Opinion: Here’s Why Singapore is ‘Boring’

There is no rational reason for Singapore to be boring. The small city-state has restaurants selling everything from chili crab to caviar, architecture that looks like it is lifted straight from Avatar’s Pandora, and a relatively vibrant nightlife.

In some respects, Singapore does better than other great cities. In 2020, for example, the city had close to 14,000 F&B outlets – a number that is higher than that of cities like San Francisco, Melbourne, and Toronto. Similarly, when looking at the percentage of the city that is green space, Singapore significantly outperforms New York, Tokyo, London, and Hong Kong.

Ephemeral Elements

Deepavali celebrated in Chennai, India. (Source)

Why then has it been hard for the island to shake off its reputation for being boring? The answer lies not in multi-million-dollar developments, but rather in the day-to-day, in the mundane and pedestrian.

Ephemeral elements are those that have a temporal aspect to them. Think of farmers’ markets in San Francisco, religious street processions in India, buskers on Parisian squares, and even graffiti on the walls of a German train station.

While architecture and urban planning are often centered around the permanent, ephemeral landscapes and events are temporary.

This means that the walk that you take to work might look, feel, and sound different on a day-to-day basis. Daily repetition turns into a more transient and variable experience with these elements.

JB Jackson uses the example of a travelling circus to show how these elements can be positive. On the first level, when the tent is pitched, the regular flow of the static city is disrupted, creating a sense of spontaneity and excitement. On the second level, the circus itself serves as a unifying force, bringing together children of different backgrounds and ethnicities.

Singapore & Ephemeral Elements

British seamen perform the Dance of the Flaming Arseholes, 1978.  (Source)

Over the years, Singapore has minimised these ephemeral elements, placing an importance on permanence, order, and safety. During the 1960s-1980s, Bugis Street transformed from “a plain, small street” during the day to a nightspot for trans women and drag queens.

On any given night, there was a chance that a visiting serviceman might perform the Dance of Flaming Arseholes. This was an act which entailed dancing on top of a public toilet with lit toilet roll stuck up one’s rear. It was this kind of spontaneity that made the street famous worldwide.

Wherever you go, all over the world, people will ask you, ’is Bugis Street still going strong?’ is, in its own particular way, one of Singapore’s windows and is as much a part of our city as Montmartre is to Paris

The Singapore Free Press, 1957.

Today, the street is part of a giant, air-conditioned mall which has a Cold Storage, Uniqlo and a McDonald’s. From having multiple ephemeral elements and a unique character, the street has become a sanitized, static space, where every visit is similar.

Hawkers and Pasar Malams have undergone similar transitions too.

Regulations Today

Even today, ephemeral elements continue to be limited in Singapore through regulations. To be a busker, for example, one must go through a workshop, try out at an audition, and apply for a license. Then, they might have to make online bookings to play at pre-determined locations that are scattered throughout the city.

When Priyageetha Dia turned the staircase of her HDB block from grey to gold, she set off a debate about public art. (Source)

Ephemeral design is also in short supply in Singapore, with graffiti and non-commissioned public art being serious offences. Vandalism can be punished by a fine of up to $2000 or a prison sentence not exceeding 3 years along with corporal punishment.

Town council by-laws and fire safety regulations have also historically stopped Singaporeans from creating public art in Housing Development Board blocks. Similarly, events like farmer’s markets, fairs and carnivals don’t happen enough.

Even celebrations like Deepavali are celebrated in the same way every year, with decorations hung over streetlamps and a fair organized nearby. Compared to the organic forms that these celebrations might take on elsewhere, the celebrations are way more structured here.

Finding a Better Balance

This isn’t to say that these regulations are inherently bad. Safety, order, and comfort are things that a city should aspire to. The Bugis Street of old had frequent gang clashes, hygiene is inherently an issue with street hawkers, graffiti and public art can be offensive or just plain bad.

It’s important that we don’t mistake the messiness arising from need and want with ‘vibrancy. What we should do is to try and slightly recalibrate this trade-off between order and organic agency.

This could mean less restrictive busking laws, more dedicated public spaces for community and temporary art, and the activation of dormant public spaces like our void decks. An article by Yale-NUS students suggests having farmers’ markets in void decks in support of the government’s 30 by 30 goal (locally producing 30% of Singapore’s food needs by 2030) and to foster more creative ways of interaction between residences, for example.

By increasing these ephemeral elements in our city, we add a layer of spontaneity and excitement, ensuring that no two days are similar.

Maybe, finally then, Singapore can shake off its reputation for being a ‘boring city’.

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Originally published in October 2022 on Instagram.

In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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