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
7th February 2018
‘Government Policies and Community Actions for Regenerating Inner City Taipei’ Asso. Prof. Huang Liling, National Taiwan University
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
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 tonglau (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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
8th November 2017
‘Working with the “Grassroots” for Built Heritage Conservation’ Mr. Kelvin Ang, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore
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!
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Water and food
Governing climate and social conflict
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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
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’ 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.
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.
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.
On the 5th of April, Dr. Rita Padawangi gave a presentation in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, NUS, discussing her research on ‘Urban Heritage in Jakarta’s Riverine Communities’.
Riverine communities of Southeast Asia have often been the foci of urban transformation or ‘revitalisation’ projects, which have sought to ‘clean up’ such communities to make them more amenable to capital accumulation, largely as sites of consumption for upper middle class members of society and foreign tourists/visitors. Examples include the Malacca River in Malaysia, which was redeveloped to attract tourists visiting the UNESCO World Heritage City (see Bunnell 1999; Cartier, 1998); or the Singapore River, which is now host to numerous bars and restaurants in the lively Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay Districts (see Chang et al, 2004). Such projects involve the removal and forced relocation of local residents and dwellings, thus replacing the vernacular (in)tangible heritage of the area with a reconstructed heritage landscape. As Dr. Padawangi noted in her presentation, rhetorics of health and disease are often used as official justification for the clearing of these areas (see Connolly et al, 2017).
In Dr. Padawangi’s talk, she used data from ethnographic interviews, field observations and discussions with residents of Jakarta’s riverine communities to examine how meanings of local places relate with the perceived historical significance and impacts of urban development in the affected areas. She contrasted this with official heritage discourse in the city which has long valorized the colonial heritage of the area, which is seen as more attractive to foreign tourists. Dr. Padawangi thus questioned the logic of replacing rather than preserving vernacular riverine communities in heritage and tourist development.
Dr. Padawangi has been Senior Research Fellow in the Asian Urbanisms Cluster for the past four years, but will sadly be leaving us for greener pastures at the Singapore University of Social Sciences this July. She will also be organizing a symposium at Airlangga University in Surabaya, Indonesia, December 11-12th, 2017, titled: ‘River Cities: Water Space in Urban Development and History‘. If you are interested in this topic, please consider submitting a paper proposal. The deadline for abstracts is 1 May 2017.
While there have been some previous writings setting out a political ecology framework for the study of health and disease (e.g. King, 2010), we bring a particular approach to the sub-field, namely, the role of perceptions and discourse. We emphasize the role of health perceptions, in particular, as a way of exploring how people’s experiences of the local environment often differ from dominant discourses related to un/healthy environments, and the effects stemming from this disjuncture.
More recently, scholars have suggested more specific avenues through which the sub-field can be further developed and focused. For example, Jackson and Neely have argued for the incorporation of marxist-feminist, STS, and more-than-human approaches to the political ecology of health and disease (PEHD). Similarly, our special section also sets out three additional avenues which we think may be of use for future empirical studies in this area. These are the themes of environmental justice, place and landscape, and the political economy of disease. These theme emerged from the empirical contributions making up our special issue, and also relate to central themes in political ecology.
The concept of environmental justice, in particular seeks to expose the way that marginal populations, minorities, and the poor are more vulnerable to environmental and health hazards. This is aptly demonstrated in Kotsila’s article on ‘health dispossessions’ in the Mekong region of Vietnam, which shows how state discourse follows neoliberal approaches in individualizing health responsibilities and moralizing disease. As shown by Iengo and Armerio’s article on ‘the politicisation of ill bodies’ in Campania, Italy, the most affected by the disease are also (often) seen as the least credible in generating knowledge about environmental justice disputes, thus forcing such individuals to mobilize particular forms of embodied resistance. For this reason, Marcelo Porto and colleagues mobilise a political epistemological approach to the political ecology of disease, which recognizes that the way knowledge is produced (epistemology) plays a fundamental role in generating and confronting environmental justice disputes. They also develop the concept of ‘health as dignity’ to highlight the capacity of affected communities and their democratic alliances in addressing environmental conflicts. Relatedly, the article by Giacomo D’Alisa and colleagues on ‘the Land of Fires’ in Southern Italy, illustrates the importance of using a PEHD approach to studying environmental conflicts, firstly to highlight the role of victims of environmental disasters in fighting environmental crimes, and second, to challenge the ‘slow violence’ of toxic crimes.
The themes of place and landscape are central to the discipline of cultural geography, and have also been adopted in political ecology studies (see, e.g. Connolly, 2017). Two of the articles in this section use landscape as a form of inquiry for addressing political ecologies of disease. First is Jeff Rose’s insightful study of a group of ‘hillside residents’ in an American municipal park, which considers the role of material and discursive cleanliness as an agent of health in the construction of ‘sanitary’ urban environments. Second is Creighton Connolly’s study on the farming of edible birds’ nests in Penang, Malaysia, which demonstrates the dialectical relationship between landscape and discourse in producing political ecologies of disease. Together, these articles further demonstrate how the landscape concept can be utilized in seeing disease as not only determined through biophysical factors, but also constructed out of a particular set of social relations and lived experiences mediated through the landscape.
Finally, and relatedly, all of the articles in our special issue refer to the political economy of health and disease as a set of material and discursive practices that influence the incidence of disease, or are otherwise involved in the production of (un)healthy landscapes. Such an analysis recognises that health is structured by political and economic systems that influence the transmission of disease and the ability – or willingness – of health care agencies to effectively respond (see, e.g. Houston and Ruming, 2014). Through these foci, the empirical investigations provided in this special issue thus further rectify the gap between the material and the discursive, highlighting how the politics of health is shaped through the confluence of power relations, specific discourses and practices of communication in particular sites.
If you have any comments on the special issue, please leave them below, and we’ll get back to you. Alternatively, you can send an email to Creighton Connolly or Panagiota Kotsila. Thank you for reading!
The global climate change, accelerated by anthropogenic interventions into the natural environment, has led to warmer temperatures, rising sea levels and an increased frequency of extreme weather events such as heat waves, extreme precipitation, harsh droughts, destructive storms and severe floods. Together, all these conditions contribute to the loss of livelihoods resulting from either slow or rapid onset disasters. Some estimates predict that over the next 40 years global climate change will compel up to 200 million people to migrate. According to the Asian Development Bank, approximately 37 million people in India, 22 million in China, and 21 million in Indonesia will be at risk of displacement from rising sea levels by 2050. Extreme weather conditions affect rural dwellers and farmers disproportionately more than urban and middle-class citizens.
Currently, the majority of environmental refugees are displaced internally, with cities being within home countries their primary destination. A study published in Climatic Change on the 20 most populous cities expected to be exposed to coastal flooding by 2070, placed Dhaka third, behind Mumbai and Calcutta. Also in the top 10 are Guangzhou, Ho Chi Min City, Shanghai, Bangkok and Yangon. Miami is the only city in the top 10 that is located outside of Asia. Asia’s urbanisation and the expansion of Asian megacities are trends accelerated by the influx of environmental refugees. As these trends continue, refugee movements are expected to increasingly witness the migration of people across national borders due to the extreme impacts of such massively impacting trends related to global climate change. In Asia, this will include not only sea rise but also the melting of the Himalaya-Tibetan glaciers that are the sources of the majority of riparian systems in continental Asia.
The term “environmental refugee” was first coined by Lester Brown in 1976, who was attempting to amalgamate similar concepts floating around at the time. “Environmental migrant”, “climate change migrant” or “environmentally displaced person” are similar terms with one commonality: they all define an individual who is displaced due to extreme changes in environmental conditions that reach a point at which continuing to dwell in a locality is no longer viable. To-date, climate refugees are not officially recognised or protected under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which was adopted before human-driven climate change became its own global crisis, and entered the global consciousness. The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants recognizes that climate change is becoming a driver for people to leave their homes. Still, the rules are written for those escaping war zones or persecution, not creeping desertification or weather disasters. While the 1951 Convention remains the key legal document defining who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of governments, the world has changed dramatically over the past 60 years. No binding global agreements contain provisions for them, despite the first assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990 suggesting that “the gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration” (IPCC, 1990: 20).
The legal gap in the protection of environmental and climate change refugees poses a challenge to the nations such as Tuvalu, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands and the Maldives, which are likely to lose significant part of their land over the next 50 years. As the number of environmental and climate change refugees will reach up to 200 million in the next 40 years, climate change will become the leading cause of displacement. Unless the international community addresses the glaring absence of the legal protection and support of environmental refugees, cross-border violence, human trafficking and humanitarian crises, as seen by the example of Bangladeshi climate refugees to the Assam region of India, are likely to prevail.
The intersection of environmental degradation and rapid urbanisation is most evident in the case of Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. One quarter of Bangladesh and its 700 kilometres of low-lying coasts will be inundated by the end of the century. Sea rise will wipe out more cultivated land in Bangladesh than anywhere else in the world. Saltwater intrusion into low-lying coastal and rural areas has increased the saline content of groundwater, damaging fresh water supplies for human consumption and destroying the rice fields. By 2050, rice production is expected to drop by 10% and wheat production by 30%. In Bangladesh, the issues are magnified by the density of the population. The best current estimates state that rising sea levels alone will displace 18 million Bangladeshis within the next 40 years.
Dhaka is the fastest-growing megacity in the world. At least 400,000 people move to Dhaka every year, with 70% of Dhaka’s slum-dwellers having moved there fleeing environmental disruption. Most of the displaced Bangladeshis are from the Rangpur, Dinajpur and Gainbanda region basin area, where frequent floods and saline groundwater has destroyed the farmers’ livelihoods. Within two decades, the city’s population could double to 30 million. Supporting more than 14 million people on less than 325 km2 of land, the city’s drainage, waste management and transportation infrastructure is on the brink of collapse. The unsustainable levels of climate-induced displacement and migration causes a water supply-demand gap of 500m litres a day. It is estimated that currently 3.4 million people suffer from the scarcity of basic facilities like housing, healthcare, electricity and clean water. This number continues to increase exponentially.
Bangladesh contributes just 0.4 tonnes per capita to the carbon emissions (the US produces 17 and the UK 7.1), but the country, with Dhaka in particular, are suffering the hardest hit from environmental degradation caused by anthropogenic disruptions. Unsurprisingly, questions of environmental justice emerge, as the most polluting countries ought to share the burden. As discussed earlier, no international provision exists to protect environmental refugees. India, sharing more than 4,000km-long border with Bangladesh, is constructing a 3,400km of barbed wire fence. This makes the migration into India’s Assam dangerous and causes proliferation in human trafficking and smuggling of refugees escaping their lost livelihoods. In general, countries in South and East Asia have a bleak record of accepting refugees. Considering that the majority of environmental refugees in the next 40 years will come from countries in Asia, there is a danger of future socio-political contestation over migration policies in Asian countries.
The dynamics of environmental migration in Bangladesh foreshadow wider trends in Asia. Unsustainable urbanisation, proliferation of poverty and slum dwellers, depletion of vital resources, cross-border conflicts and ethnic violence will be the major challenges in the coming decades. Often, the nation-state apparatus proves ill-equipped to alleviate traumas caused by climate change migration. Increasingly, non-state actors, such as INGOs, MNCs and transnational diaspora communities appear to substitute the traditional role of a nation state in tackling humanitarian crises. The intertwinement of these megatrends is set to shape the face of migration politics and disaster governance in the Asia and the Pacific.
Brown, L., Mcgrath, P., and Stokes, B., 1976. Twenty Two Dimensions of the Population Problem. Washington DC: Worldwatch Institute.
Hanson, S., et al, 2011. A global ranking of port cities with high exposure to climate extremes. Climatic Change , 104, 89-111.
IPCC, 1990. Policymakers’ summary of the potential impacts of climate change. Report from Working Group II to IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Commonwealth of Australia.
Poppy McPherson (in The Guardian), 2015. Dhaka: the city where climate refugees are already a reality. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/dec/01/dhaka-city-climate-refugees-reality. [Accessed 2 December 2016].
The New Urban Agenda was recently adopted at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in Quito, Equador on 20 October 2016. This goal recognizes that we cannot address global socio-environmental problems without also addressing urbanization processes, as urban scholars have been arguing for quite some time now. One of the development goals for this agenda is the broad objective to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. This has been a central point of focus by local governments and universities around the world, including in my own research site of Penang, Malaysia, as captured in the below photograph:
Resilience, in particular, has been a key buzzword amongst academics, policy makers, and journalists in recent years (example), and is the topic of an upcoming conference organized by the Asian Urbanisms Cluster at ARI entitled: “Resilient Cities for Human Flourishing: Governing the Asia-Pacific Urban Transition in the Anthropocene“, taking place at NUS in March, 2017. This conference intends ” to explore innovations in governance aimed at building urban resilience to various forms of environmental harm while protecting human flourishing through the creation of civic cultures centered on more sustainable forms of resource consumption”. To date, much of the focus on building sustainable cities in the popular media and in planning discourse has focused on techno-managerial solutions and pursuing ‘ideal’ sustainability indicators. The New Urban Agenda put forth at Habitat III is no different. Yet, as a new paper by Maria Kaika in Environment and Urbanization has convincingly argued, these pursuits do not work, and actually exacerbate (rather than reduce) socio-environmental ills through the deepening of inequalities between places and social groups. For this reason, our upcoming conference intends to spark a shift in thinking about what human flourishing means away from narrow economic indicators centered on consumptive patterns, and towards wider conceptions of flourishing and linked notions of human well-being that encompass our interdependencies on non-human species and wider city-environment relationships.
We thus encourage participants to propose new forms of urban environmental governance which can move beyond a mere focus on resilience, which, as Kaika demonstrates, has been criticized for “vaccinating citizens and environments so that they can take larger doses of inequality and degradation in the future”. Thus, instead of directing policies, research and resources into the pursuit of resilient city models, we should instead seek to fix the things that create the need for community resilience in the first place. One key goal for our conference should thus be to re-frame the concept of resilience into one that is community based and driven from the ground up, rather than something imposed on communities by their leaders.
Additionally, Kaika argues that the New Urban Agenda’s focus on ‘inclusion’ in the creation of sustainable cities is also problematic. For instance, an article in the Guardian noted that “one of the Habitat III billboards around the site’s perimeter stated, ‘INCLUSIVE CITIES'”, but that the impact of this sign was ironically reduced by the fact it was attached to a wire security fence around the venue’s perimeter. The same article interviewed a local community activist (excluded from the Habitat III conference), who argued that “the municipality invests a lot of money in projects, but there is no integrated plan to make things work for the majority of people here”. The sign thus seemed at best a reminder to participants, or at worst a mere façade, raising the question of inclusive cities for whom?
Moreover, as Kaika further argued, even when communities are included in urban governance, ‘inclusion’ often does not change underlying power relations or development practices that have often only exacerbated environmental injustices. For example, civil society groups and members of the public in Penang are often ‘included’ in the government’s (re)development plans, but only after key decisions have already been decided upon (and developers’ contracts signed). Therefore, rather than being merely ‘included’ in predefined urban policies put forth by elites, communities affected by environmental injustices should play a central role in setting development goals and allocating resources. This is a particularly urgent goal in the rapidly urbanizing and developing regions of Asia-Pacific, which will need to play a central role in ensuring our planet’s future social and ecological well-being.
Maria Kaika (2017) “Don’t Call Me Resilient Again!”: The New Urban Agenda as Immunology…or what happens when communities refuse to be vaccinated with ‘smart cities’ and indicators. Environment and Urbanization DOI: 10.117/0956247816684763