How South-East Asian cities lost the

cultural plot

Somewhere off to the left from the rolling river of lorries, air-conditioned automobiles and maddening motorcycles is the original site of the old capital of Indonesia (when there was an East Indies, a Batavia, when steamers plied between Manado and Surabaya and the old port, when restless lascars plotted mutiny between Makassar and the Arafura Sea). You’ll be fortunate to spot it, an earth-brown and palm-green break between great ugly concrete blocks housing all manner of small factories. If the view from your taxi window is not blocked by a stadium-sized lorry hauling the latest in nappywear, you will have a few seconds during which to admire the stately roofs of some of the old structures.

Nor is greater Jakarta alone in this diminishing of history and culture. It is an affliction that you can identify in possibly every single metropolitan centre in South-East Asia (and indeed in South Asia too), whether these are national capitals (more urban, less human) or provincial centres (less so, but even more competitive). Compared with what existed two and three generations ago in these very places — Bangkok, Manila, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Ha Noi and Jakarta — the transformation is bewildering and deeply unsettling, especially for older citizens. Per square kilometre, where once the floral canopy brought shade and coolness to the tropical hours, where roofs breathed through tile and bamboo, there is now the leaden metric of cement and steel, clad in tinted glass and attended by centralised air-conditioning plants that dump their columns of heated air into skies already overburdened with the exhaust from vehicle engines.

These illnesses did not occur spontaneously. They have been designed, encouraged and fostered by the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Free Trade Area (which was birthed in 1992 to much acclaim and with no thought whatsoever having been given to the social and cultural dimensions that this birth would influence) and thereafter by the ASEAN Economic Community (which is to be formalised in 2015). To the macro-economists, the financiers, the industrial associations and the brigades of politicians and influence-pedlars who populate the Asean countries, what matters is the flow of goods, services, and capital across national borders as well as the formation of industrial districts, trade hubs, and townships for migrant labour. It is a dystopian view of appalling greyness and is a view that must be jettisoned, for good.

Cebu, Legaspi, Butuan, Da Nang, Qui Nhon, Can Tho, Kuching, Kuala Terengganu, Kuantan and a host of similar cities are where a stand may be taken, for it will take a dogged mix of civil society pragmatism, academic spine, (perhaps more) responsive local government and business that is still rooted in community that can take such a stand. Unfortunately, it will still be an urban stand, for in South-East Asia, the city — and not the rice-growing, buffalo-ploughed, herbaceous and tropi-coloured rural tracts — has claimed the attentions of policymakers and through that conduit the bulk of national resources. That is why every single national government amongst the ten that together are the Asean member states wants its capital city to become a global command post for international finance and capital, for corporate services and investment, and for tourism and media.

These large cities account for perhaps 15 per cent of this group’s urban population, and the majority of new urban inhabitants will dwell - uncomfortably and by enduring varying degrees of deprivation – in small to medium sized cities. For the capital cities, and the next tier, there remains little or no social and cultural ties to the slow-paced quartiers of a grand-parent’s generation — the very food has changed from wholesome to process extruded, the air has thickened, the memories of bamboo or cane and rattan have faded (other than tawdry simulacrum appropriated by ‘designer’ shops and resorts patronised by the rich), the simple and sturdy cottons and sarongs have been discarded in favour of the ill-fitting uniform of young global and urban labour which is tight and cheap jeans and a t-shirt emblazoned with meaningless logos of foreign brands.

The concentrations of skilled population that held together structures of knowledge within lively social institutions, and for whom economic activity was a by-product and not an objective, these have been worn down to a perilous minority. Late as it is, a post-2015 Asean can still do right by its citizens if it exchanges blind ‘growth’ for a culture of community.

 The author is an expert on intangible cultural heritage with UNESCO and studies agricultural transformation  in South Asia.  Khaleej Times.