SINGAPORE – By any measure, this island of 5.7 million people is a global city, only a half century old as a post-colonial outpost that won independence in 1965, and already a world pace setter in many categories.
It’s a tiny nation without natural resources, yet one that has proven the power of human capital. Singapore is now one of the leading international financial centers. It’s the number one destination for the outflow of Chinese wealth, and some think it will soon surpass Switzerland and London as a global banking and financial capital. Business surveys rank it at the very top of Asian nations for human capital – highly educated, skilled workers.
Few cities are as diverse. One-third of the workers here are foreigners, and the local population is drawn largely from three very distinct geographies and cultures: majority Chinese, followed by Malays, and then mostly southern Indians. There is social peace among all the groups and a distinct lack of racial or ethnic tension.
That diversity and the high number of foreign workers is due in no small part to liberal immigration policies that have yielded significant “brain gain” and grown an initial population of 1 million-plus at independence to its present size. Those policies will probably tighten in the coming years as the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) addresses the enviable problem of too many people wanting a good thing. Strong economic growth, however desirable, can’t lead to unrestricted population growth or the city will become a less livable and affordable metropolis and more and more of the surrounding countryside will be absorbed into the urban core.
Singapore’s appeal is, in part, its livability for such a wealthy city: it’s one of the cleanest cities in the world, surrounded by water, and generally void of blight, vacancy, graffiti, and litter. The crime rate is low. I saw no homeless residents in the center city, in Chinatown, or in Little India while there for one week in October. Green spaces, pocket parks, waterfront parks, and public art abound.
Singapore is a food paradise, whether you are sampling chili crab at a destination restaurant or visiting the market stalls for barbecued chicken eaten on a paper plate at a picnic table. The city’s ethnic diversity offers the best of Asia, although I couldn’t help but notice during daily walks from our hotel the venerable colonial-era raffles, that a particular German beer garden seemed packed at all hours of the day.
Hundreds of office and residential towers have been constructed in the last few decades, giving the city a breathtaking, contemporary skyline with many works of distinctive architecture. None is more unusual than the Marina Bay Sands Hotel with its ship-like structure atop the towers that is home to an outdoor infinity pool on the 57th floor, which locals claim is the world’s highest and largest such amenity. The lead photo in this article was one I took there, but it doesn’t do the view justice.
Singapore is easily recognized by any world traveler, but what can San Antonio emulate from a city so distant and different? Plenty.
Linking Economic Development with Public Education
First, as the preceding articles in this series make amply clear: Singapore’s leaders have built the nation’s economic development and public education strategies hand in hand, and one is never considered without the other. While many Westerners would consider Singaporean society a little too central-planned for U.S. tastes, and its one-party democracy problematic, the government’s accomplishments in a finite period of 50 years are almost impossible to exaggerate.
Ever since then-Mayor Julián Castro declared the “decade of downtown” after taking office in 2009, San Antonio has been rightly focused on breathing new life and energy into its urban core. The city has added thousands of new residential apartments, incentivized more businesses to locate downtown, supported an emerging tech district, and attacked blight and vacancy. Major redevelopment and improvement projects are in the works, funded by the 2012 and, if voters agree come May, the 2017 bond.
At the same time, serious efforts are underway to improve education options in the inner city, with significant programs to extend early childhood education programs, improve district education outcomes, establish more public charters, and elevate the quality of the community colleges and higher education institutions.
The two initiatives seldom are linked, although that has been changing with the redevelopment of the Fox Tech campus. San Antonio could learn from Singapore on this front.
Planning for the Long Term
Singapore is a one-party state and it had a single visionary and, to some degree, autocratic, benevolent leader in Lee Kuan Yew for 31 years. Decision making, execution, and budgeting were far easier for him than it is for San Antonio where city officials lack the funds to fully address basic infrastructure needs, and where the two-year terms for elected officeholders discourage continuity of planning and execution.
Mayor Castro’s agenda coincided nicely with the goals of his predecessor, Mayor Phil Hardberger. Mayor Ivy Taylor has had her own agenda, what has become the SA Tomorrow plan and that has sort of subsumed Castro’s SA2020. Taylor could hold the office for six more years, more than enough time to get some things done, but what would those things be?
The SA Tomorrow plan anticipates population growth of 1 million people over the next 25 years in a city that already has one of the worst sprawling footprints in the nation. But most people would be hard pressed to name one major initiative designed to address and curb such sprawl that is funded and on track to happen.
San Antonio might know what is going to happen over the next 25 years if its leaders do not act, but no one knows if they will act, or if they do, what action they will take.
Nowhere is that more evident than in public transportation. Singapore has the density to justify its Mass Rapid Transit system, and as someone who rode it aimlessly twice during my stay, it is expansive and a fast way to move through and under the city. I hopped a bus, which was modern, comfortable and on time, and I called Uber once. I also used the taxis, which were quite affordable.
Singapore started planning its transit system in 1965. San Antonio will never have a really good mass transit system unless it gets serious about a project that will take decades to complete, in phases, and that will cost billions. A 21st century transit system for San Antonio could be the single best way to accelerate economic development, retain skilled workers, reduce air pollution, and the time people spend in traffic on clogged expressways. The private sector investment that happens along busy rail lines is another reason to diversify beyond bus service.
It also takes time to design and build memorable public spaces. The extravagant Gardens by the Bay took four years and $1 billion to create. Even for the non-horticulture fan it holds a curious appeal.
More than 500,000 plants and flowers from throughout the world are present in the sprawling park with two massive domed conservatories that mimic differing climates. Outdoor sections are open 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily to make the most of the (relative) coolness outside of daylight hours. I spent a post-midnight hour there one night and the park was alive with young lovers and even some vacationing families with young children dazzled by the lights and surreal spaces.
These include the wacky Super Trees – giant vertical garden towers linked by a dizzyingly high walkway. Inevitably they’re featured in a nightly laser show. One of the “trees” houses a restaurant.
Activate Street Life
What’s evident in Singapore is just as evident in Mexico City. San Antonio is dying for a little street life. Yes, there are wandering mariachi on the Paseo del Rio, but that’s about it. Quick: Name a great street taco stand downtown. What’s the best place to see a good street theater act in San Antonio? Recommend five truly dramatic works of public art in the urban core.
In my own travels to other cities, I am always on the lookout for ways to live like a local, to experience the city as its knowledgable residents experience it.
It’s a city that deserves to call itself world class, but Singaporeans are too modest to call such attention to themselves. What that city has accomplished can serve to inspire us in San Antonio to plan and work for a richer and more prosperous future.
Tuesday: Singapore: A Meritocracy of Teachers & Principals
Wednesday: Singapore: The Planet’s Great City-State