Thursday, May 29, 2008

Paya Lebar Master Plan Is Long Overdue

Source : The Business Times, 29 May 2008

We owe it to ourselves to give this culturally rich area our best shot - and preserve part of our heritage, says COLIN TAN

NOT many Singaporeans, especially younger ones, would know that Paya Lebar Central - the Master Plan area unveiled last week - was once a booming commercial hub.

Those of us who grew up in the area remember the old wet market at Geylang Serai as the heart of all the bustling activity. So it was amusing to see the area described in the weekend newspapers as a sleepy industrial estate. Apart from the city centre, it was one of the earliest and busiest commercial hubs in Singapore's early history.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Paya Lebar boasted one of Singapore's earliest department stores - operated by Emporium Holdings at the Haig Road-Geylang Road junction, next to the Lion City Hotel. The area was teeming with people - especially at night. It was lit by gas-filled halogen lamps from the stalls of street hawkers, which bathed the entire area in a warm, golden glow.

Although Singapore's car population back then was minuscule compared with today, there were frequent traffic jams in Paya Lebar, even though most people either walked to where they wanted to go or took a trishaw.

The area was also home to Singapore's first 24-hour supermarket at Tanjong Katong complex. But the concept was way ahead of its time. And once the novelty wore off, the supermarket drew fewer and fewer shoppers.

And time stood still in Paya Lebar as the forces of change started to exert themselves elsewhere in Singapore. The population of Paya Lebar was slowly relocated to new housing estates such as Chai Chee and Bedok, and onwards to Tampines. Shorn of its population base, the area went into a slow decline. So in a sense, the unveiling of the Master Plan for Paya Lebar Central is long overdue. The area has been forgotten for far too long.

Its key strengths are its proximity to the city, its cultural heritage and the fact that it will have an MRT interchange. Its main weakness is the absence of a large population base. The nearest housing estates are at Geylang East and Eunos, which are small compared with the likes of Bedok, Tampines and Ang Mo Kio. As such, Paya Lebar is not a natural hub.

Having an MRT interchange helps, but it is no longer such a big deal. Soon there will be many more interchanges - all competing for the same market. Similarly, being close to the city is an attraction, but there are plenty of competing areas that are even closer, such as Kallang and Lavender. On the other hand, places like Novena have a huge head start.

Where will companies locate their backroom operations at Paya Lebar? If it is too expensive to be in the city, why stop at the edge of the city where rents are only a shade cheaper? Why not go all the way to Tampines or Jurong East, where rents are not just affordable but way cheaper? Is Paya Lebar a place for SMEs? Maybe. If property prices shoot up with all the upgrading and new improvements, as some analysts suggest, we can forget about SMEs setting up offices there.

The edge that Paya Lebar Central has over other areas is its cultural heritage. Geylang Serai - which maybe the Master Plan area should have been named - can be to the Malay Muslim community what Chinatown and Little India are to the Chinese and Indians. Ironically, what gives these two areas their vibrancy is the presence of the large number of work permit holders from India and China. It lends the area much-needed authenticity. Many Singaporeans are Westernised, preferring Starbucks or McDonald's instead of the traditional coffee shops or sarabat stalls.

Paya Lebar's cultural heritage also means it has strong tourism potential. At the moment, the celebrations during the month of Ramadan attract few tourists. It is mainly a local event. The number of non-Muslim local visitors is dismal. Singapore and STB have already achieved a difficult task - getting the numbers to even come to Singapore. And if the two integrated resorts and the hosting of global events such as the Formula One race and the Youth Olympics mean many more people will come to Singapore, the next step then is to increase their average length of stay. Increasing the number of must-see attractions is one way.

While it has been decided to do away with the Malay Village, there should be efforts to find an alternative. Having a civic centre with designs inspired by traditional Malay stylistic elements is good. But expecting it to take off like it did in Toa Payoh may not be realistic, as there is not much of a population base in the area. We do not want the place to be alive only during Ramadan. The tourists, if they come, will help supplement the market.

Maybe a museum celebrating Malay culture and heritage in the region - similar to the Peranakan museum at Armenian Street - can be set up. In fact, the Peranakan museum may be relocated to Paya Lebar Central, as the nearby Joo Chiat area was once an area populated by Peranakans. Chinatown and Little India are slowly coming back despite the pace of Singapore's modernisation. In the case of Paya Lebar Central or Geylang Serai, it will not be easy. But we owe to ourselves to give it out best shot - and preserve part of our heritage.

The writer is head of research and consultancy at Chesterton International

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