Ooi Giok Ling

on how space is planned in Singapore and why it is a liveable but not lovable city


An urban sociologist at the Nanyang Technological University, Professor Ooi is author of Future Of Space: Planning, Space and The City (2004), a book that takes a critical look at the land-use planning policies in Singapore.


How is space planned in Singapore?

Land planning is highly centralised and only the planning authorities make the decisions. Very few others have the authority or the right to challenge decisions or counter with alternative suggestions. It has been criticised for the lack of participation but most people have agreed that it has done well. The provision for public housing has been held up again and again by the United Nations and World Bank, and our new towns are models for a lot of other cities.

It’s also a very business-like attitude. If there is money to be made, if there is a business opportunity there, the planning emphasis will be there. The idea is always how you generate economic opportunities.

Isn’t a lack of space in Singapore why planning is so tightly controlled?

That is always the excuse right? Very scarce the land, you get that drummed into you from primary school and right through, but when they want to find the room for two IRs (integrated resorts), was there any problem? If a third is needed, I’m sure they will find room for it.

We know there are a lot of spaces. There is the Turf Club, a huge piece of land that is really a placeless space, it has to work so hard to bring people to. We have lots of these – abandoned school buildings – that have gone unused for decades. And we are very good at making space, we can build up or build down. There are lots of solutions that we can afford to.

So what is wrong with city planning here?

The city centre is catered to international business needs – hotels and shopping centres – that tend to be given more priority than the spaces that people live in everyday. The planners are paying more attention to what will appeal to the international business community, so your places become more touristy, very commercialised and very universalised. You see one, you see them all – the same type of city centres, the same type of entertainment areas and shopping malls.

This repetition, or what some people call placelessness – that you can find these places anywhere in any city – is not only in Orchard Road, but also in the public housing townscape. Sengkang may have some features but I don’t think you can say it is that different from Clementi. This leads people to conclude that we are quite sterile, not a very interesting city. So, you may find the city liveable, but not very lovable. There is nothing about it that makes you want to come back as a visitor, makes you want to not leave it if you’re a resident or a citizen.

How can we make this a lovable city?

It is far better now, there is quite a lot of consultation by the authorities. It used to be that planners make a decision, that’s it. But there is still no process to get your view through. You write to the feedback channels, write to the newspapers, it’s just writing, it’s not actively getting together a group and saying we don’t really want the neighbourhood centre to be located so close or below our apartments, we want it off and where exactly. There is no such process for citizens to come together to say this is what we want and discuss it.

Also, centralised planning cannot or has not provided for the diversity of needs. Singapore is going to be more diverse, not the way the top down kind of planning can provide, because that will provide on a very standardised basis. But life is far more varied than what these planners are thinking about. It is very difficult to cater to all these different needs, so it is best done at the ground level.

Are other cities around the world facing the same problems?

We are talking about globalising space that tends to culturally converge – everything looks the same and everyone does the same thing. It is a very mindless, worrying way, like agricultural communities. You do the same thing year in year out – you have to plant your seeds at this season otherwise you miss the rain and you’re done for.

You don’t want your cities to become like that, doing things endlessly, infinitely in the same way. Cities are about options, excitement, innovation, creativity, it’s about providing as many choices as possible to citizens who come there with a lot of hopes to do better, live better, provide better for their families and have better futures.

Cities seriously have a problem. A lot of them get abandoned, torn down and you see a lot become shadows of themselves. Their functions get lost, shifted elsewhere and most of the young people move out and you just have ageing people left. Cities have a problem of long-term existence and I think Singapore is very aware of it. The problem with our governance here – they want to decentralise but still want to manage.


  1. There is much we can do to make it more “lovable” but people need to invest their time to make it their space. However, unlike the old times of kampong, the trend is to appropriate space based on interest rather than location. Hence, we have the skaters group in bukit merah, breakdancers in the underground tunnel near the esplanade etc.
    Rather than fight over the city centre, one approach is to colonise “non” prime land. All the empty schools, empty fields etc..

  2. I absolutely love this website. However, I hope you can also feature some interviews with not just academics but also, say, cultural producers who engage with the idea 0f cities and spaces in their works. Off the cuff I’m thinking of these few:

    1) Tang Ling Nah, artist

    “My works are drawings of architecture. They are also drawing on architecture (if you are considering the site-specific drawings where I draw directly on the wall)! It is also about a demarcation of space, about creating a space for people to inhabit (not necessarily physically). Perhaps, one could regard my work as a re-interpretation of existing architectural spaces. I make references to real architectural spaces, and in particular, transitory ones like the alleys, corridors, void decks. I photograph these spaces, recompose them on my sketches, and then draw it in a bigger scale, either on paper or wall.”

    “Maybe, my work reflects a particular mindset of living and working in Singapore, albeit not that directly. It could speak of the domination of urban architecture and the ‘crowded loneliness’ of living in the city, but there is also the space for escape and refuge. The ephemeral nature of my work (being charcoal on paper or wall, and which needs to be washed off if it is an on-site drawing) also speaks of the fast-changing life in Singapore or urban life in general.”

    Interview,, July 2008

    2) Tan Pin Pin, filmmaker

    Better than a Q&A, I’d love to see an analysis of her ‘experimental documentary’, 80km/h, where she films a ride on the PIE from a car window. It’s been variously described as video art (as it is without any commentary), and also documentary (based on the idea that Singapore’s landscape changes so rapidly that the work is a visual record). But I’m also interested in the kind of ‘mapping’ the work performs, an amateur land-surveyor trying to describe the breadth of the island. Because it is a moving image, there is also the question of time as well–the relatively short length of the film provides us with temporal coordinates as to the actual span of Singapore–impossible then to stage an aleatoric road trip here and spend nights in anonymous motels.

    3) Lucas Jodogne

    I still think his photo book (Singapore: Views on the Urban Landscape) is one of the best records of the violent and sometimes surreal juxtapositions present in Singapore’s built environment. He’s been working as a cinematographer also, notably on Kelvin Tong’s films, and it would be interesting to hear what he has to say about representing Singapore cinematically.