Singapore, an island city-state, is often viewed as a model ‘garden city’ by many (Chua, 2011). Like many East Asian economies, it has enjoyed a period of fast-paced, condensed urbanisation (Shin et al., 2020). At the same time, climate change is becoming increasingly critical in urban policy. As such, Ren (2012) proposes that this phenomenon can be labelled as ‘green spectacularisation’ (pp. 26), used to create an image for wealth accumulation.
Founded in 1819, Singapore was established as a British trading outpost. Consequently, 90% of the island’s forests were transformed into fruit plantations and later into plantations for rubber and other agricultural products (Barnard and Heng, 2014). It was only after gaining independence in 1965 did the state start embarking on greening programmes and comprehensive urban planning initiatives in a bid to transform the city-state into a global metropolis.
Central to its urbanisation journey are well-planned public housing towns. Tengah Forest Town is currently under construction as Singapore’s newest town, its twenty-fourth. With a size of 700 hectares, it sits alongside the Jurong Innovation District and Jurong Lake District – Singapore’s new and second central business district. Tengah Forest Town is an interesting project to explore as it strongly focuses on nature and the community through the 42,000 homes intertwined under the forest theme.
Thus, this analysis aims to investigate how Singapore and its upcoming Tengah Forest Town have utilised green urbanism while resulting in the deforestation of an extensive secondary rainforest. The blog will explore how this has been conceptualised, conveyed and contested by various groups and showcase how the state’s green hegemonic narratives are often used as an aesthetic instrument to promote Singapore on the global scale.
Sustainability Fix and Green Aesthetics
Since its independence, Singapore has continually attempted to develop its image as a ‘Garden City’. The greening programme had a practical purpose. Singapore, a new country with no natural resources, needed to attract foreign investment to jumpstart its economy (Schneider-Mayerson, 2017). At the same time, ‘solutions’ to climate change have necessitated building new urban environments along environmental and technocratic lines. The expanding number of proposed, planned, and constructed eco-cities illustrates these interventions as a means of addressing sustainability as cities reconfigure themselves to be ‘green’ (Pow and Neo 2013).
Thus, the concept of a sustainability fix emphasises the selective implementation of ecological aims in urban governance. In Singapore, plans for the construction of parks and recreational facilities have been regularly relegated since the 1950s due to more pressing concerns about housing and jobs (Yuen, 1996). However, greenery has progressively been perceived as a symbol of stability, wealth, and discipline (Barnard & Heng, 2014). This is then used to promote images of the city as clean and inviting (While et al., 2004).
This is underpinned by the state’s attempt to appeal to a global network of global cities where transportation infrastructures, financial markets and circuits of financial services, and information and communications technologies facilitate connections and flows between economic and political elites (Sassen, 1991). As a result, Tengah must be understood within the larger socio-technical, economic, and environmental framework in which they operate. Tengah has been transformed into a ‘spectacle’ in which a manicured and curated version of urban nature replaces the natural. Ultimately, the existing forest has been cleared only to allow for the construction of new and ‘better’ forms of nature to green the city through three-dimensional green architecture such as green roofs and walls (Newman, 2014). Nature has thus become a quantitative instrument (Neo, 2007), with various levels of greenery now forming part of the state’s green hegemonic narrative.
Secondly, the creation of a ‘Garden City’ has been and continues to be top-down (Yuen, 1996) via an eco-authoritarian model. The ‘eco-authoritarian’ ideals were originally articulated in the writings of Heilbroner (1974) and Ophuls (1977). They felt that due to the consequences of unfettered autonomy in a world bounded by ecological boundaries, market liberal democracy should be replaced by some form of authoritarian governance.
In Singapore, residents are led to believe that developing Singapore into a green city is critical for survival. (Velegrinis and Weller 2007) Thus, it raises questions regarding the politics of futurity and also enables us to consider ‘how futurity itself becomes a way of governance’ (Roy, 2016: 318). Waldby (2009) writes that crisis is the mother of the Singaporean state. Climate change forms part of this fitting narrative as yet another threat to the existence and security of a small country. This produces an environment of anxiety (Velegrinis and Weller 2007), demonstrating how nature in Singapore has been reshaped to fit the social imagery of Singapore as a developing nation (Kong and Yeoh, 1996).
Thus, the management of urban space is an important component of nation-building and socio-political engineering (Caprotti, 2014). As a developmental particularist version of productivist welfare capitalism, the state’s legitimacy is mostly determined by its ability to develop the country. However, a shift in the political climate was evident in 2011, when the ruling party had its poorest performance ever in the general elections. As a result, significant changes have occurred in Singapore society (Ortmann, 2016). For example, the Ministry of National Development announced changes to the environmental impact assessment approach, stating that environmental studies should be more transparent and community groups should be consulted early (Abdullah, 2021).
However, this has not been wholly successful. The Nature Society of Singapore (NSS), an opposer of the Tengah project, contends that the morphology of Tengah Forest Town will be unsuitable to serve as a forest ecosystem. Despite the construction of a five-kilometre-long green corridor, various flora and fauna will be packed into a severely undersized environment with disastrous ecological implications (NSS, 2018). While they advised that eco-links/bridges be developed as a key component of the Tengah Forest Town, their recommendations were mostly ignored. This demonstrates how there continue to be inherent tensions between the state and various community groups in shaping the state’s green hegemonic narrative.
State Capitalism and Manipulation
Third, at the COP26 summit in Glasgow at the end of 2021, Singapore vowed to stop deforestation by 2030, joining 130 other countries in doing so. However, this is perplexing given Singapore’s recent involvement in a number of contentious deforestation initiatives. The Tengah Forest Town encroaches on a secondary forest known for its biological importance. Singapore has the world’s seventh-highest per capita ecological footprint (World Wildlife Foundation, 2014), and it outperforms its biocapacity by 12,700%.
Therefore, the Tengah Forest Town demonstrates how ‘sustainability’ is attained without questioning current hegemonic capitalistic ideals and institutions (Harvey, 1996). Favourable indicators are used to paint a more encouraging picture of Singapore. Greenhouse gas emissions are frequently measured against Gross Domestic Product rather than population size. Consequently, Singapore’s disproportionate carbon footprint is frequently attributed to the fact that it is a small island with limited natural resources (Today online, 2012).As such, reputation management is perceived as essential, and the National Climate Change Secretariat of Singapore often issues press releases in response to foreign critiques (ibid.). The state’s domination of media also extends to land, property, and the economy. Its unique stronghold allows Singapore to engage in capital accumulation through the urban space (Shatkin, 2014) by employing its sovereign wealth fund, Temasek Holdings, to take up substantial stakes in Singapore’s main developers under a framework of state capitalism (McNeill, 2019).
The deliberate cultivation of a green environment demonstrates how mechanisms of command and control and the production of an ostensibly organic spectacle symbolically support Singapore’s emergence as a ‘city in nature.’ Even as it depicts this development as a plan for sustainability, the Singapore government has resorted to environmental manipulation (Chua, 2017). The state has deeply integrated social power and utilised it as an effective instrument for the state’s green hegemonic narrative.
In this blog, I have demonstrated a longstanding tension between the protection of nature and the need to provide land for Singapore’s developmental needs. The blog has also highlighted how Singapore is embarking on a type of everyday spectacular urbanisation by painting Singapore as a ‘City in Nature’ and Tengah as a ‘Forest Town.’ Rather than improving structural concerns and governance measures, business-as-usual strategies are solidified with additional greenery and green technologies (Harvey, 1996). Consequently, green spectacles, as a method of competing with other cities and impressing national governments, will not result in future sustainable cities (Ren, 2012).
Increasingly, there are concerns that top-down planning and policymaking that prioritises economic growth may overlook issues of social equity. At the same time, Singapore’s physical expansion is hampered by physical boundaries, while the city-state faces greater competition from developing economies in the region. Maintaining sustainable economic and tourism development trajectories while truly addressing issues of sustainability will be critical in the coming years for Singapore.
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About the author
Bryan Goh is a recent MSc City Design and Social Science graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Prior to this, he studied for BS Urban Planning, Design and Management at the University College London.