A #throwback to the history and development of Singapore’s Central Business District
Once upon a time, Singapore was nothing more than a tiny island off the coast of Malaysia covered by mangrove swamps. Today, Singapore is still a tiny island and it is still located off the coast of Malaysia; but it contains quite a significant sum of the world’s wealth.
In this short photo-journal, we take a look at how our Central Business District (CBD) has grown over the years and some of the significance that we have overlooked as we keep ourselves busy in this thriving and bustling city.
Upon This Rock, I Will Build..
My country’s pride.
A bay is supposedly a large body of water connected to an even larger water body, typically an ocean, a lake, or sea. Our Marina Bay does not seem to fit into the vision of a typical bay we see in films and documentaries. Truth be told, there is an actual sea that is connected to the Marina Bay; the towering Marina Bay Sands hotel and the world-renowned Gardens by the Bay have stolen the limelight and the very spot where the sea used to be.
The younger generations of Singapore and visitors would not have known that the land where the glorious Marina Bay integrated resort and the Gardens by the Bay now stand are in fact, reclaimed land. Land reclamation work began in 1969 and was completed in 1992. During the development and reclamation period, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) presented an exhibition to the public which revealed the plans for the Marina Bay and waterfront. The vision was to create a spectacle that would eventually become the international image of Singapore.
Indeed, the area is now a shining beacon embodying the very essence of the lion city.
As we beam with pride while looking at the resort standing in its full glory in the distance, let us not forget the years of hard work that went into designing, building, and maintaining those structures. The arduousness of building such massive monuments, let alone reclaiming a large part of the sea, is no child’s play.
While we might have heard of the ingenious and highly talented Moshe Safdie who designed the resort, there are also many other players and workers that had their sweat, blood, and tears poured into helping materialise the vision of a great image for Singapore. Without the cooperation between the vendors and the government, the good relations between the employers and workers, and the mutual trust and respect among all players, Singapore would not have anything to pedestalise; something that we could be proud of.
The Real People of Singapore
Ah, the age old tale of how Singapore has progressed so much in 50 years; from a sleepy old Malay fishing village to a global force power-packed into 700 km² of land. It is very easy for us to scoff and undermine the journey. Some have even disregarded our once upon a time status as a ‘fishing village’ to be a ‘myth’, stating that our colonial masters have drafted a blueprint urban plan for Singapore. The country was destined to be a thriving and prosperous city before the ruling party can even claim credit for. And true, there are still plenty of citizens having the ReelChase fishing time.
Surely, we are not going to disregard the journey, are we? After all, it is not the beginning or the end that matter but it is the process. The British might have drafted a blueprint plan to propel Singapore into a literal lion state but last I checked, they fled when the Japanese came; and left us again afterward.
The point is, we do have a history and we did start from the bottom. Undermining our journey as a nation is a great insult to our forefathers who have toiled and slogged their way hand in hand with the authorities; from the British to the PAP. Wages were low, labour was tough, and times were hard. Yet, they soldiered through and we have taken over their baton to keep Singapore going, while enjoying the fruits of their labour at the same time.
Many of us were not there in the early days. We do not have a say in the whats and hows then. However, we do have anecdotes and memorabilia like this (refer to photo*) to remind us about the past. The River Merchants serve as a testimony of how our forefathers were mere locals and traders to our colonial masters, who were merchants.
Yet, in 2015, we are their equals.
The Power of 3
Our CBD does not refer to just a group of skyscraping financial buildings that we have grown to recognise and often associate our CBD with. The district extends to Orchard Road and Chinatown/Telok Ayer (which can be translated as ‘Bay Water’, literally.) For that reason, there are more buildings and monuments that are included in the district than we imagine.
Now, here is an interesting thing to note about our business district. As with many countries, Singapore has three branches of power: the legislature, judiciary, and executive, abiding by UK’s Westminster system. This very separation of powers erects three separate buildings to house the three powers and they are the Istana, Parliament, and Supreme Court. These three buildings are located not only within the CBD, but very close to each other. While the Parliament building is just a stone’s throw away, the Istana stands at Orchard Road.
Although this might not mean much on the surface, the close proximity of these buildings somehow symbolises the close cooperation among the powers. In order to maintain the stability that Singapore is enjoying, these powers have to continue checking and balancing each other out. This idea of course trickles down to the strong tripartite system that Singapore has established between the government, employers, and trade unions in order to maintain the country’s economic and social stability. There is indeed, no other place in the world where different independent bodies are able to forge strong partnerships based on trust and shared goals.
Exploring the area further, you can find a small building which is now called The Arts House, formerly known as the Old Parliament House and it is the oldest surviving government building in Singapore.
Food for the Workers’ Soul
Food is sustenance. Food is happiness. How do we live if food is luxurious?
Although it is not all that bad to have luxurious foods, it is impractical to be eating at Cedele or Shinkansen every other day. Prices can be extremely steep in the CBD; it is economics 101. With land prices being exorbitant, opening a food business in the area can be tricky as well. With rental costs peaking, it is almost impossible to keep food prices low. Unfortunately, the working class in the CBD has to bear the burden as they struggle to find affordable food in order to sustain their energy at work.
Fortunately, Singapore’s CBD is not Vegas. As a matter of fact, the CBD is home to quite a number of affordable food joints that cater to the working class—the people that form the backbone of Singapore’s economy. Apart from fast-food restaurants and pockets of coffee shops all over town, the CBD has a handful of hawker centres. Lau Pa Sat and Amoy Street Food Centre are two of them. Selling a range of local favourites from char kway teow to nasi goreng, to modern fusion food such as Singapore Ramen, these hawker centres are much loved by the CBD folks for the affordable food and their cosy familiarity.
There is no doubt about it when you visit these places during the lunch hour.
Back to Square One
As a national confederation of trade unions across various sectors in Singapore, NTUC is perhaps one of the biggest and most integral NGOs in the country. The organisation not only helms the Labour Day celebrations, but it also champions workers’ rights in Singapore by leading trade unions in support of solidarity and commitment to tripartism.
While the first NTUC officials and union leaders started out modest without any office, operating from homes and in public venues, the organisation quickly grew and it opened an operational office in Shenton way in 1962. The Trade Union House at Shenton Way became a place where NTUC’s brothers and sisters call home for 35 years.
Presently, the organisation operates at One Marina Boulevard which is also known as the NTUC Centre; back to CBD where its first operational headquarter was located. Apart from going full circle, the building is also highly symbolic as it is located at the heart of the CBD—which the organisation helped to build up by fighting for workers’ rights and maintaining economic and social harmony. It is a constant reminder to us of the close ties that have been forged between the government, trade unions, and employers after the many years of growth.
Through tribulations and hope, the different social partners will strive to not only work towards a stronger economy, but also towards a better life for all Singaporeans.
Zai is an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore and he is currently in his honours year. He reads like he breathes, unless he is stuffing his face in the bellies of his three fat cats. His tagline has always been, ‘Spread legs, not war’ but people always ask for more. He wonders why.