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Category: Southeast Asia (Page 1 of 2)

Traffic on Pasar Senen, Jakarta.

Jakarta’s bus-metro

Before visiting Jakarta three years ago, I read someplace that the Indonesian capital may be the largest city in the world without a metro railway. A couple of other cities could contest that claim, but Jakarta is certainly one of the biggest metro-less cities.

Instead of a metro railway, Jakarta has the Transjakarta Busway, a hybrid transportation technology that is effectively a bus metro. The buses run in their own lanes and stop at stations that can only be entered with a smartcard. The bus doors are high off the ground to meet the station platforms, so it is only possible to board the buses through the stations. There can still be quite a gap between bus and platform, more than on any metro I’ve ridden.

Buses at a Transjakarta station.

Buses at a Transjakarta station.

A dedicated busway lane on Jalan Gunung Sahari.

A dedicated busway lane on Jalan Gunung Sahari.

A busway station

A busway station

Interior of another busway station.

Interior of another busway station.

At its best, the Transjakarta Busway is faster and more efficient than regular buses, which are at the mercy of all the other traffic in a city. It was also much cheaper to build than a metro railway, because the buses run on existing roadways rather than purpose-built tunnels. At its worst, the busway may not offer much advantage over regular buses, because traffic doesn’t always stay out of the designated bus lanes.

Jakarta was the first place I saw a busway, but then when I went to Yogyakarta in south-central Java, I found a small busway system in that city as well. When I moved to Jaipur later that year, I saw what appeared to be the ruins of a rapid-transit bus system. On one of the roads on the western side of the city, buses ran in their own dedicated lanes, but the lanes were not always open, and at other times non-bus traffic infiltrated the lanes.

To return to Jakarta: there is a metro railway under construction in Jakarta, but it has yet to open. When it does, the Transjakarta Busway will probably continue to operate alongside it.

Metro construction on one of the boulevards of Jakarta, 2015.

Metro construction on one of the boulevards of Jakarta, 2015.

Indonesia has two other public transportation technologies that are worth mentioning: ojeks and becaks. Ojeks are motorcycle taxis. The passenger sits on the back of the motorcycle behind the driver. Thanks to their narrow profile, ojeks can weave through traffic. I understand that motorcycle taxis are common elsewhere in southeast Asia. It seems that they could be popular in India as well, but they have not caught on there for some reason—possibly because they would not be practical for women traveling alone.

The other distinctively Indonesian mode of public transit is the becak, a three-wheeled cycle-taxi. (The c in “becak” is said like ch in “change.”) Unlike the cycle-rickshaws of India or the trishaws of Malaysia, becaks have a passenger seat in the front, and the driver sits in the back. The use of becaks has fallen off considerably in recent decades, but they are still around, especially in touristy areas.

A becak in Yogyakarta.

A becak in Yogyakarta.

Singapore Airlines planes at Changi Airport.

A nation without monuments

Every country has its monuments, which glorify great men of the past (and less frequently, great women), commemorate battles won and lost, and represent the nation’s ideals. Even colonies have monuments, erected on behalf of the colonial power and often paid for by the subjects. When a colony declares independence, the monuments of the colonial power are often the first to be torn down. In 1776, American colonists toppled statues of King George III. After 1947, when India parted ways with the British Empire, statues of British monarchs were moved to museums or shipped off to Canada.

The now-empty pedestals in roundabouts and parks were soon occupied by statues of the new heroes of the independent nation: Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji Subhash, Pandit Nehru. Buildings and streets likewise received new identities: Kingsway in New Delhi became Rajpath, the Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay became Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. For that matter, Bombay itself was rechristened, becoming Mumbai. Just about the only thing that wasn’t renamed was the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata. A larger-than-life statue of the elderly sovereign remains in place in front of the wedding-cake building, but the interior now features a museum commemorating the independence struggle.

The example of India is not unique. Around the world, political changes usually lead to a flurry of renaming of streets and dismantling and rebuilding of monuments.

By comparison, the example of Singapore is unusual. Singapore has been an independent, sovereign nation for more than fifty years, but there has been little of the renaming and reinventing of the city-state that has happened in most other former colonies. A statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who founded Singapore in 1819, still stands cockily over the waterfront. Most streets retain their colonial names. While there are plenty of historical markers for the colonial period and the Japanese occupation during World War II, there are no statues for Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s first prime minister—even though he served for more than thirty years and was a central figure in the modernization of the city-state.1

Statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in Singapore.

Statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in Singapore.

On first blush, it might seem that modern Singapore is lacking in a sense of identity, which other former colonies have gone to great lengths to cultivate. I certainly felt that way when I visited two years ago. But on further reflection, not having statues of modern heroes all over the place is a part of Singapore’s identity. It shows that the country is open to the world—or at least the modern, prosperous parts of it. With its gleaming high-rises and booming economy, Singapore itself is a monument to Lee Kuan Yew.

Singapore's monument to the Great War, which is inscribed in honor of the fallen of World War II on the back side.

Singapore’s monument to the fallen soldiers of the World Wars.

A sign on Connaught Drive, pointing to a historical marker about World War II. (The marker is located on the site of a memorial for the Japanese-affiliated Indian National Army, which was dynamited by Mountbatten’s troops after they retook Singapore in 1945.)

A sign on Connaught Drive, pointing to a historical marker about World War II. (The marker is located on the site of a memorial for the Japanese-affiliated Indian National Army, which was dynamited by Mountbatten’s troops after they retook Singapore in 1945.)

  1. C.M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore (Oxford, 1988), 320-21. []
Marina Bay panorama.

How does Singapore work?

For several years, I was perplexed by a little place called Singapore. I had never been there myself, but I had read and heard that it is a completely independent city-state on an island in southeast Asia. The more I learned about technology and economics, the more I was baffled by Singapore. How could a single city on an island survive as an independent nation? To function, cities need hinterlands from which to draw resources. But how can a city’s hinterland be in another country?

I was fortunate to get the chance to visit Singapore for a conference earlier this year, the Society for the History of Technology’s annual meeting. Having visited Singapore, and read up on it during and after my visit, I think I have a better understanding of how Singapore can be a viable city-state on an island. Here are some things I’ve learned about how Singapore works.

Land

It is true that Singapore is very small for a country, but it is large for a city-state. At 278 sq mi, it is much larger than the other two independent city-states, Vatican City and Monaco, both of which are smaller than a square mile. Singapore has room not only for urban areas, but also highways, parklands, reservoirs, military bases, and even some farms.

As Singapore’s population grows, land becomes ever more dear—a problem in dense urban areas around the world. One of Singapore’s solutions to the land crunch is buying sand from Indonesia and using it to reclaim land from the ocean. Another solution is particularly heavy-handed urban redevelopment: unilaterally replacing low-density neighborhoods with high-rise apartment blocks. This has created clean, healthy housing for the common man and woman, but it has also given most of Singapore a generic, characterless appearance.

Although Singapore is an island, it is separated from Malaysia (and the Asian mainland) only by the Straits of Johor, which is about as wide as the Hudson River between New Jersey and Manhattan. There are two permanent above-water links between Singapore and Malaysia, the Johor Causeway and the Second Link. The Johor Causeway opened in 1923, was partially destroyed by retreating Allied troops in 1942, then repaired by the Japanese within days of their occupying the island. It has been in use ever since. The Second Link, a longer but less-interesting concrete bridge, opened in 1998.

Scale model of the entire nation of Singapore, in the Singapore City Gallery.

Scale model of the entire nation of Singapore, in the Singapore City Gallery.

Water

Singapore has four sources of clean water, known as the National Taps: 1) rainwater collected in reservoirs, 2) desalinated seawater, 3) three pipelines from Malaysia that cross over to Singapore on the Johor Causeway, and 4) processed wastewater. The last of these, known as the Fourth National Tap or Newater, processes the water through multiple stages of filtration and irradiation. Most of this water is used by industry, but some of it is pumped up into the reservoirs, mixed with rainwater, processed again, and then delivered to the municipal water system. (One of the Newater plants is integrated into a visitor center. Like so much else in Singapore, it is a tourist attraction.)

The drainage of Singapore island has been engineered on a huge scale, to save as much rainwater as possible. Singapore’s planners have gone as far as damming the mouth of Marina Bay, adjacent to the downtown commercial district, to convert it into a freshwater lake.

Tank at the Newater treatment plant with an integrated visitor center.

Tank at the Newater treatment plant with an integrated visitor center.

Marina Barrage, completed in 2008.

Marina Barrage, completed in 2008.

Energy

A highly-industrialized, heavily-urbanized place, Singapore has high energy needs. The island has no petrochemical deposits. Fortunately for Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia both have an abundance of petrochemicals. Singapore imports crude oil from its neighbors, processes it in refineries, and re-exports the refined products at a profit. The majority of Singapore’s electricity is generated from imported natural gas. I expected to find that Singapore also bought electricity from Malaysia’s electric grid, but it turns out that the opposite is the case: Singapore sells a little electricity back to its neighbor across the straits.

Food

More than 90% of Singapore’s food is imported. Farms on the outskirts of the built-up area produce some eggs, fish, and leafy greens, but almost everything else needs to be imported. The top sources of fruits and vegetables are Malaysia (of course), China, Australia, and the USA.

Despite needing to import everything—or possibly because of this—Singaporeans have developed a strong and distinctive food culture. My favorite experience in Singapore was eating lunch at a hawker center in Chinatown—a food court for inexpensive, tasty street food. I got filled up on a mushroom-noodle dish for S$4.50.

Economy

Singapore has managed to stay independent and continue drawing resources from its hinterland in other countries because of its robust economy.1 Located strategically on the Straits of Melaka, Singapore has been an important free-trade port almost from its founding in 1819. The city-state’s industries include ship repair, electronics, and petroleum refining. Singapore is also a center of international banking, and its airport is a major hub in southeast Asia. Singapore has been able to sell itself as a clean, hassle-free (if generic) Asian travel experience, and tourism is thus a major part of the economy as well.

Singapore is an orderly, well-managed country. It is a demonstration that technocracy can work on a small scale—as long as you are able to banish your messy hinterland to another country.

Ships anchored off Marina Bay, Singapore.

Ships anchored off Marina Bay, Singapore.

  1. Malaysia is also politically invested in Singapore’s independence. Singapore was a part of Malaysia from 1963-1965, but the Malay States expelled Singapore because their leaders feared the ethnic Chinese of Singapore would dominate national politics. []

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