You are here:

Singapore’s ‘Garden City’ and the hardships of independence: political narratives and urban reform

Recorded 14 January 2021

Speaker: Jesse O’Neill (Glasgow School of Art, Singapore)

Internationally, the cliché of Singapore is that it is clean and modern. This was the exact tourism image that Singapore actively pursued in the 1980s, but it also formed a point of derision in the 1990s, when William Gibson described the city as a “Disneyland” environment, and Rem Koolhaas called it a “Potemkin metropolis”, a city of artifice. Such impressions resulted from Singapore’s planning policies of the 1960s, which expressly invoked the ‘garden city’ as an ideal urban future. These policies developed shortly after Singapore was severed from Malaysia and forced into becoming an independent nation. At that time, a survivalist rhetoric dominated public concerns, and the physical act of reorganising the urban landscape served as an outward expression of the anxieties of having to reorganise political and civic identities. Garden landscapes in the city became a visible marker that represented the efforts involved in inventing a modern nation. They contributed a sense of security for foreign investors, they helped engineer the character and moral outlook of a new citizenship, and they guided the formation of national identity. For Singapore’s government, flowerbeds, manicured trees and well-kept lawns signified security, civic order, and a popular commitment to national survival. This presentation discusses the history of ‘garden city’ policies and strategies in Singapore, particularly the public campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s, and the ways that their impression of the city-state has shaped ideas about urban planning in Singapore until the present.

Jesse O’Neill is a historian of design and visual culture. His research interests focus on questions about the materiality of modernising lifestyles in the former British colonies of maritime Southeast Asia. He is currently Lecturer in Design History and Theory at the Glasgow School of Art in Singapore.   

IHR Seminar Series: History of Gardens and Landscapes