All posts by creighton

Revisiting Singapore’s Southern Islands

By: Creighton Connolly and Sonia Lam-Knott

Singapore is often understood as an island nation, giving first-time visitors to Singapore the perception that it consists of only one island. This is understandable, given that most of Singapore’s current built-up and residential area is on the Singapore ‘mainland’. However, as many readers of this article will be aware, Singapore actually comprises many islands, some of which were formerly inhabited. Statistics regarding the total number of islands in Singapore varies over the years, the result of land reclamation merging multiple islands together (an example would be Jurong Island, which is made up of seven islands). However, the histories and futures of these islands are still poorly understood by a majority of Singaporeans. Some will be familiar with Pulau Ubin from weekend trips to escape the concrete jungle of Singapore. Others will know Kusu Island from pilgrimage visits, or trips with children to see the turtles. Some may even know that all of our waste – in the form of incinerated ash – has created Pulau Semakau, an island popular with bird watchers and marine life enthusiasts. But other islands, such as St. John’s Island, now connected with Lazarus Island and Pulau Seringat to become the second largest of Singapore’s Southern Islands, have an important history of national significance that is mostly forgotten.

Map of St. John’s Island

The Southern Islands comprises of Sentosa, Pulau Tekukor, Sisters’ Island, Kusu Island, and the St. John’s-Lazarus-Pulau Seringat grouping. These islands have experienced drastic changes to their physical and social landscape in the past few decades. Sentosa has served as a resort island since 1975, land reclamation in 2000 connected St. John’s Island with Lazarus Island and Pulau Seringat in preparation for potential residential developments, and Sisters’ Island became Singapore’s first marine park in 2015. In demographic terms, the Southern Islands (comprising of Sentosa, Pulau Brani, Kusu Island, and St. John’s Island) once had its own constituency, with voter numbers during the 1963 Legislative Assembly General Elections totaling at 5,236. But by 1975, most villagers had left and resettled on the Singaporean mainland, such that in the 1996 Southern Islands Planning Report released by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, only 204 people were said to be living on the islands. It is only recently that population levels have rebounded, with the 2015 General Household Survey showing that there are now 1,480 people living on the Southern Islands, the majority (1,470) based on Sentosa.

In light of these changes, a new interdisciplinary research project led by Dr. Hamzah Muzaini and other researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) seeks to learn more about the history of the Southern Islands from a vernacular perspective. Funded by the National Heritage Board, the project, titled ‘Mapping the Southern Islands’ Heritage Landscapes: integrating culture and nature in urban heritage conservation’, aims to create a more holistic understanding of the heritage value associated with St. John’s and the other Southern Islands. Through archival research and by conducting interviews with former residents of the Southern Islands, the project aims to understand the heritage significance of the islands, to create broader awareness of their significance for Singapore. The findings of the project will be displayed through a public exhibition in mid-2019, which will also create a space for former residents and their kin to share their stories of the islands.

View of Kusu Island from Lazarus

More specifically, the project takes an innovative approach to documenting the Southern Islands’ heritage features, by considering both cultural and natural elements of this heritage, and how these might be intertwined. This could include existing monuments, buildings or other features of the islands pertaining to their socio-cultural history; as well as natural features such as flora, fauna or the physical topography of the islands. An important objective here is to examine how these features are articulated by those connected with the islands, and how they are perceived to be mutually related. One way of identifying this will be through participatory mapping of these sites, which will be used to develop a ‘heritage trail’ for St. John’s to guide visitors through the island’s heritage spaces and better understand its history in a more holistic manner. Whilst heritage trails exist for other spaces in Singapore, most of them focus primarily on either natural or cultural heritage features.

This division between cultural and natural heritage reflects dominant approaches to heritage management within and beyond the nation. In Singapore, NParks has jurisdiction over the control of biodiversity and green spaces, whereas the NHB oversees cultural heritage. At the international level, UNESCO World Heritage Sites are divided into cultural and natural categories. Academic literature on heritage conservation have also been largely split between examining and offering advice on either cultural heritage or biodiversity management, with little cross-fertilisation between these approaches. But in recent years, there is growing recognition that cultural and natural heritage cannot be viewed as separate spheres. Such views are reflected in the new joint initiative between the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), which seeks to connect cultural and natural heritage through joint management practices. Similarly, the World Heritage List now has a ‘mixed’ category which identifies sites where cultural and natural heritage is significantly intertwined.

ARI’s Southern Islands Research Team at Kusu Island, May 2017

This research project thus seeks to offer some policy recommendations as to how Singapore can manage its heritage landscapes in a more integrated fashion, which can bring attention to the numerous ways in which cultural and natural forms of heritage are intertwined across the island nation. If you are a former resident or descendant of the Southern Islands, a frequent visitor or have some other connection to the islands and wish to participate in the study, please contact Dr. Muzaini or the authors of this post via their contact details above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 1: Landscape of Mrauk U


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hillslope Development in Penang: Sustainability or Unviability?

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

November 4th 2017 flood in Penang

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

Hillside development in Tanjung Bungah, Penang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creighton Connolly, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore

 

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 2 – Garden tour

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

Figure 3 – Thyme takes time

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

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

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

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

Poster: Remapping the Arts, Heritage and Cultural Production

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

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

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

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

Territorial Transformation and Land Reclamation in Singapore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Invisibility of the Urban Poor in Jakarta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CALL FOR PAPERS | Climate Disaster Governance

CALL FOR PAPERS DEADLINE: 15 MAY 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUBMISSION OF PROPOSALS

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

Conference Convenors

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

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

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

Planetary Urbanisation at the Crossroads

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

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

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

Prof Douglass’ lecture at Charles University

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

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

A ‘Model State’ for Malaysia?

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

Poster for my presentation at the NUS FASS Cities Cluster

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

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

 

 

Urban Heritage in Jakarta’s Riverine Communities

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’.

Poster for Rita Padawangi’s presentation in the Southeast Asian Studies Seminar Series

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.

Tracing narratives and perceptions in the political ecologies of health and disease

by Creighton Connolly

Post written for ENTITLE Blog

In a previous post on ‘Horses, bees and bodies: post-conference accounts from Lexington’, Panagiota Kotsila shared reflections on the 2015 Dimensions of Political Ecology (DOPE) Conference, where we organised a panel titled ‘Perceptions of Urban Environmental Health: Narrating Political Ecologies of Disease’. At the end of the post, she promised a forthcoming issue on the topic, which we have now published in the Journal of Political Ecology, with Giacomo D’Alisa.

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.

Toxic Waste burning in the streets of Naples, Italy (image: Eduardo Castaldo).

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 Dilemma of Environmental Refugees in Asia: The Case of Disaster-Induced Urbanization in Bangladesh

Author: Marcel Bandur

Re-blogged from the ARI Disaster Governance Asia Blog

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.

(Hazaribagh, Dhaka, Allison Joyce photoblog, 2000)

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.

References:

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].

Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda

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:

“Welcome to a safer, cleaner, greener and healthier Penang”. This is certainly the State Government’s stated goal for the city, weather or not it is actually the case is up for debate.

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?

Inclusive cities? This sign at the perimeter of Habitat III reminds us that the concept of inclusion necessarily involves exclusion. Photo: Francesca Perry, the Guardian

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.

References and Further Reading

Barnett, C., Parnell, S., 2016. Ideas, implementation and indicators: epistemologies of the post-2015 urban agenda. Environment and Urbanization 28, 87–98. doi:10.1177/0956247815621473

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

Bruce Watson, 2014. What Makes a City Resilient? The Guardian, 27 January.

Heritage Preservation as / and Community Movements in Wanchai, Hong Kong

By Desmond Sham

Wanchai is an urban area in Hong Kong, to the east of Central, which has been the political-economic centre of the city-state since the British colonial era. It was the primary settlement for ethnic Chinese in the early colonial period, although other ethnic groups also lived there. The vernacular, tenement buildings (tong lau) – the Hong Kong equivalent of the shophouse – began to emerge from the late 19th century. Since the 1930s, different kinds of industries, such as printing, construction, and rattan furniture-making, began to cluster in Wanchai. This area, on the south of Hennessey Road, was later colloquially known as “Old Wanchai”. In the 1950s and 1960s, the area had already developed into a very vibrant, mixed-use area ( Huang 2015) After the Central Barracks were demolished, office towers and commercial developments were constructed on the original barracks site, simultaneously expanding the commercial area of Hong Kong and removing the “buffer zone” between the central business district and the vibrant mixed area. Due to its proximity to the CBD, the Old Wanchai has been a targeted area of urban renewal by both the state and private sectors since 1980s.
picture1
Within the first five years of the establishment of the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) in 2001, several urban renewal projects were launched in Wanchai. Unlike its predecessor, the URA was empowered to seek government orders for the requisition or forced purchase of land through the Land Resumption Ordinance, in the guise of “public interests”. Yet, in practice, after resuming the land, the URA usually bulldozes almost everything and collaborates with developers, while the profit made is not transferred into public revenue. Moreover, the affected residents and businesses were not given the option to “stay” in the URA’s plans. In Wanchai, community movements broke out at two affected neighbourhoods. Both community movements mobilized the discourses of heritage preservation.  The Lee Tung Street community movement started in 2004 was the pioneer. Their demand was that the owner-occupiers to use their “property ownership” to “participate” in the urban renewal process and to exchange for a flat or a shop respectively in the original site, or at least a nearby site (H16), after the urban renewal  (Huang 2015). They also called for the preservation of the built heritage, the “local characteristics”, namely the famous wedding-card printing shops and related industries that clustered in the street, and the “social network”. They proposed an alternative “Dumbbell Proposal”, which involved both the elements of heritage preservation and the protection of existing social networks (Huang 2015). The community movement of the Blue House cluster nearby was also a targeted urban renewal project of the URA. In original plan, the tong laus would be partially preserved and the converted to tourist spot, but the residents and businesses would be evicted. It was accused as a “fake” conservation. The community movement, on the other hand, came up with a counter-proposal of “living heritage preservation” that could “keep both the houses and the people”. In their counter-proposal, those residents who wanted to move out were to be resettled in public housings that they wanted, while those who wanted to stay were given the right to move back after the renovation. The remaining units were to be designed for community and cultural uses (Huang 2015; Chen and Szeto 2015). The result of the two community movements were different. Lee Tung Street was demolished in 2007, and luxury resident tower is now built at the site. After the huge protests and outcries of the society resulted in the demolition of the city’s important landmarks and neighbourhoods, the government later withdrew the Blue House Cluster as a URA project. The community movement also secured the role as the partner in the government’s “Revitalizing Historic Buildings through Partnership Scheme” to implement their alternative plan.

The mobilization of heritage discourses in these community movements were criticized for their failure to address the problem for “spectacularizing” the neighbourhood, failing to address and criticize the capitalist logic of urban renewal, and producing a gentrified, middle-class “cultural Wanchai”. However, I believe that the affected communities’ tactics needed to be contextualized. In the highly-commercialized society of Hong Kong, land has long been treated as commodity, and old buildings, like in many parts of Asia, are regarded as “devalued”. In the mainstream media’s narrative, the URA was often depicted as a “considerate” and “reasonable” organization willing to negotiate, which carried out redevelopment projects beneficial to the society. On the other hand, those affected residents and businesses refuse to leave were depicted as being merely selfish, greedy and wanting more “compensation”. The complexity in the conflict was reduced into an issue of money, and the reason behind why the amount was insufficient was often omitted. In such a context, regardless how reasonable the claim to be, pursuing any arguments involving the issue of “compensation” or rate of acquisition would be ignored or counter-productive. In contrast, the mobilization of “non-materialistic” discourses usher in a paradigm shift that the demands of the affected communities cannot be reduced to the question of “compensation”, just as their story cannot be reduced to the “greedy-ones-want-more” narrative (Huang 2015). The discourses of heritage preservation was chosen as a tactic partly because the URA opened this room in their guiding Urban Renewal Strategy. Accordingly, the “main objectives” of the urban renewal include the preservation of “buildings, sites and structures of historical, cultural or architectural interest”, “as far as practical local characteristics”, and “the social networks of the local community” (Planning and Lands Bureau 2001). This gave the room for affected communities to put in their definition of these key terms and urged for their demands.

The significance on community movements’ mobilization of heritage preservation discourses also goes beyond the geographical boundaries of the neighbourhoods. In the neoliberalizing city, capital accumulation by “recycling” urban spaces operate best in the absence of place-based identities because attachment to place can provide the basis for a strong resistance to the uprooting and demolition of urban landmarks.  As a shared and “common” notion, cultural heritage provides an alternative through which one’s relationship with a place can be addressed beyond, if not irreducible to, the terms of “property” and exchange value. A major criticism of the mobilization of the discourses of heritage preservation in the community movement is that such tactic is a compromise and does not address the capitalist logic in urban renewal. Yet, paradoxically, it is through bypassing the more direct political-economic side, and bypassing the language of distribution, that makes the critique of, and offering the alternative beyond, the property regime possible, which is rooted in the colonial practices. Cultural heritage can be used to address the right to city, including the right to planning, because they are also not defined purely in terms of “private property” and exchange value. The mobilization of heritage preservation in community movements, in this sense, actually decolonizes the concept of land, and provides space for imagining a new urban common. Similar to many other urban social movements, such tactics may not be always successful. They may face many challenges not necessarily from within. Yet, it is through these spaces for desiring a better future, and “spaces of hope” (Harvey 2000) are created, no matter how small it may be.

* The article is a summary of the author’s presentation “Decolonizing the Land, Imagining a New Urban Common: Heritage Preservation as/and Community Movement in Hong Kong” at ARI’s cluster seminar on 24 Nov 2016.

Bibliography

Chen, Yun-chung, and Mirana May Szeto. 2015. “The Forgotten Road of Progressive Localism: New Preservation Movement in Hong Kong.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 16 (3): 436–53. doi:10.1080/14649373.2015.1071694.

Harvey, David. 2000. Spaces of Hope. University of California Press.

Huang, Shu-Mei. 2015. Urbanizing Carescapes of Hong Kong : Two Systems, One City. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

Planning and Lands Bureau. 2001. Urban Renewal Strategy, Hong Kong.

Disaster Justice in Anthropocene Asia and the Pacific

by Michelle Miller and Marcel Bandur
On November 17-18th, the Asian Urbanisms Cluster at ARI hosted a two-day workshop on ‘Disaster Justice in Anthropocene Asia’. Organised by Michelle Miller and Mike Douglass, this interdisciplinary conference brought together 28 scholars representing 11 disciplinary backgrounds to show how research on environmental disasters in the Asia-Pacific region illuminates questions of disaster justice from historical and contemporary perspectives. The event combined the richness of on-the-ground research with new insights into how to conceptualize and govern disasters from normative as well as explanatory perspectives. Our central organising premise for the conference was that disaster justice as a moral claim on governance arises from anthropogenic interventions in nature that incubate disasters and magnify their socially and spatially uneven impacts. The conversations generated by the event yielded rich insights into how the changing geographies of vulnerability accompanying the urban transition in Asia and the Pacific are adding new dimensions to disaster governance and justice.

Disaster Justice in Anthropocene Asia
Disaster Justice in Anthropocene Asia

As all disasters occur in political space, disaster justice is situated in spheres of governance and in the context of the rapidly urbanizing societies of the Asia-Pacific that are increasingly impacted by the advent of the Anthropocene, namely, the destructive human transformations of nature that are significant drivers of environmental disasters. Growing awareness of human complicity in creating socially and spatially uneven vulnerabilities to disasters is generating discontents and mobilizations for disaster justice as moral claims for more effective and inclusive modes of disaster prevention, mitigation, management and redress. Posing disaster justice as a problem of governance thus covers a set of issues that encompass but are also differentiated from such allied concepts as environmental and climate justice. As intense events that cause widespread harm and overwhelm existing capacities to respond, disasters generate highly charged but exceptionally complex questions of justice. These factors, combined with the increasingly compound characteristics of environmental disasters (for instance, when a tsunami leads to a nuclear power plant meltdown) further complicate issues of justice in establishing causalities, attributing blame, identifying victims and (re-)establishing working solutions.

Keynote speaker Robert Verchik from Loyola University opened the conference by laying out the social, legal and policy dimensions of managing physical exposure to, and social vulnerabilities rooted in spatial inequalities to explicate the linkages between building community resilience and fighting disaster-related injustices. He emphasised that “in the Anthropocene, there is no such thing as a natural disaster”. Indeed, disaster justice as a moral claim on governance arises from anthropogenic interventions in nature that incubate disasters and magnify their socially and spatially uneven impacts.

Keynote Speaker Robert Verchick (Loyola University)
Keynote Speaker Robert Verchick (Loyola University)

D. Parthasarathy of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay opened the second day of the conference with a keynote address on the moral imperative of interrogating uncertainty at multiple scales of governance and from diverse perspectives as a pre-requisite for enhancing resilience, coping and adaptation for long-term disaster risk reduction in urbanising populations across the Asia-Pacific.

Day two keynote speaker D. Parthasarathy
Day two keynote speaker D. Parthasarathy

Isaac Kerlow from the Earth Observatory of Singapore screened his short film titled “Change”. The conference participants were only the 2nd audience to watch the film, after it premiered the day before. The short film explored the disruption of the Earth’s natural balance due to rapid changes caused by our growth and prosperity.
The conference included themed panels based on paper presentations that spoke to questions of historicising disaster justice, justice in anthropogenic disasters, the politics of inclusion and exclusion in disaster (in)justices, the role of civil society in claims for disaster justice, and a special panel on disaster justice in South Asian localities, namely India, Nepal and Bangladesh.
Given the interdisciplinary nature of the conference, the discussions generated significant insights drawing from a wide range of conceptual lenses and on-the-ground research.
Finding a consensus on the definition of Disaster Justice was not the goal of the conference. Rather, the conference highlighted what Disaster Justice mean for various communities and polities. The notion of Disaster Justice is yet to be played out, especially in light of raising consciousness regarding the anthropogenic essence of disasters. More importantly, this conference succeeded in fostering a diverse community of scholars and practitioners alike to draw Disaster Justice closer to the centre stage of academic and socio-political discourses.
Taken together, the conference surpassed expectations in pushing the parameters of theorising on the understudied concept of disaster justice within and beyond the rapidly urbanising societies of the Asia-Pacific, which are increasingly vulnerable to environmental disasters and their cascading impacts.

Article Alert: Moral Geographies of ‘Swiftlet Farming’ in Malaysia

Last week saw the publication of the first of four journal articles from my PhD research on urban ‘swiftlet farming’ in Malaysia. Swiftlet farming refers to the harvesting of edible birds’ nests in urban areas, which has posed a number of socio-environmental challenges to cities in Southeast Asia where the industry proliferates. This particular article engages the animal geographies literature in foregrounding the agency of  animals like swiftlets as co-producing urban environments. This research contributed to the EU funded project ‘ENTITLE‘ (2012-16) which funded a number of projects on political ecology throughout Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia.

An active swiftlet farm in central George Town, Malaysia, photo by author, 2014.
An active swiftlet farm in central George Town, Malaysia, photo by author, 2014.

Title: ‘A Place For Everything’: Moral Landscapes of ‘Swiftlet Farming’ in George Town, Malaysia

Journal: Geoforum (Vol. 77, Dec. 2016, pp. 182-191).

Author: Creighton Connolly (Asia Research Institute, NUS).

Abstract: This paper is based on 6 months of ethnographic, multi-sited research in Malaysia, and investigates the relatively recent phenomenon of edible birds’ nest farming in urban areas (‘swiftlet farming’). Swiftlet farms are typically converted shophouses or other buildings which have been modified for the purpose of harvesting the nests of the Edible-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus). I use the controversy over urban swiftlet farming in the UNESCO World Heritage city of George Town, Penang, to examine discourses used by key stakeholders to shape debates over the place of non-human animals in cities. By considering everyday experiences of urban swiftlet farming, I explore how this burgeoning industry is perceived amongst residents, and how it is deemed to be (in)appropriate within the political, economic and cultural landscape of George Town. Yet, I also consider how farmers have sought to contest these discourses on ideological and normative grounds. In so doing, I place the cultural animal geographies literature in conversation with emergent literature on landscape and urban political ecology. Such a framing allows for a critical evaluation of the controversies surrounding this case, and their implications for human- animal cohabitation in cities. The paper reflects on the implications of this case for how we regulate human-animal relations and live in contemporary cities, and the crucial role of animals in altering urban form, aesthetics and everyday life, particularly in non-Western contexts.

Highlights:

•Develops the conceptual approach of landscape political ecology as a way to examine socio-environmental conflicts in urban contexts.

• Enhances understanding of the role of animals in shaping urban form and dynamics, and shaping urban policy.

•Highlights the complex factors involved in managing human-animal relations in cities, due to the agency of non-humans.

•Adds to understanding of politically and morally-infused claims to urban space, and competing socio-economic interests.

Read the full article here, free until January 7, 2017.

Conference: Disastrous Pasts: New Directions in Asian Disaster History

By Fiona Williamson and Chris Courtney

The interdisciplinary conference “Disastrous Pasts: New Directions in Asian Disaster History” will be held on 21-22 November at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. Its focus is the role played by disasters in the history of Asia what past disasters can teach us about present conditions. It aims to explore the following key themes:

How did historic communities cope with disasters?
How have perceptions of environmental hazards changed over time and varied between cultures?
How can scholars develop cross-disciplinary dialogues to improve the understanding of disasters?
How have environmental hazards interacted with famines in the history of Asia?
How have epidemiological transitions and changes to public health influenced the outcome of disasters?

The full program and more details are available here: https://ari.nus.edu.sg/Event/Detail/f9b3d624-abc3-4564-8c79-450a1a3a5f32

Mediating Heritage Conservation and Urban Development in Contemporary Malaysia

What are the issues surrounding the conservation of urban heritage in Malaysia’s rapidly urbanising cities? This is the seemingly simple question that I set out to explore in my current postdoctoral work at ARI, focusing primarily on the UNESCO World Heritage City of Penang. However, the more that I thought about this question, and began some preliminary research, it quickly became evident that there is more to the question than I initially thought.
I first set out to focus on cultural heritage, as this seemed to be at the core of disputes surrounding redevelopment and urban regeneration in the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site of Penang.  However, I soon realised that the ongoing conservation efforts in Penang, and concerns about urban (re)development are about more than just the island’s cultural heritage. Rather, the concepts of cultural and natural heritage, which have been largely kept apart both in academic studies on heritage conservation, and UNESCO’s distinction between Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites, are both deeply intertwined. This is particularly true in South/East Asian cities like Singapore, Penang, and Hong Kong, which have an abundance of both cultural and natural attributes that create attachment to place amongst locals and visitors alike. As Jenkins and King (2010: 48) have noted: “recently there has been an emergence of conservation awareness and the realisation among some local groups of the importance of their urban heritage for the general well-being of their environment”.

The importance of both natural and cultural heritage to Penang’s inhabitants have become particularly discernible with the announcement of the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). Penang’s civil society organisations, most notably the Penang Forum, which subsequently released its detailed critique of the Plan, encapsulated by the slogan Better, Cheaper, Faster. This document critically evaluates the perceived social, economic and environmental unsustainability of the PTMP, while offering a revised plan that would be better, cheaper and faster. Amongst the numerous areas of concern, particular issues are related to the proposed LRT system, which would pose both aesthetic and physical threats to the heritage landscape of George Town. In addition, the proposed undersea tunnel linking Penang Island with Peninsular Malaysia, and the substantial land reclamation required to finance the project, have posed additional environmental concerns.

Various components of the Proposed Penang Transport Master Plan Development, including reclaimed islands in yellow at the south of Penang Island.
Various components of the Proposed Penang Transport Master Plan Development, including reclaimed islands in yellow at the south of Penang Island.

Perhaps surprisingly, land reclamation is a recurrent theme in heritage controversies in South/East Asian Cities. Singapore, Melaka, Penang and Hong Kong have all experienced substantial land reclamation, which has been hotly contested by local civil society organisations. In Hong Kong, land reclamation emerged for two reasons: first, given the island’s limited amount of developable land and the high population; and second, the State’s dependence on it as a revenue stream, particularly in the 1980s (see Lu, 2009). This situation is similar to Penang, which receives a limited budget from the Malaysian federal government and thus relies on the unsustainable income stream of land sale to corporate land developers. Since the State Government has now sold most of its remaining land, it now must reclaim additional land, which will mostly be used for the development of high rise luxury condos, hotels and cruise ship terminals. Penang has now also been digging into its forested hillsides for condo development, which has caused landslides, and sinkholes under the nearby roads and properties due to the changing water table. The reclamation of land in these cities is also dialectically related to heritage conservation, because the local governments have sought to overcome heritage-related constraints on development (i.e. UNESCO zones in George Town and Melaka) by reclaiming land to ‘take the pressure off the historical parts of the city’ (King, 2016: 153).

For instance, in Melaka, the State Government’s focus on megadevelopment and tourism revenue has resulted in the destruction of the city’s harbour and waterfront area – which is arguably its historic raison d’être – only to be replaced by a large swathe of reclaimed land (see King, 2016: 151; Cartier, 1998). This reclaimed land has been used primarily for high-rise buildings, hotels, shopping malls, and some semi-detached housing. Despite the failure of the Pulau Melaka development (Melaka Island – constructed of reclaimed land), work is currently underway to reclaim even more land along the Melaka coast, known as Melaka Gateway. This development would envelop the Pulau Melaka development, in order to rid the State Government of the white elephant that it has created since its completion, over ten years ago. Such developments pose not only environmental consequences for the region, but also social issues, particularly for the Kristang (hybrid Malaccan/Portuguese) community and their sea-based livelihood, as their “coastal location has been transformed into an inland one” (King, 2016: 153).

Pulau Melaka (vision)
Developer’s vision of Pulau Melaka…
Reality of Pulau Melaka
Reality of Pulau Melaka – a ‘ghost island’. Will the same happen with the Melaka Gateway Project?

Of course, the dynamics between government, civil society and other stakeholders is also a central component of this research. Penang has been credited with having a more vibrant and successful civil society community than other Malaysian – and, indeed, Asian – cities. The success of heritage preservation there has been credited to the “interplay of fight and talk” between the government and civil society (ibid). Yet, the relationship is far from perfect. For instance, a Penang Forum Member recently wrote a letter to UNESCO, highlighting the considerable impact that the proposed PTMP plan would have on the heritage value of the city. In response, the Chief Minister of Penang, Lim Guan Eng said the letter was “like a stab in the back”, given that the author of the letter is an elected MP in Penang. Lim explained that the PTMP is “crucial, a life changer that can affect every citizen in the state, and will provide for the economic prosperity of Penang until 2050” (ibid). These comments are evocative of the attitude of the Malaysian government’s narrow focus on (capital D) development as the way forward for Malaysia. It also highlights the extent to which constructive criticism on behalf of civil society, and other stakeholders is (not) valued by the government. As Jenkins and King (2010: 46) have lamented: “there appears to be confusion in the Municipal Council (Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang [MPPP]) as to what is meant by conservation as an integral part of development…just as there is a preoccupation with ‘the tallest, the biggest, the longest and the widest”.

If you are interested in discussing these issues further, I would encourage you to attend ARI’s upcoming seminar ‘The Natural Heritage and Environmental Costs of Penang’s Development’ by Dr Kam Suan Pheng, an activist/scholar, and a Penangite, who has been actively campaigning for the conservation of Penang’s urban heritage for a truly ‘Cleaner, Greener Penang’ (31 October, 2016). I will also be presenting a longer version of this post at the later ARI Workshop ‘Resilient Cities for Human Flourishing: Governing the Asia-Pacific Urban Transition in the Anthropocene’(March 2-3, 2017).

References and Further Reading
Cartier, C., 1998. Megadevelopment in Malaysia: From Heritage Landscapes to “Leisurescapes” in Melaka’s Tourism Sector. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 19, 151–76.

Jenkins, G., King, V.T., 2003. Heritage and development in a Malaysian city: George Town under threat? Indonesia and the Malay World 31, 44–57. doi:10.1080/13639810304441

Lu, T.L. 2009. Heritage Conservation in Post‐colonial Hong Kong. International Journal of Heritage Studies 15, 258–272. doi:10.1080/13527250902890969