CFP RGS-IBG 2018: Youth Politics in Urban Asia

Youth Politics in Urban Asia

Sponsored by Geographies of Children, Youth and Families Research Group & Political Geographies Research Group

Session conveners: Sonia Lam-Knott (Asia Research Institute, NUS) and Yi’En Cheng (Yale-NUS College)

Recent scholarship within geography, anthropology, and wider social sciences have examined the relationship between the conceptual categories of ‘youth’ and ‘politics’, developing sophisticated theories accounting for the emergent practices, spatialities, and temporalities pertaining to youth engagement and performances of politics. Young people’s politics have been conceptualised through the notions of subcultural active citizenship and  alter-activism (Juris and Pleyers, 2009), as driven by rhizomatic principles of multiplicity and non-collectivity (Funke, 2012; Graeber, 2013), or as prefigurative in which youth social action emphasises the now and the present (Jeffrey and Dyson, 2016). Youth political actions also manifest across a spectrum of visibility and tangibility, ranging from the more vernacular expressions of resilience and creative appropriation to somewhat spectacular mobilisations of youth resistance into streets, parks, campuses and public squares (Alexander, 2017). These different explorations demonstrate young people’s social action as spatially (re)configured across the collective and the individualistic, the spontaneous and the premeditated, as well as the enduring and the fleeting.

Yet, even though there is an implicit acceptance that young people (can and should) play a role in addressing social justice, inequalities, and pernicious power structures in and of cites, their social actions and politics continue to occupy the peripheries of urban scholarship. Much existing work focuses on the European and American contexts (Gordon, 2010; Kennelly, 2011) or on the Arab Spring (Foran, 2014; Hanafi, 2012). The lack of academic attention directed to youth politics within Asia presents a vast analytical oversight, especially with 60 percent of the world’s youth population residing in the region (United Nations 2013), Various Asian societies are currently negotiating how their youths should be positioned within their respective political domains. What it means for youths to be citizens-in-the-making between the governing bodies, wider society, and youths in Asia have produced political tensions and highly-visible outbursts in urban locales; this is exemplified by the longstanding youth-led anti-government, anti-corruption, and pro-democracy protests across India, Thailand, and Indonesia (Lee, 2016), along with the eruption of political uprisings marked by significant student presence such as the 2014 Sunflower Movement in Taiwan and the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong (Hsieh and Skelton, 2018).

In addition to an Asian-focused examination of how young people’s political geographies might be re-imagined and re-mapped, the session is also keen to explore the ways in which youth politics are shaped by and shaping the particularities of Asian urban contexts. Why is the ‘urban’ important? What influences does the ‘urban’ have on youth politics? We imagine ‘urban Asia’ to be geographically diverse but interconnected, and use the term to denote spatial contexts that cut across sites and scales, moving beyond dominant impressions, conjurings, and forms of cities. In particular, we are keen to examine how cities do not act as mere backdrops of young people’s politics but actively participate in the making of youthful civic actions, activisms, mobilisations, and protests. Even as we aim to catch a glimpse of the urban landscape of youth politics in Asia, we equally emphasise the importance of the nuances, complexities, flows, and interconnections within and across different Asian cities.

As such, this session draws attention to three central questions that we believe would further invigorate existing scholarship on youth politics in urban Asia:

  1. How do youth politics emerge and manifest in Asian cities, in both historical and/or contemporary contexts, and in relation to diverse forms and expressions of what constitutes the ‘political’ for the young?
  2. Acknowledging the capacity of urban contexts in actively (re)producing political action and life, what then is the role of cities in shaping, informing, and mediating ‘youth politics’ in Asia?
  3. Is it possible to conceive of a critical landscape and/or topography towards understanding youth politics in and across Asian cities, while still acknowledging the multiplicities and specificities of youth politics in the region?

We invite papers that offer theoretical and empirical insights specifically with reference to the above questions. Paper topics may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Youth political agency, identities, desires, and aspirations that inform their visions of socio-economic or political change in Asia
  • The temporalities and (trans-national/local/urban) interconnectivities of young people’s political repertoires and expressions within and across Asia cities
  • The variegated subject positions of youth (for example, within class, gender, and ethnic structures, and within friendship and/or familial networks) and the way in which such positionings inform young people’s politics
  • (Dis)embodied forms of citizenships experienced by youths and the related geographies of morality, ethics, and actions
  • Spatial registers of youth political engagements across the discursive, imaginative, emotional/affective, and (im)material dimensions
  • The spatial rules, codes, or govern-mentalities imposed by the (im)material dimensions of urban environments that defines, mediates, hinders or enables youth politics
  • ‘Youth’ as a discursive category appropriated by state and non-state actors to shape urban politics


Please submit a 250-word abstract with title and short author biography to Sonia Lam-Knott ( and Yi’En Cheng (, by 2 February  2018. Finalised list of session presenters are expected to submit a 4000-word working paper closer to the conference date.


Alexander, J. (2017). The drama of social life. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Foran, J. (2014). Global affinities: the new cultures of resistance behind the Arab Spring, in Kamrava, M. (ed.) Beyond the Arab Spring: the evolving ruling bargain in the Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 47-72.

Gordon, H. (2010). We fight to win: inequality and the politics of youth activism. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Graeber, D. (2013). The democracy project. a history. A crisis. A movement. London: Penguin Books.

Hanafi, S. (2012). The Arab Revolutions: the emergence of a new political subjectivity, Contemporary Arab Affairs 5(2): 198-213.

Jeffrey, C. and Dyson, J. (2016) Now: prefigurative politics through a north Indian lens, Economy and Society, 45(1): 77-100.

Juris, J. S. and Pleyers, G. H. (2009) Alter-activism: emerging cultures of participation among young global justice activists, Journal of Youth Studies, 12(1): 57-75.

Hsieh, Y. and Skelton, T. (2018) Sunflowers, youthful protestors, and political achievements: lessons from Taiwan, Children’s Geographies, 16(1): 105-113.

Kennelly, J. (2011) Understanding youth political engagement: youth citizenship as governance, in Citizen Youth: Culture, Activism, and Agency in a Neoliberal Era. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 19-31.

Lee, D. (2016). Activist archives: youth culture and the political past in Indonesia. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

United Nations. (2013). Regional overview: youth in Asia and the Pacific. Available at: (Accessed 15 December 2017).




Urban Soundscapes – a Week 7 Lab at Yale-NUS

Over the last week I have worked alongside Dr Jon He and the Yale-NUS College #CIPEWeek7 #UrbanSoundscapes lab students closely to curate heartland soundscapes. We started the week lab believing that this is a truly unique cross-disciplinary experience for faculty and students, bridging across science/tech, arts/humanities, and social sciences. Students dived into Singapore neighbourhood heartlands to survey and map out soundwalks, conduct sonic ethnography, reflect on intangible heritage value, cultural identity, and urban design. They recorded keynote sounds and soundmarks, analysed audio recordings, and observed pedestrian mobility and dwelling time. All these will culminate in the construction of an actual soundscape model with audio playback, integrating urban research, ethnography and spatial reasoning.

After 10 days of collaborative learning, between faculty, between students, and between faculty and students, and with completion of the Week 7 Lab, we are even more convinced that this is a boundary-crossing experience. What the students achieved is nothing short of fascinating and well over expectations. Super proud of their achievement!

Check out the Urban Soundscaping story, what students did over the last 9 days, and the fruit of their labour:




Iskandar Malaysia Field Trip

The past week has been a hectic one. On 30th September, I led the Introduction to Urban Studies students to Iskandar Malaysia for a field trip, alongside with two teaching faculty. The trip aims to communicate the point that cities are only one site in the process of urbanization, and most cities are in fact part of wider city-regions. The key concepts underpinning this part of the course are city-region and transnational urbanism. At the end of the field trip, students would have a good understanding of how cities function through interconnections as part of regions, and the broader implications that has for people’s lives.

The field trip started with the actual experience of border-crossing, where students were asked to reflect on Singapore and Iskandar as border cities and the embodied experience of human cross-border flows. We visited EduCity for our first stop, where we were given a guided tour of the precinct. This was followed by a talk focusing on the specific role of EduCity in Iskandar regional development, underscoring education and knowledge economy as a pillar of growth in the region. At University of Reading Malaysia, we learned about transnational education and how it is changing the regional economy through a surprise guest mini-lecture by provost Professor Tony Downes.

After lunch, we moved into Forest City gallery. We were given a guided tour in the exhibition hall. We learned about the planning rationales and principles behind Forest City. We also learned of the immense transnational investments mainly from China that goes into the urban project. The entire experience was highly curated from the developer’s (Country Gardens Ptd Ltd) perspective. The Forest City project is no doubt a form of aspirational urbanism.


The gallery visit was contrasted with our experience at Kelab Alami, which is an youth-led NGO that aims to address the negative ecological and livelihood impacts generated by the rapid urban development at Forest City in the last few years. Through Kelab Alamin, we learned about how urban development from a distant vision can drastically alter local communities and their livelihoods. The fishing village was affected by the damage done to local waters, and the seagrass habitat has also been partially destroyed. But we were also reminded that this is not just a Forest City issue, but historically port development as well as developers from within the region, including Singapore and Indonesia, have already on the local ecological environment.

We ended the field trip with a dinner hosted by the Kelab Alami members, home-cooked fresh seafood style!


Youth Urbanisms Field Trip

On Saturday 23 September 2017, I brought a small group of students on a field trip to explore some youth spaces within Singapore. The field trip was designed to tie in classroom materials with concrete real-world settings. It also gives students an opportunity to explore possible topics for field-based project assignment. The trip started at 9am and ended at 2.30pm, coursing over three main sites: MatchBox at Ulu Pandan, Scape at Orchard, and Youth and Skate Park. Students were handed a brochure (with map) for reference and use.

MatchBox at Ulu Pandan serves as a case of off-campus student accommodation in Singapore. This is tied to the course topic on studentification and housing. The students were given a tour around the hostel compound, introduced to different room types, learned about the profile of students seeking off-campus housing provision, and the importance of proximity to universities/education institutes. We also learned that most of the students are 21 and below, which translated into some interesting and strict regulations on youth behaviour and use of spaces. Students largely hail from the Asian region (Southeast Asia and China), revealing the international student migration dynamics of the Singapore city. There was also an interesting story of ‘internal segregation’ where the South Asian students were all allocated to a single block of housing under the belief that they mix well as a “community”. One student also reflexively commented on how fortunate she was as a student living in Yale-NUS residence!

(First stop at MatchBox, an off-campus student accommodation, where we explore studentification and off-campus student cultures)

We travelled to Orchard Road for the rest of the field trip. Scape Co. Ltd is a non-profit   organization with its mission and vision rooted in support of youth, talent and leadership development. The organization aims to facilitate youth-oriented programmes and support within various communities of youth   interest in Singapore. Scape represents state-led urban   planning of a youth space in the city. The hub is currently occupied by start- ups, interest groups, non-profit youth organisations, and youth-targeted fashion stores and eateries.  It is a distinctive case of how state authorities produce a common space for culture to be groomed.

21765243_10155669302405396_5102331843178530558_n(Scape as a state-planned youth hub reflecting visions about youth citizenship)

We broke for lunch at Scape. Amidst more casual conversations, we also used some time to discuss the students’ preliminary ideas for field-based group project assignments

We stopped by Cineleisure, which forms part of the ‘Youth Triangle’ in Singapore defined alongside Heeren and Youth Park. Collectively, these places embraced youth consumption and reflects a sanctioned space by the urban planners. The mall provides an excellent window to understand urban consumption of global youth cultures. This is tied to a class topic on youth consumption and shopping mall cultures.

21764800_10155669303165396_8526932865856875972_n(Skate Park reflecting on urban play, youth culture, and spatial practices)

Finally, we did a walking tour of the Youth Park, noted its underutilization; reflected on the role of RedBox as a planned space in the urban downtown centre to promote ‘good’ youth citizenship; and ended at Skate Park where we observed skate boarding subculture, young people’s spatial practices and the liminal space that graffiti occupies in the Singapore city-state.

22007655_10155669383085396_8270855357466850515_nYSS3256 2017/18 Youth Urbanists at Lunch and group projects ideation

Recently approached to pen a commentary for Channel News Asia about private higher education in Singapore. Wrote a short piece arguing for the need to shift current discourse on private degree education as “second chance” option towards the idea that it can be socially viable alongside public universities. There is merit to the “multiple pathways to success” philosophy, but we need to avoid turning these pathways into hierarchies.

Full article copied below:


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COMMENTARY: Is private higher education a second chance?

We need to go beyond seeing private higher education as a “second chance” for those who didn’t meet entry requirements by public universities, says researcher Cheng Yi’En.

SINGAPORE: As local public universities make their mark on world ranking leagues, private institutes continue to bear the label of mediocrity.

Private degree students not only tend to be viewed in a lesser light compared to their public university counterparts, they are also not doing as well in the graduate job market.

The recent restructuring of UniSIM from a private to a public, autonomous university represents an exceptional case. Many other private institutes will remain non-elite institutes responding to growing aspirations of both local and international degree-seeking students.

According to an Asian Development Bank report, a large proportion of private institutes in Asia occupy the bottom of the prestige hierarchy within their domestic higher education landscape.

This is in part due to private institutes taking on a demand-absorbing role. Private institutes absorb the demand that public institutions, usually with more exclusive admissions criteria, cannot accommodate.

So public universities end up with the academically best students, while private institutes stay “second chance” options.


The perception that a private degree education is a “second chance” for those who were not accepted into public universities is prevalent among the general public, including administrators, educators and even private education students themselves.

Lack of information, stereotypes and old mindsets about the merits of a public university education handed down from the older generation may have perpetuated negative views about private degree education.

On the flip side, some see private education institutes as meeting a growing demand for qualifications. Private institutes serve as an additional route to obtain a degree for those who did not manage to secure a spot in a local public university.

Private institutes also offer young working adults, including those who decided to enter the working world before returning to university, with flexible course arrangements to upgrade their qualifications.

Even so, given that so many students see private higher education as a substitute for public higher education, the more important question may be whether both put graduates on equal footing.

The answer looks like a no. The first graduate employment survey on students from nine private institutes who graduated in 2014 found that 42 per cent of them were unable to secure full-time jobs within six months of completing their studies. This is striking contrast to an 83 per cent successful full-time job rate among public university students.

Private degree graduates also command a lower pay compared to their public university peers.

A second important question is what can be done to close this gap and even the unequal playing fields between private and public higher education. I think part of the answer lies in shifting the present discourse from private degree education as a “second chance” towards seeing it as a “socially viable” option.

For the public to see private education as a socially viable alternative – it has to be an acceptable mainstream option that university entrants think of alongside public universities. This is a mammoth task – asking that society’s mindset regarding the quality of private education graduates change, particularly those of hirers, educators and parents. This means that private institutes must up their game to strengthen their value-add to students’ educational and learning experiences.


The Committee for Private Education recently strengthened its framework by introducing a new criterion for private institutes to assess graduate employment. This is a right step forward as the private education sector should be held responsible for producing graduates who can compete in the job market.

But the manner in which youths are being prepared for the future economy needs to go beyond industry-relevance.

Professor Philip Altbach, prominent scholar, researcher and commentator of higher education, argued that industry skill-based education has been “overblown”. He is of the opinion that higher education should not be overly fixated on responding to vocational needs and job demands, but should aim to train our young to adopt a broader and flexible way of thinking.

Local public universities are increasingly keen to shift higher education toward holistic learning, critical thinking and adaptive competences. For instance, NUS has established a Centre for Future-ready Graduates which runs programmes designed to equip students with a toolbox of “broad-based essential life skills”.

It is important that private institutes similarly respond to this shift to set themselves on a more equal footing with public universities and prepare their graduates to navigate a rapidly changing labour market.

Being sensitive to employability and industry needs is still important. But it is equally crucial to offer our young people an opportunity to acquire lifelong habits of the mind such as creativity and flexible thinking that is central to the learning journey of higher education.


In an earlier commentary on ‘the age old question on university rankings’, one keen observer pointed out that university rankings matter because “coming from a highly-ranked university sends the signal that this person has potential and is poised for success because they beat many others to get into a top-notch school in their youth”. The author added that “if students’ key objective is getting a headstart in their working lives, (university rankings) should matter to them too.”

To be told this brutal fact from someone who has more than 10 years’ experience in executive search is especially disquieting.

For one, employers and hirers need to give more consideration to broadly defined skill sets and aptitudes, rather than fixating on degree credentials and university brand names. If employers and hirers adopt an “elitist” mentality and continue to be obsessed with reputation built on an unequal ground that privileges public universities, the job market will continue to bear out this bias.

A truly meritocratic system will consider the potential and capabilities of each individual, in deciding who the best person for the job is, compared to one that is fixated on educational credentials.

There is merit in the philosophy that there are many pathways to success – whether through a private higher education after working for a few years or a public university right after, or even in considering a polytechnic position rather than a junior college route. What we need now is to avoid turning these pathways into hierarchies.

Over recent years, we have witnessed an increase in students who did well in O levels actively opting for polytechnics, so we have no reason to think that private higher education cannot likewise become a mainstream path.

Private higher education has the potential to be a boon and a bane in every society. It is what we do collectively to ensure it does more good and enable our youths to chase their dreams that matter.


Original article on ChannelNewsAsia:



The (educational) ‘mobility imperative’ – a glean from Singapore’s history

Intellectuals and observers claim that there is an imperative to move for education. For example, educational researcher Forsey (2017, p.67) writes: “We live in a mobile modernity that is propelled and compelled by formal education.” Others begin to address the dominant rhetoric that “mobility has become an ‘imperative’” for students. In Singapore, mobility is not only a coveted experience among many young people, it is also a prized cultural capital that many students, educators, or anyone barely familiar with the education system can identify with.

But the significance of mobility is not new. It is not a novel act, status, or experience that only emerge in the twentieth and twenty-first century spatial-temporal imaginary – or bluntly known as “globalisation”. In this post, I muse a little about the historically entrenched construct of mobility, by which I mean the actual movement abroad, and the ‘forgotten’ role of youth within this.

school-for-chinese-girls-singapore-singapore_1152_13026909251-tpfil02aw-1010 (Source)

Colonial Singapore: education, travel, and the Queen’s Scholarship

Contemporary discourses and practices around social mobility, movement, and education in Singapore need to be understood through historically influenced (colonial) ideas of what it means to be ‘educated youth’. The city’s education landscape under early British colonial empire was more invested in providing administrative skills to civil service staff who are supporting the colonial administration, rather than responding to the need for a sustainable education system for the local population (Gopinathan, 1974). But by the late nineteenth century, the colonial government was compelled by ‘reformers’ – many of whom formed the earliest few elite, highly-educated ‘mobile youths’ of the Straits – to improve educational access. Colonial schooling remained the privilege of a select few; and access to higher education before the setting up of Raffles College (currently National University of Singapore) in 1928 was possible only through overseas pursuits.

Movement and specifically departure for the ‘west’ was in this sense an integral narrative in Singapore’s history of education. A key conduit for higher education in colonial Singapore was the creation of the prestigious Queen’s Scholarship, which was replaced by the Singapore State Scholarships and then renamed President’s Scholarship as it is currently known.

The Queen’s Scholarship was introduced in 1885 by the Governor of the Straits Settlement, Cecil Clementi Smith, for young people in Singapore (and Malaya). The intention was to provide the brightest students in the Straits to receive a university education in Britain and using the prospect of overseas education to encourage young people to stay in school at a time when school dropouts and early entry to the labour market was commonplace. Scholarships were highly competitive and selected through a stringent examination set up by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate. By 1903, most of the Queen’s scholars comprised of youth in Singapore who had studied at the elite Raffles Institution. Those who returned secured prestigious careers in medicine, law, and engineering.

However, the scheme began to attract criticism from some sections of the European, mainly that the system was depriving secondary and primary schools of funds and skewing education toward the elite few. There was also a burgeoning sense that ‘western’ education might threaten colonial status quo as in the case of India.  The government began to cut back on the number of scholarships awarded in 1907 and totally ceased the scheme in 1911. As Pomfret (2015, p.235) notes, travel and study in British empires was connected with growing intellectual energies of Asian youth and represented liberation “from the dead hand of ‘tradition’ and the suffocation of the individual within the authoritarian structure of the family”. Previous reform-minded scholars such as Lim Boon Keng (1887) and Song Ong Siang (1888), who themselves formed the earliest cadre of highly-educated ‘mobile youths’ in the Straits, helped champion for the restoration of the Queen’s Scholarship in 1924.

Editors-SCM-235x300  (Source)

The scholarship continued to serve as a coveted marker of educational distinction, rewarding those who successfully obtain it with both physical and social mobility. Scholars such as Turnbull (1977) noted that the scheme generated a degree of public aspiration among denizens in Singapore and Malaya towards British higher education. The wealthiest parents who could afford it began to send their children to British schools and universities, even without the aid of the Queen’s scholarship. This gradually resulted in a new cohort of English-educated elite who tapped into novel ideas gained from the ‘west’ to reshape ‘modernity’ in Singapore and the Straits. After Singapore became a self-governing state in 1959, the Queen’s Scholarship scheme was replaced with Singapore State Scholarships (with a bond to serve in the civil service). This new scheme put a brief halt to the ‘travel’ component of the scholarship as it was only tenable at the University of Malaya (1949-67), but quickly re-made tenable by 1964 at both local and overseas universities in a bid to frame it the most prestigious academic award available.

Post-colonial reinventions

A year later upon independence, the scholarship was renamed the President’s Scholarship and came under the administration of the Public Service Commission (PSC). During this time, the PSC expanded the range of overseas government scholarships, including the Singapore Government Scholarships for Humanities Studies at Oxford and Cambridge in the late 1960s, and the Singapore Armed Forces Overseas Scholarship and Overseas Merit Scholarships in the 1970s (PSC, 2017). The PSC also extended the Singapore Government Scholarships that originally targeted Oxbridge to include Australia and New Zealand in early 1980s, and subsequently to rest of the UK in 1988 and the US in 1996. From colonial to post-independence Singapore, overseas travel for university education has been formulated as a prized experience among young people as prestige and status become tied to the state’s endorsement for mobility.

From colonial to post-independence Singapore, overseas travel for university education has been formulated as a prized experience among young people as prestige and status become tied to the state’s endorsement for mobility.

The post-independent Singaporean government also gave exceptional emphasis on human capital and civic virtues such as talent, hard work and individual merit. Given that the late twentieth century nation-building project was to mould Singapore into a “multiracial, non-communist, non-aligned, and democratic socialist state” (Chan, 1991: 158), the government drew on the egalitarian aspect of meritocracy to give this political ideology its legitimacy. Since then, meritocracy – broadly conceived “as a practice that rewards individual merit with social rank, job positions, higher incomes, or general recognition and prestige” by giving “all potentially qualified and deserving individuals an equal and fair chance of achieving success” (Tan, 2008, p.8) – has remained a cornerstone philosophy underpinning the state’s strategy to ensure social mobility. Under this principle, the ideal system by which individuals can earn their place in the society is through a system of ‘merit’ that would be measured by grades at school and university (and performance in workplace).

What ensued after the creation of this “brave new meritocracy” was a series of “incremental structural shifts in education policy… which made meritocracy part of the lived experience of generations of parents and children” (Barr and Skrbiš, 2008, p.60). This process folded into an enduring system of a ‘conveyor belt’ system that stream and track students based mainly on academic performance, even as newer policies aimed at softening this rigidity remain ambivalent (Lim, 2013; Cheng, 2016). These political interventions and experiences of education in Singapore led to the crystallization of a particular understanding of ‘youth’, tied to new age-specific and classed understandings of citizenship life itself. Educated middle-class youths conceptualise their trajectories of age and assign for themselves normalized goals, with securing a ‘good’ degree education often invoked by Singaporean youths as key to navigating significant life events such as marriage and family formation (Cheng, 2014).

These political interventions and experiences of education in Singapore led to the crystallization of a particular understanding of ‘youth’, tied to new age-specific and classed understandings of citizenship life itself.

Mobility in Singapore’s ‘global education’

As the city-state propels into the current global imaginary, historically borne discourses amd practices around educational mobility continue to shape contemporary geographies of young people and educational restructuring. Overseas scholars are still considered the ‘cream of the crop’ under intensified versions of educational brilliance and excellence (i.e. ‘all-rounders’ who are able to succeed in both academic and extra-curricular activities). Top ranking civil service personnel and state elites continue to be dominated by overseas educated individuals armed with credentials from highly ranked universities, such as Oxbridge and the Ivy League. While channels to these reputable overseas universities have widened, the main conduit remains concentrated on a select few elite schools that enjoy disproportionate amount of resources (Ye and Nylander, 2015).

index (Source)

In addition to the idea that moving abroad for education and securing overseas credentials is pertinent for social mobility, the act of travel itself has also become an embodied experience much sought after. Travel and study (e.g. overseas expedition, study abroad programme, and overseas internships) is now inscribed into almost all of Singaporean higher education institutions’ agenda, as part of their internationalization strategy as well as to encourage mobility capital among students. Local public universities in Singapore also reinvent and reposition themselves as ‘global’ universities, channeling carefully crafted efforts into scaling world university rankings and building cross-border networks (Olds, 2007; Sidhu et al., 2016). All these aimed at producing an atmosphere of mobility and cosmopolitanism.

Just as how colonial “middle-class civilising projects” (Pomfret, 2015, p.209) in part depended on its youthful subjects’ mobility, the present globalising aspirations of Singapore also partially rely on the (hyper)mobility practices of the nation’s youth.



Barr, M. and Skrbiš, Z. (2008) Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-building Project. Copenhagen, Denmark: NIAS Press.

Cheng, Y. (2014) ‘Biopolitical geographies of student life: private higher education and citizenship life-making in Singapore’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers. doi: 10.1080/00045608.2015.1059179.

Cheng, YE (2016) Learning to labour in Singapore: cultural politics of education and human capital formation, in  Tatek, A. and Waters, J. (eds) Labouring and Learning, Vol. 10 of Skelton, T. (ed) Geographies of Children and Young People, Singapore, Springer. DOI: 10.1007/978-981-4585-97-2_11-1.

Gopinathan, S. (1974). Towards a national system of Education in Singapore, 1945–1973. Singapore: Oxford University Press.

Olds, K. (2007) ‘Global Assemblage: Singapore, Foreign Universities, and the Construction of a “Global Education Hub”’, World Development, 35(6), pp. 959–975. doi: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2006.05.014.

Pomfret, D. (2015) Youth and Empire: Trans-colonial Childhoods in British and French Asia. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

PSC, Public Service Commission. (2017) Public Service Commission Scholarships: history. Available:

Sidhu, R., Collins, F., Lewis, N. and Yeoh, B. (2016) ‘Governmental assemblages of internationalising universities: Mediating circulation and containment in East Asia’, Environment and Planning A, (24). doi: 10.1177/0308518X16644255.

Tan, K. P. (2008) ‘Meritocracy and Elitism in a Global City: Ideological Shifts in Singapore’, International Political Science Review, 29(1), pp. 7–27. doi: 10.1177/0192512107083445.

Turnbull, C. M. (1977). A history of Singapore, 1819–1975. Singapore: NUS Press.

Ye, R. and Nylander, E. (2015) ‘The transnational track: state sponsorship and Singapore’s Oxbridge elite’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 36(1), pp. 11–33. doi: 10.1080/01425692.2014.967837.


From HDB flats to student hostels

This is an en bloc conversion of a HDB public flat into a student hostel, located on Woodlands Street 13. From the external physical look of it, one can never tell it is a student housing, as it blends into the surrounding HDB estate in a similar faint yellow and orange paint-work.

But if one does look carefully, the corridors are barely decorated with potted plants, shoe racks, individualised colored painting of door grilles, which is much typical of a flat populated by longer term residents. There is a sense in which the habitat is meant to be kept as a transient space; a space that is not consumed as a long term “home”. As I made this mental note, the sound of a wooden door slammed, followed by a grille crashed closed. A young lady dragged a huge suitcase down the steps and headed for the main road to get a taxi.

The surrounding area was exceptionally quiet during the time I visited between 4 and 5pm. A young female happened to be walking towards the block lift, with a NTUC plastic bag filled with grocery. I approached her. She was friendly, yet appeared to be suspicious of my awkward presence in the neighbourhood. I asked her if the block is indeed a student housing, to which she confirmed. I then asked if it is for international students. She nodded. OK, she appeared to be displaying signs of discomfort speaking to a stranger, and so I stopped “interrogating” her.

En bloc conversion of public housing to student hostel is something that has happened since early 2000s (or perhaps even earlier?). For instance, three blocks of HDB flats near the Singapore Management University’s city campus were converted into hostels in end 2006. Located between Short Street and Prinsep Street, these are able to accommodate up to 268 students in total. A year later, in 2007, it was announced that two blocks along Boon Lay Drive nearby the Nanyang Technological University, formerly home to foreign workers, were turned into a hostel for students. The 200 three-room flats built in the 1970s would mainly cater to international tertiary students as well as some low-income Singaporeans.

More recently in 2012, SUTD took over several HDB blocks nearby its campus along Dover Drive that were undergoing en bloc, as a solution to provision of student accommodation.

Know of any other cases whereby HDB flats have been en bloc converted into student hostels? Leave me a comment!

Why am I blogging about this? See: