THE INTELLIGENT SINGAPOREAN

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The Great Experiment Called City Living

Posted by inspir3d on January 25, 2007

If you are wondering why the word “Urban” doesn’t sound English, it’s because it has everything to do with an ancient city called Ur. Located in Southern Mesopotamia, present day Iraq – at its zenith 4,000 years ago, over 30,000 people clumped together to work, live and play in Ur.

Today Ur is universally recognized as the first urban experiment in city living and very successful was Urland. Ever since then, our species has continually defined cultural, economic, political and technology diversity through their cities. Think Paris – the image of the impressionists and the fin-de-siecle which fills the senses with evocative smells of freshly baked baguettes – and you will get an idea of what I am trying to convey. It’s a linchpin – a peg – a capstone of how we make sense of who we are in relation to an ever changing world.

Cities have always fascinated me – I remember with fondness during my university days, building 1/142 scale model skyscrapers out of card board and subjecting them to wind tunnel tests to simulate the effects of 100 mph tornadoes. It was part of my thesis on wind dynamics; the whole idea of lower Manhattan spreading out on my table jostling for real estate next to my half eaten pizza simply blew my mind away.

Closer to the pavement where the rubber meets the road, I reveled in the amazing human cocktail, a surreal and fascinating mix of people who made up the city dwellers in great cities like NYC.

There were Punjabi yellow cab drivers who hardly spoke a word of English. Even if they did, you still had to resort to sign language to be understood. There were Sicilian store keepers who always smelled of oiled olives. There were Puerto Ricans who always wore colorful bandanas and carried their tattoos with just enough pride to say, I have something worth looking at. There were Rastafarians with their exotic smelling cigarettes. Like I said, it was a heady mix, one that so riveted me because every value which appeals to my sense of being a human being – cosmopolitanism, intellectualism, liberalism, pluralism – was cradled and nurtured in the city. And everything that I am against – intolerance, secularism, fanaticism, prudishness, false pride and stasis has, I suspect, a lot to do with the wide expanse of country living, where space simply means one simply doesn’t need to develop a sense of the universal.

As you probably realize by now – I am a true bitumen asphalt city boy born and bred in our city state Singapore – one who wonders, when he is gazing at a lake, whether it isn’t just a giant puddle, or whether the Grand Canyon isn’t simply an immense pot hole. Go back 3 generations, and all my family were subsistence farmers with humps eking out a miserable living from the grace of the good earth. It was a life of back breaking tedium that left them surviving on tree bark; all of them dropped dead or jumped off the cliff before 40.

To me, city living, whether it’s in NYC, London, Bangkok or Singapore, represents the ultimate convergence of cultures, concepts and varieties, even though cities are often fingered and resented as the enfant terrible of civilized living – notorious for their rudeness, brashness, crowds and moral turpitude. This doesn’t detract from the fact that cities will always continue to assert their cultural primacy, because they are where everything mixes together and gets stirred. Or am I perhaps simplifying things? What really comes out of cities? Is it all good? If not, does the good outweigh the bad?

Well, it really depends. I say this with a hint of regret knowing only too well how the ongoing human experiment of city living can sometimes throw out contradictions – take the case of the Chinatown redevelopment scheme by URA, where whole communities were gutted out only to be refashioned into a cultural Chernobyl of glass and steel. That’s what happens when the urban experiment goes awry, that’s what happens when urban planners fail to factor in the pre-existing social geology of a place, that’s what happens when architecture is reduced to merely eye candy or aesthetic distractions, which fail miserably to answer the needs of communities who yearn for buildings that genuinely welcome people by respecting their sense of history and scale. In this crucial respect, the Chinatown redevelopment program is a failure.

This only serves to highlight that city living, or what I term the great human experiment, presents real challenges. It doesn’t take a whole lot of brain juice to figure out what happens when you take people from all over the world – Kalimantan brides, Nigerian scam artists, British lager louts, American red necks, Bangladeshi expatriates, Mainland Chinese lamian cooks – and cram them all into a small place bordered by the ECP, PIE and SLE. How will they interact with each other? What are the possible outcomes?

The stakes are high. In human history, a mixture of people this cacophonous has never been tried before – where globalization is made flesh and we really are the whole world in one city!

And yes, we should admit this means many of the problems of the world will wash up like flotsams from distant places to our shores. People after all carry their cultures, histories, religion and sense of being along with them. And to exacerbate the complexity, people all possess multiple identities – that a man will not just be either a gay, but gay, catholic, liberal, British and a PR – what no one can really predict is how one of those identities swallows up the rest to finally settle happily into what one ultimately refers to as “character.”

For the time being, it remains a delightful mystery – one that carries with it a loaded question where the stakes remain high. Getting it wrong means that we may find ourselves like Parisians watching the bonfire of the vain car owners lamenting as youths rampage over job discrimination and police harassment, or having to deal with religious cults and fanatics (both Islamic and Christians along with the Mickey Mouse fan club) who play out the return of the body snatchers as they spread their twisted blend of religion to the unassuming masses. And though we may all say that we attach importance to all our identities without slighting the religious or racial sensibilities of others, why do people so easily forget this and attack those who seem different and foreign?

The puzzle remains: Why do we succumb so readily to appeals based on the irrational forms of identity – ethnic, racial, religious and our ongoing preoccupation with what it means to be a Singaporean, against those who may choose to regard this as their surrogate home away from home? To me this smacks of cultural purity and is an oxymoron – it’s only true if you believe foreigners only come here because they are motivated by money and tax holidays. At best it’s a facile argument that fails to recognize how people are, after all, complex beings who may have decided to vote with their slippers because they may not agree with the political system in their countries, or because they rue the persecution directed against their race, creed and religious beliefs, or simply because their state controlled media doesn’t allow Britney Spears videos to be screened.

People are complex, and against this polyglot melting pot called the urban experiment, we need to migrate out of the formulaic mindset of comparing and contrasting what we have or have lost against foreigners. Not only does this mindset promote social isolation, it is also akin to endorsing a form of apartheid where foreigners are constantly reminded they don’t have the same medical benefits or rights as us Roman citizens. Above all, it is arrogant as it is contrite, as we continue to immerse ourselves in an old, inherited ethos of what the world should be, instead of what it already is and will soon be – a borderless world where no man is an island, and where harboring the notion of purity – be it on nationality, religion, laws, dogmas, or how to wash a car on a Sunday afternoon – simply means we haven’t really bothered to master the art of conversations to know our neighbors better.

If we really bothered to greet that foreign worker and simply exchange a few words with him in the void deck, we would soon realize that though we may live in one world, one Singapore, one district or in one housing block, each of us has many different ways of interpreting and making sense of our place in this world. Some are effective for particular purposes – space travel comes more easily to those who have an appreciation of Physics. But the world allows plenty of leeway for interpretation. To understand what we do and do not have in common, we can only engage in conversation with each other. And since both the human species and each of its members deals with the world with a variety of interpretative techniques, there is much to talk about, and even more to learn about your place, his place and their place in the world. For if the truth be known, as we continue to welcome those from distant shores into our fold and treat them as we would like to be treated, it simply says that we are matured enough to lend ourselves to the most exciting experiment of our time, where we, the human species, are transformed into the building blocks, components and raw materials of what is called the human spirit.

End.

The Great Experiment Called City Living / By Harphoon – Trajan/ The Brotherhood / Politics / Sociology / Econs / 23992/2007

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One Response to “The Great Experiment Called City Living”

  1. Permanent Resident said

    “If we really bothered to greet that foreign worker and simply exchange a few words with him in the void deck, we would soon realize that though we may live in one world, one Singapore, one district or in one housing block, each of us has many different ways of interpreting and making sense of our place in this world. Some are effective for particular purposes – space travel comes more easily to those who have an appreciation of Physics. But the world allows plenty of leeway for interpretation. To understand what we do and do not have in common, we can only engage in conversation with each other. And since both the human species and each of its members deals with the world with a variety of interpretative techniques, there is much to talk about, and even more to learn about your place, his place and their place in the world.”

    How very true my friend. I may not know much abt the brotherhood, but I do know this, all of you are thinkers and that at least still gives many of us hopes. Both me and my wife came here 5 years ago from a distant land, you are right in mentioning our main reason for doing so was not economic, but rather, we wanted our children to grow up in a fair and just society, free from the violence, corruption and discrimination of our country.

    Our life here has been good and we give thanks to God every day for being able to live in this great country, but of late, we have noticed even the government appears to have taken a partisan view when it comes to managing the welfare of immigrants. Most singaporeans fail to understand how many of us are just ordinary folk, we dont earn above the average pay, we pay taxes like the rest of you and when I see a growing national resentment brewing against foreigners, it concerns me as I am reminded of the past.

    I may not have done national service or even know how to shoot a gun, but we have made sacrifices to come over to your shores, we have left our loved ones behind, we have had to forget and re-learn new life skills just to fit in – there are many things which we have done which equal and in some cases even exceeded the demands of national service and one day, it is my hope as a father my son will one day fight and if necessary die for this country.

    I wanted to say many things my friend, but you have said it all and it gives both me and my wife much hope to know there are still people who care enough to take an interest in our plight, it is heart warming to know these things.

    In my country, it is said there are two types of men, those who see themselves in the mirror and then, there are those who see themselves in others and it is the latter who will always walk into the hearts of others.

    Long live the brotherhood!

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