I am too old now. I have only visited the river a few times since I came to Pasir Panjang. It is very clean now and there will be no more lighters there. All the changes make it look good for tourists and young people but there is nothing there for someone like me. Can I work in one of the new clubs?Mr Chan, Former Lighterman at the Singapore River interviewed in 1993 (Dobbs, 2002: 307)
1 September 1983 marked a historically miserable date for Singapore’s lighterage industry. All cargo-carrying lighters, lightermen and lighter owners at the Singapore River were forced to relocate to Pasir Panjang as a result of Singapore’s 10-year Great River Clean-up Campaign commenced in 1977 and, more broadly, as part of the government’s economic agenda to speedily modernise the city-state after its 1965 independence. For lightermen like Mr Chan, leisure-oriented waterfront revitalization seemed to be inevitable for the good of their country due to high capital returns. At the same time, it also entailed a violent process of ‘un-homing’ (Elliott-Cooper et al., 2020) that severed the ties between indigenous residents and place both physically and symbolically, as well as undermined their rights to stay put and shape the process of urban redevelopment.
Indeed, not only for the lighterage industry but for the whole thousands of people who once worked and lived by the Singapore River, the redeveloped waterfront does not necessarily mean improved quality of life or reclaimed space for inclusivity and multiculturalism as declared by the state but rather the manifestation of andthe root cause for state-sanctioned dispossession and violence. When violence is understood as inscribed in everyday life rather than merely a significant, harsh rupture in life, dispossession goes beyond indicating the single event of losing land or other possessions – a process considered by Marxist geographer David Harvey (2003a) as necessary for capitalist accumulation – to refer to sustained practices at different spatial and temporal scales wherein violence can take more subtle forms. In the case of the Singapore River revitalization, dispossession manifests itself in violent practices of forced eviction, affective displacement and cultural appropriation.
The colonial establishment of Singapore as a British trading port in 1819 attracted a large pool of immigrants from around the region to settle by the Singapore River, some finding their trading partners while others working in the rice mills, sawmills, boatyards or warehouses along the riverbank. The early landscape of the Singapore River reminds us that it was not just the river itself but the river population, including Hokkien, Teochew or Indian lightermen who operated cargo-carrying twakows or tongkangs and those coolies who unloaded cargo that had played a significant role in Singapore’s historical development as an entrepôt. Twakows are Chinese-crewed lighter vessels, and tongkangs are referred to as larger lighters manned by Indian boatmen.
By the end of the 19th century, improper discharge from the overcrowded slum settlements and factories along the riverbank heavily polluted the Singapore River, leading to outbreaks of cholera and diarrhoea in the 1890s. However, no real changes were made to the polluted waterway until 1977, when then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew called for cleansing and beautifying the river to improve the city-state’s image. Apart from removing debris and constructing sewers, squatters, street hawkers, lighterage activities and other industries deemed to be the sources of pollution were also relocated. This relocation process in the name of environmental clean-up dispossessed indigenous residents of their land and homes and also their sources of livelihood. For lightermen and lighter owners, for instance, poor facilities and insufficient space to accommodate all the port activities at Pasir Panjang meant the demise of the lighterage industry and the end of a way of life.
Importantly, neither the river clean-up campaign nor the relocation of riverside activities was apolitical; instead, they must be seen as part of Singapore’s political endeavour to diversify its economy and build a ‘New Asia-Singapore’ identity (Ho, 2015). To attract global capital, talent and visitors, the’ developmental state’ (Olds and Yeung, 2004) of Singapore has followed a pathway that put tourism development at the centre of its national agenda. In making New Asia-Singapore, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) aims to create tourist destinations where past and present, tradition and modernity, fuse in total harmony. In this context, trading, production and other riverine activities were rendered uneconomical and unsightly. The Singapore River was strategically selected as a site for tourism and other service industries due to its central location, waterfront landscape, and historical value.
Today, the Singapore River waterfront is celebrated for reflecting Singapore’s ‘world city’ image after its successful transformation from a ‘derelict’ waterway to a ‘world-class’ environment comprised of upmarket retail outlets, art museums, offices, condominiums and hotels. Nevertheless, while this proclaimed cosmopolitan space welcomes the public, it also defines a limited ‘public’ that has left certain powerless people behind. Several interviews conducted with the ex-residents (see Chang and Huang, 2011) disclose that new restaurants by the river were too expensive for them, and some also longed to go back to their disappeared old homes. For most of the ex-residents, as Mr Chan has articulated in the opening quote, the revitalized waterfront – its new look as well as new opportunities – has little appeal for them and generates a sense of alienation. It reminds us of the affective aspect of dispossession, wherein people are emotionally displaced from a place. This form of affective displacement suggests that people can be excluded from (using) a space by sentiment if not by force.
Dispossession and violence driven by the Singapore River redevelopment also take the form of cultural appropriation. Since one key aspect of creating New Asia-Singapore is preserving local heritage to showcase Singapore’s unique history and identity, a few warehouses and shophouses have been conserved and revamped into pubs, clubs, restaurants and offices. A few twakows and tongkangs were also conserved and are now used as river taxis, and two have been converted into restaurants for riverboat dining. Through capitalizing on the conservation aspect, the essence of cultural heritage has been destroyed as the warehouses, and traditional boats, which once enacted a way of life for local labours and lightermen, have now made way for leisure and consumption purposes.
Further, in the name of heritage and nostalgia, monumental sculptures of coolies and carefree children are erected along the riverbank, and different forms of public entertainment, such as traditional operas and busking, are performed daily for visitors. It is important to note that some figures and scenes are selected for making sculptures and displaying based on the exclusion of some others. Darker histories and painful memories, such as hardworking coolies suffering from their exploitative employers and children dying from drowning, have been erased through the creation of commemorative artwork. This suggests how waterfront revitalization re-imagines and romanticizes people, places and events in a violent way.
In a similar vein, busking performances, which were spontaneously formed in the past and once were banal pastime for coolies and locals, and the Chinese operas, which were annual events only for the Hungry Ghost Festival, are now highly scripted, shortened in length and played by professional performers for tourists. As these activities are repeated every day, it naturalizes a new cultural landscape which will be easily considered normal and appropriate, shaping visitors’ limited knowledge about the ‘truth’ of the Singapore River at the expense of multiple contested histories and place meanings claimed and valued by ex-residents. In this case, the violence brought by cultural appropriation also marks that indigenous people at the Singapore River have been dispossessed of their right to define and perform their own heritage.
As can be seen, state-led waterfront redevelopment is not an innocent practice for the good of a homogeneous public. Still, it is accompanied by violent, politicized processes of eviction, alienation, commodification, selective conservation and erasure that unevenly affect its citizens. However, it was not the river clean-up campaign or the redevelopment project alone that created conditions of dispossession and violence. The socio-spatial reconfiguration of the Singapore River was materialised by the Singapore government’s development discourse, land reclamation frameworks and land-use regulations that define appropriate or inappropriate, legal or illegal objects and subjects at the Singapore River, reflecting and undergirding structural violence that entrenches the powerless, former river population in deep ‘collective displaceability’ (Yiftachel, 2020).
Echoing the rapid urbanization in Asia (Shin, 2019), the transformation of the Singapore River was also speedy. Nevertheless, we must never forget that there are people being left behind by such pace and scale of the place-(re)making. More importantly, it is worthwhile to perceive former workers and residents at the river as knowledge producers in their own right rather than objects of the ‘tourist gaze’ (Urry, 2002) so as to help them reclaim their ‘right to the city’ (Harvey, 2003b).
Chang, T.C. and Huang, S. (2011) “Reclaiming the city: Waterfront development in Singapore.” Urban Studies48(10): 2085-2100.
Dobbs, S. (2002) “Urban development and the forced eviction of lighters from the Singapore River”. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 23(3): 288-310.
Elliott-Cooper, A., Hubbard, P. and Lees, L. (2020) “Moving beyond Marcuse: Gentrification, displacement and the violence of un-homing”. Progress in Human Geography 44(3): 492-509.
Harvey, D. (2003a) The New Imperialism. New York: Oxford University Press.
Harvey, D. (2003b) “The right to the city”. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27(4): 939-941.
Ho, S. (2015) “Singapore Tourism Board”. National Library Board, Government of Singapore. Available at <https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_31_2005-01-31.html>, (Accessed 2 April 2022).
Olds, K. and Yeung, H. (2004) “Pathways to global city formation: a view from the developmental city-state of Singapore”. Review of International Political Economy 11(3): 489-521.
Shin, H.B. (2019) “Asian Urbanism”. In: Orum, A. (ed.) The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Urban and Regional Studies (pp. 1-10). Wiley-Blackwell.
Urry, J. (2002) Tourist Gaze (2nd ed.), London: Sage.
Yiftachel, O. (2020) “From displacement to displaceability”. City 24(1-2): 151-165.
About the author
Flora Du is a recent MSc City Design and Social Science graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She was awarded the Hobhouse Memorial Prize for the Best Overall Performance with Distinction in the Cities program at LSE (2021-2022). Prior to this, she studied for BA in Geography at Durham University. Her research interests include cultural geography, gentrification, urban care and urban resilience.