Category: History

A Surprising Side of Singapore Design

Surprising Shots of Singapore (1987)
A CIS advertisement from the September 1987 issue of the International Defense Review.

“Singapore design” today conjures up images of porcelain plates and nostalgia-inspired souvenirs, but few would think of guns, tanks and naval ships.

Over the decades, this UNESCO Creative City of Design has grown from a mere importer of military equipment to one designing and selling them as well. These include the Singapore Assault Rifle – 21st Century (SAR 21), the Bionix armoured fighting vehicles and the Endurance-class landing platform dock ships—all equipment Singaporean men, who have to serve a mandatory two-year military service, would be familiar with today.

As early as 1966, the newly independent nation-state began developing an armament industry with the establishment of the Chartered Industries of Singapore (CIS). Its first products were manufacturing 5.56 mm ammunition for the Colt AR-15, the then standard rifle for the Singapore Armed Forces, and minting Singapore coins. Over the decades, the defence company took on bigger equipment, eventually developing Singapore’s first locally designed artillery weapon, the Field Howitzer 88 (FH-88). The plan to develop the country’s very own 155 mm/39-calibre towed gun in 1988 was in response to the low reliability and high cost of servicing the SAF’s existing Israeli-designed and developed guns. By the nineties, the FH-88 became fully operational in the Singapore military, and the success helped CIS create the FH-2000 and Singapore Self-Propelled Howitzer 1 (SSPH 1) Primus.

Beat That. (1989)
An advertisement for the FH-88 from a 1989 issue of the International Defense Review.

By then, Singapore’s defence industry had also grown considerably with over 16 companies serving the military in areas such as aerospace, marine and even food. In an effort to rationalise the industry so as to cut waste and better coordinate activities, the Ministry of Defence drew up The Singapore Defence Industries Charter in 1987. This essentially pushed the industry towards commercialisation, which probably explains the genesis of these advertisements published in the monthly military magazine, International Defence Review. In 1989, the Singapore Technologies (ST) group was formed as the umbrella corporation for the many local defence companies including CIS.

Known today as ST Engineering, the country’s sole arms manufacturer was the only firm from Southeast Asian on the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) list of the world’s top 100 defence manufacturers in 2012. According to the institute, the company owned by Temasek Holdings has sold equipment to Indonesia, Chad, Nigeria, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates and Brazil. Although the multi-billon dollar company refuses to divulge details, it has trumpeted its 2008 success in supplying the designed-in-Singapore Bronco All Terrain Tracked Carrier (ATTC)¹ to the British army.

We Just Keep Growing (1986)
A CIS advertisement from the November 1986 issue of the International Defense Review.

While Singapore still imports most of its military equipment—the country accounted for 4 per cent of global weapons import and is the fifth-largest buyer in 2012 according to SIPRI—ST Engineering continues to develop equipment tailored to the needs of the country’s defence. Most recently, its marine arm designed and built the Littoral Mission Vessel, the country’s first locally-designed navy vessels. ST Engineering has also diversified beyond defence, bringing its design and engineering capabilities into other sectors of Singapore too. In 2014, its subsidiary Innosparks worked with local industrial design consultancy STUCK to create the Air+ Smart Mask. This was the world’s first protective mask with a microventilator and one of the few made for school children.

This transfer of design knowledge from a military to an everyday context is reminiscent of how American designers Charles and Ray Eames work for the military during the Second World War. By helping develop wooden medical splints and even a pilot seat, they gained the knowledge to apply to their later furniture designs, including the now iconic Lounge Chair Wood. One wonders what parallel examples are there in Singapore’s design history too?

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Note:

  1. There was a dispute that this was designed in Singapore by Swedish defence firm Hagglunds. More at Senang Diri.

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William S.W. Lim: A Poet of Cities

“The Future of Asian Cities”

An essay commissioned by the Goethe-Institut Singapore for the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore’s “IDEAS FEST 2016/17: CITIES FOR PEOPLE”.

Even before “creative”, “walkable”, “high-density”, and “liveable” became recent buzzwords for Singapore’s future as a city, architect William Lim Siew Wai had advocated for such a vision almost five decades ago.

As part of the Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group (SPUR), a non-governmental think-tank a young Lim co-founded with other architects in the 1960s, they laid out “The Future of Asian Cities”—a visionary 1966 essay which reads like how Singapore now envisions to become.

“Imagine a city where…” work, play and living is mixed and concentrated, everything is connected by an efficient rapid transport system, and clean parks as well as open spaces are abound. Concerned about Asia and Singapore’s then rapidly growing population and massive industrialisation in the 1960s, SPUR dreamt up such “radical transformations” to modernise the region, but in a manner sensitive to the local way of life.

This was not the development path the Singapore government eventually chose, however, a divergence we can see in the city today. With the help of the United National Development Programme, the resulting Concept Plan 1971 resettled the population across neatly divided areas of singular function, all served by an island wide system of expressways—a Western model that has since proven inadequate for the Singapore of tomorrow.

Despite the city’s rejection of his ideas (SPUR was dissolved in 1975 partly due to opposition from the government), Lim never stopped dreaming of a utopia of Cities for People, also the title of his 1990 book. As an architect, he helped design People’s Park Complex (1972) and Golden Mile Complex (known as Woh Hub Complex when it opened in 1974), two pioneering mixed-use developments where bustling street life defined its interiors. As an urban activist, Lim made a stand on the value of built heritage amidst a city then fervently razing everything old for the new. In 1982, he worked with poet and entrepreneur Goh Poh Seng to conceptualise Bu Ye Tian, a proposal for the conservation and adaptive reuse of Boat Quay. Two years later, he helped produce Pastel Portraits: Singapore’s Architectural Heritage, a book that sparked the city’s conservation movement.

Underpinning Lim’s architecture and advocacy are the many books he has authored and edited, an endeavour he is dedicated full-time to since retiring from practice in 2002. While his writings can be frustratingly broad, Lim has clearly and consistently built the modern Asian city with his words. Against the rise of starchitects and globalised architecture, he has preached for ethical urbanism and the contemporary vernacular. And while governments increasingly turn to corporations and consultants offering cookie-cutter urban solutions to build their cities, a then 70-year-old Lim started the Asian Urban Lab in 2003, which brings together artists and intellectuals to critically and creatively consider urban life in all its complexities.

Far from being prophetic, Lim has simply been poetic—like his generation of intellectuals in Singapore—in envisioning what their city can and should be. In 1968, Singapore’s then prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, declared in a address to university students that, “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford”[1]. Only a year earlier, Lim had pleaded otherwise when outlining the future of tomorrow’s cities: “We must plan for people and not population, to create places with spatial relationships, not voids between buildings and achieve quality and sophistication, not just pure function,” he said.

“We need poets and visionaries. Poetic reality is all embracing. It takes into account the total personality of every individual.”[2]

 

Welcoming Tomorrow’s Hawker Centres

While I type these words on my laptop at a hawker centre, I can’t help but notice the uncles looking over from the next table. They are not the only ones. Passersby stare curiously, including the cleaner who slows down whenever she pushes her trolley by.

Maybe it’s how my sleek laptop stands out from the gaudy mustard table. Or how I had casually plonked this shiny aluminum slab on a plastic surface stained by kopi and teh. As the only customer using a laptop in the hawker centre, I stand out like a sore thumb. My back certainly feels that way from sitting on the stiff stool.

Read the full column in CUBES #85 (April/May 2017)