City of Purpose

I always hear about Dr Goh Keng Swee’s contributions to the economic development and strategies of Singapore: He initiated the idea of GIC, he decided that Singapore should retain the National Service, he once helped to manage the education system as well as our national defence. Perhaps because of what I hear, I had always hoped for the chance to listen to his ideas, his opinions about different issues. I finally got the chance when I found the only 3 books he published about his work. The recent ‘biography’ of him published wasn’t so much something that I desire because I didn’t want to delve into his life. I wanted to know about Dr Goh’s ideas.

I read one of his speeches for a seminar on urbanization and felt enlightened about the functions of cities. A third of my Human Geography syllabus was on urbanization and studies of cities. A sixth of the syllabus held ideas about development and modernization. In his speeches, I found names like ‘Myrdal’, which I come across when I learn about growth theories. Despite that, I struggle to conceive a purpose for cities. To me, the congregation of more people, in a larger space meant nothing more than an exaggerated version of towns and villages. I understood the kind of administrative, business functions that cities serve but these were all micro-activities that seem far from national-level importance of economic planning. Economic development, to me, was something related to, but much larger than city itself. Cities, to me, was no more than a component that provided growth and drove growth in the modern age.

Perhaps I was trivializing the role of cities, indeed, after learning of the function of a city, especially the city of a developing economy from Dr Goh, I decided that my beliefs about the role of cities is seriously doing injustice to urban areas at large. Dr Goh believes that urban cores epitomize modernization and thinks that all cities have the role to spread this modernism, both tangible products of technology and intangible ideas on managment, on reality and modern philosophy (perhaps of life) to the rest of the nation, in order to push it along the road of development.

It is perhaps the attitudes in the cities, the desire for better life, the acquaintance with competition, the belief of a better tomorrow, the enterprise, the innovation that sets the urban core above the other areas where people congregate. It is the spread of such ideas, of such lifestyle and beliefs that the city have to perform in order to push the rest of the country with it. Without playing this role, the city can continue to grow and prosper, but that would produce a dual economy, where benefits of these urban sectors would not reach the rural areas. There may even be a backlash resulting from that as the stagnating rural economy fails to provide sufficient food supply for the urban center. Of course, the urban center, with its riches, can import those products and remove its dependence from the rural area – though that is unlikely to turn out well for the national economy.

In all, the urban center is more than a leader in the economy spearheading development, it is the cauldron of attitudes, ideas and knowledge that have to be spread around the economy to achieve modernization, to attain development. The soup in this cauldron have to be scooped out and served, not aimlessly boiled to dryness through rapid yet mindless growth.


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