Category Archives: Notes from the field

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

 

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.

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

Snaps from the Field: Paete

by Dr. Marco Garrido

I just came back from having done fieldwork in two small towns outside Metro Manila, Philippines. In my dissertation research, I had identified an acute class consciousness among Metro Manila’s urban poor. I wanted to see whether or not this sense of class was distinctive to Metro Manila (resulting, I argue, from its class segregation). It was, but that’s the subject of a future paper. Here, in keeping with the genre of a blog, I would rather share my impressions—and pictures—of one, particularly fascinating fieldsite, Paete.

Paete from atop
Paete from above
Paete street
Paete street

The town of Paete is tiny, relatively isolated, and poor. It has a population of about 23,000; it’s about 100 km away from Manila, nestled, as you can see, between mountains and a lake; and its local government derived merely US$179,226 from local sources in 2012 (thus subsisting mainly on infusions from the national government). And yet, because of the skill of its woodcarvers, the town has had an outsize global reach—for centuries.

The Spanish missionaries who discovered Paete in 1580 named the town after the Tagalog word for chisel (paet). The skill of its carvers was such that Europe soon began to import toys, furniture, and religious images made in Paete (one such toy was the yo-yo). Palaces acquired elaborately carved tables and chairs, and churches, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, exquisite images of saints and angels. Paete’s carvers were feted by royal courts and international competitions.

Workers at night
Workers at night
Master woodcarver
Master woodcarver

Their skill was the result of apprenticeship, often informal, of sitting at the feet of masters, literally, because these were their fathers and uncles. It came from simply being exposed to the craft as an everyday practice—a natural act—such that one mostly “absorbed” how it was done. Skill didn’t just have to do with the ability to physically transform the material; it also had to do with the capacity to imagine how the material might be transformed—to be able to discern, in other words, the possibilities it held. I remember being struck by a figure of the risen Christ fashioned out of driftwood. What was remarkable wasn’t that the artist had turned a lowly piece of driftwood into something else entirely, but that he had captured a process of one thing becoming something else. The Christ figure looked like it simply grew out of the driftwood; the grain of the wood becoming the folds of his robe and its branching his outstretched arms (I wish I took a picture!). Such skill was incubated in one place over a long time rather than produced by effective instruction and individual effort. It was learned by observing and engaging in practices that are a natural feature of Paete’s environment. Just walking around the town you see that everywhere people are fashioning something, carving wood or making papier mache dolls, even in the squatter areas where I interviewed. I asked one artist how he had learned his craft and he simply shrugged and said, “I just watched my father do it, and my brother, and then I started doing it myself.” Because skill consists of practices that are all but impossible to codify exactly, it can be hard to teach. One artist recalled asking his teacher how to sculpt a foot. After being puzzled for a moment, his teacher finally replied, “Well, just look at your own foot!

Making papier mache
Making papier mache
Gallery
Gallery

The great skill of its carvers begs the question of why, despite being a hub of globally renowned talent, Paete has remained poor.  In the 1950s the production of wooden clogs was an important source of Paete’s revenue, in the 1960s and 1970s wood handicrafts, in the 1980s and 1990s papier mache and resin products, and currently Paetenians working aboard cruise ships sculpting ice and vegetables. Paete’s dismal economic fortunes have a lot to do with the vicissitudes of global demand, of course, and with restrictions on logging, as well as insufficient government support and probably also with a lack of organization among local businesses.

A full explanation is beyond my reach; rather, I want to pursue one thread of an explanation—global competition—as a way of lamenting the commodification of skill. The skill of Paete’s carvers was recognized and a market emerged for its products, but this market came to be dominated by countries that could mass produce these products. They would simply buy the skills needed to replicate them. For example, Paetenians were hired to make molds for mass produced papier mache products and to teach Chinese workers how to carve generic products. Sure, these products were inferior in quality to Paete handicrafts but they were cheaper and easily available. And so the wooden clog industry was undercut by competition from Japanese manufacturers, and then the carving and papier mache industry by Chinese manufacturers. Now Paetenians are using their skills to make swans out of ice—impressive displays, to be sure, but knowing that the skill guiding the sculptor’s hand developed in so rarefied an environment—knowing how precious it is—how can we not feel a sense of waste that it’s now being used so cheaply to make products that are merely functional not beautiful, to make ornaments serving only to embellish the experience of luxury?

Christs in the kitchen
Christs in the kitchen
Amateur woodcarver
Amateur woodcarver