What Makes a Great City

by singaporearmchaircritic

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“There is a certain something in the air, in the look and in the sound of Paris, that cannot be found anywhere else.” George Sand

I am back from my sojourn in Paris, a place I knew I would miss dearly even before my return to Singapore. My friend tried to console me, “Maybe you’ll bring back a new perspective; a new way of looking at your city.”

During my month-long stay in Paris, my dormant right brain had taken over and I had not been keeping up with what’s going on in Singapore, which explains why my blog was growing cobwebs. On the long flight home I tried to remind myself what I love about the place where I was born and bred: the people dear to me, the luscious greenery, the beautiful shophouses, a good, thick cup of kopi, the safe environment, and my relatively cushy job.

But the more I delved into it, the more I realized what’s missing in Singapore: here I seldom get the sense that I was living. Alive, yes, but merely going through the motions. The city is uninspiring and souless; what I see and experience here often fill me with anger and a sense of injustice. For sure, these emotions drive me to continue blogging; yet at the same time they burn me out.

Perhaps I am not alone in feeling so. In the past few years, there has been a general mood of anger and bitterness in our society, predominantly at the government’s missteps that many perceived have created hardships for Singaporeans.

The emotions are so pervasive that some saw it timely to remind us that “Singapore must not become an angry and bitter society,” “Let’s not criticize for the sake of it,” and ah, my favorite platitude: “Be thankful for what we have” (all on Yahoo news, I wonder why).

It is easy to attribute our unhappiness to the nature of Singaporeans, that we complain too much. For what is not likeable about Singapore, baffled detractors may ask. We are Asia’s most liveable city, for goodness sake.

Yet liveable does not mean lovable, as this Financial Times article perspicaciously points out. The author cites a professor of urban development:

We need to ask, what makes a city great? If your idea of a great city is restful, orderly, clean, then that’s fine. You can go live in a gated community… Descartes, writing about 17th century Amsterdam, said that a great city should be ‘an inventory of the possible.’ I like that description.

Singapore hardly fits Descartes’ description. In fact, if we compare the four predominantly Chinese societies today, Singapore is only less restrictive than China. A saying goes:

In Hong Kong, you can do anything except that which is forbidden by law; In Singapore, you cannot do anything except that which is permitted by law; In Taiwan, you can do anything including that which is forbidden by law; In China, you cannot do anything including that which is permitted by law (original saying in Chinese).”

Time and again, people who push the boundaries in Singapore are singled out and punished when our government thinks we are getting out of hand. The “sticker-lady” incident and the recent arrest of the cartoonist behind Demon-cratic Singapore only affirm what we already know – that Singapore is an inventory of the impossible.

Besides a repressive milieu that stifles creativity, the alacrity with which urban planners destroy our heritage also disturbs me. Of course, Singapore has only a very short history but does that not make it more compelling for us to preserve what little heritage we have? The old National Library building and others were long gone, and Bukit Brown is going. What price progress?

Paris is facing a housing shortage. The city’s century-old Metro system is amazingly efficient but totally inaccessible for the handicapped. To solve these problems, our government would no doubt be ruthless in demolishing the old to make way for the new.

But not Paris. The majority of Parisians opposed the building of skyscrapers. Despite the shortage of space, the dead are left to rest in peace – the city has a number of cemeteries where the famous are buried plus an underground ossuary, the Catacombs, which have attracted tourists from all over the world. Medieval houses are still standing in Paris and you can easily find a café rich in history to sip your café-crème in. All these are part of Paris’s charm.

The most magical moment I had in Paris was in the first few days when I was traveling on the Metro and suddenly there was this beautiful voice flowing through the train. It was a busker plying his trade. From then on buskers singing or playing music on the train always brightened up my day, notwithstanding the blasé look on the faces of Parisians.

Ah, how I miss the sights and sounds of Paris!