10 May 2009

A great city? Making it, failing it

Has Singapore what it takes to be one of the world's great cities? From what I heard and saw on a Friday night out on the town, the answer was mixed. Full essay.


Anonymous said...

Dear Alex,

A tad bit harsh, I feel. I lived in Toronto for a few years. I don't think of it as a world-class city, but locals regard it good enough to join the ranks of A-list cities. This is fair enough.

Some things off the top of my head.

1) Transportation (subway, buses, cabs) is definitely cheaper and more value for money in Singapore.

2) Closing time? Get this: on Saturdays, shops in Eaton Centre -- shopping centre numero uno -- shut their doors at 7pm.

3) Sure, Toronto offers more ethnically diverse foods from which to choose, but the thing about North America in general which grates me is that you have to stick to a particular cuisine when you are out about town: variety comes at a price.

In Singapore, you can order from a Chinese, Malay, and Indian stall all at once if you so choose.


dk said...

in my opinion, going in overdressed to a "kampong chicken" joint situated in a slum area-turned nightlife hotspot perfectly embodies both "respecting" and "incessantly questioning" singapore's "memory of [its] past", as you suggest a great city should do. the fact that its CBD even has its own cultural specificities takes it that one little step further away from being a carbon copy of any old skyscraper district anywhere else in the world. new york has its 24-hour coffee houses, shinjuku its ramen pushcarts. even in the biggest of metropolises, everyone loves a "cheap diner" - all the better overdressed. the opening hours of a city are not confined to those of its restaurants.

many F&B companies - from 20-outlet chains like starbucks, to starups like frolick at holland village - provide a free cab ride for their staff on closing shift, which stretches a couple of hours - not 30 minutes - beyond the average 11pm closing time. i would guess that restaurants do the same, unless they open 24 hours - and which fancy restaurant, in any city, does?

i do agree with you about public transport being inadequate, but suggest that you missed out the neglect of MRT services after midnight. by providing even express services with some non-stops, the authorities would have covered much more ground than any number of bus services, which are slower, with smaller capacity and less eco-friendly by comparison.

singapore isn't perfect, in current form or future direction. no city is, even the greatest of urban capitals. but singapore does offer some things you can't find anywhere else, and we - its inhabitants - are finally beginning to realise and appreciate that. even if it's just kampong chicken.

Anonymous said...

Agree with the PP - I've lived in US & Europe for several years. Shops in Europe close between 6-7pm, and few are on Sundays (mainly those catering to tourists). Restaurants don't stay open any later than in Singapore, and some actually closed on Sundays.

Give me Singapore any day.

Chee Wai Lee said...

Alex, like the rest, I kinda felt you were a little harsh. I'm guessing it stems from the constant and shrill trumpeting of Singapore as a "world class" city by the government. That non-stop trumpeting seriously irks me, btw, so if my guess is right, I feel your pain.

I'll have to admit, I've not stayed long enough at any major city over a continuous period of time to make any serious comparisons with Singapore.

I would say overall Singapore is "adequate" (in spite of its government) as a major city. Late night transportation was definitely a pain the last time I was there but you were somewhat unfair in your implication that the skeletal services should serve 4.8 million people.

The question is whether the lack-of-demand or poor pricing structure or lack-of-options is responsible. Most late night buses I saw a few years ago were pretty much empty (either because of the lack-of-demand or poor pricing structure). My guess is fewer than 800,000 people are up at that time and most have their own transportation or use the cabs (maybe in part due to the skeletal services and hence lack-of-options?).

I don't know.

Anonymous said...

Alex makes a rather unsubstantiated leap from how things close after 10 pm to how conventional Singapore adults are. Regardless of how robust the link is (I'm an economist), I would hazard a guess that in global cities all over the world, adults who hit marriage and parenthood tend to do things rather differently than when they were single or had no kids. (I recently read a great New York Times article about a couple -- they are actors on Broadway, who stay up late partly because of their jobs, and partly because they like it -- who are getting married soon and "dream of suburbia".)

On the issue of shops staying open later or even 24/7 -- I would beg to differ. I want my city to be a humane city. A city that stays open 24/7 means that there are people who are working at ungodly hours everyday. Sure, we can pay them higher -- but what does that say about the sort of life that we want our people to have? I want Singapore to be a global city (and having lived in New York, Los Angeles, Sydney and spent extended stretches in London, I think we're almost there, if not for censorship issue!), but I also want Singapore to be a balanced city that knows that there is a time for play, and a time for rest too.

Anonymous said...

Agree that the post is tad too critical. You will be hard pressed to find a "proper" restaurant taking orders after 10pm in most major Western cities. In fact, there is nothing wrong with being over-dressed to a simple food joint - being done in most major cities I suspect. Plus it provides for an interesting mix of people. Give me Singapore (or KL) anytime for late night supper choices (compared to most cities in Europe).

Karen said...

Dear Alex,
I used to hold the same opinion about wanting shops and restaurants to stay open later (actually, that was for European and other cities that I lived in or visited, not Singapore!). But having lived abroad and learned more about the social and political reasons behind certain legislation and decisions, I have also come to appreciate why shops close early (e.g. 6-7pm in most British cities) and issues like Sunday trading laws. The key difference is the different attitude towards family life and privacy.

I think in our pursuit of excitement, fun, consumption, and other things things that might make a city great/cosmopolitian/exciting, we often forget the service class who have to work so hard to make it that way. When people talk about a great city to live in, most think about arts venues and events, shopping, entertainment, restaurants etc., which are enjoyed by those with certain levels of disposable income and who ascribe (or aspire) to a certain lifestyle. One tends to forget that things are made possible by waiters, hairdressers, manicurists, ushers, cleaners, sales assistants, security guards etc.

These groups of people can be paid overtime to compensate for longer opening hours, but how does that compensate for their reduced time with family and friends? Perhaps we need to re-evaluate our values and priorities as a society. Our enjoyment and time with our friends and family at restaurants, shops, cinemas and so on shouldn't be at the expense of others'.

I agree with a previous comment that Singapore needs to be a balanced city. It is not only about a balance between work and play - because other people have to work too when you 'play'! - but also a balance with rest and relationship building within homes and other private spaces.

Your article is perhaps a little harsh. There is definitely room for improvement in our public transport system but it is certainly better than many, many cities that I have visited. Taxi prices are still relatively inexpensive compared to many cities, although I have been appalled at how expensive it has become over the past 3 years!


Anonymous said...

I dun think Alex is harsh at all. Alex is merely looking at ways to improve, instead of being static and say "hey nobody's perfect, so let us be happy with what we have now" and sit on our laurels.

Nevin said...

I think it would be a terrible idea to have a city that never sleeps, if only because the environmentalist in me bemoans the additional energy required to keep the city lighted up.

Compared to a number of Western Cities, Singapore food establishments do stay up relatively late. I find the requirement of bus services being profitable to be a sound one. Demand should be commensurate with supply, otherwise you will have buses plying the roads in the middle of the night with hardly any passengers.

The cost of having 24 hour establishments and the need to light up the city at night all exact a toll on the environment.

So, from the perspective of one who is concerned about the environment, i think that Singapore has struck a fair balance between providing nighttime activities and conserving energy.