and empty out at different times. Even shopping centres are never always filled with people. For about 10 –  12 hours a day, they look like they too have been hit by neutron bombs. Ditto with homes, schools and offices.

The second is the way we channel people into pathways, nodes and time segments. There, things get crowded. Elsewhere, fields lie fallow and playgrounds beg for children. But channelling has economic value. By increasing usage of selected, built-up or serviced areas, we increase the efficiency and return of those areas. If we’re going to expend resources airconditioning a space or running a train back and forth along a track, it makes sense to ensure that these spaces and vehicles are constantly used.

That in turn creates the subjectivity in us. Since we ourselves tend to be within those nodes, pathways and time segments as everybody else, then almost every minute of the day, we find ourselves sharing the same spaces with strangers. It’s crowded, we say. Partly, it’s the way our physical economy is designed, but partly too, it lies in the choices we make. Why was the food court opposite Compass Point four-fifths empty? Why is the field never trod upon?

15 Responses to “On the ground, strangely depopulated”

  1. 1 sgcynic 8 March 2011 at 21:11

    May I propose a fifth (social) dimension?
    Put one in a room full of friends, say at a party. Chances are the person will not feel the “crowd” or at least not discomfited by it. Put him in a room full of strangers and he may feel cooped up. This is a city where the population increased by hundreds of thousands of foreigners in the span of a few years, so much so that one at times feels like in a foreign land due to the unfamiliar faces and accent, be it at the workplace, foodcourt, public transport. Perhaps that’s why people perceived this city is crowed?

  2. 3 prettyplace 8 March 2011 at 22:19

    You are not wrong. Good article.
    I like the part where you have highlighted that it’s all homogenous.
    A few friends from KL came over a few years back and said they get lost driving because all the buildings look alike.

    We need more colour. That way we can diffrentiate ourseleves and estates. Geographical boundaries can be used to pit in sports as well.

  3. 4 Ponder Stibbons 8 March 2011 at 22:29

    I completely agree that Singapore has a long way to go towards walkability. This is largely due to the choice to pursue a modernist take on urban planning. Among the characteristics of modernist urban planning:
    1. Long blocks, infrequent intersections. Cities like Paris and New York City are very walkable because they have short blocks with frequent road intersections that make it easy for people to cross the roads and also slow down traffic. One study has shown that intersection density is one of the most important factors in increasing walking.
    2. Monotonous scenery. HDBs everywhere look the same, and on a single stretch of road you are unlikely to see much architectural variation (outside of historic neighborhoods like Tiong Bahru). Combined with 1., this makes walking in Singapore extremely boring. Again, Paris and NYC, and many other cities that grew more organically and preserved a wider variety of buildings, provide more interesting walking experiences.
    3. Traffic planning that explicitly favours high speed motor traffic. This includes wide streets and long waits to cross roads at intersections (pedestrian crossings slow down traffic). This makes walking unpleasant.

    Jane Jacobs, whose book The Death and Life of Great American Cities is precisely about how to create neighborhoods in which there is a vibrant street life and people want to walk, is the standard reference for urban planners today who want to create walkable neighborhoods. All the points I mention above are the opposite of what she recommends. OTOH, somewhere like Little India does meet her desiderata and, no surprise, it’s also one of the neighborhoods with a vibrant street life.

  4. 5 Lee Chee Wai 9 March 2011 at 04:05

    Walking and cycling. In Eugene, Oregon, USA where I live now, just about everywhere and anytime, rain or shine, cold or hot – people take the opportunity to enjoy the day out: jog, bring their pets out and ride a bike. And if the weather’s really nice, have a picnic at some random field or patch of grass somewhere (does not have to be a designated park).

    Let me offer some thoughts: Singapore has killed the little joys in people through the paranoia of impending chaos and the obsession with the doctrine of preemption. Pedestrians and cyclists clash often on sidewalks? There are many alternative programs that can help: widen sidewalks, build larger bike trails, educate people about shared bike/pedestrian etiquette that will help avoid accidents. What did we do? Ban bikes from being ridden on sidewalks and make them go on designated bike paths and the road … just great. Now, people cannot even take a short swing around the neighborhood without getting hauled to the police.

    Here in Eugene, the number of people who are poor, jobless, homeless, and do drugs are significant. Yet, people do not need laws to remind them to pick up after their pets’ poop (yes, the homeless here have pets) nor clean up after their trash. The public buses and Amtrak (private) trains are gum-less without a law to ban chewing gum. The streets are relatively clean (not pristine) without an army of cleaners who work all night to clean up after people. So, what gives? Is Singapore society wrong about its paranoia? Or are Oregonians just all that much better human beings than Singaporeans could ever be? I had always been hard-pressed to believe the latter could be true, but recently I’m starting to fear that I might be proven wrong.

    Sorry about my rant. I hope it is coherent … I’ll admit to being rather emotional about it. I just get very cheesed-off when I see how Singapore “solves” simple problems like the above that should have made life all that much better but invariably do not.

    • 6 Gard 9 March 2011 at 12:54

      In Singapore, planning is usually made years years ago. The housing estates are not conceived and built overnight. The mindset of the society is not changed in a passage counted by months or years.

      Why was the food court opposite Compass Point four-fifths empty? Why is the field never trod upon? Is Singapore too crowded?

      Who are doing these planning and designing? Do they inhabit the same spaces as the target audience do? Does taking the MRT infrequently and knowing the statistics constitute ‘inhabiting’?

      Cause? Effect? Or correlation?

  5. 7 mjuse 9 March 2011 at 13:26

    the way our economy is structured may also affect land use. singapore’s economic model is predicated largely on foreign direct investment by large companies, MNCs mostly, as opposed to domestic small businesses. this leads to zoning of areas for centralized business use and industrial use.

    the traffic patterns seem to bear this out. a lot of traffic goes into the city in the day, and all of it heads out to the suburbs in the evening. singapore is like a handful of business districts (cbd, tuas etc) embedded within the bedroom communities that constitute our hdb towns and neighborhoods.

    and scattered within the residential communities are cookie cutter shopping malls to add a recreational “flavor”. it almost reminds me of the simplicity of urban planning in the game simcity where certain structures such as parks and malls have to be built to keep the citizens’ happiness level at an acceptable level.

  6. 8 market2garden 9 March 2011 at 14:37

    The Sixth Dimension -
    Language and cultural barriers – alienated even among the crowd.
    Even in the same district, same time, same space.

  7. 9 UnimpressedBudget 9 March 2011 at 14:39

    They should learn from Amsterdam on bicycle lanes and usage. However, that can only be wishful thinking on my part because I know far too well that the reasons they dont want it is because PAP wants you to take their public transport. They want $$$$$ pure and simple. Alternatives will divert their income.

  8. 10 Anecdote 10 March 2011 at 01:53

    I felt a bit sad reading this article. I think Singapore had and still has a lot of potential to cultivate a very distinctive identity in the region and in the world. Yet because of economic pragmatism, we succumbed to the easy way out: standardization with minimal flexibility. This prevails in the design of flats, content of shopping malls and in the spirit of heartland districts.

    And because we’re a place composed of many ethnicities, its a greater pity we cannot get more out of different perspectives towards urban planning and nurturing community spaces.

    Also as a small nation, we have the potential to enable walking to become a tangible part of regular life. I mean, if one found it difficult to get by through walking in a small country like Singapore, wouldn’t that mean that all modern humans cannot get around beyond a mile with their two feet?

    Of course, a very obvious factor for the relative lack of walking from Singaporeans is the pace of life that does not quite allow them to take their own sweet time to commute to school/work. School/work alone already squeezes a lot of time out of leisure. This issue of “walkability” alone deserves further attention.

    On a more personal note, a thought that struck me most was that in this article, it seems that social interaction of any form is expressed in a bad light. The key word was crowds. Crowds of people, foreigners, PRs and other locals. Besides family and friends, how does a Singaporean see other Singaporeans/people? A fellow brother/sister? A stranger? A competitor to compete for seats at the mall, MRT, and/or progress in life? Social interaction in Singapore feels…very antagonistic. It also makes one wonder how integration between old and new residents can be successful if existing residents themselves don’t quite gel along already.

    But there is hope. One thing that surprised me on the way home on the MRT was a toddler and his father. I’m not sure why but despite being in quite a packed train after a long day’s work, the playfulness of the two with the father trying to answer his phone while juggling with the kid who was making sounds and gestures was….endearing. I noticed that several people in the train carriage warmed up. Somehow, the fatigue of a day subsided.

    Granted, it wasn’t a screaming baby or a hysterical parent. But what I want to conclude from this is that the problem of “depopulation” requires social engineering of another possible kind: harnessing the inherent but reluctant nature of friendliness/ kindness in people to slowly imbue a growing sense of community. In this regard, ingenuity in urban planning can greatly facilitate and distribute the human flows across time and space to sustain such an aim.

    • 11 Ponder Stibbons 10 March 2011 at 04:46

      Given the unsatisfactory frequency of feeder buses and the like, I would argue that for many short trips you would actually save time by walking instead of taking the bus. Not to mention that feeder buses rarely take the shortest route to your destination. Many people take the bus because it’s more comfortable, not necessarily because it’s faster.

  9. 12 anon 10 March 2011 at 02:25

    Cyclists and cycling has never figured in any significant way in LTA’s plans. This is all too obvious. You need merely look around to know that.

    When you have problem accommodating motor vehicles it is impossible to think of cycling as a mode of transport. Here, cycling and cyclists belong in the parks and the network of park connectors.

    Seriously, it is mad to consider cycling as an important mode of transport given the weather, road conditions and the heavy motorized traffic of every imaginable sort, type and size. It makes sense to travel distances on trains, buses and cars. Going to work on a bicycle is indulging yourself for the sake of being different. Nothing wrong with cycling in the park for the exercise. Why risk your life and get motorists/drivers in trouble venturing into the roads because it is your ‘right’ to do so?
    What purpose does it served to be dead right?

    • 13 Ponder Stibbons 10 March 2011 at 04:44

      Actually, more and more cities in the developed world are promoting cycling as a means of transport because it is healthier, better for the environment, more space-efficient, less polluting, and cheaper. Traffic conditions can be changed by appropriate policies, and in fact many European cities went about systematically changing them in order to accommodate cycling. The commenter above was recommending that we should change traffic conditions, so your point about heavy traffic and road conditions is irrelevant — the entire point is that we should do something about traffic to make it more cyclist-friendly.

      Before claiming that Singapore’s weather is particularly bad for cycling, try biking in sub-zero weather yourself. I do that on a regular basis, and I’ve also commuted to work by bike in Singapore. I, at least, prefer biking in Sg’s climate to biking when it’s sub-zero. Yet that are many cities with cold weather that have a sizeable bike commuting population even in winter.

  10. 14 Jonno 18 March 2011 at 15:29

    The problem with this ‘depopulated’ Singapore is that Singapore residents (including PRs, foreigners – 50-60% of working population) are ‘time-poor’ and are creatures of habit. Among sleeping, commuting-to-work-&-back and work itself, the average Singapore resident have very little time for leisure save for the week-ends. Then, week-ends are also highly organized events(kids enhancement programs, grocery shopping, eating out or planned activities).

    Most homes in Singapore are simply hostels or hotels – a place to sleep, do your thing & get out ASAP! The average Singapore resident is programmed to work incessantly (Mon-Sat) with a little time for rest and a bit for recreation (shopping, eating & watching movies). The 5-day work week is an illusion in Singapore – most are either on call back to work or go back to work even on week-ends. Week-days are long hours and extremely tedious. At the end of the day, many Singapore resident have ‘no-life’ save for their work which they would need to survive in Singapore. That is the sad nature of Singapore!

  11. 15 ziggy 10 May 2011 at 22:01

    It s antiquation system of town planning, for the pre internet world. city centre with the sub urban sprawl. over planned and cracks begin to show when there is a massive influx. commercial buildings should be built at 50 to 80 stories at each train station all over the island and then market forces will fill out those buildings and let it organically take shape. this will spread out the old ‘ getting to town to work’ pre internet era idea.

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