54th International Making Cities Livable Conference Paper Presentation



I will be presenting my thesis this Fall at the 54th International Making Cities Livable Conference in Santa Fe, NM. Get your conference tickets here!


Nur Atiqa Asri investigates the state of democracy in public spaces in Singapore, particularly as it affects the low-skilled migrant working population in her thesis completed Spring 2016.
— Pratt PSPD Multiplicity Fall 2016

Statement of Issue

In 2013, Singapore witnessed a calamitous night of riots in the public spaces of Little India, a pedestrianized alley close to downtown. The usual order and safety of the public realm of this ethnic enclave was shaken terribly as hundreds of male South Asian migrant workers took to the streets drunk and violent. The mob reaction to a fatal bus accident involving a Tamil worker resulted in the destruction and chaos of streets, sidewalks, bus stops, and five footways. Furthermore, the incident has since resulted in a rising anti-foreigner sentiment amongst local residents; this has become most pronounced in public spaces in the city. Low-skilled migrant workers entering on work permits can now easily be identified with certain public spaces around Singapore as they become largely isolated to certain parts of the city on their rest day. As a result, the issue of inequity, particularly for migrants, in Singapore’s public spaces has come to light, begging the question: ‘Are public spaces in Singapore really democratic?’

This in-depth observational study and analysis of the use of public spaces by migrant workers under Singapore’s unique autocratic governance structure brings an entirely new perspective to the area of study. It hopes to better inform future planning and design processes of public spaces in Singapore, creating a more democratic public realm for the ever-growing population of migrants in the city.


Singapore is a sovereign city-state measuring about 277.6 square miles, roughly the size of New York City. Located in Southeast Asia, at the end of the Malayan Peninsula between Malaysia and Indonesia, the island was once a colony of the British Empire. In 1965, when it gained its independence, the city inherited the British model of parliamentary government. City planning has therefore been a generally top-down function of the Ministry of National Development. Today, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Housing Development Board, statutory boards of the Ministry, oversee most of the planning of the city.

Singapore is very well known for its transformation from a third world country to first in less than fifty years and for having some of the highest rates of globalization in the world. Even back under British rule, it was widely acknowledged as a key trading port that attracted scores of immigrants from around the region, including Chinese, Indian, and Malay traders. Unsurprisingly, the three ethnic groups went on to make up the nation’s population, thereby making Singapore a famously multicultural nation. For the most part, the different racial groups in Singapore learned to live harmoniously with one another except in 1969 when a riot broke out between the Malays and the Chinese, and then finally again 44 years later in 2013.

The 2013 riots were a wake up call for all Singaporeans because it brought to the light the poor quality of life that many work permit holders, or migrants, were facing in both their private and public spaces. As with many countries facing high rates of in-migration, Singapore offers various tiers of work passes and permits for foreign workers. The requirements of each tier necessitate the types of industries and levels of income of a worker. While there are plenty rich expatriates in Singapore working in the Finance, Investment, and Real Estate (FIRE) industries and biomedical sciences, the lower skilled working in construction, manufacturing, and domestic duties enter Singapore on what is known as a ‘Work Permit’. Work permit holders have lower incomes and face strict off day requirements – one rest day without pay for every 7-day period. The men working in construction and manufacturing commonly live in dormitories notoriously known for overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, while the women performing domestic duties are required to reside in their employers’ homes under watchful eyes. The private living spaces of these migrant workers, when evaluated against international human rights standards, are bleak. On average, 12 men are housed in dormitory rooms measuring no more than 25 square meters, below the internationally-recognized 20< square meters floor area per person minimum standards for developed countries, as determined by the UN Population Division.  

It is therefore ever more important that public spaces in Singapore are democratic and offer these migrant workers a place to express themselves freely in unmediated interaction. To create and plan for such spaces, however, would first require evaluating existing public spaces, and planners, sociologists, and ethnographers have always turned to William Holly Whyte’s social observation matrix and methodology to do so. The existing methods unfortunately fail to relate directly to characteristics and attributes of democracy. In order to marry the existing method to the key issue at hand, a ‘democratic public space checklist’ indicated by social observations was crafted.

The Checklist

While political philosophers place emphasis on the democracy of public spheres that is abstract with no spatial dimensions, geographers and urbanists are increasingly offering a conception of democratic public space that is more greatly rooted in place and culture. In such cases, democratic public spaces have been described as places that cultivate tolerance, that encourage convergence, and furthermore allow critical debate and increase mutual acceptance.

The ‘democratic public space checklist’ was hence centered around concepts uncovered in a literature review on theories of democracy and although not all of the criteria in the checklist were developed for physical realms, they can easily be adapted to the tangible public spaces that many of us are familiar with. Regardless, the selection of criteria should collectively shape democracy in any public space.  

Inspired by Sherry Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation, the checklist is also categorized by various tiers of democracy. Each tier progressively advances to higher orders of democratic pursuit, beginning with simple and rational criteria that encourage convergence of individuals to criteria that can increase an individual’s disposition towards others.

Each criterion is checked against one or more points of social observation, intercept survey finding, or statute. For example, if the studied public space were to meet CRITERION A, “Allows for unmediated interaction”, then social observation and intercept survey findings would have to point to large user group sizes, a mix of activities occurring, and a high level of perceived comfort and safety in the space – all characteristics that indicate the space allows for unmediated interaction.

Based on social observations of two public spaces in Singapore, Dunlop Street (by the site of the 2013 riots in Little India) and Tanjong Katong Complex (in the neighborhood of Geylang), an evaluation of the level of democracy of public spaces in Singapore was then conducted. The observations and in-depth studies of both public spaces, predominantly used by migrants from India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Bengal, showed that they fell short of meeting the checklist requirements, and if they are any indication of other public spaces in Singapore, then there is still much that needs to be done in achieving democracy in public spaces of Singapore.  

Both sites showed a good mix of activities being engaged in by big groups of users, and high levels of safety and comfort amongst users, indicating that a level of unmediated interaction (Criterion A) and absence of coercion (Criterion B) has been reached in both Dunlop Street and Tanjong Katong Complex. However, the ability to engage in a discourse to check powers within the public spaces is still very difficult to achieve given the placement of prominent surveillance cameras by the police. This, combined with strict regulations under a Public Order Act that regulates “any procession or demonstration that supports or opposes views or actions of any person, group of persons or government”, necessarily exclude any activity that checks power from occurring in the spaces. It also necessarily excludes public spaces in Singapore from ever meeting Criteria C and H -  “Allows for discourse to check power” and “Allows for critical debate to seek consensus and mutual enjoyment”.

Unfortunately, given the isolation of nationalities within each public space, there is also an evident lack of diversity in users that prevents any engagement of a wide variety of cultural practices (Criterion D). The clustering of migrants from similar home countries resembles the ethnic succession theory by Michael J. White, which claims that ethnic and racial groups entering a new country or city tend to live together. Instead, in Singapore, migrants congregate in public spaces together given that their housing arrangements are restricted by work permit conditions. The scarcity of local Singaporeans using either Dunlop Street or Tanjong Katong Complex in fact highlights a key issue facing the state of democracy in public spaces – segregation. Although the issue of segregation has increasingly become prominent in research around the housing of migrant workers in Singapore, no one has yet raised the issue in the context of public spaces. These findings therefore call for policies and plans that can reduce segregation of migrant workers in the public realm in order to be able to cultivate forbearance (Criterion F), create opportunities for critical debate (Criterion H) amongst a wide variety of community members – both local and foreign (Criterion D) – and that will check powers of the state and its authorities (Criterion C). In order to do this, Jeffrey Hou, Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture at University of Washington, suggests democratizing the planning process completely.

Case Study: Hong Kong

Like Singapore, Hong Kong was once a former British colony that has continued to evolve into a dense city that is heavily reliant on a large migrant population for its construction and domestic work industries. It has therefore dealt with plenty of similar planning challenges, especially with regards to controlling and maintaining the private living spaces and public spaces frequented by migrant workers. It is not surprising then that Hong Kong presents us with many ideas to meet Criteria G and H in the higher tiers of the checklist. In other words, to create public spaces that “allows for insurgence” and “allows for critical debate…”. While the Hong Kong government maintains a neutral position, grassroots actors in the city are paving the way to create democratic public spaces by encouraging both locals and migrant workers to participate in public life through targeted public art programs. In June 2015, a collaboration between grassroots Filipino migrant organizations and a local contemporary art center resulted in a series of public programs that brought awareness to the various issues impacting the migrant community. One of the programs organized, A Room of Their own, was a reading group dedicated to literature on gender-specific migration that was accompanied by roving mobile libraries. The program was carried out at three locations – public and private spaces – commonly occupied by Indonesian and Filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong, and has shown to begun democratizing more levels of the planning practice by creating more robust platforms of participation and accountability for the migrant workers.

While this example is a small-scale action taken on the part of grassroots organizations, there are plenty other ways that avenues of communication and information sharing with migrant workers can be built and expanded – whether by governing authorities or not, and whether at citywide level or neighborhood level. The Madrid Plan in Spain, for example, has led to over 50 city outreach organizers actively promoting activities “aimed at promoting neighborly co-existence” in the city’s public parks and squares. It has turned the public spaces into meeting points where members of the community, regardless of their country of origins get to know each other and converse on matters affecting them.

Post- Thesis Developments


In July 2016, the Urban Redevelopment Authority implemented an installation on a vacant piece of land close to Dunlop Street in Little India. A winning entry from a public space design competition inspired by trees in the precinct was then implemented on Hindoo Road to provide shade and create a comfortable public space for those working, visiting, and living in the area. While the public planning process and the added attention being paid to the site of the 2013 riots by authorities was admirable, the actual execution was worrying. The ‘public space’, beautifully designed to combine historical and cultural aspects of the area, was unfortunately enclosed by 2-meter high metal fencing that resulted in a sort of image of animals in a cage or enclosure for those walking past and looking in. Furthermore, signs reminding users of the space of restrictions given by the Public Order Act and Liquor Control Bill were plastered along the fencing preventing social communion and insurgent activities from occurring altogether. All in all, the ‘public space’ was a physical manifestation of coercion.

While there is some advancement being made in democratizing the planning process to create democratic public spaces in Singapore, it is clear that migrant workers are still not quite a loud enough or strong enough influence. There is plenty more that needs to be done in order to ensure that this group, no matter how transient, is able to influence and affect the planning of a city that they continue to occupy.

Spring 2016 Interim Presentation

Got a unanimous nod on my 'checklist'. All is well. Good night.

Observational Survey Round 1

Three weekends ago I made my way to Dunlop Street in Little India to carry out my preliminary round of observations and intercept surveys. Fresh off a 22- hour flight from New York, I braved the humidity and heat in t-shirt and cap (and nothing else.... JK) and got on a train into the city.

I sat quietly in the fivefootway, outside a closed mobile store, trying to be as stealthy as I could among the sea of Indian men. Started my stopwatch and observed for 30 minutes using my matrix:

While my first round of observations were not surprising, some trends were still interesting - for more, please read final thesis. But by the 25th minute I think I was starting to stand out and men started staring at me and as soon as my buzzer went off, I quickly ducked out.

Observational Survey Round 2

The following weekend, I made my way to my second site - Tanjong Katong Complex in Geylang. I repeated my 30 minute observation exercise and this time, handed out around 30 intercept surveys all by myself.

Handing out intercept surveys to Indonesian domestic workers turned out to be a lot harder than I'd expected because my Bahasa was dismal. Not only were the participants of my survey incredibly suspicious of me, I couldn't abate their fears because all I could muster in Bahasa was, "Saya sedang buat kajian untuk sekolah" [I'm conducting research for school].

survey questions followed, but you don't really give a shit do you.

Fortunately, the first group of domestic workers I'd approached worked for Chinese families and were well-spoken in English. They picked up my surveys and quickly began translating it verbally to their peers around them. One was kind enough to follow me around the site, approaching various groups of domestic workers and getting them to help me complete my surveys. Thank you, bibik.

Although, I wonder how this method of surveying affects bias in responses.