Singapore: a smart city with an old soul

Beneath Singapore’s high-tech urban planning, a careful fostering of its older charms is ensuring that the city-state strides into the future with soul

At the Happy Hawkers food court in Singapore’s Tampines, a leafy township in the eastern side of the island and well off the usual tourist radar, robots with sensors on their heads and racks for bodies roam the aisles collecting used trays to return to the cleaning area. The Wall-E-like humanoids, also trawling the food courts in malls such as Punggol Plaza and Toa Payoh Interchange, are difficult to ignore. “They’re very futuristic,” observes one local, “but they’re here, collecting my tray. It’s a little disorienting but I could get used to it.”

These smart tray collectors aren’t the only examples of high-level automation penetrating everyday life in the city-state — several hotels are also turning to robots to do part of the work, like delivering room service. Entire food courts have also gone cashless, encouraging customers to acquire digital wallets.

As with many things in Singapore, it’s all part of the government-led Smart Nation initiative, which isn’t just about adopting the most sophisticated tech, but how well residents, business and government can harness technology to improve lives. “These smart initiatives serve to enhance livability in areas such as urban mobility, health and public services,” says a representative from the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office. “For example, drivers can pay for public parking digitally via, citizens can access a range of municipal services through the OneService app and parents can easily access their children’s health records via the HealthHub online portal and app.”

But what makes Singapore’s forward-thinking urban planning so notable is that it is far from the one-dimensional, tech-saves-all approach you might expect from a city of robot pioneers. Toe-to-toe with the Smart Nation initiatives are eco-conscious conservation programs that together form a heartening picture of the future.

Exploring the city is a breeze with these bike sharing services

Two wheels good, two legs awesome

At 719.9km2, Singapore is only slightly larger than Metro Manila — you can drive from the west of the country to the charming Changi Village in the east in a little under an hour. There’s not a lot of space for its 5.6 million residents — not to mention their cars. In addition to the Certificate of Entitlement quota scheme, which curtails the number of new cars on the road, the government has heavily encouraged electric vehicle alternatives.

But lurching into the future means taking the classic old ways of getting around along for the ride. Since the beginning of last year, a boom in bike-sharing services, fueled in part by the government’s Walk Cycle Ride SG campaign, has encouraged locals to take their cars out less frequently, and to walk or cycle when they can. If the mark of a truly progressive urban spread is how much room it makes for walking and cycling, then Singapore is doing quite well.

The campaign is not just feel-good lip service, but also a huge infrastructural undertaking that includes expanding the current 400km cycling network to 700km island-wide by 2030, and building Singapore’s first “integrated transport corridor” — the North-South Corridor will stretch 21.5km from Woodlands to the city — with dedicated paths for cyclists and pedestrians by 2021.

Singapore has a mix of old buildings and modern skyscrapers

Building on the past

It’s not just old-school transport that’s finding a place of privilege in Singapore’s drive to the future. In the city-state best associated internationally with glitzy architectural marvels, buildings of significant historical value have likewise become prized assets.

This wasn’t always the case. Between the 1960s and 1970s, Singapore embarked on a massive urban renewal program that involved the demolition of old structures and buildings to make space for public housing as well as the manufacturing industry. By the ’80s, Singapore’s urban landscape began taking shape, sparking a growing interest in the conservation of buildings that are architecturally, historically and culturally significant. In 1989 alone, a total of 3,200 buildings were listed as protected property and conserved.

Conserved buildings across the island, and the ethnic enclaves of Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam, plus Boat Quay, have been officially declared as historical districts. Here, rows of century-old, colorful shophouses have been conserved and restored. They’ve found new life housing offices, boutiques, bars and restaurants that welcome hordes of tourists and well-heeled locals.

Of course, the benefit to Singapore is more than just economic. “These buildings add a different but welcome depth to Singapore’s character,” says Singapore-based Portuguese architect and restaurateur José Silva, who co-owns a restaurant, Boca, that occupies a shophouse on Ann Siang Hill, in the heart of Chinatown. “It’s amazing to find all these ornate buildings that have endured with their stories on their façades, in the middle of this very modern city of high-rise towers and futuristic engineering. It gives the city more texture, a soul.” And for a city embracing a high-tech future, holding on to and celebrating soul can be crucial.

Whole districts have also wisely been placed under protection, not to be remodeled or demolished to make way for more modern structures. These include the Art Deco styles of terrace houses on Emerald Hill, as well as Tiong Bahru estate, the country’s first public housing estate of Art Deco buildings developed in the 1930s. A longtime stronghold of some of Singapore’s oldest residents, steeped in history and charm, Tiong Bahru has over the past seven years taken on an additional identity as a hipster enclave. Curated boutiques, independent bookstores and small-scale yoga studios stand shoulder-to-shoulder with beloved mom-and-pop eateries and a bustling hawker center. Among the newer kids on the block is Merci Marcel, a chic French café and bistro run by French couple Antoine Rouland and Marie-Charlotte Ley. “We chose Tiong Bahru for its creativity, heritage and communal spirit,” says Marie-Charlotte. “The residents here are incredibly supportive of small businesses in the area, which has definitely impacted our business in a positive way.”

Antonie and Marie-Charlotte are the same couple behind creperie Ô Comptoir and wine bar Ô Batignolles, located on Circular Road and Gemmill Lane respectively — two locales also packed with several clusters of heritage buildings. “The rich heritage of Singapore is one of the many reasons we chose to make it our home; not just for our F&B concepts, but also for our family,” Marie-Charlotte says.

Tiong Bahru’s phenomenal transition from local residential enclave to a famous tourist attraction is well-documented and provides a template for how other old neighborhoods can find fresh fame by being themselves. Jalan Besar, an area near Little India filled with hardware stores and other utilitarian establishments, is another up-and-coming neighborhood thats gradually transforming into a contemporary hub of concept boutique hotels and trendy establishments.    

The Canopy Walk in the Southern Ridges

Parks and recreation

In what seems now like typical Singaporean fashion, there’s also a plan in place for the limited natural landscapes in the island. To strengthen and intensify efforts in biodiversity conservation, the government rolled out the five-year Nature Conservation Masterplan (NCMP) in 2015. It is now in full implementation mode. One of the key focus areas involves the development of ecological connections, such as vertical greenery and the Park Connector Network — pathways that link the major parks of Singapore.

There are few advocates of the NCMP more dedicated than Ho Ee Kid, the founder of outdoor trekking community Luv@Adventure. Specializing in curating off-the-beaten-path trails that are at once challenging and educational, Ee Kid understands all too well the gravity of biodiversity conservation in Singapore. “Overdevelopment is a huge threat to biodiversity’s natural charm and vibrancy,” he says. “Which is why it’s heartening that Singapore is actively trying to strike the right balance. We have four natural reserves and more than 300 parks — these all need our protection.” And that kind of foresight and drive, found in various pockets of the city, is forging a bright future for the Little Red Dot as a thoroughly modern place metropolis.

This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

Lili Tan

Photographed by

Mark Teo

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