Over the last five days, as me and my fellow peers and faculty leaders have been traversing the Singaporean landscape, we have visited a multitude of locations and observed, tasted and listened to everything from the culinary-economic phenomena present in the traditional hawker centers, to the more refined public-commercial environment that envelops the city’s river-walk. Upon return to our abodes in the more-than-impressive UTown campus of the National University of Singapore (NUS), I found myself particularly inquisitive about the pristineness that I had been immersed in since we arrived almost a week ago. Pristine. A word that has been engraved in the canals of my conscious since I walked out of Changi International Airport into the Singaporean sun. Such an adjective, I find to applicable to a variety of elements that are specific to the greater urban picture within Singapore. The rules and regulations that I have been exposed to while visiting various neighborhoods in the city contribute to the apparent environmental pristineness as narratives forwarded in sites such as the Urban Development Authority (URA) and the Housing Development Board (HDB) forward an image of infrastructural pristineness through perfection, and organization.
The fines and legal proceedings that could follow if you were to chew gum, spit, litter, or even bring water on to the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) platforms and trains, explain how and why the People’s Action Party (PAP)-led government and its respective leaders wish to build and sustain a pristine Singapore. As our IFTA group spent four days in Kuala Lumpur, such elements were quite novel to us, as the Malaysian capital’s environmental pristineness seems to be operating on an entirely different level. Naturally, from the grass that envelops the sporadic green spaces around Singapore, to the many floors and seats that line the MRT trains, labeling the city as “clean” would almost be an understatement. It does not come as a surprise then that the PAP, who seems to pride itself on the solidification of centralized control, and its ability to remain effective and efficient through structured policy mechanisms, forwards an image of pristineness that penetrates almost every facet of Singaporean society.
Complementing this pristine environment, the URA and HDB together, project the idea that Singapore truly is an embodiment of commercial, financial, and residential success, which translates more or less into the perfection, and organization that unify and result in the infrastructural pristineness that permeates almost every corner of the island. The three model cities and districts that we observed inside the URA gallery this past week showed us that Singapore has, is, will continue to be a regional and international juggernaut in the realm of infrastructure development. Who could have guessed then that this small sovereign, city-state’s motto is simply: “Onward Singapore”? The quick succession with which the island has been transformed into a seemingly-utopic, cosmopolitan, mecca for tourists, migrant workers, and immigrants alike, is therefore nothing short of admirable. The skyscrapers serve as sites that include anything from retail offices to 5-star hotels and the organization of the city’s “efficient use of space” imperative dictates how the infrastructure has indeed become pristine over the recent decades.
The HDB gallery allowed us to view the residential aspects of pristineness from the inside, as we were given virtual and physical tours of the increasingly popular HDB-flats and their respective, self-sufficient communities that now dot the city. Perfection and organization are ubiquitous in these environments, as the HDB seeks to provide a rather utilitarian, environment for all Singaporean citizens who may be interested in living and socializing in an all-in-one atmosphere. Everything from housing loans and grants to special packages for new couples or expecting parents, makes the purchasing/renting process impressively stress-free, and naturally, visibly organized. The end result: pristineness to a discernably omnipresent level, as these high-rise settlements leave little room for imperfections and chaos.
All of this may seem like paradise right? Well perhaps the pristineness that I observed may not be so utopic in reality. Some my fellow peers and I found this out for ourselves as we listened to an elderly food court attendant in the HDB gallery inundate us with his disillusioned Singaporean rhetoric. It seemed as though he was just about tired of the pristine land that he called home, as he labeled the country as “backwards” which I then translated as “deceivingly utilitarian or paradisiacal”. So then, I wondered how some of what he is said might reflect the perspectives of a variety of citizens across this country. Who knows, maybe it is time to calculate Gross National Happiness of this island rather than the Gross National Product. Such a system, I believe, could perhaps shed light on how “pristine” Singapore really is.