All posts by aritmp

Decentralized Disaster Governance: A Case for Hope from Mount Merapi in Indonesia?

by Dr. Michelle Ann Miller

In recent years, large eruptions from Indonesia’s most active stratovolcano, Mount Merapi (Gunung Merapi; Fire Mountain) on the island of Java, have led to realignments in rural-urban migration flows and shifts in the livelihoods and aspirations of thousands of affected residents. Living with threat and vulnerability is not new to the communities that call the slopes of Mount Merapi home. The volcano, situated in one of the most densely populated and well-connected parts of Indonesia, has erupted more than 70 times since 1548, on average every 8 to 15 years (Mei and Lavigne, 2013, p.172). Over the centuries, Merapi residents have acquired local knowledge to manage this uncertainty, underpinned by a spiritual understanding of the volcano’s reciprocal nature as a destroyer and renewer of life.

This traditional knowledge system has been both unsettled and reinforced by fundamental changes to Indonesia’s governance framework. The initiation of a nationwide democratic decentralization program in 2001 devolved key areas of central state authority and resources to the sub-national scale. Decentralization, or ‘otonomi daerah/ regional autonomy’ as it is called in Indonesia, empowered sub-national administrations in ways that encouraged competition between local governments while making inter-jurisdictional cooperation more difficult in times of disaster. The Merapi area is administratively divided into two provinces (the Special Region of Yogyakarta and Central Java) and five sub-provincial jurisdictions (the city of Yogyakarta, Sleman, Gunungkidul, Kulonprogo and Bantul) that are collectively home to more than 33.8 million people. Alongside these strengthened local governments, line ministries and a centrally coordinated disaster management agency have retained considerable if sometimes ambiguous and overlapping authority at the sub-national scale in the event of disaster.

Violent Merapi eruptions in 2006 and 2010 have highlighted the complexities of this convergence of centralised and decentralized governmental authority. Some 11,000 people were made homeless by a significant eruption shortly before the devastating tectonic earthquake of May 2006 in Yogyakarta. Then in November 2010, the biggest eruption since the 1870s killed 302 people and displaced around 148,000 as lava buried or burned almost 3,000 homes in six villages (Mahdi 2011; p.16).

On the one hand, unresolved tensions and intersections between centralized and decentralized governmental authorities have compromised the efficacy of disaster response and recovery programs in the Merapi area. Poor coordination between the provincial administrations of Yogyakarta and Central Java over centrally-allocated disaster funds and logistical resources has impeded long-term recovery processes and exacerbated inter-jurisdictional competition (Triyana 2013; p.117). For instance, when I drove to Mount Merapi in November 2013, the evacuation road on the mountain in the Special Province of Yogyakarta was mired in potholes and impassable 5 kilometres below the volcano’s summit crater. By contrast, the connecting road leading into Central Java was smoothly paved and well maintained from the beginning of the administrative border. The central government, too, seemed confused over how best to position itself in relation to local dynamics by pledging, for example, compensation schemes for Merapi residents without consulting local stakeholders first to find out what they needed (Sulistiyanto 2014, p.127). Among local and central government authorities alike, personalised power relations and networks of patronage confounded rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts as the Merapi disaster was used by opportunists at all levels of government for political gain.

Michelle with children who live on Mount Merapi
Michelle with children who live on Mount Merapi

On the other hand, Indonesia’s democratic decentralization process has empowered non-governmental organisations and civil society actors to mobilise in innovative new ways in disaster preparedness, response and recovery programs. Decentralization has also paved the way for interactive learning possibilities between state and civil society actors in developing more inclusive disaster governance agendas in urban and rural contexts. For example, in and around the city of Yogyakarta a form of ‘disaster theatre’ has proliferated through ‘disaster mitigation simulations’ (simulasi mitigasi bencana) that combine state resources and expertise with local knowledge and active civil society participation. Incentivised by the chance to borrow the city’s emergency vehicles such as ambulances and fire trucks, as well as two-way radios, neighbourhood residents can collectively simulate a disaster event (for example, by lighting a bonfire on non-residential land) and practise relocating to a given evacuation site. These disaster simulations have a carnival atmosphere about them as children and adults dress in fake blood and bandages and vie to ride in emergency vehicles to the evacuation site, where a feast is shared by community residents and local state officials.

Disaster Simulation in Yogyakarta
Disaster Simulation in Yogyakarta
Disaster simulation evacuation site
Disaster simulation evacuation site
Disaster simulation_evacuation route
Disaster simulation_evacuation route

Importantly, democratic decentralization has pressured local governments in the Merapi area to become increasingly responsive to the voices of disaffected residents. After the 2010 eruption, more than 4,000 people chose to return to their rural homes in designated danger zones on the slopes of Merapi rather than participate in the government’s mandatory permanent resettlement program in nearby towns. Deprived for extended periods of basic state services such as electricity, running water and even a teacher for their school, these residents felt neglected and “like criminals”. Through a combination of media and NGO pressure as well as their own strategies of resilience and social protest, however, the Merapi residents have eventually forced a softening in local government attitudes toward them. While local government authorities are by no means uniformly supportive of these Merapi residents who stayed on the mountain, decentralization has allowed a certain flexibility to enter into state approaches to disaster governance that could translate over time into the development of more responsive policy choices.

This raises questions, then, about the extent to which democratic decentralization can facilitate greater mutual learning opportunities between official discourses and local knowledge. Can the gap be bridged between the state’s emphasis on the moment of the hazard of the volcanic eruption and community-based approaches that rely more on the longer periods in between eruptions? And, will decentralized disaster governance fundamentally realign the ways in which urban and rural residents prepare for, respond to and recover from Merapi eruptions? These are questions I hope to find answers to as I continue research in this vulnerable and incredibly resilient part of Asia.


Disaster simulation coordinators
Disaster simulation coordinators
Self-appointed 'disaster thief' in disaster simulation exercise
Self-appointed ‘disaster thief’ in disaster simulation exercise


Mahdi, Paramita (2011). Huntara Merapi. Disaster Temporary Housing. Efforts on Post-Disaster Temporary Settlements (Yogyakarta: Housing Resource Center, July).

Mei, Estuning Tyas Wulan and Lavigne, Franck (2012). ‘Influence of the institutional and socio-economic context for responding to disasters: case study of the 1994 and 2006 eruptions of the Merapi volcano, Indonesia’, Geological Society, London, Special Publications, vol.361, pp.171-86.

Miller, Michelle Ann (2013). “Decentralizing Indonesian City Spaces as New ‘Centers’”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 37(3), pp.834-848.

Sulistiyanto, Priyambudi (2014). ‘The politics of the Mount Merapi eruption in Central Java, Indonesia’ in Minako Sakai, Edwin Jurriëns, Jian Zhang and Alec Thornton, eds. Disaster Relief in the Asia Pacific: Agency and Resilience (Abingdon and New York: Routledge), pp.119-131.

Triyana, Heribertus Jaka (2013). ‘The implementation of natural disaster management program in Indonesia between 2007 and 2013’, Mimbar Hukum, 25(1), pp.102-122.




Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema: Projection, Perception & Public Space

by Ms. Yaminay Chaudhri, Artist & Founder ‘Tentative Collective’ and Dr. Nausheen H. Anwar, Research Fellow, Asian Urbanisms, ARI

Since February 2013, using a rickshaw powered projector Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema has been projecting cell phone videos in the neighborhoods in which they are made. These are different neighborhoods located across Karachi’s Central, South and Malir Districts. With an estimated population of 21 million, Karachi is a melting pot of diasporas and multiple ethnicities and one of Asia’s fastest growing cities. Produced in response to the prompt “Home: What did you do last Sunday?” the videos provide snapshots into life in the city. The video projection events transform expectations of everyday private and public space, and create new zones for collectivity and conviviality. This work has traveled to various residential neighborhoods and most recently in and around the old railway or Cantt Station that was built during British colonial rule. Multiple visits to each place generate new insights into the ephemeral identities of the various actors and the subjective spaces they inhabit. We are interested in creating a means by which individuals can wrest this city’s narratives from the homogenizing gaze of mass media, destabilizing stereotypes and unpacking assumptions along the way.

Our exploration is complicated by the gendered nature of public space, by the parameters of permeability and penetrability, and by the amplification of desire in the presence of vernacular mobile technology. By responding to the above and more, we wonder if this journey might lead to alternative perceptions of the city; revelations about invisible public space; and new ways of examining the power dynamics between seeing and showing. We take a cue from the philosopher John Dewey (Art as Experience, 1934):

“Experience occurs continuously, because the interaction of live creature and environing conditions is involved in the very process of living. Under conditions of resistance and conflict, aspects and elements of the self and the world that are implicated in this interaction qualify experience with emotions and ideas so that conscious intent emerges. Oftentimes, however, the experience had is inchoate. Things are experienced but not in such a way that they are composed into an experience. There is distraction and dispersion; what we observe and what we think, what we desire and what we get, are at odds with each other. We put our hands to the plow and turn back; we start and then we stop, not because the experience has reached the end for the sake of which it was initiated but because of extraneous interruptions or of inner lethargy.”

With this introduction by John Dewey, let us enter the experience of two screenings: First one held in Ali Akbar Shah Goth, a low-income settlement situated near Karachi’s shoreline and comprising Bengali and Burmese-Rohingya migrants whose livelihood is tied to the export-oriented fishing industry; Second one held in an upscale locale known as the Defence Housing Society where the videos were projected at a popular café, the T2F. Our navigations in Ali Akbar Shah goth were facilitated by Zebunissah, a muhajir migrant and long-time resident of this neighborhood. She has joined our project as a community leader.

Screening #1.

Our rickshaw puttered and sped off from a suburb by the sea,
equipped with machines,
and us in the back.
It was bright still.
We cruised through the broad, paved boulevard.
February sea breeze,
open views, exhilaration.
Turned towards in-coming traffic to get onto the Korangi Creek flyover.
swarms of motorcycles, vans and buses
at the Korangi Crossing.
Stabilized vibrating cameras, made them discreet.
Passed a zoo, kites images of Altaf Hussain in his forties.
We turned right, after a cricket ground.
The road ended in a ditch.
Followed traffic wrong way.
Pressed on the railings.
Put down the cameras.
Took another right onto the narrow street which goes to the Fish Market.
Slowed down just before the big cricket ground.
Landed in front of a small empty
plot marked by mobile phone shops,
trash heap,
and an empty flag post with a concrete base.
Surrounded by eyes now.
dead fish.
Burning plastic.
I held my breath.
We stopped.

Zeb was waiting for us near the flag post in her burqa. She climbed on. We asked her for permission to film, we usually leave the DSLR cameras at home. Zeb grabbed the camera to shoot for a while.

The gali gets narrower.
A crowd started appearing.
No confusion.
Just a buzz. We were led towards the selected wall.
The ground of the gali was soft and bumpy,
raised where it met the boundary of each
house that defined it’s edges.
The boundaries were concrete
punctured by doors and windows
separating spaces of intimate activities from the gali.
Our purple lights seeped into interiors through
crevices in the facade. Eyes peered back at us.
The boundary became chaotic, permeable,
and blurred.

As the rickshaw docked in the Thekedar’s gali, we noticed that the whole vehicle was tilted to one side.

The crevices in ­the gali delivered bodies, pick axes, a shovel and within seconds men began to level a patch of ground so we could flatten. The projector was pulled out.

A frenzy of wiring and connections
facilitated by a hundred eyes. Light.
Light hit the surface of the concrete-
the boundary-
the wall-
the exterior-
one edge of the gali.
And created an ephemeral window of moving images of everyday life
—in an ‘everyday’ space.
We were submerged.
Recognition of faces on the wall.
Zeb’s familiar voice on the microphone.
A kid fighting.
An arm hooking his collar from above, pulling him out of
the thick jumble of bodies.
I can smell the sweat of the man standing next to me.
He is suspended with the projection.


Screening #2.

Hurried loading, nervous drive to boulevard.
June heat. Humid, still air.
Red qameez, less sweaty without burqa.
Slow left turn onto commercial street.
Naala. barb-Q chicken.
Expensive fruit.
We wait for a Hilux,
Slip into a smaller commercial gali.
Apartment blocks with balconies.
Corrugated metal facades and boundary walls with bougainvillea.
An opening. A vacant lot with three media vans and several Honda Cities.
A heated argument. Someone helped us empty the lot.
Loud music filters into the lot every time a lady gets dropped off by the entrance of the mela.
It’s air conditioned inside. We are waiting with our lights turned on.
The ground is soft and bumpy.
Wait for our cue. The crowd gathers. Cops drive by in a big mobile van. Guns hanging out.
We turn off the lights.
Lights on again. Farhad and Talha work the deck projector and laptop.
The promo rings through the neighborhood and videos begin.
Teenagers are taking pictures with the rickshaw. Someone wants a ride.

A man starts measuring our trunk and announces that he is doing something just like this- but at a bigger scale.

It sounds like people are having much more fun inside.

Zeb arrives with NoorAmeen Farooq, Poleecha and a friend. We hug. The girls are not wearing their burqas today.

They huddle around the rickshaw.
Too shy to introduce themselves to the audience.

People seem divided. Pulled apart into groups and layers by class. The ladies and mela team are close to the entrance of T2f. Our friends stand close to us. Noor Ameen refuses to leave the rickshaw. His video plays.

The fight scene seems to go on too long.
The tailors and drivers are standing together in an outer ring.
Cheering for Farooq.

Someone says, “what’s the theme? I think the videos need to be shorter, with more special effects”.

Our work is complicated by the fact that defining the ‘everyday’ is very important to analyzing the effect we have on transforming it. But how does one define the everyday?

If we do it quantitatively we run the risk of oversimplifying our subjects. Defining it qualitatively varies from narrator to narrator and gali to gali, and runs the risk of exoticising the experience. Hence as unwilling representatives, we cannot simply list a series of actions and personal observations (as above) but must also include the tricky description of the collective experience. How do we do that? Can we claim authority when we say that a convivial sensory experience was felt so strongly that it was

transformative to the group

All we can do by writing and speaking here is to recreate a projection for you- an audience many times removed

Using our bias, you will construct your own opinion of what we are doing based on this presentation of

and minutia.

In fact, the more obscure our description of what we are doing the better. Because any attempt at description takes away the blur and multiplicity of the projected experience—and the ambiguity of its perceptions.

This project was made possible by numerous donations from individuals, and organizations including a grant from the Asia Research Institute, National University Singapore.

Proposal for an Urban Forum – Progressive Cities in Asia, Part 2

by Mike Douglass

Urban fora are being organized in many world regions, but none yet exists that places the idea of progressive cities on the agenda.  Most remain framed in developmentalist constructs that focus on material and economic benefits.   They also divide concepts into sectors or functions rather than the quality of the human experience in multidimensional ways.  The proposal here is to shift the frame to participatory governance of cities that includes associational life, public spaces, grassroots economies, and neighborhood environments as well as social justice and equality in access to the public domain.  The accent is on mobilizations and engagements of city residents in governance.  It is not simply to record how cities are making progress but rather how cities are constituted as progressive forms of governance.

A series of workshops can be held to begin to create a roster of prospective cities to be represented at the forum.  These would involve development of concepts, components and indicators of progressive cities.  They would also entail networking among cities that would build toward a larger forum.

The forum would have three principal purposes:

1.   First, it would shift the discourses on urban development in Asia from the prevailing ones that focus on quantifiable indicators of outcomes to a discourse about the processes of engagement in governance and its dynamically changing qualitative as well as quantifiable outcomes.  Whether under liveable cities, millennial development goals or other banners, current assessments of the progress of cities are done from armchairs by experts who often have no experience in living in cities being measured.  This forum would directly engage multiple actors, including civil society organizations and local governments as well as academic institutions and business interests, in its deliberations on how governance can become more progressive in both process and outcomes.

2.   Second, it would focus attention on the production of urban spaces by and with residents from lanes and neighborhoods to municipal and city region scales.  Without attention to the quality and meanings of urban spaces as seen by ordinary people, understandings of the relationships between human flourishing and the city are lost or obfuscated by sector studies that miss or remain silent on the loss of neighborhoods, heritage, public spaces, place-making capacities and identities of people with their cities.  The forum would bring real world experiences to explicate how the city as a physical as well as social realm is produced and what are its consequences for the quality of everyday life.

3.   In raising the idea of a progressive city to an international scale, the forum would promote mutual learning processes and solidarity among cities that are endeavoring to create progressive forms of governance but are often struggling for recognition and support within their own national settings.  This could further reforms toward decentralization and participatory governance throughout Asia and beyond.  In this regard, it is intended to reveal rather than disguise the politics of city-making, and, in so doing, to make more transparent the obstacles as well as opportunities for more progressive cities to emerge.

In Search of Progressive Cities in Asia – Part 1

by Mike Douglass

In recent years the idea of progressive cities has begun to appear in various forms in Asia.  “Good governance,” “liveable cities”, the pursuit of a “harmonious” city that “recognizes tolerance, fairness, and social justice,” and the urban dimensions of the UN “Millennium Development Goals” all speak to the pursuit of urban governance as a process of translating the material and economic prospects of cities into socially valued and just outcomes.  By implicitly turning attention to government-civil society relations, these approaches also hold in common an intended corrective to the idea that economic growth through global competitiveness will create by itself cities in which people can flourish in their daily lives.

Asia’s urban transition in a global era provides a clear rationale for focusing on cities as realms of political action for improving human well-being.  Now nearing the 50 percent urban mark, by the mid-21st century every country in Asia is expected to have a majority of its population living, working and engaging in the social and political life of cities.  Moreover, globalization is linking cities across national borders to form systems of connections and flows that not only articulate the global economy but also foster transborder connections among people.   From these perspectives, cities and intercity connections are becoming the sites and networks for social, economic and political deliberations about the future of Asia and its quality of life.

With cities rising as important spheres of public decision making, the diversity of urban experiences also become more recognizable.  In every country many observers tend to identify particular cities as being more progressive than others.  The identified cities tend to focus energies on issues of inclusion and social justice, improvements in stewardship of environmental resources and city region ecologies, and a flourishing of public life, including participatory governance.  Such a convergence of views raises a central question of how these cities achieved such a reputation.  They also show that even within the same national context, cities vary in their approaches toward governance.

What are the prerequisites for a progressive city?  3 dimensions can be posited.  First, is governance capacity, which includes devolution (decentralization) of public decision making authority to the city level, autonomous sources of financing, and democratic forms of direct and indirect participation in political life.  Second, a requirement for a progressive city is the inclusion of progressive political forces in governance coalitions.  Third, an urban culture around progressive ideals must emerge to support progress politics.

Each of these criteria shows a wide range of experiences and major bottlenecks.  First, decentralization of political power remains partial in many countries.  Most of those that have substantially devolved governance systems have only had them in place for one or two decades.  Second, progressive political coalitions can be fleeting and difficult to sustain in a neoliberal era of privatization and corporate-driven public policy.  Third, with migration contributing very large shares of increases in urban populations, building a shared cultural ethos of a progressive public sphere is a continuing challenge.  Nonetheless, a number of cities in Asia have been able to combine local autonomy and participatory democracy with progressive coalitions and a supportive urban culture even with the dynamics and turbulences of urban growth and change today.

Questions for analysis and research

Given the wide variations in basic criteria for their emergence, progressive cities can be expected to form a special subset of cities that are contextually specific in their mix of governance structures that are subject to dynamics of change through time.  In some cases, progressive cities might appear for just a brief period due to extraordinary constellations of events that prove not to be extendable.  In contrast, other might gain a level of resilience to endure through long periods of time.   All of these considerations lead to six key questions for research:

1.   Can an overarching concept of a progressive city be established?

2.   What are the components and indicators of a progressive city?

3.   Can a typology of progressive cities be created to contrast and learn from different contexts and policy outcomes?

4.   How do cities become progressive? What governance processes and outcomes are involved in making a city progressive?

5.   What are the possibilities for progressive cities to endure through time?  Conversely, why do such cities fail to endure?

6.   Can a network of mutually supportive cities be created to give more prominence to the idea of progressive cities in contrast to other formulations of the purposes of urban governance?

Snaps from the Field: The Demolition of Kabuti

by Marco Garrido

In October 2009, I witnessed the demolition of Kabuti, an informal settlement in Barangay Cembo in Makati City, Metro Manila. Because Kabuti was located atop a hill overlooking the highway, it was deemed a “danger zone”—an area risky for the people residing there. The local government justified its demolition in the name of its residents’ safety. The residents themselves objected to this reasoning. For them, a place in the city—largely available in areas that are neglected or considered uninhabitable—is key to finding work and improving their lives. Being relocated to the outskirts of Metro Manila means being cut off from livelihood opportunities. Hence, relocated squatters often end up moving back to the city and settling in similarly precarious places. Recently, severe flooding in Metro Manila has been blamed on illegal settlements congesting waterways, thus the claim that squatters need to be relocated for their own good has become more important as a rationale for slum clearance. The Aquino administration is planning to relocate around 100,000 families residing along waterways in Metro Manila. The pictures below suggest that such action, however sensible from a technocratic viewpoint, should be weighed against its human cost.


The ruins of Kabuti, Barangay Cembo, Makati City, Metro Manila.


Moving out the belongings of Kabuti’s residents.


A woman collects her things from the rubble of her demolished home.




A woman in what was once her convenience store.



Heritage & modernity

by Tharuka Prematillake

The unprecedented scale and rate at which economic and cultural transformations are taking place have left people unsettled around the globe. Increased exposure to westernize ideas through media, consumer culture and/or direct contact (commonly equated as ‘globalization’) has increased questioning the nature of distinctiveness/authenticity and has triggered a reevaluation of local values. Singapore is one such example of embracing modernity and being known as “undoubtedly the most Western-oriented city in Asia” (Lim, 1998, p.22), in an attempt to drive towards the rapid economic and social progression. Although, we have successfully embraced modernity, and has become a developed, first world country from being a third world country, it makes us ponder on an intriguing question: At what cost? Some complain that in the process of modernization, we have lost our past identities and connections to places with its restoration of buildings and places to create an orderly, clean and often termed as a “boring” Singapore. Having realized this, in the recent past, the need to preserve our identity and communicate local cultures has become a priority to Singaporeans as a whole, in order to stand apart from the world and make it attractive to tourists and thereby boost our foreign investments. Hence, the need to preserve our heritage becomes imperative given that “heritage attest our identity and affirms our worth” (Lowenthal, 1998, p. 8). But palpably a number of questions arise with regards to the aforementioned thought. For instance, how and to what extent should we preserve our heritage? At what cost should we preserve? To whom should we preserve? Finding answers to these questions are onerous, yet much needed. In this short essay, I try to reflect upon a few other alternatives to embrace modernity instead of completely demolishing the living heritage or built heritage by bringing particular attention to Willim Lim’s article on Asian New Urbanisms.

Given that a place’s primary function is to “engender a sense of belonging and attachment” (Proshansky as cited in Wang, 2010, p. 4), the authenticity should not merely focus on its physical environment. But in Singapore, preserving the physical appearances of buildings to reflect its past heritage seems to have been quite successful. Kampong Glam and old shop houses in Chinatown reflect this quite impressively; but at the same time, a tourist driven New Chinatown seems to have harmed the continuity of its past traditions and local culture of its inhabitants – such as wetmarkets, night markets and street hawkers. Although, preserving past buildings helps to preserve authenticity to an extent, it does not say anything about the people who lived there or their rich cultural values – thus lacks the rich history of that place. Hence, alternative methods in preserving heritage must be considered, as part of embracing modernity while preserving our past heritage, although it could be a painful experience, both “socially disruptive and politically sensitive” (Lim, 1998, p.22) given the scarcity of land available to meet the dire housing and infrastructure needs in Singapore.

Firstly, I feel there should be more efforts to promote local people’s participatory approaches in developing and rebuilding places. So far, when Singapore is considered, I feel that these approaches have become secondary to financial considerations (a close comparison of old and present Bugis street as well as Chinatown would shed some light to this).  On the other hand, a closer look at a living heritage in Toh Payoh Central – a scared tree and a shrine surrounded in dense housing developments (YouTube video titled Leaf of Faith) would provide some insights into how people’s identity and practices seem to be strongly connected with a place they lived in for years.

Thus, in order to preserve heritage it is important to include people’s participation at early stages in decision-making processes or in hands-on actions to rebuild their own spaces, although it could be economically, emotionally and socially painstaking given that people’s needs could vary significantly. Further, as part of improving the local’s participatory approach, the government could also reconsider in employing local architects to design places, as they are more familiar with local roots. However, since mid-seventies till today, the government had given more preference to foreign architects thus dominating international-style architecture in the nation (Lim, 1998).

Secondly, Lim (1998) suggests the idea of providing subsidies including direct grants, low interest loans, low rents and tax exemptions to subsidize heritage sites and conservation buildings. If there were low rents for shop keepers in Old Chinatown in Singapore, I believe more people would have been able to continue living in the area with their local businesses and their mundane lifestyles. Unfortunately, in Singapore, providing subsidies does not seem to be a viable option given the scarcity of land and increase in population. Instead, an “adaptive re-use” (Lim, 1998, p.124) method like in Quencey Market in Boston, Fulton Market in New York, Central Market in Kuala Lumpur and Boat Quay in Singapore could be practiced more often. However, in so doing, the renovations should not begin from the scratch but should ensure that certain aspects of culture and past would remain untouched so that heritage preservation would not be compromised completely. For instance, Germany, a nation that faced great calamities due to two world wars and is now one of the most developed and modern states has adapted this method in some areas to preserve its historical places while embracing modernity. Further, the example of Lebanon County Heritage trail provides insights into preserving past historical places while building expressways. This trail interconnects with historic places and main roads and is considered to boost economic revitalization while physically and emotionally connecting with the past. In doing so, bicycle friendly trails are built for tourists to ride along while taking note of historical places and car parks are built to encourage commuters to park their cars and explore the trail on foot. More on this can be viewed in a YouTube video titled “Lebanon County Heritage Trail”. Although, careful renovation without completely demolishing/destroying the buildings/identity of properties/people may be expensive, this would ensure the long-term sustainability of the rich history and its past heritage. Nevertheless, amidst higher social expectations and rapid technological and economical developments conservation is not possible without some changes; in fact “change” is inevitable. Axiomatically, change is an integral part of planning and is crucial in Singapore where the land is scarce. Thus, to meet the demands the government will always have to allocate resources appropriately (replacing kampongs and dwelling slums with HDB flats and recreational parks, community centres) for a better Singapore for all.

In doing so, some impressive efforts have been made by the authorities in Singapore in an attempt to balance heritage and modernity. For instance, Little India seems to still connect with a past Indian identity and culture with its street names still connecting to the past remnants, temples lasting for centuries and authentic Indian businesses and shops taking its way along the streets. Similarly, churches such as the St Andrew’s Cathedral, Wesley Methodist Church have retained the most of the original facades of their past till today. Also the Chinese and Malay cultural heritage centres are another form of preserving heritage. On a final note, in embracing modernity while preserving heritage hard choices will always have to be made for greater good. And these hard choices are essential for a nation to develop and move forward in a globalized world.



1)       Lim, W. S. W. (1998). Asian new urbanism. Singapore.

2)       Lowenthal, D. (1998). Fabricating heritage, History & Memory 10(1): 5-24.

3)       Wang, S-Y. (January 2010). In search of authenticity in historic cities in transformation: the case of Pingyao China (working paper series, no. 133, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, Singapore).

Bukit Brown: A Living Heritage

by Rita Padawangi

Combining the terms ‘living heritage’ and ‘cemetery’ may sound contradictory at first. How can a burial ground be alive? Furthermore, why ‘living heritage’ and not just heritage? Heritage is most meaningful if it is lived and experienced in the society’s everyday life. Much of the heritage preservation discourse in Southeast Asia has been dominated by experts. This approach on heritage often poses contradictions between past buildings and its relevance to the current socio-economic practices.

Workshop participants pose at a banner left by Bukit Brownies

Exploration into living heritage brought a group of scholars and community partners to experience Bukit Brown in an immediate post-haze sunny afternoon of 1 July 2013. It was the first afternoon of the “Asian Urbanisms in Theory and Practice: The Future of the Vernacular City” workshop, which was organized by the Asia Research Institute in collaboration with the Faculty of Arts and Social Science Cities Cluster, the International Institute of Asian Studies at Leiden University, and the Future Cities Laboratory. Participants consisted of more than thirty Asia scholars and community partners in the Urban Knowledge Network Asia, in which the Asia Research Institute is a strategic partner. Living heritage was one of the main topics in workshop as part of the vernacular city – the city by and for the people.

The Golden Boy, a tomb guardian at Bukit Brown Cemetery

Heritage and nature activists have made Bukit Brown available. Tailored walks for specific events can also be arranged with the volunteers. The workshop participants were guided through Bukit Brown by Dr. Lai Chee Kien from the School of Design and Environment at the National University of Singapore. In this guided walk, there were explanations on tomb architectures, including the difference between Hokkien and Teochew tombs, meanings of ornaments and design styles. A day after the walk, Claire Leow from All Things Bukit Brown delivered a presentation on Bukit Brown’s historical relevance in the identities of Singaporeans today.

Instead of being neglected and forgotten after its closure, the place form communities beyond the relatives of the deceased. Inarguably, the announcement of the plan to build a dual four-lane highway through the cemetery catalysed community activists to preserve the cemetery, which is home to more than 100,000 tombs, naturally shady trees and rich wildlife. But the activities in and for Bukit Brown are beyond reactionary. They reflect the power of place in joining communities to craft, redefine, and reclaim their space.

One of the eight immortals as a tomb guardian at Bukit Brown

Visitors to Bukit Brown can spot signs and announcements that are designed, placed, and maintained by the Bukit Brown community. In-between shaded, bush-covered tombs are clean ones with joss sticks and fresh offerings, scattered hell money and burnt papers, signifying recent visits by the deceased’s relatives. Whether it is horse riding or dog walking, running or cycling, casual outdoor activities are signs of the cemetery’s meaning of space for the living.

Living heritage is the reflexivity between historical significance in the current lived experiences and identities. Rather than a romantic nostalgia that is reminiscent of a glorious past, living heritage is part of the everyday life that makes social-cultural roots in the past relevant in the present, even the future memories and practices. A cemetery can well be a living heritage, and the case of Bukit Brown is a good example of intertwining current vernacular practices and historical roots.

This essay has also been published in our ARI Newsletter (September 2013 issue).

The cost of urbanization?

by Rita Padawangi

TODAY paper reported that a banyan tree in Toa Payoh Central fell a few days ago. No injuries reported, but it damaged a small shrine under its hanging roots.

This tree, the 40+ year-old shrine and the people attached to it was the main feature of one of the short films in the City Possible II Film Festival on 2 July 2013, titled “Leaf of Faith”.

The film left us wondering how the shrine would survive amidst the development push to remove the tree. Resembling a more or less ‘close to ideal’, but not happy ending, finale to the story, the tree fell on its own. The tree can only be removed if the guardian spirits let it die.

From another perspective, the tree had been surrounded by dense housing developments that look pretty much suffocating for the tree itself. This also reminds us to the recent talk on Channel 5 on floods in Singapore: is it natural or man-made? We have seen green areas disappearing in Singapore. The greens surrounding another living heritage, Singapore’s dragon kilns, are also disappearing. Bukit Brown, a natural heritage on its own, is also going to be reduced and subsequently planned for a residential development.

In Jakarta, where floods become more and more frequent and prevalent, urbanization has been blamed for 50% increase in water runoff, which subsequently caused floods. Green and penetrable areas of the Ciliwung River watershed have been reduced significantly since the 1970s and continue to decline. But still, more land clearance and concrete developments continue.

Is there an alternative to development as usual? Is another city possible? If so, how should it be?