Sunday, November 7, 2010

No respite from the Global City

Nov 6, 2010

For those who do not aspire to a fast-paced life, there is no escape
By Rachel Chang

MUCH ink has been spilt over the youthful angst expressed by Nanyang Technological University undergraduates at a forum with Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong last week.

In particular, 23-year-old Lim Zi Rui raised eyebrows for declaring that after the last five years or so of quick policy changes and rapid influx of foreigners: 'We don't really feel comfortable in our country any more.'

He did not claim to speak for every member of his oft-maligned Generation Y. But the bewilderment in his plaintive petitioning of the Senior Minister was echoed by other undergraduates. Mr Goh's address had dwelled on building Singapore into a 'city of buzz' - prompting one student to ask how exactly a Global City can be built by an ageing population.

The picture that emerged was this: The Government has forged ahead with its plans to grow Singapore into a Global City. But some young Singaporeans seem hesitant to seize that vision as their own.

Why? Other Singaporeans are puzzled, saying surely the fearless young should be the ones most seized by the vision of a vibrant global city.

But to assume so would be to take a simplistic view of what being a Global City entails, and to underestimate the uncertainty some - like Mr Lim - feel about their place in it.

The hard truth is that there is no way to opt out of the Global City, if one lives in Singapore. Unlike cities like New York and London, Singapore is a country in a city, with no buffering hinterland.

This is why that 'ageing population' question is significant. Unlike these other cities, there is nowhere else for older Singaporeans, or those who just want a slower and gentler pace of life, to go.

To illustrate: From 1960 until now, the age profile of New Yorkers has remained remarkably stable. In 1960, 47 per cent of residents were between 15 and 44 years old. In 2000, the proportion was exactly the same.

This is despite a falling birth rate and a population that has risen by about only 500,000 people in 40 years - from 7.8 million in 1960 to 8.3 million now.

If New Yorkers remained in one place for their whole lives, the babyboomer generation should be causing the population to age - just as it is in Singapore. Instead, the median age of NYC denizens has hardly budged: from 33.7 years old in 1990 to 34.2 in 2000. In the same period, Singapore's median age rose from 30 to 34, and is now 37.4.

What this means is that NYC is constantly being renewed by an influx of young people. Unlike in Singapore, these newcomers are not augmenting the overall population; they are replacing those who leave - people who prefer a house with a garden, a lower crime rate, or simply a city that, thankfully, does sleep.

Moving to second-tier cities within the country is not an option for Singaporeans, young or old. Far-flung estates like Yishun or Jurong West may have cheaper flats, but they have the same overall cost of living and the same space limitations as the rest of Singapore.

This is an important qualification amid the talk of buzz: not everyone is a 'Global City person' or aspires to be.

By that label, I mean people who delight in living the fast way that global cities demand. They accept crowded trains and high taxes as part and parcel of life in some of the most exciting locales in the world. They walk fast, revel in constant change and are happy to earn - and spend - high incomes.

Populations self-select to be part of such cities. Global City folk seek out such lifestyles by moving to where they can live them. Those who prefer not to, don't.

The important difference is that they have a choice. Living in a global city comes with costs, big and small. Property prices tend to be high, income inequality noticeable and the traffic congested. And yes, foreigners are everywhere - but chances are, you're not from around those parts either. (Forty per cent of New York's population is foreign-born; and of its native-born Americans, half are born in other parts of the country).

Some of these same concerns beset some Singaporeans today. One who feels, like Mr Lim does, that he 'has to stay here', perhaps really means to say he did not sign on to live in a Global City, but now does.

Then there is the fact of Singapore's minuscule size, its most frustrating limitation and the lens through which the stress felt by Singaporeans intensifies to a laser focus.

It is well-established that people care less about how much they earn than how much more than their peers they earn. This is the 'Keeping Up with the Joneses' phenomenon: A man will not be happy with having a Toyota if he can see a Ferrari in his neighbour's driveway.

Such comparisons are compacted in tiny Singapore, a place in which philosopher Immanuel Kant's diagnosis of the human condition strikes home with force: 'We are all unavoidably side-by-side.'

So where does this leave the Global City agenda?

To be sure, Singapore's policymakers are committed to maintaining a strong citizen core. Efforts to renew and improve living and recreational spaces for Singaporeans abound - to create, as Foreign Minister George Yeo put it, a 'sense of the village in the city'.

But the real heavy lifting is in policies that crimp the edges of the Global City agenda, like intervening to cool the property market, tightening the tap on immigration and increasing social transfers to bridge the income gap.

The Government has moved on all these fronts in the past year, in a welcome recognition that the pace at which Singapore becomes a Global City must be fast enough to keep up with the Joneses of the world, but slow enough that its first priority is not lost.

That first priority, in a country in a city with no hinterland, is to be a home and shelter for those who are born here, live here and who will die here.

Singapore's policymakers have always walked the tightrope between the country's God-given constraints and its larger-than-life ambitions well. As the new generation emerges to survey the uncertain terrain before them, the assurance they want is that the balance will not now be tilted too far towards Global City, and too far away from Home.

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