Translocal cities: On the hidden contributions of Bremen to the making of Singapore

This is a guest post by Julia Lossau,  Professor of Human Geography at the University of Bremen in Germany. In March 2018, Julia spent four weeks as a visiting academic at ARI’s Asian Urbanism Cluster. If you are interested in learning more about Bremen and how the city relates to Singapore, you are welcome to contact Julia by  email .

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Bremen is a port city located in the North of Germany, with a population of around 566,000. Compared to Berlin, Munich, or Stuttgart, Bremen is relatively unknown outside of Germany. Few Singaporeans will have heard of Bremen – perhaps with the exceptions of football lovers familiar with Bundesliga’s Werder Bremen, and of fairy tale lovers familiar with the Grimm Brothers’ Town Musicians. This void is more than understandable given the Bremen’s distance from, and seeming insignificance for, everyday life in contemporary Singapore. But in reality, Bremen has a tradition of global exchange connecting it to this Southeast Asian city in many ways. Bremen’s port played a significant role in the globalisation process during the nineteenth century, with the city’s merchants and trading houses operating profitable ventures within the expanding network of intercontinental relations at the time.

Against such a background, this post aims at uncovering some of the imprints that Bremish engagement has left, and continues to leave, on the making of Singapore as a cultural and economic hub in Southeast Asia. In so doing, both Bremen and Singapore are conceptualized as translocal cities, i.e. as places whose history, present and future are defined by and through relations to other places, cities, and regions. In order to understand how Singapore’s development from a former colony to a global city is influenced by relations rather unlikely at first sight, it sheds exemplary light on the economic activities of two firms headquartered in Bremen: shipping company Norddeutscher Lloyd (NDL) and trading company C. Melchers GmbH & Co. KG (Melchers).

Founded by Hermann Heinrich Meier and Eduard Crüsemann in Bremen in 1857, the NDL developed into the world’s second largest steam ship company in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. While the NDL’s initial focus was on transatlantic routes, not least in the context of German mass emigration to the US, the company secured the commission to operate the Imperial Mail Steamer Services in 1885 between the German Empire, East Asia, and Australia. The presence of the NDL threatened the British shipping companies who ‘found it difficult to compete with German shipping’ in the Far East (Khoo 2006, 66).

In an essay on ‘How Germany made Malaya British’, Kennedy Gordon Tregonning (1964, 185) vividly depicts the dominance of German over British shipping in the light of what he reads as ‘a general German penetration of the Far East and South-East Asian and Pacific areas’. By 1900, according to Tregonning, the ‘German shipping firm of German Llyod [sic] had eliminated the British Holts Shipping Co. from the Bangkok-Singapore trade. It had eliminated the old established Butterfield and Swire from the Hong Kong and Swatow-Bangkok trade, and had taken complete control of the Singapore-Borneo trade’ (Tregonning 1964, 185).

While it would be interesting to further elaborate on the geopolitical dimensions of Imperial Germany’s trade and shipping endeavors prior to WWI, I would like to highlight a different aspect of Tregonning’s account. In his depiction of the NDL as the ‘German shipping firm of German Llyod’ [emphasis JL], Bremen is rendered invisible and subsumed under the discursive umbrella of Germany on a national level. It can be argued that such a subsumption is quite symptomatic. In addition, it prevents insight into how the expansion – and the later decline – of the NDL was made possible and experienced ‘on the ground’ in Bremen. What is further made invisible is how Bremen contributed to the making of Singapore in economic terms by adding to the significance of Singapore ‘as one of the most important emporia of the world trade’ (Lindemann 1892, 411; transl. JL).

For Singapore, however, being related to – and being affected by – Bremen is not a thing of the past. In order to shed light on more recent entanglements, the remainder of this post focuses on C. Melchers GmbH & Co KG (Melchers). Melchers was founded in 1806 in Bremen, where it is headquartered up until today, as a trading house and shipping company. In 1954, Melchers established a branch office in Singapore. On the company’s website, Melchers Singapore is described as ‘a service-oriented company that exists to identify, source and supply quality products and services to selected market segments’ . In the early 1970s, the branch was instrumental in bringing Rollei, the (then) Braunschweig based manufacturer of optical instruments, to Singapore. According to Singapore’s Economic Development Board, ‘Rollei did more than just bring German production excellence to Singapore. Through its factories and the Rollei-Government Training Centre, Rollei had also helped to train about 5,000 Singaporeans in precision engineering skills, many of whom went on to join new SMEs or started their own companies‘ (Economic Development Board 2015, Annex A).

More recently, Melchers was instrumental in conceiving and developing the Singapore Flyer, which represents, according to Singapore’s Tourism Board (2018), one of Singapore’s ‘most iconic landmarks’:

‘Launched in 2008, the wheel is a favourite tourist attraction due to its vantage point offering stunning panoramic views of Marina Bay and the city. Over the years, the Singapore Flyer has also become a significant feature in the backdrop of the FORMULA ONE Singapore Grand Prix Marina Bay Street Circuit’ (Singapore Tourism Board 2018, n.d.).

Despite their limited success in financial terms, both Rollei and the Flyer mark important moments in Singapore’s development. While it can be argued that Rollei has been crucial in the making of Singapore as an industrial city with high-skilled employment, the Flyer is prominent in the making of Singapore as a spectacular global destination. What remains hidden, in both cases, is their relation to Bremen, a small Hanseatic city in the North of Germany.

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References:

Economic Development Board (2015): Transforming Landscapes, Improving Lives. EDB presents exhibition to chart 50 years of economic development in Singapore. www.edb.gov.sg/content/dam/edb/en/news%20and%20events/News/2011/Downloads/edb-exhibition-press-release.pdf (accessed May 1, 2018).

Khoo, Salma Nasution (2006): More than merchants. A History of the Germany-Speaking Community in Penang, 1800s-1940s. Penang: Areca Books.

Lindeman, Moritz (1892): Der Norddeutsche Lloyd – Geschichte und Handbuch. Bremen: Schünemann.

Singapore Tourism Board (2018): Singapore’s most iconic landmarks. www.visitsingapore.com/en_my/editorials/singapore-most-iconic-landmarks/ (accessed May 1, 2018).

Tregonning, Kennedy Gordon (1964): How Germany made Malaya British. In: Asian Studies 2, 2, 180-187.

Guest post: Mrauk U-NESCO-cide or Not?

In this guest post by an Urban Studies major from Yale-NUS College Al Lim, he investigates the implications for inscribing Mrauk U as a heritage site, especially being in the same state as the Rohingya crisis. This is a condensed post of his final paper for the Urban Heritage class taught by Creighton Connolly.

For a tourist thinking about Myanmar, one would typically consider the plethora of stupas dotting Bagan’s landscape, or perhaps, the enormous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. However, the next site to be on the list is slated to be Mrauk U in Rakhine State. This is the state where the Rohingya crisis is occurring, which the UN has called ethnic cleansing. The Rohingya issue is a migration and humanitarian crisis happening in Southeast Asia. Evidence of the persecuted minority fleeing the country through land routes to Bangladesh, as well as sea routes to other parts of Southeast Asia is undeniable. Current numbers estimate that nearly 700,000 Rohingya people have fled to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh from Rakhine state in Myanmar.

In Mrauk U’s Koe Thaung Temple (1553), a female statue holds a sign saying “wishing to feed the world” (Courtauld 2013: 238). Nearly 500 years later, the world that the statue wants to feed has changed dramatically. Mrauk U, founded on 20 August 1430, was built on an older city with walls dating from the first-millennium (Stadtner 2015). It was the capital of one of four Arakanese dynasties from the 14th to 18th centuries (Courtauld 2013). Today, hundreds of pagodas and temples remain as part of the heritage landscape. The royal palace from the 16th century forms the inner-city core; it is surrounded by city walls running in a discontinuous fashion, punctuated by natural barriers of mountains and tidal rivers (Courtauld 2013).

Despite the overtly Buddhist built heritage, Mrauk U was a cosmopolitan area during its prime. Especially during the 15th and 17th centuries, Mrauk U was a flourishing regional commercial and cultural center. When King Narameikhla found Mrauk U, he had brought Muslim soldiers from Gaur (capital of the Bengal sultanate), who founded a village nearby (Yegar 1972). Numerous kings even took on Muslim titles from the Bengal sultans initially as a proof of vassalage to the Bengali sultanate, but also to legitimize their status with the increasing numbers of Muslims (Yegar 1972). Augustinian Friar Father Sebastian Manrique even records his attempts to convert Muslim prisoners to Christianity, albeit unsuccessfully (Yegar 1972).

These are a few among the many threads of diverse religions and races woven together across socio-historical narratives. Buddhist, Muslims and Christians interacted in numerous ways in Arakan and its neighboring states. The contemporary animistic nat practices integrated into Buddhist temples (from the 10th century) celebrate brothers of Muslim descent shows the diverse mix of ethnicities in what is now considered “Myanmar.” Thus, I argue that prior to the cementing of national boundaries between Myanmar and Bangladesh, the region had hugely dynamic trade mobilities with Mrauk U as a key nodal point—resisting a stable historical narrative and singular religion/ethnicity pegged to the site.

Figure 1: Landscape of Mrauk U


What does the term ‘heritage’ refer to in the first place? The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has coined the term “Outstanding Universal Value” (OUV), which distills principles that apply universally to heritage sites. What this means is that cultural heritage has inherently similar and universal qualities across sites. Specifically, the site should have “cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.”

Considering heritage as a process and going beyond UNESCO’s stabilizing universalism, Mrauk U’s landscape does not conform to the stable rendering from a singular narrative, as its socio-political implications sets it up as a site of contestation. When heritage is considered beyond its technoscientific categories, it opens the space to questions of: what is said or unsaid about the past? Which histories are remembered or forgotten? Often, heritage sites and landscapes of memory have been controlled by elites. This results in resistance from dispossessed or marginalized groups that are ignored in the memorialization process (Alderman and Inwood 2016: 193). The visibility of heritage sites creates a space for actors or groups to participate in the debate on space in a highly public and performative manner (Alderman and Inwood 2016: 193). As a result, the heritage site becomes one of contention, which aims to bring greater fairness to the remembering of marginalized groups. This makes sense in the case of Mrauk U, with reference to disenfranchised groups like the Rohingya or even the Rakhine themselves.

The slating of Mrauk U is fraught with contention. Recently, there were protests by hundreds of Mrauk U residents against the government’s ban of celebrating the 233rd anniversary of the Rakhine’s fall. Seven were killed and twelve injured during the police response to protestors. This disrupted the work coordination meeting for the Mrauk U nomination, which brought together the culture minister, the Chinese and Italian ambassadors to Myanmar, Arakanese historians, and members of UNESCO. The final submission to be a World Heritage site to UNESCO is still slated be delivered by January 2019, with the archeology department having formed 14 sub-committees to prepare for this.

From this confrontation, it is clear that the international and state-led authorities are working in tandem with each other, but opposed by local villagers. There is clear contestation between the multiple claimants to the site, where the power relations include the local villagers too. Hence, the landscape of Mrauk U is fraught with shifting power relations that need to be reckoned with, especially in light of its space’s production.

Directly applying concepts of heritage to the context of Mrauk U, I argue that there are two broad implications that that directly affects the Rohingya situation: (1) possible economic and regional revitalization, (2) as well as an instrumentalization of cultural heritage to mitigate or deepen entrenched discrimination. In other words, I spell out how Mrauk U might (or might not) boost the regional economy or act as a landscape of reconciliation.
First, many practitioners believe that Mrauk U’s instatement as a site will help the regional economy. According to former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Mrauk U is the “greatest physical manifestation of Rakhine’s rich history and culture,” and he promoted this effort because it would “eventually serve to boost tourism to Rakhine, and thus help strengthen the state’s economy.” This seems to make logical sense, where the influx of tourists into this area would enable a steady stream of revenue that would boost the regional economy.

However, this seems idealistic because it does not account for present economic realities and the precedent of Pyu’s ancient cities. While inscribed on the world heritage list, there does not seem to be much touristic interest there. According to a tour guide, despite Halin’s world heritage status, he does not think it will attract many tourists as low heaps of brick in farmland do not seem very attractive. What is to say that even with UNESCO’s inscription, Mrauk U may not be as highly prized a destination as originally thought.

This also requires creating enormous amounts of infrastructure to ensure mobility and places that can cater to tourists. If boats are currently the only way to reach Mrauk U, how many more boats would need to cope with the influx of tourists? Further, there would need to be more hotels and accommodations in Mrauk U itself. This calls for huge amounts of infrastructure for water, sanitation and transportation, way more than is currently available. In addition, who will institute these infrastructural developments? With the ongoing political tensions, the idea of a possible economic revitalization seems to be faced with challenges like Pyu’s precedent of low tourist numbers, the need for infrastructure, and the timeline for construction to be created within a fragmented government.

Second, a more productive approach might be cultural reconciliation through heritage to avoid deepening the Rakhine/Rohingya crisis. The landscape contains immense potential for the redrawing of the strict “us versus them” boundaries that exist today. Christopher Carter, the UN’s senior adviser for Rakhine state, comments that even hardline nationalists were welcome to grant Mrauk U as a site for world heritage status seems to be promising. By encouraging cosmopolitan shared histories, this space creates the platform for a possible set of reconciliatory efforts to begin. Pointing out aspects of collective histories enable some basis for a common understanding. In spite of this possibility, the local villagers’ outcry remains unaddressed, with existing tensions between the users of space and what state or UNESCO officials’ efforts have been.

The outcome of these efforts remains to be seen. There is now clear progress towards the instatement of the site on the World Heritage list, however, the implications are not simple. Along the economic axis, there are potential economic benefits that tourism revenue could provide, yet there are challenges with its implementation and timeline. A more productive lens of a reconciliatory landscape to develop a sense of shared heritage could be explored. This involves possibilities of further studies to identify how sites of memory can be used to enable organic processes between communities, which may ameliorate the tense ethnic boundaries.

The narrative is incomplete and that is the nature of space. An important stakeholder within this pluralistic public are the village inhabitants in Mrauk U itself. Beyond the concern for the suppression of Rakhine celebrations, what are their concerns with UNESCO branding the site as a one of “Outstanding Universal Value?” Additionally, can Muslims and cosmopolitan histories be included as part of Mrauk U’s history, or will the exclusionary Buddhist built heritage triumph at the expense of potentials for reconciliation? As the statue in Koe Thaung Temple endeavors to feed the world, what kind of world will it be inhabiting and wishing to feed?

References
Alderman, D., & Inwood, J. (2016). Landscapes of Memory and Socially Just Futures. In N. Johnson, R. Schein, & J. Winders (Eds.), The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Cultural Geography (pp. 186–197). Singapore: Wiley Blackwell.
Courtauld, C. (2013). Mrauk U (Myouhaung) and the West. In Myanmar: Burma in Style, an Illustrated History and Guide. Hong Kong: Odyssey Books and Maps.
Stadtner, D. (2015). Sacred Sites of Burma. Bangkok, Thailand: River Books.
Yegar, M. (1972). The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group. Germany: University of Heidelberg’s South Asia Institute (SAI).

Upcoming Event: Behind Closed Doors: The Secret Life of Home in Singapore

The AUC, and Associate Professor Chris McMorran of the NUS Department of Japanese Studies, have put together an ARI Asia Trends Event titled ‘Behind Closed Doors: The Secret Life of Home in Singapore’.  The event will explore vernacular conceptualisations and constructs of ‘home’ in the contemporary city, and what this may mean for understandings of the self, society, and space.

The event will take place on 12 April 2018,  at The Pod at the National Library.  Doors will open at 6:45pm. The registration link for the event can be found here.


ABSTRACT

Home is at the center of human experience. We spend our lives designing, maintaining, enjoying, escaping, and defending what we consider home, a word which can refer to the intimate space of an HDB flat and also to the larger scale of the nation. But home is more than a location. It is an idea and a process, linking seemingly unrelated social, economic, political, and cultural spheres.

We can learn a lot about Singapore by taking the topic of ‘home’ seriously, by exploring the meanings embedded within the word. The study of home raises important questions about our residences, our neighborhoods, and our identities. What is home? How do we make a house a home? Who belongs and who doesn’t? And who decides?

This event gathers artists and academics who ask such questions in their creative and scholarly projects. During this panel, they will discuss why constructs and imaginings of ‘home’ are so important in today’s world, and will share their recent work related to the place, idea, or process of home. Collectively, their work opens the door to the ‘home’ in Singapore, revealing the secret life of this complex word we often take for granted in our everyday lives.


SPEAKERS

Keyakismos is the artistic pair of Eitaro Ogawa and Tamae Iwasaki. They are co-authors of HDB: Homes of Singapore (Gatehouse Publishing, 2017), a book featuring hundreds of photos celebrating the art and culture of humble HDB interiors, which was featured at the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2016. Derived from the Japanese word “keyaki” (Zelkova tree) and “cosmos” (flower), their alias stands for their shared creative philosophy that the collaboration among different elements achieves much more than one. Motivated by their life motto – “love God, love people” – Eitaro and Tamae are involved in art and community projects such as Pameran Poskad, which encourages all sorts of collaborations, with the goal of creating opportunities for people to experience art in daily life. They have two lovely daughters.

Lilian Chee is Associate Professor and History Theory Criticism Research Cluster Leader at the Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore (NUS). She is a writer, designer, curator and award-winning educator. A recipient of the NUS and Faculty Teaching Honour Rolls, she has lectured at the Bartlett, Delft, ETH Zurich, Melbourne and the Berlage Centre. Her work is situated at the intersections of architectural representation, gender and affect in a contemporary interdisciplinary context. Her research explores the emergence of architecture through, and from within, everyday encounter and its archives. Influenced by film, art and literature, she is engaged in how an affective construction of architectural discourse might change the writing of its histories and theories. She conceptualized, researched and collaborated on the award-winning architectural essay film about single women occupants in Singapore’s public housing 03-FLATS (2014). 03-FLATS won the best ASEAN documentary Salaya 2015; was shortlisted for the Busan Wide Angle Documentary Prize 2014; and was screened at the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2016. Her publications include the forthcoming monograph Architecture and Affect: Precarious Space (Routledge, 2019) and a co-edited volume Asian Cinema and the Use of Space(Routledge, 2015). She is working on a book about public art in the Singapore city core, and co-editing a volume on domesticity in architecture. Lilian is on the editorial boards of The Journal of Architecture and Architectural Theory Review.

Daniel P.S. Goh is Associate Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore. He obtained his PhD in Sociology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA, in 2005 and has been with NUS Department of Sociology since, where he serves as the Deputy Head. He specializes in comparative-historical sociology and studies state formation, race and multiculturalism, Asian urbanisms, and religion, and has published over 40 articles on these subjects in internationally refereed journals and edited books. He has edited and co-edited several books, including Race and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore (Routledge, 2009), Worlding Multiculturalisms: The Politics of Inter-Asian Dwelling (Routledge, 2015), Precarious Belongings: Affect and Nationalism in Asia (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), and Urban Asias: Essays on Futurity: Past and Present (JOVIS Verlag, 2018). He has also co-edited special issues in Urban StudiesInternational Journal of Urban and Regional ResearchEthnography, and International Sociology. He was co-Principal Investigator of the Ministry of Education Academic Research Fund Tier 2 project, Aspirations, Urban Governance, and the Remaking of Asian Cities (2013-2016). He is currently co-Principal Investigator of the Ministry of Education Social Science Research thematic grant project, Christianity in Southeast Asia: Comparative Growth, Politics and Networks in Urban Centres (2017-2020).

Toh Jia Han is a Year 4 Japanese Studies and English Linguistics double major at the National University of Singapore. He is currently working on a graduation thesis regarding the internationalisation of Japan through education, and he hopes to work in Japan after graduation. He is also an editor and producer on the NUS “Home on the Dot” podcast.

Shriya Sharma is a Year 1 student at the National University of Singapore. She plans to double major in Communication and New Media, and Political Science. She hopes to pursue journalism in the future. She is also a producer on the NUS “Home on the Dot” podcast.

Reflecting on Affect and Urbanism

Here we have a guest post by Lisa M. Hoffman, Professor of Urban Studies at University of Washington Tacoma, who was visiting NUS from December 2017 until January 2018.

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Recently I spent a month at ARI as a visitor from University of Washington Tacoma, Urban Studies. While I was there, I presented as part of the ACTIVATE! seminar series, which offered me the opportunity to think in more detail about the role affect plays in shaping identities and social relations. Taking affective relations seriously also shifted the register through which I was understanding subjectivity, collectivity, and contemporary forms of governing.   The paper was based on my anthropological fieldwork with volunteers and nongovernmental/social organizations in a port city in northeast China.

The questions I asked revolved around how expressions of responsibility, caring, and notions of a healthy life shaped class-specific identities – as some scholars of affect have argued, they “do things” (see Ahmed 2004; Richard and Rudnyckyj 2009).  As urban inequalities and other social problems have increased in cities across China, more individuals have been moved to help others identified as “in need”.  This could be a child with health problems and no financial resources or an elderly person with no children nearby to help them or even the local environment impacted by air pollution and litter.  Expressions and practices of care and responsibility shaped middle class identity such that affective enactments were incorporated into social differentiation and class distinction.

Significantly, public enactments of care, an increase in citizen volunteers, and an official emphasis on citizen “duty” to help others coincided with restructuring of the urban welfare system.  In other words, as social services have been moved from the socialist work unit to the community (shequ 社区) and society (shehui fuli shehuihua 社会福利社会化), citizens have also been asked to step up and do their share.  The cultivation of responsibility and compassion for others is then a critical part of urban governance and helps to stabilize reforms in the welfare system.

While I argued it is important to think of enactments of care and compassion as social facts and not simply as a false amelioration of inequality or the expanded securitization of society, these practices do embody a kind of “curious double”, to use Andrea Muehlebach’s term (2011), in which citizen responsibilization and socialist state welfare disintegration are stabilized, as meaningful and authentic socialities may also appear. Many volunteers spoke about the friendships and connections they made when volunteering and showing care for strangers, suggesting the possibility of alternative socials at the same moment we see a stabilization of profound political economic restructuring.

 

References:

Ahmed, Sara. 2004. “Affective Economies.” Social Text 22(2): 117-139.

Muehlebach, Andrea. 2011. “On Affective Labor in Post-Fordist Italy.” Cultural Anthropology 26(1):59-82.

Richard, Analiese, and Daromir Rudnyckyj. 2009. “Economies of affect.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15(1): 57-77.

Upcoming Seminar Series: Activate! Emergent Forms of Civic Practices in Contemporary Asian Cities (Spring Semester)

The ‘Activate!’ seminar series, jointly organised by the ARI Asian Urbanisms Cluster and the NUS Department of Architecture, will continue through the Spring semester of the NUS 2017/2018 academic year.

Whilst the first seminar series focussed primarily on the Singaporean context, the four new sessions will expand the geographic scope to discuss issues, ideologies, and practices in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

Seminars are open to all. They will take place at the ARI seminar room (AS8 level 4), from 4:00pm-5:30pm, on the following dates:

17th January 2018
‘Affect and the New Era: Reflections on Compassion, Care and Middle-Class Subjectivity in China’
Prof. Lisa M. Hoffman, University of Washington Tacoma
Register here

7th February 2018
‘Government Policies and Community Actions for Regenerating Inner City Taipei’
Asso. Prof. Huang Liling, National Taiwan University
Register here

14th March 2018
‘Transforming a Dystopia into an Utopia: A Case Study of Hong Kong’
Prof. Ng Mee Kam, Chinese University of Hong Kong
Dr. Minna Valjakka, National University of Singapore
Dr. Sonia Lam-Knott, National University of Singapore
Register here

9th April 2018
‘Citizen Engagement and Deliberation’
Dr. Carol Soon, National University of Singapore
(Registration details coming soon)

Conference Presentation: 2017 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting

Earlier this month, AUC member Sonia Lam-Knott presented a paper titled ‘Nostalgic Spectacles: Material Representations of the Past for Popular Consumption in Hong Kong’ at the 2017 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting at Washington DC, USA. The paper, referencing existing scholarship that explores the centrality of images in processes of knowledge-production across societies, examines how historical narratives can be conveyed through spectacles produced from the built urban environment.

Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Hong Kong, the paper outlines the two different portrayals of the city’s past that are currently being advocated by the  government and by grassroots actors; with the former focussing on establishing a nationalistic discourse to situate Hong Kong as being a ‘Chinese city’, and the latter emphasising ‘local’ history to assert the city’s distinctiveness from the rest of the Chinese nation.  How such divergent approaches of Hong Kong’s past are expressed in material means are reviewed through an in-depth examination of two structures in the city, these being the Hong Kong Heritage Museum in Shatin managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department branch of the government, and the Hong Kong House of Stories in Wan Chai (please see a previous post by Dr. Desmond Sham for a detailed introduction to the heritage contestations surrounding this neighbourhood) that is managed by a non-governmental social enterprise known as St. John’s Settlement in collaboration with volunteers.

The Heritage Museum and the House of Stories are each rendered in a physical form that projects a specific image of the past to the public gaze. Whereas the museum building borrows from traditional Chinese architectural styles derived from the ancient imperial/dynastic eras of China, the House of Stories retains its tong lau (shophouses that are often a product of syncretic cultural exchange during the colonial era) facade and assumes a 19th/20th century domestic aesthetic. But asides from analysing the exterior appearences and internal layouts of both spaces, the paper is also interested in how these spaces are being experienced by those exposed to them, and thus reviews the degree of affective attachments being espoused by the vernacular domain towards each of these sites. Based on fieldwork data, it was found that informants deem the appearence of the House of Stories to be more ‘familiar’, and consider the historical narrative being celebrated at this space as being ‘temporally closer’ and more relevent, to their personal memories (or ‘postmemories’) of the past. What the paper hopes to show is that emergent national-versus-local identitarian debates (exacerbated with the recent rise of localist sentiments in politics), in combination with the way in which different historical narratives are being presented through material-visual means, influences how everyday citizens in contemporary Hong Kong feel and relate to narratives of the past.

EDIT: this paper can now be found under the ARI working paper series.

Upcoming Event: ‘Rhymes of Shui Hau’ Film Screening and Discussion

The Asian Urbanisms Cluster is pleased to invite Dr. Chloe Lai of the Urban Diary (webpage and Facebook) to ARI to give a talk about her experiences and observations regarding the making of the film ‘Rhymes of Shui Hau’.

The film documents the lifestyles and songs of the elderly inhabitants of Shui Hau, a village located on Lantau Island in Hong Kong. Examining the practices of these villagers offers a glimpse of Hong Kong’s vernacular heritage, of what life in Hong Kong was like before the territory underwent rapid industrialisation and urbanisation since the mid-twentieth century. More importantly, the film brings to the forefront the voices of communities that have long been marginalised within mainstream societal and academic discourses.

The film screening will be immediately followed with a discussion by Dr. Lai, titled ‘Everyday Life as a Cultural Right in Postcolonial Hong Kong’. The talk will feature themes addressed within the film;  introduce what the Urban Diary aspires to do; and broadly explore the importance of taking vernacular stories from the domain of everyday life into account, as a means of developing a more sustainable way of urban living for the future.

The event will take place on 26th January 2018, from 3pm until 5pm at the ARI Seminar Room (AS8, Level 4). It is open to all, and attendance is free. More information about the event, and the registration link, can be found here.

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Details about the film:

Executive Producer: Chloe Lai
Director: Chan Ho-lun Fredie
Aerial Cinematographer: Herman Lau
Wai Tau Waa Translation: Mink Chan, Chu Tsz-yui, The Hong Kong Bird Watching Society
Text: Haider Kikabhoy, Teresa Ho, Hung Wing-hei, Charlie Lam, Jenny Li
Length of Film: 49 minutes

Hillslope Development in Penang: Sustainability or Unviability?

In this post, I write about my ongoing research on urban redevelopment in Penang, Malaysia, and in particular, about recent severe flooding and landslide events that are increasing in frequency and intensity.

November 4th 2017 flood in Penang

Historic cities within Asia’s rapidly developing and urbanising regions tend to sit at an ‘uneasy crossroads’ between heritage conservation and newer (re)development projects. In these places, understandings of landscape and how it should be used become increasingly tangible and contested. The mid-sized city of Penang, Malaysia is one key site where this is playing out at the moment, given recent flooding and landslide events that have been increasing in both severity and intensity. In October 2016 there were severe floods (the largest since the 1990s) during the Deepavali holiday season which caused significant damage and disruption. There have already been two major floods this year, one on September 15th and another on November 4th, the latter of which claimed the lives of seven, primarily elderly and other at-risk people. Moreover, there was a landslide at a hillside construction site in the Tanjung Bungah area on October 21 this year which killed 11 workers. This has been attributed to high density residential developments on hill land in Penang, which has intensified due to the lack of developable land around the city center and housing shortages. Local civil society groups have thus become increasingly vocal in protesting this ongoing development, and stressing the dangers of building high-density residential units on the islands forested hillsides.

Hillside development in Tanjung Bungah, Penang.

In his (2016) book The Sustainability Shift Malaysian scholar Adnan Hezri has noted that civil society movements in Malaysia often emerge over controversial land use decisions, or, in other words, because the environmental imaginaries of their members are at odds with official conceptions of what sort of development is best for a particular place. Indeed, there seems to be an impasse between the government and civil society in Penang at the moment, which continue to have differing views on the causes of and recommended solutions to these events. For example, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has recently reiterated that Penang’s floods are “natural disasters” and not caused by development. On the other hand, civil society groups, backed by local academics, argue that the floods are a result of both climate change and unscrupulous development projects on Penang island. Though, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak recently commented that the Penang State Government should: “avoid developments that could negatively impact the environment”, indicating tensions within the Malaysian Government.

There are also differences between the level of environmental protection within both Federal and State Government policies. For example, Penang island has clearly demarcated forest reserves (6% of the island’s total land area), and the Penang Structure Plan (PSP) disallows development on slopes steeper than a 25% gradient and/or on land higher than 75 meters (an additional 1.5% of total land area). This is stricter than national guidelines for hill land development, demonstrating that Penang does actually have strong environmental protection measures in place. However, this restriction excludes ‘special projects’ which may be permitted by the State Government if they are low density developments and have strong mitigation measures in place to protect the integrity of the slopes. This exemption has been frequently invoked, resulting in an increase in both the extensive and intensive nature of hillside development in Penang. Penang civil society members have thus argued that this exemption should be revoked, apart from necessary public works, given that it has been over-used.

Many observers have thus stressed the fragility (and ecological importance) of Penang’s natural ecosystems, and the increasing encroachment of human activity. For example, between 2008 and 2015, the municipal council (MBPP) granted 56 approvals on land above 250 ft, many of which are high-rise, high-density projects. There was also a geometric rise in illegal hill clearing cases from 2012-2015. This is despite a declaration from the State Government in 2009, reported in the New Straits Times (February 17) that they would not approve any more hill-land development projects in the Tanjung Bungah area of Penang.

However, much of this land is not gazetted and hence no local plan to regulate its use. This creates considerable ambiguity over what type of development is permissible on Penang’s hillsides and allows for developers to exploit loopholes in existing policies. Land is also privately owned, which is problematic because it is more difficult for the government to monitor and protect hill land on a continuous basis, and there is strong incentive for land owners to develop land in their possession. As Gwynn Jenkins (2008:23) has observed, there seems to be “little comprehension of the possible implications of mismanagement or the consequences of ‘redefining’ the planning laws” amongst officials in Penang. There also seems to be little understanding of the amplifying effect of deforestation and urban development on the impact of flooding events.

Residents living near the hillsides – and environmentally conscious citizens of Penang – thus feel that development is getting ‘uncomfortably close’ (Kam, 2016). Indeed, a recent study by Masum et al (2017) found that the current rate of deforestation Penang is 1.4% per annum, which is the highest in Southeast Asia. The paper also identifies the direction of development on the island based on recent trends, which is extending further into Penang’s protected forest reserve area from all sides (see below image). Masum et al thus call for an immediate ban on hill land development in Penang to ensure overall environmental safety, which has been echoed by local civil society members. Given that Penang was originally entirely forested in early 19th century, NGOs such as the Consumer’s Association of Penang (CAP) have thus expressed concern over the rate that trees are being sacrificed for development.

As Hezri has also argued, the focus on socio-economic development in Malaysia’s Vision 2020 initiative (to reach status of a ‘fully developed’ nation by 2020) has resulted in many Malaysian’s becoming detached from the natural environment. This tension between conservation and development plays out in all rapidly developing cities, with the financial incentive to develop usually winning over conservation needs, given that they are perceived to have less tangible value. Moreover, tangible cultural heritage in George Town has taken priority over other forms of heritage elsewhere on the island, which is partly to do with the city’s designation as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site and the conservation of its associated heritage buildings. Indeed, Penang’s natural heritage is now rapidly disappearing, while its historic town center has been (at least on the surface) preserved.

The increasing recognition amongst Penangites of their dependencies upon the wider biophysical environment has thus been central to the process of cultivating a collective response to the harms of Penang’s intensifying development. However, this recognition is one that will need to spread throughout the Penang society more broadly in order for change to occur, and may even need to take the form of ousting the current state government, as has resulted following previous environmental movements in the state. Without such resistance, Penang will continue to be impacted in compounding ways by the unregulated interventions into nature that are currently increasing in both frequency and severity.

Creighton Connolly, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore

 

Gospel of the Corporation: entering the “Heart of House” of Marina Bay Sands

This week we have a guest post by Kah-Wee Lee, Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore. This is an abridged version of the fieldnotes posted on his blog, “Casino Urbanism: all that is solid melts into credits”.

As part of Singapore Tourism Board’s drive to promote careers in the hospitality industry, several hotels conducted “open houses” where members of the public could go on guided tours around their premises. Marina Bay Sands (MBS) had its open house on 22 Oct 2017 and I took part in it. The invitation email promised us a rare glimpse of the “heart of house”, which is the underground complex where a veritable army of workers, from cleaners to croupiers to chefs to butlers, labour away to keep MBS running 24/7.
For the 20 or so people who signed up for this event, we had to check in at the “Talent Hub” half-an-hour before the scheduled start of the tour at 2pm. It was a small and sparsely decorated room, probably an office used for recruitment purposes – there was a registration booth, enough sitting space for about 16 people and four or five rooms with closed doors which were tagged with cheesy slogans like “respect”, “service”, “integrity” and “empowerment” . On one wall was a large photograph of MBS.

It became clear quite quickly that these corporate slogans would become a gospel that gets replayed again and again throughout our sojourn at MBS. Welcoming us to the open house, the guide, a human resource officer, regaled us with a series of superlatives – “how many hotel rooms do you think there are at MBS (2000, 95-98% occupancy rate)”; “how many people work here? (9529, going on to 10K, and we call ourselves “team members”, not employees)”. Pointing to the large photograph of MBS, he impressed upon us how swiftly this building had become the icon of Singapore – anyone who “googled” Singapore 7 to 10 years ago might see images of the Merlion or Changi Airport. Today, they will most likely see MBS. Delineating the distinctiveness of the building, he pointed to the three hotel towers and the skypark, but it was at the water features that he paused for dramatic effect: “What happens to all the coins that are thrown into the canals and fountains?”  They had to be regularly dredged up so that they did not clog up the system. But this mundane explanation was not the reason for his dramatic pause. “These coins were donated to the adopted charities of MBS”, he continued. “Team workers” who receive long service or performance awards are encouraged to donate their bonuses/vouchers to “contribute back to society”. Even before the tour started, the preaching had begun.

In his short essay on “Societies of Control”, philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote, “We are taught that corporations have a soul, which is the most terrifying news in the world”. He was referring to a new modality of control that is continuous, self-modulated and omnipresent, something quite distinct from the earlier template of the factory or prison or school. Within the confines of a factory, workers are disciplined to conform to the repetitive rituals of machine-work. It was a modality of control premised on enclosure and a kind of productivity measurable in discrete quantitative units. Team-workers of the Corporation, on the other hand, are self-motivated to improve themselves, their worth measured not so much by how much they produce, but how much “passion” and “soul” they bring to their calling. Control is continuous – think the endless ever-receding goals of “service awards”, “performance targets” and “contributions back to society”. The guide’s opening speech was certainly rehearsed, but it was not mechanical. He sounded genuinely proud to be a team member of the Corporation, which terrified me.

Figure 2 – Garden tour

It did not take long for the gospel to be sounded again. The first stop of the tour was Renku, the newly rebranded bar and lounge in the hotel lobby. After a short introduction by the manager, we were led to the Herb Garden just off to one side of the lounge. It is where, the manager said, chefs harvest their herbs for garnishes and cocktails. The guide told me that it was only a few months ago that they created this herb garden of about 30m by 10m. While earlier the guide preached about philanthropy, here, the gospel was about eco-utopia. These herbs were “locally grown” and plucked for “farm to table” freshness. Irrigation technologies “saved water” and make this a “sustainable” eco-system. There is a massive “digester” in the basement of MBS that processes food waste. Tags placed on the planters identified the herbs, but again this mundane function was secondary to the affective dimension that permeated all aspects of corporate culture in MBS. (Fig. 2 and 3). A representative from the restaurant impressed us with superlatives – “how many diners do we feed a day in MBS?” … “How much food is processed everyday?” It seems that the larger the amount of consumption, the more holy its mission to save the world from consumption becomes.
We finally were ready to proceed to the underground complex, or the “Heart of House”. From the Herb Garden, we walked out of the hotel, turned to the service access area (where one of the MRT exits is located), descended a flight of steps, walked through a set of doors and found ourselves standing in front of a security gantry. The gospel re-emerged as a wall mural that targeted the workers instead of us. It displayed sustainability and green standards in terms of waste generation, electricity usage and target number of staff. Each month was tracked, showing whether these targets were met by the colour of the bars. From what I could tell, food wastage had decreased over the year of 2017 and electricity targets were met about 50% of the time.

Figure 3 – Thyme takes time

Crossing the security gantry brought us to a corridor about 6-8m wide. Concrete ceilings with exposed pipes and wiring, fluorescent lighting and vinyl (?) flooring presented quite a stark contrast to the world of coffered panelling, chandeliers and carpets directly above us. In a glance: a Human Resource Office and an open counter where a HR officer is stationed (it was however empty when we were there), ATM machines and a 7/11 store. Lined up against the wall was a cabinet of trophies and accolades won by MBS and on that same wall, rows of portraits of senior management staff were displayed. Placed on a stand was a recruitment poster offering $600 for every employee referral, and next to this poster was a set of doors that led into one of the two large canteens in the Heart of the House.

I did not ask why a HR counter was placed so close to the exit/entrance of the Heart of House. Was it in response to workers’ grievances/feedback not being heard before? Was it an attempt to address issues before they leaked from the Heart of House to the public? Whatever the reasons, the two institutions of the Corporation that immediately confronted us upon entering the Heart of House – security and human resource – speak directly to how the Corporation manages workers through a combination of therapy and discipline.

The rest of the tour brought us to the garment warehouse and the canteen. By 4pm, the tour had ended. I removed my Visitor-Pass wrist band and walked towards the gantry to exit the Heart of House. The security guard stopped me, pointing to my bag and seeming somewhat miffed that I had not volunteered to let him check it.
“New here?” He muttered under his breath.
“No, I am one of the visitors.” I countered, and he let me through.
In that instance, the gospel of MBS that rang throughout our ears for two hours switched off. No longer a privileged visitor, I was immediately a worker who must fall in place to a different tune. I was not in any way offended – I much preferred the forthright discipline of the security complex to the insidious hymns of the Corporation gospel.

Conference Presentation: 2017 Association for East Asian Environmental History

AUC member Fiona Williamson spoke recently at the 2017 Association for East Asian Environmental History conference in Tianjin, China on the theme of historic urban flooding. Her paper, titled ‘Cities and Disasters: Floods and Urban Development in Colonial Singapore’, explored urban development and social responses to floods in the city between the late 19th to the early 20th century. It paid close attention to how the British authorities and the city’s inhabitants understood and reacted to serious inundations, and in turn, how these responses shaped the city’s social and physical development. Based on data collected from primary archival sources relating to governance and urban life in the British Straits Settlements, municipal records, and contemporary newspapers, it also argued that the lessons learned (or not) by cities facing disasters in the past can be useful in addressing urban disasters in the modern world.

The paper noted how urban development (especially with the spread of infrastructural projects and industrial growth across the landscape) and the clunky processes of colonial administration hindered, rather than advanced, progress in flood mitigation for much of this time. For instance, although river management was considered important for economic reasons, flood control for its own sake was given lower priority. In all the flood disasters to have affected Singapore during this period, it can clearly be seen that human, rather than natural, exigencies exacerbated their severity. Within a social framework, what we witness over the 19th and 20th centuries was a major shift in how floods were viewed. In the 19th century, floods were disliked but normalized within urban society, and people accepted that there was little to be done. Emphasis was on the individual or the community to tackle the immediate issues surrounding floods, with the government later stepping in to provide financial aid and longer-term solutions. But by the early 20th century, there was an expectation for the government to assume a more proactive stance, to take more responsibility in providing financial and technical preventative solutions. What this shows is less revealing of the nature or trends of floods themselves, but more revealing of a changing culture and society– especially the relationship between government and society and notions of social justice and expectation.

Some of Fiona’s work on these themes will be available to view in the forthcoming publication titled: ‘Crossing Colonial Borders: Governing Environmental Disasters in Historic Context’, in M. Miller, M. Douglass, M. Garschagan, eds., Crossing Borders: Governing Environmental Disasters in a Global Urban Age in Asia and the Pacific (Singapore: Springer). She also has a recent article titled: ‘The Great Flood of 1926: Environmental Change and Disaster Governance in British Malaya’, Journal Ecosystem Health and Sustainability, Environmental Impact of Disasters – special issue, 2:11 (2016).

Consuming Conservation in the Age of Instagram

by Meghan Downes

Media and popular culture both shape and reflect our everyday ‘commonsense’ ideas about the natural environment. Stories that circulate about the value and vulnerability of the environment offer a window into popular perceptions, as well as a potential medium for transforming such perceptions. Social media is no exception, and in this post, I reflect on changing relationships between young people and the natural environment in Indonesia, as mediated through the popular photo-sharing app, Instagram.

My current research focuses primarily on the mega-city of Jakarta and how urban environmental problems and solutions are represented in popular film and fiction. For this blog post, however, I explore a slightly different but closely related topic: the growing popularity of dedicated ‘nature tourism’ spaces outside the city, spaces where urban youth congregate to appreciate (and often more importantly, to photograph) the natural environment.
I visited several such places during a recent trip to Indonesia. The pictures I include here are from around the area of Batu in East Java, where over the past few years the local government has begun to capitalize on growing environmental awareness, and also growing demand for exciting Instagram opportunities, by building various new photo-friendly mountain parks.

 

At ‘Taman Langit’ (Sky Garden), visitors can pose with animal statues, recline on grass-covered beds or in giant birds’ nests, and are reminded to put their rubbish in the novelty ‘Tempat Sampah Tampan’ (Beautiful Bins).

The nearby ‘Omah Kayu’ (Tree Houses) area features tire swings, hammocks and a range of wooden platforms and tree houses. Most of these have a ‘maximum 5 minutes’ rule: just enough time to get some killer photos and then move along. The path between the trees is peppered with environmental messages and Indonesian translations of quotes such as ‘Only when the last tree has been felled and the last spring ceased to flow, only then will humans realize that we cannot eat or drink money’ and ‘We do not inherit this earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our grandchildren.’

Another popular spot, ‘Goa Pinus’ (Pine Cave), has viewing platforms in various fun designs jutting out over the valley below. This area also features a collection of so-called ‘Papuan houses’: small, thatched huts that – given the (problematic) popular public discourses surrounding Indonesia’s Eastern-most province – are perhaps intended to represent a kind of ‘primitive’ affinity with nature.

There are often performative nationalist elements to the kind of ‘environmental tourism’ being enjoyed in these parks, with the Indonesian flag making a frequent appearance.

Yet what is most striking is the way that, across all of these sites, the natural environment is packaged first and foremost as an Instagram opportunity. The platforms and paths and statues and props have all been designed with the primary purpose of facilitating great selfies. Scattered around the parks are signs that suggest the appropriate hash-tags to use when posting online: #tamanlangit, #omahkayu, #goapinus, #gunungbanyak, #paralayangbatu, and so on. If you browse these tags on Instagram, you will find thousands of images.

So, what are the implications of nature being framed (often literally!) as an object for fleeting consumption, by a mainly urban middle-class audience? Is the kind of environmental engagement facilitated by applications such as Instagram destined to be superficial and narcissistic? Or, is there potential for deeper engagement with conservation ideas and practices? These questions lead to other related points, including the issue of class. Local farmers in the areas surrounding these parks are facing imminent damaging effects of global climate change on crop cycles, and meanwhile, for visitors, the leisure-activity of ‘nature appreciation’ becomes merely a symbol of urban middle-class identity.

However, while it is easy enough to write off Instagram engagement as superficial, the reality is more complex. As part of my broader research, I discussed environmental issues with a broad selection of young Indonesians, who are often quite critical of what is going in and around their Instagram feeds. During these conversations, several people raised the issue of economic inequality and expressed concern over what will happen to the profits from entry fees for these new parks: Will the profits go to the local people? Will they fund conservation projects? Or will they simply line the pockets of government officials? Others expressed frustration over the lack of waste disposal infrastructure in their daily lives: Why should rubbish bins simply be a novelty item in a tourist park, while littering remains the norm upon returning home?

As is the case with any form of communication, the kinds of stories that circulate in and around social media applications like Instagram are many and varied, and ultimately depend on the concerns of users. This is one of the reasons why social media, and popular culture in general, can be such a rich entry point into understanding how people interact with natural and built environments. Far more so than education curriculum or scientific research, popular culture strongly shapes and informs our everyday understandings about environmental problems and solutions. Not just in Indonesia, but globally, governments are often just as likely to respond to populist perceptions as they are to in-depth policy research. Therefore, although this blog post may seem a relatively fun and colorful topic, I also suggest that it is in fact very important to examine how these everyday ideas about the environment are produced, consumed, and mediated through various platforms in order to better understand the complex and evolving relationship between nature and society.


Meghan is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow affiliated with the Asian Urbanisms Cluster at ARI. She was awarded her PhD from the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University. Her current research looks at youth engagement with the natural environment and environmental problems in Indonesia.

Exploring the Forgotten Port Town in Singapore

The Asian Urbanisms Cluster (AUC) organised a two-day interdisciplinary conference titled “Remapping Arts, Heritage, and Cultural Production: Between Policies and Practices” on 16 – 17 August 2017. In order to extend our discussions beyond the classroom setting, with the support of members of other departments and institutions, we also held several excursions to heritage sites and cultural institutes across Singapore.

On a sunny Friday morning, Dr. Imran bin Tajudeen, Assistant Professor of the Department of Architecture, led the conference speakers on a guided tour titled “Cultural heritage district framing, architectural clues, and toponymic palimpsests: A walk through the other port town at Kampung Gelam” (more information about this walk can be found at the end of this post).

For many people, ‘Kampung Gelam’ (also known as Kampong Glam) refers to small area identified by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as a historic district subject to conservation practices, bound by Ophir Road, Beach Road, Victoria Street, and Jalan Sultan. However, the area of Kampong Glam in the past was much more extensive, being regarded as a port town comprising of four districts: Kampung Gelam, Kampung Bugis, Kampung Kallang, and Kampung Rochor.

Starting our tour at the Lavender MRT Station, we walked past the Rochor River, where Dr. Imran showed us the location of this “forgotten” port settlement in what was the Kampung Rochor ward, once the merchants’ quarter within Kampung Gelam, now overshadowed by the Singapore River. Dr. Imran discussed the gradual demolition of the shophouses and street networks within the Kampung Rochor ward, and its overwriting as ‘Precinct N1’ with public housing blocks. Although the history was overwritten by urban redevelopment projects, the prosperity of the port town could still be seen from the now conserved Masjid Hajjah Fatimah (Hajjah Fatimah Mosque).

In this multiethnic vibrant merchant’s quarter of Kampung Rochor, men and women were permitted to own businesses, and under Islamic law, women had the sole right to their property and income in a marriage. The prominent role of women in the business domain is reflected by the fact that there are four mosques in Singapore named after their benefactors, who were women (one of these mosques has since been demolished, and sadly, its successor bears a different name). For example, Hajjah Fatimah was a very successful businesswoman of Bugis descent who hailed from Melaka, and was in Kampung Gelam during the 19th century. She donated finances to build one of the earliest mosques in Singapore.

Dr. Imran drawing comparisons between what the area looked like in the past and in the present era (Photo: Minna Valjakka)
Dr. Imran explaining the history of the neighbourhood (Photo: Desmond Sham)
Masjid Hajjah Fatimah, a mosque on Beach Road in the Kampong Glam area (Photo: Minna Valjakka)

According to the URA, the Kampung Gelam conservation area is officially recognised as a Malay-Muslim “ethnic enclave”. But as Dr. Imran emphasised throughout the tour, the area was historically an ethnically-mixed neighbourhood. (Different ethnic groups were able to communicate with each other by using the lingua franca of commerce in the region, which at the time was Malay). Yet this multiethnic past is lost in the process of state-led heritagisation. This is seen from the designation of the former Istana (palace of the former sultan) as the “Malay Heritage Centre”, as opposed to using a more encompassing label such as the “Kampong Glam Heritage Centre” which would project the diver array of communities and histories associated with the place. By focussing solely on the racial/ethnic tag “Malay”, the historical diversity of the area was undermined. For instance, the Javanese community had a significant demographic presence in Kampung Gelam, but because the physical makeover in the early 2000s followed an emphasis on Malay and Arabian identities, their histories have been subsumed under the new heritage narrative and urban design packaging. Meanwhile, in order to promote an exotic image for the tourists, Turkish and Lebanese restaurants were introduced to convey a sense of “Arabian ambiance”.

The Malay Heritage Centre was once a royal palace of the Sultan (Photo: Desmond Sham)
The group in front of the Masjid Sultan (Sultan Mosque) in Kampung Gelam (Photo: Minna Valjakka)

This walking tour, which was enriched with insightful historical details of cultural history, architecture, and urban policies, lasted for 2.5 hours. At the end of the event, our group stopped at the junction of North Bridge Road and Ophir Road. Looking at the wide highway and new developments in the vicinity, Dr. Imran concluded the walk by remarking that the city once harboured a continuous multiethnic landscape. Yet, in the process of urban redevelopment, Kampung Gelam now seems to be self-contained, thus creating the image of a separate ethnic enclave.

We sincerely thank Dr. Imran for his informative walk. It provided a chance for both Singaporean and non-Singaporean conference participants to better understand the history and heritage of Singapore.

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Cultural heritage district framing, architectural clues, and toponymic palimpsests:  A walk through the other port town at Kampung Gelam

by Dr. Imran bin Tajudeen

This walk will bring you through areas of erasure and re-inscription in the built landscape of Singapore in selected portions of the northern half of its historical town. We visit the expunged neighbourhoods and extant streets of Singapore’s other port town at Kampong Glam (Kampung Gelam), which has undergone a variegated history of framing and reframing by Singapore’s cultural tourism policies.

We will observe the spatial complexities in the significance of places and sites for different communities, viewed against their re-naming/re-branding as mono-racial blocs. As an alternative framework we consider the evidence from the forgotten Kampung/Campong urban ward toponyms from Singapore’s historical lingua franca, Malay, that was shared across multiple linguistic groups in colonial Singapore, and from a number of old Compound Houses, shophouses and key cultural landmarks.

Climate Disaster Governance, 21-22 September 2017

The Asia Urbanisms Cluster (AUC) recently hosted the final event in a three-year project to investigate the impact of disasters on urban life. The disaster governance theme has been facilitated by an MOE Tier-2 grant on Governing Compound Disasters in Urbanizing Asia [MOE2014-T2-1-017], awarded in 2014. This 3-year multidisciplinary programme was spearheaded by the AUC, working in concert with ARI’s Science, Technology and Society Cluster. Its aim has been to improve understandings of the changing risks, vulnerabilities, responses, and resilience to compounded environmental disasters in an increasingly interconnected urbanizing Asia. In particular, the grant has been instrumental in facilitating an inter-disciplinary dialogue across the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences, and related technical disciplines.

The final two-day event on ‘Climate Disaster Governance’ has seen these aims achieved by drawing together one of the widest cross-disciplinary dialogues to be held during the course of this grant. Involving people from climate science, geography, sociology, history, public health, applications, agricultural sectors, and more, this conference explored avenues for collaborative work and dialogue to take place. Such an approach is critical to tackling some of the climate related challenges of the 21st century, which will see all basic facets of human life impacted by nature-induced disasters, perhaps to a greater scale than ever before.

In Anthropocene Asia-Pacific, climate change is driving the nature and scale of environmental disasters (especially floods, droughts, and heatwaves) that combine and interact with processes of planetary urbanization. Livelihoods, food security, urban infrastructure, and health will be more frequently and deeply impacted by climate change, and therefore disaster risk governance will face increasingly tough, interconnected, multi-dimensional challenges. One is the merging of conflict disasters with environmental disasters over, for example, water and food. Populations facing disasters of these kinds will increasingly migrate across national borders as home regions become unlivable through the loss of, and resultant conflicts over, various basic life supporting resources. With refugee flows across borders expected to exponentially increase with the intensifying impacts of climate change, national governments will also increasingly default to migrant-receiving cities to cope with climate change refugees. This puts pressure on existing resources, imposes additional stresses on infrastructure, and worsens urban tensions. The increasingly extensive repercussions of climate change-related disasters demand joined up responses as a matter of urgency. Solutions need to run across the board and take account the connectivities between the causes, impacts, and experiences of climate change.

The conference was organised by Fiona Williamson, Michelle Miller, and Mike Douglass (ARI, NUS). Participants included representatives from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay; International Center for Tropical Agriculture, Vietnam; University of Southern Queensland, Australia; University of Hawaii, USA; Regional Integrated Multi-Hazard Early Warning Systems, Thailand; Institute for Population, Family and Children Studies, Vietnam; United Nations University, Institute for Environment and Human Security, Germany, and Indonesian Institute of Sciences; Chiang Mai University, Thailand; University of Newcastle, Australia; Singapore Management University; University of Brunei Darussalam; National Institute of Advanced Studies, India; Social Policy and Poverty Research Group, Myanmar; University of Colorado Denver, USA; Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, as well as National University of Singapore. The full programme and speaker details can be found here.

Speakers and Chairs on Day 1 of the Conference

 

This conference was organized by Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore; with support from Singapore Ministry of Education Tier 2 Grant – Governing Compound Disasters in Urbanizing Asia.

Upcoming seminar series: Activate! Emergent Forms of Civic Practices in Contemporary East Asian Cities

The ARI Asian Urbanisms Cluster, together with the NUS Department of Architecture, have convened a seminar series that will take place during the Fall Semester of the NUS 2017/2018 academic year.

The seminars will critically present and examine the novel forms of civic practices that have manifested in the Asian urban context through a transdisciplinary framework. Bringing together a range of individuals (for example, academics, practitioners, students, and the general public) who are interested in urban spatial strategies, and the relationship such actions have with civil societies across the Asian region, the seminars will attempt to initiate discourse on two main themes:

First, to explore how the varied stakeholders involved in civil society groups, including academics and educators, activists, artists, NGOs, NPOs, informal interest groups and community associations, political parties, and governmental organizations currently de/reconstruct the contextual and physical understanding of shared urban space in Asia. It is of interest to review the main goals of the novel civic practices, and the extent in which these aspirations are realised.

Secondly, these seminars articulate how stakeholders engage in the process of collaborative knowledge production through these practices. More importantly, the aim of the series is to conceptualise civic practices as a product of the distinctive trajectories of socio-economic development, spatial/cultural policies, and the structures of political governance in the Asian region. To reiterate, these seminars provide an overview on the distinctive challenges and opportunities that contemporary Asian cities pose for civil societies, and the kind of local and global characteristics that are emerging in these locales.

Seminars are open to all. Please see below for details on the forthcoming seminars and on how to register:

11th October 2017
‘Becoming Heritage: Bukit Brown Cemetery’
Dr. Liew Kai Khiun, Nanyang Technological University
Register here

25th October 2017
‘More Grows in the Garden than the Gardeners Sow: The Roots and Shoots of Social Agriculture in Singapore’
Ms. Sarah Ichioka, Urbanist and Curator, Former Research Fellow at the Centre for Urban Greenery and Ecology, NParks, Singapore
Mr. Bjorn Low, Edible Garden City, Singapore
Ms. Ng Huiying, Foodscape Collective, Singapore
Register here

1st November 2017
‘Rethinking Cyber Activism in Asian Democracies’
Dr. Natalie Pang, Senior Research Fellow at The Social Lab, Institute of Policy Studies in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Policy Studies
Dr.  Donghyun Song, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
Register here

8th November 2017
‘Working with the “Grassroots” for Built Heritage Conservation’
Mr. Kelvin Ang, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore
Register here

Remapping the Arts, Heritage, and Cultural Production: Between Policies and Practices in East and Southeast Asian Cities

Poster: Remapping the Arts, Heritage and Cultural Production

The full program has recently been published for our upcoming conference, ‘Remapping the Arts, Heritage, and Cultural Production: Between Policies and Practices in East and Southeast Asian Cities‘, co-organised by Minna Valjakka, Desmond Sham, and myself, scheduled for the 16th – 18th of August, 2017 at ARI. We are pleased to confirm our two keynote speakers, Professors Lily Kong (SMU) and Andy Pratt (City Uni, London), who will be delivering the opening and closing talk for the conference, respectively.

This interdisciplinary conference brings together a dynamic range of both established and early career scholars, activists, and creative practitioners to explore the role of arts, culture and heritage in developing more progressive societies in East and Southeast Asian cities. The conference includes case studies from numerous cities throughout the region, from South Korea to Singapore, on topics from art districts and art activism to heritage walks and cultural activism. Questions that guide the conference proceedings speak to integrated themes across these topics and sites to further conceptual and policy-relevant insights on the critical role of arts, heritage and creative practices in contemporary cities. For instance:

  • How do arts, heritage, and creative practices provide opportunities for ‘creative communities’ to resist the encroachment of the corporate economy (Douglass 2015)? What challenges do they face in asserting their right to urban space?
  • How and to what extent could ‘gentrification aesthetics’ (Chang 2014) open up new approaches for analysing both positive and negative impact of urban redevelopment?
  • What kind of innovations in governance are needed to support art communities, heritage preservation, and cultural and creative industries in ways that are socially inclusive, viable, and enhance civil participation? Can an approach based on the interconnectedness of cultural and social sustainability (Kong 2009) benefit the understanding of the collective processes emerging in cities today?
  • How does public art reflect the ways in which forms of vernacular heritage, culture, and socio-spatial identity are bound up with the representation and (re)shaping of place and landscape in cities? What controversies and political fault lines might emerge through these processes?
  • What kind of novel forms of ‘art activism’ or ‘cultural activism’ are emerging, and how do they benefit, interact, or hinder the aims of social transformations?
  • To what extent are arts, heritage, and cultural productions contributing to the development of ‘tourist cities’? How is this being resisted or embraced by local populations?
  • Finally, what new approaches are emerging that transcend purely physical space? Can intangible forms, such as digital networks, forums and sites, benefit the survival of local communities?

Please visit our website to download the Conference abstract and register. Admission is free and open to the public, we hope to see you there!

Territorial Transformation and Land Reclamation in Singapore

Land reclamation is a hot topic in Singapore and Malaysia these days.  As a recent New York Times article observed, “land is Singapore’s most cherished resource” and land reclamation has been a chief component of the island archipelago’s development since the 19th century. Even just since its founding independent nation 52 years ago, Singapore has grown in size by almost a quarter: from 224 square miles to 277. By 2030, the government wants Singapore to measure nearly 300 square miles. This is partially related to Singapore’s ambitious targets for population growth and economic development (iconic landmarks such as the Esplanade, Marina Bay Sands, and even the Merlion are all built on reclaimed land). It is also premised in founding Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew’s vision for Singapore, which was in part based on a struggle against its small size.

This is a topic that was covered by Canadian geographer Rodolphe De Koninck in his recent book Singapore’s Permanent Territorial Revolution: Fifty Years in Fifty Maps, published by NUS Press. 

Rodolphe De Koninck’s book launch at ARI for ‘Singapore’s Permanent Territorial Revolution: 50 years in 50 maps’

De Koninck shared the decades of research that went into his book at a recent book launch at the Asia Research Institute on May 29th. The launch attracted an overwhelming audience – which left standing room only in our Seminar Room – consisting of local artists, students, heritage advocates, and established local academics from NUS and beyond. During his talk, Professor De Koninck debunked several myths underpinning the logic of land reclamation —such as that of land scarcity—and raised keen observations surrounding changes in the territoriality and topography of Singapore, such as the intentional softening of urban development through the provision of greenspace, in the form of parks and green dividers between roads. Given the controversial nature of some of De Konick’s arguments, there was a somewhat heated Q&A session where he and members of the audience exchanged views on topics including the alienation of Singaporean heritage and identity through landscape transformation.

But land reclamation is increasingly attracting concern from residents, activists and scientists. This is in part due to the increased scale of land reclamation, enabled through technological advances, and the vulnerabilities that this creates. This is combined with increasing awareness of the dangers associated with global climate change and anticipated sea level rise over the next century.  There are also the grave socio-environmental consequences associated with sand mining, which is taking place in rural areas across the tropical world to feed the urban development appetite of mega cities like Singapore. This is a phenomena that a recent article in The Guardian atly described as the “global environmental crisis you’ve probably never heard of, and is the topic of our Senior Research Fellow Michelle Miller‘s current research on Indonesia. In the past, Singapore’s modest land reclamation projects (like Boat Quay) were completed using dirt and rock from extinct hills, like Ann Siang Hill which used to mark the western urban boundary of Singapore. Singapore still continues this practice through the reuse of material that is excavated during the construction of MRT (subway) tunnels, which is stored in a heavily protected and fortified reserve near the Eastern neighborhood of Bedok. But this still isn’t sufficient for Singapore’s land reclamation projects, so sand is imported from increasingly distant places, as neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia have stopped exporting sand to the island-city (for political and environmental reasons).

Singapore’s strategic sand reserve for land reclamation near Bedok. Photo from Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times

But environmental concerns are not the only consequences of Singapore’s extensive land reclamation and territorial metamorphosis. The constant ‘freeing up of land’ in Singapore for development purposes, has, as De Koninck noted in his talk, resulted in the destruction, of culturally sacred spaces, which is premised upon a cultural foundation whereby “nothing is sacred, nothing is permanent, nothing is culturally untouchable”. This was also touched upon in the aforementioned New York Times article, which noted that Singapore’s approach to development can make it seem as though the relocation of its people — “the living as well as the dead — can seem like pieces on a checkerboard”. Indeed, this is a controversy that has been ongoing over the past several years with the planned highway that will bisect one of the last remaining Chinese cemeteries – Bukit Brown – in the central part of the island, which will result in the exhuming of graves. This is a topic that our own Huang Jianli and Kenneth Dean have worked on, in the wake of significant civil society activism to preserve the site. Unfortunately, given the nature of a recent grant that was awarded to Prof Dean, it seems that Singapore’s strategy will be of documenting – rather than preserving – the graves.

In closing, it should be noted that land reclamation is not only a problem specific to Singapore. Indeed, each time I cross the causeway from Singapore to Malaysia, Johor Bahru and the new Iskandar Malaysia project seems to get closer. My current research in Penang, Malaysia partially concerns the ambitious land reclamation projects that are currently being launched by the State government in order to finance the extremely capital intensive Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). As in Singapore, there has also been talk in Hong Kong of creating floating islands in the sea to support their urban and territorial expansion. This is a topic which Andrew Toland has discussed in his book chapter ‘Hong Kong’s Artificial Anti-Archipelago and the Unnaturing of the Natural’, featured in the recent edited volume ‘Places of Nature in Ecologies of Urbanism’, published by Hong Kong University Press. While cities have always had a hate-love relationship with nature, such works bring urgent attention to the increasing artificiality and alienation of our cities from the natural environment. This is thus a critical issue that  deserves the attention of critical urban scholars, not only in Asia-Pacific, but around the world.

The Invisibility of the Urban Poor in Jakarta

In this guest post by our outgoing Senior Research Fellow Rita Padawangi, she discusses the  recent Jakarta gubernatorial election, and the invisibility of the poor in the city.  This is a condensed version of an earlier post on Medium.com

Before voting in the second round of Jakarta’s election started, various national and international media as well as commentaries from local and international intellectuals had had much focus on the rise of Islamism in the nation’s capital as the eventual determinant of the result. The election was won by Anies Baswedan-Sandiaga Uno (Anies-Sandi), candidates backed by Gerindra and Partai Keadilan Sejahtera over the incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama-Djarot Saiful Hidayat (Ahok-Djarot), who were backed by ruling party Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan, the political party of President Joko Widodo.

After the election result was out, reactions varied but were still consistently noting religion as the main factor: in my social media news feed, many expressed worries of rising religious fundamentalism. Worries that Jakarta would spread the religious flavour of elections to other parts of the country. Furthermore, some lamented “the death of pluralism”, “primordialism”, and expressed disgust on Anies’ opportunistic manoeuvre to embrace the Islam Defenders Front and Prabowo Subianto of Gerindra, who was clearly not in the same camp as him in the 2014 presidential election.

Painting Jakarta election’s final result as simply evidence of rising Islamism, however, is an oversimplification. Not only this view is also largely incomplete, it also perpetuates the division. First, rather than Islamic fundamentalism, social segregation among ethnic groups and religious groups deserves more serious attention. Pre-election surveys had consistently cited religion as an explanatory factor of voting decision and the official voting data from KPU website also proved the segregation of votes among districts along religious and ethnic lines. Districts with Muslim population over 91% tended to vote for Anies-Sandi, while districts with Muslim population less than 83% tended to vote for Ahok-Djarot. Therefore, religion is a determinant, but religion in this case is not only Islam. There is also a need to unpack what “religion” means to them. For example, those who voted for Anies to defend Islam does not necessarily mean they are religious fundamentalists. They may or may not be.

Second, which is the focus of this piece, is the voices of the poor in Jakarta that are consistently missing from the headlines, reports and dominant voices of intellectuals that zeroed in on religion in explaining the votes. Litbang Kompas’ exit poll reported that consistently about 60%-70% from the lower and middle class population were voting for Anies-Sandi, while almost 60% from the upper economic class voted for Ahok-Djarot. Exit poll from Indikator Politik Indonesia also showed that 52% from households earning less than Rp 2 million per month (less than USD 200) voted for Anies-Sandi, while PolMark exit poll (note: this consultant was hired by Anies-Sandi) showed that 60% of the voters earning less than 6 million per month (less than USD 600) voted for Anies-Sandi.

Ahok’s persistence in defending developer-driven reclamation project in Jakarta Bay had also painted a stark contrast with the coastal population, particularly the fisherfolk whose livelihoods were significantly affected by the project and who were generally in the urban poor category. One year before the election, one of the members of the local parliament was caught red-handed accepting bribe from Agung Podomoro Land, a developer with a subsidiary company Muara Wisesa Samudera that develops G islet in Jakarta Bay. By then, media polls indicated that half of Jakarta residents rejected reclamation. Coverage on the issue had subsided since then, especially after those involved in the corruption case were charged, but the plight of the fisherfolks continued. They were involved in lawsuits against the artificial islands. Although they had recently won the case at PTUN against islets F, I and K, their livelihoods were still in jeopardy. It did not help that during the final debate on 12 April Ahok promised to build “floating restaurant” in support of the fisherfolks’ economy, but still energetically defended land reclamation, which furthered his image from caring for the poor.

Fisherfolks of North Jakarta, with pressures of new developments present in the background. Source: Rita Padawangi, 2014

It is true that Ahok is not the only governor whose policies marginalize the poor. Jakarta’s urban poor resistance to governors perceived to be against the poor is also not new. The urban poor have been openly expressing their resistance to anti-poor policies particularly after the 1998 Reform, not only during Ahok’s reign. In the case of Ahok, unhappiness among the urban poor with urban interventions was clear in JRMK’s words:

“The urban poor fully realize that a governor’s election in DKI Jakarta will bring direct impact on their livelihoods. Therefore, there is no option for golput (‘white category’ = no voting). Rather, the election momentum this year can be used to punish Ahok who had broken his promise, by not voting for him and hence stopping further evictions. By not voting for Ahok, the urban poor will send a message to all politicians and candidates that the people take note of what they do while in office and will remember those in the voting booths. On one hand, punishing Ahok by not voting for him, will of course benefit Anies-Sandi. On the other hand, Anies-Sandi also intensively communicated with the people, experts and JRMK-UPC. Therefore, JRMK-UPC offers a political contract to Anies-Sandi so that the support is not “free” and will not only benefit one side… If Anies-Sandi break the contract, the urban poor will be able to sue them in court. This differentiates the current contract from the one that Jokowi-Ahok signed in 2012.” (JRMK-UPC Press Release, 14 April 2017)

It is important to note that the urban poor’s preference to vote for Anies-Sandi should not be generalized as voting for a religious fundamentalist. In fact, none of the elements in the political contract had religious tone. The ability of the urban poor in organizing and mobilizing 32 kampungs in Jakarta, street vendor groups and becak drivers to push for the political contract is a movement against social and spatial inequalities.

The mainstream narratives of religion-fuelled election in various popular publications have perpetually overlooked social inequality in Jakarta. Apologists would say that the Gini coefficient — a signifier of economic inequality — declined in Jakarta under Ahok’s leadership (0.43 in 2015 to 0.41 in 2016) but the ratio remains one of the highest in Indonesia. While Ahok has been widely celebrated in these narratives as a representation of pluralism and diversity — based on his ethnic and religious identity –, the urban poor who joined the JRMK-UPC contract saw him as a traitor. Ian Wilson’s piece in New Mandala on the election day echoed this concern, by criticizing the ignorance of Jakarta’s neoliberal urban redevelopment and infrastructural improvement in the name of diversity as “elite pluralism”, through which “pluralism” may serve to undermine social inequality. What is alarming, amidst the spreading fear of religious intolerance and fundamentalism, is the invisibility of the poor.

“I thought you were different” (Gue Kira Loe Beda), residents’ expression in Bukit Duri, in reference to Jokowi-Ahok’s gubernatorial campaign promise in 2012 to not evict them. (Source: Ciliwung Merdeka, 27 September 2016, the night before eviction)

Without seriously addressing social inequality on the ground, calls for pluralism would serve to make the poor more invisible. Addressing inequality also means more than distribution of cash and cards; rather, it is an acknowledgement that the poor exist in Jakarta and that the poor should have access to urban development decisions.

Any comments on the election, urban development in Jakarta, or questions for Rita? Please post in the comments below or email her.

CALL FOR PAPERS | Climate Disaster Governance

CALL FOR PAPERS DEADLINE: 15 MAY 2017

This conference is organized by Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore; with support from Singapore Ministry of Education Tier 2 Grant – Governing Compound Disasters in Urbanizing Asia.

In Anthropocene Asia-Pacific, climate change is driving changes to the nature and scale of environmental disasters (especially floods, droughts and heatwaves) that combine and interact with processes of planetary urbanization. Taken together, these converging forces pose fundamental questions about human settlement and the health of our planet. The effects of climate change are already well known. The year 2016 saw the highest temperatures for a third consecutive year since 1880. Global sea ice is at its lowest level since satellite monitoring began in the 1970s, and recent research suggests that predicted sea-level rises will be higher than previously estimated. The Himalayan glaciers that provide water for most of the great rivers of continental Asia are drastically retreating. Crop zones are shifting, destabilising food production and livelihoods; and areas of prolonged droughts and water shortages are expanding.  Current predictions strongly suggest that the situation is worsening rapidly. The continued melting of polar glaciers and rising sea levels will result in the complete inundation of many islands and large lowland coastal regions, for example. This will affect hundreds of millions in population. The projected loss will also produce compound disasters across continental Asia with devastating impacts on livelihoods and health.

As the basic facets of human life, including livelihoods, food security, urban infrastructure, and health are more frequently and deeply impacted by climate change, disaster risk governance will face increasingly tough, interconnected, multi-dimensional challenges. One is the merging of conflict disasters with environmental disasters over, for example, water and food.  Populations facing disasters of these kinds will increasingly migrate across national borders as home regions become unliveable through combinations of loss of basic life supporting resources and conflict over them. With refugee flows across borders expected to exponentially increase with the intensifying impacts of climate change, national governments will also increasingly default to migrant receiving cities to cope with climate change refugees. This puts pressure on existing resources, worsens urban tensions and puts stress on infrastructure. The increasingly joined-up nature of climate change related disasters demand joined up responses as a matter of urgency. Solutions need to run across the board and take account of connectivities in cause, impact, and experience.

The rapidly changing contexts for research and action suggested by the trends noted above provide the basis for building a research agenda specific to climate change-induced disaster governance in the Anthropocene and the necessity of learning from the past as well as from the present in thinking about cultural adaption and strategies for coping with climate change in the coming years.

We invite papers on the following themes, as they connect with hydrometeorological/climatological disaster:

  • Climate-related population mobilities
  • Urban ecosystems
  • Water and food
  • Governing climate and social conflict
  • Health
  • Cultures of adaption: past and present

SUBMISSION OF PROPOSALS

Paper proposals should include a title, an abstract (250 words maximum) and a brief personal biography of 150 words for submission by 15 May 2017. Please submit your proposal, using the provided proposal template to Ms Tay Minghua at minghua.tay@nus.edu.sg. Successful applicants will be notified by 15 June 2017 and will be required to send in a draft paper by 1 September 2017.
CONTACT DETAILS

Conference Convenors

Dr Fiona Williamson
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
E | ariwfc@nus.edu.sg

Dr Michelle Miller
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
E | arimam@nus.edu.sg

Prof Michael Douglass
Asia Research Institute, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore
E | arimike@nus.edu.sg

Planetary Urbanisation at the Crossroads

On the 6th of April, Prof Mike Douglass gave a presentation at the Department of Human Geography and Demography at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia. Following this, he traveled to Charles University in Prague for another talk on April 11th.

Poster for Prof Douglass’ Lecture and Discussion at Comenius University, Department of Geography and Demography

Prof Douglass’ presentation at Comenius built on his earlier work on alternative futures of city life in East Asia, which is an increasingly pertinent topic in the face of rapidly intensifying urbanization processes. This work positions developing cities as having two primary choices, one of ‘Globopolis’, which is characterized by new towns, gated communities, mega-malls, skyscrapers and business parks; or on the other hand, ‘Cosmopolis’ refers to cities where, “inhabitants can assert their differences and negotiate them in a productive and affirmative manner” (Douglass, 2009). Douglass argues that in achieving the latter vision of urban futures, the governance interventions of civil society is crucial. His talk at Comenius thus reasserts the importance of the democratization and progressive, grassroots movements in cities in an age of ‘planetary urbanization’, in which proponents (provocatively) argue that the whole world is now being impacted by urbanization processes. The seminar also included a discussion aimed at pinpointing the origins and potential of progressive cities, with reference to various case studies.

Prof Douglass’ lecture at Charles University

Prof Douglass’ presentation at Charles University, titled: ‘Progressive Cities: Inclusion, Distributive Justice, Conviviality, and Environmental Well-being in Asia‘ served as an overview of key urban challenges, and the threats that they pose to the issues in the talk’s title. Like his talk in Bratislava, Douglass started with reviewing the concepts of planetary urbanization and ‘the Asian Century’, and how these relate to the concepts of globopolis and cosmopolis. He then went on to discuss issues related to urban form, including the proliferation of ‘supertall buildings’ and observation wheels as a means to plug cities into global circuits of capital investment, and the associated implications for public space. Building from this, Douglass discussed the development of private urban enclaves, which are often, problematically, branded as ‘eco-cities’. This subject in particular has received considerable criticism from urban scholars in recent years, such as UK-based scholars Federico Caprotti and Federico Cugurullo; as well as NUS’ own Harvey Neo, C.P. Pow and former graduate student Rachel Bok. Douglass then reviewed the threats posed by climate change, and the ways in which large cities are increasingly vulnerable. Finally, he considered civil society initiatives which have sought to provide urban communities with some measure of resilience from these various threats.

Any questions or comments on the above? Please comment below, or contact us, and also stay tuned for upcoming activities of Asian Urbanism Cluster Colleagues.

A ‘Model State’ for Malaysia?

On the 6th of April, I gave a talk at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) Cities Cluster, titled A ‘model state for Malaysia’? Competing visions of redevelopment in a UNESCO World Heritage City. This presentation critically examined controversies over the extensive urban redevelopment and regeneration projects that have emerged in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Penang, Malaysia, since 2012. In particular, I focused on the ambitious Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) (mentioned in a previous post), which has posed numerous threats to the city’s cultural and natural heritage, as well as questions about the future socio-economic and environmental sustainability of the island.

Poster for my presentation at the NUS FASS Cities Cluster

The paper particularly focused on the competing visions of Penang’s future, which have been identified by various stakeholders, from the State Government, to developers and civil society members. Given that the Penang Forum, which is a ‘loose coalition’ of NGOs in Penang, has been the primary civil society voice involved in these disputes, the question was raised (from the audience) as to what extent Penang’s ‘civil society’ is really one cohesive group, with a collective vision for the city’s future. This question was put to the test on a subsequent field visit to Penang (immediately following the seminar) to attend the 7th Penang Forum, which was a public forum to discuss the future of Penang’s off-shore island of Pulau Jerejak. The event had a surprisingly high turnout and filled the venue at the Penang Institute. The forum was led by speakers from the Penang Forum and Penang Heritage Trust who shared insights on the island’s natural and cultural heritage significance, followed by the development of some recommendations to forward to the State Government regarding its conservation. This was an open process, and most audience members seemed to share the general consensus that the island should be largely conserved and saved from development (summary).

This event did offer more insights as to how civil society organizations in Penang are actively involved in both resisting and actively co-producing new developments to (re)shape the city in both sustainable and culturally distinctive ways. However, as noted in the talk, Penang does have limited local engagement and interest in cultural and natural heritage conservation, which is a significant challenge for local resilience to the socio-environmental harms posed by intensifying development on the island. Any insights, thoughts, or questions on this problematic? Please comment below.

 

 

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