Exporting planning and expertise: A small city-state’s claim to fame through urban development
Singapore is a resource-poor city-state with one of the highest population densities in the world. Yet it has turned its challenges into strengths and increasingly branded itself as a global hub of expertise and ‘best practices’ for urban development. How might we understand the processes driving Singapore’s burgeoning influence on international city development? What are some challenges that come with this influence?
Despite having a population of only 5.6 million residents and a landmass of 720 km2, the city-state of Singapore boasts an international reputation that precedes its small size. Emblematic qualities associated with the nation include socio-political order, rapid economic development, environmental cleanliness, and efficiency in the urban environment. And while Singapore is a major international financial centre in its own right, Singaporean technical expertise and capital have also manifested in global circuits of urban planning and infrastructure development.
Singapore’s model of urban development: A roadmap from Third World to First?
A salient aspect of Singapore’s reputation concerns notions of sustainable urban development. With limited natural resources and land, the city-state has oriented most of its urban systems towards effectively dealing with resource and water management, population congestion, and other challenges associated with large urban agglomerations. Multilateral initiatives, think-tanks and conferences such as the Centre for Liveable Cities, World Cities Summit are key components of Singapore’s political and commercial scene.
‘Singapore models’ of urban modernity increasingly serve as templates for projects aimed at master planning, public housing, urban transport, and water management, to name a few. Prominent examples include the development of Amaravati, a new capital city in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, and the Tianjin Eco-City, a bilateral Sino-Singapore collaboration in China.
The sub-Saharan African nation of Rwanda provides a vivid picture of the Singapore export. Its president, Paul Kagame, has deployed rhetoric comparing developments in his country to the Southeast Asian city-state. “When they say this is the Singapore of Africa,” Kagame has said, “I think maybe it’s a recognition that Rwanda has learnt a thing or two from Singapore and has applied it and seen its transformation”.
Examples of this process of urban borrowing, exportation, and adaptation range from an ambitious master plan for Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali to planned systems of integrated public transport and affordable housing. As one scholar has put it, “Rwanda is attempting to remake itself as Africa's gorilla, mimicking Singapore's Asian tiger, and doing so in explicit ways by buying urban plans that consciously promise to replicate Singapore's success in central Africa” .
The Rwandan government is not alone in seeking to emulate the Singaporean model of urban development and governance. A cursory examination of projects drawn from the Singapore Cooperation Enterprise’s (SCE) website reveals the international scope of the city-state’s developmental footprint. A government agency within Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry, the SCE describes itself as an organization dedicated to responding “effectively to the multitude of foreign requests interested in Singapore’s development experience.”
For many developing countries aspiring to leap from ‘Third World to First,’ the Singapore-brand name conjures images of well-maintained streets, tall buildings, robust public transport, and other tropes of sophisticated urbanity. That Singapore is a relatively small state compared to China, another development-model exporter often suspected to prioritize geopolitical objectives in its overseas development cooperation, potentially strengthens the attractiveness of the Singapore model. As a commentator from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies put it,
“As an Asian player, the Singapore brand stands in contrast to the Chinese, where there are pockets of frustration and distrust towards what is perceived as too much coerciveness and political manoeuvring… Singapore’s perception as a non-threatening actor on the continent (Africa) will certainly lend itself to deepening levels of trust, which could be significant when bidding for projects of strategic national importance” .
How should we understand this global osmosis of urban developmental expertise from Singapore? And what are the attendant risks and challenges as the country continues its overseas activities?
The Internationalization of Singapore, Inc.
In many respects, Singapore's rise to prominence as a model-city appears to be part of a broader effort to internationalize the ‘Singapore-brand name’ through private and public sector collaboration. Government-linked companies (GLCs) are some of the most common institutional vehicles for delivering urban solutions abroad . Major examples of GLCs involved in areas related to urban development include Surbana Jurong, Keppel Land, CapitaLand, and Changi Airport Group.
These hybrid corporate entities fuse public sector diplomacy with private sector consultancy . Singapore’s export of urban planning and city infrastructure has been described as a catalytic process of state capitalism by Caroline Yeoh and Wilfred How. They note that the “Singapore government takes on the role of a ‘business architect’ and `knowledge arbitrageur’, identifying business opportunities, and bringing together the private sector and commercial segments of the public sector in Singapore, as well as foreign companies with specific competencies” .
This framework effectively creates new spheres of economic space for Singapore’s public agencies, GLCs, and private sector firms in foreign markets. The combination of political and commercial clout lends many Singapore-supported urban development initiatives special investment conditions, political endorsements from local governments, and a host of other operational benefits .
Challenges and tensions
Singapore’s successes with sustainable urban planning undoubtedly provides useful inspiration for developing countries experiencing massive socioeconomic transitions and rural-urban migration. But there are also many trade-offs associated with the city-state’s progress, which should be accounted for when importing the Singaporean model.
While high modernist planning – such as Singapore’s – has an attractive lustre and can bring much developmental progress, the geometric grids and zonal theories associated with it must constructively engage with local networks and cultures to maximize positive impacts, while minimizing negative ones.
The ongoing project to create Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh serves as a poignant reminder that massive, centrally planned urban development projects can lead to significant socioeconomic dislocation. While the Master Plan emphasizes neatly aligned grids and orderly districts, implementing them is hardly as elegant. To carry them out, governments often need to acquire vast amounts of land from local communities.
Furthermore, land speculation and land pooling have exacerbated price inflation and socioeconomic inequalities. Large landowners in Amaravarti profit immensely while smallplot farmers receive little compensation. In Rwanda’s drive to modernize Kigali, inflation has displaced long-time residents of the capital city as traditional informal housing is replaced by modern homes unaffordable for the average citizen.
It was not long ago that the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City project grabbed critical headlines proclaiming its infeasibility and labelling it a ‘ghost city’. Though current progress reports from the government proponents claim that the project is gaining momentum, the likelihood of the development achieving its original goals remains unclear .
Developing effective, localized urban solutions requires commitment and efficient cooperation between stakeholders from all levels of society. The need for “human well-being, social and economic inclusion, resilience in the face of climate change, and greater environmental sustainability” mandate such approaches to sustainable urban development . How Singapore-inspired and exported urban models unfold in other contexts, and the extent to which such projects account for potential shortcomings in the model, merits research.
One could argue that it is primarily the responsibility of local governments and companies to ensure effective implementation of the Singapore model. Nonetheless, even if this is the case, one might be mistaken in believing that that local governments are the only actor groups with a strong interest in project outcomes.
As Singapore continues to internationalize its arsenal of urbanization models and technical solutions, the city-state’s reputation remains tied to the socioeconomic impacts of the projects that Singaporean expertise has had hands in shaping. Dismissing the tensions that accompany implementation of imported urban solutions to other social ecologies risks what the anthropologist James Scott has termed “urban taxidermy”: situations in which technocratically planned development projects fail to navigate the complex social elements of human communities .
The Singapore model has also faced difficulties at home. Recently, the city-state’s public train network has become embroiled in controversy, with many Singaporeans questioning its reliability, transparency, and ability to serve the country amid a string of delays, errors, and “deep-seated cultural issues” hindering operational management.
Foreign observers have taken note of this blow to Singapore’s image of infrastructural and urban reliability. Covering the same issue, a journalist from the Hong Kong periodical South China Morning Post opined that, “If metro systems were like football, Hong Kong is premier league but Singapore is fighting relegation and its manager is heading for an early bath.” The challenges that have often marked the Singapore model of urbanization should serve as valuable reminders of the strengths and limitations of top-down, imported urban planning.
Will Singapore’s urban infrastructure and planning be able to rise above these challenges? While only time will tell, one thing is clear: there are larger ramifications to how urban management and infrastructural systems are managed in Singapore, as well as how its projects fare abroad. For better or worse, when it comes to urban planning, Singapore is in the international eye. Hopefully, such scrutiny will spur innovation and critical reflexivity for both domestic social benefit and the success of Singapore’s urban planning exports.
Brandon Chye is an MPhil candidate in Development Studies at Oxford’s Department of International Development. His main research focuses on the study of inter-regional networks of urban expertise and capital. Prior to coming to Oxford, he worked on international trade finance and development projects with the Africa-Southeast Asia Chamber of Commerce and GTR Ventures. Brandon holds a Bachelors degree in History from the National University of Singapore.
Works Cited and Endnotes
1. Sharon Meagher, “The Darker Underside of Scott’s third wave”, Cities 17 no.3, (2013) p.396
2. Robert Macpherson, “Singapore’s presence in Africa on the Rise”, ISEAS Perspective 23, (2016) p.9
3. The Singaporean version of a state-owned enterprise. However, GLCs are run on a commercial basis, ostensibly with minimal or no state subsidization; See https://www.imf.org/External/Pubs/FT/staffp/2004/03/ramirez.htm for a detailed description of their structure and characteristics.
4. Gavin Shatkin,“Reinterpreting the meaning of the 'Singapore model': State Capitalism and Urban Planning”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38 no.1, (2014) p.118
5. Caroline Yeoh and Wilfred How, “The Internationalization of Singapore’s State Enterprise Network: Notes from Singapore’s Gambits in the Gulf Region”, World Journal of Management 3 no.1, (2011) p.137
6. Ibid, p. 137.
7. Rémi Curien, “Singapore, a Model for (Sustainable?) Urban Development in China: An Overview of 20 Years of Sino-Singaporean Cooperation”, China Perspectives (2017) p.32
8. Richard Grant, “Sustainable African Urban Futures: Stocktaking and Critical Reflection on Proposed Urban Projects”, American Behavioural Scientist 59 no.3, (2015) p.308
9. James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998) p.139