Batam Fieldtrip

5.30am. My mobile phone’s alarm clock went off. It’s an extremely early morning, especially for a Saturday. But it is a long day ahead. On 10 September, a group of Yale-NUS College students enrolled in Urban Studies courses took the 6am bus to Harbourfront so as to catch a morning ferry to Batam. The itinerary included around 6-8 sites, each to tell some stories about Batam’s urban development, its economic linkages to Singapore, and the social life of Batam’s inhabitants.


We embarked on our first task to look at oil rigs and ship yards. So we boarded small boats, each holding about 15 of us. The excitement of it all. It was raining.


Our next destination: Funtasy Island, a project that has been in the plan for just 20 years. Advertisement has already started, yet nothing seems to be ready. We saw only coastal bungalows under construction and man-made beach utilised by stray dogs having fun chasing each other.

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We visited government subsidised housing provided for employees and their families, each family comprised of parents and on average 3 children, living in a one room flat. And these are considered the lower-middle income group.


We observed a divided Batam city. Built and managed housing on the one hand; informal settlement on the other hand.


We obtained an ethnographic portrait of one of the families living in the informal settlement. They earn an income from subcontract, informal work performed in the house, by the women who sort out bottle caps, while the men take charge of delivering them to a (recycling?) plant to sell them off.


We spotted Batam’s children and how they play in a space that clearly does not integrate the concept of childhood leisure, as well as their shrewd ways of overcoming problems.


We explored and rested our feet inside a built shopping mall, except that the only shop was the hipster cafe we bought coffee from.

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The students also visited a fishing village. But it is perhaps no more a fishing village given that we learned most of the young adult men and women are finding work elsewhere. Those who stayed behind engage in their own economy involving vegetables, fruits, and snacks market.  The fishing village is also perceived as “eye sore” by the official now that a brand new hotel is built just within 1 km or so away.

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We ended our evening at a waterfront development, modeled after Dubai’s “The World”. Largely aspirational, the idea was to revalue the waterfront and create a Sentosa (or MBS?) space to attract tourists. Yes, we paid ticket fees to enter.


And there was foam party that evening. They had the cosmopolitan, progressive, circuit party music. They had the foam. But the the less-than-100 crowd in the foam is not quite what I imagined foam parties to be about.






AAG 2017 CFP: Theorizing Citizenship in Higher Education: Students as Agents for Change?

CFP: American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting 2017, Boston MA, 5-9 April

Theorizing Citizenship in Higher Education: Students as Agents for Change?

Convenors: Mark Holton (Plymouth University) and Yi’En Cheng (Yale-NUS College)

Citizenship – whether it is constitutional-legal status tied to certain rights and responsibilities; or practiced by people as they navigate obstacles to carve out spaces and communities of belonging; or even as embodied, sensuous, and felt within the psychic and emotional realms – is central to a repertoire of issues in contemporary restructuring of higher education around the world. Recent research has begun to question how various processes are changing students’ ideas and practices around citizenship: from the increasingly globalised networks of students moving around the world to the neoliberalization of higher education policies that have heavily marketized (transnational) degree programmes, term-time accommodation, and student organizations and unions; from the mounting pressure on students to search for and acquire ‘useful’ cultural and embodied capitals, such as critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and global competencies, to the ways in which students’ identities are negotiated, accepted, or rejected on campuses. At the same time, class, gender, race/ethnicity and other social differences continue to act as prisms through which inequalities are [re]produced, even though these can also occur alongside hopeful practices of love, care, solidarity, and anti-injustice. Analyses of interactions across structure, agency, and change are part and parcel of writings about these young people’s educational lives. How might the notion of citizenship help frame these ongoing discussions and/or open up conversations about students-as-citizens? What kinds of citizenships are emerging in these different moments of higher educational change? Relatedly, how can that further our understanding of higher education spaces as contentious, politicized, and possibly radical locations?

In this session, we explore how citizenship can be theorized in diverse contexts of higher education, across both the global north and south. By fostering a dialogue between citizenship studies and geographies of higher education, the session will allow us to rethink and renew the research agenda on the geographies of higher education students. We are interested in multiple ways of thinking about citizenship as informed by students’ experiences during and beyond term-time, their mobilities across various scales and borders, as well as their engagement with explicit and implicit forms of politics. We want to unpack the ways in which dominant understandings of the ‘student voice’ and the ‘student experience’ in higher education are assembled through representations, discourses, and practices of citizenship within particular political-economic and socio-cultural regimes. We are also keen to examine students’ responses to the burdens placed upon them in terms of peer, institutional and policy pressures and the extent to which this might act as potential catalysts for change. Papers that offer fresh materials, theoretically and empirically, to advancing existing scholarship on the geographies of citizenship in higher education and student lives are especially welcomed.

Please submit a 250-word abstract with title and short bio to Mark Holton ( and Yi’En Cheng (, by 20 September 2016.


Symposium on Youth Mobilities & Immobilities

So I have been working with Brenda Yeoh (NUS) and Shanthi Robertson (Western Sydney) on a workshop – regrettably we did not have time to do a call for papers – on youth mobilities and immobilities in the Asia-Pacific region. The workshop idea first conceived when Shanthi approached Brenda, who then enrolled me into the project. Great to be part of the team. This will take place at Asia Research Institute’s new home, back at the Kent Ridge Campus, National University of Singapore, on 7-8 November 2016. We hope to have a diverse and excellent line-up of speakers to explore and renew an agenda for youth mobilities in the region. I think it will be a great 2 day workshop and am looking forward to it!


Youth Mobilities and Immobilities in Asia-Pacific Region

Young people in the Asia-Pacific increasingly move around for work, education and leisure. Traditional typologies of ‘sending’ and receiving’ countries in the region are changing, with countries such as Australia and Singapore serving not only as significant hubs for incoming and outgoing youth migrants, but also as places of transit, stop-over and temporary stays. Current national policy frameworks tend to encourage much of this mobility, reflecting the widely accepted view that transnational mobility will provide young people with enhanced life chances and competitive job skills, as well as benefit national and local communities more broadly through remittances, skills transfer, cultural diplomacy networks and an increasingly cosmopolitan and agile workforce. Furthermore, significant and increasingly diverse commercial interests facilitate youth mobilities throughout the region. This covers a wide spectrum of processes, from the trafficking and recruitment of marginalized young people into unskilled and undocumented labour flows, to the development of commercial enterprises around international education, voluntourism, internships and ‘working holidays’ that target a burgeoning population of middle-class youth.  Varied forms of mobility, whether residential mobility out of the family home, rural-urban mobility, inter-urban mobility or cross-border mobility are increasingly connected across young peoples’ pathways to adulthood, and are positioned as desirable and desired experiences for many youth. Virtual mobilities and digital spaces play an increasingly important role both in these mobility aspirations as well as in the facilitation of mobile realities.

Desires for mobility are, however, equally underpinned by senses of global interconnectivity, and senses of increasingly precariousness of local and emplaced social and economic security. As such, the realities faced by varied groups of youth on the move are often obscured by aspirational positionings of mobility. For young women and men caught at the margins of enduring patterns of social division, mobility often engenders a set of new challenges and vulnerabilities.  And, even for ‘middling’ and elite mobile youth, the actual outcomes and ongoing impacts of different forms of mobility across social, civic and economic domains are still poorly understood, and could be unevenly experienced. Further, in a context in which mobility is often seen to confer advantage or social capital, the consequences of immobility for contemporary youth, and a sense of how mobility and immobility work together across young people’s lives at various stages, warrants further attention.

This workshop seeks to open a dialogue between youth studies and migration studies within a mobilities paradigm to begin to set a renewed research agenda around youth and im/mobilities in the Asia-Pacific and beyond. Youth studies has often focused on young people as emplaced, rather than mobile subjects, and, with a few exceptions (e.g. Coe et al 2011), migration studies seldom foregrounds youth experiences (Cairns 2014:2), tending to focus on adult migrants or transnational families. In addition, while there is a wealth of literature on particular forms of youth mobility, such as the prolific amount of work on student mobility and education, and the more emerging studies into voluntourism and leisure mobilities, connections across and between these literatures, and their connections to other forms of mobility are yet to be fully explored.

Within this context, we identify three key aspects around youth and im/mobilities that require further attention. First, very little research examines the actual impacts of different constellations of mobilities on young people’s experiences, including how these are configured in relation to immobility, friction and other ‘less-than-mobile’ states of being (e.g. Cresswell, 2010). Second, how are contemporary processes of youth migration and mobile practices intertwined with historically specific local and regional narratives about places, political regimes, and cultures of class, gender, ethnicity etc.? Third, the concept of ‘youth’ needs to be problematised both as an age-related category and as a set of discourses informing the work of governments, actors in different social institutions, and young people themselves (Durham, 2000; Ruddick, 2003).

We gather scholars whose works are related to Asia-Pacific youth im/mobilities to begin a conversation, in the format of paper presentation and discussion. The aim is to carefully examine the types, motivations, conditions and outcomes of mobility amongst a diverse set of young people across the region of the Asia-Pacific in order to understand its actual effects at various scales – from the impact of im/mobility on individual life choices and chances, to how im/mobility is changing forms of social and economic infrastructure, including how nation-states are seeking to govern and direct youth on the move to specific ends. Some of the key framing questions we seek to address include, but are not limited to:

• How are different spatio-temporal forms of mobility (cross-border, intra-national, temporary, permanent etc.) and motivations for mobility (work, leisure, lifestyle, education) interconnected for youth on the move?
• How do immobility and stasis also configure into the interconnection?
• What critical concepts and methods can bring together developments in critical youth studies and migration studies to further youth mobilities research?
• How are infrastructural processes (state policies but also commercial enterprises) implicated in the facilitation but also the construction of emerging youth mobilities?
• What are their implications for the lived experience and the outcomes of im/mobility?


Prof Brenda S.A. YEOH
Asia Research Institute, and Department of Geography, National University of Singapore
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Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University, Australia
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Division of Social Sciences, Yale-NUS College, Singapore
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Upcoming talk: NTU

Recently finished my talk at National Institute of Singapore, with a good turn-out and set of questions. Really enjoyed the opportunity to speak at length about my research – though it is was the first time I had to speak for 40 minutes non-stop! Presentations at conferences and workshops are usually kept within 15-20 minutes at the most.

I will be giving another version of the talk on 8 March 2016, at School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, convened by the Sociology department. In this version, I focus on questions around urban citizenship production and how students’ value practices can be read as moments of cultural invention, with and against the city-state’s dominant political-economic regime, and therefore constitutes a critical component of urban politics.

The talk is entitled Educated but ‘non-elite’ in globalising Singapore: value practices, cultural invention, and enactments of urban citizenship


Between 2013 and 2014, I conducted ethnographic research in Singapore to try and understand the experiences of young people caught at the ‘losing end’ of the state’s aspiration to globalise its higher education. This urban aspiration to transform the city-state into a Global Schoolhouse, accompanied by the (re)emergence of private educational provision, has begun to produce a localised hierarchy of value and subject positions. The eleven months of fieldwork at a local private educational institute (pseudonym: SPI) has provided numerous accounts of young people who view themselves as ‘degree-educated’ but ‘non-elite’. In this talk, I focus on student narratives and practices that produce value interpretations with and against the larger political economy of urban citizenship production. Inspired by a politics of suspension and its attention to ‘alternative’ enactments of citizenship, I focus on two key suspensive moments of value interpretations: value practices around that of defensiveness and anti-elitism, and that of care. These so-called ‘alternative’ articulations of value point to the manner in which private degree students often draw on class-based sensibilities to produce vibrant, albeit bounded, forms of more-than capitalist neoliberal subjectivities. My research with these local youth complicates clear-cut ideas about middle-class strategies and cosmopolitan aspirations, as well as usher in fresh questions around urban citizenship and politics. 

Upcoming talk: NIE

I will be giving a talk on bringing the conceptual language of “value/s” into thinking, seeing, and doing critical analysis of education in 24 February 2016, National Institute of Education, Singapore.

This talk will be based on my recently completed eleven-month ethnographic study on private degree students in a local educational institute in Singapore. More information about the project can be found here. Specifically, I will draw on two major sections of my ethnographic materials that are organised around the idea of “value and values” to offer some insights into how these students in the city-state produce novel forms of class cultures and politics.

My talk is entitled Cultural production of “values beyond value”: a case of private degree students in Singapore

Abstract: How do experiences of young people caught at the ‘losing end’ of Singaporean state’s aspiration to globalise its higher education look like? Between 2013 and 2014, I conducted ethnographic research in the city-state of Singapore, hanging around, talking to, and observing students at a local private educational institute. The eleven months of fieldwork at Singapore Private Institute (pseudonym) has provided numerous accounts of young people for whom the burgeoning private higher education landscape in the last decade represented a fresh opportunity for them to pursue degree education locally. Their experiences as degree-educated, middle-class citizens are complicated by an educational status that produces them as, what I called, “educated non-elites”. But even as scholarship on higher education and middle-class youth continues to grow, very little attention is on this segment of young people. In this talk, I demonstrate how these students creatively navigate an educational situation that requires them to intensify their accumulative practices, while also re-defining ideas about “values” of education and learning. I focus on two key suspensive moments of value interpretations: value practices around that of defensiveness and anti-elitism, and that of care. These so-called “alternative” articulations point to the manner in which private degree students often draw on class-based sensibilities to produce vibrant, albeit bounded, forms of neoliberal subjectivities and everyday norms. My research with these local youth provides two interventions to geographical and wider social scientific scholarship by, first, cautioning against straightforward understandings of neoliberalisation of student citizenship; and second, complicating clear-cut ideas about middle-class strategies, values, and aspirations.

‘Brown Bag’ Seminar

New paper forthcoming in Antipode

I am very pleased to have a paper accepted for publication at Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography.

In this paper, entitled Critical geographies of education beyond “value”: moral sentiments, caring, and a politics for acting differently, I explore  the ways in which students mobilise different moral and ethical values to perform informal care at a private educational institute. The task is to advance a critical analysis of how students can “act differently” from the dominant strategic and calculative image of a neoliberal actor as portrayed in broader literature. Specifically, I suggest more attention needs to be given to love and care as the basis for radical practices in everyday life.

I discuss the themes of deconstructive empathy, friendship solidarities, and intergenerational love – through the use of ethnographic vignettes – to demonstrate how caring practices can produce more-than-capitalist subjectivities in the neoliberalising spaces of higher education. In doing so, I hope to add theoretical and empirical flesh to ongoing efforts in exploring “alternative” experiences of neoliberalising education via notions of care, love, and intimacy.

In particular, I suggest that a conceptual focus on moral sentiments around care often reveals how people can do things differently and become more-than-capitalist neoliberal subjects. Within the article, I went on to argue:

care needs to be recuperated as a form of radical practice in everyday life. Writing more broadly about love, feminist cultural critic bell hooks (2000) proffers that people’s everyday emotional needs for connectivity, spirituality, and solidarity can represent a radical form of everyday practice. This is different from the currently commodified and marketised version of individualistic romantic love. Inspired by this visionary pragmatist reading of love, I argue that normative reflections and sentiments around an ethics of care constitute a profound source of radical politics in everyday life (also see Morrison et al 2013). This view has recently been championed by Mountz et al (2015: NA), who argue that care work is “radical and necessary” for promoting resistance against the neoliberalisation of university spaces. Given that the diverse ways in which people express care and concern for one another can produce fresh understandings around inequalities and situations of hardships, caring represents a politics of resistance against some of the dominant neoliberal constructs of value.

To me, there is tremendous potential in the concept of care and love to help us imagine alternative forms of relationships to neoliberal capitalism. As I write in the article:

what I want to emphasise is that caring can also be “a different way of being in the world, relating to others as if they matter, with attentiveness and compassion, beyond exchange” (Skeggs 2014:13).

Hence, my article’s intervention for readers of Antipode (and beyond) focuses on this particular kind of care in order to foreground the political and intellectual possibilities within geographies of neoliberalism in higher education. The point is to interrogate how ordinary notions of the “moral” and “ethical” may guide people’s practices in ways that push away from dominant neoliberal and capitalist regimes, or even produce sensibilities that create new collectivities and publics (see Olson 2015). This is an under-explored agenda that will provide a more expansive approach to consider lay normativity as an actually existing source of political pedagogies and actions, where people are seen as already having the capacities to act differently in the world.

For those who wish to take a sneak preview of the article (pre-copyedited version), please visit my publications library at