Changing Urban Landscapes in Singapore

Angela C
11 min readApr 17, 2021

As a lens for understanding its social and economic development since 1945

Figure 1. An aerial view of Singapore (2020)

Despite its small size, Singapore has the 6th highest nominal GDP per capita and has seen tremendous developments both economically and socially since its independence in 1965 (International Monetary Fund, 2020). One aspect of Singapore that has played into Singapore’s development have been the changes in their urban landscape which have served as reactions or catalysts to economic and social change. Even as a British colonial state, colonists meticulously planned parts of the city to ease British trade and industrial needs. Since its independence, the People’s Action Party (PAP) have continued to place emphasis on shaping the city-state’s urban landscape. This paper will demonstrate how Singapore’s detailed planning of its urban landscape has played a key role in its major economic and social changes since 1945. Three key features will be explored: (1) Singapore’s decolonization as viewed through the development of their ports (2) the roles and regulation of public housing in inter-cultural power dynamics and (3) usage of land reclamation and the construction of casinos as a signifier of Singapore as a world city rooted in capitalism.


Singapore’s small size limits its production of natural resources, however its central location makes it ideal for acting as an intermediary in trade. Prior to colonization by Western forces, Singapore had existed as a port settlement for several centuries with relations to Vietnam and China. British colonization of Singapore began in 1818 with the arrival of Stamford Raffles who instituted changes on the island which would shape some of its future trajectory (Dobbs, 2011). At the time, the Dutch held strong control over Asian Pacific trade and the British sought to challenge this by establishing Singapore as a significant port-city. By operating Singapore as a free port (not taxing any of the goods flowing through the port), British colonizers attracted a multitude of traders seeking to circumvent Dutch restrictions (Dobbs, 2011).

This focus on industrial development and growth for the city-state led to an influx in migrants from China and India who sought job opportunities (Ee, 1961). During this period, Raffles participated in the creation of Raffles Town Plan, or commonly known as the Jackson Plan where the British sought to maximize ‘town harmony’ for monetary gains. Under this plan, segregation by ethnic identity occurred within the city-state, separating European, Malay, Chinese and Indian individuals into separate ethnic enclaves across the region. Other regulations included the banning of public gambling and the construction of gambling houses as a means to ensure “peace and order” (Tan, 2016). These set a precedent for some of the future regulation we would see from the Singaporean government under the PAP’s lead.

Figure 2. Jackson Plan with annotations depicting ethnic division

After the second world war, Britain was forced to relinquish control over its various colonies, Singapore declared independence from the British empire and in 1965, from Malaysia, it has been led by a single party, the People’s Action Party (PAP). However even prior to release from British colonization, the PAP took control over the parliament in 1959 and has held power over the country since then. The PAP’s policies have shaped Singapore’s economic and social changes as well as the urban landscapes.

Singapore’s Ports as a Lens for Decolonization

Singapore remained under British control up until 1963 when it became a state of Malaysia. Britain’s colonization of Singapore set the city-state up to act as a center for trade in the Asia Pacific, however much of the colonial efforts were focused on enriching the British empire. As such, while the necessary infrastructure existed in some respects, much of the human capital associated with engaging in trade was of British origin (Dobbs, 2011). In this respect, Singapore needed to engage in decolonization. Decolonization describes the process of undoing and dismantling structures set up by colonizers, it is generally understood that full decolonization is impossible given the nature of path dependency on nations. For Singapore, its process of decolonization is rooted in taking back economic control and developing trade in their own way, separate from imperial influences.

Figure 3. Southeast Asian flow of crude oil

After relinquishing power of the island, inhabitants of the island were left relatively economically devastated. As such, when the PAP gained control over Singapore, a key concern was redeveloping trade relations and finding a way to improve economic prosperity. Singapore’s first container terminal, Tanjong Pagar began operating in 1972, 7 years after Singapore’s independence from Malaysia. This was the first container terminal in all of Southeast Asia at a time when container ships had yet to fully pick up in popularity as a mode of freight transport (Mindur, 2020). This has allowed Singapore to become the current largest transshipment port (connector port between origin and destination), with over half of the world’s crude oil supply passing through the port of Singapore.

To support and capitalize upon its growing trade network, the PAP also sought to establish itself in terms of other global exports which relied more heavily on human capital as opposed to natural resources. This is primarily composed of business/financial/insurance sector work, which accounts for 30% of Singapore’s total GDP (World Bank, 2020). Beyond that, Singapore has sought to incentivize multinational corporations (MNC) to operate within the nation. This includes policies like a double tax deduction for enterprises and a broad array of financing strategies for business ranging from overall capital to more specific line items like ships or product development. Further, the Development Bank of Singapore offers long-term loans at preferential rates which has given Singapore an edge against other international players seeking the attention of MNC’s (Austin, 2009).

In taking all these steps, Singapore has amassed strong levels of geopolitical power within the Asia-Pacific region. Its central location, government stability and neutrality on most subject matters have made it an ideal candidate for the hosting of events and controversial meetings. This includes the North Korea — United States Summit, several G20 meetings and hosting of the joint International Monetary Fund — World Bank meeting in 2006 wherein Singapore acted as an intermediary and beneficiary to these discourses (Henderson, 2012). While Singapore doesn’t necessarily exert dominance in the Asia-Pacific due to its influence in terms of decision making, its ability to suddenly stop the flow of goods for the majority of Asia makes it a force to be reckoned with. Singapore’s process of decolonization has allowed it to flourish as a world city. A world city is a “centre for servicing and financing international trade, investment and headquarter operations” (Sassen, 1991), Singapore’s ports allow it to operate as a central ground for trade and financial operations throughout Asia. However, this makes one wonder if Singapore truly decolonized or simply capitalized off the experience of colonization to create its own meaning as a nation.

Ethnic Relations and the Development of Public Housing

The colonial era set up path dependent structures for ethnic differences and tensions. Path dependency refers to the concept that one’s outcomes or decisions are limited by the decisions made in the past. Despite the fact that all Singaporeans of non-European descent had been oppressed to a certain degree by the colonial state, ethnic divisions/tensions between Singaporeans created by the British remained post-colonization and continue to this day. The British colonists essentialized racial identity through the segregation of groups in enclaves across the island and differing labour division (Lim et al., 2019). Individuals of Chinese descent generally worked to drive forward the capitalist sector, whereas individuals of Malay descent were put into low-cost menial labour work. When Malaysia and Singapore joined together, there were significant differences in political goals for the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) who advocated for special privileges to indigenous Malays and Singapore’s PAP who sought to have equality for individuals of all ethnic backgrounds. Resentment for socioeconomic and political differences reached a height in 1964 in the Malaysian/Singapore race riots (Lim et al., 2019). This eventually led to the independence of Singapore from Malaysia and contributed to ethnic tensions within the city-state. As such, the PAP sought to adopt ethnic integration policies to become multicultural.

Figure 4. Squatter Settlement on Alexandra Road, 1954; Figure 5. Remains of Bukit Ho Swee Settlement after fire, 1961

Another issue brought about in the post-colonial and post-war era was a shortage in housing due to damages inflicted by the war. This resulted in a surge in the number of urban kampongs (“squatter settlements”) with poor living conditions, buildings made of cheap materials and a proneness to fires (Loh, 2007). The PAP sought to resolve this by setting up the Housing Development Board (HDB) with the goal of “providing decent homes equipped with modern amenities for all those who needed them” and reducing the number of ethnic enclaves within the city-state (Phang, 2001). To do this, the PAP used eminent domain to purchase large amounts of land, currently amounting to 80% of Singapore’s total land, and built residential apartments in these areas. From there, they have sold houses to the general public on 99-year leases. In order to incentivize home ownership in public housing, the government set up the Central Provident Fund where contributions can be used directly to finance public housing along with subsidized mortgages for individuals purchasing from the HDB.

Beyond simply providing housing for its citizens, the HDB and by extension the PAP sought to reduce ethnic tensions with these residences. As part of the Ethnic Integration Policy, ethnic quotas were implemented in publicly owned residence estates. This meant that there were maximums on the number of individuals of a certain ethnic background that were allowed to live in a single residence.

Figure 6. Visualization of ethnic quotas in different regions across Singapore, 2017

Presently, over 80% of Singaporean citizens live in public housing issued by the HDB which is generally considered a success in terms of housing its many inhabitants in decent homes (Singapore Department of Statistics, 2021). However, despite seeking to decrease ethnic tensions through the development of integrated public housing through the HDB, disparities in socio-economic class based on ethnicity become more pronounced. (Lim et al., 2019). Lasting socio-economic impacts from the colonial period become evident when looking at a map of the ethnic quotas across Singapore. Regions closer to the downtown core have max Chinese quotas, whereas areas further away from the downtown centre see higher rates of max Malay quotas. This can be attributed to the fact that even now, there are differences in socio-economic status that reduce the capability of certain ethnic backgrounds to purchase property in more ‘desirable’ neighbourhoods. This points to the lasting path dependent impacts of colonization on the Singaporean island.

Land Reclamation and its role in Globalization and Capitalism

Earlier, this paper outlined Singapore’s entrance into the capitalist world market and as an intermediary for many of these services. Beyond acting as an intermediary in the capitalist flow of goods, it is important to explore the idea of globalization and a time-space compression through Singapore. One area where this is evident is through the addition of casinos to Singapore’s urban landscape in 2010.

In order to understand its significance, it is important to understand why this addition was so unlikely. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, a lack of physical space for large casinos on the Singaporean island. As an island the nation is very small and space is limited and valuable. Secondly, since the PAP held rule over Singapore, public gambling has been disallowed. This was congruent with Raffles ban on gambling in the 1800’s, in both cases gambling was banned in Singapore as a means to put focus on the development of trade. However, in the case of the PAP’s gambling ban, an element of morality was also included, where many Singaporeans saw gambling as something to be outright banned/resisted by the government as opposed to sanctioned (Henderson, 2012).

Time-Space Compression describes the phenomena where because of advancements in technology, transportation, infrastructure and map representation, it seems as though the world and its various barriers to access appear to be shrinking. As Singapore continued to become more globally integrated a form of time-space compression began to take place. The government sought to engage more actively in time-space compression by increasing the number of foreign travellers to the state. In order to do this, a compression of values was needed. Singaporeans were put in a position to compromise their belief in the immorality of casinos and gambling practices to support further global integration. The government ultimately went through with the decision to build casinos given its potential for economic benefit and an increase in travellers to Singapore.

Figure 7. Singapore’s addition of land since 1959 (highlighted in pink)

In order to mitigate issues in size, Singapore has routinely engaged in land reclamation. Land reclamation involves taking sand from the ocean or more insignificant beaches and creating additional land mass for an area. In 2018, Singapore’s total land area was 725.7 km2, this is an overall 24.7% increase in land area since 1959, all of which can be attributed to the government’s focus on reclaiming land for development (Government of Singapore, 2021). Both the Marina Bay Sands and Sentosa World Resort integrated resorts/casinos were built upon reclaimed land in areas that were relatively far away from the rest of the island.

Once the integrated resort/casinos opened, the government took a strong stance in disallowing Singaporean citizens from participating in gambling activities. In order for Singaporean citizens to enter into these casinos, they must pay a fee of $100 for a 24 hour period or a $1000 monthly pass (Wu, 2015). Additionally, because of the far-away placement of the casinos relative to residential and work spaces for regular citizens, there is a blockade for regular citizens to engage in this globalized behaviour. This has been the government’s way of maintaining ‘moral upstanding’ amongst its own citizens while benefiting off of capitalist global structures. Overall, there has been a shift in Singapore to focus on ‘economic pragmatism’, a sort of neoliberal process for free market capitalism (Henderson, 2012). These casinos serve as a flashy symbol of capitalism and globalization in Singapore, and yet for regular Singaporeans they are distant and difficult to access. For them, the lasting impacts are not economic but cultural.

Moving Forwards

Singapore has seen tremendous development in its economic and social spheres in the last several decades. These economic and social changes are woven directly into how Singapore’s urban landscape has changed through the development of its ports, public housing and land reclamation for capitalist uses. Going forwards, Singapore will likely undergo many more changes. Issues like the environmental impacts of land reclamation and rising sea levels may force Singapore to reconfigure its urban landscapes once more. It is only a question of what social and economic changes will result from this.