Space for more

Ms Yu Mei Balasingamchow, author of Singapore: A biography.

When Singapore gained independence in 1965, its population stood at 1.9 million and its land area was 582 sq km.

Today, there are 5.3 million on this island of 710 sq km. The latest White Paper on Population plans for up to 6.9 million people by 2030, with land area growing to 760 sq km.

Through the decades, as Singapore grew, some physical spaces changed forever even as new ones were created.

How did this affect citizens' sense of space and quality of life? Jessica Cheam speaks to five to find out.

People need the space to dream

Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

Born in: 1974
Occupation: Writer; former teacher and civil servant
Lived in: Pasir Panjang, Bedok, Marine Parade, Toa Payoh

I remember in 1997, the first Starbucks opened and I was excited. It was heralding the arrival of Singapore as a global city, that we were considered affluent and cosmopolitan enough for Starbucks to set up shop.

I also recall in primary school, memorising the fact that the population of Singapore was two million. At that time, it seemed like a lot, but now it seems so small.

At some point in the last five to 10 years, we got crowded.

We also have a lot more commercial space now, in the form of shopping malls, offices. We need more community spaces where people can hang out and do their own thing. And it should be a place that everyone can have access to, at little or no cost.

The national library, for example, is beautifully built and well-ventilated on the ground floor. The cafes are cheap and I see retirees who sit there all day to talk. We need more of these spaces.

In our eagerness to develop, we also forget that there is value in leaving things alone. People may not want to move, they want to live and die in the same place, and they want to have a sense of belonging. Bonds and community ties break whenever people are forcibly relocated, or when physical spaces are destroyed.

Most of my years growing up were spent at school and playing and cycling with my brother and other children in the large compound of Normanton Park.

We moved to Pasir Panjang and the area was quite industrial. But we had West Coast Park, and I recall that even till the 1980s, I could spot Malay fishermen coming home in their boats from a day at sea. We would go jogging with my father, and families would enjoy the big open spaces, fly kites.

But slowly, more and more of the park was lost to port activities. Now, what's left is a much smaller version.

I remember during those schooling years that the buses and trains would be empty in between peak hours. You had your personal space and it didn't feel hectic. Now, it feels like it is crowded no matter what time of the day, unless it is late at night.

Singapore is a lot more built-up now, and it's nice that we have great parks. We've proved that we can live in the tropics, in an urban environment and it's still green. Our public housing is also something to be proud of - it's reliable and liveable.

But we have to reinvent urban living further if we have to share our limited space with even more people. We do not have a hinterland and people cannot go to the countryside and find cheaper areas to live.

Now, to some extent there's a crisis of faith in the system, since our infrastructure broke down or choked in the last few years.

I don't know what's the optimum population, but I think each person just wants to have enough space to live, do things like find the right person, job and home.

It's not a bad thing having foreigners in Singapore. The issue is more about absolute numbers. People get territorial when resources are scarce. If the 5.3million here were all native-born Singaporeans, we'd still be grumbling, just about each other.

It's the numbers that are creating tension. The more we squeeze on this island, the more people will want to claim space for themselves. When there isn't enough physical and, importantly, intellectual and spiritual space for individuals to breathe, they will start fighting for what little space there is.

Thinking about Singapore's future, I feel it's not about how many parks are within walking distance of a home.

It's about whether you even have the time or inclination to go to the park. Do you have the freedom and space to dream about the world beyond the stresses of daily life? Do you care about the stranger next to you on the bus, train, at the hawker centre?"

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