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Intelligent "Island": Smart Nation and Its Liquid Futures

Media theorist and curator Kenneth Tay provides a deep exposé on the complexities and uncertain futures of the Smart Nation.



Urich Lau, Code File: Three Domes, 2016

Urich Lau, Code File: Three Domes, 2016


By the time Singapore launched its Smart Nation program in 2014, it was already joining a host of other smart cities around the world. Singapore was clearly not the first to participate in what is by now a global hack-a-thon for smart cities. But perhaps in a marketing manoeuvre that has come to be expected of the state, Singapore has been advertised as the world’s first Smart Nation. To anyone familiar with Singapore’s geography, the national scale of such a project loses its grandeur once you consider the fact that Singapore is after-all a city-state — its land-area is at present only about two-thirds the size of New York City — and the ability to push such a project through at a national scale benefits from what might be described (rather euphemistically) as “a compact single layer government.” [1]
Yet, this difference between Singapore’s Smart Nation and the dozen other smart cities projects littered around the world should not be written off simply as a clever marketing ploy. In fact, as others have noted, this shift from “city” to “nation” must be understood precisely as an indication of the programme’s “ideological underpinnings.” [2] More than just a technocratic solution to manage the urban ebbs and flows of the city-state, Singapore’s Smart Nation is deeply implicated in the question of citizenship: not only in terms of who is included within this system, but also, who or what is rendered legible and visible to it.  

In his National Day Rally speech in 2017, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained that “Smart Nation is about Singapore taking full advantage of IT 3 This promise that through the use of informational technology our city will become optimised for all of us is, in fact, nothing new — we need only to recall the late 1980s and early 1990s when Singapore began building its National Information Infrastructure (NII) and was marketed as an “Intelligent Island.” As published in the 1992 report  A Vision of an Intelligent Island , “4 We’ve been here before, clearly [5]. But perhaps what differs much more distinctly with Smart Nation is the outright admission here of an inadequate surveillance and security in Singapore:

“When the Little India riot happened in December 2013, we were caught a little flat-footed. There were too few CCTV cameras monitoring Little India. We had to rely on footage posted by the public on social media. Since then we have made progress. We are building an integrated national sensor network. We are making every lamp post a smart lamp-post, meaning it can mount different types of sensors on any lamp-post. We are installing more CCTV cameras in public places. We are combining inputs from different sources — police, LTA (Land Transport Authority), hotels and commercial buildings, even handphones which are effectively sensors on the ground.

- Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong [6]

On the Sunday evening of December 8, 2013, a fatal motor accident involving a Singaporean bus driver and an Indian migrant worker drew an angry mob of about 400 South Asian migrant workers within the neighbourhood of Little India to start rioting. While the police and a team of paramedics attempted to extricate the dead body from under the bus, the mob grew increasingly agitated, shouting and throwing bottles, baskets, groceries and garbage at them. Several vehicles were overturned, and the ambulance burnt.

Urich Lau, Code File: Three Domes

Urich Lau, Code File: Three Domes, 1 out of a set of 3 digital prints, 2016

The riot clearly shook a nation branded on its social and political stability. As the Prime Minister’s speech made clear, it somehow became the catalyst for Smart Nation. This is not to claim that Smart Nation is only just another name for added state surveillance. Indeed, the Prime Minister is right when he explained that our handphones are in essence already performing as locative media. Our most intimate media devices are always and already leaking information about us, talking promiscuously between each other [7]. And we ourselves are posting videos, images and geo-information up on the Internet, and doing so of our volition. The state does not really require any excuse to install much more of a surveillance system.

More than just a technocratic solution to manage the urban ebbs and flows of the city-state, Singapore’s Smart Nation is deeply implicated in the question of citizenship.

If our usual fear of surveillance should find its form in the caricature of the Big Brother state and its technological vision, we need to be aware that such a fear takes as its presupposition that being visible and legible to the state is to be at risk. But what if we look beyond such a caricature, and instead recognise that there are those living in this city and for whom such a visibility and legibility itself is very much still a political demand (yet to be answered sufficiently). After all, “8
What if we understood the riot as a means for these migrant workers to register their otherwise spectral presence, to make therefore the political demand to be recognised as co-inhabitants with an equal right to the city? Perhaps we would understand that the subsequent installation of CCTV cameras and sensors is not so much the state’s solution for greater illumination and legibility for these migrant workers. Instead, it is a means to deter these migrant workers from registering themselves once more in this public area — to render spectral, once more, their precarious bodies and the economic policies which demand and necessitate the precarity of their labour.

What does the Smart Nation mean for the workers, sourced largely from the region, whose lives are made vulnerable by transnational capitalism and for whom data is often missing, falsified, or withheld?


To better understand the relationship between migrant labour and Singapore’s Smart Nation, we need to instead look back at Singapore’s prior claim as a “global city.” [9] For this, Saskia Sassen’s writings on the “global city” provides an important tangent to think through the citizenship of smart cities. First written in 1991, Sassen argued that cities are “the terrain where people from many different countries are most likely to meet and a multiplicity of cultures come together;” [10] and, as the command centres of our global economy, global cities represent perhaps the greatest concentration of such diversity. Such a concentration of diversity in the global city tends to bring with it an accompanying diversity of claims to the city. And it is precisely this messy diversity that techno-utopian models of smart cities often seek to manage — and do so in the politically neutered logic of efficiency.

Urich Lau, Code File: Three Domes

Urich Lau, Code File: Three Domes, 1 out of a set of 3 digital prints and its source file, 2016

Yet, for Sassen, the language of globalisation is decidedly problematic. While the influx of transnational labour is the effect of our global economy, we often valorise the transnational corporate professional as a hyper-mobile  cosmopolitan , and simultaneously denigrate the low-wage migrant worker as an  immigrant  other [11]. Here, I would even add that the term “immigrant” designates and privileges, as its point of reference, the receiving global city. Such a centripetal framing mediates a perspective that does not quite account for the larger conditions and structural issues causing others to emigrate, let alone acknowledge any of their agency.

But as Sassen argued, those who are marginalised nonetheless “acquire a presence” in the global city, demanding to be recognised as a co-inhabitant of the city [12]. Thus Sassen held out the hope that the mounting inequalities and diverse claims to the city would allow for a “new transnational politics” to emerge in the global city [13] — one where our citizenship is recognised not by the exclusivity of our nationality, but by our equal rights as co-inhabitants of a shared urban space. Particularly in the case of Singapore, where there is a sizeable population of non-citizens contributing significantly to the health of our economy, we ought to at least grapple with Sassen’s political call.  

Thus, we need to ask just who is it that is being interpellated by the Smart Nation’s aim “to make our economy more productive 14 And while there were efforts by NGOs such as Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) to gather public donations of 3G mobile phones to help migrant workers affected, [15] it remains unknown just how many have been cut off from the state’s spectrum of smartness. 

But by focusing on its surface and its potential for levelling, the platform also implies that we do not look underneath or behind it, to only see it for its horizontal equality, and not to see who might have been left out in its inequity. 

For this reason, I find it hard to believe that Smart Nation is simply a “platform,” in the way that most smart city projects have been sold to us. Through its metaphorical flatness, the platform is assumed to bring everyone up equally; it is but a “flat, two-dimensional stage on which resources are laid out for users to do stuff with.” [16] But by focusing on its surface and its potential for levelling, the platform also implies that we do not look underneath or behind it, to only see it for its horizontal equality, and not to see who might have been left out in its inequity. Those who remain, in other words, illegible or invisible to the system; bodies and data points that have been left unaccounted for, deliberately or otherwise.  


One thing that does not get stressed enough in most literature on smart cities is how this wave of urban projects really only emerged in the wake of the 2007 to 2008 global financial crisis. Emerging out of this pessimism came the shiny new promise of the smart city, a techno-utopian blend of new gated communities, ubiquitous sensor technologies, proprietary software and patented ‘green’ design. Since then, smart cities have been promoted by global giants of the tech industry as “fixes for the dumb design of the last century to prepare them for the challenges of the next,” and as “a new industrial revolution to deal with the unintended consequences of the first one.” [17] In other words, if the myth of the self-regulating market has failed on us once again (as it did in the 2007 to 2008 financial crisis), we can now look ahead to the smart city and its promise of a self-governing urban system. 

In the many decades since the economic historian Karl Polanyi first wrote  The Great Transformation  in 1944, the cities of today have developed with vast difference from the cities that populated Polanyi’s account. Writing in the aftermath of the Great Depression, against the backdrop of World War II and the ugly rise of fascism in Europe, Polanyi offered an important critique of our persistent belief in “spontaneous progress” and the “self-healing virtues” of a self-regulating market [18]. For proponents of economic liberalism, it is taken for a natural fact that humans have always acted in our best interests for individual gain and profit; and thus the market, as this organic sum of our rational economic decisions, produces an economic order which does not require — it is argued — any external influence, much less any form of regulation from the state. However, as Polanyi makes clear in his historical survey, our societies have not organised themselves around the market logic of individual gains, and indeed the economy has always been “embedded” in society, rather than the reverse that is promoted by economic liberalism. Thus, for Polanyi, such a theory of a laissez-faire market economy is in fact blinded by a presentism of its time; and we would actually be far better off understanding it less as a representative description of a natural state of human affairs than as a generative and performative act in itself [19]

Urich Lau, Code File: Three Domes,2016

Urich Lau, Code File: Three Domes, 1 out of a set of 3 digital prints, 2016

I turn to Polanyi, briefly here, for a couple of reasons. For one, we seem to have merely displaced our desire for autonomous systems from the self-regulating market to the self-governing models of smart cities. And in almost every autonomous system, very often we will find some element that is naturalised, taken for granted and in fact presumptuously used as the basis for that system. In the self-regulating market, it was assumed that humans have a natural propensity to barter, truck and exchange for individual gains. In the smart city, it is data that very often becomes naturalised. Like “the natural resources of another era,” data will be “mined for wealth and, similarly, will generate subsequent infrastructure for new forms of life.” [20] The chief assumption here being that data collected are natural givens, raw resources that exist a priori of their measurement and collection [21]. But in fact, as recent critiques of “machine bias” have shown us, nothing could be further from the truth [22]. And in the case of Singapore’s Smart Nation, again we have to ask who or what is included and made legible to the system as data points. 

Like the natural resources of another era, data will be mined for wealth and, similarly, will generate subsequent infrastructure for new forms of life.

There is a relevance and urgency in looking at the work of Polanyi again, particularly when it comes to the political question of the future. As Polanyi argued, the future of the self-regulating market is constantly kept alive by what he observed and termed as a “double movement.” For Polanyi, the push for market deregulation by economic liberals has often been met by a corresponding call by others for more social protectionism. But rather than seeing market deregulation and social protectionism as counter-forces threatening to cancel out one another, Polanyi saw the two as belonging to a dialectical process. And it is the constant shifts between market deregulation and social protectionism that has essentially kept both the market as well as society alive. Yet the more important issue here is how faith in the self-regulating market gets kept alive in this double movement because economic liberals can always deflect the blame for social ills onto the “interference with the freedom of employment, trade and currencies practiced by the various schools of social, national, and monopolistic protectionism since the third quarter of the nineteenth century.” [23] For economic liberals, market deregulation was necessary for society to reach its natural state of a self-regulating market, and any external interference — especially in the name of social protectionism — was seen as an impediment. Thus, even if the rest of us may believe regulations to be necessary adjustments to the social ills created by the market, what this double movement between market deregulation and social protectionism does in the long run is to give economic liberals a constant opportunity to defer judgment and accountability of their programme, to claim that “24 It is precisely because this promised future of a self-regulating market never truly arrives (but finds itself constantly deferred) that it continues to have a grip on our future. 

Inhabitants of the smart city are never just performing the digital labour of providing data, they are also “working” to help test and debug the current version of the product.

This might, indeed, be Polanyi’s most powerful argument in  The Great Transformation , for we seem to find an eerily similar predicament today in the smart city, decades after Polanyi. As Orit Halpern and her co-authors have argued, there is a perverse logic in the “test-bed urbanism” of smart cities around the world. Namely, rather than an ideal and fixed form that is repeated everywhere else, what is often sold as a model of the smart city is a “perpetually provisional version... Freed from the model of an ideal form, the city can be enhanced without limit.” [25] In contemporary parlance, we might say that every smart city is essentially always, and only ever a beta version, never the final product, and thus always optimisable. It is used and implemented in order to discover unanticipated errors. In this sense, inhabitants of the smart city are never just performing the digital labour of providing data, they are also “working” to help test and debug the current version of the product [26]. But more importantly, this “lack of a definite endpoint or image of the city” has repeatedly allowed both government officials and engineers to argue that “this was a prototype whose failings would be fodder for the next generation of cit27

While the future of the self-regulating market is deferred and kept alive by a double movement as described by Polanyi, economic liberals still believed in an ideal form and future of the market. This future, though deferred, has a definite endpoint, and its proponents do intend to reach it in good time. In the case of the smart city, however, this future is “an experiment that cannot end, because every limit becomes a new engineering challenge, a new frontier to develop towards an ever-extendable horizon.” [28] This future, as operationalised in the smart city, remains radically uncertain, has no ideal or final form, is constantly modified, updated and debugged without end.   

This future, as operationalised in the smart city, remains radically uncertain, has no ideal or final form, is constantly modified, updated and debugged without end.


This question of the future is where we ought to return to with Singapore, regardless of what the state decides to market Singapore as, Smart Nation or not. In many ways, Singapore has always been subjected to this radical uncertainty of the future. Or as the Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong puts it: “What will Singapore be like 40 years from now? I can’t tell you. Nobody can. But I can tell you it must be a totally different Singapore because if it is the same Singapore as it is today, we’re dead. We will be irrelevant, marginalised, the world will be different.” [29]
This might explain why we are constantly upgrading to serve you better [30], why we are “a city perpetually morphed to the next state.” [31] Or why it feels like we are perpetually in the throes of a “permanent territorial revolution,” [32] with our city performing as a “social laboratory” for the contingent flows of the global economy [33]. Singapore, as others have pointed out, is a provisional “model” to be exported and extrapolated for the rest of the world [34]

Perhaps this is what William Gibson meant, after all, when he wrote that “the word infrastructure takes on a new and claustrophobic resonance here [in Singapore]: somehow it’s  all  infrastructure.” [35] We often turn to infrastructural developments as indications of a state’s bet for the future. After all, infrastructure is often costly to implement and takes time to complete [36]. In Singapore however, it isn’t simply that our infrastructural developments point to the future that the state has in mind. Rather, it is the radical uncertainty of the future itself that becomes naturalised and taken for granted, becoming an infrastructure that is as banal as our roads and our grids. 


The only constant is change. 

In a time of liquid geographies mediated by fantasies of radical uncertainty, test-bed urbanisms, self-governing urban systems and ever-flexible or disposable labour, perhaps it’s time we ask the same of our citizenship. To break, debug, and hack its edges; to demand for it to address equity, rather than equality, for a start. 

This is why we ought to remember that Singapore is an  island  city-state. But it is not an island severed from everyone else. That would be to perpetuate a terrestrial bias of land contiguity and to focus solely on Singapore’s enclosed interiors. We have never been alone. As the Deputy Secretary for Foreign Affairs, George Gray Thomson, put it in 1970: “It is a myth that land unites and sea divides... Singapore’s history has been written not in ink, but in saltwater.” [37] For Thomson, the rapid urbanisation that followed Singapore’s national independence has had the unsavoury effect of fencing us inland, containing us within the terrestrial boundaries and “geo-body” of the nation [38]. He implored for Singaporeans to be “worth our salt” again, and to look to the surrounding sea as a means to remember that this is a “nation of immigrant origins.” [39]

So even while the coastal edges of Singapore have been aggressively expanding since the 1960s and 1970s, the seams between land and sea have either become increasingly securitised or gentrified into luxurious condominiums promising the views of a “domesticated” sea [40]. But with the imminent future of rising sea levels and with new shipping routes that could open up due to the melting ice-caps of the Arctic, the sea — as a site of global warming, displaced refugees and liquid logistics — is returning once more into view, as the uncanny repressed for the Smart Nation [41].  

  • 1.

    Kok Yam Tan, cited in Christina Chua, “OMG Classified,” of this issue.

  • 2.

    Ho Rui An, “Crisis and Contingency at the Dashboard,” e-flux journal 90 (April 2018).

  • 3.

    Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, “National Day Rally 2017,” Prime Minister’s Office, August 20, 2017.

  • 4.

    National Computer Board, A Vision for an Intelligent Island: The IT2000 Report (Singapore: NCB, 1992), vii.

  • 5.

    For more on Intelligent Island, see Alwyn Lim, “Intelligent island discourse: Singapore’s discursive negotiation with technology,” Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society 21.3 (2001): 175–192.

  • 6.

    Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

  • 7.

    For more on this, see Wendy Chun and Sarah Friesland, “Habits of Leaking: Of Sluts and Network Cards,” differences 26.2 (2015): 1-28.

  • 8.

    Ho Rui An.

  • 9.

    See S. Rajaratnam, Singapore: Global City (Singapore: Ministry for Foreign Affairs, 1972).

  • 10.

    Saskia Sassen, “The Global City: Strategic Site/New Frontier,” American Studies 41.2-3 (2000): 88.

  • 11.

    Saskia Sassen, 83.

  • 12.

    Saskia Sassen, 91.

  • 13.

    Saskia Sassen, 80.

  • 14.

    Lily Kong and Orlando Woods, “The ideological alignment of smart urbanism in Singapore: Critical reflections on a political paradox,” Urban Studies 55.4 (2018): 691.

  • 15.

    Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), “Donation Campaign A Huge Success, Distribution of 3G Phones Begins,” TWC2, March 22, 2017.

  • 16.

    Shannon Mattern, “Library as Infrastructure,” Places Journal, June 2014.

  • 17.

    Anthony M. Townsend, Smart Cities: Big data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new utopia (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013), 8.

  • 18.

    Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, 2nd edition (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 39, 35

  • 19.

    There are others such as Timothy Mitchell or Douglas McKenzie who would further argue that economics has been nothing less than a performative activity. See Timothy Mitchell, “How Neoliberalism makes its world: the urban property rights project in Peru,” in The Road from Mont Pelerin: The making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective, eds. Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2009); and Douglas McKenzie, An Engine, Not a Camera: How financial models shape markets (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006).

  • 20.

    Orit Halpern et al., “Test-bed Urbanism,” Public Culture 25.2 (2013): 274. For a critique on data positivism in the era of fake news, see Ned Rossiter, “Paranoia is Real: Algorithmic Governance, and the Shadow of Control,” Media Theory, September 18, 2017.

  • 21.

    For more on the problematic naturalisation of data, see Lisa Gitelman, ed., ‘Raw Data’ is an Oxymoron (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013).

  • 22.

    For instance, see the racial controversy surrounding the data fed into algorithmic policing in the United States: Julia Angwin et al., “Machine Bias,” ProPublica, May 23, 2016. See also Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York: NYU Press, 2018).

  • 23.

    Karl Polanyi, 150.

  • 24.

    Karl Polanyi, 151.

  • 25.

    Orit Halpern et al., 275, 289.

  • 26.

    As far as I understand it, this is what the business world of software development terms as an “agile” methodology. Understood as a series of iterations, a product is delivered in small and quick batches, often relying on customers and their usage as feedback for the next update or production batch. See the manifesto, Kent Beck et al., “Agile Manifesto,” 2001,

  • 27.

    Orit Halpern et al., 292.

  • 28.

    Orit Halpern et al., 291.

  • 29.

    Lee Hsien Loong, “2005 National Day Rally,” Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore, August 21, 2005.

  • 30.

    Cherian George, Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2000), 189.

  • 31.

    Rem Koolhaas, “Singapore Songlines: Portrait of a Potemkin Metropolis … Or Thirty Years of Tabula Rasa,” in S, M, L, XL, ed. Jennifer Sigler (New York: Monacelli Press, 1995): 1008-1089. Separately, I have written about Koolhaas’s text on Singapore in terms of the cinematic: see Kenneth Tay, “Singapore: Montage City,”, September 23. 2013.

  • 32.

    Rodolphe de Konincke, Singapore’s Permanent Territorial Revolution: Fifty Years in Fifty Maps (Singapore: NUS Press, 2018).

  • 33.

    Shane Harris, “The Social Laboratory,” Foreign Policy, July 29, 2014.

  • 34.

    Chua Beng Huat, “Singapore as Model: Planning innovations, Knowledge experts,” in Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of being Global, eds. Ananya Roy and Aihwa`Ong (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 29–54.

  • 35.

    William Gibson, “Disneyland with the Death Penalty,” Wired, April 1, 1993. Emphasis in original.

  • 36.

    Though of course, China’s recent infrastructural developments worldwide run very much against such easy characterisations of infrastructures.

  • 37.

    George Gray Thomson, “Singapore in the 1970s — No. 7 Sea-oriented development,” October 26, 1970.

  • 38.

    See Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-body of a Nation (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994). Winichakul’s critical point was that mapping served as a political technology to mediate the territorial boundaries and enclosed interiors of a nation.

  • 39.

    George Gray Thomson.

  • 40.

    For more, see William Jamieson, “In conquering the sea, Singapore erases its history,” Failed Architecture, March 12, 2018. ‍

  • 41.

    For a critique of Singapore’s involvement with the Arctic Circle, see Mia Bennett, “Singapore: The ‘Global City’ in a Globalizing Arctic,” Journal of Borderland Studies 33.2 (2018): 289–310.

Artists and Contributors

Kenneth Tay

Kenneth Tay

Kenneth Tay writes and researches on media infrastructures and the urban environment, particularly in the context of Singapore. He is currently based in New York, where he is completing his MA Media Studies at The New School. He is in the process of finishing a thesis that examines the flat spaces of Singapore in relation to global logistics, taking as its point of departure the 1972 report of “Singapore: Global City.” Some recent projects include: FLAT.SPACES (2017), an online archive of the artist-collective; Left–Right and Concrete Island (both 2016).