From the one man parliamentary opposition, to the persecution of minor antisocial tendencies such as chewing gum and spitting, to enforced haircuts on longhairs like myself (in the days before hair abandoned my head in favour of ears, neck and back), I had always thought of Singapore as a somewhat anodyne, repressive Big Brotherly sort of place, where the priorities seemed to be cleanliness, conformity, development and an unfettered free market devoted to exploitation and the acquisition of personal wealth, with freedom and creativity mere roadkill on the road to riches.
Maybe the fire has cooled with age. Maybe I wasn’t there long enough to encounter the dark underbelly. Maybe I was bedazzled by the gleaming surface. Whatever the cause I can only say I came away from the city-state impressed by a society that prioritises the common wealth over individual aggrandisement, and sustainability over economic convenience. All this while remaining committed to the principles of capitalism and progress. When compared to the Australian approach of rapacious corporate exploitation of natural resources, growing social inequality, and a wilful blindness to the cascading ecological crisis, it is enough to make a greenie like myself realise we are getting it badly wrong in Oz and question some of my deeply held beliefs and assumptions about how we make our cities more sustainable.
What an extraordinary experience for a gardener Singapore is. The beauty of its botanical gardens is not too far removed from my personal gold standard for public parks, the Melbourne botanical gardens.
Singapore Botanical Gardens
Taking full advantage of the tropical climate, the orchid garden has no near equivalent in Australia, an exquisite display of this sumptuous, sculptured and largest family of flowers. It makes my valiant efforts at creating an orchidarium at home look a tad pathetic
Even more impressive from an ecological perspective are Singapore’s trees. Driving into the city for the first time, one can’t help but be struck by the presence of trees and plants everywhere, a remarkable collective commitment to growing things in every available space. The city is crowded. But despite the high density living, there is so much green space. Sure they have the climate and soils conducive to greenery. But so do many other Southeast Asian cities which have nothing to compare with the greenery here. No, here there is a willingness not to cover every available square centimetre with concrete and bitumen in order to more richly line the pockets of developers. I am sure they get their money, but not all is given over solely to their financial wellbeing.
While in Sydney we hand over our reclaimed waterfront land to a billionaire to perpetuate the family tradition of profit gouging, in Singapore the reclaimed waterfront has been used to create a massive public garden that holds its own proudly against their UNESCO listed World Heritage botanical gardens.
While in Sydney much of the botanical gardens are to be privatised for money-making, in Singapore the newly created gardens are free to all. In Sydney the plan is to turn these privatised areas into Disney style theme parks for entertainment, in Singapore the only fee-charging exhibits have a primary conservation education function. The two massive glasshouses in the Gardens by the Bay are engineering marvels, particularly the Mist Forest which replicates the environment high on a tropical mountain, allowing a display of plants from this environment at sea level, underpinned by a powerful conservation message.
It seems to me this engineering masterpiece sets a template for a new approach to public architecture. Instead of being a monument to one man’s monumental ego, or the politico-legal structures that shape our lives, or paying homage to distant unseen gods, here the building is set out to display the fundamental beauty of nature and remind us of our fundamental enmeshment within the natural world. Inside this eight story structure, you really do feel high on a tropical mountain, and that feeling is mesmerising.
In Sydney we have turned the destruction of trees, be it for fire prevention or public transport, into a public good. In Singapore the planting and nurturance of trees is given the highest priority – basic common sense given the heat, pollution and flood mitigation trees provide. Trees are our environmental benefactors. So why has our state government declared war on trees, removing them whenever they stand in the road of development, efficiency and supposed safety? Is it that hard to come up with innovative design solutions? After all, hasn’t the age of entitlement given way to the exciting age of innovation? Or perhaps it’s just that we really are usurping America as the new barbarians.