Project Jewel: The hype we can do without

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By Elvin Ong

A mini controversy has erupted over the development of Project Jewel at Changi Airport. First announced in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech in August 2013, a recent media statement about its impending construction through a tie-up between Changi Airport Group and CapitaMalls Asia has attracted much attention.

The Straits Times wrote an editorial, Project Jewel must really glitter, hailing it as a further example of the government’s far-sighted policy making. It touted the project as a “game-changer” that will allow the airport to compete for the “discerning traveller” with other expanding air hubs in South-east Asia such as Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.

Yet, some have expressed scepticism and concerns at yet another shopping mall in the already-crowded Singapore. A letter to the paper suggested that its $1.47 billion price tag was not worthwhile, given that it could end up as another of Singapore’s many “vanity showpieces.” Changi Airport Group reiterated in its reply that Project Jewel was designed to be a “game-changer” in order to “capture mindshare at a global level.”

Rather than continue to debate the obvious merits or demerits of Project Jewel itself, it is probably more important and insightful to address the underlying assumptions and tensions in perspectives between the earnest developers and the common Singaporean. While discussions about cost-benefit calculations are certainly important, they merely scratch the surface of any policy considerations. We can, and should, move beyond the most obvious.

As a start, it is fascinating to observe the type of words that Changi Airport Group has used in its media releases to publicise the project. Students of business marketing and public relations will be familiar with terms such as “game-changer,” “mindshare,” or “discerning traveller.” The competitive tender process among developers to market to Changi Airport Group as one kind of project (in this case Project Jewel) as opposed to other possible projects in order to be competitive with rivals (in this case rival airports) induces the need to generate words that caricature phenomenon and people. Hence, a new modern architecture becomes a “game-changer,” the act of thinking becomes “mindshare,” while the high-spending tourist becomes the “discerning traveller.”

Yet such words distort, misinform, and ultimately mislead, more than they enlighten. There is no elaboration on how the competition between airports will be changed with a “game-changer” like Project Jewel. There are no detailed explanations of “mindshare at the global level” along with any valid and reliable measurements of it. Moreover, it is not entirely clear that a larger “mindshare” is necessarily positive.

While the Burj Al Arab and the Burj Khalifa may capture lots of “mindshare” for Dubai, many people are aware that the country can only afford them because of oil revenues from other parts of the Middle East and the continued gross exploitation of migrant workers primarily from South Asia. Does Singapore want to be lumped into the same category? Arguably, a really “discerning” traveller would scoff at such simplistic attempts to lure his tourist dollar through crass consumerism.

In addition to the fact that such obfuscating descriptions are bad enough on their own, the analysis becomes more depressing when we consider how they permeate and translate into public policies for urban development. Not only do the pervasiveness of such rhetoric diminish other arguably more appealing values in urban planning such as environmental sustainability, family friendliness, or equitable access, their unconditional acceptance also means that any project’s negative consequences are routinely and wilfully ignored. The construction of yet another “iconic lifestyle destination” probably means that we have to import even more foreign construction workers when many existing construction workers in Singapore are already toiling away for the various massive government infrastructure projects.

With many of the current workers already accommodated in questionable living conditions, has there been any consideration for more and better housing for these foreign workers? What about their social integration into the country? Furthermore, the completion of another shopping centre probably means that we have to import more foreign workers under the S-pass to man the various leisure and shopping facilities given that many young Singaporeans actually do not aspire to become another sales assistant. There does not seem to be any consideration that the retailers who fill the shop spaces will probably continue with their existing low-productivity service operations, or that many of the jobs created will be similar low-paying service jobs.

These possible negative outcomes expose the reality that seemingly innocuous and simplistically attractive development projects like Project Jewel actually are in direct conflict with our current national imperatives to calibrate foreign labour immigration, develop a new social compact to mitigate rising inequality and socially integrate everyone already living on this tiny island. Another “iconic landmark” designed by a “world renowned architect” can add more fuel to the existing fire of social tensions that already threaten to tear the social fabric of this country as much as it can be imagined to “generate good jobs” or “capture tourism mindshare.” In this sense, then, the modernity of urban redevelopment in the form of another shopping mall is in direct conflict with, rather than supports, the continued social sustainability of Singapore itself.

Just to be clear, one should never be opposing just for the sake of opposing. Terminal One’s carpark is ripe for redevelopment to accommodate more. The question is in deciding more of what, and the values and principles that we bring in approaching that decision. The board and management of Changi Airport Group lost the opportunity to create a uniquely humane, sustainable, innovative and equitable redevelopment project by further losing themselves in marketing and PR rhetoric to choose to develop yet another plain old shopping centre with a man-made waterfall.

Elvin Ong is a PhD graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Emory University. He is a graduate of Singapore Management University and holds an MPhil in Politics (Comparative Government) from the University of Oxford.