SINGAPORE – A HIGH-DENSITY CITY WITH SPORTING CHARACTERS
Chapter 10: Sports Elitism and Land Use Imbalance
In Singapore golf is, by far, the most capital-intensive option of all the established sporting activities. Country club membership fees vary greatly, with Sentosa Club being the most expensive (around S$215,000) and Changi Club being the most affordable ($7,000) – according to the latest figures in 2016; the weekend fees for non-members are usually between $200 and $400 per 18-hole-round.
Surely, exclusivity has always been part of this sport’s appeal. And it is reasonable to assume that in Singapore golf will remain popular among political and business elites. That said, it has been noticed that the popularity of this elite sport has dwindled in the past decade, with now only 1% of Singapore residents playing it. Judging by the numerical and anecdotal evidence, golf appears to have reached its ultimate demand peak in the mid-2000s, with the young and middle-aged HNWIs, the high-net-worth individuals, now rather opting for sporting activities with greater physicality outcomes and health benefits, such as road cycling, jogging or fitness training in exclusive gym clubs.
Although a typical 18-hole golf course requires more than 100ha of usable land, the land-limited city-state has nonetheless allocated a substantial portion of its valuable urban land to this game. Given golf’s low popularity figures (again, currently only around 1% of Singapore residents play it), one could inevitably question the city’s rationale behind its lavishly large share of urban land. At present, there are 18 golf courses in Singapore, occupying more than 1.9% of the city’s total land area. By contrast, sports complexes – the city’s key sporting facilities located in HDB-public housing estates – amount to a disproportionately low share of 0.15% of the entire city-state area (club buildings, car park spaces and other non-activity amenities attached to the golf courses and sports facilities were not included in this Sportify Cities allocation assessment).
Provision of golf courses across the city-state of Singapore
This apparent land-use imbalance becomes even more startling, once the popularity factor of various sporting activities is taken into account; while only around 1% of Singapore residents play golf, an estimated 20 per cent of Singapore residents are believed to regularly utilise the HDB-sports complexes – again, these are the key local sports facilities. To be fair, the 20%-figure for the sports complexes should be used with caution, as it only loosely reflects the overall participation rates in sporting activities that can be carried out in these HDB-sports facilities (it is problematic to pin down a more valid figure, as many sporty residents, for instance, prefer pricier commercial fitness clubs to no-frills public gym facilities embedded into the HDB-sports complexes, and soccer players regularly use playing grounds at schools). And still, even if this figure comes with a margin error of a couple of percentage points, it will do nothing to considerably change the impression that there is a significant imbalance between supply (land provision for sporting activities) and demand (popularity of sporting activities) in Singapore.
Marina Bay Golf Course: this large course is located on the eastern side of the Marina Bay, one of the prime locations in Singapore. By 2024, however, this golf course will be closed down in order to free up space for other (more profitable!?) urban developments.
Again, given the relatively low demand for golf, that is, low participation rate, it is difficult to reasonably justify the size of land allocated to this sport in land-limited Singapore, unless, of course, the financial aspect of the game gets factored into the urban policy decision-making equation; surely, the government always makes long-term profitability calculations, when leasing land to golf clubs, in the hope of gaining substantial returns on government’s investment.
Thus it came as a surprise when the Singapore government recently announced that it would reacquire land from several golf clubs for future commercial and housing developments. With the upcoming land acquisitions of the Jurong Country Club, Raffles Country Club, Keppel Club and the Marina Bay golf course, the percentage of land utilised by golf clubs will drop to 1.5% by mid 2020s, from currently 1.9%. And given the falling demand for this game, an increasing demand for urban land due to rapidly swelling population as well as greater land-use profitability objectives as a result of spiking land values, it is plausible that the Singapore government will annex further golf courses in the near future.