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Next to KPO Cafe Bar along Killiney Road is this patch of land that has become a mini bicycle parking space. It is probably an indication there there is nowhere else to park in the middle of Orchard Road. But, where do these bicycle commuters go to?

Lucky Plaza, Far East Plaza, Far East Shopping Centre and Tanglin Shopping Centre are four shopping malls in Orchard Road recently identified by The Sunday Times as malls in need of upgrading

Unlike the glitzy malls around them, this quartet from the 1970s stick out with their plain facades. Shopping inside is also a different experience : A hair salon next to a chicken rice store, bargains being hawked next to electronics and gizmos, a jewellery store next to a 7-11 convenience store — an eclectic mix of neighbours that seem to make no sense.

It turns out that who owns the malls makes for the very different shopping experiences. Unlike most malls today which are owned by one developer who dictates the mix of tenants, these four are strata-title malls. As individuals own each shop unit, this model means “minimal management of the mall”, explained Associate Professor Ang Swee Hoon to the newspaper. This worked in the past, said the marketing professor from NUS Business School,  “You went to a place because you knew the owner of the shop, not because the mall was nice or there were other shops there that would be attractive to you.”

But, is such a model no longer relevant today?

Interesting Malls
Without central planning from a developer, these four malls have acquired an interesting mix of tenants. The developer-owned malls, however, stick to a formula that brings in the most profits and traffic, resulting in standardised layouts filled with the same big brands. This makes the old malls stand out even more relevant because they provide a diverse shopping experience. After all, not everyone wants to squeeze with crowds and when it’s time for coffee, not everyone wants a Starbucks.

Malls with Interests
Also, these older malls, being spared the constant redevelopments of others because it can only happen if a majority of tenants agree, have actually developed their own unique identities. Lucky Plaza is known as a Filipino enclave, Far East Plaza is popular with teenagers, Far East Shopping Centre is for golfers and Tanglin Shopping Centre is place for art and antique. This is something the other malls can hardly claim because they often try to provide everything instead.

Whose city is it?
More importantly, these malls answer in some ways the question of how space is used in Singapore. We can see for ourselves the different results in letting a major developer dictate land use and one where individuals come together and create a shopping mall. The former is no doubt more profitable but also breeds a sameness and thus a constant need for upgrading. The latter may make no ‘shopping sense’, but it nurtures communities because shops stay around longer too.

While most Singaporeans will be in favour of these malls going through facelifts, let’s pause to ask why, and what we may be losing. At least, let’s not just get just another shopping mall.

A Sunday Times report yesterday, Overgrown Orchard, looked at how three new shopping malls coming up in Orchard Road in the next few months was making it over-retailed. The report looked at Singapore’s shopping district purely from a retail and consumer point-of-view and suggested that the issue isn’t in terms of quantity but quality — a greater variety of retailers will enhance the shopping experience.

Perhaps another variety that would aid this district is more public places where people can come together, sit around without the pressures of being treated solely as a consumer. Such places that allow informal public life to gather or what Ray Oldenburg calls “great good places” help bring all sorts of people together as a community. This is unlike the malls where strategic leasing of retail space segregates consumers according to their purchasing power. The foyer in front of Takashimaya comes closest in my mind to being a “great good place”, but the lack of proper seating and shelter, plus the fact that an event usually happens there, deters it from becoming one.

The lack of a great good place in Orchard Road might explain why the MRT stations become convenient meeting points for the public. It is the only space in the district where people can sit around without feeling the pressure of having to spend. In my view, Orchard Road is overgrown with malls, and to enhance the experience and make it A Great Street, mall space should be opened up for more.

An editorial about street buskers that appeared on The Sunday Times, March 29, 2009

No one should be surprised if buskers bemoan the slew of regulations which confine them to 109 designated spots, including 14 along Orchard Road. After all, the word ‘busk’ comes from the middle Spanish ‘buskar,’ meaning ‘to seek or to wander’. Surely the new rules constitute another symptom of regulation-prone, ‘fine city’ Singapore? Not quite. As Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Lee Boon Yang has pointed out, busking should be done in an orderly manner ‘without creating disamenities to other users of public spaces’. The restrictions also come after complaints about noise pollution, especially from those performers who use sound amplification. Moreover, such regulations are not new. Ancient Rome banned public performances which parodied the government. Henry VIII in England ordered the licensing of minstrels and players; those who disobeyed were whipped. This, of course, won’t happen here.

It should be asked, however, whether too much regulation is a good thing. Busking, after all, is the free expression of someone’s talent and joie de vivre (for spare change, of course). As such, regulation should be light, and better still, self-regulating. A good dose of the free market might work: a so-so performance will see one’s takings go down; a bad one will see shop owners throwing out buskers altogether for turning their customers off.

Fundamentally, rules should be facilitative and not merely restrictive. A good example of the former is the New York subway’s Music Under New York, which arranges for buskers to perform throughout the underground. This is self-regulating and win-win: buskers get more money (much better than getting mugged at Central Park); commuters get to enjoy the musical interludes (it should be added that the legendary Paul McCartney dabbled in busking at the London Tube). Regulations seek to inject order into the creative chaos that is busking, but in doing so, the creative chaos should not be stifled.