Tag Archives: Singapore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Register here

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

 

We hope to see you all there!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


ABSTRACT

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

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

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


SPEAKERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Exploring the Forgotten Port Town in Singapore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Dr. Imran bin Tajudeen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Is Cycling a Viable Way to Broaden the Benefits of Singapore’s Growth?

By Tharuka Prematillake Thibbotuwawa

 “Singapore is a great city to walk and play – if we have money”, said William Lim, a well-known architect in Singapore, during a short interview with me, recently.

The city’s rapid economic growth and development has translated into a city of high-rise buildings, casinos, theme parks, theaters, high-end shopping malls, and restaurants. It is orderly and clean and surrounded by landscaped gardens. It is also a city with more increasing numbers of car owners and an efficient but increasingly stressed public transport system. But, the question is, whether the benefits of these forms of urban growth are shared equally by everyone in Singapore? Out of many areas that Lim discussed pertaining to this question, this article looks at how cycling as an alternative urban transport mode could widen the range of people benefitting from Singapore’s growth.

According to Lim, Singapore’s economic growth and development seems to have mostly benefited “the more affluent class. Middle-income earners have not been successfully benefited from the growth. This is not just a Singapore case, but in all developed countries”. For the majority of people in Singapore, the aforementioned developments add vibrancy to the city but are changes that do little to help people meet their daily needs. In some cases, they have had the opposite effect by transforming public resources into private goods and making the city more expensive.

“For Singaporeans with family, it’s not so simple. Their budget is not so simple. You run the family, you pay for your mortgage, you pay for the children’s fees; so it’s not so simple to have what you need to have. I think the issue here is whether the increasing productivity has been translated into shorter working hours for everybody. Whether they have more space, have more time for friends and family- that is the issue,” added Lim. Hence, there is an urgency to address ways of improving the city to allow people time to spend with their loved ones. This should be part of the urban development process.

In Lim’s humble opinion, “it is a political decision to shorten the hours. It’s a political decision, [to] improve the transport. But, if you keep increasing the number of people in Singapore, the public transport is going to be difficult.” I believe the purpose of improving transport is to ensure a comfortable ride and shorter travel time and distances at an affordable price. Shorter travel time and distances would mean that people are able to travel to and fro to work and to school easily, giving them more time to spend with family and friends.

This made me wonder: is Singapore’s vibrancy and growth mainly for affluent, high-income groups and tourists? If so, what kinds of interventions might be possible to benefit the city as a whole?

In the recent past, there have been various developments in the Singapore’s public transport system that have had broad benefits, such as added bus and MRT services, wheelchair accessible buses, etc. Although, nothing comes for free these have made the city more accessible for everyone. “Your transport all seems to improve but you have to pay for it,” said Lim. In other words, the public will eventually need to pay more cash to maintain and improve the system. Moreover, developed roads, increase the demands placed on the city by increasing numbers of motorists, and the expansion of road infrastructure could mean that the public—including the majority of non-users—have to pay back sunk costs with their taxes or  through other fees. This is the case is most developed countries today.

Apart from these financial burdens, fuel leaks and carbon emissions add environmental pollution and health hazards to the list of broader impacts of transportation on the city’s livability. Furthermore, the travel distance has not been addressed. For instance, it takes approximately 2-hours for some people to travel to work and back home via public transport. Adding to this, at peak hours the system is already overcrowded. Hence, what other possibilities are there for the majority of public who do not own a vehicle? Is there a possibility to retrofit infrastructure to have an inclusive urban development plan that provides everyone a freedom of travel choice? Given the increasing costs of public transport it would be pragmatic to look at other viable alternative modes of transportation too.  How about cycling?

A Bike Friendly and People Friendly City

“Cycling has to be taught as a crucial thing. But you have to provide proper bicycle lanes” said Lim. He explained that reducing the number of car lanes and adding bicycle lanes would be an effective way to use the transport system to broadly improve the city. Currently, cycling is seen as recreational.  There are bicycle lanes off-street through park-connectors and trails in neighbourhood areas designed specifically for leisure. Can we modify the physical landscape of the city so that cycling becomes a viable alternative mode of transport for daily travel? To do this we need to rethink our infrastructure plans to make streets more accessible for cyclists to travel distances beyond their immediate neighbourhood without either delays or hazardous conditions. Cycling would be economically and environmentally beneficial. It would also have health benefits too. So, although cycling is often seen as a transport issue, building cycling into the fabric of the city would improve Singapore as a whole.

Bicycles are a low-cost mode of transport, which do not require any fuel consumption. Hence, they cause no environmental damage or health hazards through fuel emissions. Most importantly, increasing the city’s bikability would enable residents to have more physical activity leading to health benefits too. Furthermore, less car parks and road networks to accommodate automobiles would make land available for other purposes. This is benefit seems vital given the fact that land is already a scarce resource in Singapore. All of these benefits should be considered as part and parcel of making the city more livable not just more prosperous

bikes

However, if cycling is to become an alternative transport mode, it needs to be brought into the planning process in order to implement the necessary steps and to provide proper facilities. Lim mentioned that this would mean that “your office must have parking space for bicycles and you must have shower places for people to change. All this is fairly simply. It can be done. It has been done in other countries.” Lim added, “it’s not to get rid of cars, but you can give less privilege to the cars” so that the urban development process would not only include the top 10 percent but also the lower- and middle-income earners as well.

Having said all this, there are also various challenges in setting up a whole new alternative approach to transport. This would mean reimagining our existing roads and rearranging them to be shared with motorists and cyclists. It might also entail narrowing of motorists’ lanes, increasing traffic density (if not developed with careful planning), and potential conflicts between motorists and cyclists or between pedestrians and cyclists.

Nonetheless, Lim believes that many developed countries would not have adopted this transport mode if it was not worth the effort. Therefore, the best outcome might be to involve the public in urban development plans so as to identify potential issues and find solutions to them. The public should be given a role in taking part in the urban development planning from the initial stages all the way to implementation and post-implementation processes for future developments.

In Singapore, “the public opinion is becoming increasingly relevant. I think the government is slowly changing their position to include some in the government, some in the civil service and some in the academic circle. They have begun to make minor concessions of the public opinions. So certain changes are taking place on different issues”, said Lim.

In so doing, it ensures greater inclusivity of urban development processes that would result in improved productivity, development and sustainability.

 

-This blog post is written based on an interview with Mr William Lim on 22 July 2014.-