Category Archives: Publications

Territorial Transformation and Land Reclamation in Singapore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Creighton Connolly

Post written for ENTITLE Blog

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

While there have been some previous writings setting out a political ecology framework for the study of health and disease (e.g. King, 2010), we bring a particular approach to the sub-field, namely, the role of perceptions and discourse. We emphasize the role of health perceptions, in particular, as a way of exploring how people’s experiences of the local environment often differ from dominant discourses related to un/healthy environments, and the effects stemming from this disjuncture.

More recently, scholars have suggested more specific avenues through which the sub-field can be further developed and focused. For example, Jackson and Neely have argued for the incorporation of marxist-feminist, STS, and more-than-human approaches to the political ecology of health and disease (PEHD). Similarly, our special section also sets out three additional avenues which we think may be of use for future empirical studies in this area. These are the themes of environmental justice, place and landscape, and the political economy of disease. These theme emerged from the empirical contributions making up our special issue, and also relate to central themes in political ecology.

The concept of environmental justice, in particular seeks to expose the way that marginal populations, minorities, and the poor are more vulnerable to environmental and health hazards. This is aptly demonstrated in Kotsila’s article on ‘health dispossessions’ in the Mekong region of Vietnam, which shows how state discourse follows neoliberal approaches in individualizing health responsibilities and moralizing disease. As shown by Iengo and Armerio’s article on ‘the politicisation of ill bodies’ in Campania, Italy, the most affected by the disease are also (often) seen as the least credible in generating knowledge about environmental justice disputes, thus forcing such individuals to mobilize particular forms of embodied resistance. For this reason, Marcelo Porto and colleagues mobilise a political epistemological approach to the political ecology of disease, which recognizes that the way knowledge is produced (epistemology) plays a fundamental role in generating and confronting environmental justice disputes. They also develop the concept of ‘health as dignity’ to highlight the capacity of affected communities and their democratic alliances in addressing environmental conflicts. Relatedly, the article by Giacomo D’Alisa and colleagues on ‘the Land of Fires’ in Southern Italy, illustrates the importance of using a PEHD approach to studying environmental conflicts, firstly to highlight the role of victims of environmental disasters in fighting environmental crimes, and second, to challenge the ‘slow violence’ of toxic crimes.

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

The themes of place and landscape are central to the discipline of cultural geography, and have also been adopted in political ecology studies (see, e.g. Connolly, 2017). Two of the articles in this section use landscape as a form of inquiry for addressing political ecologies of disease. First is Jeff Rose’s insightful study of a group of ‘hillside residents’ in an American municipal park, which considers the role of material and discursive cleanliness as an agent of health in the construction of ‘sanitary’ urban environments. Second is Creighton Connolly’s study on the farming of edible birds’ nests in Penang, Malaysia, which demonstrates the dialectical relationship between landscape and discourse in producing political ecologies of disease. Together, these articles further demonstrate how the landscape concept can be utilized in seeing disease as not only determined through biophysical factors, but also constructed out of a particular set of social relations and lived experiences mediated through the landscape.

Finally, and relatedly, all of the articles in our special issue refer to the political economy of health and disease as a set of material and discursive practices that influence the incidence of disease, or are otherwise involved in the production of (un)healthy landscapes. Such an analysis recognises that health is structured by political and economic systems that influence the transmission of disease and the ability – or willingness – of health care agencies to effectively respond (see, e.g. Houston and Ruming, 2014). Through these foci, the empirical investigations provided in this special issue thus further rectify the gap between the material and the discursive, highlighting how the politics of health is shaped through the confluence of power relations, specific discourses and practices of communication in particular sites.

If you have any comments on the special issue, please leave them below, and we’ll get back to you. Alternatively, you can send an email to Creighton Connolly  or Panagiota Kotsila. Thank you for reading!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highlights:

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

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

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

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

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

Publication Update: “Cities and their grassroutes”

Dr. Tim Bunnell and Dr. Peter Marolt have recently published an excellent commentary entitled, “Cities and their grassroutes” in the journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (vol 32 issue 3).  The piece is a revised and expanded version of their post on this blog entitled “From Grassroots to Grassroutes Urbanisms.”

The commentary in Environment and Planning D:  Society and Space (vol 32 issue 3) can be accessed here: http://societyandspace.com/2014/06/06/volume-32-issue-3-now-out/

The open access version appears here:
http://www.envplan.com/abstract.cgi?id=d14043cm

Publication: Decentralized Governance and Urban Change in Asia

Forthcoming Special Issue (Pacific Affairs):

Decentralized Governance and Urban Change in Asia

Guest Editors: Michelle Ann Miller and Tim Bunnell

This special issue explores the dynamics between decentralized governance and urban transformation in Asia. The case studies in this collection move beyond an examination of local urban dynamics as simply a product of decentralizing reforms (even if they have been directly affected by such reforms) and concentrate on institution-building, problem solving, participation and contestation in decentralized urban contexts. The contributors to this special issue came together at the Conference on Decentralization and Urban Transformation in Asia, held at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, on 10-11 March 2011. They considered important questions about the interplay between decentralized governance and the urban in contemporary Asian contexts. How has decentralization changed the role and functions of local administrations in Asian cities? In what ways have these processes empowered local communities – and particularly socio-economically marginal segments of the population – to shape the city in order to better reflect their needs and aspirations? To what extent have the processes and structures of decentralization empowered cities to emerge as new centres of policy innovation and best practice in responding to localized challenges? Does this portend for the travel of Asian city models of good governance within and beyond the region? What networks of inter-city cooperation have been forged between cities inside and across national borders as a consequence of decentralization? And, how has decentralization reconfigured relations between cities and their immediate neighbouring jurisdictions in terms of changing urban-to-urban and rural-to-urban networks? In addressing these questions, each of the contributors to this special issue focuses on a different dimension of the interplay between decentralized governance and urban transformation in six Asian countries: India, China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Please visit the Pacific Affairs website for further information.