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Thread: Great hawker or great scholar for a great city?

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    Default Great hawker or great scholar for a great city?

    http://www.straitstimes.com/PrimeNew...ry_589988.html

    Oct 13, 2010

    THE ST INTERVIEW

    Great hawker or great scholar for a great city?

    Urban expert says success is more than glittering skylines and mega-malls

    By Radha Basu, Senior Correspondent


    GREAT cities are melting pots of myriad cultures, bustle with enterprise and are safe, says urban development expert Joel Kotkin. But above all, they have a well-developed 'sense of self'.

    This manifests itself not through glittering skylines, cookie-cutter condominiums or mega-malls. A city's uniqueness, he says, lies in the thriving life of its backstreets and bylanes.

    Singapore has most of the hallmarks of a great city, says Mr Kotkin, 57, a historian and geographer who has spent more than three decades researching the rise and fall of great cities.

    It is safe, has a booming economy and is a great 'meeting place of tribes' - Chinese, Malays, Indians and even Caucasians. But in order to seal a lasting place on the roster of the world's great cities, it needs to have more of what he calls a 'sense of itself'.

    The acclaimed writer on urban issues was in Singapore last week to give talks at the Civil Service College and the Ministry of National Development, including one on what makes a city great.

    To Mr Kotkin, Singapore's uniqueness - its soul if you will - lies in the fluorescent-lit hawker centres 'bustling with people who laugh, fight, flirt, hang out and have dinner together'.

    It is in the colour and character of Geylang and Katong, the art deco shophouses of Tanjong Pagar and the Housing Board void decks of Toa Payoh or Tampines.

    'It is by walking in some of these districts that I have got a sense of the unique Singapore spirit,' says the native New Yorker, who has made Los Angeles his home for the past 35 years.

    Indeed, he asserts Singapore is rapidly developing a 'nascent sense of itself'.

    Mr Kotkin says he would not have considered this a great city 20 or 30 years ago, when it was in a mad rush for modernisation, knocking down everything that was old. 'I am glad that you ended up preserving some of your past. If you obliterate your history, you will definitely miss it someday.'

    The big challenge for Singapore, as for many other great cities, is how to avert a decline.

    Two of the biggest factors that can cause once-great cities to dwindle and die are their inability to absorb newcomers and failure to ensure the upward mobility of their citizens.

    History is littered with stories of the seminal role played by immigrants on the fate of cities. Good examples include 16th and 17th century Spanish cities such as Barcelona, Madrid or Seville.

    'They were once the seats of a great empire, but they expelled or persecuted immigrants and creative minorities like Jews, Protestants and Muslims,' says Mr Kotkin. Hounded by intolerance, these groups moved to the Netherlands, England and America.

    'The rest, as they say, is history,' he adds.

    More recently, the world has witnessed the decline of the great Japanese cities, in large part because they cannot absorb foreigners.

    'They are thus doomed not only to demographic decline, but also lack the entrepreneurial spark that sustains great cities like London and New York,' says Mr Kotkin.

    But even as they assimilate newcomers, he says, cities must preserve jobs for the native middle class and ensure upward mobility for them. 'As cities become larger and more expensive, it becomes harder to enter the middle class. Middle-income jobs hollow out, so you have jobs at the top, jobs at the bottom, and not a lot at the middle.'

    An extreme case is London, which has its record-breaking real estate prices and legions of super-rich, but also innumerable poor.

    'The wealth drives up the real estate prices, and the middle class leaves, leaving behind the poor, who rent or live in public housing,' says Mr Kotkin.

    'A third of the children in inner city London live in poverty. It is this kind of inequality Singapore should guard against.'

    He says this can be achieved by emphasising and encouraging 'middle-income skills'.

    He asks: 'Do you really need to import all your plumbers, all your hawkers or mid-level office staff?'

    One problem is that Singapore society is too focused on paper qualifications - 'credential crazy' is what he calls it.

    'It is understandable historically,' he says. 'But I think you need to have an appreciation for other forms of intelligence.

    'A great hawker is more valuable to me than (someone with) a PhD in English. There must be more dignity of labour and respect.'

    One reason many Singaporeans shun lower-end jobs, some experts say, is these jobs do not pay well enough and there are cheaper foreign workers to do them.

    Mr Kotkin suggests the Government provides incentives for Singaporeans to do such jobs - like those in health care, social work or services for older folk.

    Citizens who take up such jobs could be given special housing grants that are not eligible to foreigners, he suggests.

    How Singapore wants to grow economically is also just as important as how much it wants to grow. 'Growth that includes and engages more Singaporeans may be more sustainable,' he notes.

    The country may need to think about how much economic growth it wants driven by low-wage labour.

    'This may not even be a successful strategy in the long term,' he cautions.

    'More locally generated entrepreneurial growth, free from the decisions of multinationals, might be a better bet and also very much more satisfying.'

    For instance, with overcrowding fast becoming a pressing urban issue, Singaporeans could consider devising solutions to the problem, which it could then export to other countries with fast-growing cities, such as India and China.

    'There may be new ways of living well in densely packed environments that Singapore is supremely qualified to pioneer,' he says.

    To avert decline, great cities also need to ensure they do not lose their moral compass. Some say ancient Rome fell because of the depravity and wretchedness of its rich. Rome, the fifth century Christian writer Salvian noted, 'is dying, but continues to laugh'.

    Similarly, Singaporeans' relentless pursuit of the five Cs - condominiums, cars, club memberships, cash and credit cards - could cause its star to wane, Mr Kotkin warns. 'Instead of laughing and dying, as Salvian put it, in Rome, Singaporeans could be spending and eating into oblivion. No doubt it is fun, but there is more to life than that.'

    But by far the biggest 'existential challenge' facing this city, he feels, is its abysmal fertility rate.

    'The choice of not having children is fine for individuals, but if it becomes a predominant choice, then you are doomed as a society,' he says.

    'You become a hotel, and then constantly fret about how to attract new people. But what happens if some other country in Asia cleans up its act and has even nicer hotels at half the price?'

    But he is sanguine that Singapore will not face Japan's demographic fate.

    'This society has an urge and talent for self-preservation,' he says. 'It has so far had the unique ability to overcome many serious problems that have affected it. And I am hopeful it will do so again.'

    radhab@sph.com.sg


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    http://www.straitstimes.com/PrimeNew...ry_589998.html

    Oct 13, 2010

    Expert on urban trends


    WRITER and journalist Joel Kotkin, 57, is especially interested in the rise and fall of great cities.

    An internationally recognised authority on urban socio-economic and political trends, his latest book, The Next 100 Million: America In 2050, was published in February by The Penguin Press. It explores how the United States will evolve in the next four decades, and received positive reviews. His previous book, also critically acclaimed, The City: A Global History, was published in 2006, with editions in China, Spain, Britain, Japan and Korea.

    Mr Kotkin is distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University in Orange, California, and an adjunct fellow with the London-based Legatum Institute, an independent, non-partisan organisation that researches and advocates a better understanding of global prosperity.

    Described by The New York Times as America's 'uber-geographer', he currently writes the weekly 'New Geographer' column for Forbes.com and for several other US publications in print and online.

    The native New Yorker has spent most of his adult life in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife Mandy Shamis and two daughters, Ariel, 15, and Hannah, six.

    He attended the University of California in Berkeley in the early 1970s.


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    http://www.straitstimes.com/PrimeNew...ry_589997.html

    Oct 13, 2010

    'Great cities don't try to be something they're not'


    # Singapore is undoubtedly a global city. Aren't all global cities great cities?

    Not at all. A global city can be an airport and a bunch of multinationals. It is more important to be a great city than just a global one. One of the things is to let things develop organically. You must have more entrepreneurial companies to be based here, as opposed to being a corporate way station, a convenient place to park a part of your international operations.

    You will get challenged on that one. Many multinational corporations may have their Asian headquarters here right now. But at some point, the Chinese will say: 'You want to do business in China? Please move to Shanghai.'

    Singapore will need to do more organic development not just culturally, but economically. That needs an entirely different set of skills than what you have had so far. The hardest thing to do is to unlearn the secrets of your past success. But Singapore, which is diverse, small and more agile, will hopefully learn that you can't continue to do things just because they have worked in the past.

    # You have said great cities are defined by their people, not skylines. How have American cities averted falling birthrates?

    Immigration has played a role. Immigrants have higher birthrates. There is also a strong tendency towards religious belief. People who are religious tend to have more children. The big thing you can't duplicate here is space. Suburbs are the nurseries of the nation.

    But Singapore has been good at pioneering unique solutions to its unique problems. Adoption is a possibility. There are many people who spend much of their energies on work. They get to be 40, and then say there is more to life than work. In the US, lots of people I know in their 40s have adopted children, particularly girls from China.

    Whether you want to have children or not is a civilisational issue. It cannot be driven by the Government. The desire must come from the people.

    # What else will it take for Singapore to continue to thrive as a great city?

    Appreciate yourself and build your strengths on who you are. Stop worrying about being somebody else. Nothing is more unattractive in a person or a city than when it tries to be something it is not: The sense that we have to be hip and cool, and in order to be hip and cool, we have to be like Las Vegas. Take your integrated resorts, for instance. While they make sense economically, what happens if Hanoi builds a casino that is five times bigger and the hotels are a third of the price? You have to have, at the end, those things that are unique.

    Above all, you need to be more conscious of the unique Singapore spirit. What do I mean by the great urban spirit? Think New York after 9/11. There was this fierce determination that we will not abandon New York. And no one did.


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