Orchard Road is 'kind of boring'

The Singapore Tourism Board has announced plans to spruce up Orchard Road to make it more friendly for pedestrians, including the possible reclaiming of the right most road lane to expand the sidewalk.
The Singapore Tourism Board has announced plans to spruce up Orchard Road to make it more friendly for pedestrians, including the possible reclaiming of the right most road lane to expand the sidewalk.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Visitors suggest street activities may liven the shopping district up as it is losing its glamour

On a Saturday afternoon, the heart of Orchard Road is pulsating. Scores of people pour out from the MRT station, streaming into the connecting malls.

But just several hundred metres up and down from the exits, the throng thins significantly.

Those on the sidewalk along the 2.2km strip seem to have a fixed destination in mind and walk briskly, with nary a glance at the shops along the way. Few carry shopping bags.

Within the air-conditioned comfort of malls such as Ngee Ann City and The Heeren, some people mill about. In Far East Plaza, a few units are vacant. Outside a shop at Lucky Plaza, one salesman rings a bell valiantly but to no avail.

Perhaps, the problem is that for a thoroughfare optimistically touted as "Asia's most famous shopping street", Orchard Road can get decidedly dull.

 
 
  • 2.2km

    Length of the shopping strip

    $40m

    Value of the facelift which happened around a decade ago, when one lane of Orchard Road was closed to widen a short stretch of the pedestrian mall outside Ion Orchard and Wisma Atria.

As 17-year-old polytechnic student Musfirah Ramdan pointed out: "It's getting kind of boring. You have all the malls - Ion Orchard and Wisma Atria and Ngee Ann City, but inside, they're all about the same."

After years of trying to spruce up Singapore's premier shopping belt - with efforts that included car-free weekends and cash grants for malls to build underground linkways - the consensus seems to be that this has not worked well enough.

Once again, Orchard Road requires a facelift.

But what can be done to return some glitz to the street so that it rivals the Ginza area in Tokyo, or Seoul's famous Gangnam district?

The long-term answer, according to Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry) S. Iswaran, could be to go car-free and fully pedestrianise Orchard Road.

Visitors' wish list

Orchard Road could go car-free in the distant future, with its five vehicle lanes opened up to foot traffic instead. The Sunday Times spent half a day asking people what they would like to see if these plans were to come to fruition. Here are some of their answers:

We could have more street food and flea markets, like what you see overseas in Malaysia, for example. We could even have fusion food.

DINAH DANISYAH MAZLI, 17, polytechnic student.


I like the public transport system; it's very convenient but I think the infrastructure could be better, for instance, to make it easier for us to cross the road.

PEAR SANGRUNG, 22, tourist from Thailand.


More street food - especially halal food - and buskers. I know there's busking talent in Singapore, but maybe there's not enough space for them now.

MOHAMMAD AIFY MOHAMMAD AZRIN, 17, secondary school student.


I would like to see more arts-related events. It would be cool to see more large-scale performances like fire juggling or even acrobatics.

JERRYL TAN, 21, freelance magician.

Linette Lai

Speaking at a tourism industry conference last Thursday, Mr Iswaran said reclaiming the road would create "a multi-purpose space where diverse and larger-scale experiential concepts can be introduced".

Singaporeans and tourists in the streets yesterday came up with some ideas.

"It would be cool to see some more large-scale performances, like fire juggling or even acrobatics," said 21-year-old Jerryl Tan, who is a freelance magician.

Another man, who wanted to be known only as Andrew, added that it would liven up the atmosphere to have more street entertainment.

"I am sure that the school groups here have the talent to put up performances like singing or even flash mobs," said the 76-year-old, who was watching a samba percussion band on the sidewalk just outside Ngee Ann City. "I was just telling my wife that it's a pity there's only one - it would be nice to have three or four along this stretch."

For starters, said Singapore Tourism Board chief executive Lionel Yeo, yet another lane could be shut to vehicles to make room for more street-level activities.

This has been tried before. Around a decade ago, one lane of Orchard Road was closed to widen a short stretch of the pedestrian mall outside Ion Orchard and Wisma Atria, as part of a $40-million facelift.

Further pedestrianisation could help, Ms Ann Manship reckoned.

Said the 63-year-old library technician from Perth: "We have seen streets like that, both in Perth and around the world, and they've worked well. You have people juggling and taking out their hand drums - it would be a definite plus."

For many others, the hope is that, with vehicles gone, pushcarts peddling street food can take their place.

"I think it would be nice to see pushcarts like those in Malaysia, where the vendors sell food and you can just sit down and eat," said videographer Alvin Ling, 22.

But is a facelift all that Orchard Road needs?

The fact is, there are already some activities going on in the street. Buskers perform and people watch.

But Orchard Road also needs to do some soul-searching and figure out what it has to offer as a shopping destination, said those interviewed.

For now, it suffers from a cookie-cutter syndrome, with mass market chains and high-end brands dominating the scene.

"I would like to see more local brands and small shops," said Mr Pear Sangrung, 22, a tourist from Thailand.

Ms Musfirah also suggests outdoor flea markets for a more varied diet of shopping experiences.

"Flea markets would be interesting, too, and I think the tourists would enjoy that as well."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 16, 2017, with the headline 'Orchard Road is 'kind of boring''. Print Edition | Subscribe