Mega-Urban Regions (MURs) in Asia

Based on the reading:

Jones and M. Douglass, eds., (2008) The Rise of Mega-Urban Regions in Pacific Asia – Urban Dynamics in a Global Era (Singapore: Singapore University Press).

I appreciate the author’s approach of a “local-global” framework, when analysing the Mega-Urban Regions (MURs) in Pacific Asia. In particular, I quite like the layered analysis involving (1) the image of the conventional Western megapolis which served as comparison, (2) the historical contexts of the different MURs, and (3) how the MURs have each been linked to the global economy in different ways at different times.

Among the demographic and transition-linked factors of the morphology of MUR expansion in Pacific Asia, I am most intrigued by the interactions between the socio-political “local” and the economic “global”.

While it is easy to frame the development of MURs in terms of a simple “commodity trade –> export-oriented industrialisation –> global retail consumption –> global finance capital” narrative, the emphasis on the local governments and their local stakeholders has added much nuance to the author’s analysis. Demographic trends, rural-urban migration, the reliance on automobiles and the marginalisation of pedestrians’ interests, socio-political legacies of pre-capitalist or colonial pasts, these discussions informed me greatly about the layers that make up the MURs in the region, and prompted me to consider the layers that too make up the city I grew up in – Singapore.

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 9.53.18 AM
A slide from Prof Douglass illustrating the layers of influences that make up our cities today

Granted, I have never seen the hollowing out of the city centre. It was already hollow, since I first knew it. Nor have I witnessed the commodities trade – either it occurred too long ago, or Singapore never quite had commodities (I suspect, it’s the latter). For all the entrepôt trade that Singapore had boasted of, as a child, I have never seen any of these “trade” activities too. Although, I suspect I have simply been the unsuspecting beneficiary of well-considered urban planning. The ports, to my knowledge, were situated far away from residential and business areas, and close to industrial clusters, which I had no reason to visit growing up.

Interestingly, spatial polarisation in Singapore never quite occurred, at least not to the naked eye. When an overwhelming majority of the population live in high-rise public housing estates designed to congregate residents of various socioeconomic strata, it takes a trained eye to notice the slight differences in the colour schemes of different housing blocks and how private estates, even country clubs, are often hidden from plain sight through narrow winding roads and strategic patches of trees and greenery. A commendable point, though, is how this city-state has often managed to, within each township, situate public amenities within walking distance of both public and private housing, such that there is always considerable equity for the things that matter in our daily living. [This, though, has become increasingly challenging. The things that matter in our daily living have increased and changed over the years.]

All that said, I have felt the impacts of a falling fertility rate and, by extension, a shrinking local workforce. The demand for migrant labour has led to visible changes in the urban landscape. The socio-political “local” has taken centre stage in such affairs, nudging economic “global” out of the spotlight. Arguments against worker dormitories (NIMBY: Not In My Backyard) have led to a spatial polarisation between the migrant labourers who build this city and those residents who have refused to live alongside them. A riot in Little India prompted a prohibition on the sale of alcohol and restrictions on the consumption of alcohol in public beyond 10.30PM in the evening. Civil society groups such as TWC2 have responded by appealing to (or lobbying) the government for better working and living conditions for migrant labourers. Recently, we have also heard news of dormitory operators which have upped their game – offering a gym, games room and cinema in one such dormitory.

The challenges that local policymakers face go beyond migrant labour. Singapore’s mono-centric urban setting has posed challenges to transport capacity planning, as an increasing number of residents make their way towards the city’s core for work each day. Over the past five to ten years, the public transport operators’ oversight in this area has led to a deterioration of the transport experience, which adversely impacts labour productivity and the residents’ sense of wellbeing. In response to this, Singapore’s government has planned for major changes in how the city’s commercial and industrial activities are clustered, with accompanying high-level strategies. The move from a mono-centric to a poly-centric setting would likely alter the way Singapore, as an Urban Region (perhaps not “Mega”), in dramatic fashion and provide a point of reference for nearby MURs, such as the Greater Jakarta region (Jabodetabek) or up north in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Already, the neighbours have signed a Memorandum of Understanding regarding a joint development High-Speed Rail project, which is expected to impact the urban development trajectories of Kuala Lumpur, Jurong and the townships that lie along the high-speed railway. While some might claim a victory for universalising global economy or menacing “urban”, I am slightly more optimistic that the “local” – comprising historical, cultural, political and economic ties between Malaysia and Singapore – will continue to exert its unique influence in the morphology of the MURs in this part of the world.

And I intend to become more aware and, perhaps, more intentional about it.

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