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Eye on the News

Sahil Mahtani
Telescopic Philanthropy
First World urbanites and their contempt for Third World urbanization
29 January 2009

There are many ways to hate the tiny island nation of Singapore, but faulting it for overdevelopment is perhaps the cruelest. And when the New York Times makes the criticism, the cruelty slides into absurdity: a newspaper in America’s largest city is accusing Singapore of having too many buildings? Earlier this year, Seth Mydans filed a report for the Times about Singapore’s redevelopment of its last village, a “secret Eden . . . hidden in trees among the massed apartment blocks, where a fresh breeze rustles the coconut palms and tropical birds whoop and whistle.” The village was “Singapore’s last rural hamlet, a forgotten straggler in the rush to modernize this high-rise, high-tech city-state,” wrote Mydans. “When it is gone, one of the world’s most extreme national makeovers will be complete.”

The editors titled the piece SINGAPORE PREPARES TO GOBBLE UP ITS LAST VILLAGE, and the accompanying picture showed a distraught woman standing amid unruly foliage, looking into the distance. “To make more space, neighborhoods are razed, landmarks are sacrificed and cemeteries—an inefficient use of land—are cleared away,” Mydans wrote, summing up Singapore’s long history of land reclamation. The reporter clearly considered this government-initiated redevelopment a bad thing, and he described villagers happy with their lot and wary of the vast anonymity of the beckoning city. In keeping with the Edenic vision, he noted that “snakes and lizards scurry through the undergrowth, and tiny fish swim in a tiny stream.”

The fish are a nice touch. As it happens, fish need water, which the flood-ridden, low-lying village, Kampong Buangkok, has in abundance. In fact, the settlement’s Malay name means “to lift a skirt,” in reference to raising one’s sarong to pass through floodwaters. Flash floods, it turns out, have long been a problem there: most recently, a multimillion-dollar drainage project was deemed not cost-effective for the village’s barely three dozen houses. And a tropical flood is not a cheerful affair. A Singapore paper recently told of a 47-year-old Kampong Buangkok resident suffering from kidney failure while struggling to build a brick wall to keep floodwaters out. Natural disasters are a constant presence in the literature on Kampong Buangkok, and before or after romanticizing the place, Mydans could have acknowledged them.

But perhaps doing so would have interfered with the reporter’s pre-industrial view of the village, a kind of garden-variety Rousseauism that willingly trades other people’s poverty for certain idealized notions of naturalness. The truth, as the history of floods indicates, is that life in Eden is often precarious. Disease is common—the Singapore government recently deemed the village’s surrounding area one of several “hotspots” in a recent dengue outbreak—and ambition is often stifled, which may explain why many young people have left in recent years. That’s another fact that Mydans neglected to mention, and it explains why the residents he spoke to wished to stay; all the others had left already. Redevelopment, of course, might solve some of these problems.

Mydans’s piece raises substantive issues that go far beyond Singapore. Pre-industrial romanticism plays a role in every debate about the meaning of progress, from drilling in protected spaces in Alaska to imposing a gas tax. As a general rule, participants in these discussions become more myopic the farther they are from the place under consideration. Alaskans have shown overwhelming support for drilling, for instance, but many Americans have been unwilling to follow suit. Ted Kennedy backs wind farms, so long as they aren’t anywhere near his Cape Cod mansion. Does anyone doubt that a village hamlet at the edge of Manhattan would be happily bulldozed?

Your idea of Eden, it seems, depends on where you stand. Singapore’s neighbors in Southeast Asia view it as an island of normality, with an honest civil service, good medical care, and a bright future. By contrast, First World sophisticates see Singapore as a bossy little republic-behemoth flattening everything in sight, only to produce sterile—no, “soulless”—apartment blocks and polluted air. The same disparagement often greets its doppelgänger Dubai, another emerging nation that’s allowing talent, freedom, and some semblance of normality to thrive. Many in the educated classes greet its rise with condescension and alarm, seeing the upstart emirate as a tacky and congested playground for the plutocracy. We will put aside the question of whether London or New York meets that description equally well, or whether those cities’ residents would have it any other way. The broader issue is the sheer loss of nerve about industrial development among those who have profited most from it.

The economic historian Joseph Schumpeter made this point back in the 1940s, warning of a fundamental contradiction in many thinkers’ opposition to capitalism. Because economic rationalism destroyed most of the underpinnings of civil society—village, clan, craft guild—and did not replace them with any similar organic enterprise, more and more people would eventually yearn for a kind of moral authority that capitalism could not provide, Schumpeter predicted. With little direct responsibility for practical affairs, intellectuals would be especially prone to this tendency; they could support vague moral or cultural ideas with few of the tradeoffs that ordinary people face. As a result, the bourgeoisie would underwrite its own gravediggers, subsidizing an intellectual class hostile to itself. Capitalism’s long-run benefits were very much worth fighting for, Schumpeter argued: for those outside the system, they provided a path in, and for everyone else, a constant improvement in living standards through innovation. But capitalism’s negative consequences—constant volatility and income disparity, to name two—would remain stark, and intelligent people would often fail to grasp its redeeming values. Defending capitalism, even in the best of times, would always be an uphill battle.

There’s much truth to this. After all, not only Seth Mydans, but countless other Singaporeans, have romanticized that stupid village. They’re welcome to enjoy the pre-industrial world—provided they choose to live in it. Many such places still exist in neighboring Malaysia, and rents, I hear, are cheap.

Sahil Mahtani is a reporter-researcher at the New Republic.

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