The Burden of ASEAN Cities

Jirayudh Sinthuphan

On the 30th of April 2019, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo of Indonesia called a special cabinet meeting to approve a long-term plan for the government to abandon overcrowded, sinking and polluted Jakarta. One of the three relocation options is to build a new capital outside Indonesia’s most populous island, Java. Other alternatives include moving the capital to a location near Jakarta or staying put and relocating all government buildings to a special zone around the presidential palace.

It was not the first time a country came up with a plan to move its capital city. India moved its capital from Calcutta to New Delhi. Myanmar moved its capital city from Yangon to Naypyidaw. Nigeria moved its capital from Lagos to Abuja. Pakistan moved its capital from Karachi to Islamabad. Brazil moved its capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia. Egypt is also in the process of building a new capital in the desert.

For some people, the relocation of a capital city seems like a sensible idea. Others remain skeptical and do not think that moving the administrative body out of an overcrowded city would solve its underlying problems.

Jakarta, like many other cities in Southeast Asia, is laden with many problems. This brief article attempts to historicize and contextualize cities in the ASEAN, in order to unpack how our cities have arrived where they are and what burdens the citizens of these cities have to bear.

Cities in the ASEAN

The development of cities in the ASEAN has followed similar pathways of urban transformation. Their journeys from traditional settlements to modern cities has never been initiatives from within, nor that it has been gradual. The process had constantly been driven and disrupted by external factors, namely Colonialism, the Cold War and Globalization.

These external factors have informed both our city’s physical transformation and societal consequences, as well as defining our ideas of what a city should accomplish. An ASEAN city, whether it is Bangkok, Manila, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, usually has multiple and intersecting identities. It is a traditional, colonial, Cold War and globalized city all at once.

A Traditional City refers to a pre-colonial settlement that is inhabited by local communities and is structured by traditional ways of life. Its layout often appears idiosyncratic, disorderly and even claustrophobic to our modern sensibility.

The old quarter in Bangkok or Hanoi, for example, is crisscrossed with winding and narrow lanes shared by everyone and almost every human activity. Apart from its logistical purposes, a lane in a traditional city is also used as a market, a playground, a park, a kitchen and a living room by citizens.


A Street in Old Singapore

Remnants of such a way of life can still be observed in cities throughout the ASEAN. It often sparks a tense debate over the dichotomy of heritage and progress, as well as a question of ownership and function of our streets or other public spaces within a city.

A Colonial City is defined by orderliness and societal segregation. The Spanish designed Manila and Sir Stamford Raffle’s design for Singapore provided blueprints for such cities. New town plans were laid out to create orderliness that suited the lifestyles and ideals of colonial settlers.

The walled city of Intramuros in Metro Manila is an exclusively European settlement

New boulevards and carriage ways were cut through the city to commodify uncharted lands and to create boundaries between segregated communities. Everything had its own place – the market, the park, the playgrounds and even the ethnicity of inhabitants.

By means of a well-planed environment, the city was designed to carve out privilege for colonial masters and to impose control over their colonized subjects. Some areas became more livable than the others due to their prime location, infrastructures and protective defenses.


The 1822 Raffles design for colonial Singapore

Looking at the 1822 Raffles design for colonial Singapore, one can observe a division between the spacious and gridded district of the European Town and the densely populated and less planned Campongs (Kampung or Village) designated for other ethno-religious groups, namely Chinese, Kling (Indian Hindus), Chuliah (Indian Muslims), Arabs and Bugis (Malays).

As clearly seen in the city plan, a series of streets and boulevards does not only connect different communities to the political center, but they also help separate these ethno-religious communities from one another in order to prevent inter-communal violence and the formation of civil disobedience.

Green spaces and open squares were designed for public gatherings and leisurely activities within the city, but these infrastructures were reserved only for a few colonial masters. A colonial city was in fact a place of immense inequality and segregation.


City Plans of Saigon, Hanoi and Phnom Penh

Similar patterns can also be observed in the French designs for Saigon, Hanoi and Phnom Penh, where wide boulevards define the precinct of exclusively European Quarters and mark the boundaries between different ethno-religious communities.

Blessed with excellent infrastructures, well-paved streets and green space, the European quarter of a colonial city was considered a more desirable and exclusive place to live. Nowadays, we still replicate the colonial ideal of segregated exclusivity and comfort in our designs for gated communities around our densely populated inner cities throughout Southeast Asia.


The Aftermath of the 1969 Race Riot in Kuala Lumpur (left) and a Newspaper report of the 1964 Race Riots in Singapore.

Ethnic segregation of a colonial city has a deep impact on the psyche of its population. It creates a sense of separate identities that could turn into communal violence, for example the race riots in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur in the 1960s, or in Jakarta in 1998.










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Batavia or Jakarta in 1914

Batavia or Jakarta in 1914

In Dutch Batavia (Jakarta), ethno-religious communities were divided by a series of canals. Benedenstad (Old Jakarta) was reserved for the Europeans. Chinese, Betawi, Javanese and other ethno-religious communities lay farther afield along the Ciliwung river and the city’s extensive network of canals.

Sadly, Jakarta’s canals fell into a similar fate as the canals in Bangkok. As the automobile economy started to grow during the Cold War era, both cities decided to fill their canals to create more space for private cars. This not only resulted in the heavier congestion in both cities, but it also affected their environment and increased their risk of flooding.

A Cold War City is governed by fear and the expansion of political ideologies, namely of the Western Bloc, led by the United States and the Eastern Bloc, led by the Soviet Union.

Influenced by the capitalist ideal of personal ownership, private cars and private homes became a Southeast Asian aspiration. New ideas for city planning were implemented to carve out new orders and to create physical manifestations of new political and economic ideals. Green space and farmland were cleared for new commercial buildings or housing development. Buildings were getting bigger. Roads were widened to accommodate automobiles. Highways were cut through the heart of the Bangkok, Manila, Saigon and Jakarta to penetrate further into the suburban and rural areas.


Manila, Bangkok and Jakarta during the Cold War, and the manifestation of capitalist ideals

In theory, these highways were to allow freedom of movement and to bring wealth out of the economic center. In reality, they were used to transport military equipment and armed forces into Southeast Asia’s conflicting peripheries.

Instead of distributing wealth to the rural areas, urban construction projects lured rural poor into the city with the prospect of wealth and safety. From the 1950s to the 1970s Bangkok, Manila and Jakarta had grown to triple their original size, putting pressure on their societal and physical infrastructures. Overpopulation, road congestion and pollution have been common symptoms of such cities.


The Rise of Political Violence and Authoritarian Regime in ASEAN Cities during the Cold War.

Intensifying the war on communism in the rural areas drove more and more people to Southeast Asian cities. Informal settlements around cities were evidence of a political and social divide. Towards the end of the Cold War, political violence in Southeast Asian cities had increased, whereas civil liberty diminished.  

A Globalized City is driven by flows of capital and trans-borders migration. Increasingly, national public policy has been influenced by multinational companies for the benefit of foreign investors.

To ease the city’s congestion, Bangkok has got technical and planning advice from the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) who prescribed a vast network of elevated freeways. Private car ownership and economic progress were symbolically intertwined. The plan was transparently tailored to benefit Japan-Thailand auto industry. Instead of easing the traffic, the freeways had added more cars to its congested roads and destroyed its pre-existing communities.


Traffic Congestion in Bangkok and its Network of Elevated Freeways

Singapore may have taken a different route in city planning, but its well-planned city and fabulous infrastructures came at the expense of civil liberty and the creation of a sense of lost communities. It would not be far from the truth to say that the Singaporean government and transnational capitals control everything in this city state. Even so, it cannot escape from environmental threats fueled by transboundary pollution and Global Warming.

Bukit Ho Swee (left) was once the largest slum in Southeast Asia. After the fire in 1961, the area was cleared for the construction of Singapore’s first Housing Development Board’s project. It also marked a new era of city planning in Singapore

Southeast Asia’s growing manufacturing industry, commercial farming and mass tourism, which benefits the region’s economy and international demands, also contributes to the environmental issues it is now facing.

Draught, flood, increasing global temperature, plastic pollution and seasonal smog that clouds over its cities are the ASEAN’s shared responsibility. No country can solve these issues alone.

The main objective of this short article is briefly to unpack the burdens which ASEAN cities and their citizens have to carry. It was not meant to make a premature judgement, but to act as a starting point for us, the citizens of ASEAN, to understand the source, the nature and the weight of our threats.

We are carrying a great burden on our shoulders, and we must help one another to remove this burden as a community.

The Burdens of ASEAN Cities.

ASEAN CITIES Think Tank is a research collective with the aim to study best practices of social innovation and policy for cities across Southeast Asia. We want to build a network of scholars, practitioners and informed citizens who seek to improve the living condition in ASEAN cities.

You are welcome to take part in our Think Tank, by contributing your ideas or introducing us to people who are making small changes in your city.

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