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ICA 2012: Kai Khium Liew, Natalie Pang, Brenda Chan

Old Cemeteries and Railways, New Media and New Politics: Heritage and Green Politics goes Digital in Singapore

This article seeks to demonstrate the significance of new media in reconfiguring and expanding the politics of conservation in the rapidly urbanizing postcolonial city-state of Singapore. Considered to be peripheral to the stability, security and economy of the republic, heritage conservation often takes a low priority in the republic. Hence, sidelined by mainstream politics, activists from middle class and professional backgrounds have conventionally been pushing their agendas in the limited forms of letters to the press, as well as formal petitions and proposals to government agencies.

This modus operandi has taken a sharp turn in 2011 as a result of the confluence of politico-technological global forces. Arising from the systematic transition of Singapore into a neo-liberal and postindustrial political economy is a growing sense of displacement and anxiety over widening income inequalities, skyrocketing property prices and the exponential influx of foreign immigrants. Here, the politics of nostalgia takes a new momentum by a wider range of Singaporeans seeking for a more intangible collective sense of belonging identified with places and patterns of life that may have survived the test of time, but the future of which hangs precariously at the mercy of the new demands of the state. Two eco-heritage areas, namely, the former Malayan Railway line, and the Bukit Brown Cemetery, both with histories spanning about eight decades, have turned into sites of such identification. The former, now a defunct railroad, has been recently returned to Singapore after being managed by the Malaysian rail authorities, while the latter lies within a lush tropical scenic forest where uniquely carved gravestones mark many prominent historical personalities in the country. 

 This paper examines the critical role of the new media in providing new access and connectivities to the  efforts of non-government organizations, particularly heritage groups in the republic, in advocacy for conservation of lands around the Malayan Railway line and Bukit Brown Cemetery. In these two case studies, activists and enthusiasts of all ages are quickly building up and sharing an organic knowledge and memory base in cyberspace, through   postings on Facebook and sharing of digital photographs and videos, recorded with digital cameras and smartphones. These actions are significant as collective action and at the same time, demonstrate individual claims of intangible ownerships of heritage sites about to be lost. As new media gets promptly adopted as tools for social mobilization with the ability to circulate events, news and debates through Google+ to Twitter, new publics and new community leaders and new alliances begin to emerge in a scene once dominated by the traditional and formal organizations. Like any other medium, new media possess affordances of its own and impacts the meanings that are conserved, and the ways heritage sites are interpreted. With Singaporeans ranked in the world as the most frequent users of new media portals like Facebook, the authors intends to explore the cultivation of a new form of citizenry via  new media in pushing for the politics of memory, nature and heritage in the tightly controlled and highly modernized cityscape of Singapore.   

Dr. Liew Kai Khiun obtained his undergraduate qualifications as well as his M.A. at the National University of Singapore and was awarded his doctorate at University College London. Before joining his current position as Assistant Professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at the Nanyang Technological University, Kai Khiun spent two years at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore as a postdoctoral fellow. His research interests include, medical humanities, popular music and culture as well as civil society in Singapore. Kai Khiun has been involved in advocacy work for heritage conservation in Singapore for the past decade.

Natalie Pang is an Assistant Professor with the Division of Information Studies, Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.  Her research interests are: information processing and collective action in new media, heritage informatics, pragmatist information system sciences and sustainable HCI. She teaches in social informatics, advanced qualitative methods, organizational records management and information behaviour.

Brenda Chan is Assistant Professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Her research interests are media and memories, and the constructions of cultural identities in cyberspace.