All posts by Sonia

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

The ‘Activate!’ seminars, jointly organised by the ARI Asian Urbanisms Cluster and the NUS Department of Architecture, has launched its third series for the Fall semester of the NUS 2018/2019 academic year.

The emphasis of this series is on ‘pedagogy’; how civic practices and aspirations are actually being enacted in Singapore. This question will be explored through the lens of four different ‘spaces’. First, there is the space of liminality and precarity experienced by migrant labourers; then there is cyberspace, represented through the growing prominence of social media and online platforms in everyday life; physical space allowing for people to congregate and interact; and representational spaces, whereby ideologies are conveyed through artistic media such as photographs.

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

12th September 2018
‘Materializing Change for Migrant Workers’
Dr. Stephanie Chok, Humanitarian Organization for Migrant Economics
Ms. Debbie Fordyce, Transient Workers Count Too, and The Cuff Road Food Program
Dr. Natarajan Rajaraman, HealthServe
Register here
(This session has been convened by Dr. Karen McNamara and Mr. Marcel Bandur)

19th September 2018
‘Fostering Civic Participation through Online Platforms’
Ms. Kirsten Han, New Naratif
Dr. Johannes Mueller, Future Cities Laboratory 
A/P Weiyu Zhang, National University of Singapore
Register here

24th October 2018
‘The Promise of Hong Lim Park: Pink Dot  and the Activism of Love’
Mr. Zhong Yi Quck, Pink Dot

Register here

14th November 2018
‘Visualising Unseen Realities: Photography for Social Purpose’
Ms. Alecia Neo, Artist
Mr. Tom White, Yale-NUS College
Register here

 

We hope to see you all there!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


ABSTRACT

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

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

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


SPEAKERS

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

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

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

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

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

Reflecting on Affect and Urbanism

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

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

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

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

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

 

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conference Presentation: 2017 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Details about the film:

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

Conference Presentation: 2017 Association for East Asian Environmental History

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

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

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

Consuming Conservation in the Age of Instagram

by Meghan Downes

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Exploring the Forgotten Port Town in Singapore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Dr. Imran bin Tajudeen

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

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

Climate Disaster Governance, 21-22 September 2017

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

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

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

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

Speakers and Chairs on Day 1 of the Conference

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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