Tanjong Pagar [Taken from URA website]


The city-state of Singapore is a distinct place. As a small island lacking in natural resources, with a multi-ethnic population, consisting of a chinese majority surrounded by muslim countries, and a large pool of foreign guest workers, it is currently the most developed country in Southeast Asia. Since its independence in 1965, nation-building and forging a sense of belonging has been a part of the country’s formation as a nation-state. Concurrently, the city has been evolving drastically, from an export-orientated economy to an industrial economy and to its current position as a world city. Hannerz in his book ‘Transnational Connections’ views singapore as a ‘viable social form’ and can be conceived to represent the ‘mosiac model of world culture’ in many ways.

The nation-state, according to Selvaraj Velayutham in the book ‘Responding to Globalisation: Nation, Culture and Identity in Singapore’, have ‘clearly defined boundaries, continuous histories and common identities’. In contradiction, World cities can be perceive to be a ‘region of persistent cultural interaction and exchange’ (Kopytoff cited in Hannerz 1989). As such Singapore’s dual orientation towards both the nation-state and the global city raises the question of identity while faced with these two seemingly contradictory goals. Does globalisation weaken or override national identity?

Tourism, an aspect of globalisation, is argubly one of the most important component of Singapore’s economy. Despite its physical limitations, Singapore has managed to position itself as a thriving modern metropolis, attracting several million tourists every year.

Singapore’s dual orientation towards both the nation-state and the global city can be observed in its conservation and revitalisation of historic districts. Tourism 21, a national tourism plan, was launched in 1996 which featured eleven distinct tourist districts that were repackaged with a ‘unifying character or storyline’. It was a start of a plan to turn Singapore into a regional tourism capital and increase tourism revenue. The efforts were the result of both ideological and economic factors. These include a concern for the falling tourist arrivals as well as countering the influences of globalisation with a ‘unique Singaporean heritage’ and ‘traditional Asian values’. S. Rajaratnam saw this rejuvenation as giving the locals ‘a sense of cohesion, continuity and identity’ and that ‘a sense of common history is what provides the links to hold together people who came from the four corners of the earth’.

While much of the physical fabric of the city has been saved from the urban renewal bulldozer of the 1970s, it is undeniable that economic viability took precedence over other goals. The development of Clark Quay as a mass tourist attraction was based on waterfront  projects in other parts of the world. With its cultural homogenous restaurants and souvenir shops, it is in contradiction to the ‘uniqueness’ and ‘heritage’ goals it had. Dinesh Naidu, in response to STB’s plans to theme Chinatown, mentioned that the ‘tendency to homogenise and unify the Chinatown product, to simplify it for packaging and consumption by visitors, is seen down to the very details of its logo, street furniture and signage’. There is the danger, noted by P. Teo and S. Huang, that the ‘negative homogenising influences’ of tourism might lead to the ‘eventual destruction of local and regional features and their replacement with pseudo-places totally unrelated to the history, life and culture of the indigenous population’.

Despite  the criticisms, the locals still benefit from improvements to the city’s aesthetic and built environment, and the enhancement of leisure facilities and urban systems brought about by the various ‘tourist-centric’ developments. The Marina Bay waterfront development creates new reacreational public space, allowing locals to enjoy prime areas in the city center. There is a need for Singapore to find a balance between nation-building and its quest for world city status. Perhaps nations such as Singapore, as mentioned by Velayutham,  are ‘historically and spatially always-ready connected with elsewhere’ and as such has a national identity not defined by clear boundaries but shaped by global conditions.