“Changing Landscapes” in Southeast Asia

my visitors exploring Dempsey Hill

Last week while my parents were in town I spent some time as a tourist in Singapore.  After about seven months of living and researching here it was nice to have a few days to explore and enjoy many of Singapore’s amenities that I never seem to have time to see.  For instance I finally explored Singapore’s Botanical Gardens, Rochester Park – an area of black and white  bungalows, and Dempsey Hill – former British military barracks, now restaurants.  I even had time to enjoy my favorite urban tourist activity: enjoying the view from one of the city’s highest bars (in Singapore atop the Swissotel).

view of Marina Bay and the Harbor of Singapore from the Swissotel bar

During their stay in Asia my parents and I also took a short trip to Ubud in Bali.  Although not the typical Balinese beach town you imagine, the cultural, mountainous town of Ubud was a nice break from Singapore. It didn’t hit me though until we got off the plane and into a car, on the disorderly and unpredictable roads of Bali, that the clean, planned, and orderly Singapore was very similar to Bali not too long ago.  As anyone who has studied development in Asia knows the “Singapore story” is famous for many development achievements including eliminating all slums, housing 80% of the nation’s population in public housing, and cleaning up the polluted Singapore River in 10 years time.  But knowing this story all to well from my work, I also wonder what was here before all these projects, and how different is it from the current state of Singapore’s neighbors?

the streets of Bali

women going to the temple on Sunday in Ubud

fields of rice in Ubud

on the way to Ubud

cooking ribs street side in Ubud

On their last day in Singapore I took my parents to one of my favorite used book stores in Bras Basah Complex and happened to come across a book written in 1983 about the “transformation” of three Singapore neighborhoods: Singapore Changing Landscapes: Geylang, Chinatown and Serangoon.  The book, published by the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, conveniently presented the positive side of these urban renewal stories, and avoided any of the controversies that come along with massive up grading projects.  I have to admit I bought the book for the photos and not the story.  Particularly because some images of Singapore in the past seemed strikingly similar to Singapore’s less developed neighbors today.

Chinatown 1983 - from "Singapore Changing Landscapes: Geylang, Chinatown and Serangoon"

Serangoon aka "Little India" 1983 - from "Singapore Changing Landscapes: Geylang, Chinatown and Serangoon"

The Singapore River circa 1980 - from "Singapore Changing Landscapes: Geylang, Chinatown and Serangoon"

I hate to romanticize underdeveloped, impoverished places but the similarities in what Singapore was and how Bali still is leave me to wonder what was lost at the cost of this development?  Although this clean, green, efficient city is wonderful to live and work in compared to the sprawling, congested megacities in other Southeast Asia countries I still often wish that more of Singapore’s past could be seen in the current urban fabric.  Since the past is not visible in the physical landscape of the city I cherish every story that my Singaporean friends tell about their city’s past. Stories about fruit and dragon themed playgrounds of their childhood, the significance of the recently closed McDonald’s at the beach during their teens, the hours spent in void decks with good friends late into the night, and their grandparent’s businesses along the Singapore River before it became a tourist trap.  With each new story Singapore’s past becomes much more personal to me.

At the end of their trip my Dad advised me to take my next out of town guest to Bali first then to Singapore so that they could fully appreciate what Singapore is today and also better understand the stories about its past.

So who wants to visit me in Southeast Asia next?

– Melissa

The Singapore River Today

Image Credits: the first seven images and the last were photos taken by the author.  All other images are from the Book “Singapore Changing Landscapes” 1983 Published by the Singapore Broadcasting Association.

One comment

  1. Leonard Ng

    HI Melissa, I always enjoy reading your perceptive commentaries on urbanism. Please keep it coming. Rgds, Leo

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