WWWarisan #8 is out

Just a quick post to let you know that the 8th edition of my heritage newsletter, WWWarisan, is now out. You can read the newsletter online here. If you enjoyed reading the letter and want monthly heritage headlines delivered straight to you inbox, do consider subscribing – which you can do here.


Shared heritage, shared resources

Our lab’s research on stained glass in Singapore has been featured in KU Leuven’s Documentation and Research Centre for Religion, Culture and Society (KADOC) newsletter.

As the article notes, these windows are an ‘example of shared heritage’. Design drawings and cartoons in the KADOC archive allowed us to confirm the authorship of a number of windows across the island, and fill gaps in the history of stained glass in Singapore.

Among our finds were the working drawings for a window at the former St Joseph’s Institution campus on Bras Basah Road, which was lost during the Second World War. By comparing this with the one extant photograph of the school chapel we had access to, we were able to confirm the window’s authorship by the famed Dobbelaere atelier, and identify the lost window’s iconographic programme.

Researching these windows has been a good reminder of how interconnected our world has always been, with ideas and materials being transported across the world through networks of trade and missionary work. The project has also highlighted how incredibly useful digital archives are – this article simply wouldn’t have been possible otherwise (saving a trip to Leuven).

I’m particularly grateful to Patricia Quaghebeur of KADOC for her assistance with our research, and her infinite patience with my weak command of the Dutch language.

Windows in to History

The latest edition of the National Library Board’s quarterly, BiblioAsia, is out now. The title feature by my boss Dr Yeo Kang Shua and Swati Chandgadkar looks at the fascinating history of Singapore’s stained glass windows – and features some archival research done by yours truly. Check it out.

I spent the last week participating in an MIT-SUTD digital heritage workshop which served as a crash course in digital photogrammetry and augmented reality. Will have to find the time to write about it in greater detail, but it was very exciting to learn new techniques for documenting and creating heritage in virtual environments — and a real privilege to work with some great visiting scholars from MIT. 

A new piece in New Mandala

Just a quick update. I wrote a short op-ed on some of the threats facing Melaka and George Town  Malaysia’s UNESCO-listed historic cities  for New Mandala. For me, the two cities highlight issues of urban governance that are relevant to Malaysia as a whole.

The mounting urban crisis in these historic cities highlights a couple of issues. Firstly, the weak enforcement of building codes – especially to protect heritage. Secondly, the need for careful planning to mitigate the unintended social and spatial consequences that accompany rapid development.

You can read the rest of the article here.

The worlds we cannot see

Last night I met some friends for dinner and drinks at Changi Village. It’s a great little spot, and it feels a world away from the city. (By public transport, it sort of is). The buildings are a little lower here, the trees a whole lot bigger. I heard more Hokkien than Mandarin or English.

As I walked through the hawker centre and to the pub, I passed a bunch of tables being set up for a festive dinner. It’s the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, widely known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, and these community dinners aren’t an unusual sight in Singapore. It is a time when the lines between this world and the next are said to thin, and paper offerings are burnt for unseen visitors from far away. As I walked down the hill and towards the beach, my path was littered with bits of joss paper and hell money; the smell of smoke from big metal urns mixed with the brackish smell of the strait.

The beach was crowded too, with people of all ages playing Pokémon Go. A young couple sat under a tree, their faces glowing in the shared light of a single phone. A man in his sixties plodded gently behind his grandson, laughing as he exhorted the kid to slow down.

Later at the pub, it struck me that most of these people — both the people celebrating Hungry Ghost Festival and those playing Pokémon Go — were prompted to occupy and activate a physical space because of things unseen. Two invisible realms, the virtual and the spiritual, had superimposed their cartography on the physical world.

Now obviously there are great differences between a religious festival and a video game, and I am certainly not trivialising spiritual practices. What interests me is the ways in which our use of space can be reshaped by things not visible to the naked eye. Only a spirit medium or a smartphone could decipher the invisible forces that brought some of those people to Changi Village last night. And in both instances, real-world currency had been spent on items for unseen worlds: the worshippers had bought paper offerings for visiting ghosts; the gamers had bought in-game items to attract virtual monsters.

Last night I was reminded how we often can’t see the things that shape urban processes, that we are blind to the invisible lines that are drawn over the physical landscape. We live in a world criss-crossed by lost roads and half-grown paths trodden by people over the course of centuries. Our vistas are shaped by sight-lines drawn up by planners and by accidents of history. And often, sites of great community or spiritual significance endure — even as the cities and cultures around them change.

As augmented reality technologies become more widespread, what sites of virtual significance are going to be drawn over the invisible lines already shaping our landscape? What digital ley-lines and holloways will sit beside ancient roads and pilgrimage routes in these virtual maps of the world?

A new project: WWWarisan

Hello friends! Just a quick update this time. I’ve started a new side project called WWWarisan: Heritage Sites. This monthly email newsletter aims to cover the region’s big heritage stories, with selected updates from further afield.

If you haven’t subscribed yet, no worries — the first letter is available to read online.

You can subscribe here if you’re interested. Do feel free to @ me on twitter if you come across any heritage news items you think are worth including in the next edition. It’d be good to build up a lively, active readership — particularly as heritage issues seem to increasingly fire people up. 

I look forward to hearing from some of you. Take care till then, and keep your eyes on the street (it’s what Jane Jacobs would want you to do).

Some thoughts on archaeology and activism

It’s been an eventful week in Penang. Between the furore over a visit to the Sia Boey archaeological site and fallout from the Penang Forum’s letter to UNESCO, it seems things have come to a head there.

Much digital ink has been spilled over both of these events, so I shall confine myself to two thoughts here:

1. The uproar over the Sia Boey site visit seems, to my mind, like a lot of wasted energy on the part of the state. Anil Netto argues that ‘the PDC team and the USM archaeologists have acted with tremendous professionalism and competence in enriching our understanding of the area’. I am inclined to agree.

I’m struck by the difference between Penang and Singapore, where I am currently based. Not long ago, a significant archaeological dig was conducted at Empress Place. Not only was the media granted considerable access to this rich site — which yielded some 2.5 tonnes of artefacts from Singapore’s ancient past — but the dig itself was made possible by mobilising a small army of volunteers.

By contrast, Sia Boey has now been declared a ‘secure zone’; the public will now have to wait until November for an archaeological report from USM. This is worrying, particularly as the site was previously earmarked for a public transport hub.

If the Penang state government wishes to embody the values of ‘Competence, Accountability, and Transparency’ it so often invokes, they could do worse than to look to their neighbours to the south — at least as far as archaeology is concerned.

2. The Penang Forum’s letter to UNESCO has prompted the state to accuse NGOs of backstabbing them. While this is in itself a childish response, what really worries me is the quality of discussion that’s followed — particularly in Facebook groups such as the Penang Heritage Trust Discussions and George Town Heritage Action.

One consistent theme of the comments, echoing the state government’s own line, is that these groups have sabotaged Penang. This fundamentally misunderstands the point of the Penang Forum’s letter, which is to raise heritage concerns with UNESCO before any permanent damage is done to the World Heritage Site. It also misunderstands the role NGOs have to play in our civil society. (This is to say nothing of the political amnesia at play here — some of those involved with the letter were instrumental to securing the city’s World Heritage Listing in the first place.)

A number of commenters seem to think the Penang Forum has crossed a line by going straight to UNESCO. Yet UNESCO’s own website says:

The States Parties to the Convention should inform the Committee as soon as possible about threats to their sites. On the other hand, private individuals, non-governmental organizations, or other groups may also draw the Committee’s attention to existing threats [emphasis added]. If the alert is justified and the problem serious enough, the Committee may consider including the site on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

NGOs have therefore done nothing wrong; they have simply done their duty.

What worries me about so many of the Penang Forum’s critics isn’t that they disagree with the Forum. As citizens, they have every right to their own views. What is concerning is that they wish to silence NGOs. And the reason they wish to silence NGOs is because they do not agree with them. This is not the recipe for a healthy public sphere.

A number of commenters have gone so far as to accuse members of the Penang Forum of being Barisan cronies. As I see it, this reveals just how partisan Malaysian politics has become. This is bad news for all of us. So many Malaysians are disillusioned with the powers that be — myself included. But that shouldn’t mean giving the opposition a carte blanche. It is the job of NGOs and citizen activists to hold our politicians to account.

A robust democracy is one in which we are never afraid to question our leaders, no matter which party they belong to. As a young Malaysian, I hope for political change. But I want that change to mean more than a different set of bums in the seats of the Dewan Rakyat. I want to see a political culture that is radically transparent, one which is open to debate, disagreement, and criticism. We should always hold our leaders to account — even the ones we vote in by large margins.

One thing is certain: whether Penangites choose to speak up or sit back and listen, they will end up with the city they deserve. For my part, I am glad that Penang’s famously quarrelsome civil society is doing its thing. The state — and the nation — would be a poorer place without them.

ETA: this letter to the Malay Mail has been brought to my attention, and pretty much hits the nail on the head. If the Penang state government has been managing George Town properly, it has nothing to hide from UNESCO. If they are committed to transparency, they have nothing to fear from Penang Forum.

Komtar on Failed Architecture

Eyesore or icon, Komtar has come to represent George Town. Its transformation will be a barometer of the direction the city takes in the early twenty-first century. Across the historic centre, homes have made way for spaces of consumption, and old traders have given way to new businesses. The reinvention of Komtar’s main tower, with the seat of local government crowned by a rooftop restaurant, may well be an apt metaphor for the neoliberal city George Town is becoming.

Just another quick update. It’s not every day that one of your favourite websites agrees to publish you, but the good folks at Failed Architecture have done just that. My piece for the website looks at the fraught history of an architectural icon (or eyesore), and how redevelopment is once again making this building a contested space.

I’ve got another piece in the works for Failed Architecture — one which will look at the architectural politics of Malaysia’s planned capital, Putrajaya — but for now, please enjoy this latest love-letter to Penang.

Getting around in Penang; hearth and home in Singapore

I’ve been meaning to write something about Penang’s Transport Master Plan, which is an ambitious but (I think) highly-flawed document. That piece is still in the works as I read up more about the plan, but in the meantime, the new Penang Monthly has hit the shelves. My byline appears twice in this issue.

The first piece looks at transport and mobility for those without cars of their own. I know some of these challenges well enough — when I lived in George Town, I got around mostly on foot, sometimes by bike, and by bus when I wandered further afield.

For this piece, I spoke to confirmed pedestrians, cyclists, people in wheelchairs, and fans of ride-sharing apps to tease out how Penang’s public transport networks could be improved. What becomes clear, I think, is that planners must go beyond the abstract act of ‘planning’ and truly understand the needs of users. If we’re to break the stranglehold the car has on our cities, Malaysians need viable alternatives to the private automobile.

The second piece anticipates my recent move south.In HDB Republic:,’ I look at how Singapore’s Housing and Development Board, as well as the Urban Redevelopment Authority, manage the challenges of housing, homeownership, and heritage in this land-strapped island nation.

Singapore’s rapidly changing skyline is the product of intense spatial pressures, but increasingly, authorities here are engaging with questions of architectural heritage and urban identity when making decisions about what stays and what goes. In this respect, I think Singapore offers valuable lessons for a city like Penang and indeed the rest of the world. How do we root our sense of place in an ever-changing city?

I hope you enjoy both these articles!

Header image: Singapore’s Central Business District skyline. Image courtesy of the Urban Redevelopment Authority

Liquid assets: two pieces on Penang’s water infrastructure

I’ve written two pieces for the March issue of Penang Monthly. The first is a look at the island’s colonial water infrastructure, illustrated with historic picture postcard views. In a place known for its built heritage, the sometimes hidden heritage of the state’s waterworks turns out to be an important legacy. You can read the full story in Penang Monthly.

The second article addresses more contemporary concerns about water management. Penang is Malaysia’s thirstiest state, and while the state’s water management is the most efficient in the nation, climate change and federal politics both have the potential to stop the taps flowing. Once again, you can read more in Penang Monthly.