Youth Politics in Urban Asia panel at RGS-IBG 2018

Youth Politics in Urban Asia 

Session organiser/s: Yi’En Cheng (Yale-National University of Singapore College, Singapore), Sonia Lam-Knott (National University of Singapore, Singapore)

Session 1, Session chair/s: Sonia Lam-Knott (National University of Singapore, Singapore)

  1. Violence, public space and young middle- class women’s politics in Delhi, India, S. Jenifa Zahan (National University of Singapore, Singapore) (presenter)
  2. Maps, movements and mobilities: college youth and urban and online traffic in Pune, Rahul Advani (King’s College London, UK) (presenter)
  3. Of Battles Won and Lost! New Age Child and Urban Policies: Offering Protection or Drowning Agency?, Khushboo Jain (University of Delhi, India) (presenter)
  4. Bringing the mountains into the city: Himalayan students and the politics of fun and belonging, Sara Smith (University of North Carolina, USA) (presenter)

Session 2, Session chair/s: Yi’En Cheng (Yale-National University of Singapore College, Singapore)

  1. Politicising Youth in South Korea – The Role of Seoul’s Educational Institutions, Carolin Landgraf (Goettingen University, Germany) (presenter)
  2. Digitally Centred Youth Movements in Mainland China: The 2017 Beijing eviction movement, Carwyn Morris (London School of Economics, UK) (presenter)
  3. 1Reclaiming the City by Reclaiming Urban Narratives in Hong Kong, Sonia Lam-Knott (National University of Singapore, Singapore) (presenter)
  4. Hope versus Hate? Two Countries, Two Versions of Youthful Politics, Tracey Skelton (National University of Singapore, Singapore) (presenter)

Session 3, Session chair/s: Sonia Lam-Knott (National University of Singapore, Singapore)

  1. We are the future of the nation: Young adult’s political hopes and disenchantments in urban Timor-Leste, Sara Ten Brinke (Utrecht University, The Netherlands) (presenter)
  2. Creating Space of Contention, Meredian Alam (University of Newcastle, Australia) (presenter)
  3. “Kampung Kota Merekam”: Writing as Activism of Urban Youth in Jakarta, Rita Padawangi (Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), Singapore) (presenter)
  4. Ethical citizenships crossing ‘campus’ and the ‘urban’: young people negotiating the contours of citizenship and politics, Yi’En Cheng (Yale-National University of Singapore College, Singapore) (presenter)

Upcoming talk

Corporeal Politics of Value and Youth in Singapore’s Higher Education


Contemporary research on biopolitics of youth citizenship formation has begun to shift attention to higher education spaces in the making of citizens as human capital. Since late 1990s, the so-called new knowledge economies have required governments to retool and recalibrate bodies of young people such that they may navigate more flexible and volatile economic futures. More recently, terms like “employability” and “workforce readiness” have become new responses and buzzwords within higher education, meshing with middle-class anxieties over the eroding value of degree credentials, social congestion, and youth under/unemployment. At the same time, higher education has undergone profound changes involving processes of transnationalisation and privatisation that gave rise to a new landscape of educational investment – the private higher education sector. In Singapore and many parts of East and Southeast Asia, it is largely those degree-seeking youths who have been ‘squeezed out’ of academically-competitive national universities that have turned to this fresh opportunity to pursue their aspirations. How is this segment of youth being constituted as ‘citizens’ in the city-state’s project to become an international and regional node for higher education?

In this presentation, I discuss the case of private higher education in contemporary Singapore with attention to domestic students’ experiences. I elaborate on how private degree students are drawn into an intensified form of educational investment, requiring them to accumulate personalized forms of capital in ways that serve as a bulwark against negative representation. However, such claims to value are not straightforwardly accumulative, but aimed also at preserving a measure of personal worth and recognition. In doing so, I point to the corporeal politics of value and youth that underpin contemporary higher educational restructuring, revealing important lessons about hierarchies of value among citizenship formation and the paradox of higher education in producing social inclusion/exclusion.  


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: