PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong's suggestion to use the Rail Corridor as a cycling track shows how far Singapore has travelled from the days when national progress was measured stringently by the utilitarian use of scarce land. Of course, even in the early years of independence, land was set aside by design for green breathing spaces that would prevent an urban jungle from swallowing the rural topography of a tropical island-state. However, there were episodic skirmishes between conservationists who were ecologically ahead of their times and economic realists who were worried that Singapore would fall behind. In that competition, Singapore veered towards using economically promising space largely for developmental use. Economic growth trumped esoteric pleasures in the competition for resources when national survival was at stake. It had to be so. Development might not have come about otherwise.
What has changed now is not the imperative of thinking economically but of examining how far social goods such as leisure could be factored into national calculations. The Rail Corridor, a 24km former KTM railway line stretching between Woodlands and Tanjong Pagar, has been used since the end of train operations as a leafy route by walkers, runners and cyclists. Parts of the corridor occupy prime land, which would result in the replenishment of state coffers if opened up for bids by commercial developers. It is not as if Singapore disdains the extra money. Instead, what is important is the desirability of exploring an alternative option: that of turning the corridor into a cycling track which can provide an arena for relaxation, exercise, family-bonding and attachment to the environment.
It is interesting that Mr Lee was moved to suggest this option after a cycling trip on a disused railroad track in Japan. That country rose from an era of war and consequent poverty when the importance of land was invested in its financial value. It became an economically viable country that could afford to create social space anew for the environmental expectations and tastes of its citizens. Importing the Japanese ability to view the environment in new ways would help Singapore chart its own way forward. The recreational use of land, manifest in the idea of a cycling corridor, is a sign that a maturing economy can accommodate the second-order aspirations of citizens, those that arise after the basic demands for food, clothing and shelter have been met. In that spirit, the cycling track could be treated as a part of Singapore's cultural heritage. Using it would be a reminder to Singaporeans, particularly the young, that Singapore as a home transcends economic imperatives, although these will continue to lie at the heart of its choices.