“We have not done anything wrong, nor are we against the government. Why is the government disbanding the market?… I would like to ask [them] to give us an answer… [They are] push[ing] us to the edge. That is too unfair.”

Mr Koh Ah Khoon, Chairman, Association for the Recycling of the Second Hand Goods

For Mr Koh, a veteran peddler at Sungei Road Hawking Zone (SRHZ), his stall provides him with income for sustenance. As the only hawking zone in Singapore that allows rent-free peddling, this 80-year old flea market – indeed the oldest and largest in Singapore, means a great deal to elderly vendors who earn between S$8 to S$10 (£4.50 to £5.50) per day from selling second-hand merchandises, an amount barely sufficient for daily upkeep.

 

Figure 1. Official notice informing vendors and patrons of SRHZ’s closure
(Source: Sholihyn, 2017)

But the market means more than just a source of income. It was also where Mr Koh forged lasting friendships with fellow vendors and customers. Therefore, when the government announced the market’s closure without relocation arrangements, Mr Koh was evidently hard hit (see Figure 1 and quote above). The market space had already been halved in 2011 to make way for the construction of a new train station, displacing over 100 vendors – some of whom were his long-time friends. Now, it was to be cleared completely. This meant that this home of a few decades, holding not just Mr Koh’s livelihood but also his personal memories, would soon cease to exist. For many Singaporeans, it will also mean the loss of a heritage site representing a vibrant facet of urban life that is distinct from the country’s modern skyscrapers. 

In land-scarce Singapore where economic growth thrives overwhelmingly on constant renewal of urban land, the SRHZ – despite its heritage value – is no less spared from state-led redevelopment plans. In 2017, the government declared that the market will be closed permanently from July 11 that same year to facilitate residential development. To ‘minimise disamenities to the public’, vendors were further prohibited from peddling. Instead, they were told to rent a lock-up stall or seek alternative employment opportunities. 

To many of us, this episode of ‘displacement for development’ seems controversial, even unjust. But it is not a rare occurrence in Singapore. As a ‘developmental state’ where the state plays a dominant role in driving economic development, Singapore has initiated urban renewal projects that came at the expense of cultural, heritage and/or nature preservation. While civil society groups have vehemently resisted these projects (e.g. Bukit Brown Cemetery clearance, and Demolition of Golden Mile Complex), the government’s hegemony remains unrivalled with its uncompromising stance and continued lack of citizen engagement in decision-making. 

Yet this time, citizens’ responses to the closure of SRHZ seemed to have opened up possibilities to rework such unequal power dynamics with the state. Determined to fight against the closure, Mr Koh gathered 40 other vendors – under the Association for Recycling of Second-hand Goods – to initiate a petition (Figure 2). In a poignantly drafted statement, they requested the government to acknowledge their right to ‘an honest, dignified living’, and relocate rather than close the market for them to continue peddling. 

And these vendors were not alone in their fight. News of the closure soon triggered ground-up efforts amongst the public to save the market from its demise. Student-artists used portraits and photography to feature stories of vendors and their grief over the closure (see Figure 3). Youth volunteers also carried out weekly walking tours (see here), and took to digital spaces to set up the Save Sungei Road Market Facebook group to rally the public. Others showcased public dissatisfaction towards the closure through videos. “… You’re killing off the culture [of] this place, and it’s very sad” a regular patron commented in a video. Indeed, many were unhappy with the government’s pursuit of commercial gain and its consequent disregard of the community and relationships within the market. By channelling public sentiments into action, the vendors and activist groups successfully gathered 937 signatures for the petition, which was subsequently submitted to the government.

Figure 2: Petition board put up at SRHZ (Source: The Online Citizen)
Figure 3 Student-artist and his portrait featuring SRHZ vendor (Source: Zaccheus, 2018)

These pockets of public activism surrounding SRHZ demonstrate citizens’ collective attempt to claim their ‘right to the city’ – a concept proposed by Henri Lefebvre emphasising the power of urban inhabitants to shape the city in ways they desire. By joining forces with different social groups through multiple platforms, they were able to inject shared meanings to the market and resist state-imposed plans. To quote Dr Chua, President of Singapore Heritage Society, these sentiments reveal that “the … market is an important part of our landscape that makes Singapore more than just shopping malls.” 

Yet, such activism remained insufficient to stave off the eventual closure of the market and dispersal of vendors. However, the government too arranged for vendors to continue peddling, though temporarily, at existing flea markets. This afterthought showed the government’s growing consideration towards the losses and lived experiences of vendors, indicating that ground-up mobilisation by citizens was not entirely futile. 

But much remains to be seen… 

That said, even as we glimpses the opportunity for more progressive state-society interactions in the use of urban space, it is no doubt that public activism remains relatively nascent in Singapore. It might thus be a long time before conclusive progress can be made in citizen-led urban interventions within the city. More broadly, in Singapore where the state almost always prevails, it is also worthwhile to consider to what extent can these claims override state-led decisions on urban space, or more so, its underlying principles of economic rationality, to truly realise the transformative potential of Lefebvre’s right to the city? 

References

Harvey, D. (2003). The right to the city. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27(4): 939-941.

Olds, K. and Yeung, H. (2004). Pathways to global city formation: a view from the developmental city-state of Singapore. Review of International Political Economy 11(3): 489-521.

Notes:

  • This article was originally written as coursework for GY438 Cities and Social Change at LSE in spring 2019.

About the author

Jun Lim completed her undergraduate degree in Geography at the National University of Singapore, and pursued MSc Urbanisation and Development in LSE. After her masters degree, she is back in Singapore to work as an education policy officer for the Singapore government.