Absurdity in the Garden City

'Supertrees' at Gardens by the Bay.


For as long as I can remember, Singapore has been referred to as a Garden City. I first heard it mentioned either during a politician’s speech or a primary school teacher referencing a politician’s speech. In my 10-year-old mind, Garden City created images of over-bright wildflowers sticking out through the cracks in the pavement, prehistorically-large ivy creepers sneaking up along the sides of skyscrapers, and meadows instead of expressways.

Of course, what Garden City actually means is a city landscape deliberately designed with green spaces, reflecting that a true marriage has taken place between nature and urbanisation; something to break up all the greyness. It’s easy to believe too, especially on that drive along the PIE into the city from Changi Airport. Trees curve over the expressway to meet in the middle, leaves just barely brushing each other; a beautiful green tunnel into the heart of a Garden City.

It is a lovely idea but eventually, it becomes impossible not to notice how trees are in unnaturally perfect lines, like soldiers guarding pedestrians as they trudge along pavement. There are very few places in this city where trees are allowed to take root and reach out however they please.

Gardens are always carefully pruned, of course, but if so much as a leaf is out of line, the city deploys saws to hack off every undesirable part of the tree. Grass is mowed down regularly and entire sections of precious greenery are ripped out, leaving a fresh wound on the city’s face. Even before the bleeding stops, it’s plastered over with car parks and commercial and residential buildings which will be carefully decorated with perfectly manicured trees unaware of their ancestors who had until recently thrived untouched in that space. It is frustrating and frankly, absurd to think that we have decided where trees should be and where they shouldn’t while still claiming the term ‘Garden City’

Like many other things in Singapore, Garden City is an idea made mundane by repetition and now sounds a little off. There are plenty more uniquely Singaporean ideas that attract a side eye that was discussed today (Absurdity in the Singaporean Mundane - Singapore Writer's Festival 2022). 

Anittha Thanabalan
Contributor to How We Live Now: Stories of Daily Living

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