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
7th February 2018
‘Government Policies and Community Actions for Regenerating Inner City Taipei’ Asso. Prof. Huang Liling, National Taiwan University
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
8th November 2017
‘Working with the “Grassroots” for Built Heritage Conservation’ Mr. Kelvin Ang, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore
Asia Research Institute (National University of Singapore)