Ask yourself: Who is this city for?

Ask yourself: Who is this city for?

SINGAPORE - A few weeks ago, my extended family held traditional rites to mark the one-year anniversary of my grandfather's death.

As we gathered at the old temple with its rows of tablets bearing the names of the deceased, I couldn't help but notice that I was the youngest person there by far.

Most of the people at the temple to remember the dead were grey-haired; some were so frail they needed help to walk.

I was also discomfited by how out of place I felt. As the priest chanted Hokkien prayers that I only half-understood, I aped my relatives' actions, embarrassed that I did not know what many of the elaborate rituals signified.

It was food for thought, coming just a week after the details of the Pioneer Generation Package had been unveiled in Parliament.

Amid the buzz over recognising Singapore's pioneers, it seems a pity that many places and customs familiar to those of that generation are likely to fade away with their passing and may already be unrecognisable to those of my generation.

My experience also made me wonder if there are other such spatial divides in Singapore - places where the old are relegated to and the young rarely frequent, or conversely, places where the elderly feel just as out of place as I did.

The question of displacement arose again during the recent Budget debate. Nominated MP Janice Koh referred to a paper by the United States urban geographer Joel Kotkin while arguing for the need to restore a sense of place and home to Singapore.

In his paper, written for the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, Prof Kotkin identifies three great characteristics of cities from past to present: They are safe, busy and sacred.

Singapore, he says, has done well in security and commerce but should pay more attention to the sacred, which he defines as unique institutions and places that make one feel an "irrational commitment" and sense of belonging to a place.

Prof Kotkin's paper has a thought-provoking title: "What Is A City For?"

To riff off his title, however, perhaps the other question to ask is: Who is the city for?

That sums up, for me, many of the anxieties that have emerged in Parliament and in public debate in recent weeks.

Take Singapore's seniors, who have received much well-deserved attention of late with the Pioneer Generation Package and its generous measures to look after their health-care needs.

But outside of clinics and hospitals, is Singapore a city for them?

Is it a place they can access with ease and call their own?

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