“Covid-19 exposed Singapore’s vulnerability, and the messy reality of a pathogen (an uncontrollable) hitting a controlled urban landscape. But importantly, Covid-19 also pointed to Singapore’s commensurability, shining a light on the commonalities between Singapore and other cities grappling with the crisis, and collapsing the geographical, cultural, political and ontological distance between”, writes Dr Jason Luger, is a Senior Lecturer in Geography at Northumbria University.
The following considers urban responses to Covid-19 through a comparative lens that seeks to move beyond a fixed scale of ‘city’ or ‘nation.’ Instead, this paper considers the relations between body, site, and governance processes as experienced in different contexts. Viral digitality extends the comparative scale and mediates the spaces in between specific sites, bridging together the commonalities of lived injustices attached to place. Singapore, often portrayed as an incommensurable, singular case of authoritarian urban modernity, is thereby brought into discussion with elsewhere.
In Singapore, the US State of North Carolina and the United Kingdom, residential dormitories symbolize policy failure (and neoliberal crises) in responding to the virus, albeit, via different contextual processes and state-society constructions vis-a-vis migrant workers and university students. In employing such a trans-hemispheric comparison that seeks to abolish scale in favor of a flatter ontology, this agitation troubles the notion that Singaporean modernity is an incomparable ‘simulacrum’, or the idea that urban authoritarianism can be reduced to ‘Eastern’ or ‘Western’ characteristics, territorial boundaries, or reductive political categorization. Authoritarianism is a global set of relational processes with locally constituted elements attached to specific urban sites, operating at multiple scales, deeply embedded in, and helping to reinforce, wider processes of neoliberalism.
Indeed, the lived experience of the pandemic can bring together disparate urban moments into a common language, and can flatten hemispherical distinctions and collapse geographical distances. Through the examples of migrant laborers exposed to the virus in Singaporean dormitories, and university students in Carolina and Britain (likewise sickened via dormitories), commonalities emerge around the use (and restriction) of urban place, space, and viral digitality. In and between specific geographies, digitality offers an extension of public space, discourse, and a platform for contestation, representation and visibility of groups marginalized by unjust Covid-19 responses. Thus, I further the suggestion (by Acuto et al., 2020) that comparative urbanism offers a valuable lens to ‘see’ the relation between the pandemic, place, space, public life, and urban inequality.
Singapore, Simulacrum, Mirror
…At Disneyland, one is constantly poised in a condition of becoming, always someplace that is ‘like’ someplace else. (Sorkin, 1992: 274; Sorkin died from complications of Covid-19 in 2020).
To what do we compare Singapore? In 1993, the American-Canadian cyberpunk author William Gibson called Singapore ‘Disneyland with a death penalty’, a moniker that stuck around for a while. How to frame this version of modernity; the gleaming authoritarian Southeast Asian city-state with its ziggurat-like glass towers, cascading blooms of flowers, clean streets, and strict rules? As Singapore has transitioned from a British colony into a leading global city and Southeast Asia’s hub of finance, business, technology, research, transportation, and shipping, the city has become in popular culture a symbol, a synecdoche, of Eastern modernity. For J. Tan (2020), their native city had indeed evolved into a sort of cyberpunk dystopia, full of what Gibson (1993) phrased ‘glassy simulacra’, like the indoor ‘Flower Dome’ containing rare plant species, or the indoor waterfall at Changi Airport. Singapore is marketed and symbolically constructed as an experience as much as an actual city (Chang, 2017), through a meticulously-deployed postcolonial development strategy and carefully crafted national narrative (Chua, 2011). It’s oft-referenced brand of ‘soft authoritarianism’ (Ortmann and Thompson, 2014) has become a popular urban model and assemblage for other cities to emulate (Pow, 2014); for example, Singapore’s state housing system (known colloquially as ‘HDB’, or ‘Housing Development Board’, where more than 80% of Singaporeans live, according to government statistics).
Figure 1: People wearing face masks on the Singaporean MRT car (Mass Rapid Transit). Wikipedia Commons.
In the elevation of Singapore to a perpetually – magnificent urban case study, the City-State’s policies are frequently studied under a critical global microscope, held to an impossible standard of spectacle. Singapore’s successes are lauded as exemplary and coveted; its failures come to represent bugbears of illiberal urbanism gone wrong. The small island-nation encompasses a territory and population smaller than London, yet it is re-scaled and placed in relational juxtaposition alongside continents and hemispheres. In this regard, Singapore is paradoxically rendered incomparable, at the same time it is hyper-compared. The onset of Covid-19 has demonstrated once again that when a global crisis hits, Singapore is easily and quickly used as a usual-suspect case study and template (via the global press, media, policy briefs, imaginaries) of what works, or doesn’t work, in urban polity and praxis. The City-State and its governance mechanisms come to signify what is innovative and groundbreaking and worth emulating, and, what is draconian; dystopian, and representative of an authoritarian urban future that is the stuff of science fiction (e.g., the BBC’s recent take on how Singapore is pushing the boundary of Covid-related surveillance).
Through this rhetorically-hyperbolic construction and imagery, Singapore is Orientalized, and comes to symbolize both the urban possible and impossible; a mythical place; a representation of how things are done elsewhere, that elsewhere being an ‘East’ that is conceived as perpendicular to, rather than paralleling, the experience of urban life in the ‘West’. Through networked media conduits (like the BBC link above), Singapore is made fantastical. However, Singapore is a real city, and not an ‘Eastern’ simulacrum of alternative modernity. It is a lens through which to view the world; a mirror, in fact, that reflects the messy, complex and imperfect operations and experiences and spatial practices of urban life that are immediately relatable to someplace else. Hardly alone in the world, Singapore is deeply enmeshed in wider processes of globalized neoliberalism, exemplified by its relentless focus on economic growth as a central pillar of national policy. This is demonstrated by the City-State’s embrace of the ‘creative economy’ (Luger, 2019), but also, its reliance on imported, low-cost migrant labour to construct the city’s monumental spaces of consumption (Hui et al., 2007).
Covid-19 exposed Singapore’s vulnerability, and the messy reality of a pathogen (an uncontrollable) hitting a controlled urban landscape. But importantly, Covid-19 also pointed to Singapore’s commensurability, shining a light on the commonalities between Singapore and other cities grappling with the crisis, and collapsing the geographical, cultural, political and ontological distance between. Likewise, authoritarian illiberalism (as framed by Van Beek, 2018) also becomes reflected in a global mirror, is detached from Singapore’s territory, and re-scaled, thereby becoming visible someplace else.
In the year of Covid-19, one virally-disseminated image emerging from Singapore has been that of human bodies locked in residential dormitories as a response to surges in infections. The plight of Singapore’s migrant manual workers – primarily men from South Asia and Mainland China who live in company-sponsored dormitories on the city’s periphery – has gained international attention (as seen in this April 2020 Guardian piece, but much other global press since then.) Once again, the City-State is held up as a comparative mirror, reflected as a curious case of authoritarian urban responses.
However, global developments in the pandemic and responses to it, point to comparative convergences with other cities. Substitute ‘migrant workers’ for ‘university students’ in dozens of cities in the West and similar images, debates, and discussions come into focus. The images shared virally on social media of migrant labourers in Singapore trapped in unsanitary living conditions, exposed to the virus, are eerily similar to images of students trapped in their halls of residence, forced to isolate after being told to return to university, pawns in the operations of the neoliberal university model which has become wrapped in, and dependent on, global circuits of investment and real estate capital flow.
From the Southeast United States (North Carolina) to Southeast Asia; from dormitories in Newcastle, UK to Singapore’s suburbs, marginalized students and marginalized labourers both come to symbolize failed urban responses to an unprecedented public health threat, and catalyze cries for justice and reform. These contextually-specific measures generate local debates and contestations; urban comparison offers a way to upscale the demands of students, labourers, and those at the global periphery most impacted by Covid-19, to be heard and be made visible.
Urban comparison, beyond scale?
Therefore, it is not Singapore as ‘City-State’ that is compared, but the micro-sites (and specific clusters of human bodies) within it. This collapses the normative method of urban comparison, which often remains bounded by scales defined by fixed territorial boundaries (city or national borders), or regional / global categories or political frames (e.g., ‘East’ vs. ‘West’; ‘global cities’; ‘authoritarian’ or ‘Western-liberal cities’; ‘Tiger-economy cities’). In order to ‘see’ responses to Covid-19, in other words, scale can be replaced by a ‘flat ontology’ (as Marston and Jones, 2005, suggest). Thus, placing dormitories and bodies, from Singapore to Carolina to the United Kingdom, in relational juxtaposition can help in worlding the discussion on what Covid-19 means for the global urban, and how disparate demands for just responses can seek commonality and solidarity. In this agitation, I propose such a comparison, across scale, from body (migrant worker, student) to site (dormitory) to city, and across the interstitially-networked digital field which links body, place, space and discourse together.
There are justifications for such a comparison. Robinson (2011), for example, stresses the need for relational studies between seemingly unlike geographies. Indeed, a plethora of urban case studies of life under Covid are now emerging from around the world: from single-cities (Singapore: e.g. Koh et al., 2020 and Hong Kong: Wan et al., 2020) to regional explorations (such as Latin America, e.g. Duque Franco et al., 2020); to comparative discussions across hemispherical frames (e.g. the Global South, Bhan et al., 2020). Within these studies are questions of politics (such as authoritarian state responses in different forms) and issues like poverty, race, housing, and public space. Missing from this emerging urban literature on Covid-19, however, are studies that deliberately bring places into conversation with one another that do not share a world region or, would seem (at first) to have very different state-society governance constructions. For example, a very wealthy city alongside a poor one; a (so-called) authoritarian city alongside a (so-called) liberal-democratic one; a university alongside a migrant-labor domestic facility; a single building alongside a national policy.
In undertaking such a comparison, a few things are accomplished.
- First, is a de-mystification of Singapore as an atypical, Asian, ‘other’.
- Second is a de-territorializing and de-Orientalizing of concepts such as urban authoritarianism, in order to show that processes are comparable across, and not limited to, ‘West’ and ‘East’.
- Third, is to bring into common conversation the distinct yet related struggles for urban justice and the right to the city that have been brought into stark relief during Covid-19, such as uneven policies (and impacts) on marginalized groups such communities of color, in poverty, or with underlying health conditions with higher vulnerability to infection and symptoms.
By engaging injustice in the comparative discussion, and showing the convergences in the lived experiences of inequality during both a public health and neoliberal crisis, a planetary language of urban justice in responding to Covid-19 may become more legible.
Local bodies, sites and authoritarian urban governance; Global commonalties?
In Singapore, the ability for bodies to gather in large numbers in public place is restricted by territorial laws such as the Public Order Act and the Societies Act, both of which are postcolonial artifacts of earlier British laws instituted to stifle dissent during the colonial period (Luger, 2020). These laws require that gatherings like protests or performances be officially sanctioned and registered if larger than a handful of persons, and not contain themes or elements deemed as offensive or as destabilizing socio-cultural balance (for example, anti-government themes; themes dealing with religion or race/ethnicity; or provocative local issues such as LGBTQ or labor rights). One notable exception is Sunday, when migrant workers – men who are manual laborers from South Asia and mainland China and women who are domestic workers from the Philippines – have an ‘off day’ from work, and are free to congregate by the thousands on city streets, especially in the ‘Little India’ section of the City-State. Each Sunday becomes a performance of sociality and encounter.
Covid-19 interrupted this tradition, further limiting access to Singapore’s public square and sending the island’s population into mandatory lockdown (in March 2020). The gathering of migrant workers in Little India was rhetorically constructed as a scapegoat for the outbreak, a convenient way for authorities to differentiate real Singaporean (disease-free) from ‘other’, a justification for the inhumane treatment of the labor force that is vital to Singapore’s urban development. For example, a Covid-19 cluster related to the Mustafa department store (in Little India, popular with migrants) was much-publicized as an example to validate the erasure of migrants from the public realm under the guise of public health; a state of exception (as Agamben phrased, 2003) thereby justifying an unjust response to the crisis (as seen in this story linking migrants to the Mustafa store ).
Figure 2: Migrant workers helping to build the City-State. Flickr Creative Commons, via OpenDemocracy.net.
The University of North Carolina in the United States, located in the town of Chapel Hill (part of the broader Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill City-region), does not share Singapore’s legal restrictions on public assembly or the occupation of public places. Yet, in the midst of a Covid-case-spike, thousands of students found themselves in a situation with many similarities to the Singaporean migrants: trapped in unsafe residential dormitories, and rhetorically blamed for causing the virus surge, thereby physically and socially peripheralized.
Leading up to the start of the fall 2020 term, North Carolina university leadership reopened campus and mandated an ‘in-person’ experience for thousands of students (Daily Tarheel ). However, many public areas of campus remained closed due to public health concerns, and large gatherings (political rallies; sports games; parties) were discouraged or banned. So, thousands of students became invisible in public space, but were enclosed in the private space of their campus halls of residence (dormitories), where many shared a room with another person. Caught in the political ideological wars over mask-or-non-mask wearing and the push to reopen (despite public health perils), students, like the migrants in Singapore, became infected with Covid-19 by the hundreds, indoors. The students impacted the most were those from lower-income backgrounds (with fewer options to secure alternative housing arrangements), students of colour, and students with underlying health issues that made them more vulnerable to serious impacts from the virus. As in Singapore, state authorities blamed the students for the outbreak, rather than the structurally broken policies and ideological warfare that led to the public health crisis (Chronicle of Higher Education), and the broader reality of a neoliberal university reliant on income from student housing fees.
The construction of an ‘other’ between university administration, society at large, and the students was mirrored somewhat by the Singaporean leadership’s demarcation of real Singaporeans (presented as needing protection from the virus) and temporary Singaporeans (presented as a virus-carrying threat). As the move to lockdown occurred in late March 2020, a stark border was established between Singaporean citizens and (primarily South-Asian) male migrant workers. Most Singaporeans live in state housing estates known as ‘HDB’ (Housing Development Board); the migrant workers mostly live in company-run private dormitories, in crowded, air-conditioned rooms that are poorly ventilated. Unsurprisingly, by April, Covid-19 infections surged in these conditions and a cluster developed among the migrant population (surge of migrant cases in Singapore). Singapore’s narrative of success in battling the pandemic was upended, and the urban model so often held up as exemplary was exposed as broken. In a cruel irony, a population already structurally exposed to Covid-19 was then rhetorically blamed for spreading the disease (Straits Times debate on who is to blame) and further isolated from the general population and narrative of ‘nation’, ordered to remain locked in the dormitories, and removed from public space and public life.
Figure 3: Ehringhaus Hall of Residence, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Wikipedia Creative Commons
Two images now emerge, separated by a geographical distance of thousands of miles: migrant workers sitting on rows of bunk-beds in a labour dormitory, exposed to a virus that thrives in such conditions, locked out of public space and public compassion; and thousands of students (most from 18 to 22 years old), sitting on beds in buildings with hundreds of small rooms and poor ventilation. When news of the Covid-19 surge in became public in North Carolina, the university reversed its decision, suggesting that students leave the dormitories and return home (CNN on Covid outbreak at the University of North Carolina). For some, this led to housing uncertainty and even temporary homelessness. Wealthier students had other options (like private apartments or spacious bedrooms in their family homes); poorer students, in many cases, did not. These vulnerable students faced further risks and hazards, as many worked full or part-time jobs in unsafe locations like restaurants. Furthermore, the closure of campus meant some had no choice but to return home and put others at risk for infection, in their families and the general population. Many students are from parts of urban and rural North Carolina already underserved by hospitals and with higher rates of positive cases. Stuck indoors behind the walls of domesticity, migrant workers and students did not have access to representation via public space. They did, however, have smart phones and laptops. Dorms were digitally, virally, represented through the porous walls of TikTok bits, WhatsApp texts, and Facebook posts.
Figure 4: UNC students are expressing their frustrations with campus parties and university policies on TikTok. TikTok/@marymilller01
Singapore has a vibrant digital civil society, resilient despite periodic efforts to extend authoritarian laws to the digital sphere, such as the 2019 ‘fake news’ law which imposes heavy fines on perceived false online content (Luger, 2020). Where public place is limited and the ability for representation curtailed, digital space offers a frontier for visibility that is anchored in Singapore’s territory but re-scaled, networked, and disseminated globally. The images of migrant workers locked in unsanitary dormitories were shared, circulated, re-posted and re-Tweeted to millions, bringing the dormitory into the global public sphere. North Carolina university students used digital outlets, such as the student newspaper ‘The Daily Tarheel’ (with a mostly online readership), to bring visibility to their plight. One editorial, with the headline ‘UNC Has a Clusterfuck on its Hands’, gained national and even international prominence (Daily Tarheel ).
In both places, urban space for justice was demanded, and reclaimed, by and through digital virality. Bodies unable to gather on streets or in squares, whether because of distancing guidelines or because of enforced lockdown, could virtually transcend territory and place altogether via likes, shares, and algorithmic circulations, allowing for global visibility and representation. Digitality is not (and should not be) a substitute for real encounters and physical formations, nor can it free the body from illness or locked doors. Still, its transformative power is substantial, demonstrated by North Carolina’s university leadership’s dramatic policy reversal, and the widespread and outpouring of compassion for migrants’ rights that is now central, rather than peripheral, to public discourse in Singapore, the culmination of decades of work to bring visibility to the issue by advocates and activists inside and outside of the City-State (BBC on poor conditions in Singapore’s migrant dormitories).
Widening the comparative lens further, the commonalities and convergences expand far beyond Singapore and North Carolina. The Singaporean government’s approach to lockdown with specifically strict enforcement on migrants, non-citizens and visitors has been implemented in varying ways in cities, regions and nation-states around the world: as of October 2020, dozens of national and sub-national borders remain shut to outsiders, and lockdowns are periodically tightened and relaxed in specific neighbourhoods, cities, regions, and whole nations.
Always bearing the brunt of these policies are the already-marginalized communities most reliant on, and most disadvantaged by not having, mobility for employment opportunities and whose livelihoods are most at risk from the economic fallout. From Singapore to North America to the UK and Europe, these negative impacts have fallen hardest on racial and ethnic minorities and other groups with physical or socio-cultural disadvantages (Bowleg, 2020). Furthermore, the plight of the students in North Carolina has been replicated (albeit via site-specific processes, pathways, and governance/leadership structures) across universities in North America and the United Kingdom. At the time of this writing, universities in the United Kingdom are grappling with outbreaks of Covid-19 in student accommodation, and thousands of students across the country are in mandated isolation because they, or those near them, are sick (Mueller, 2020). However, as in North Carolina, digital visibility of the students’ plight, upscaled through global media, has resulted in policy and rhetorical shifts and backtracks.
Conclusion: Seeing Commonalities and De-Territorialising the Authoritarian
No city is a theme park, or simply a stand-in for real life. Covid-19 exposed the messy and uneven structures of urban life in Singapore, revealing the fallibility and imperfections of the often-mythologized Southeast Asian urban model. The City-State, like all places, was vulnerable to infection, partially due to its exposure to the ‘virus’ of global neoliberalism, exemplified by its reliance on low-wage migrant labour and inadequate provision of housing for those on the urban margins. But the pandemic also allows an opportunity to hold up a mirror and bring one place into conversation with another: this brief comparison of the distinct, yet similar spaces, places, and responses to the virus in Singapore, North Carolina and beyond – speaks to the need for further comparisons across scale, context and geographical, political, and cultural difference, especially those seen to be incomparable or somehow singular. It is also a chance to move beyond tropes and false binaries of ‘East’ versus ‘West’; to rethink territorial or cultural assumptions and essentialisms about authoritarianism (which is collection of processes, not just a political category or a specific state-society construction). Illiberal governance processes, socio-spatial configurations, and neoliberal economics (e.g., university financial incentives; Singapore’s exploitation of migrant labour) resulted in vulnerable populations sickened indoors at opposite hemispherical poles.
Figure 5: Hall of residence, Fallowfield, University of Manchester. Wikipedia Creative Commons.
Digitality offers a valuable extension of urban comparisons as a frontier for public space and discourse, encounter and political formation, certainly the case before Covid-19, but even more vital now that virtual platforms have (temporarily, at least) largely replaced physical encounters, and public places have been restricted or closed due to public health concerns. Though not a panacea, nor capable to replace the power of bodies-in-place, digital platforms can expose commonalities and convergences, can enable new public formations and representations, can make visible those who are invisible, and can amplify those voices not heard. Thereby, digital virality can be a conduit and megaphone for the upscaling of demands for urban justice globally, helping to build new solidarities around issues like inequality and housing justice that span geography, territoriality, and socio-cultural-political frames and settings. While the experience of a university student and a migrant labourer can speak to one another, they are not the same and should not be reduced as such: site-specificity and context remain vital; shrinking the ontological distance between place must not blur the distinctions of places themselves or obscure what is unique about them. All this being said: at a time when global justice movements and demands for space take many forms; when illiberalism and authoritarianism present an actually-existing threat to daily life and the right to the city seems under attack on many fronts – urban comparison beyond scale offers one method to ‘see’ issues like the pandemic and to seek common ground in moving forward.
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* The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.