Singapore / Pragmatism, Urban Planning and Conservation

“[The major buildings of Singapore] collectively symbolise the aspirations, the values and the levels of aesthetic appreciation of the Singapore society, especially its decision-makers… [Singapore’s] recent architecture only reflects the dominance of the business community and its material wealth.” Stated by William Lim, the main architect behind the Bu Ye Tian project, in his book in 1990, it showed the strong economic driven urban strategy of Singapore that even in the path of conservation. Does pursuing the growth of economy and material wealth conflict with the conservation of historic architectural heritage?

Pragmatism and Singapore
The birth of pragmatism in Singapore could be traced back to 9 August 1965, when Singapore was thrust into independence. As a result of the geographic limitations and the potential conflicts buried in the multi-cultural social structure, economic survival was ostensibly a clarion priority for the People’s Action Party. As a socialist, the People’s Action Party abjured ideological approaches but dealt with the issue by means of practical methods. Through years of prospering economy in Singapore, this label of “pragmatism” does not look bad. The creed of this pragmatic approach is the priority of economic growth and “an admittance of only ‘concrete’ evidence of a statistical type and no qualitative or ‘soft’ evidence or ‘in principle’ arguments.” The value was integrated in the bureaucracy, from economics, foreign affairs to law and, nonetheless, urban planning.

Pragmatism and Urban Planning

There has been a debate on the relationship of economics and conservation. Pragmatism in urban planning and conservation creates a bias towards land use with the highest economic return. The authority had low priority of conservation in the 1960s and 1970s, but through the mid-1980s and onwards, conservation became the highlighted acts of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). However, that was not the consequences of a shift of its policy, but should be seen as a continuation of pragmatism. Pragmatism is a series of rational economic decisions with what is quantifiable at the time of decision-making. Due to the incomprehension of the quantifiable factors that could happen beyond the time of decision-making, the totality of factors is underestimated and alters the result of the end game differently. In Singapore’s case, the constraint on urban planning of all time is the size limitations of land. So what altered the strategy of conservation in the tough constraint of land use? The former Chief Executive Officer and Chief Planner of the URA in Singapore, Liu Thai Ker, explained for the conservation acts in 1992, that Singapore can afford conservation, with large-scale reclamation in Marina Bay areas adjacent to the financial district, the land is qualified to satisfy the commercial and transport requirements downtown sufficiently into the future.

Pragmatism and Boat Quay

In 1982, the proposal Bu Ye Tian developed by a small group leading by William Lim attempted to explore the relationship between pragmatism and conservation further, as making the conservation area economically viable. The overall objective of the URA was to maintain the cultural heritage while keeping economic growth. Furthermore, more than the economic values of the adaptive reuse conservations, Liu Thai Ker noted that conservation “should not be an economic burden to the government. Instead, its economic success will go a long way towards furthering the cause of conservation.” Resulted in the self-funding strategy for the conservation, the guidelines only work as an encouragement for the owners to do the conservation under the framework without governmental subsidy. With the foreseeable profit and the constraint of other development methods in a historic area regulated by the URA, the private sectors then were willing to self-fund with other non-financial help from the authority. Consequently, a large number of the non-residential conservation projects were following to join in and maintain their heritage.

Bu Ye Tian Proposal Budget source: Lim, William. Singapore River: A Conservation Proposal for Boat Quay
Bu Ye Tian Proposal Budget
source: Lim, William. Singapore River: A Conservation Proposal for Boat Quay


Bishop, Ryan, John Phillips, and Wei-Wei Yeo. Beyond Description: Singapore Space Historicity. London: Routledge, 2004.

Conservation Guidelines.
Singapore: URA, 2000. 5-7.

Lim, William Siew Wai. Cities for People: Reflections of a Southeast Asian Architect. Singapore: Select Books, 1990. 117-118.

Powell, Robert. Living Legacy: Singapore’s Architectural Heritage Renewed. Singapore: Singapore Heritage Society, 1994. 25-26.

“Singapore River, Singapore: Adaptive Re-use of the Historic Boat Quay.” Singapore River, Singapore: Adaptive Re-use of the Historic Boat Quay. Accessed December 09, 2016.

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