Planning for success: Singapore, the model city-state?

AuthorHenderson, Joan C.

This article discusses issues of development in Singapore and their implications for other rapidly growing urban areas in Asia. Formerly a British colony, the multiethnic republic of Singapore has flourished in the nearly fifty years since achieving independence. The article explores Singapore's distinctive economic and political systems and assesses official approaches to plan both its physical and sociocultural environments. It also discusses how Singapore's foreign policy impacts the country's role as a popular tourist destination. The city-state's government has critics, but Singapore's efficiency, economic successes, safety and security are impossible to deny. However, maintaining momentum and securing sustainable growth will be a challenge for policy makers in the years ahead due to new domestic and international uncertainties. While Singapore's experiences are unique, analysis of this city-state helps illuminate both development processes at work in Asia and methods for managing such changes. Given the projected expansion of Asian metropolitan areas, dealing effectively with the problems that arise alongside urbanization is a critical task confronting authorities across much of the region.

Cities and countries across Asia have expanded at a rapid pace in recent years--a consequence of economic advances, industrialization, population enlargement, migration and shifts in global trade and capital flows. This article focuses on the case of Singapore, a particularly interesting example because it is a relatively young city-state with a multiethnic population and a history of colonization. It has achieved significant economic success on its journey toward nationhood. But challenges confront Singapore as it strives to maintain growth and enhance its position, both generally and as a leading tourist destination, in a world of change and uncertainty. Although distinctive, there are lessons to be learned from Singapore's experiences that yield insights into managing urban development and promoting tourism elsewhere. The case of Singapore also demonstrates the important place of small states--and especially cities--in the international community.


Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles claimed Singapore, an island at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, as a trading post for the British East India Company in 1819. It was later combined with Penang and Malacca in an administrative entity known as the Straits Settlements, which became a crown colony of Britain in 1867. The Second World War and Japanese invasion of the Malay Peninsula in 1942 interrupted colonial rule, with the subsequent Japanese occupation contradicting assertions of British invincibility and strengthening postwar moves toward Singapore's independence. Singapore was granted the right of internal self-government in 1959 and joined the Malaysian Federation when it formed in 1963, bur broke away in 1965 because of irreconcilable differences. Doubts about whether the small island republic would survive as an independent nation were put to rest as it flourished under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew and the People's Action Party (PAP). The PAP won elections in 1959 and has remained in office ever since, now dominating the unicameral parliamentary republic. Singapore's government has been described as a hybrid regime, not quite democratic and not quite authoritarian. The government is well known for its pursuit of order and control through censorship, electoral regulations, libel laws and other restrictions which impinge on many aspects of life and inhibit active opposition. (1) However, citizens who appreciate the returns accruing from sound economic management and nation-building endeavors have tolerated the government's approach.

After independence, the government adopted export-oriented economic policies that favored business and foreign investment and were accompanied by "state-directed investments in strategic government-owned corporations." (2) The underlying principle of a free and outward-looking market helped to produce average annual GDP growth rates of more than 8 percent from 1966 to 1999, and Singapore remains among the wealthiest Asian nations. It is home to over seven thousand multinational companies, one hundred thousand small and medium enterprises and the world's busiest container transshipment hub. (3) Manufacturing and services are pillars of the economy, and the financial- and business-services sectors account for 11 percent of annual GDP. (4) The open nature of Singapore's economy and its dependence on trade and exports make it vulnerable to economic movements worldwide, bur it has substantial reserves of foreign exchange to cushion against shocks. Transparency and the absence of the corruption common in much of Southeast Asia further inspire investor confidence. As a result, Singapore is considered one of the easiest countries in which to set up and do business. (5) Despite criticism of the political system, the PAP has been instrumental in the construction of a successful economy and a "relatively harmonious multicultural society that enjoys a high standard of living, with good amenities, education, healthcare, housing and transport." (6)

Looking ahead, the political climate in Singapore may be changing. In the 2011 elections, the incumbent regime's share of the popular vote fell from about 67 percent in 2006 elections to around 60 percent. The historic low was due in part to economic grievances among low- and middle-income earners worried about the escalating cost of living and an influx of immigrants, who comprise about a third of the workforce. (7) The presence of online debate, facilitated by social media, and a better-organized opposition also influenced the results. The PAP, now led by Lee Kuan Yew's son, Lee Hsien Loong, still holds a parliamentary majority of eightyone out of eighty-seven seats and has a firm hold on power. However, statements by the prime minister in the aftermath of what he called "watershed" elections suggest a greater willingness to listen and respond to the electorate. (8) He spoke of the "need to be less centralised, more interactive," and to "have more initiatives from the ground up, and fewer top-down directions." (9) Another turning point may come with the death of Lee Kuan Yew, who retired from his cabinet post after the 2011 elections and is eighty-eight years old. Rivalries may appear within the PAP after the demise of such a unifying figure, signaling the decline of the Lee family's role in Singapore politics. (10)


In addition to pursuing long-term political and economic strategies, the government has sought to shape social and environmental aspects of the city-state. With a total population of around 5.2 million, Singapore is one of the world's most densely populated cities. The majority of Singaporeans live in blocks of high-rise buildings administered by the Housing & Development Board. (11) The racial mix of citizens illuminates Singapore's history and the manner in which the original Malay inhabitants were gradually outnumbered by Chinese migrants and other immigrants from around the world. Ethnic Chinese comprise about 74 percent of Singapore residents, while Malays and Indians represent 13 and 9 percent, respectively. (12) Race is a sensitive matter in Singapore, as there are occasional frictions between minority and majority groups, and officials take pains to avoid a repeat of the 1964 race riots. (13) Race-based political parties are banned and there are quotas on the allocation of public housing to prevent the formation of ghettos. Media content is regulated; material that is judged a threat to racial and religious harmony is proscribed on the grounds of safeguarding the national interest. (14)

With regard to the physical landscape, Singapore has a land area of around 712 square kilometers, comprised of a main island and sixty-three small islets. The government has attempted to reclaim available land for expansion, but this effort is reaching its limits. Space and other natural resources are in short supply and therefore require efficient management. Shortly after independence, the government introduced a system of centralized urban planning enacted through powers of compulsory acquisition. In 1971 the government devised the Concept Plan, which sets the direction for development over a forty- to fifty-year period, and is revised every ten years in light of changing circumstances and national goals. A more specific Master Plan follows from each Concept Plan revision and addresses how individual parcels of land will be used over a shorter ten- to fifteen-year time span. The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), under the Ministry of National Development, deals with planning and development. The URA is considered by the government to be vitally important because of the country's finite land and the need to maximize its commercial potential and satisfy the housing...

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