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  • Writer's pictureThe Convergence

ASEAN's Singapore: surfing the waves of change?

Commentary | Qoi Wen Ting, Event Associate Editor

The ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN), established by Singapore in 2018, attests to Singapore’s foresight: cities must and should be habitable, sustainable, and inclusive places of economic growth.

Facing waves of globalisation, the fourth industrial revolution, increased calls for sustainable living and inclusive growth, cities today are up against a wall of insurmountable challenges brought about by a rapidly changing and globalising world.

As a young city-state and void of a natural hinterland and highly dependent on the global community, Singapore has to find ways to remain relevant while providing for the growing needs of its citizens.

How, then, do we understand Singapore’s vision to become a Smart City? What are the implications for rapidly developing neighbouring ASEAN countries?

As Singapore leads the ASEAN region into the future, it is important for us to look at the efficacy of ASEAN’s initiatives.

The inaugural ASCN meeting in 2018 had identified and aimed to transform a number of pilot cities into resilient, technology-enabled cities. The ASCN’s primary goal is to improve the lives of ASEAN citizens.

Its inclusive approach towards smart city development that respects human rights and fundamental freedoms is certainly laudable. Yet, looking at the lofty ambitions of each city, one cannot help but wonder whether the gargantuan task to develop sustainable cities in the region might be overly ambitious.

Sustainable development can be broadly categorized into 3 pillars: environmental sustainability, social sustainability, and economic sustainability. The Sustainable Cities Index, based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, also uses these pillars to measure the sustainability of cities.

In reality, however, sustainability initiatives are cross-cutting, and cities need to take a holistic approach to address all 3 pillars of sustainability.

ASEAN cities, however, are ill-prepared to embrace such change. Vast disparities in level of development and poor understanding of the practicalities of sustainable development remain formidable impediments to the effective implementation of the ASCN.

A quick glance at the visions laid out by the pilot cities in the 2018 ASCN meeting reveals diverging expectations.

For example, while some cities like Mandalay adopted more targeted approaches like improvements in transport, others like Davao City have more lofty ambitions to harness digital connectivity and technological advancement in providing high-quality living.

In light of the inextricable connections between the pillars of sustainability, we can agree that coming up with adequate and overarching frameworks is no easy task. This is especially the case when city authorities are increasingly charged with the responsibility to tackle myriad issues ranging from city-specific problems (e.g. flooding, traffic congestion, etc.) to combating entrenched corruption and the need to formulate thought-intensive solutions.

As a result, city authorities are often faced with the daunting task of addressing too many problems with too little resources and time. Thus, real progress is impeded.

For instance, in the case of Jakarta, a shift to socio-economic sustainability at the expense of environmental sustainability might cripple the city given its heavy dependence on its environment for the provision of public services (i.e. groundwater).

Meanwhile, Chonburi’s goals of increasing renewable energy and energy storage and reducing carbon dioxide emissions can only be possible if there are sufficient resources to support the massive operations.

As a region, it is perhaps too optimistic to think that the ASCN will be much help beyond setting goals in black and white. Sustainability itself is a complex, multifaceted issue that requires extensive restructuring of the city which many ASEAN cities, being at the cusp of economic growth, are unable to fully commit.

Granted, the efficacy of the ASCN appears to lie in coordinated response. Singapore, as a developed city-state and de facto leader of the ASCN, has painted what a smart city entails in broad strokes.

Yet, the four principles of effective urban governance that ASEAN member states should apply - modern and transparent urban management practices, sufficient and reliable funding sources, long-term yet adaptable city master plans and the establishment of clear policies on major issues each city faces - remain largely generic and with practicalities extremely variable depending on context and local conditions.

Without accounting for specific local requirements and lacking an appreciation for context, it is difficult for cities to effectively tackle their own problems using ASCN guidelines.

While an ageing population is a major problem for Singapore, it may be less relevant for cities like Kota Kinabalu and Phnom Penh where problems such as the lack of proper zoning and planning as a result of exponential economic growth take centre stage.

This diversity of the problems and constraints faced by ASEAN cities exemplifies the difficulties in assuming a one-size-fits-all approach.

Without accounting for specific local requirements and lacking an appreciation for context, it is difficult for cities to effectively tackle their own problems using ASCN guidelines.

More importantly, cities as zones of capital accumulation have long been characterized by inequality, pointing to the paradoxical goal of inclusive cities.

The current developmental model which attracts foreign investors using business-friendly policies and technological advancements exacerbate inequalities within the city and between the city and rural hinterlands.

Rapidly developing nations, in particular, see that unprecedented influx of rural migrants into urban built environments because of the opportunities available in urban areas rife with economic activity.

Yet, when these low-skilled workers arrive in the city, they find themselves unable to fit in. This manifests in the formation of slums and the informal economy. Since cities thrive on capitalism and consumerism, the need for continuous economic activity benefits the wealthy entrepreneur while disadvantaging the worker-consumer.

In many ASEAN cities, it is not difficult to find slums near the city centre. From Manila's Smokey Mountain to Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur, the stark image of gleaming skyscrapers against the backdrop of dilapidated slums prevails.

This shared reality reflects the city authorities' priority of attracting investment at the expense of catering to urban citizen's needs. Thus, technology, with its ability to project an image of prosperity, may, in fact, be detrimental if the same technology is used only with the interests of the bourgeoisie in mind.

If cities want to embrace inclusive growth, it will be erroneous to simply cruise along with the advancing technology of today. To do so without adequate measures and thoughtful considerations will only result in more people struggling to stay afloat in an already unequal economic system.

Hence, strong political will and support coupled with conscientious, thoughtful strategies are necessary to allocate resources in a fair manner that facilitates inclusive, long term growth. Without which, socio-economic sustainability in smart cities will remain untenable.

Technology is a powerful tool that increases efficiency and solves a variety of urban problems.

Admittingly, a city’s efficiency and the individual’s felt needs can be addressed with technological advancements and innovation today.

Yet, it is only reasonable to be sufficiently sceptical of the broad strokes this picture of the region’s cities is painted by.

As Zhou Enlai famously posited about the impact of the French revolution on western civilization, “it is too early to tell."

Faced with rising challenges of the 21st century and fettered by deeply rooted national or even city-specific problems, only time will tell if ASEAN can translate theory to praxis and realise its laudable goals for the ASCN.


About the author: A first-year Geography major, Wen Ting is the Associate Editor (Events) of The Convergence and is an avid reader and passionate dancer. During her (limited) free time, she is baking, cooking and mulling over life during long walks in the park. Her attempts to brighten up her college room include planting sunflowers which have, sadly, yet to sprout.


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