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The National Museum of Singapore is holding an exhibition that looks at the rich history of street hawking in Singapore. Surviving the Streets: Peddlers and Artisans in Early-Mid 20th Century Singapore is a free exhibition on now till 22 August 2010 on the second-level of the museum.

“…Their lives on the streets highlighted not only disparities between class and race but also the conflicting perceptions between the government and the people. The colonial administration, enchanted with modernity, insisted on clarity and order. In contrast, the people on the street appeared to dwell in chaos and confusion.”

“…[N]egotiated territories are nevertheless, authentic and creative attempts by city dwellers in shaping their own immediate environment. What these territories lack in sophistication and refinement of professionally conceived spaces are compensated by the ingenious use of limited resources at hand, the improvisional response to site and the solidarity of collective local actions…”

What we have identified as “reclaimed land” was labelled as “negotiated territories” in  a paper that Assistant Professor Thomas Kong of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago wrote in 2001 about Singapore. Despite the striking similarities in our project, this is actually the first time we’re seeing this paper! Kong’s approach is much more academic but the insights and conclusions reached are highly similar to ours even though 8 years has passed between the two. The meticulous field work done by Kong and his assistants make this a worthy read for the details of how people “reclaim land”.

Posted on: 07 July, 2009 | No Comments | Tagged as:

Singapore is a small city with a big problem — most space here is in the hands of just a few people. In late June, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong lamented how residents still regarded the maintenance and management of housing estates as the sole responsibility of Town Councils instead of theirs. Yesterday, a Straits Times (ST) special report looked at how over-regulation of small spaces in public housing town centres deterred small-time retailers from setting up shop.

In both instances, the regulation of every inch by just one entity — the Town Council — has made these public spaces inaccessible to residents and retailers. The solution: break space into smaller pieces.

Responding to SM Goh’s comments, ST’s Aaron Low wrote an op-ed called for a more micro-level of residential space management so as to get residents involved. For instance, small committees could be formed to look at how to improve the estate environment they live in. Indeed, reducing the scale of things not only brings home the message that the public housing space is owned by the residents, it encourages involvement because space is carved into a more manageable size.

As for the over-regulation of the little red boxes outside the shopfronts of town centres, the rules should be re-looked in favour of smaller retailers. Disallowing tenants of such small spaces from selling different things as the main shops makes little sense to retailers and shoppers. For one, such small spaces allows people to get in and out of business easily — those with little skills and capital can earn a decent living and people can experiment with retailing new products and services. Consumers stand to gain too as there will be a more diverse mix of retailers and lower prices due to cost-savings from rent such retailers enjoy.

Posted on: 14 April, 2009 | No Comments | Tagged as:

We’ve all had our encounters with street hawkers selling tissue paper in this city and this STOMP reader was so irritated by their presence that he is urging the authorities to clampdown on them.

By seeing street hawkers as environmental problems, something that seems to happen quite often here either with our authorities or a section of the public, we forget that these people do it because they need to earn a living. Street hawking offers an independent livelihood for one to get by, especially in these tough times.

And if the comments on the STOMP post it self are anything to go by, it is encouraging to know that just as many Singaporeans disagree with the particular reader and see street hawkers as a reflection of much larger social issues here as well.

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.

Yes, says economist Edward Glaeser in an interview with The Straits Times today. The professor from Havard University, who studies how cities work, said that density should not be a worry as there are many solutions available like building skyscrapers.

Instead, the question is who are we packing in? Only by having enough “smart people” can the city constantly reinvent itself to thrive. And such innovation in cities have not been very successful when it was implemented top-down. For Prof Glaeser, cities should be planned around human dynamics rather what the state thinks it should look like. 

Such thinking seems to go against how the state has been clearing street hawkers and buskers off the streets of Orchard Road of late. Is there not enough space? Not so, since the streets there were recently widened and renovated. They were reacting to a complaint from the Orchard Road Business Association that these hawkers make the shopping district “low class”. But the street businesses are just people trying to make a living and it is just good business sense to go to a space where they are crowds. That’s why the shops of the association are in Orchard too, so why not try to co-exist?