Change we must, by William Lim

Change We Must

William S.W. Lim
12 September 2012


This lecture will be in two parts. The first part will highlight four critical issues why Singapore has to change. The second part will focus on the complex challenges ahead.

Part 1

1.0 Four critical issues

There are four critical issues that Singapore must contend with and are the reasons that it must change. They are:

1.1  Interdependent global conditions today.
1.2  Progress of Singapore not enough.
1.3  Myths and realities of Singapore.
1.4  The misunderstood nature of creativity.

1.1 Interdependent global conditions today

There is a deep financial and political crisis in the West and Japan. The US, EU and Japan are still struggling to contend with the debt problems as the shadow of 2008’s financial crisis remains unresolved, possibly for the next few years.

Today, with the unprecedented rise of China and other emerging economies, the global political and economic imbalances are now in the process of being reluctantly adjusted. The present slowdown of China has become a global concern.

A HSBC report has stated: “A popular market view is that the current slowdown in China is mainly structural, which means Beijing can’t stimulate growth without triggering a sharp rebound in inflation. This is wrong, in our view. It’s cyclical forces that are to blame, such as slumping overseas demand and the impact of earlier tightening measures.”[1]

“The current slowdown is caused by both cyclical and structural factors,” as stated recently by the Economic Forecast Department of The State Information Centre, a Chinese government research organisation.[2]

The threat of climatic crisis poses enormous challenges. To quote Lester Brown, “If we continue with business as usual, civilisational collapse is no longer a matter of whether but when.”[3] To achieve a more sustainable future, major restructuring of development priorities and adjustments to lifestyles will be necessary.

1.2 Progress of Singapore not enough

Singapore has done well in many areas, achieving worldwide recognition. Singapore ranks 2nd as the world’s most competitive economy, as rated by the World Economic Forum’s 2012 – 2013 Global Competitiveness Report. Singapore occupies 7th position in the world and 1st in Asia for having the least corruption in its economy, according to the IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook 2011. The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has consistently made claim to have achieved successful policies and strategies which can be applied to other major urban cities in emerging economies. The National University of Singapore (NUS) is ranked 40th worldwide in the Times Higher Education University Rankings 2012, and 2nd in Asia by the QS Asian University Rankings.

With so many remarkable achievements, why do we need to change, when nothing has yet broken. Let me quote Tommy Koh: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”[4] Yes, we do. As the whole world is changing rapidly, we cannot stand still. Otherwise, we will be left behind. We need to change, in order to meet the demands of an inclusive society and to achieve genuine comprehensive sustainability.

1.3 Myths and realities of Singapore

Singapore was reported to be the world’s most wealthy country with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita of US$56,532 (S$70,450) in 2010 according to the Wealth Report 2012. However the same report highlighted that the wealth in cities is much higher than the countries where they are located. For example, Singapore’s GDP per capita is still behind some other cities like New York and London. The high rate of growth in recent years is largely due to the increase of foreign low wage workers rather than higher productivity.

Our income disparity is the 2nd highest among the rich countries according to the United Nations. Singapore’s Gini coefficient of 0.473 in 2011. Furthermore, let me quote Donald Low and Yeoh Lam Keong from the Economic Society of Singapore: “Income inequality in Singapore has risen significantly in the last decade… Government redistribution in the form of taxes and transfers has not slowed the increase in inequality sufficiently… Income stratification, especially if it is combined with low social mobility, may polarise societies as different income groups begin to see their interests as conflicting.”[5]

The pricing of public housing has increased greatly since the 1990s as sale prices now include land cost and are unaffordable for many lower income families. The price of a typical 90sqm 4-room flat has doubled from $170,000 to $376,000 in the last 20-odd years. To overcome this, the provision of affordable non-tradable public housing and excluding land cost is essential. Land for public housing should be considered a public resource and given to citizens in need.

Out of bounds (OB) topics should be opened up for public discourse. One example is to examine whether the duration of National Service should be shortened to say 12 months, and for those with medical, physical or mental problems, should be allowed to opt for alternative service in non-profit non-government organisations (NGOs).

1.4 The misunderstood nature of creativity

Creativity cannot be based on the generation of or linked to profit. Enterprises can make profits with or without creativity. Creative ideas and innovation are not always profitable, but a creative environment is essential for a vibrant society. Creativity and rebelliousness are two sides of the same coin. Creativity will always challenge the status quo and the norm. We need to think and act outside the box. If we have to operate only within the system, it will be a deterrent to the creative process. Creativity needs to be broad based, in order to tap the creative resources of the whole population. This is especially true in a small society like Singapore. We must recognise that creativity can stem from anyone and not just the elite. Singapore’s elitist society has inevitably underutilised the potential of creative energy from the majority.

Part 2

2.0 The challenges ahead

To meet the complex challenges ahead, we need to activate an inclusive society beyond the consideration of GDP growth and to minimise income disparities, in order to achieve sustainable lifestyles and values as well as greater personal happiness. First, we must understand the characteristics that define an ‘inclusive society’. An inclusive society may mean different things to different people. Its policies and critical ideas should be generated from the grassroots and NGOs and particularly from the design and art communities. However implementation of policies will be more effective with support and participation of the authorities. Thus, the development of an inclusive society will benefit from active cooperation between the authorities and participatory citizens.

Action to promote an inclusive society by citizens is highly fragmented as it is based on the nature of the people involved. An example is AWARE’s thoughtful contribution in a Straits Times opinion piece of an inclusive Singapore.[6] It is heartening to note that Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has recently stated that the government will play an active role in promoting an inclusive society with policies that are “tilted in favour of those with less”.[7] To provide a broader interpretation of how an inclusive society in a city can be measured from the provision and usage of its public space, a forthcoming project called ‘Public Space for Citizens’ is to be initiated soon by Asian Urban Lab.[8]

Second, we need to clarify what ‘happiness’ is about. There is now an increasing acceptance in many countries of the importance towards better well being and enhancing happiness for citizens. We must also minimise and eliminate unhappiness arising from a lack of minimum income, inadequate basic health services and lack of accessible public space. The complexity of these two issues, namely inclusive society and happiness will require much more analysis.

In this lecture, I wish to address and highlight three significant criteria particularly related to the design and art communities, which can play a catalytic role in the need for rapid change. They are:

2.1 Colonial and post-colonial Western-oriented urban planning and architectural theories and practices must be reviewed, revised and even abandoned in the context of contemporary critical thinking.

2.2 A better understanding of new knowledge particularly in the areas of critical theories, and discourses of social sciences and cultural studies is essential.

2.3 Innovative ideas of controversial new urban strategy and in defining the challenge and meaning of sustainability are identified.

2.1 The deficiency of present concepts

There are three major concepts that I would like to critically examine in order that we can grasp their deficiencies and to progress towards the essential need to change.

The first concept is the lingering colonial and post-colonial theories and practices that continue to exist and augment the Western-oriented power-knowledge configuration.

Chang Jiat Hwee has commented that “technicalised colonial knowledge in tropical architecture was appropriated by post-colonial architects and re-invested with socio-cultural meanings”.[9] We must debunk the colonial myth of using technological knowledge to reduce complex social, cultural and political issues into abstract technical problems. Only then can we refocus our attention towards propagating alternative models of knowledge and production in many of the creative and design fields, including fashion, art and architecture, among others. For architecture students, please read the article by Chang Jiat Hwee.

The second concept is the problematic perception of the Centre dominating the Province. The traditional Centres have long been established in metropolises such as London, New York and Tokyo. What happens in the peripheral Provinces is only considered useful if there is a direct contribution to the metropolis. The metropolis has long exerted hegemony over the periphery, in a master-servant relationship. This overwhelming dominance has now been actively challenged and changed.

Leon Van Schaik, Innovation Chair and Architecture Professor at RMIT, has proposed a mental-spatial model that redefines the relationship between Centre and Province in order to better understand the complex change and innovation of today. He states that it is necessary “to eradicate the internalised hegemony of the West in our minds” and creates centres that “will more likely be an international network of scholars and critics than a place”.[10] This is vital for us to challenge and contest the need for psychological independence from present Eurocentric values of modernity.

The third concept is the current practice of regulating creativity through long accepted rules, static administration methods and top down dispositions. The total and complex condition of change, which is chaotic in nature, must be allowed to flourish in all areas of design and creative disciplines. Instability and indeterminacy are now a given in order to succeed. There needs to be “an open system of… which accepts conflict, chaos and complexity as well as welcomes new knowledge, cutting-edge innovation and unexpected progressive societal changes”.[11]

2.2 Better understanding of new knowledge

As globality has evolved around the world, the deep histories and rootedness in many cities have been abandoned and removed. However, it is now recognised that the deep histories matter for survival and are important in strengthening the uniqueness of each city. A recent example of a play entitled “Crossings” by The Necessary Stage poses the dilemma of historical memory and present reality.[12]

Saskia Sassen has stated that the “highly diversified entity we refer to as ‘the knowledge economy’ could not simply emerge from the heads of the creative classes, no matter how brilliant they might be”,[13] and can only be achieved from a foundation of deep histories that shape a city into a complex system that enables creative activities. Will Singapore be redirected with active supports towards our Asian heritage and Southeast Asian orientation?

The values and historical experiences of other civilisations, considered irrelevant by the overwhelming victory of Euro-modernity, were foreclosed and relegated to the past. Notwithstanding the postcolonial critics of the past decades, this master narrative of the asymmetrical relationship between the West and the non-West continues to consign the cultures, arts and architecture of the non-West only as peripheral variations and accidental by-products of Western creativity and innovation. It is in this context that Arif Dirlik’s insightful and fascinating article, Revisioning Modernity: Modernity in Eurasian Perspectives, should be carefully read and analysed.[14]

He identified that from the 16th century onwards, “societies around Eurasia underwent comparable transformation in their economic, political, social and cultural characteristics”.[15] The case of China may be the most vital in contesting this shift of Eurocentricism, but it is not the only one as there are others in the region. This recognition is an essential conceptual acceptance of multiple historical trajectories in the early development of modernity. This has been demonstrated in many intercultural productions carried out by Theatreworks currently and in the past. A recent example is their theatrical entitled “Lear Dreaming” performed earlier this year in the Arts Festival.[16]

2.3 Innovative ideas

It is imperative to think creatively and positively in a controversially contesting and social oriented manner. This is a dynamic hybrid interactive concept, which destabilises the current theories and practices of the design and creative process. We have to understand the need for a state of incompleteness. This state of incompleteness “is a vital evolving element that allows for continuous unforeseen changes and unplanned growth”.[17]

An innovative approach to achieving sustainable architecture and urban planning has increasingly been demonstrated in many different countries in the Asian region. Examples include articles published in recent media.

Indonesia’s Ridwan Kamil initiated a successful people oriented program named “Indonesia Berkebun”, which means Indonesia Gardening, to suggest how barren spaces between buildings and slums in Bandung can be converted into community gardens to grow vegetables.[18]

Vo Trong Nghia, a Vietnamese architect, has designed a four level house in Ho Chi Minh that promotes sustainable living and environmental sensitivity with integration of interior courtyards and light shafts which is reminiscent of the Vietnamese tube houses typology.[19]

China’s Pritzker Prize winner Wang Shu eschews copying completely from the West, preferring to embrace a distinctive architecture that keeps as much of natural environment as possible, using recycled materials and a low budget.[20]

A true form of sustainability can only be brought about by a complete change of values and lifestyle. The guidelines of sustainability in the post-colonial and postmodern perspective have to be fundamentally re-examined. We need to seriously question the assumed suitability in applying a super high-rise high density urban strategy for major cities in emerging economies, irrespective of their economic and technical capacity and past traditions.

The trap is to merely use technological measures to advocate sustainability. This would be counterproductive, creating a dependency on materials, components and expertise that displace historical, social and cultural traditions. Benjamin Henry Towell has stressed that “ultimately, it is our lifestyles and our market mechanisms which need to change to allow sustainability to occur in its purest, most legitimate form”.[21] However, this poses an incredible challenge.

The pressing question is this: are we able to inspire particularly those from the younger generation to join the regional and global movement to pursue a genuine comprehensive sustainability for their communities? To quote Theodore Chan, President of the Singapore Institute of Architects, on the topic of sustainability: “Going green is like a religion – how much do you want to believe in it? How strictly do you adhere to your green religion?”[22]


In conclusion, I wish to quote from a book review of my recent publication entitled Incomplete Urbanism: “Lim reminds us that we have been down the road of closed centralized planning and that we know where the road ends-high income disparity, high consumption, high environmental waste, non-sustainable futures. He urges us to choose the road less travelled… Maybe in a few years time, the unfolding picture will be clearer. It is a future we cannot easily foresee but I suspect that it is a choice of a future that many will have to make soon.[23]

[1] Qu, Hongbin and Sun, Junwei. (2012, August 28). China Inside Out: Slowdown more cyclical than structural. HSBC Global Research.

[2] Hornby, Lucy. (2012, September 5). Slowdown in China may not end soon. International Herald Tribune.

[3] Brown, Lester. (2011) World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (p 10). New York: W W Norton & Company Inc.

[4] Tommy Koh has made this remark twice in relation to the Asia Pacific Economic Forum (APEC), in which Singapore is part and was formerly chair of. (1) Koh, Tommy. (2009, November 10). Still relevant after all these years. The Business Times. Retrieved from:, and (2) Koh, Tommy. (2011, May 13). Remarks on Panel Discussion entitled America and Asia: Emerging Concerns and Competition at the 39th Williamsburg Conference. Retrieved from:

[5] Low, Donald and Yeoh, Lam Keong. (2011, December 14). Beware the Inequality Trap. The Straits Times.

[6] Lim, Corinna and Wee, Vivienne. (2012, September 4). Dreaming of a truly inclusive Singapore. The Straits Times.

[7] Chang, Rachel. (2012, September 6). Inclusive growth ‘needs govt hand’. The Straits Times.

[8] Public Space for Citizens will carry out research on various Asian cities to better understand the conditions necessary to create public space that is relevant in our present inclusive societies. The project will be launched in early 2013.

[9] Chang, Jiat Hwee. (2012). Tropical Variants of Sustainable Architecture: A Postcolonial Perspective. In C. Greig Chrysler, Stephen Cairns & Hilde Heynen (Ed.) The SAGE Handbook of Architecture Theory (p 616). London: Sage Publications.

[10] Van Schaik, Leon. (2012). Modernism and Contemporaneity in Architecture: Peripheries & Centres. In William S.W. Lim & Jiat-Hwee Chang (Ed.) Non West Modernist Past: On Architecture & Modernities (p 53). Singapore: World Scientific Publishing.

[11] Lim, William S.W. (2012). Incomplete Urbanism: A critical urban strategy for emerging economies (pp. 73 – 75). Singapore: World Scientific Publishing.

[12] “Crossings” was a multidisciplinary collaboration between artists from Singapore and Croatia investigating the coexistence, understanding and mixing of different cultures. It was presented by The Necessary Stage (Singapore) and TRAFIK (Croatia) at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 16 – 19 August 2012.

[13] Sassen, Saskia. (2011). The Economies of Cities. In Ricky Burdett & Deyan Sudjic (Ed.) Living in the Endless City (p 60). Phaidon.

[14] Dirlik, Arif. (2011) Revisioning Modernity: Modernity in Eurasian Perspectives. In Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 12, No. 2 (June 2011), pp. 284-305.

[15] Dirlik, Arif. (2011) Revisioning Modernity: Modernity in Eurasian Perspectives. In Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 12, No. 2 (June 2011), pp. 285.

[16] “Lear Dreaming” was an reimagination of Shakespeare’s King Lear tragedy on patriarchy and succession through the pristine philosophy of Japanese Noh theatre, as an allegory of the world today. It involved a mix of artists who hailed from various Asian cultural backgrounds, and was staged from31 May – 1 June 2012 at the School of the Arts.

[17] Lim, William S.W. (2012). Incomplete Urbanism: A critical urban strategy for emerging economies (p 61). Singapore: World Scientific Publishing.

[18] Hussain, Zakir. (2012, August 20). Indonesia’s green ‘starchitect’. The Straits Times.

[19] Ives, Mike. (2012, June 8). In Vietnam, a traditional home design goes green. International Herald Tribune.

[20] Perlez, Jane. (2012, August 9). An Architect’s Vision: Bare Elegance in China. The New York Times.

[21] Towell, Benjamin Henry. (2012). A Brief Critique of Sustainable Development, Policy, and Green Consumerism. In Singapore Architect Issue #270 (p 71).

[22] Chan, Theodore. (2012). Getting Real: On Sustainability and the Institute’s Vision. In Singapore Architect Issue #270 (p 48).

[23] Andrew Lee, Leong Teng Wui & Ong Swee Hong (2012) Book review on Incomplete Urbanism to be published in upcoming issue of Singapore Architect.

3 Responses to “Change we must, by William Lim”

  1. 1 ricardo 31 October 2012 at 12:55

    Verily, a truly stupendous poly-syllabic pontificating prophecy from a true prophet. In pretending to unnerstan dis, my only comment is why no mention of PM Lee’s exhortation to 6m.

    IMHO, a city like Singapore, planning to increase its population for the benefit of the rich & powerful, is ludicrous. Malthusian economics don’t go away just cos our Lord LKY, the HoLee Family, their Ministers & friends increase their multi-million Dignity.

    Singapore has an almost unbelievable feature … Daily Garbage Collection. Subsequently, Singaporeans are the world leaders in rubbish generation.

    This is only one symptom of blinkered thinking by our Lord LKY etc.

    What we need to do is to accept a shrinking and aging population and do whatever is required for a transition to a smaller, more inclusive and happier society; developing these traits along the way.

  2. 2 William Lim 9 November 2012 at 13:26

    An inclusive society must minimise unhappiness with better wages, affordable healthcare and housing for the majority of our own citizens. In this article, I have not discussed the population issue. To increase our present population in order to achieve further economic growth needs to be seriously questioned.

    In my article entitled ‘Spatial Justice – A Singapore Case Study’ published recently in the October/November 2012 issue of Singapore Architect journal, I have written about the issue of National Population Strategy. An excerpt from the article:

    ‘It is logical to first discuss the quest for the “right number” for our targeted population as this sets the framework for policies regarding jobs, land use particularly housing and infrastructure, as well as social cohesiveness. In 2007, Singapore’s National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan announced that the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) was planning for a projected population of 6.5 million, an increase from its previous target of 5.5 million. The debate on Singapore’s future population size continues unabated: Is it in the nation’s interest to create an inclusive society with slow or no growth to achieve a better quality of life for all, or to achieve a higher growth rate with more migrants and larger income disparity?’

    You can pick up a copy of the journal or contact me directly via email if you are interested to discuss this issue further.

  3. 3 Chrissy Tan 12 December 2012 at 22:09

    Good article with paragraph heading and numbering and also citing sources of your quotes. Rarely come across blogs like that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: