17 posts

Vol. 4, No. 2, BOOK REVIEWS, Mario I. LÓPEZ

Born Out of Place: Migrant Mothers and the Politics of International Labor
Nicole Constable
Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2014, xvii+259p.

Scholars have theoretically couched late twentieth century and early twenty-first century human migration in terms of metaphors that invoke global fluidity, risk, uncertainty, and the dismantling of previous forms of social relations. Migrants, many of whom remain nameless, are often vilified, lambasted, and treated as second-class citizens along with their children. The label “migrant” often denotes persons who come from outside the body politic and it simultaneously provokes societies to demonize foreignness, associating it with contamination, risk, and anxiety. In Southeast Asia, both the Philippines and Indonesia, have intense histories of migration within the region (and beyond it) to cater to the need for flexible workers. Both nations have sent nurses, care workers, nannies, and domestic workers to Taiwan (Lan 2006), the U.S. (Rodriguez 2010), Europe, and other parts of the world where labor is required to fill gaps in the workforce. Nicole Constable’s book provides a timely addition to the literature on migrants workers living overseas. It offers a very welcome and sensitive ethnography based on her many years of fieldwork in Hong Kong (HK) complimenting other recent ethnographic works that have been carried out (Matthews 2011; Knowles and Harper 2009). It focuses on migrant workers’ everyday experiences and importantly, draws out not only the voices of migrant mothers and men, but also those of the children, an often-neglected group in migration literature.

The book focuses on three issues. Firstly, temporary workers to HK enter as workers (both in regards to their contracts and the obligations placed upon them by states, brokers, and other institutions) but they are never only workers. Secondly, legal frameworks, laws, and policies implemented to regulate, control, and manage migrants movement often fail in their aims. And thirdly migrants, especially those who are single mothers, enter into a migratory cycle of atonement, a “self-perpetuating, precarious pattern of migration that is often the only route to escape the shame that single motherhood brings to them and their families” (p. xiii). In effect, Constable questions the very heart of the system that controls migrant’s movement and aims to critique current policies in not just HK, but in other regions of the world where similar policies are in place.

Chapter one, “A very tiny problem,” presents the overall thesis of the book and takes a sensitive gendered approach toward the issue of migrant mothers in HK, their reasons to overstay and the implications of doing so. Predominately (but not exclusively) focusing on mothers who work in HK and give birth to children “overseas” as opposed to those who are “left behind,” Constable locates some of their experiences in “zones of social abandonment” while reminding us of the plethora of distinctions that are used to categorize migrant workers. Modifying Giorgio Agamben’s notion of “bare life,” an effect of state power that strips life of any political significance and curtails it, Constable problematizes clear-cut distinctions to scrutinize the ambiguities of the position of migrants in HK. Chapter two, “Ethnography and everyday life” offers an overview of the book’s ethnographic approach interweaving both methodology and interviews with migrant women in HK, an approach that continues throughout the book. This is done by contextualizing her approach within two dominant streams in migration studies: one that looks at exploitation and abuse of migrant workers and another that focuses on migration as a resource (p. 23). Constable takes the approach of an engaged humanist (p. 24) with an open agenda to contribute to discussions on social justice for migrant workers. She also emphasizes that she was not a “detached interviewer” (p. 55); as a feminist-ethnographer-activist she juxtaposes the creative ways in which migrants work within and utilize the structures that oppress them as well as the risks they face such as giving birth, illegal abortions, rape, sex work, and domestic violence.

Both chapters three and four ethnographically engage with the experiences of male and female migrants. Through a combined reading, the strengths of these two chapters present a complicated ecology of migrant life and preoccupations in HK. An underlying current in these chapters is a critique of those policies and employment practices in both sending and receiving nations which promote overstaying and illegality, with brokers and state agencies regulating, restricting, or corralling the movement of migrant workers as an expendable and cheaply employable underclass. These structural state sponsored practices weigh down on everyday life choices and the strategies that migrants employ when forced to commit illegality.1) What these two chapters underscore is how residence in HK is structured by the outsourcing of domesticity as a rising Chinese middle-class relies on migrants for the gendered roles of caring for children, elderly, and household chores. Yet simultaneously, we are reminded of the unpredictable consequences of globalization that brings together people from different regions with their histories and trajectories tied to the city’s colonial past. Interestingly, Constable also draws our attention to men’s subjectivities and discusses “trading up”; how they move from relationships with foreign domestic workers (FDWs) to those with HK residents who ultimately offer them the opportunity to legally legitimize residency through marriage. This extends our understanding of Constable’s previous work on upward female marriage mobility (global hypergamy) and asks for more research to be done on how men strategically “marry up” to legitimize their residence: negotiating their way from precarity to privilege.

Chapter five deals with the intimate politics of sex and babies. HK functions as a liminal space where social rules and expectations that are familiar to FDWs in their home countries become restructured by their needs, those of their employers, their partners, and the legal structures that they confront. It offers penetrating insights into how women’s sense of agency changes as they negotiate the ways in which their morals are challenged overseas; how sexual norms are relaxed and enforced (in particular by religious teachings); how reputation, ideas of chastity, condom use, and abortions are understood and experienced; and how these are policed. Maternity provisions are legally in place for migrant workers yet the whole system is geared toward managing and disciplining migrant workers through pregnancy tests and contractual agreements to not get pregnant with the constant fear of dismissal (p. 143). Constable drives home the pressures that are placed on women from the conflicting messages they receive both in HK and from their countries of origin. The very conditions they are expected to obey literally inscribe themselves into everyday practices resulting in women strategically creating viable solutions under conditions of duress. The concluding section of chapter five is vividly painful as Constable shares a personal story of one Indonesian migrant worker who miscarries on a toilet and is taken to hospital. Her home was treated as a “crime scene.” A doctor insists it is an “abortion” until blood and urine tests are taken to confirm no abortive drugs were used; an ambulance attendant (male) consoles her, saying she will have more children as she is “beautiful” (p. 153). Agambem’s notion of bare life is driven home when some migrants who work in HK are inscribed by a logic of control over their bodies and the attitudes of others towards them as second class temporary laborers.

Chapter six deals with citizenship, the system of visas and the legal means by which female migrants pursue claims to right of abode whereas chapter seven homes in on the precarious conditions of asylum seekers and over stayers. Drawing out the implications of the ways in which the law can regulate stay in HK, Constable highlights the complexity of how the law is applied to FDWs. Migrants can normalize their statuses through marriage to a HK resident however, this option is not available to the majority. Many overstay and apply for asylum or file torture claims. As such migrants’ status varies from the most to least privileged in terms of resident status (p. 157). What Constable does make clear is that the law is wielded as a tool of the state to enforce, regulate, and patrol the status of migrant workers. Workers are perceived as contractually based short-term laborers who are, at every legal turn, excluded or dissuaded from becoming “legitimized” HK long-term residents. This dissuasion is also bolstered by the state determining the very constitution of the family as an individual unit and then as a part of the broader body politic in the territory.2) Although there have been challenges at the highest level to legitimize the status of FDWs with some successes, the general consensus has been to legally justify exclusion and draw lines over who has the right to be part of the body politic.3) Chapter seven focuses on how migrants pursue stay in HK through refugee and torture claims as asylum seekers. In particular, the chapter shows how making claims operates as a way to buy time as a repertoire of practices to extend stay in HK. By focusing on the range of choices and tactics—both legal and economic—used to extend time, this chapter illustrates “the spectrum of skill” (p. 193) that migrants have at their disposal. These include applying their knowledge of the law to pursue paternity claims (and the possible of entitlement to residency and child maintenance) (p. 212), ways of making/saving money during periods where claims are being processed, or by overstaying.

The final chapter comes back to the beginning to pull together the threads that link to the “migratory cycle of atonement,” following up on women who had returned to their respective countries. It offers by way of conclusion a critique of how migrant worker’s lives are tied to laws, policies, enactments, and provisions that curtail their freedoms and opportunities. These policies are in HK’s case especially harsh. Upward class mobility in HK—and in other parts of the region—has meant that many aspects of “traditional” labor are outsourced. Yet, it is not just migrants but their children and families back home who bear the brunt of the modern exclusionary and regulatory force of discrimination. This compels migrants to use their wits, skills, and tactics in an every day modern battlefield that is concealed at the heart of modern day migration.

HK is faced with the dilemma of a low fertility rate and anticipated labor shortages yet outsiders, particular those from surrounding Asian countries, remain outsiders. Constable has shown an ethnographer’s commitment and passion to draw out migrant’s precarity and the strategies they employ in tackling a system stacked up against them. However, there is a minor concern. One is a lack of focus on migrant’s relationship to their religious traditions. The book primarily focuses on Filipinas and Indonesian migrant workers. Both Islam and Roman Catholicism espouse different levels of religious education from the family through to religious institutions. This book would have merited more from threading in the different ways both Islam and Roman Catholicism are perceived at an everyday level in migrant’s lives. How do ideas of piousness and chastity, sexual religious identities, and attitudes towards contraception and birth outside of wedlock change overseas? What pressure do religious institutions exert on migrants and how do their internal understandings play out in their everyday life? In what ways does a “modern” and “cosmopolitan” HK free women or reorient their religious selves? Bearing down on these questions would have fleshed out the undercurrent that flows through the chapters. Aside from this minor weakness, the complex narratives along with discerning analysis mean that scholars will benefit from this detailed case study to see how states manage the fault lines of twenty-first century migration and how migrants live out their lives along them.

Mario I. López


Knowles, Caroline; and Harper, Douglas. 2009. Hong Kong: Migrant Lives, Landscapes, and Journeys. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lan, Pei-Chia. 2006. Global Cinderellas: Migrant Domestics and Newly Rich Employers in Taiwan. Durham: Duke University Press.

Matthews, Gordon. 2011. Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rodriguez, Robyn Magalit. 2010. Migrants for Export: How the Philippine State Brokers Labor to the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

1) Since 1987, the new conditions of stay, known as the “two-week rule” mean that on termination of a contract, domestic workers have to return home if they have not found alternative employment. This inevitability forces some workers to overstay therefore become illegal migrants.

2) Exclusion and dissuasion also extends to Mainland Chinese who are also discriminated against on a different level.

3) See for example the cases of Evangeline Banao Vallejos and Daniel and Irene Raboy Domingo vs Commissioner of Registration to secure right of abode (see Constable pp. 173–178).


Vol. 4, No. 2, BOOK REVIEWS, Richard T. CHU

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 2

The Chinese Question: Ethnicity, Nation, and Region in and beyond the Philippines
Caroline S. Hau
Singapore: NUS Press in association with Kyoto: Kyoto University Press, 2014, ix+379p.

Close observers of Philippine politics and society might have recently come across two newsworthy stories of the year 2014: One was Forbes magazine’s list of the 50 richest Filipinos (Brown 2014). A cursory look at the list would reveal that at least half of the individuals listed are Filipinos of Chinese or mixed Chinese descent. Another is a major daily newspaper’s ranking of China “bullying” the Philippines over the disputed reefs in the “West Philippine Sea” (from the vantage point of the Philippines; “South China Seas” for China) as the second most “raging” event of the year ( 2014). As an ethnic minority in the Philippines, the Chinese in the Philippines have not been subjected—at least in the last half-century—to the same pogrom that the Chinese in neighboring countries in Southeast Asia have experienced, especially those in Malaysia and Indonesia. Nevertheless, their ubiquity in Philippine society, especially in their participation in the Philippine economy, makes them vulnerable to the vicissitudes of geo-political or domestic/regional politics. As tensions between the Philippines and China rise over the ownership of the reefs, the Chinese in the Philippines have been accused of showing more loyalty to China than the Philippines. While many Chinese in the Philippines are already Filipino citizens, or have lived in the country for several generations, they are still seen by many Filipinos as an “Other.” Caroline Hau’s The Chinese Question could not have come at a better time when contemporary issues regarding the ethnic relations between the Chinese in the Philippines and the Filipinos, as well as the political and economic relationship between the Philippines and China are being strained due to the political tension over the Scarborough Shoal. Its publication provides readers with an alternative perspective to the Chinese question in the Philippines and in the region.

Through a close reading of “texts” (e.g. films, novels), the book seeks to analyze how the ethnic signifiers “Chinese” and “Chinese mestizo” (and in a related manner, “Filipino”) have changed since Philippine independence in 1946; how different actors engaged in the construction or reinvention of such terms; and what geopolitical events, local conditions, and other factors helped shape the discourses surrounding the “Chinese [and Chinese mestizo] question.”

Chapter One focuses on the 1950s, and describes the conundrum by which people of mixed Chinese-Filipino heritage, known as Chinese mestizos, faced vis-à-vis the citizenship policy of the Philippines, a policy based on the principle of using “blood” to determine national belonging (jus sanguinis). Since the Americans colonized the Philippines in the late nineteenth century, the Spanish colonial ethno-legal category of (Chinese) “mestizo” had disappeared. With the construction in the twentieth century of hardened boundaries between who was considered “Filipino” and who was “Chinese,” Chinese mestizos found themselves having to negotiate their bicultural identifications. This can be seen in the characters of the novel The Sultanate, particularly in the Chinese mestizo Ric, who, in wanting to prove his loyalty to the Philippines, acts as an informer of Chinese communists. However, because of his “mestizoness,” he can never earn the trust of either other Chinese (who think that he is betraying his own people) or Filipinos (who think Ric is not Filipino). Despite this, the characters still choose to give their loyalty to a country that continues to treat them as an “Other.” Ultimately then, the novel “seeks to define citizenship in ways that go beyond the ascriptive, involuntary aspects of membership in a national community by birth or blood” (p. 85).

As an ally of the “free” world in the 1950s, the Philippines participated in containing communism in Asia. The celebrated case of the arrest and deportation of the Yuyitung brothers, suspected of being communists, opens Chapter Two. During the Cold War era, the question of most countries with a sizable number of Chinese, including the Philippines, was how to protect its citizens from the communist “threat.” But in the 1970s, the relationship of these countries with China thawed. Furthermore, these countries began to view the “Chinese” not as a threat. Their “Chinese question” turned to how to integrate the Chinese into the national polity, i.e., allowing people of different “cultural” backgrounds to live together in one state without losing the uniqueness of each group. In the Philippines, Marcos implemented the mass naturalization law in 1975, allowing the Chinese to finally become citizens. Hence, movies like Dragnet and Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon? (This is How We Were, How Are You Doing Now?) portray the Chinese in a more positive light, veering away from earlier movies that tend to associate the Chinese characters with greed and corruption. However, the image of the Chinese “as alien and capitalist” persists in the “Filipino nationalist imagination” (p. 128), as can be seen in Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Light). This is the conundrum that has always faced the Chinese in the Philippines (as well as in other countries): the association of the Chinese with capital.

Hau examines the conflation of (Chinese) ethnicity and class in the Philippines by focusing on the spate of kidnappings that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. Chapter Three discusses how the kidnappings enforce the stereotype that the Chinese are wealthy people. Historically, the Philippine government has treated the Chinese as a form of commodity. For instance, it has made acquiring citizenship difficult, charging the Chinese exorbitant fees to acquire it. As a result, the connection between the Chinese and money is reinforced. How the kidnappings highlight this tension between citizenship, class, and ethnicity can be seen in Charlson Ong’s fictional story of a Chinese family whose daughter died during a botched attempt to rescue her from her kidnappers. Civic organizations such as Kaisa para sa Kaunlaran, whose membership consists mostly of Chinese Filipinos, use the logic of citizenship to advocate justice for the “Chinese” kidnap victims. However, Kaisa faces the challenge of dealing with this issue without appearing to be only interested in protecting the “Chinese” (p. 159). Hau argues that a political solution to the kidnaping menace may not be effective unless it is a call to obtain justice for everyone, including Filipinos.

Chapter Four covers the period from World War II to the present, and deals with the “revolutionary cosmopolitanism” of Chinese communists. It analyzes how this kind of cosmopolitanism forces us to rethink notions of nation-ness and national belonging; and how Chinese leftist groups such as the Wha Chi were fitted either within a “nationalist narrative of liberation and/or socialist-regional narrative of amity and cooperation” (p. 179). Specifically, the chapter focuses on guiqiao (returned “overseas Chinese”) authors Du Ai and his partner Lin Bin; the anti-Japanese guerilla organization in the Philippines, the Wha Chi; and Du Ai’s novel memorializing the experiences of the Wha Chi. Du Ai’s novel Fengyu Taipingyang (Pacific Storms), although partly autobiographic, points to “a degree of interdependence and intimacy between Wha Chi guerrillas and their Filipino counterparts that is unequaled by any existing account of Chinese-Philippine relations” (p. 185). The novel includes interactions of members of the movement with communists from China, Russia, and countries from Southeast Asia, suggesting an alternative to the nation-based notion of “community” (as constituting members with a common “origin”), to a one that is based on a common destiny, though such membership, consisting of a heterogeneous group of people and created through the bonds of shared lives and experiences, also runs the risks of “betrayal and rejection” (pp. 189–190). Such “revolutionary cosmopolitanism” as exhibited by the characters in the novel “highlights the fact that nationalism is not always or necessarily about boundedness, exclusivity, rivalry, and enmity, but possesses the capacity for openness, linkages, dialogue, bridges, networks, mutuality, reciprocity, complementarity, and friendship” (p. 198). And yet, we see that even the Wha Chi guerillas are constantly being re-imagined by different actors, including the Philippine government, which, in its national goal of integrating the Chinese within the national polity, issued stamps in 1992 featuring different guerilla groups in World War II, including the Wha Chi. Hau points out that many members of the Wha Chi were in fact, non-Filipino citizens.

The next chapter segues into a discussion of the “Chinese question” in the last three decades. In this chapter, Hau demonstrates how a “regional” approach to the study of the Chinese complicates notions of “Chineseness” often couched in “national” and territorially-bound terms. Focusing on the popularity of Chinese-character driven movies in the Philippines (the Mano Po movies, Crying Ladies) and other similar movies or television shows in Southeast Asia, the chapter shows how the “Chinese question” is better understood within the “specific geopolitical, social, economic, and cultural configurations that have taken root within the historical context of nation-building, capitalist transformation, and the American-mediated regional system in Asia” (p. 241). Such configurations include the rise of China as a regional (and global) power and the success stories of “tiger” economies in East/Southeast Asia (at least until the Asian financial crisis of 1997), and nationalist efforts (supported by some members of the academia) to attribute the success of these economies to “Chinese/Confucian” values and other “Chinese” characteristics. Hence, the movie producers or scriptwriters of such shows tap into such discourses and capitalize the Chinese’ regional connections as well as “ethnicity” to forward their own integrationist agenda. For instance, the first Mano Po movie plays on the Tsinoy (referring to Chinese Filipinos) identities of the characters to demonstrate that due to their hybridity of being both “Tsino” (Chinese) and “Pinoy” (Filipino), Tsinoys are constitutively part of Filipino society, identity, and culture, and that their loyalties lie with the Philippines. Vera, the main character of the movie, decides to stay in the Philippines and not migrate to another country even after her family went through the personal tragedy of a family member being kidnapped. But despite some “success” in attempts by certain sectors in Philippine society to push for the integrationist agenda when it comes to the Philippines’ “Chinese question,” the continuing economic inequality and social injustices in the country, coupled with the consistent association of the Chinese with capital, complicate such efforts.

Chapter Six deals with how “families” highlight the complexity and challenges of identity construction or reinvention within the socio-economic and political context of the nation and region. As China becomes a global power, to be “Chinese” presently carries a degree of social status, leading some elite creolized families in Southeast Asia—including those in the Philippines—to reclaim Chineseness in their heritage. Intermarriages between Chinese and natives are also becoming more commonplace. However, in the Philippines, the increasing blurring of boundaries between what is “Filipino” and what is “Chinese” carries with it some problems. For instance, many Chinese elite families still practice endogamy (p. 259), thereby maintaining the boundaries between the Chinese and the Filipinos. Furthermore, the increased interaction between Chinese elites in the Philippines and those in China or elsewhere, whether through business or personal ties, can be “fraught with ambivalence,” since such couplings have sometimes resulted in political scandals involving graft and corruption (p. 263). Finally, “Chinese” families continue to experience discrimination and injustices, despite having become “Filipino” by citizenship. Such “fraught relationship between family and nation” is explored in Charlson Ong’s Embarrassment of Riches, where the main protagonist Jeffrey, a Chinese mestizo who grew up in an outpost of the Philippines named Victorianas, ends up in exile in the Philippines. However, despite being denied citizenship, Jeffrey continues to profess loyalty to the Philippines. Hence, the novel also “asks Filipino readers to experience what it would be like to learn to love a place where one ‘lives’, even when one is unwanted,” an experience, in the age of “large-scale Filipino international migration . . . is no longer unimaginable, but rather, commonplace for Chinese and Filipinos alike” (p. 278).

In the concluding chapter, Hau challenges the ideal of “China” as the site of “Chinese” identification, for she demonstrates that in the last century or so, notions of “racial nationalism” espoused by Chinese nationalists have been influenced by Japanese and British ideas. Furthermore, other countries have invented their own concepts of “Chineseness” from within and/or from the region other than China. Even within China itself, “centripetal” and “centrifugal” forces continue to “territorializ(e) and de/reterritorializ(e) China and Chineseness” (p. 309). The contestations of what it means to be “Chinese” can be seen in the two “Chinese” movies Hero and 2046. In Hero, the movie producers attempt to “reterritorialize” Chineseness by casting famous Chinese actors from different countries to appear in the movie and speak Mandarin even while this is not the actors’ first language. On the other hand, in 2046, the characters spoke in different languages to each other, thus “decentering” Mandarin (and by extension, China) as the locus of “Chinese” identification. Hau sums up the chapter, and the whole book, by reiterating the aim of the book, i.e., to point to the reader how the “Chinese Question” can be more broadly understood by analyzing not only attempts by dominant groups to reterritorialize and deterritorialize “China” and “Chineseness” to localize the Chinese and their descendants, but also the efforts of the latter to negotiate the efforts of the former in order to “claim, and base their actions on, commonalities and/or differences with Southeast Asians, other ‘Chinese’, and others” (p. 315).

Astutely and incisively written, Hau’s The Chinese Question indeed raises important questions. Among these are: How can the Chinese in the Philippines find “acceptance” in the Philippines? How do Filipinos perceive the Chinese Filipinos vis-à-vis China’s “bullying” tactics in relation to the Scarborough Shoal? How does one treat the “Chinese question” in the Philippines without resorting to a narrow sense of nationalism? But more importantly, the book poses the question to its readers: How does hegemony work within the specific context of the Philippines and the East Asian/Southeast Asian region and in relation to the “Chinese question”? Not one to condone instances of injustices or oppression, both inflicted by others upon the Chinese and by the Chinese upon others, including other Chinese, the author, however, does not propose to offer neat and pat solutions to the questions she raises. Instead, she challenges the reader to understand the “processes” by which “China” and “Chineseness” are constructed/reconstructed, invented/reinvented, negotiated/renegotiated by different actors, and what “capacities, effects, possibilities, and limits structure these processes” as well as the lives of the Chinese and their descendants (p. 315). Hau’s magnificent work grants agency to historical actors and offers its readers a “template” (one that examines the interplay of “ethnicity,” “nation,” and “region”) with which to approach the “Chinese question,” especially in the Philippines—an approach that understands and questions power, fights it when it engenders injustice and oppression, accords respect to differences, and continues to engage it through theoria and praxis. Moreover, Hau’s work is unique from other influential studies on the “Chinese question” (e.g. McKeown 2001; Ong and Nonini 1997; Siu 2005) on two counts. First, geographically, it focuses specifically on the Philippines and East/Southeast Asia, an important area in the field of Chinese diasporic studies that merits further scholarly attention. Second, by demonstrating how China’s own “Chinese question” is being contested and negotiated, and influenced by “non-Chinese” and other nations in the region, it brings the “Chinese question” to a level that does not privilege “China” and marks it solely as the locus of “Chinese” identification. While, as the author points out, such approaches are not novel, the contribution of the book lies in identifying what “patterns of difference” are “historically identified and lived as ‘Chinese’ in China, Southeast Asia, and beyond” (p. 312), that would help explain, for instance, how and why the Chinese in the Philippines (and in the region) have been historically identified with capital, and how they would respond (in different ways) to the dispute in Scarborough Shoal.

As an academic book, The Chinese Question is pathbreaking. As a political work, it is radical.

Richard T. Chu
Department of History, University of Massachusetts, Amherst


Brown, Abram. 2014. Philippines’ 50 Richest. Forbes, August 27, 2014, (accessed February 9, 2015). 2014. Inquirer #BestOfSeven 2014 Yearend Special. December 27, 2014, (accessed February 9, 2015).

McKeown, Adam. 2001. Chinese Migrant Networks and Cultural Change: Peru, Chicago, Hawaii, 1900–1936. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Ong, Aihwa; and Nonini, Donald Macon, eds. 1997. Ungrounded Empires: The Cultural Politics of Modern Chinese Transnationalism. London and New York: Routledge.

Siu, Lok C. D. 2005. Memories of a Future Home: Diasporic Citizenship of Chinese in Panama. Stanford: Stanford University Press.



Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 2

Subversive Lives: A Family Memoir of the Marcos Years
Susan F. Quimpo and Nathan Gilbert Quimpo
Manila: Anvil Publishing, 2012, 468p.

In recent years, there have been a number of publications which reflect on the troubled history of the Philippines during the Marcos years, a period from 1965–86 characterized as a fascist dictatorial revolution presumed to emanate from the center. It was contested by rebellious movements from the Marxist-influenced Left and Moro secessionism and a traditional reformist elite displaced by a different patronage politics of supporting national leaders in exchange for exclusive business contracts, unrestrained local dominion, and nepotistic appointments to government positions (see de Dios et al. 1988). While writings published in the years immediately after the downfall of Marcos sprang from journalistic coverage and generally focused on the political, socio-economic, and religious state of the nation (Allarey-Mercado 1986; Project 28 Days 1986; Burton 1989; de Dios et al. 1988; Thompson 1996), books released in the last several years have dealt with the more personal dimensions of the anti-Marcos struggle. They share individual political involvement (Segovia 2008; Vizmanos 2003; Abreu 2009), gather thought-provoking perspectives on the experiences of activists during those tumultuous times (Llanes 2012; Maglipon 2012), and creatively reflect on those experiences (Cimatu and Tolentino 2010). Such works are much needed contributions to creating a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the period. Subversive Lives offers different insights in considering the state and revolution of the time. Written by an unusual brood of activist children, it is a collective familial take on the profound changes which the “larger” realms of society and politics have wrought on a family. The book views governmental authoritarianism and the social revolution it kindled through the collective eyes of the Quimpos, a middle-class family based in Metro Manila who struggled against an iniquitous social order and, eventually, the alternatives to it.

The memoir begins by sharing the family life of the Quimpos. Although scions of relatively wealthy and ilustrado (enlightened, i.e. educated) background, Ishmael de los Reyes Quimpo and Esperanza Evangelista Ferrer moved down to the middle class and labored hard to give a comfortable life for their kids. Because of Ishmael’s transfer of job assignment and crucial medical attention to one polio-stricken son, the Quimpos had to move from Iloilo province in the central Philippines to the capital, Manila, and there raise all 10 of their kids (Lys, Norman, Emilie, Caren, Lillian, Nathan, Jan, Ryan, Jun, and Susan), vowing to provide them with the best education available. At first, the children became involved in organizations that actively addressed social ills, reform-inspired student councils, and Catholic organizations. Later on, they became involved with revolution-oriented social movements. One by one, 7 of the 10 became activists, leading them to become distant from their strict and conflict-averse family. They hid their involvement from their parents to no avail.

As a first-hand account of their engagements in social transformation, the anthology is remarkable in sharing the intense personal crises each of the siblings experienced as they wrestled with personal ambitions and guilt over their parents’ sacrifices in order to give them a much better life. They were not only turning against the status quo in Philippine society, but also the deeply-entrenched traditionalist values of their families. One may also ask whether the children’s progressive and revolutionary stances which impelled them to commit to radical work were also not a creation of their parents’ hard work—honesty, fairness, and diligence inculcated inside the home and service to others learned in school. The memoir also highlights the postwar phenomenon of the “boom generation” of youngsters who had better lives than what their parents enjoyed, who benefited from an expanding educational system, and were exposed to decolonization and subaltern struggles (See Gitlin 2003). Furthermore, the “novelty” of radical student movements beckoned the youth to wage transformative struggles that unavoidably put them on a collision course with their parents.

Readers unfamiliar with Philippine radical history will benefit from seeing how individual personal narratives track the contours of the national democratic revolutionary movement that, by the 1980s, had grown into the single most formidable enemy of the dictatorship. We observe how the movement benefited from, even as it developed, the personal capacities of its members in “the parliament of the streets,” among farmers in the countryside, students and workers in urban areas, and the cultural field of literary and artistic productions. Nathan played a role in the party’s controversial project of procuring arms from China, led political-military campaigns in the country’s second largest island, and entered the arena of complicated international liaison work. Ryan helped in organizing farmers in the Bicol region and went into overseas revolutionary work in France. Norman participated in work among the religious. There are many details that appear trivial but are nonetheless deeply moving. Emilie and Susan’s efforts to reclaim the body of their brother Jun who was killed by a comrade resisting disciplinary actions tell of bureaucratic red tape and military cover-up of a heinous crime. Nathan’s prison experience shows the dignified campaign of captive revolutionaries even in isolation. The romance between Jun and his wife Tina is recollected through love letters in the rebel zones, revealing with sympathy the convolutions of the deeply personal and the ruggedly political dimensions of revolutionary commitment, such as the predicaments of choosing whether to work in the city or countryside and the pains of being separated from families and partners. Songs, poems, and photographs render palpable the intimacy of real people waging real struggles to change their realities. They also reveal new forms of human associations, transcending kith and kin, which revolutionaries imagine and create. Newspaper clippings highlight the extent to which the movement had inserted itself into the national body politic, with its amazing military, political, and social operations. All of these primary sources tell profound transformations in both person and society more than what sources can ever inform.

We also see how the authors have redefined their commitment as their different communist organizations encountered new challenges and suffered grievous setbacks in many campaigns. Ryan shares his disagreement with the party leadership over relations with other strains of the global Left and the general conduct of international work. Nathan discloses the intense argument over the movement’s participation or boycott of the 1986 snap presidential elections when the crisis of the Marcos dictatorship was at its most acute point. He also battles with comrades over the contentious political-military campaigns characterized by massive welgang bayan (people’s strike) combined with audacious assassinations and large-scale rebel offensives. Susan was very vocal in questioning the party’s “lead role.” At the point where everything becomes too partisan for the reader’s comfort (if comfort is at all possible given the book’s subject) the student of history reading the lives of these activists arrives at a bind: who/what is “correct” and who/what is “wrong” in their debates on revolutionary ideologies and practices? And since there are authorial claims on proper ends of struggles, who was on the “right” side of history? The presumed reader is the general public, those who are interested in knowing the lives of those who fought the dictatorship but have yet to be recognized for their heroism. For activist readers, their judgment largely depends on present political involvement, on which side one is pursuing the struggle, sides and struggles whose validity and correctness are yet to be settled in the plural and continuing revolutions that are waged by contending protagonists. Lualhati Milan Abreu’s own memoir (2009) provides a critical counterpoint to the intense ideological and personal debates within the underground movement. The Quimpos’ and Abreu’s recollections of their experiences only show that such revolutionary past cannot be objectively recovered. Revolutionaries who waged war to change the objective conditions of society are precisely subjective beings whose memories of the revolution are far from being complete and definitive.

The collective autobiography raises a lot of serious questions on the relations of the individual, family, class, and even intellect to the state and revolution. A salient starting point for all of these questions is that they are ineluctably seen through a middle-class intellectual optic, significantly highlighting the impressive role of intellectuals in social transformation (not only interpreting the world but changing it, as famously said by Karl Marx). While it reminds us that no revolution will have a prospect of success without the intellectual class siding with—and leading—it, the memoir also forces us to realize how intellectuals can lose control of the revolution when the movement becomes popular (taking deep root among the non-intellectual masses and reaching the non-metropolitan ends of the archipelago) and generates its “organic intellectuals.” Should they now abhor the revolution that their prodigious intellectual and mass-organizing work helped to produce, similar to nineteenth century ilustrados who repudiated and denigrated the anticolonial revolution that their writings had solemnly formulated and prophesied? There is also the sense of superciliousness, stemming from the belief that their own moment in history, this “synchronization of individual time and historical time” (Aguilar et al. 2011, 131), was the time of revolution and everything that follows marks a “fall” from revolutionary esteem, pushing one (or all) of the authors to wonder why the youth of today still join the revolutionary armed struggle and “die young” (p. 453). Such martyrdom of youth exemplified by Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño is perhaps a reclaiming of not only an unfinished revolution but also an ongoing history and points to a struggle that far exceeds the hopes and errors of yesteryears. Failing to fulfill the “obliged affections” and “affective obligations” of the “family spirit” (Bourdieu 1998, 68) when they were at the height of their commitment, “retired subversives” return to this family when their revolutionary endeavors come to an end. A “teleological shelter, however frail, against the remorselessness of history” (Berger and Mohr 1982, 105), their family is still where their hearts are. Can it be that because communism wreaked havoc on conventional social formations such as the family, it has been proscribed from the official discourses of nationalism, in the sense that the Filipino nation is assumed to be composed of bourgeois, Roman Catholic, and patriarchal families? The specter of communism mercilessly haunts Philippine nationalism.

As the revolution is continually being waged, and questioned as it is being waged, the breadth of scope and depth of focus achieved by the Quimpos in this memoir set the standard for future biographies of socio-political involvement. The Quimpo siblings rightly call on other families to write their own memoirs. So now, other narratives need to be told; other closures ought to be reopened.

JPaul S. Manzanilla
Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore


Abreu, Lualhati Milan. 2009. Agaw-dilim, Agaw-liwanag [Dusk/Nightfall]. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press.

Aguilar, Filomeno; Hau, Caroline; Rafael, Vicente; and Tadem, Teresa. 2011. Benedict Anderson, Comparatively Speaking: On Area Studies, Theory, and “Gentlemanly” Polemics. Philippine Studies 59 (1): 107–139.

Allarey-Mercado, Monina. 1986. People Power: An Eyewitness History, the Philippine Revolution of 1986. Manila: James B. Reuter, S. J. Foundation.

Berger, John; and Mohr, Jean. 1982. Another Way of Telling. New York: Pantheon Books.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1998. The Family Spirit. In Practical Reason: On the Theory of Action, pp. 64–74. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Burton, Sandra. 1989. Impossible Dream: The Marcoses, the Aquinos, and the Unfinished Revolution. New York: Warner Books, Inc.

Cimatu, Frank; and Tolentino, Roland B., eds. 2010. Mondo Marcos: Writings on Martial Law and the Marcos Babies. Manila: Anvil Publishing.

de Dios, Aurora Javate; Daroy, Petronilo Bn.; and Kalaw-Tirol, Lorna, eds. 1988. Dictatorship and Revolution: Roots of People’s Power. Manila: Conspectus.

Gitlin, Todd. 2003. Letters to a Young Activist. New York: Basic Books.

Llanes, Ferdinand C., ed. 2012. Tibak Rising: Activism in the Days of Martial Law. Manila: Anvil Publishing.

Maglipon, Jo-Ann Q., ed. 2012. Not on Our Watch: Martial Law Really Happened, We Were There. Taguig City: LEADS-CEGP.

Project 28 Days. 1986. Bayan Ko! Images of the Philippine Revolt. Hong Kong: Project 28 Days, Ltd.

Segovia, Raul. 2008. Inside the Mass Movement: A Political Memoir. Manila: Anvil Publishing.

Thompson, Mark. 1996. The Anti-Marcos Struggle: Personalistic Rule and Democratic Transition in the Philippines. Quezon City: New Day Publishers.

Vizmanos, Danilo P. 2003. Martial Law Diary and Other Papers. Quezon City: Ken Incorporated.


Vol. 4, No. 2, BOOK REVIEWS, Michael D. PANTE

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 2

Cars, Conduits, and Kampongs: The Modernization of the Indonesian City, 1920–1960
Freek Colombijn and Joost Coté, eds.
Leiden: Brill, 2015, 351p.

Cars, Conduits, and Kampongs: The Modernization of the Indonesian City, 1920–1960 is a commendable collection of essays that present modernization and the city not as ahistorical ideal-types but as dynamic concepts that changed as colonial cities became postcolonial urban nodes. The diachronic approach goes in tandem with the variations in the authors’ chosen urban areas, revealing that even within a single nation-state differences in perceptions of modernity exist. Nonetheless, comparability rather than divergence across space and continuity rather than rupture through time define this work.

Freek Colombijn and Joost Coté’s introductory essay, “Modernization of the Indonesian City, 1920–1960,” alerts readers to the book’s fresh insights about the relationship between technological advancements and modernization, especially in the context of a colonial city. They point to the necessity of considering the degree of novelty of an innovation and the varying responses among the colonized toward them. Of course in early-twentieth-century Indonesia, novelty often refers to the Western character of innovation and the values usually attached to it, such as progress, rationality, and science. Easily juxtaposed against this notion of modernity is the way of life of the colonized, best exemplified by the kampong, the “obvious antithesis to modernity” (p. 4). Colonizers almost always understood the kampong in terms of what it lacked—whether it was sanitation, order, housing—and consequently regarded Western technology as the necessary remedy. Previous studies on Western colonialism have already argued that such an understanding of technological diffusion provided the justification for social engineering projects that were ostensibly designed to uplift but eventually appropriated by the colonized. This book, however, takes this argument even further by extending the temporal scope so as to include Japanese colonialism, the Revolutionary period, and the early years of the Republic and showing that these drastic political changes were not enough to alter the urban landscape and modernization process that Dutch colonialism set in motion. Not only had bureaucrats of the postcolonial state “internalized the dream of modernization” (p. 9), but more importantly the reality of social boundaries and inequalities produced by modernity survived the end of colonialism.

To understand the logic behind this continuity one has to analyze the responses of the colonized toward technological innovation. The responses varied, but the editors stress the selectivity, rather than passivity, of ordinary city dwellers toward modernity. For Colombijn and Coté, conscious consumption was crucial in how Western-derived modernity persisted into the postcolonial period. The agency of the colonized enabled the “counter-colonial process of defining an alternative modernity, one that the subaltern residents of the cities could own. This alternative modernity did not reject the fundamental ingredients of modernity . . . but challenged the assumption of exclusive ownership” (p. 11). Save for the introduction, the chapters of the book are divided into three sections based on the type of responses from the colonized: 1) “State Impositions and Passive Acceptance”; 2) “Partial Accommodation”; and, 3) “Selective Appropriation.”

The three chapters in the first section “take a big picture approach, stretching their view across the twentieth century” (p. 16) to see how modernization played out in both colonial and postcolonial contexts. Saki Murakami’s “Call for Doctors! Uneven Medical Provision and the Modernization of State Health Care during the Decolonization of Indonesia, 1930s–1950s” looks at how the Sukarno administration, in its objective to present the republic as the total opposite of Dutch colonial rule, tried to support rural healthcare through more geographically dispersed assignments for doctors. Unfortunately, the program ended as a disaster due to the lack of manpower and the failure of the legislators to consider the complex demands of the medical profession. In “(Post)Colonial Pipes: Urban Water Supply in Colonial and Contemporary Jakarta” Michelle Kooy and Karen Bakker use a postcolonial framework to show the fragmented geography of Jakarta’s water supply. This fragmented geography is caused by the differences among the city’s population in terms of access, a situation that is rooted in the city’s colonial infrastructure and discourse, and sadly remains true to this day. The trajectory of colonial origins leading to postcolonial appropriation that is evident in the first two essays is also present in Pauline K. M. van Roosmalen’s “Netherlands Indies Town Planning: An Agent of Modernization (1905–1957).” The author looks at the increasing awareness of the Indonesian population to town planning concepts that originated from Dutch planners, facilitated by the actual implementation of urban plans and even mass media. Increased participation of non-Europeans in the planning process made town planning an agent of modernization.

The second section emphasizes local response and resistance more than the previous one, which focused on the top-down character of the innovation-reaction plot. The issues of housing and the kampongs set the common ground for this group of essays. Hans Versnel and Colombijn’s “Rückert and Hoesni Thamrin: Bureaucrat and Politician in Colonial Kampong Improvement” compares the careers of two colonial-era civil servants who were active in the kampong improvement campaign. Though one was the administrator type and the other more of a politician, their perspectives regarding the modern Indonesian city and the kampong question were remarkably similar. In “Kotabaru and the Housing Estate as Bulwark against the Indigenization of Colonial Java” Farabi Fakih traces the development of housing projects in Yogyakarta and how these estates helped mold the modern Javanese conceptualization of domestic space. Fakih then extends the narrative into the postcolonial era to illustrate how colonial-era notions have remained influential in residential patterns. Continuity of colonial knowledge is also the thesis of Radjimo Sastro Wijono’s “Public Housing in Semarang and the Modernization of Kampongs, 1930–1960.” Wijono’s assessment is unequivocal: “Consequently, in the process of decolonization, architecture and town planning in Indonesia, as elsewhere in South-East Asia, continued to be largely inspired by such Western models without any significant reference to national (traditional) architecture” (p. 173). Gustaaf Reerink goes deeper into the kampong question by focusing on the specific neighborhood of Taman Sari in Bandung, whose urbanization was largely a product of its relative autonomy from the state. Reerink’s essay, “From Autonomous Village to ‘Informal Slum’: Kampong Development and State Control in Bandung (1930–1960),” contends that neither the colonial nor the postcolonial state gained “effective control” over the kampongs of Bandung to subject the residents to their respective policies. Arjan Veering’s “Breaking the Boundaries: The Uniekampong and Modernization of Dock Labour In Tanjung Priok, Batavia (1917–1949)” foregrounds the Uniekampong in Tanjung Priok, a housing project for port workers living in less-than-ideal downtown kampongs, as a tool for colonial modernity to proletarianize the laborers. The plan did not work, however, because the laborers did not support to the endeavor as they tried to maintain having alternative sources of income through traditional cyclical migration.

The last section presents cases of “selective appropriation,” although the introductory chapter fails to elaborate on this phrase, which I think is a major reason why the overarching theme of this set seems the weakest among the three. Nonetheless, individually the final four essays in this section are just as insightful as the earlier ones. While the other chapters were not explicit in using class analysis, Johny A. Khusyairi and Colombijn’s “Moving at a Different Velocity: The Modernization of Transportation and Social Differentiation in Surabaya in the 1920s” is straightforward in stating that class has more analytical weight than ethnicity/race in understanding modernization, as reflected in the motorization of Surabaya’s transport system. In “The Two alun-alun of Malang (1930–1960),” Purnawan Basundoro presents Malang as a crucial case study due to the fact that it had two alun-alun, or town square, rather than just one. The meaning of Malang’s alun-alun underwent changes as Indonesia’s political landscape evolved through time, from Dutch colonialism to the period of independence. The importance of the oil industry as a symbol of modernity is the topic of Ida Liana Tanjung’s “The Indonesianization of the Symbols of Modernity in Plaju (Palembang), 1930s–1960s.” On the one hand, oil made Plaju a modern town, not to mention a signifier of European economic might, because of the facilities built for its extraction. On the other hand, Plaju’s isolation from the constellation of Indonesian cities (it is worth mentioning that Plaju is the only city outside of Java that is tackled in this book) delayed the process of Indonesianization in this town after 1945. Finally, Sarkawi B. Husain’s “Chinese Cemeteries as a Symbol of Sacred Space: Control, Conflict, and Negotiation in Surabaya” presents the precarious state of Chinese cemeteries in Surabaya vis-à-vis the pressure of modernization. While the postcolonial state viewed the cemeteries as anathema to its version of modernity, Surabaya’s rapidly growing urban population, as evinced by the increasing number of cases of informal settlers encroaching on cemetery spaces, exacerbated the pressure on urban space and the tensions among stakeholders fighting over it.

Ideally, in a multi-authored edited volume the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately certain weak points diminish the overall impact of the book. One of the book’s shortcomings is the lack of an adequate assessment of significant events and personalities that recur chapter after chapter. The introduction could have revisited the Ethical Policy, the colonial paradigm initiated in 1901 to supposedly promote the welfare of the colonized over the profit motive, or the lesser-known 1903 Decentralization Act, a law designed to encourage local autonomy and a clear offshoot of the Ethical Policy, to reappraise their significance in the formation of modern Indonesia given that these policies are constantly referenced in the individual essays. What about urban reformers like Thomas Karsten or H. F. Tillema or urban-based technocrats involved in healthcare, urban planning, and housing policies? The editors have missed a great opportunity to contribute to scholarship by expounding on the contributions of these personalities who are relegated to minor roles, if at all mentioned, in traditional historical accounts that privilege the nation-state. Another major weakness is the uneven quality of the chapters in terms of sticking to the theme. Not all essays followed the set temporal scope. For instance, in some essays the postcolonial period seems more of an afterthought (such as in Wijono’s) or even entirely neglected (such as in Khusyairi and Colombijn’s).

Nevertheless, the book is still laudable for forcing us to question the artificiality of boundaries separating the colonial and postcolonial periods, especially when dealing with urban history or even social history in general. Southeast Asianists stand to benefit from the new perspectives that the authors offer regarding how technology and society interact in colonial cities.

Michael D. Pante
Department of History, Ateneo de Manila University


Vol. 4, No. 2, BOOK REVIEWS, Danny MARKS

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 2

Living with Risk: Precarity and Bangkok’s Urban Poor
Tamaki Endo
Singapore: NUS Press in association with Kyoto: Kyoto University Press, 2014, 360p.

Given the paucity of books and articles written about the day-to-day living of the poor and the informal economy in Bangkok, this book is a welcome addition. It offers readers a solid understanding of the contemporary urban lower class, revealing the homogeneity and stratification within this class. In particular, it investigates their daily survival strategies and responses to various risks, focusing on issues related to residence and occupation. It also examines whether upward mobility occurs within this group and what upward mobility means for members of this group.

The structure of the book makes it obvious that this book is Endo’s doctoral thesis. Consequently, the first chapter is her literature review. She discusses various useful topics related to the urban lower class, including the informal economy debate, frameworks to capture the internal structure of cities, the risk response processes of the urban lower class, the place and organization units of their strategy for survival, and the life course analysis method. While these topics themselves are interesting, the overall chapter is disjointed: there is no strong thread or broader argument tying the various topics together and it is not clear what gaps in the literature this book is addressing.

Chapter 2 provides an overview of the Thai government’s policies toward the urban poor, particularly the development of slum-related policies. Endo’s main critique of these policies is that they are premised on a linear notion of modernization. As a result, they failed to address the needs of urban lower class. While the author briefly mentions the Community Organization Development Institute (CODI), a government agency seeking to help urban slum communities upgrade their communities, the chapter would have been stronger if she had discussed the merits and drawbacks of the organization’s slum-upgrading Baan Mankong project in this chapter. The project seeks to improve the financial capacity, social capital, and land tenure security of slum-dwellers.

In Chapter 3, Endo outlines her field survey and the case study communities. This chapter provides background information about their response to risks. Chapter 4 delves into the occupation dynamics of the case study communities. The author classifies their occupations, and then, using this data, sketches occupational profiles of the two communities. She finds not only that educational barriers unsurprisingly determine the range of occupational choices but also that each individual’s occupational profile is constructed historically, based on individual preferences and changing external conditions. Chapter 5 details day-to-day life in the communities, including the process of constructing housing, creation of living space, and the function of communities as residential spaces. It describes how individual residences have been transformed into residential spaces and jointly these spaces form communities.

Chapters 6 and 7 jointly investigate a fire in one community, looking at responses in terms of residence (Chapter 6) and occupation, particularly among the self-employed (Chapter 7). The response of the community challenged the notion that migrants will return to the rural communities or origin when faced with adversity or risks. Rather, they decided to recreate their community near their original site. The state’s poor management of the restoration process adversely affected the community, forcing them to stay long in shoddy, temporary housing. Chapter 7 shows that the fire severely hurt the livelihoods of self-employed workers, who lost their productions as well as the space they used to sell their goods. The fire hurt female workers and the elderly the most. Overall, many in the community were forced to enter a lower employment group and as a result, overall welfare standards dropped.

Chapter 8 analyzes female occupational paths and class disparities, focusing on the experiences of women in slum communities. From the late 1980s onward, many women were forced out of factories, particularly if they were middle-aged or the elderly. Many of them became self-employed and their type of self-employment depends on their resources and household conditions. It is clear from arguments made in previous chapters and this chapter that a large gender disparity exists in terms of occupational opportunities for women.

Overall, this book has a number of strengths. First, the empirical data is very thorough, well-classified, and detailed. The charts and tables in the book are easy to read and interpret. This clearly shows that the author has spent considerable time and energy in collecting and sorting through the data which should be useful to future researchers investigating similar issues. Second, the book does a good job of fulfilling one of its primary aims: showing disparities within the urban poor which have arisen due to a number of factors: gender, age, educational level, family conditions, and large macro-economic forces. It supports this argument by using both quantitative and qualitative data. The author colorfully recounts the life stories of some of the people she interviewed, especially in the book’s vignettes. Third, the book nicely captures how market forces push urban dwellers to live in areas at risk, such as after a fire. She uses data to show that rental price are high and so are land prices. Consequently, those whose houses were destroyed by the fire were forced to continue to live in slum areas. Last, the vignette, “Community Development: Conflict and Existing Realities” (pp. 184–190) is fascinating. Complimenting Elinoff’s work (2014), it reveals some additional insights into the problems of slum communities working with CODI’s Baan Mankong project, such as an overly heavy work burden placed upon a few individuals in the community, numerous project delays, inflexibility regarding payment schedules, and an insufficient number of CODI staff.

However, the book is not without its weaknesses. One glaring shortcoming is the poor quality of the writing. The book is littered with confusing or grammatically incorrect sentences such as “macroscopical tides of change have hit the work and living spaces of this urban lower class” (p. 6), and long-winding ones such as “Securing initial investment funds and acquiring skills are essential to entering a high productivity occupation, but the scale of resources available is determined naturally based on the limitations imposed by individual and household conditions” (p. 235).

Another problem is that while the book is filled with valuable nuggets of information and insights about the urban lower class, together the book has no coherent broader argument and does not clearly tie these nuggets and insights together to form a bigger picture of socio-economic dynamics within urban slum communities. The conclusion does not cohesively bring together the chapters and answer how these communities respond to risks. Further, the conclusion could have been strengthened by suggesting some policy implications that arise from the findings. Endo does a good job critiquing some of the Thai government’s policies affecting slum communities but disappointingly does not suggest anything new at the end. This suggestion is related to a broader critique of the book. It is unclear what the book is saying that is new to the literature that analyzes the urban lower class—scholars before have showed that disparity exists within this class. Also, the author does not answer the questions of what is unique about the lower class in Bangkok and whether one should expect to see similar trends worldwide or in Asia-Pacific.

In addition, while the author commendably seeks to gain a “more holistic understanding of the lives” of the urban lower class as well as their “encounters with risk and the risk response process” (p. 16), there seems to be gaps in the understanding presented in this book. First, how can this discussion be holistic if there is nothing mentioned of political tactics and strategies taken by the urban lower class? For example, in my own research, a restaurant owner in a slum community in Don Muang district in northern Bangkok has acquired the most amount of capital in the community in terms of housing and occupation and is resisting the implementation of the Baan Mankong project because he does not want to share his capital with those who have less than him. Further, the urban lower class has responded to risks through its choice of community, district, and national leaders in elections, protesting against floods, and its participation or lack thereof in Baan Mankong projects. Therefore a discussion of the political strategies these community members have undertaken would complement this research. Second, although this book was published in 2014, the author mentions that fires are one of the biggest risks to communities but fails to mention the 2011 floods which severely hurt the livelihoods of the urban poor in Bangkok (and led to deaths of many) and which, I would argue, were a bigger setback than the fires were. Last, the author presents only economic data but never asks the communities about their own perceptions of risk—perhaps fire and economic lay-offs are not the biggest risks. Some more ethnographic data therefore would have also strengthened her data.

Despite these shortcomings, this book is nonetheless a useful contribution to the literature on the urban lower class in Southeast Asia. It valuably shows the connection between residence and occupation and reveals the differences within the class and some of the drivers of these differences. I recommend it as a good introduction to those interested in learning more about the daily lives of the urban lower class and the dynamics of the informal economy in cities in Southeast Asia.

Danny Marks
School of Geosciences, The University of Sydney


Elinoff, Eli. 2014. Sufficient Citizens: Moderation and the Politics of Sustainable Development in Thailand. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 37(1): 89–108.


Vol. 4, No. 2, BOOK REVIEWS, Meredith L. WEISS

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 2

Traditionalism and the Ascendancy of the Malay Ruling Class in Colonial Malaya
Donna J. Amoroso
Petaling Jaya, Selangor: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre; Singapore: NUS Press, 2014, 276p.

The recently concluded November 2014 United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) General Assembly saw strident calls for other Malaysian communities to respect and honor the superior position of Malays and Islam in the country; for the unity of all Malays under UMNO, as their representative and protector; and for stronger safeguards to prevent slurs against Malaysia’s revered sultans. From the cheers (or virtual sighs of resignation) with which the press and public met these appeals, one might think such discourse had always been the norm in Malaysia. Yet as Donna Amoroso’s insightful study reveals, in fact, no part of the order UMNO leaders invoke is inevitable or even all that deep-rooted. Rather, the position of the sultans, the multiracial balance of population and power, and the relative prominence of UMNO itself reflect colonial patterns and anticolonial struggles more than age-old attributes of a unified Malay public.

Published, sadly, only posthumously, Amoroso’s convincing and readable Traditionalism and the Ascendancy of the Malay Ruling Class in Colonial Malaya takes us back to the early days of British colonialism, locating the roots of Malaysia’s fundamentally conservative political order in patterns of indirect rule. Amoroso details the British elevation of what she terms “traditionalism,” or “the conscious selection of appropriate ritual and idiom and the reconstruction of Malay culture along lines that were compatible with colonial rule” (p. 52). Traditionalism involved, on the one hand, the selective restoration of Malay culture and on the other, the creation of new norms and structures, to facilitate far-reaching changes. The result was both legitimation of British power and the aggrandizement of the Malay ruling class. Reified in the first key political transition, from Malay to British rule, then reaffirmed, with some adjustments, as colonial rule gave way to self-rule after World War II, the dominance of the Malay rulers over a presumed-feudalistic Malay populace has become iconic as a trope of Malay politics.

Amoroso begins where the conventional wisdom tends to assume the story starts: with depictions of Malays as “backwards” and “feudal,” needing and expecting, as former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad declared in his path-forging The Malay Dilemma, special assistance and paternalistic leaders. Such a formulation was as useful for Mahathir as it was for the British before him—and just as much a construction. Aiming both to disguise the extent of their intervention and to stabilize Malay society, while also economizing by working through preexisting structures, the British propped up a set of Malay rulers as heads of homogenized, territorially-fixed Malay states. The rulers enjoyed pomp and regular payments; the British gained the appearance of ruling with, rather than just through, these figures of “traditional” local authority as they consolidated their control through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A stratum of aristocratic “chiefs,” meanwhile, served to link the British with the people, enabling the former to gauge popular reactions to reforms proposed, as well as to ensure some level of continuity in local administration.

British ideas about the nature and function of government—in particular, norms of “good government,” defined largely in terms of opening the state to, and developing the legal and physical infrastructure to support, capitalism—concatenated with their concern for the “traditional,” including an orientalist vision of exotic rites and a conveniently deferential mass public. That pairing required a fairly uniform set of states, with a fairly standardized, mutually exclusive authority structure, premised on control of demarcated territory rather than just of manpower. Yet the colonial authorities’ aim was economic, political, and demographic transformation, extending to the importation of thousands of laborers from China and India, while preserving a Malay society that was “overwhelmingly rural, politically docile and deferential to traditional aristocracies and royalties” (p. 4). This pattern of indirect rule rendered the British the apparent guardian of Malay interests, not least against increasing numbers of resident non-Malay workers—despite the fact that the British were largely responsible for the presence of those others within Malay lands.

As independence came to seem imminent, both the rulers and the class of aristocratic administrators needed to take over that mantle of protector. Malay elites’ complicity with Japanese occupying forces during World War II left the British dubious of their reliability; however, the latter’s Malayan Union plan for self-government would grant liberal citizenship to the non-Malays who had been their wartime allies and essentially strip the Malay rulers of their authority. While the story of UMNO’s founding in the crucible of opposition to the Malayan Union is part of party lore, Amoroso’s detailing of the specific machinations of the rulers and the aristocracy—allied for strategic purposes, but differently positioned—and the ways in which the late colonial era shaped their conservatism sheds new light on a foundational period in Malaysian history.

This process of entrenchment and preservation of a fixed set of largely compliant rulers, undergirded by what Chandra Muzaffar has labeled “administocrats” (civil servants in the colonial government, turned founders and leading lights of UMNO) served to equate bangsa (ethnic group) with kebangsaan (nationalism): these elites self-servingly framed survival of the Malays in their own land as intertwined with the identity and supremacy of the Malay ruling class. The British kept the Malay masses poorly educated, apart from an elite stratum educated in English starting early in the twentieth century at the Malay College at Kuala Kangsar (MCKK), just enough to serve as the lowest (yet still socially prestigious) echelon of government. This layer complemented that of the rulers at the top, without being equipped to pose a challenge to the British district officers in the middle. Malay rulers deemed ill-suited to the new order, the British bought off with pensions; others, while still regarded as inferior in character and capacity to their British overlords, received a regular allowance that “recognised a recipient’s position in society and guaranteed his correct behaviour in political life,” thus serving “to foster active cooperation with British rule” (p. 42). In other words, the Malay ruling class lost real power with the advent of a colonial order, but gained status, wealth, and stability, celebrated through ceremonies and symbols. Meanwhile, the rulers’ perhaps unwitting role as “frontmen” for the colonial state (p. 97) effectively thwarted criticism of the British.

Even so, by the 1920s–30s, rising Malay literacy and a burgeoning press, urbanization and interaction across ethnic lines, increasingly active associational life, ties with counterparts in Indonesia and elsewhere, the disruption and dislocation of economic changes, and especially the Japanese interregnum threatened that balance. The very sense of the “Malay state” and “Malay people” crystallized during that late colonial period, in part through British action, and in part through the contest between UMNO and its more radical adversaries, especially in the Partai Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM, Malay Nationalist Party of Malaya). Critical voices argued that the rulers should be less self-absorbed and docile, and should instead play a more active role in advancing Malay educational and economic progress, as well as working toward independence. Not least given British proscriptions, overtly “political” interventions were slow to develop prewar; part of the signal importance of the wartime occupation was the Japanese’s freeing and even training of nationalist interests. While the British Military Administration that followed restored key aspects of the status quo ante, the British failure to protect the Malays during the war, and of the Malay rulers, to do so after (amidst ethnic violence, communist insurgency, and unfavorable British schemes) lent grist to serious challenges, even as international norms and local plans left the British limited space for censorship or outright repression.

Ultimately, though, UMNO and the rulers together won out, with their assertion that bangsa Melayu required preservation of “tradition.” Conservatives propagated this message through a new style of mass politics, borrowed from the left and radical nationalists, and performed in media, rallies, speeches, and symbols. Maintenance of the ruling class trumped a more anticolonial nationalist response, as the “political struggle against the Malayan Union had transformed the Malay rulers into symbols of the new nation” (p. 164)—and peninsular Malaya into a unified nation, rather than a network of single states—no matter the rulers’ own initial complicity, in signing treaties with the British (later foresworn) to enable the Malayan Union’s enactment.

Amoroso’s account is well-supported and plausible. Still, the historical record leaves stronger evidence of British aspirations and actions than of their erstwhile subjects’ reasoning. She relies largely on British colonial sources and archives, albeit including letters form Malay rulers, reported conversations with the latter, and interviews. However, most evidence comes through the lens of “Anglo-Malay encounters” (p. 18), and as perceived or retold by the Anglo side of that conversation. The Malay masses here are largely mute followers—apart from a surge of mass political participation in the 1940s–50s, when they still acted seemingly en bloc. Furthermore, for the most part, Amoroso can only read the Malay rulers’ own reasoning from their actions or British reports of the same. The account would be more convincing still were she able to include more first-hand discussions, at least from the rulers or aristocracy themselves. As it stands, the closest her retelling comes to such a perspective is probably in her discussion of early nationalist periodicals, UMNO proceedings, and more radical nationalist statements. I suspect the fault lies more in what sources are available than in Amoroso’s sleuthing.

The publication of this long-awaited book—adapted from Amoroso’s doctoral dissertation at Cornell University—contributes to our knowledge of Malay political and social history, and at a time when discussion of the Malay rulers and their stature is especially keen (notwithstanding how out-of-sync lèse-majesté laws would be with Malay history, as detailed here). More broadly, the work serves to illuminate the actual workings of indirect rule: how and why colonial authorities worked with, and altered, extant structures and patterns of authority, and the implications of those adaptations for anticolonial struggles and postcolonial development. As such, the work will be of interest to scholars not just of Malaysia, but of British and other European colonial projects more broadly—and it is written in such a way as to be accessible and useful to both a specialist and interested non-specialist audience. With this volume, Donna Amoroso adds to her already considerable academic legacy—including, of course, the Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia, which she was instrumental in founding.

Meredith L. Weiss
University at Albany, State University of New York


Vol. 4, No. 2, BOOK REVIEWS, HIRAGA Midori

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 2

The Palm Oil Controversy in Southeast Asia: A Transnational Perspective
Oliver Pye and Jayati Bhattacharya, eds.
Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Publishing, 2013, xxi+283p.

This book of 12 chapters demonstrates the effects of rapidly growing palm oil industry in Southeast Asia from a variety of angles: geographically (Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, and Europe); that of the background of authors (academics, industry, policy analysis, and NGOs from Asian and European countries); and at different levels (from local to transnational). This book arose out of a workshop “the Palm Oil Controversy in Transnational Perspective” that was held in Singapore, March 2–4, 2009.

The first part of the book describes the development of palm oil industries in each country of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Chapter 2 is about Malaysia, in which Teoh Cheng Hai explains the transnational and national development of the plantation industry of Malaysia. It discusses 1) the transnational phase brought about by European companies, especially the UK, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for rubber, palm oil, and others; and 2) a national phase where foreign ownership and head offices were transferred to Malaysia from the 1970s leading to the growth of Malaysian companies in the 1980s; and finally 3) a new transnational phase in which now developed Malaysian corporations expanding both upstream, especially in Indonesia, and downstream, especially in Europe, as well as the emergence of mega palm oil transnational corporations like Sime Darby Bhd. and Wilmar International Ltd. (figure 2.1 in p. 23). Through these phases, Malaysian corporations developed and have now become strategic players in Southeast Asia’s palm oil industry. Chapter 3 deals with Indonesia. The author, Norman Jiwan, explains the political ecology of the Indonesian palm oil industry since it was imported by Dutch colonialists in 1848, and large scale and commercial plantation development that started in 1911. Key players in the Indonesian palm oil industry also shifted from the national to transnational. After independence, Sukarno nationalized foreign plantation companies, and the state fostered palm oil industry expansion in Indonesia. Industry was significantly liberalized during and after the Asian financial crisis, with the involvement of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as well as through foreign investment (especially by Malaysian corporations), and the state allowing maximum foreign ownership in both domestic and foreign investments with the Investment Act. Indonesian states, as well as the UK, Netherlands, and Malaysia, cooperated setting up and “enabling policy frameworks for biomass and biofuels production” (pp. 52–55). The author concludes that through these national and transnational developments, “the palm oil political economy system fails to deliver economic prosperity to the people working in the industry on the ground” (p. 50). Chapter 4 deals with Indonesia, through a case study from Riau. Junji Nagata and Sachiho W. Arai mark out the directions of change in “indigenization” and “from external expansion to internal expansion” in the local oil palm industry. Chapter 5 turns to the Philippines, a country strongly promoting palm oil though smaller in scale when compared to Malaysia and Indonesia. The Philippine government adopted a pro-palm oil policy, and Mary Luz Menguita-Feranil argues that “transnational investment from Malaysia is a key factor” and that “palm oil investment has received a new boost through the biofuels policies of the government” (p. 97).

The second part of the book shifts the focus to labor migration in the context of palm oil industry. In Chapter 6, Johan Saravanamuttu discusses how Malaysia has become the largest “importer” of foreign migrant labor in Southeast Asia and suggests that migrant labor in Malaysia is a “flexible labour regime” (p. 137). Saravanamuttu describes the differences in plantation labor in the colonial era which mainly grew rubber through Indian workers using merchant capital in the form of trading agencies. Present day plantations mainly grow oil palm with Indonesian workers. He also describes differences in worker composition in oil palm plantation and downstream palm oil refinery industries. In Chapter 7, Fadzilah Majid Cooke and Dayang Suria Mulia examine the process of demonizing migrants as “others” through a case study of oil palm in Sabah, East Malaysia. In Chapter 8, Dewi Oetami uses the examples of the “Kalimantan Border Oil Palm Mega Project” by Indonesia and China, and the “Heart of Borneo” by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Brunei to argue that the contradictions between development and conservation can be reconciled by giving local communities more of a say in which palm oil plantation are developed. She points out that “poverty amongst the plasma farmers is structural” (p. 171).

The third part of the book focuses on transnational environmental activism, mainly between Europe and Southeast Asia. Oliver Pye, in Chapter 9, describes and compares the effects of the “boomerang campaign strategy” between Europe and Southeast Asia. He compares boomerang strategies and their effects on previous logging campaigns and the current ones. Even within a campaign on palm oil, he argues there are differences; that the formation of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is led by international NGOs (INGOs) on one hand, and the call for a moratorium on biofuel target in the EU is mainly led by transnational social movement organizations (TSMOs) along with transnational advocacy networks (TANs) on the other. Joana Chiavari introduces and examines the EU biofuel policies and their implications for Southeast Asia in Chapter 10, from their development and sustainability criteria, and how EU biofuel policies omitted social impact in their criteria. In Chapter 11, Eric Wakker of Aidenvironment introduces the analytic framework RETRAC (resource trade cycle analysis), on natural resource-based products and commodities, including palm oil. They aim to help NGOs in producer countries understand “how the environmental degradation and social injustice experienced by them is connected to consumer markets serviced by international traders, retailers, bankers, and investors” (p. 224). Patrick Anderson in Chapter 12 focuses on indigenous peoples in Indonesia arguing that although the rights of indigenous peoples to control developments on their customary lands were confirmed in 2007 by the UN declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Indonesian Government claims that all Indonesians are indigenous and therefore there are no indigenous people in Indonesia, and that the state has the right to manage all natural resources for the benefit of the nation.

However, there are a few weaknesses in this volume. The preface of the book itself admits that “the collection of articles here cannot offer a comprehensive discussion of the subject and that it leaves many gaps” (p. xiii). The focus of this book shifts from land grabbing to environmental issues to social issues, so more integrated discussion on the controversy is yet to be expected to future works. The book also mainly focuses on the relationship between EU and Southeast Asia, but more dynamic multi-layered relationships among Asian countries and actors over palm oil are yet to be discussed.

What is lacking is a comprehensive discussion on the so-called “palm oil controversy,” although this is the main title of this volume. At the very beginning, the forward states the issues of “palm oil controversy” discussed in this book relate to so-called “land grabbing,” and anticipates such discussions from the book because “Southeast Asia also shows a more complex and wider range of global land grabbing than what the dominant albeit Africa-focused literature would show” (p. x). This focus, however, blurs in the rest of the book. Jiwan summarized palm oil controversy in Chapter 3 as the following: a controversy with environmental consequences (p. 59); a second controversy with negative social impacts, including a loss of means of income because of local environmental damage, human right violation, and labor conditions (p. 65). The first is assumed rather than discussed in the book, and the contradiction of environmentally positive effects expected from biodiesel made from palm oil and environmentally negative effects caused by the expansion of oil palm plantation is little discussed. Discussion on the second controversy on social impacts can be found partly in the second part of the book among the chapters on labor migration in palm oil industry, but are not greatly related to the current global land grabbing issues.

Another weakness is the “transnational perspective” which is also stated in the book title. The “transnational” discussions in this book are rather limited to the relationship between Europe and Malaysia/Indonesia, or relationships between Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries, mainly Indonesia. There are some references to China and India as the world largest palm oil importers—more than EU—but transnational perspective with these Asian countries are not taken any further. China and India can be just as strong drivers as EU, or even stronger and they consume more palm oil for food than they use for biofuel. For example, when the EU imported 6,781 (1,000 metric tons) of palm oil in 2012/13, China and India imported 6,589 and 8,308 respectively. Industrial domestic consumption, which includes palm oil used for producing processed foods as well as non-food products and biofuels, is still less than that used even in EU (2,900 compared to 3,380 in 2012/13). In the case of India, industrial domestic consumption is 325 compared to food use domestic consumption of 7,900 (USDA 2014). Behind the rapid increase of palm oil import and consumption in China and India are suspected structural transformations of the agriculture and food industry: facilitated by trade liberalization and deregulation in these countries (Hiraga 2015). In addition to that, China, India, and other Southeast Asian countries are intertwined at a regional, national, to local level, as well as at a human level through workers and overseas Chinese and Indian networks. This kind of multi-layered dynamic needs to be considered in the context of a transnational Southeast Asia for any further research that is conducted into palm oil in future works.

Hiraga Midori 平賀 緑
Graduate School of Economics, Kyoto University


Hiraga, Midori. 2015. Sucked into the Global Vegetable Oil Complex: Structural Changes in Vegetable Oil Supply Chains in China and India, Compared with the Precedents in Japan. In Food Security and Food Safety for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Soraj Hongladarom, pp. 179–194. Singapore: Springer.

USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) Foreign Agricultural Service. 2014. Production, Supply and Distribution Online,, accessed October 12, 2014.


Vol. 4, No. 2, BOOK REVIEWS, John N. MIKSIC

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 2

The Golden Lands: Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam (Architecture of the Buddhist World)
Vikram Lall
Kuala Lumpur: JF Publishing, 2014, 280p.

This is a large-format (335×260 mm) book with a hard cover, printed on glossy art-quality paper, and contains numerous color photographs by professional photographers as well as sophisticated maps and other graphics. It is thus in danger of being lumped with coffee-table books.

The author is a practicing architect based in Delhi. According to his Linkedin description, the book is the first of a series which is planned to consist of six volumes on the architecture of the Buddhist world, (not specifically “Buddhist architecture,”) employing an interdisciplinary perspective including architecture, history, religion, and philosophy. The company with which he is associated, Lall and Associates (established in 1969) has obtained commissions for a wide range of projects, in the fields of urban planning and design, education (22 schools), hospitality and tourism, residential, offices, transport, industry, and medicine, in addition to institutional and religious buildings. In the latter category are a Japanese temple at Bodhgaya (one of the eight places where Buddha’s relics were originally interred), and the Buddha Smriti Park, Patna.1) The firm’s client list reads like a who’s who of corporate and official India: The Hindustan Times, Tata Power, the United Nations, the governments of Bihar and Sikkim, State Bank of India, Indian Railways, etc.

One of the clients on the list which is relevant to this topic is the Nalanda Educational Society. Vikram Lall’s architectual study of Nalanda has been published by the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. An interesting project listed under “scientific study/research papers” on his website is “Schematic conjecture of the ancient city of Pataliputra (327 BC) through historical & archaeological study—developed a scale model of the conjecture that is displayed at the museum at Patna, 1997.”

The book is organized by country; chapters are devoted to Myanmar (50 pages), Vietnam (38 pages), Indonesia (32 pages), Cambodia (32 pages), Thailand (51 pages), and Laos (44 pages). The book opens with a section which develops a theoretical framework (23 pages). The Myanmar section focuses on 19 monuments, including the Bupaya, which is the oldest in the book (third century). Ten monuments in Vietnam, 8 in Indonesia, 9 in Cambodia, 10 in Thailand, and 8 in Laos are listed in a chronology of selected Buddhist monuments on pages 6–7.

The preface (p. 9) which introduces the series of six books, acknowledges that the terms “Buddhist” and “architecture” have no generally accepted meanings. The preface asserts that the architecture of buildings associated with Buddhist worship has been neglected in comparison with the amount of study devoted to other aspects of Buddhism. It also states that the buildings devoted to Buddhist activity are highly diverse, because Buddhism spread over a large part of the ancient world before declining in popularity in some areas such as India. The diversity of Buddhist architecture can also be connected to the different symbolic and functional roles played by various types of structures, which together formed a network of meanings. Future books in the series will be devoted to “the Heavenly Lands” (China, Japan, and Korea), the “Ancient Lands” (Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka), the “Mountain Lands” (the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau), the “Hidden Lands” (central Asia, Mongolia, and the Silk Road), and the “Modern Lands” (contemporary Buddhist architecture).

The author is more interested in “collective development” than in individual monuments. Thus each country section begins with a general overview, and ends with a discussion of a few selected structures. Given the broad span of Buddhism’s distribution in Southeast Asia, the region’s renowned cultural diversity, and Buddhism’s tolerance of local tradition, it is interesting to note the strong continuity in the use of certain architectural forms and decorative motifs over the six countries discussed here. The history of Buddhist development in Indonesia is shorter, since most of the archipelago nation converted to Islam between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, but it is no less rich in interest; despite the religion’s limited lifespan there compared to the rest of the region, Indonesians were the creators of some of the most original and complex Buddhist monuments in the whole of the Buddhist world.

As in India, the caitya-grihas, buildings meant to shelter images of Buddha, in Southeast Asia were similar in many ways to those used in Brahminical worship. The Vajrasana or stone seat on which Buddha attained enlightenment survived as an icon in Java into the Islamic period; in Javanese palaces of the early twentieth century, such stone seats were still used during coronations. The image of the ruler as an ascetic who could constantly renew and increased his power by meditation also survived into the late twentieth century. The stupa form seems to have appeared in west Java by 500 CE, though only foundations of them have survived. The ground plans of early Southeast Asian monasteries or Buddhist complexes are not well understood, due to the disappearance of all structures built of wood.

One unfortunate aspect of the book is its assumption that Buddhism was spread by Indians who came to Southeast Asia. Archaeological and historical research has not revealed any evidence of early Indian ships reaching this region, although individual Indian travelers certainly did. In the seventh century the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Yiqing explicitly notes that he sailed on ships belonging to the ruler of the south Sumatran kingdom of Srivijaya from China to Southeast Asia, thence to India, and back again (Takakusu 1896). Yiqing also praised the huge monastery of Srivijaya and the standard of instruction in Sanskrit available there. Rather than constituting an example of “cultural colonization of the region by India” (p. 33), it is preferable to view the essence of the interaction between Southeast Asia and South Asia (in which Sri Lanka played a major role) as one of voluntary appropriation by Southeast Asians rather than imposition of cultural traits on a lower culture by a superior one. This is a minor flaw, since the author does not attempt to deal in detail with the process of transmission of architectural ideas, but in a book which gave greater emphasis to the mechanism of communication, this would be a major issue.

A second problem is the acceptance of the old assumption that the idea of divine kingship in Southeast Asia came from India. As Hermann Kulke (Kulke 1978) and other historians have noted, in India the institution of kingship was viewed as divinely inspired, but kings were not considered to be incarnations of Brahminical deities or Buddha. The origin of the concept of kings who were “detached portions” of Siva, and later bodhisattvas, or both, can be traced to the tenth century, not earlier. This too has important implications for the interpretation of the involvement of Buddhism and royalty in early Southeast Asia. These constitute the pitfalls which often confront the expert from one subject who endeavors to incorporate data from an unfamiliar discipline.

One of the book’s main attractions is its original architectural drawings. These include models of wooden buildings as well as stone facades. The book’s main contribution consists of the numerous sketches, including cutaway drawings and plans of different stages of construction of Buddhist structures. The reader should focus on the sections on “Architectural Characteristics” and the accompanying descriptions of the forms used while reading the historical accounts with caution. There are also some errors in the captions to the photographs; for example on page 136 the structure in the photograph at upper left, known as Bajang Ratu, is a gateway or gapura, not a stupa. On page 160 the map of Cambodia includes the site of Oe-èo in the far southeastern corner; this site actually lies in Vietnam.

One could take issue with the choice of structures to include in “Selected Examples” sections of the book. For instance the Shwedagon in Yangon is only represented by a single drawing. Given the vastness of the topic, however, even a 280-page-long book cannot include all the important Buddhist structures in Southeast Asia.

Aside from the lapses in the historical section, the book is beautifully produced. Architectural historians will find much of interest in it, and will not doubt be eager to see the rest of the volumes in the projected series.

John N. Miksic
Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore


Kulke, Hermann. 1978. The Devarāja Cult. Translated from the German by I. W. Mabbett with an Introduction by the author and Notes on the translation of Khmer terms by J. M. Jacob. Data Paper Number 108. Ithaca, New York: Department of Asian Studies, Cornell University.

Takakusu, J., trans. 1896. A Record of the Buddhist Religion as Practised in India and the Malay Archipelago (AD 671–695) by I-Tsing. Oxford: Clarendon.

1), accessed 28 November 2014


Vol. 4, No. 2, BOOK REVIEWS, Chiara FORMICHI

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 2

The Buddha on Mecca’s Verandah: Encounters, Mobilities, and Histories along the Malaysian-Thai Border
Irving Chan Johnson
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012, 223p.

“One’s identity . . . is never static” (p. ix). Irving Chan Johnson’s The Buddha on Mecca’s Verandah goes deep into anthropological “thick description” to highlight how “messy” collective identities along the northeastern Malaysia-Thai border are. Focusing on ideas of fluidity and movement Johnson identifies the border as a space for exchanges—commercial, cultural, political—rather than as an imprisoning parameter. It is on these foundations that The Buddha on Mecca’s Verandah addresses the question of Thai ethnics’ marginality in Kelantan through the lens of “interactive experiences that encounters across the boundaries bring about” (p. xiv).

The book unfolds thematically, as Johnson identifies five analytical categories, each investigated in a substantial chapter. These are themselves subdivided in multiple snapshots illustrating the life of Ban Bor On and its villagers. This is the product of 18 months of fieldwork, but it is also much more than that. Johnson has been visiting Ban Bor On since 1979, as this is his own mother’s birth-place. The author thus straddles between being an anthropologist (outsider) and doing research “among friends [and] relations” (insider) (p. ix). Johnson’s insider’s knowledge, writing style, and approach make Ban Bor On and its actors come to life from the book’s pages, but as “the voices of Kelantan’s Thai villagers ring out loud and clear” (p. xiii), the reader is often left wanting to hear more from the anthropologist’s own voice.

Most problematic is Johnson’s overly positive assessment of inter-ethnic relations in Kelantan and Malaysia more generally (e.g. pp. 109–118). To illustrate a specific example, I might refer to the sustained characterization of Kelantan as a place where Muslim-Buddhist relations are friendly and cordial, versus the Thai South—omnipresent throughout the narrative as Kelantan’s counterpart across the border—which emerges as a hotbed of Muslim extremism and violence that terrorizes the local Buddhist population as much as Kelantan’s Thais. Whilst the realities of the Malaysian northern province are highly nuanced, as its Thai population’s marginality is illustrated through multiple lenses, the Thai South is consistently painted in broad brushes.

After an Introduction that sets the stage of Thai marginality in its historical and post-colonial context, Chapter 1 begins the exploration of Ban Bor On from its inception. Titled “Places,” this chapter addresses local narratives of origin and migration, as Johnson reports “everyday histories . . . [that] referred to traditional and contemporary patterns of movement and non-movement that had been shaped by a changing border and a shifting cartography” (p. 27). This chapter thus takes “roads” as the conduit of identity expression: it is on the road that the Thais (and their dogs and pigs) encounter the Malays; it is thanks to British-built roads that the Thais can travel back and forth into Siam/Thailand to maintain ancestral networks and advance commercial enterprises; it is the local roads that shape temples’ “sacred geography” (p. 42) demarcating where monks should be seeking alms and hosting ordination parades.

Chapter 2, “Gaps,” addresses heads-on the most compelling of problems; how can Kelantan Thais shape their identity as independent from Thailand’s own (p. 55)? Despite the fact that the chapter seems to lose its thread at different points—or maybe the development of the argument is not too clearly signposted, a recurrent problem throughout the book—Johnson clearly illustrates how this subsection of the population struggles to define itself. During the British period they were labeled as “Siamese” despite their being from Kelantan (p. 62); in the 1950s ethnic parameters became more subjective, with each villager being assessed individually based on their name (to the point that a new-born Thai girl was classified as Punjabi: “Valerie Mei-Ling must have sounded Punjabi to the Malay clerk at the registrar of births office” [p. 65]); in more recent year, they have become closer to the bumiputras (“sons of the soil”), enjoying some of their same benefits (pp. 67–68). As the British saw Kelantanese Thais as Siamese, similarly Thailand has since the 1950s attempted to shape Thainess across the border. As per Johnson’s assessment of these efforts, “Thailand could enter the temple through its standard Thai-speaking representatives, but it was prevented from monopolizing the meaning of Thainess for the Kelantanese” (p. 81).

“Forms,” the third chapter, continues to reflect on the issue of identity and border-crossing now from the perspective of external projection, analyzing the construction and style of Kelantan’s Thai statues and temples. Wat Bot Ngam is a Thai temple in the (Chinese) village of Kampung Kulim. Built in the mid-1960s, from staring at its facade one “could easily mistake it for a temple in Bangkok” (p. 86). Tucked into the temple is also a statue of Thailand’s national deity, Phra Sayam Thewathiraj. Along with many other “Thai-type” structures built in the 1960s–70s (pp. 90–91), a newer phenomenon is the inclusion of “Sinic representations with little or no Thai artistic accents.” Johnson suggests that “the materiality of the statues and buildings mediate between local Thai social actors, Chinese economic players and the Malaysian state” (p. 91), reflecting the marginality of the local Thais. Although in a not-so-linear fashion, Johnson unpacks this reflection pointing at the surge in Chinese statues as an attempt at diffusing concerns over local forms of Thai expressivity that were seen as offensive by the Malay majority (p. 97). The fact that “Chinese religious tourism in Kelantan began to boom” (p. 94) also seems to have boosted this style.

Chapter 4, “Circuits,” places Kelantan’s Thai villages at the geo-political intersection of Thailand and Malaysia. Johnson starts off with some villagers’ nostalgic remarks on how little interested the current Sultan is in his loyal Thai population—“Ban Bor On’s residents had gathered along the road in eager anticipation of catching a glimpse of their ruler . . . but the sultan’s motorcade zipped past the assembled crowd without pomp or ceremony” (p. 120)—and how much of a “people’s King” King Bhumipol Adulyadej was instead in Thailand. The chapter unfolds to address how Kelantan Thais submit to a double sovereignty. In 1902—hence before the Treaty of London—Siam had reasserted its sovereignty over Patani and Kelantan as well as made the king “de facto head of the Thai monkhood” (p. 127); a century later, Kelantan is still fully plugged into Thailand’s sphere through “their exposure to the Thai monarchy’s media cult” and the diffusion of television (p. 121; again on p. 170). Yet, political patronage is a different matter as Kelantan is now ruled by the Islamist Partai Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), leading “Kelantan’s monkhood [to] negotiate the ‘gaps’ between the encounters of two powerful figures—one Thai and Buddhist, the other Malay and Muslim” (p. 135). The conclusion to this chapter points to the duality between a strong “Thai cultural identity” and an “unquestionably patriotic [attitude] to [their] birth country, Malaysia” (p. 147).

The fifth chapter, titled “Dreams,” points however in a different direction as it investigates the spread of a Buddhist modernist group in Kelantan, the Dhammakaya Foundation, which trod the path of the 1902 Sangha Act and 1960s unification policies run in North-eastern and Southern Thailand (Thammathut project), which ultimately rested on the association of “being Thai with being Buddhist, and [that] Buddhism was what held the nation together” (p. 148). The presence of Thammathut monks, sent to “correct” localized Buddhist practices “allowed Ban Bor On villagers to feel that they were a part of a larger Thai Buddhist moral polity, reducing feelings of social and ethnic marginalization as a cultural minority in a Muslim state” (p. 151). Johnson labels the Thammathut project as “politically non-threatening” (p. 154), but it is difficult—at least for a Southeast Asianist who focuses on Islam—to not see this project as a mirror image of the much feared and condemned Wahhabi expansion started in the 1970s, and more generally the orthodoxization of Muslims in Southern Thailand, which in this book is consistently branded as a terrorist threat.

The Buddha on Mecca’s Verandah is a captivating narrative of how a marginalized minority inhabiting the complex reality of a borderland area manages its cultural and political identity. It is unfortunate that Johnson opted to not engage with the reality across the border, as a more nuanced understanding of Muslim-Buddhist/Malay-Thai relations in the Thai South would have further enriched his perspective on the Malay North, but maybe that will be addressed in his future work. This book presents the results of a much-needed investigation that further contributes to our understanding of inter-ethnic relations in Malaysia, Thailand’s own religious politics, and the legacy of British colonialism in Southeast Asia to mention just a few. More generally it is a welcome addition to the literature on ethno-religious diversity, borderland histories, and identity construction.

Chiara Formichi
Department of Asian Studies, Cornell University



Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 2



Forest of Struggle: Moralities of Remembrance in Upland Cambodia
Eve Monique Zucker
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2013, 256p.

Eve Zucker’s book, Forest of Struggle is an important contribution to the literature on societies in the aftermath of extreme violence and specifically to the study of Cambodian society since the Khmer Rouge era. The book is ethnography, but not in the classical style of a snapshot in time of a single village; it tells the story of two villages, set on the margins of Khmer society, on the “edge of the forest.” It belongs in a category with such important books as Linda Green’s Fear as a Way of Life (about Guatemala) on the one hand, and Anna Tsing’s In the Realm of the Diamond Queen on the other—stories of violence, fear, and displacement, but told from a local grounding. Zucker describes other studies of “social memory” as arguing that violence continues to influence the present as people “reinterpret their memories in efforts to cope with the violence of their past” (p. 11); but she would expand this discussion to include issues of morality and the remaking of the moral and social order. The memories she focuses on are primarily collective and are shaped by local history, including the way that local stories are re-told, and how these stories are tied to features of the landscape.

The area of Cambodia where Zucker conducted research, the two communes she calls Prei Phnom and Doung Srae, are up against the mountains, an area viewed by lowlanders, the French colonial authorities, and subsequent state governments, as a haven for bandits and rebels. The Khmer Issarak (including the “White Khmer”) and Vietnamese anti-French forces used the area as a base in the 1940s and 50s, and the community was divided between those who sought protection from these groups higher up the mountains, and those who went down to seek safety in the government controlled areas. This pattern would be repeated; in 1970 the Khmer Rouge arrived and many people fled with them to the forest. Many of the men from the area fought with the Khmer Rouge against the Lon Nol regime between 1970 and 1975. Others again descended to the plains and fought on the government side. During this period, people informed on one another; Lon Nol forces assumed everyone in the area were Khmer Rouge, but the Khmer Rouge accused people of being “White Khmer” under Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey. In Prei Phnom commune these accusations and killings were so rampant that most of the adult males were murdered. Zucker eventually learns the “public secret” that the villagers live with the memories of this internal betrayal, and that overwhelmingly they blame one man who was the village headman at that time.

Perhaps the best chapter is the one on “Trust and Distrust”; while Zucker is told when she arrives in the village that everyone “loves one another” she also hears people habitually say that they do not trust people and situations. Zucker reviews theoretical work on the concept of trust, including importantly that of Giddens and Appadurai, and the limited comparative work on the topic in Southeast Asia. An obsession with seeking out internal enemies was central to Khmer Rouge ideology, Zucker discusses the effect constant surveillance and accusations had on families and other social groups. She writes: “In the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy, the distrust was sustained, rationalized and reproduced, creating a warped logic whose logical conclusion could only be total annihilation” (p. 54). The destruction of social institutions, from the local temple to kinship groups, that characterized the Khmer Rouge period sadly does not end for the residents of this area after 1979. Instead during the second civil war that follows, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) and Vietnamese forces still distrust the survivors, as do the Khmer Rouge. For another 20 years people remain insecure; while an accusation is no longer cause for automatic execution, people were accused and killed for other reasons, including “sorcery.” Like the Khmer Rouge logic of destroying “bad elements,” the label sorcerer—as a kind of outcast—justifies the killings. Citing Appadurai, Zucker writes that “violence fixes otherwise murky identities and creates a sense of order” (p. 63). Even up to the present day, the fact that a black market trade in forest products continues through the area maintains a heightened sense of distrust, particularly of strangers and representatives of state authority. Zucker places herself within the text, as another initially distrusted outsider; but uses her gradual acceptance in the community as one tool for exploring the reformulation of social trust in the community.

Zucker devotes two full chapters to Ta Kam, the former village headman accused by his fellow villagers of betraying their relatives to the Khmer Rouge and thus causing their deaths. The kindly looking, grandfather figure who now serves as a Buddhist lay officiant at a temple in the other commune, presents himself as a passive victim of circumstances. But his fellows see his actions as self-serving, designed to distinguish himself in the warped context where finding and killing enemies was the path to advancement. Zucker observes that while Ta Kam is blamed, his family is not and in fact his daughter enjoys warm social relations—even though the wider social pattern in Khmer society is to see relatives as also to blame, or as risks since they may seek revenge (the Khmer Rouge killed entire families in line with this logic). Instead, here Zucker contends that by placing the blame only on Ta Kam, the villagers, (many of whom are also his relatives by marriage or blood,) allow for healing. The continual search for who to blame is shut down by placing the blame squarely on one person.

Further, Ta Kam himself is not seen as innately wicked or evil, but as a person who performed immoral acts. He is discussed as amoral, or morally ignorant; he lacked the ability to tell right from wrong. Zucker links this to the modern Buddhist notion of Satisampajania, the ability of moral discernment. Zucker then sets this discussion of understanding Ta Kam’s motivations within the wider literature on the concepts of face, patronage, merit, and sacrifice. Ta Kam gained face, demonstrated competence, provided services in exchange for protection by offering up his fellows. Now pious late in life, he seeks to gain merit to improve his next life, as elders often do. No one in the village seeks revenge by killing Ta Kam; instead they shun him socially and thereby erase him and his wrong doings. Zucker writes, “Since he is not the only one of his generation guilty of crimes, it is therefore the wrongdoings of the generation as a whole that have the potential to be forgotten” (p. 113).

Zucker continues with chapters on the distinction between “wild” and “civil” and processes of creating and sustaining communities; and on mountains and memory about how moral stories are embedded into features of the landscape. These stories, multiple and conflicting, tell of earlier ideal times when people were honest and “clear” and therefore capable of seeing magical secrets in the forest. She writes that communities tell their histories through collective narratives wherein re-ordering takes place. The story villagers tell about an invasion by the Thai more than a century ago is repeated, the patterns of its telling echo in the way that Khmer Rouge era stories are told. The stories are recast to “reflect current interests and predicaments”—told differently across the two communes and by different individuals.

And finally, in the chapter “Bon Dalien,” Zucker tells of seeing a sense of community spirit that she would not have believed existed in Prei Phnom play out in the organization and enactment of this village festival. She uses this event to address the issue in the literature on Cambodia on whether social relations from the prewar years remain “atomized” or destroyed, or whether they have been reconstituted. Her findings suggest that a community’s ability to reconstitute itself in the aftermath of violence “will depend on its particular socio-historical past—prior to, during and after the violence” (p. 152). In Prei Phnom commune the aftermath of the festival did not yield a “heightened sense of solidarity” but rather “emptiness” (p. 167). Zucker does not accept either the notion that social relations have recovered nor the over simplistic idea that they have been destroyed. The festival serves at least partly to help negate the destruction of people and their traditions by offering a “counter-memory” that may well help to “ease the residual fear and distrust” (p. 170).

In a short epilogue, Zucker raises the issue of the possible effects of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal on these issues and processes, since the very Western goal of the tribunal is to establish an official “memory” that will be accepted as a single “truth.” She also finds that in 2010 Ta Kam is increasingly accepted in the village as a younger generation is growing up knowing him only as the grandfatherly Buddhist elder.

The shortcomings of the book are few. Zucker might have engaged more with the literature on memory from the Holocaust, including whether certain kinds of trust and ideas of security can ever be restored. The book would be very useful in a range of different courses. I teach a Mainland Southeast Asia course that uses a selection of ethnographies from across a 50-year period to teach the history of the region as well as this genre. Zucker’s book offers insight into yet another stage in the development of the ethnography, “village” life without a fixed or reified set of customs, lived on the margins of the wider culture and set within a historical context not of stability, but of conflict and suffering. The book could be used in courses on violence and social memory, on conflict resolution, and on life in contemporary Southeast Asia. Like most excellent anthropological studies, Zucker’s work teaches us significant lessons about what it means to be human.

Judy Ledgerwood
Department of Anthropology, Northern Illinois University


Green, Linda. 1999. Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala. New York: Columbia University Press.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 1993. In the Realm of the Diamond Queen: Marginality in an Out-of-the-Way Place. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Vol.4, No.2 Blackburn, Tan

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 2

The Emergence of Heritage Conservation in Singapore and the Preservation of Monuments Board (1958–76)

Kevin Blackburn* and Tan Peng Hong Alvin**

* Department of Humanities and Social Studies Education, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, 1 Nanyang Walk, Singapore 637616

Corresponding author’s e-mail: kevin.blackburn[at]

** Raffles Girls’ School, 20 Anderson Road, Singapore 259978

This article demonstrates that the beginnings of the heritage conservation debate in Singapore extend back to the colonial period. It argues that the early colonial and postcolonial debates on heritage conservation in Singapore were influenced by a Western hegemony over what constituted heritage and how it could be conserved. A non-governmental organization, the Friends of Singapore, emerged in 1937 and battled to preserve what it saw as the heritage of Singapore. The organization helped the colonial government draw up a list of historic sites, monuments, and buildings for preservation in Singapore’s 1958 Master Plan. The coming to power of the People’s Action Party in 1959 began a debate within bureaucratic circles on urban renewal versus heritage conservation. The People’s Action Party believed it had a mandate to demolish what it saw as old slums in the central city area and replace them with better housing in the form of modern government high-rise apartments. In the 1960s, various government committees considered the 1958 heritage list and proposed setting up a government body to administer the preservation of heritage buildings. The Preservation of Monuments Board (now called the Preservation of Sites and Monuments) was charged with carrying out this task when it was established in 1971. However, by the late 1970s, Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority increasingly became the state agency to conserve whole zones while the Preservation of Monuments Board was allocated the task of gazetting for the preservation of individual buildings and sites.

Keywords: Singapore, preservation, conservation, monuments, sites

In Singapore, where a strong state has driven heritage conservation measures, there has evolved a distribution of conservation work between two state agencies—the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Preservation of Monuments Board (known since 2013 as the Preservation of Sites and Monuments). The Urban Redevelopment Authority has designated whole conservation zones, while the smaller Preservation of Monuments Board has picked out individual historic monuments and buildings for preservation. The beginning of heritage conservation in Singapore lies with the events that led to the creation of the Preservation of Monuments Board in 1971. The Urban Redevelopment Authority did not commence its involvement in heritage conservation until much later. The Urban Redevelopment Authority’s designation of key conservation areas, such as Chinatown, Kampong Glam, and Little India, started only in the 1980s. Singapore’s heritage non-governmental organization, the Singapore Heritage Society, was not established until 1987. The Preservation of Monuments Board had already been listing historic buildings for conservation for 16 years. Studying the history of the creation of the Preservation of Monuments Board in Singapore reveals the forces behind the early emergence of heritage conservation in Singapore and how Western ideas and institutions provided models for heritage conservation in Singapore to follow.

Heritage conservation was often viewed as a luxury developing countries such as Singapore could not afford during the early years of independence. There was an urgency to rapidly industrialize and to maximize urban space for commercial development and modern housing through urban renewal. This has been taken to mean that little thought was given to heritage conservation by postcolonial governments until after significant economic development had occurred (Yeoh and Huang 1996, 411). However, Lily Kong, in her history of Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, suggested an opposing view. She proposed that even during the intense period of demolition and rebuilding of urban renewal, there were advocates of heritage conservation within the bureaucracy “who persisted until their voices became more influential” (Kong 2010, 47). These voices, although present in the 1960s and 1970s, had to wait for a wider acceptance within the bureaucracy. Her argument is that Singapore government agencies “were not monolithic or homogenous”; instead “within those agencies and bodies, multiple voices seek to be heard” (ibid.). Lily Kong and Brenda Yeoh (2003, 131) make it clear that in Singapore, the “state’s engagement with issues of heritage” only occurred more fully at “a specific juncture of its development”—the 1980s and 1990s. However, the Preservation of Monuments Board had its genesis during the 1960s. Debates in the 1960s that led to the Preservation of Monuments Board’s creation might reveal more about these early voices of heritage conservation that Kong describes as not coming to the fore until much later.

Kong’s assertion that there were quiet heritage debates within the Singapore bureaucracy in the 1960s and 1970s is hinted at by some published material reflecting the thinking of the bureaucrats and the politicians. In one article, Alan Choe, who became in 1964 the first head of the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s predecessor, the Urban Renewal Department, asserted: “Contrary to misinformed belief, urban renewal does not mean just the pulling down of slum sections and rebuilding on the cleared area” (1969, 165). He argued: “There are actually three indispensable elements of urban renewal; conservation, rehabilitation and rebuilding. This would mean identification of the areas worth preserving; a programme to improve such areas and make them habitable with an improved environment; and an identification of the areas that must be demolished and rebuilt” (1968, 2–5). In a published interview, Choe even mentioned that in 1967 then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had approached him with his concern that not enough consideration had been given to preserving historic buildings in the rush by Singapore’s urban planners to engage in urban renewal (Straits Times, April 12, 2014). These published statements raise the question why there was not more of a balance between conservation and redevelopment of the urban landscape. This article uses recently declassified material in the Singapore state’s archives to answer this question and explore these early conservation debates.

Heritage debates that developed from colonial times into the early postcolonial period in other Asian countries have been influenced by what Denis Byrne has called a “Western hegemony in heritage management” spread “by a process of ideology transfer rather than imposition” (1991, 273). Ken Taylor (2004), expanding on Byrne, argued that Western heritage organizations, such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and Western codes of heritage preservation, such as the 1964 Venice Charter, were in the early debates over heritage conservation not culturally sensitive enough to incorporate traditional Asian views. Western notions of heritage conservation described in the Venice Charter have emphasized “authenticity” of the original building materials, while traditional Asian notions of heritage have seen little wrong with regular rebuilding and expansion of historic buildings that maintain “the spirit of the place” and the traditional skills needed to rebuild and expand (Byrne 1991, 275).

The Venice Charter, in particular, has been seen as delineating in Western terms the very definitions of heritage management in many of the early debates of the 1960s and 1970s (Winter 2014, 123). In the Venice Charter, conservation was synonymous with preservation. Conserving a building or site meant keeping it “authentic” and preserving it with no changes. Restoration contrasted with preservation. Changes to a historic building or site were limited by strict prohibitions allowing the use of only “original” and “authentic” materials in the restoration process. The Charter outlined a conception of heritage in its preamble, declaring: “Imbued with a message from the past, the historic monuments of generations of people remain to the present day as living witnesses of their age-old traditions. People are becoming more and more conscious of the unity of human values and regard ancient monuments as a common heritage” (ICOMOS). Were the early heritage debates in Singapore during the rapid redevelopment of its urban landscape influenced by this Western hegemony, as is suggested by studies of other Asian countries?

Heritage Conservation in Colonial Singapore

The urban redevelopment of Singapore was planned well before the People’s Action Party (PAP) government took over in 1959 when Singapore achieved self-government. These plans do suggest a Western hegemony, in particular, dominating ideas from the center of the British Empire. In 1955, a Master Plan for Singapore, modeled on the Greater London Plan prepared by Peter Abercrombie in 1944, was drawn up by veteran British town planner Sir George Pepler (Lim 1955, column 574). He had been responsible for Britain’s Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, which enacted many of Abercrombie’s ideas (Khublall and Yuen 1991, 40).

The Singapore Master Plan was approved by the Governor in 1958 as a statute that controlled all future urban development until 1972 (Dale 1999, 73–77). It became known as the 1958 Master Plan. Pepler’s main recommendations contained many features of the Greater London Plan. Singapore’s Master Plan promoted decentralization by setting up satellite “new towns” outside the Central Area such as Woodlands, Yio Chu Kang, and Jurong, to facilitate future urban growth rather than add to an already densely populated Central Area. The Master Plan was designed to accommodate Singapore’s doubling of population from one million in 1953 to two million in 1972. Urban redevelopment of Singapore’s overcrowded Central Area was planned. A green belt was envisaged to contain the expansion of the Central Area. All these concepts applied to Singapore had their origins in Abercrombie’s ideas. The planned urban redevelopment of Singapore appears to illustrate notions of a Western hegemony over the cultural and urban landscape during the colonial period.

One of the other recommendations of the plan was that the colonial urban planning agency and public housing builder, the Singapore Improvement Trust, “shall prepare and shall supplement and amend from time to time a list of ancient monuments and land and buildings of historic and/architectural interest” (Colony of Singapore 1955, 17). The Singapore Improvement Trust took on an additional role of “the protection of ancient monuments and land and buildings of historic and/or architectural interest” (ibid.). Thirty historic buildings and sites, all dating before the mid-nineteenth century, were listed by the Master Plan as worthy of preservation. Their selection seemed to follow the then current Western ideas of “authenticity” and antiquity, because no building from the twentieth century was included. However, there were compromises as most of the temples and mosques had undergone substantial restorations since their erection in the nineteenth century.

The list included many temples such as the Thian Hock Keng and the Sri Mariamman temples in Chinatown, built in 1821 and 1827 respectively. Also listed were an equal number of mosques such as the Jamae Mosque in Chinatown, which was first built in 1826. European churches were included, such as the Catholic Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, constructed in 1846, and the Anglican St Andrews Cathedral, built in 1862. Raffles Institution, a school erected in 1837, and Outram Gaol, built in 1847, were also buildings to be preserved. One Indian and two Malay-Muslim graveyards were on the list (ibid.). The list was a multicultural representation of Singapore’s different races and faiths. This was the first time a Singapore state agency had been entrusted with heritage conservation.

The 1955 heritage list of what were called “Ancient Monuments and Land and Buildings of Architectural and/or Historical Interest” did not represent the first compilation of Singapore’s historic buildings and sites. However, it was the first list in Singapore presented by a state agency for future preservation. In 1954, the colonial administration had formed what it called the Ancient Monuments Committee to compile a list of historic buildings and monuments. This list designated sites where historic markers were placed; it was not for protecting sites and buildings, and it did not stop buildings from being demolished (Public Relations Office, 625/54).

The 1954 and 1955 lists were examples of what Laurajane Smith called a situation in which heritage is designated by a “hegemonic discourse” which was “reliant on power/knowledge claims of technical and aesthetic experts” (2006, 11). The committees that drew up the 1954 and 1955 lists also illustrated Byrne’s notion that in Asia, there was a Western and colonial hegemony over what constituted heritage. Both committees comprised mainly colonial officials who were trained in British ideas of what were regarded as historic buildings, monuments, and sites. They included Michael Wilmer Forbes Tweedie and Carl Alexander Gibson-Hill, the postwar directors of the Raffles Museum. All items listed were originally erected in the early nineteenth century. Most items on the lists were temples and mosques. Older religious buildings and sites were seen as more “authentic” and “original” representations of Asian cultures (Public Relations Office, 625/54).

The 1955 list was drawn up in consultation with an organization known as the “Friends of Singapore” (Ministry of Culture, 276/63). This society was founded in 1937 by wealthy and well-educated members of the colonial elite in order to “stimulate interest in the cultural and historical life of Singapore” (Straits Times, August 19, 1948). The organization’s founder was European lawyer Sir Roland St. J. Braddell, who had written a history of Singapore (Singapore Free Press, September 10, 1947). One of the society’s objectives was the “preservation of historical buildings and sites” (Friends of Singapore, Charter). European firms held “life membership” in the society in order to financially support the organization. Its patron was Sir Robert Black, the Governor of Singapore (Straits Times, August 26, 1955; January 23, 1957). When the Master Plan became law in 1958 after extensive public meetings on its proposals, two more buildings were added to the list to make a total of 32. These were the Sun Yat Sen Villa in the Balestier Road area and the Sri Srinivasa Perumal temple in Little India.

The Friends of Singapore continued to have considerable influence over the listing of historic buildings. The society was invigorated by the heritage preservation powers of the Singapore Improvement Trust. Previously, the society had failed in its attempt to produce a historic guide to Singapore, and its major achievement was putting up portraits of all of Singapore’s governors in the Victoria Memorial Hall (Singapore Free Press, April 1, 1948). In 1956, the Friends of Singapore supported the Singapore Improvement Trust in resisting objections to the heritage listing of Killiney House at No. 3 Oxley Rise, which was built in 1842 by the Surgeon General Dr. Thomas Oxley. The owner, Chartered Bank Trustee Company, felt that if the building were classified as an “ancient monument,” it would be hard to sell it, so the company wanted it removed from the list. The Friends of Singapore gave the Singapore Improvement Trust historical and architectural “evidence that the property should be preserved for prosperity” (Straits Times, June 21, 1956). Killiney House remained on the list. In the same year, the Friends of Singapore successfully fought to keep a nature park in the Master Plan that marked a 1942 battle between the Malay Regiment and the Japanese, as park space. The army had proposed that it be turned into a car park (Straits Times, June 22, 1956; July 12, 1956).

In 1957, at the Friends of Singapore’s 20th anniversary dinner, its president T. W. Ong, a wealthy Anglophile Chinese businessman, felt emboldened to make the organization’s first clear statement against the demolition of historic buildings: “We should not tear down historical buildings and monuments so quickly in order to put up some new brick and mortar building for it is difficult to replace some monuments” (Singapore Free Press, February 7, 1957). For Ong and the Friends of Singapore, these buildings reinforced the collective memories of the past of the country’s different ethnic communities (Friends of Singapore, Report and Accounts for the Year 1937/38). Ong added: “Singapore would be a city without a soul if the cultures of its various races were not maintained” (Singapore Free Press, February 7, 1957). The activities of the Friends of Singapore demonstrated that in the 1950s, there appeared little difference between preservation and conservation. These terms were as they appeared in the Venice Charter in the 1960s—almost interchangeable. This Western hegemony over the terms of heritage used in Singapore was also evident in the terminology and ideas employed in the redevelopment of the urban landscape, which became a priority in the early postcolonial period.

Urban Renewal and “Rehabilitation” of Historic Areas

This emerging awareness of heritage conservation within and outside of the state threatened to be side-lined by the election of the People’s Action Party (PAP) government in 1959 when Singapore achieved self-government from the colonial administration. The PAP came to power on a party platform promising to create more jobs and to build more public housing (Fong 1980, 72). This entailed what it called “clearing the slums”—demolishing dilapidated old buildings overcrowded with the urban poor in the Central Area of the city of Singapore and erecting modern flats in their place (The Tasks Ahead 1959, 29). The PAP’s 1959 election manifesto declared that “the Colonial Government has failed miserably in housing the people, and the result is more and more slums” (ibid.). The priority of the PAP was that “land can be used fully for housing and industrial development” (ibid.).

Some members of the incoming PAP government evinced animosity towards the Friends of Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew, leader of the PAP and after 1959 the new Prime Minister of Singapore, dismissed the Friends of Singapore as a “quaint” society “whose objects is the entertainment of past and present Governors and one of whose duties is to collect portraits of previous Governors” in order to get what he called “kudos” from the Governor (Lee 1956, column 186). The Friends of Singapore was equally dismissive of Lee. Its president Ong alleged that Lee was engaged in the “distortion of facts to gain personal publicity,” which Ong said, “was not an uncommon trait among leaders of any extremist party.” Ong went even further, adding that Lee was in a position where he “must concoct something to save his own skin” (Straits Times, September 9, 1956). These words were exchanged between Lee and Ong in 1956, but they doomed the Friends of Singapore as an emerging heritage NGO once Singapore’s colonial administration handed power over to the PAP. The Friends of Singapore ceased to have any influence and was disbanded by the 1970s.

After 1959, urban planning in Singapore entered a new stage. In the last few months of the colonial administration in February 1959, legislation was drafted to dissolve the Singapore Improvement Trust into two organizations: the Housing Development Board to build public housing and the Planning Department. The transition to the postcolonial government meant these ordinances did not come into effect until February 1960. However, there were teething problems for the postcolonial government. There was an acute shortage of planning staff in the Planning Department, which consisted of three local urban planners, only two of whom had experience in the Singapore Improvement Trust (Dale 1999, 78). Given the deficiencies of an understaffed, ad hoc, and uncoordinated haphazard planning process, the Singapore government requested assistance from the United Nations Development Programme for recommendations on dealing with the difficult issues of urban renewal and redevelopment. This culminated in several key reports and recommendations that had far-reaching consequences for the Singapore landscape.

The first United Nations mission in 1962, led by Erik Lorange, recommended the complete revision of the 1958 Master Plan in order to pursue redevelopment, large-scale public housing, and the establishment of new towns. Ole Johan Dale (1999, 78), a Singapore-based urban planner, deemed the catalyst which Lorange provided for urban renewal as his “most important contribution.” For Lorange, “the social arguments for taking up central redevelopment of Singapore are evident and obtrusive. The condition of the majority of the central residential buildings is poor to a frightening degree” (Final Report 1962, 6). He concluded that “comprehensive redevelopment without a doubt is the ultimate answer of the present extensive accumulation of slums in the Central Area, but this will demand a long period of years to fulfil in substance” (ibid., 51). Lorange suggested that in the meantime, minor measures be taken to “rehabilitate” areas. According to him, while some buildings might need demolishing, many in the short term could be “subjected to code enforcement, to induce the owners to widen shop frontages and make selective repairs on their buildings” (ibid., 51).


Map 1 The Plan for Urban Renewal in the Central Area of Singapore

Source: After Choe (1969)

In his report, Lorange recommended that demolition and extensive urban redevelopment begin only from the fringes of the Central Area and gradually move into its center so that much could be learnt from experimenting on the periphery of the old city area. For the first stage of urban renewal, he designated the old Kampong Rochor shophouses that were part of the Malay-Muslim Kampong Glam historic area, extending from Crawford Street to Jalan Sultan. The area had been designated N1 (meaning North 1 precinct) among the 19 precincts in the city divided up by the 1958 Master Plan. While Lorange’s recommendations for urban renewal were accepted by the Singapore planning authorities, his calls for “rehabilitation” were ignored. In 1966, Kampong Rochor, with the exception of the Hajjah Fatimah Mosque, built in 1845, was demolished to make way for public housing as part of the first phase of urban renewal in Singapore. The Hajjah Fatimah Mosque, along what was then Java Road, was on the 1958 Master Plan’s list of historic buildings to be preserved (Gamer 1972, 139). This lone standing historic building in the demolished Kampong Rochor area testified to the power of being on the list of what were regarded as historic buildings. However, at the other end of the Central Area, Outram Gaol, which was also on the same heritage list from the 1958 Master Plan, was demolished along with many shophouses, to make way for the redevelopment of the S1 (meaning South 1 precinct) area in the south, as recommended by Lorange.

A subsequent 1963 United Nations mission consisting of Charles Abrams, Susumu Kobe, and Otto Koenigsberger, also laid the groundwork for intensive state involvement in urban planning. The mission recommended that urban planning in Singapore be institutionalized through the creation of an Urban Renewal Team within the Housing Development Board (Growth and Urban Renewal in Singapore 1963, 189). Set up in 1964, the Urban Renewal Team later became the Housing Development Board’s Urban Redevelopment Department in 1966 and was legislated as a separate statutory authority, the Urban Redevelopment Authority in 1974.

In contrast to Lorange, the members of the 1963 United Nations mission were adamant that urban renewal should not lead to large-scale demolition. Members of the United Nations mission, like Lorange, highlighted that the “three indispensable aspects of urban renewal are (1) conservation, (2) rehabilitation, and (3) rebuilding” (ibid., 121). They “rejected the idea of wholesale demolition of large quarters” of the old city (ibid., 18). They explained that “this decision was motivated primarily by the desire to minimize the social upheaval and the suffering” (ibid.). The decision was “based also on the recognition of the value and attraction of many of the existing shophouses and the way of living, working, and trading that produced this particularly Singapore type of architecture” (ibid.). “Every big city needs escape hatches from sameness and order, and areas like Chinatown can emerge into important examples if they are treated with something more subtly than the steam shovel” (ibid., 123). They warned: “We must beware of the bulldozer ‘addicts’ who are straining to flatten out every hill, fill in every valley, and cover the resulting flat desert with a dull network of roads, factory sheds, and regimented blocks of houses” (Gamer 1972, 142).

According to Alan Choe (1975, 98), who became the first head of the Urban Renewal Department, the 1963 United Nations Mission Report was “studied by the Singapore Government, and subsequently a comprehensive plan for urban renewal in the Central Area of Singapore was formulated.” Choe had absorbed postwar British ideas of town planning and heritage conservation when taking extra electives for his degree in architecture from the University of Melbourne in Australia (Straits Times, April 12, 2014). Urban planners in Singapore during the 1960s, while not accepting rehabilitation and conservation as much as the United Nations teams recommended, did not rule them out. However, in the case of Singapore, urban planners such as Choe tended to be ambivalent about its built heritage:

Unlike England or Europe, Singapore does not possess architectural monuments of international importance. There are therefore few buildings worthy of preservation. In addition many of the buildings in the Central Area are overdue for demolition. Hence to preach urban renewal by conservation and rehabilitation alone does not apply in the Singapore context. There must also be clearance and rebuilding. (Choe 1969, 165)

The comments by Choe about Singapore’s built heritage reveal why in the 1960s the balance between conservation and redevelopment was tilted towards the latter. Western notions of “authenticity” in having a “grand old building” in the same physical state for hundreds of years were difficult to apply to the local landscape. However, Choe believed that the movement towards a list of monuments and historic buildings to be preserved was compatible with urban renewal. In August 1968, when the idea of a National Trust or Preservation of Monuments Board was being mooted within the Ministry of Culture, Choe said in a public address: “As a result of urban renewal it has been found desirable to set-up a proper body to look into the question of ‘Preservation of Sites, Buildings and Monuments of Historical or Architectural Interests.’” He added, “Legislation for the proper formation of such a body will give it the necessary powers including the proper selection, preservation, management financing etc. of such sites, buildings and monuments” (Choe 1968, 3). Choe’s expression of this ambivalence towards the creation of a heritage preservation body was in keeping with the debates that were going on inside the Singapore government bureaucracy during the 1960s. There were discussions about how to create a government agency that could preserve historic buildings amidst extensive urban renewal.

UNESCO and Singapore

While a conservation-redevelopment debate over whole areas of Singapore’s old city was stimulated by the United Nations mission of urban planners, the action of UNESCO also provoked discussion in Singapore over the preservation of its historic buildings, monuments, and sites. In 1961, Vittorine Veronsese, Director-General of UNESCO, wrote to the Singapore Ministry of Culture asking for a representative to be on UNESCO’s International Committee on Monuments, Artistic and Historical Sites and Archaeological Excavations, which was the predecessor of the World Heritage Committee (Ministry of Culture, 179/61). UNESCO was stepping up its activities to help the preservation of monuments in the developing world as well as in developed countries. In Asia, these actions included a 1961 assessment of the Buddhist pagodas of Pagan in Burma, a 1963 restoration study of the giant Buddhist statues at the Bamiyan site in Afghanistan, a 1966 mission to preserve the Buddhist stupas of the old Thai capital of Ayutthaya, a study of the Indonesian site of Borobudur in 1966, and the restoration of Angkor Wat in 1967–68 (UNESCO 1970, 33–36).

The Director-General of UNESCO, while noting national efforts to preserve historic monuments and sites, believed that UNESCO “had a duty to take its own steps to bring these national efforts into a world-wide scheme” (ibid., 23). UNESCO proposed an International Campaign for Historical Monuments in 1964 aimed at creating among UNESCO member nations “publicity during this period, to bring home to their citizens the value of the monuments of the past” (ibid.). UNESCO’s intervention stimulated the idea of setting up in Singapore a heritage preservation organization based on the model which Singapore bureaucrats were most familiar with—the National Trust of England (Ministry of Culture, 400/62).

Christopher Hooi, a senior curator of anthropology at the Singapore National Museum, advised the Singapore government to accept UNESCO’s invitation to participate in its proposed international heritage preservation organization (Ministry of Culture, 179/61). Hooi had graduated with a degree in anthropology from the University of London, and his thinking on the preservation of historic buildings was influenced by his time in Britain when he had familiarized himself with the National Trust and British heritage legislation. His enthusiasm for what UNESCO was planning and his own ideas, which were drawn from his training in Britain, confirms Bryne’s notion that the Western hegemony on early heritage management in Asia was the result not of ideological “imposition” but of “transfer” (Bryne 1991, 273). Hooi was also aware that other developing countries were setting up state organizations to manage historic buildings based on the British Ancient Monuments Protection Act, which dates to 1882. This act also had its own list of preserved and protected historic buildings. Within the developing world, India followed Britain and had its own Ancient Monuments Preservation Act since 1904; following independence, this was expanded and became the 1951 Ancient and Historic Monuments and Remains Act. India’s version of the Britain’s National Trust was enshrined into the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) (Ribeiro 1990). Malaya enacted its Treasure Trove Act in 1957, which contained some provisions for protecting ancient monuments and historic sites.

The Singapore Government took Hooi’s advice. Hooi convened an ad hoc committee meeting on December 29, 1962 to apply to the Singapore context UNESCO’s ideas on the preservation of historic monuments and sites. Professor K. G. Tregonning and Professor Wang Teh Chao, two academic historians, as well as two representatives from Singapore’s Ministry of Culture attended this meeting. The committee accepted Tregonning’s proposal that “a historical monument” should be defined as “any building 100 years or over in 1962” and “any other building, shrine or monument which in the eyes of the committee has historical value or significance” (Ministry of Culture, 400/62). Tregonning also suggested “the possibility of legislation being made later on to preserve certain historic monuments” (ibid.). At the next meeting of the committee on January 15, 1963, this definition of what was to be preserved was expanded to include historical sites. After its meetings ended, Hooi transmitted the deliberations of the committee to the Prime Minister’s Office, which maintained an interest in heritage conservation at the behest of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (ibid.).

Creating a National Trust for Singapore

After the committee to examine UNESCO’s proposals on monuments had ceased, Hooi was involved in establishing a further committee within the Singapore Ministry of Culture in May 1963 to re-examine the 1958 Master Plan’s idea of having a list of historic monuments protected by legislation. The terms of reference of the committee were to re-examine the list of 32 historic monuments and sites outlined by the Master Plan and to suggest regulations that would protect them. It was chaired by Tan Jake Hooi, Acting Chief of the Planning Department that had emerged from the dissolution of the Singapore Improvement Trust, the body entrusted with preserving historic monuments. Tan Jake Hooi and his fellow planners dominated the new committee.

At its first meeting on August 26, 1963, the committee began with the assumption that for preserving a building, “age alone should not be a criterion” (Ministry of Culture, 276/63). The committee considered not just preservation but partial preservation of historic buildings, or even the “preparation of measured drawings of the structures concerned prior to their demolition” (ibid.). The members of the committee examining the list of 32 historic monuments and sites outlined by the Master Plan mulled over whether to have public inquiries when planning applications were made that would affect historic buildings. However, the committee, which was dominated by urban planners, rejected this proposal as it would most likely slow down the rapid urban renewal that they were overseeing in the Central Area of Singapore.

Within the committee, the intentions of the urban planners in the Planning Department were articulated by Tan Jake Hooi, the Chief Planner who headed the Planning Department. At the second meeting of the committee, when addressing the task of deciding on a list of historic sites and buildings to be preserved, Tan remarked that “the object of drawing up such a list” was “not to guarantee preservation but consideration of the possibility of preservation” (ibid.).

The position of the planners on the committee was influenced by the Planning Department’s decision to embark upon significant urban renewal of the Central Area. By mid-1963, the Planning Department had begun the demolition of the 1847 Outram Gaol, which was on the original 1955 heritage list of the draft Master Plan. Neighboring blocks of shophouses next to the Outram Gaol were also slated for demolition. This was recommended in the 1962 United Nations Lorange Report. In March 1963, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew started the redevelopment program by laying the foundation stone of two blocks of flats in the Outram area. Lee publicly announced the redevelopment of the Outram area in conjunction with the Kampong Rochor district. Both these redevelopment projects were recommended by Lorange (Straits Times, March 22, 1963). The Singapore government viewed the old buildings of the Outram area as slums and planned to demolish them and build high-rise flats that would accommodate 50,000 people (Straits Times, March 28, 1963).

At its meeting of February 7, 1964, the committee, at the behest of the urban planners, started dropping entries from the list on the pretext that the buildings would cost too much to restore or were not in their original form. The Western hegemonic ideas of “authenticity” were used by Western-educated planners to remove obstacles to urban renewal. The eight which were dropped at this meeting when urban development was in its early stages were: G. D. Coleman’s house, Raffles Institution, Outram Gaol, Victoria Memorial Hall, Sri Sivan temple, Geok Hong Tian temple, Keramat Radin Mas, and Sri Perumal temple (Ministry of Culture, 276/63). The dominance of urban renewal over heritage conservation was highlighted at this meeting by the deletion of Outram Gaol, which was in the S1 precinct that was one of the first areas of the Central Area to be earmarked for urban renewal. It had been marked for demolition the year before in 1963.

When it came to envisaging the type of administrative body to preserve historic buildings, Singapore’s colonial connections meant that the members of the committee turned to Britain for a model of heritage conservation. The National Trust of England was regarded as a model to follow for conservation in Singapore. It was proposed that the executive committee members of a Singapore national trust would periodically visit and inspect buildings that were designated as worthy of preservation and advise their owners on alterations and changes. The proposed trust would acquire historic buildings that were seen as warranting preservation if acquisition was needed. From its first meeting, the committee favored the creation of such an independent trust, which would have the support of the Ministry of Culture, but like its English counterpart, would primarily rely on private donations as well as some grants from the government (ibid.). At its meeting of March 17, 1964, the committee recommended to the Minister for National Development “the setting up of a Trust which would not only advise Government on what monuments, lands and buildings might be worthy of preservation or other measures but also help raise the necessary funds for securing preservation” (ibid.).

The idea of preserving Singapore’s historic buildings and sites began to gather momentum in Singapore’s bureaucracy in the mid-1960s when there was regret, expressed most publicly by the Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group (SPUR) which was founded in 1965, that the urban renewal projects were changing the urban landscape to the detriment of the historical character of Singapore. SPUR consisted mainly of architects such as William Lim and Tay Kheng Soon, but also included professionals and academics such as Tommy Koh and Chan Heng Chee. Bureaucrats, such as Christopher Hooi and Tan Jake Hooi, were also members of the group. SPUR championed a number of issues in urban planning, namely conservation of old buildings, a rail network, traffic control in the city, and the building of an airport at Changi (Naidu 2002, 62–66). It engaged in public discussions, forums, and talks; wrote letters to the press; and made representations to the government.

Speaking for its members in 1966, Edward Wong in a public talk, made clear SPUR’s position on the limits of urban renewal: “Although we are not advocating large-scale urban renewal, we do recognise that a measure of redevelopment is necessary as part of the evolution of any City” (Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group 1967, 21). SPUR agreed with the 1963 United Nations team that “in both urban renewal and urban rehabilitation we have the same three basic processes. They are rehabilitation, conservation, and redevelopment” (ibid.). SPUR, following the same lines of reasoning as the Ministry of Culture committees on heritage preservation, advocated “the selection of buildings or groups of buildings for preservation indefinitely by reason of their historical, architectural or other special significance” (ibid.). Regarding the Central Area, SPUR argued that when “conserving selected buildings in this area our approach should be quite different from that of the Western world whose architectural history is written and taught from noble architectural monuments. We would be however conserving to a large measure vernacular architecture which is no less interesting” (ibid.). SPUR was suggesting that the ideas drawn from Western hegemony over heritage management, with their stress on “grand” old buildings and monuments, were inappropriate to the Singapore urban and cultural landscape, which comprised architecturally modest shophouses and equally modest religious buildings. Its members also seemed aware that this tipped the balance away from heritage conservation towards redevelopment. SPUR advocated having a pilot study in which the focus would be on rehabilitation rather than demolition and rebuilding.

In the mid-1960s, within the Singapore state bureaucracy, some attention was paid to preservation despite the ongoing urban renewal project. The committee established in 1963 sent its report to the Ministers for Culture and National Development, as well as the Prime Minister’s Office, at the end of 1964. It took some time for the report to be digested and the implications of it to be appreciated. Choe recalled, “One day [in 1967] I got a note from Lee Kuan Yew asking: ‘Have we thought about conservation?’ I sent him the folio I prepared. He sent me a note telling me he was very happy to see somebody was thinking ahead to preserve what little we had” (Straits Times, April 12, 2014). In Choe’s memorandum submitted to the Prime Minister on May 18, 1967, he proposed that for the preservation of historic buildings and sites, legislation should be drawn up to establish a national trust for Singapore. The result was that the Prime Minister “endorsed the need to preserve monuments of architectural or historic interest in Singapore” and directed that a committee be set up exploring “the question of forming a trust to undertake this task” (Ministry of Culture, 254/67).

In September 1967, a committee was formed within the Ministry of Culture and assigned with the task of drafting a piece of legislation aimed at creating a national trust for Singapore. There was continuity with the previous committees. Christopher Hooi was the chairman of a new sub-committee that worked towards the setting up of the national trust. Hooi had chaired the 1963 committee, which had concluded that “if the Trust [was] properly empowered, it could act positively” (Ministry of Culture, 276/63).

The 1963 committee members observed that the existing legislation, the Planning Ordinance, only gave the Planning Department “negative” powers at aiding preservation, such as delaying the approval of planning applications “in the hope that Government or other appropriate Authorities could step in” (ibid.). The government could prevent the owner from redeveloping but was not empowered to assume responsibility for ensuring the upkeep of the historic building or to buy it off the owner.

It was agreed among the members of the 1967 committee that a national monuments trust “should be given sufficient powers to assume a positive role” (Ministry of Culture, 254/67). The proposed national trust’s “positive” powers included the role “to advise [the Minister for National Development] on lands, artifacts, sites and buildings which should be listed and preserved as national monuments” and “the ability to acquire and maintain properties to ensure their preservation” (ibid.).

Proposed legislation for a Singapore national trust borrowed heavily from British heritage legislation and the National Trust of England. The British High Commission in Singapore even sent the Singapore committee copies of British town planning laws on heritage preservation and information about its National Trust. The pieces of legislation included copies of the Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act 1913, the Ancient Monuments Act 1931, the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act 1953, and the Local Authorities (Historic Buildings) Act 1962. In drafting legislation for a Singapore national trust, definitions of terms, such as “ancient monuments” and “owners,” were taken from these British acts (ibid.). The definition of “ancient monuments” was a copy of that written in the British Ancient Monuments Act which, according to the Singapore committee, was defined “so widely as potentially to include almost every building or structure of any kind made or occupied by man from ancient to modern times” (ibid.).

The proposed national trust of Singapore, like its British counterpart, was empowered to inspect historic buildings and to take action against owners who neglected or damaged them. Once a historic building or monument was officially gazetted, as in British legislation, there was no provision for that official declaration to be revoked if the owner was unhappy with it. Following the National Trust in Britain, there was provision for acquiring buildings by purchasing them. The national trust of Singapore was also mainly funded by donations rather than the government. It had a small government-funded budget that paid for its small number of staff. Donations were non-existent as Singapore was a developing country with few local philanthropists who were willing to contribute to preserving historic buildings, compared to donors who supported the National Trust in Britain. There was one major contrast between the proposed Singapore national trust and the National Trust in Britain: the British institution was not a government organization, although it was aided by various pieces of legislation.

Singapore’s national trust, when it was publicly announced in August 1969 by Eddie Barker, the National Development Minister, was conceived as a body serving the interests of the state and concerned with constructing a national identity and promoting economic benefits. The action of the government was viewed by the press as “a new move to see to it that landmarks of old Singapore will not just crumble away in forgotten memories” and that such a government body would assuage “the fear that the bulldozer of progress will leave nothing of the old behind in its dash to bigger and better buildings” (Straits Times, August 3, 1969). The urban planners on Christopher Hooi’s committee emphasized the value of a national trust to tourism and its contribution to the development of an identity for a new nation which had only gained full independence in 1965. For them, “this need for preservation was not only significant in the face of the tourism industry” but also “the very basis of a country’s history and heritage and will contribute to the formation of a national identity” (ibid.).

In 1970, Barker introduced to the Singapore parliament a revised piece of legislation for a government body similar to the proposed national trust of 1969 but called instead the Preservation of Monuments Board. This reflected its role as an arm of the state. When introducing the bill, Barker warned that because of urban renewal, “we may wake up one day to find our historical monuments either bulldozed or crumbling through neglect. As a new Singapore is being built, we must not let the worthwhile part of older Singapore disappear” (Barker 1970, column 337). Singapore’s Preservation of Monuments Board was empowered “to preserve monuments of historic, traditional, archaeological, architectural or artistic interest” (ibid.). It could recommend buildings to the Minister of National Development to be gazetted, and it could then acquire these buildings from their owners. The heritage sites which the Board considered were based on those listed in the 1958 Master Plan that had been evaluated and added to by several government committees in the 1960s. The membership of the Board was similar to the various preceding government committees of the 1960s: Urban Redevelopment Department planners, architects, museum workers, government tourism officials, and civil servants. Perhaps with a view to soliciting donations, a wealthy banker, Lien Ying Chow, became the Chairman of the Board.

Preserving Individual Buildings versus Preserving Whole Conservation Zones

The Preservation of Monuments Board’s early gazetting of individual historic buildings for preservation stimulated heritage debates within the bureaucracy and outside it. When it was first publicly proposed in 1969, the expectations of such a body being able to declare conservation zones rather than just individual buildings were raised in the press (Straits Times, August 3, 1969). In 1970, William Lim, an architect from SPUR, echoed this call when he stated in a public address that “much larger areas will need to be conserved for the character of the Central Area to be kept intact. This is necessary to provide our citizens with a sense of environmental and historical continuity, and to allow gradual evolutionary changes to take place in the urban environment” (Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group 1971, 40).

The issue of preserving whole conservation zones was on the minds of the senior members of the Singapore government. In November 1971, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Kim San, a senior cabinet minister who implemented the PAP’s housing policy throughout the 1960s, discussed what they called “urban renewal and preservation of our multiracial culture and tradition” (Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, TPB/F/72 [A] Vol. I). At the suggestion of the Prime Minister, a Special Committee for Conversion of Selective Historic Sites into Tourist Attractions was set up. Alan Choe of the Urban Renewal Department sat on the committee, together with senior representatives from the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, the Ministry of Finance, the National Museum, and the Jurong Town Corporation. Choe suggested to the Prime Minister 16 areas for conservation. The committee proposed to the Prime Minister that the Chinatown area of Telok Ayer Street and Smith Street/Mosque Street/Pagoda Street be divided into two projects for conservation to be overseen by the Urban Renewal Department. The two conservation areas in Chinatown were trials for other areas Choe and the committee had selected for preservation (ibid.).

In the discussions on heritage conservation within the bureaucracy, it was initially thought that the Preservation of Monuments Board might be able to go beyond listing only individual buildings and sites and move to proclaiming whole conservation zones. From its first meeting on April 21, 1972, the Preservation of Monuments Board began to use its power to acquire historic buildings. It started by purchasing the Thong Chai Medical Institution, but this purchase soon turned out to be a financial disaster as the Board’s funds were consumed by the high cost of ongoing restoration. The bad experience of owning a historic building meant that the Preservation of Monuments Board never contemplated doing it again. At this initial meeting, the Preservation of Monuments Board had proposed to preserve a whole street—Telok Ayer Street. This street, with its Chinese Thian Hock Keng temple and two mosques, was seen as “a good example to preserve a whole street as a historic landmark” (Preservation of Monuments Board Meeting, May 26, 1972). In August 1972, the proposal of preserving the whole of Telok Ayer Street was shelved indefinitely because the Board’s technical committee reported that “it would be better to concentrate initially on one project at a time to gain experience” (Preservation of Monuments Board Meeting, August 18, 1972). The failure of this proposal to be followed up illustrated the limitations of the powers of the Preservation of Monuments Board. It lacked the resources to preserve a whole street or zone.

The Preservation of Monuments Board struggled to preserve even single buildings and chose buildings that could be preserved at little financial cost to the Board, but which could still be used for their original function. At first, the Preservation of Monuments Board gazetted for preservation mainly religious buildings that remained in private ownership. State buildings were also easily gazetted. The Board avoided gazetting private buildings that did not have a religious function. The religious buildings gazetted by the Board included the Armenian Church, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, the Sri Mariamman temple, and the Sultan’s Mosque. There was a clear reason behind such a strategy, as V. T. Arasu discovered when he was on the Preservation of Monuments Board—the Board was underfunded, understaffed, and could only buy one building. Even its role to ensure that historic buildings were maintained and preserved was hampered. Arasu recalled:

I asked why only religious buildings, I was told that because if a building is a public building used for religious purposes, then by declaring the building as a monument you do not have to change the use. Then secondly, you do not need to pay any compensation and PMB need not take any responsibility on maintaining the buildings. (Arasu 2000, 238)

The debates about preserving heritage within the Preservation of Monuments Board reflected how its powers and funding could barely cope with preserving individual buildings, let alone administer whole conservation zones, which was clearly beyond its capacity. In 1976, Alan Choe, General Manager of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which replaced the Urban Renewal Department in 1974, suggested expanding the powers of the Preservation of Monuments Board. On May 27, 1976, at a meeting of the Board, Choe asked on behalf of the Urban Redevelopment Authority for the Board to “consider on a long term basis the basic preservation of rows of houses and/or sections of central area/Chinatown” (Preservation of Monuments Board Meeting, May 27, 1976). Choe was critical of the Preservation of Monuments Board’s efforts, which he argued “had been confined to only designating individual buildings, mainly in the form of religious structures” (ibid.). However, Choe was rebuffed by the rest of the members of the Preservation of Monuments Board, who felt that the underfunded body with little finance could not cope with designating conservation zones. The Finance Committee of the Board strenuously opposed Choe’s proposal, arguing that “in regard to this particular proposal, the Board would be in no position to render financial contribution” (Preservation of Monuments Board Meeting, June 17, 1976). When the full Board met to consider Choe’s proposal, it took the advice of its Finance Committee and decided to reject the proposal, arguing that “should such a project be launched, it would be too big for any one organization to handle alone” (ibid.).

As General Manager of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Choe determined the course of heritage conservation in Singapore by initiating trial restoration and rehabilitation of groups of buildings and whole streets. In cooperation with the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, the Urban Redevelopment Authority started with the restoration of the Tudor Court buildings in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Urban Redevelopment Authority, Annual Report, 1975–76, 42). These were Tudor-styled buildings along Tanglin Road which had been built for government staff during the colonial period (Kong 2010, 32). The Urban Redevelopment Authority, under the 1966 Land Acquisition Act, was given extensive powers to compulsorily acquire land and buildings at a low price; they could then sell them to developers at a higher price (Urban Redevelopment Authority, Annual Report, 1974–75, 13–15). It therefore had access to a level of funding and power over land and buildings that the Preservation of Monuments Board did not.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority focused on demolition and rebuilding, arguing that “in our land-short republic it is part of the thrust towards growth and progress, providing not only environmental improvement but also better employment and investment opportunities” (ibid., 7). It was the Urban Redevelopment Authority that tendered out run-down historic buildings to be demolished and replaced with new concrete multi-storey complexes (Urban Redevelopment Authority, Annual Report, 1975–76, 58–70). Then it published before and after photographs highlighting the changes in its annual report as “progress.” The Urban Redevelopment Authority also highlighted its pilot studies that allowed it to acquire and restore historic areas. A row of 17 shophouses at Cuppage Road was restored and refurbished for new businesses in 1976. These restored shophouses were previously retail shops, sundry shops, and a fishmongery, but upon their restoration became antique shops and stores selling local craft and art items (Urban Redevelopment Authority, Annual Report, 1977–78, 58–60). Next to the restored shophouses was the nine-storey concrete Cuppage Complex, which replaced other old shophouses and roadside hawkers (Urban Redevelopment Authority, Annual Report, 1975–76, 31). The Urban Redevelopment Authority was clearly more engaged in the demolition of historic buildings than their conservation during the 1970s.

In its conservation of historic buildings, the Urban Redevelopment Authority had begun to move away from Western hegemonic ideas of preserving “authentically” and had compromised, such that the buildings could be considerably altered, re-used, and adapted to another purpose. This was a step away from the ideas of the Venice Charter and of UNESCO, which had been debated in Singapore during the 1960s.

In 1976, the Urban Redevelopment Authority also restored a row of shophouses along Murray Street in Chinatown. They were transformed into what was called “Food Alley,” which was a food center selling Chinese, Malay, and Indian delicacies (Urban Redevelopment Authority, Annual Report, 1977–78, 31). When commenting on the Cuppage Road and Murray Street projects, the Urban Redevelopment Authority observed:

Preservation of such buildings will serve as nostalgic reminders of our architecture and history and at the same time afford the streaming tourists with a view of the ‘old Singapore’. In this connection, the acid test of URA’s versatility in design would be the rehabilitation of Chinatown which is presently under active study. One of the main considerations in the preservation of this area is to improve the environmental set-up without losing the engaging bustle that is the mark of Chinatown. (ibid., 4)

The Urban Redevelopment Authority under Choe was in the mid-1970s engaged in experimenting with heritage conservation zones on a small scale; it had the objective of creating larger areas for rehabilitation and conservation in the future, such as Chinatown. The first large conservation zone was the Tanjong Pagar area of Chinatown. The Urban Redevelopment Authority had already acquired most of the land and buildings in the area for demolition and rebuilding. But the success of the small-scale conservation projects prompted a rethink that encouraged the Urban Redevelopment Authority to choose conservation in the mid-1980s (Kong 2010, 44).

Out of these early heritage debates of the 1960s and 1970s, there arose distinctive Singapore institutions of heritage conservation which saw conservation divided between the Preservation of Monuments Board and the Urban Redevelopment Authority. The heritage debates within the Singapore bureaucracy had produced the conservation model that would operate in Singapore from the 1980s onwards. The Preservation of Monuments Board gazetted individual historic buildings, monuments, and sites, which were usually religious or government buildings whose management was well within the limited powers of the Board. The Urban Redevelopment Authority filled the gap in heritage conservation that had been identified by Alan Choe, declaring whole conservation zones and restoring them for reuse. Tracing the rise of this Singapore model of conservation using archival documents of the Singapore state confirms Kong’s observation that within the bureaucracy, there had long been advocates of heritage conservation before the large-scale conservation zones were declared by the Urban Redevelopment Authority in the 1980s.

The debates of these early advocates of heritage conservation in Singapore were influenced by a Western hegemony over heritage management. These considerably diminished by the 1980s as Singapore developed its own institutions of heritage conservation. Singapore had rejected the idea of a national trust and had opted for a state agency, such as the Preservation of Monuments Board, that had very limited powers. Also, by placing the power to conserve whole zones in the hands of the very organization that had aggressively pursued demolition and rebuilding—the Urban Redevelopment Authority—conservation in Singapore could never displace redevelopment. Thus, despite these early debates over conservation in the bureaucracy, in the balance between redevelopment and conservation, it comes as no surprise that the focus was on redevelopment. The marginality of the Preservation of Monuments Board in conservation compared to the dominance of the Urban Redevelopment Authority has continued well into contemporary times. Recent heritage debates over the Bukit Brown and Jalan Kubor cemeteries have reflected this marginality, with graves and cemeteries that were once on the 1958 Master Plan list no longer considered to be the concern of the Preservation of Monuments Board but under the control of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, with its emphasis on redevelopment.

Accepted: January 14, 2015


Arasu, V. T. 2000. Accession Number 002307/30. National Archives of Singapore, Singapore.

Barker, E. 1970. Parliamentary Debates Singapore, Official Report, Vol. 29, November 4, 1970, column 337.

Byrne, Denis. 1991. Western Hegemony in Archaeological Heritage Management. History and Anthropology 5(2): 269–276.

Choe, Alan F. C. 1975. Urban Renewal. In Public Housing in Singapore: A Multidisciplinary Study, edited by Stephen H. K. Yeh, pp. 97–116. Singapore: University of Singapore.

―. 1969. Urban Renewal. In Modern Singapore, edited by Ooi Jin-Bee and Chiang Hai Ding, pp. 161–170. Singapore: University of Singapore.

―. 1968. Objective in Urban Renewal. Singapore Institute of Architects Journal 30: 2–5.

Colony of Singapore. 1955. Master Plan Written Statement. Singapore: Government Printer.

Dale, Ole Johan. 1999. Urban Planning in Singapore: The Transformation of a City. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

Final Report on Central Redevelopment of Singapore Prepared for the Government of Singapore by Erik Lorange in Capacity of U.N. Town Planning Adviser. 1962, February 1–July 31. Urban Redevelopment Authority Resource Centre, Singapore.

Fong Sip Chee. 1980. The PAP Story: Pioneering Years. Singapore: Times Periodicals.

Friends of Singapore. Charter. Microfilm NL 11216. National Library Board, Singapore.

―. Report and Accounts for the Year 1937/38. Microfilm NL 11216. National Library Board, Singapore.

Gamer, Robert R. 1972. The Politics of Urban Development in Singapore. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

Growth and Urban Renewal in Singapore: Report Prepared for the Government of Singapore by Charles Abrams, Susumu Kobe and Otto Koenigsberger, Appointed under the United Nations Programme of Technical Assistance, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 1963. National University of Singapore Library.

ICOMOS, Venice Charter, accessed November 1, 2014,

Khublall, N.; and Yuen, Belinda. 1991. Development Control and Planning Law in Singapore. Singapore: Longman Singapore Publishers.

Kong, Lily. 2010. Conserving the Past, Creating the Future: Urban Heritage in Singapore. Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Kong, Lily; and Yeoh, Brenda S. A. 2003. The Politics of Landscapes in Singapore: Constructions of Nation. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Lee Kuan Yew. 1956. Singapore Legislative Assembly Debates: Official Report, Vol. 2, September 7, 1956, column 186.

Lim Koon Teck. 1955. Singapore Legislative Assembly Debates: Official Report, Vol. 1, August 24, 1955, column 574.

Ministry of Culture. Ancient Monuments and Lands and Buildings of Historic or Architectural Interests: Committee to Re-examine the List of 32 Items, 276/63. Microfilm No. AR66. National Archives of Singapore, Singapore.

―. Corresponding Members of the Committee on Monuments Artistic and Historical, 179/61. Microfilm No. AR39. National Archives of Singapore, Singapore.

―. International Campaign for Historical Monuments UNESCO, 400/62. Microfilm No. AR55. National Archives of Singapore, Singapore.

―. Preservation of Building of Architectural of Historic Interest, 254/67. Microfilm No. AR82. National Archives of Singapore, Singapore.

Naidu, Dinesh. 2002. SPUR: An Alternative Voice in Urban Planning. In Building Social Space in Singapore: The Working Committee’s Initiative in Civil Society Activism, edited by Constance Singam, Tan Chong Kee, Tisa Ng, and Leon Perera, pp. 61–68. Singapore: Select Publishing.

Preservation of Monuments Board Meeting Minutes. National Archives of Singapore, Singapore.

Public Relations Office. Ancient Monuments Committee, 625/54. Microfilm PRO 14. National Archives of Singapore, Singapore.

Ribeiro, E. F. N. 1990. The Existing and Emerging Framework for Heritage Conservation in India: The Legal, Managerial and Training Aspects. Third World Planning Review 12(4): 338–343.

Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group. 1971. SPUR [19]68–[19]71. Singapore: SPUR.

―. 1967. SPUR [19]65–[19]67. Singapore: SPUR.

Singapore Tourist Promotion Board. Selective Historical Sites into Tourist Attractions. TPB/F/72 (A) Vol. I. National Archives of Singapore, Singapore.

Smith, Laurajane. 2006. The Uses of Heritage. London: Routledge.

Taylor, Ken. 2004. Cultural Heritage Management: A Possible Role for Charters and Principles in Asia. International Journal of Heritage Studies 10(5): 417–433.

The Tasks Ahead: P.A.P.’s Five Year Plan, 1959–1964, Part 2. 1959. Singapore: PAP.

UNESCO. 1970. Protection of Mankind’s Cultural Heritage. Paris: UNESCO.

Urban Redevelopment Authority. Annual Reports.

Winter, Tim. 2014. Beyond Eurocentrism? Heritage Conservation and the Politics of Difference. International Journal of Heritage Studies 20(2): 123–137.

Yeoh, Brenda, S. A.; and Huang, Shirlena. 1996. The Conservation-Redevelopment Dilemma in Singapore: The Case of Kampong Glam Historic District. Cities 13(6): 411–422.



Singapore Free Press

Appeal to All Races. February 7, 1957, p. 18.

Clementi Portrait for Victoria Hall. April 1, 1948, p. 5.

S’pore Friends Want Members. September 10, 1947, p. 8.

Straits Times

When You’ve an Opportunity to Improve Your Life, Grab It. April 12, 2014, p. D4.

Looking Back. August 3, 1969, p. 12.

Steps on the Road to Progress. March 28, 1963, p. 10.

Start to Be Made on S’pore Slum Clearance. March 22, 1963, p. 18.

“Friends” to Give Dinner. January 23, 1957, p. 8.

Ong Hits Back: “You Alter Facts for Publicity.” September 9, 1956, p. 4.

Marina Hill “Battle” Is Over. July 12, 1956, p. 1.

Battle for Marina Hill: 1956 style. June 22, 1956, p. 9.

This House with a Past Has an Uncertain Future. June 21, 1956, p. 9.

Friends’ Patron. August 26, 1955, p. 7.

Friends of Singapore Membership. August 19, 1948, p. 5.


Vol. 4, No. 2, Sumanto

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 2

Christianity and Militancy in Eastern Indonesia: Revisiting the Maluku Violence

Sumanto Al Qurtuby*

* Department of General Studies, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran, 31261, Saudi Arabia

e-mail: squrtuby[at]

During the Maluku interreligious violence from 1999 to 2002, both Islam and Christianity contributed to the initiation and intensification of the collective conflict. This article examines the role of religion, especially Christianity, and discusses how Christian identities, teachings, doctrines, symbols, discourses, organizations, and networks became some of the contributing factors in the early phases of the Maluku mayhem. It also examines the complex roles played by Moluccan Christian actors, especially the religious militias, in initiating and intensifying the strife, highlighting how Ambonese militant religious leaders framed the violence, recruited, and mobilized the masses in the combat zone, and how the local ordinary Christian fighters portrayed the violence and transformed their everyday experience in the warfare.

Keywords: religion, violence, militancy, Christianity, Ambon, Maluku, Indonesia


This article discusses the destructive contributions of religious identities, discourses, doctrines, teachings, symbols, actors, organizations, and networks, especially within Christianity, in the intensification of communal violence in the Moluccas, particularly in the city of Ambon and the province of Maluku more generally. I have analyzed elsewhere (Sumanto 2015) the damaging roles of Islam and Moluccan Muslim jihadists in the exacerbation of collective violence, so I will not repeat it here. What is striking in the literature on the Maluku conflict is that some scholars tend to emphasize, if not overemphasize, the central role of the Laskar Jihad, a Java-based Islamist paramilitary group, in intensifying the violence, while neglecting the contribution of Ambonese or Moluccan jihadist groups, and to a greater degree Ambonese/Moluccan Christian ones. Some scholars (e.g. Sidel 2006) even tend to portray Christians as victims and Muslims as perpetrators of the havoc. This article will thus complement the existing otherwise fine literature on the Maluku conflict.

It is imperative, however, to note that even though this article focuses on the roles of Christians and Christianity in the fighting, this does not mean that all Christian communities in Maluku were engaged in the battlefield and in the opposition against Muslim groups. As I wrote elsewhere (Sumanto 2013; 2014), there were a number of Christian-Muslim peace groups such as the Peace Provocateurs, the Concerned Women Movement, the Young Ambassadors for Peace, the Baku Bae Movement, the Team 20 Wayame, the Titian Peace Institute, the Maluku Interfaith Center, to name but a few. While some groups were no longer active after the end of the collective conflict, others are still working on peace-related activities, establishing intergroup trust, rebuilding communal ties, healing traumatized war victims, and so forth. There are also numerous individuals—religious leaders, academics, activists, journalists, village chiefs, conflict resolution practitioners, and the like—who have been working tirelessly for peaceful coexistence and interreligious conciliation since the beginning of the violence in 1999.

As for the role of the church, particularly the Moluccan Protestant Church, the region’s largest Christian congregation, this also varies from place to place and from era to era, depending on who ran the Protestant Synod and Catholic Diocese, and on local pastors, church officials, and local Christian communities. Whereas in some areas of the “hot spots” (such as Rumahtiga, Poka, Paso, and some places in Ambon city such as Kudamati and Mardika), the Church directly led the violence, it was in the opposing camp in other places. While some Christian elites forced the Synod to back and provide financial and institutional resources for warfare and Christian militias groups, others (such as the former chairman of GPM Synod, Rev. I. J. W. Hendriks and his successor Rev. Dr. John Ruhulessin) defended the Church and Christianity as a source of peace and reconciliation. Similarly while some pastors and church elites established a group of Christian warriors (see below), others created a group of peacemakers.

In addition, although this article focuses on the role of religion, nevertheless I do not argue that religion in itself is the sole source of violence. Certainly religion does not cause communal violence. Just as “guns do not kill people,” religion does not slaughter human beings. However, religion provides teachings, doctrines, rituals, symbols, metaphors, and discourses that can be easily used, misused, or manipulated by those (such as actors of violence, agents or “managers” of conflict, and interest groups) with material or immaterial interests. This is precisely what happened in Maluku where radical Christians (and militant Muslims)—both elites and lay people—utilized, translated, and transformed religious symbols, doctrines, and discourses into Moluccan social settings, not only to awaken a spirit of fighting or justify their violent acts, but also to protect and safeguard their lives.

Throughout the region’s communal violence, particularly from 1999 to 2002, factors such as religious sentiment, material interest, and political motives interacted with one another, magnifying and altering the influence each would have had in isolation. Take away one factor, such as religious tension, economic inequality, or political competition, the violence would not have occurred. This is to say that although religion did matter during the outburst of violence in Maluku—and this article will explain how—it is too simplistic to reduce the complexity of the riots to just a matter of religion, without investigating the political economy of Christians and Muslims in the broad and varied social field of Maluku.

Bruce Lincoln (2006, 5–7) divides religion into four domains of varying significance as follows: (1) “a discourse whose concerns transcend the human, temporal, and contingent and that claims for itself a similarly transcendent status . . .”; (2) “a set of practices whose goal is to produce a proper world and/or proper human subjects, as defined by religious discourse to which these practices are connected . . .”; (3) “a community whose members construct their identities with reference to a religious discourse and its attendant practices . . .”; and (4) “an institution that regulates religious discourse, practices, and community, reproducing them over time and modifying them as necessary, while asserting their eternal validity and transcendent value.”

Building on Lincoln’s model of religion, this article understands “religion” not only in terms of religious doctrines, teachings, and symbols, but also religious agents (actors, adherents, communities, and organizations) who produce and reproduce religious practices, knowledge, and cultures. This is to say that religion is not simply about belief, doctrine, norm, or even ideology. It is also about the social capital that is social networks created by religious actors, namely, in Appleby’s (2000, 9) phrase, “people who have been formed by a religious community and who are acting with the intent to uphold, extend, or defend its values and precepts.”

Since the nature of the Maluku conflict shifts from time to time, this article concentrates on the early periods of the violence, especially from 1999–2002, where religious identities played a big role. This does not suggest that during this period, all Christian fighters (or Muslim jihadists) engaged in the battlefield across the archipelago were motivated purely by religious reasons. There were undoubtedly various motives, both secular and religious. Nonetheless, the contribution of religion in the Maluku conflict settings was stronger and more apparent during this period than after 2002.

After the signing of the Peace Accord in 2002, religious identities were in general no longer a vital ingredient for local religious militants. Some ex-combatants told me that they stopped attacking other religious groups once the security forces and political leaders and elite members of society intervened intensively and started to manipulate local discord and interreligious rivalry for their own political and economic interests. While some members of militia groups—both radical Muslims and Christians—continued to attack their religious rivals for revenge and other “secular” motives, others ceased to fight once they realized that their sacred, passionate struggle, as they claimed, to defend Christianity or Islam, were being abused and “hijacked” by local and national political elites for their own agenda.

As stated earlier, the battle between religious-cultural priorities was evident from the early stages of the sectarian strife from 1999 to 2002 (Goss 2004; Pieris 2004). During this era, Moluccan Muslim and Christian social actors—war radicals and peace activists alike—correlated local social events to authoritative texts by engaging in theological discourse, commentary, and exegesis. Furthermore the radical groups from both Christianity and Islam selected particular religious ideas, discourses, and texts to provide a theological basis and religious legitimacy for their vision of the “sacredness” of the Maluku war. More specifically, Maluku’s militant anti-Muslim Christians tried to justify their violent acts by quoting verses from the Old Testament narrating the glorious wars of the Israelites and their commanders, such as Saul, David, and Solomon, as well as by referring to particular events within Christian history that sustain the just war tradition.

Thus for Moluccan militant Christians, authoritative texts are not limited to the Bible or Gospel and Christian teachings, but also include historical narratives of Christian-Muslim antagonism such as the Crusades, and Christian-Muslim rivalry during the colonial period in the Moluccas. It is worth mentioning that, as historian of Maluku Richard Chauvel (1980; 1990) has rightly noted, Christian-Muslim opposition has taken place since the European colonials landed in the Moluccas (in Maluku and North Maluku provinces), as a result of unfair political, economic, and religious colonial policy towards local religious communities.

During the Portuguese and particularly the Dutch colonial era, most Moluccan Christians became the colonials’ “golden boys.” They enjoyed some privileges while most Moluccan Muslims suffered from discriminatory colonial policy. As such, Ambonese/Moluccan Christians were seen as “Dutch stooges,” with the exception of anti-Dutch heroes such as Martha Christina Tiahahu (1800–18) and Thomas Matulessy (known as Pattimura, 1783–1817). On the other hand, during the brief period of the Japanese occupation in the early 1940s, most Muslims in the archipelago tended to see the Japanese as the “helping gods” (dewa penolong) come to rescue the Muslim communities from the Dutch. It was thus natural that this should arouse jealousy and abhorrence on the part of local Christians, leading to tensions and conflict. Indeed, the Japanese established Islamic jihadist groups in the islands of Ambon, Seram, and Lease, and mobilized Moluccan Muslims to fight against what they called “un-Islamic allies” led by the Dutch and Australia (Chauvel 1980; 1990).

A Brief Overview of the Maluku Conflict

Just months after President Suharto’s resignation in May 1998, Indonesia underwent a series of sectarian conflicts, ethno-religious violence, and communal riots across the archipelago. Of all collective conflicts that erupted in post-Suharto Indonesia, the Maluku conflict that began in January 1999 and lasted for more than three years, was the most disastrous for the province, causing thousands of deaths and injuring thousands, with about a third or half of the population displaced and countless properties burnt down (Bohm 2005; ICG 2000a; 2000b; 2001; 2002). The fights between Christians and Muslims in the province of Maluku, especially in Ambon city, as well as in North Maluku, made this region the theater of one of the most shocking conflicts in the modern history of Indonesia.

The tragic saga of Christian-Muslim violence began with a minor incident on January 19, 1999, between an Ambonese Christian public transport driver and a Muslim passenger of Bugis (South Sulawesi) origin in Batumerah in the heart of Ambon city, the capital and hub of Maluku province. Once called the Queen of the East, Ambon City was a bustling, prosperous regional hub serving countless picturesque islands. Unlike previous fighting, which had been quickly resolved by local community leaders, this quarrel soon escalated throughout Ambon and other areas of Maluku province (Seram, Haruku, Saparua, Buru, Kei, Tual, Banda, and so forth) and North Maluku (Ternate, Tidore, Tobelo, Halmahera, among others), with large sections of the population drawn into a continuous stream of rioting. Less than three months after the “Ambon tragedy,” more violence broke out in Tual in Maluku on March 31, 1999. This fell three days after the Muslim Idul Adha festival and two days before the Christian Good Friday. This Christian-Muslim fighting in a remote region of Maluku left hundreds dead and tens of thousands displaced from their homes. Lesser incidents erupted in many other villages around the far-flung regency of Maluku (see, for example, van Klinken 2001; 2007; Bohm 2005; Bertrand 2002; 2004; Wilson 2008).

Collective violence between the majority Muslims (about 88 percent of a roughly 240 million population) and minority Christians (about 8 percent) has been rare in post-colonial Indonesia. When it did happen, it was usually an outbreak of anger against Chinese shopkeepers, who were dubbed Christians although not all Chinese in Indonesia are Christian, such as the anti-Chinese riots in Pekalongan and Surakarta (Central Java), Bekasi (West Java), and Jakarta in 1998 (Sidel 2006). At the end of the New Order, however, the country witnessed an increasing number of Christian-Muslim tensions and disturbances.1) The Maluku province, where the population is almost equally split between Muslims and Christians, also saw such conflicts. Christian-Muslim communal violence (not “state violence” against Christians or Muslims before, during, and after colonial times) had been rare in this region until the fall of Suharto’s regime.

It should be noted, however, that violent conflict in Maluku went through several phases, with varying natures or root causes, agents involved in the fighting, and motivations behind the individual actors who participated directly or indirectly in the violence. In other words, the dynamics behind the Maluku violence was ever-shifting, and so was the role of religion at different phases. When the violence erupted on January 19, 1999, at stake were ethnic sentiments and migration issues. Some elite members of society tried to wave the flag of “ethnic chauvinism” and mobilize ethnic groups to oppose each other. Posters, pamphlets, and writings about the hazard of “migrant groups,” especially those from Buton, Bugis, and Makassar in Sulawesi Island, for the continuity and development of the “native” (Moluccan) economies were scattered in public places in Ambon city. At the start of the conflict, religion seemed unpopular and had not emerged on the scene.

In brief, in the earliest chapter of the violence, issues at stake were natives (Ambonese/Moluccan) called “anak negeri” (“sons of the soil”) versus migrants (particularly those from Sulawesi but also those from Java) dubbed “anak dagang” (“sons of trade”). However, since manipulating ethnic identity did not seem to attract the masses, the “managers of conflict” turned to religious issues to initiate and exacerbate intergroup violence, which worked very well. It is this stage—roughly between 1999 and 2002—that is the focus of my article. During this period, religion became a crucial factor of violence and an important source of mobilization. Indeed, it was religion that aggravated the conflict. In other words, the violence would not have taken the form it did without the role of religion—for both Islam and Christianity.

The next phase of violence in Maluku was dominated by issues of separatism (waged by members of the Moluccan Sovereignty Front headed by Alexander Manuputty) and terrorism (supported by groups linked to Laskar Mujahidin and Jamaah Islamiyah), which is beyond the focus of this article. The most recent communal riots in Maluku that broke out in 2010 and 2011 were also complex. In some areas in the province, the riots took place among Muslims from different clans (such as in Pelauw of Haruku Island), while in other regions (such as in Pattimura University in Rumahtiga and some places in Ambon city), the riots between Christians and Muslims were mainly driven by non-religious factors. Still, in some areas (e.g. Central Maluku), it was “regional fanaticism” that motivated the masses. Disputes over borders are also common in today’s Maluku. In short, unlike the previous conflicts, religion is no longer a determining variable for those involved in the riots in Maluku nowadays.

Scholarship on the Maluku Violence

Prior to discussing the role of religion and Christianity in the Maluku turmoil, it is useful to briefly review existing literature on the Maluku conflict in order to locate this article’s theoretical position. Previous works on the Maluku carnage have focused mainly on the socio-historical roots of the violence, highlighting how and why previously relatively peaceful religious communities descended into large-scale violent conflict. Scholars’ opinions vary regarding the root causes of the Maluku conflict, and how local small-scale fighting escalated to a large-scale warfare. Brauchler (2003) elaborates on the importance of cyberspace, particularly the Internet, which was used by “conflict actors” to spread grievances, provocations, and complaints of victimization by the war, which aroused anger and tension among the various warring groups. Aditjondro (2001) underscores the special role of preman (street hoodlums), provocateurs, and security forces, whom he identifies as the main actors of the violence. Turner (2006) stresses issues of nationalism and ethnic identities, while Spyer (2002) underlines the role of imagination, the media, and agency in the escalation of the conflict.

Bertrand (2002; 2004) analyzes conditions that augment the potential for violence to erupt. He highlights three major factors: (1) uncertainty over a secular definition of the nation that leaves open the question of an Islamic state; (2) patrimonial features of the New Order authoritarian regime; and (3) a rapid democratic transition after the downfall of Suharto. Unlike Bertrand, who focuses on a macro analysis of historical features of political patterns and national policies of the New Order, van Klinken (2001; 2007) devotes more attention to micro dynamics and conditions. He maintains that the violence was an outcome of struggles among Maluku’s state and non-state elite actors at provincial, municipal, and district levels, over scarce local resources, driven by the “critical junctures” of political transition and the shortcomings of local socio-political structural conditions such as rapid urbanization, high dependence on the state sector, and the speed of de-agrarianization.

To conclude, scholars of the Maluku conflict have generally emphasized politico-economic dimensions of the violence as well as the central role of state institutions, government, and Suharto’s cronies, including the military, in stirring up the violence aimed at destabilizing the nation and regaining political power. Some scholars have indeed blamed the paroxysm of violence on Suharto’s New Order regime (1996–98) and the security forces, especially the police and the army, and have left the matter there2) (see, for example, Aditjondro 2001; Tomagola 2000; Bertrand 2002; 2004; Sidel 2006; Muhammad 2011). Although Adam (2009; 2010) emphasized the role of “the masses” in maintaining the continuity of the riots, he nonetheless argues that the driving forces for the conflict were political-economic issues such as land access and forced migration.

As we can see, analysis emphasizing the role of religion in the Maluku violence is clearly missing from existing scholarship. If it does exist, it usually focuses on the role of Islam and non-Maluku Muslim paramilitary groups—not Christianity and Christian warriors. There have indeed been research on the role of religion in communal violence in regions outside the Maluku province conducted by scholars such as Chris Wilson (2008) and Christopher Duncan (2013) for North Maluku, and Dave McRae (2013) for Poso, Sulawesi. Although Schulze (2002) and Sidel (2006) recognize the contribution of religion in generating conflict in Maluku, they tend to see it as an instrument for political and economic ends and ignore other ways in which religion can influence people’s social and political actions. Indeed some analysts and commentators argue that religion was simply a tool that Moluccan and non-Moluccan, military or civilian, political and religious elites instrumentalized to achieve economic and political aims.

In short, as Duncan (2013) has rightly pointed out, despite the significance that Christian fighters and Muslim militias placed on religion and religious identity in the fighting, observers—academics, researchers, policy-makers, journalists, NGO workers, political commentators, among others—quickly dismissed the religious framing of the violence. They argue, moreover, that what appears to be a religious war is upon closer analysis really motivated by material-based political interests, socio-economic reasons, and territorial grievances that were mobilized and manipulated by the greedy elites, external provocateurs, or “agents of riots.” Last but not least, religious moderates—both Christian and Muslim elites—have also tended to reject the religious factor for the Maluku violence, noting that religion does not teach its followers to commit violence but instead preaches peace, love, and tolerance. Many argued that the violence was not about religion; rather it was a story of how “greed” manipulated “creed” for political and economic ends.

Religious Significance of the Conflict

Contrasting with claims made by the scholars and religious moderates mentioned above, the “grassroots people” of the Maluku province and Ambon city who took part in the violence and whom I interviewed, namely Christian warriors and Muslim jihadists, were not interested in issues of migration, political ambitions, the market, democratization, decentralization, and the like. While outside observers and religious moderates claim that creed was a camouflage for greed, the “foot soldiers,” the masses engaged in the warfare, declared that political and economic issues were actually just a mask for the true religious goals of the strife. Religion and religious identity were also primordial for Christian and Muslim fighters during the communal riots in North Maluku (Duncan 2013; Farsijana 2005).

This suggests that what the religious moderates think of or idealize as religion might differ from the conceptions of “religious radicals.” While moderates denounce radicalism as irreligious, un-Christian, or un-Islamic, the radicals believe that violence is part of a sacred mission and strongly rooted within their traditions, beliefs, doctrines, and teachings.

Against this backdrop, in a departure from previous analyses and studies that tend to place a singular emphasis on the political economy of the conflict, this article maintains that religious identities and discourses figured prominently in the framing and exacerbation of the Maluku strife. Although later on some local Maluku elites (members of the Moluccan Sovereignty Front and some Christian elites) and “foreign actors” (e.g. those linked to the Laskar Jihad, Laskar Mujahidin, KOMPAK, and other radical wings of Islamic groupings) tried to turn the initial conflict into separatism and terrorism, the Christian and Muslim masses engaged in the fighting still considered religion as a focal point for their involvement in the violence.

Although this article focuses solely on Christianity, this does not mean that Muslims who took part in the strife did not express religious vitality during the Maluku clash. Ex-Muslim jihadists of Ambon and other regions of Maluku whom I interviewed also articulated the same religious concerns and motivations as their Christian counterparts. The militant groups of both religions portrayed the wars as a sacred duty for adherents to defend their religion. The Muslim jihadists framed the fighting as Perang Sabil (a war in the path of God) and therefore their engagement in the combat zones was considered jihad fi sabilillah (struggle in God’s trail) to protect Islam from Christian invasion and missionary activities (see Sumanto 2012).

Similarly the Christian warriors regarded the Maluku conflict as a Perang Salib (the Crusades) intended to guard (1) Christianity from the Muslim dakwah (Islamic propagation) and forced conversion (Islamisasi), and (2) the Maluku territory, which they saw as a Christian land, linking it to the land of Canaan in the Biblical tradition. Over the course of the communal conflict, religious symbols, texts, teachings, and discourses were scattered throughout the island. The findings of a survey questionnaire I distributed to 100 ex-Christian fighters and Muslim jihadists, mostly under 30 years of age during the turmoil, on the islands of Ambon-Lease, also confirmed this portrayal, highlighting how religion had contributed to the escalation of the Maluku wars and how unearthly motivations became among the major contributing factors for actors involved in the violence.

The Maluku chaos, moreover, had involved non-state local actors (e.g. religious leaders, local Christian fighters, Ambonese Muslim jihadists, the masses, and civilian groupings) in initiating and exacerbating the mass violence.3) Throughout the communal conflict, Maluku’s local actors were active agents and not passive victims, as commonly portrayed by political observers and social scientists.4) The Maluku case thus illustrates the appearance of not only “Muslim politics” (cf. Eickelman and Piscatori 1996; Hefner 2005) but also Christian politics. During the communal violence, both Muslims and Christians displayed violent and antagonistic behavior. As in Muslim politics, Christian politics also involved competition and contest over both the interpretation of symbols and control of the institutions, formal and informal, that produce, reproduce, and sustain them. By focusing on Christianity, this article will balance previous studies that have tended to overemphasize the central role of the Muslim jihadists (e.g. Sidel 2006; Schulze 2002; Noorhaidi 2006) in initiating and intensifying the Maluku bloodshed.

Christianity, Militancy, and Radicalism

To begin this section, let me quote a statement from Rev. John Sahalessy, one of the respected pastors of the Protestant Moluccan Church and one of the Christian delegates during the signing of the Malino Peace Agreement in Sulawesi. John Sahalessy was the initiator of the “Tim 20 of Wayame,” a group consisting of Christian and Muslim leaders in the village of Wayame on the island of Ambon, whose main objective was to establish peace and social stability in the region and to create mutual trust and understanding between the two religious communities. Wayame was one of the small areas in Ambon that was safe during the communal violence (Sumanto 2013; Pariela 2008). This group later inspired political elites in Jakarta, most notably the late President Abdurrahman Wahid and M. Jusuf Kalla, to initiate a peace pact for Maluku known as the Malino II Peace Accord.

In my interview with him, Rev. Sahalessy said:

All [Protestant] pastors on Moluccan Islands, directly or indirectly, were involved in the Maluku wars, except me. You can note this [statement]. Thus it is wrong if they declare in public that they were not involved in the fighting. Before going to war, the pastors brought their followers to the church for praying and blessing. They said: “God will accompany you.” This is a little example of how pastors were engaged in the fighting. Going to war [against Muslims] was an initiative of the local churches, from the pastors, and not from the Synod [i.e. the Moluccan Protestant Church Synod]. They convinced followers that the “Ambon War” was a “religious war” to defend God. In fact, God does not need our defense; God will defend us. They also believed that if Christians prayed faithfully and went to the battlefield, they would get victory. They went into the combat zone while singing the “Onward Christian Soldiers” song.5)

This statement by Sahalessy is a hard slap in the face for Christian apologists who have denied the engagement of Ambonese Christian leaders and institutions in the Maluku violence. It is also a strong critique of academics who have neglected the religious nature of the conflict. Sahalessy himself may not have believed that the Ambon conflict was a religious war, but his comment indicates that most Christian leaders and lay adherents of Christianity in Ambon and other areas of Maluku province were convinced that the war was religious and sacred. An ex-Christian fighter of Rumahtiga in Ambon city told me eagerly, “The role of religion during the Maluku wars was not only important but very important. Christians and Muslims fought and killed each other due to their religion being humiliated by other religious communities. Because of religion, Christians and Muslims in Ambon were involved in the wars for about five years since 1999.”6)

Indeed, many Moluccan Christian fighters (and Muslim jihadists too) have considered the conflict as a sacred war and a means of purifying previous sins, misconduct, and bad deeds committed before the wars. PM, an ex-field commander of the Christian militia group revealed, “For me, the Ambon war was a sacred war so that whoever killed (Muslims) will be rewarded a place in paradise by God.”7) PM also believed that the war was a medium for self-purification. For him, self-purification includes not only unworldly matters (e.g. repenting from sins) but also worldly matters such as changing from negative behavior to a positive one.

The findings of a survey I distributed to 50 ex-Ambonese Christian fighters also confirm Sahalessy’s comment. During my field research in Ambon and surrounding areas from 2010 to 2011, I administered a questionnaire to 100 former members of Moluccan/Ambonese militia groups: 50 ex-Christian fighters and 50 ex-Muslim jihadists. Christian respondents I surveyed were residents of Rumahtiga, Wailela (Ambon Island), Kudamati (Ambon city), Kariu, and Aboru (Haruku Island in the Central Maluku regency), all of which are the stronghold of Christians. I deliberately selected former combatants as my respondents partly because I wanted to hear from those directly engaged in the warfare. The questions were categorized into three main parts: (1) respondents’ educational, religious, political, and social backgrounds; (2) respondents’ motivations in getting involved in the wars and their perception of the Maluku carnage; and (3) respondents’ responses toward the future of Christian-Muslim relations in Maluku.

It is startling to discover that the majority (76 percent) of the respondents of the survey believed that the Ambon war was a religious war. As reflected in the survey findings, their primary motivations for engaging in the warfare were as follows: (1) to defend religion/Christianity and the Christian community (90.2 percent); (2) Jesus Christ had been humiliated (80.4 percent); (3) churches were destroyed (80.2 percent); (4) the Bible was burnt (70.5 percent); (5) Christian pastors/ministers had been murdered (64.7 percent); and (6) to guard Christian territory (82.4 percent). Moreover, about 98 percent of respondents rejected the war as an opportunity to gain new belongings and other Muslim properties. Interestingly, 94.1 percent of respondents admitted that prior to leaving for the battlefields, they had been “blessed” by local pastors or ministers, 86.3 percent sang the “Christ Soldier” song during the riots, and 80.4 percent brought along “Christian symbols” including a small Bible in their pockets, the crucifix, and the “Jewish flag” (Star of David) as an amulet on the battleground. It should be noted that for most Moluccan Christians, Jewish/Israelite identity is equivalent to Christian identity, thus it should not be surprising if they adopted Jewish symbols during the war.

My conversations and interviews with most ordinary ex-Christian fighters also confirm the survey findings, namely, that most of them portrayed the Maluku mayhem as a holy war. Indeed, throughout the communal conflict, they represented themselves as Abel while Muslims were portrayed as Cain. Moreover, even if Sahalessy’s remark that all Protestant leaders except him were involved in the conflict were an exaggeration—since there were in fact some Christian religious leaders who advocated peace from the outbreak of the violence—it is hard to deny the fact that most Protestant ministers were directly or indirectly involved in the warfare.

Hartford Seminary-trained Ambonese Protestant reverend and activist, Jacky Manuputty, whom I interviewed, also recognized the participation of Ambonese Christian leaders, either in the form of administering blessings and motivating combatants before they left for the battlefield, or by directly participating in the fighting. Jacky Manuputty admitted that, prior to his involvement in the peace and reconciliation process with the Baku Bae Movement and later with the interfaith group called “Peace Provocateurs,” he participated in the war as Christian communities were being attacked and their properties devastated. He even added, “Today’s Ambonese Protestant pastors might be ashamed to recognize their involvement in the previous wars. In fact, there were no Christian warriors who moved forward to the battleground without prayers and blessing from the priests and Church ministries. Indeed, they used to consider the Ambon conflict as a sacred war. The attacks of the Gambus Market in the first stage of conflict, for instance, were released with worship rituals in the Maranatha Church led by Rev. No Pattinaya. During the conflict, whoever acted as Moses would be respected by the Christians. They preferred to choose Moses as an ideal figure to Jesus.”8)

Indeed, there is no doubt that since the beginning of the conflict, Christian leaders and institutions were directly or indirectly involved in the warfare. One of the main Ambonese Protestant centers was in the fiercely religious Kudamati suburb, on a hill a few kilometers west of the Maranatha Church. Hundreds of Christian fighters were stationed at the home of Agus Wattimena, former civil servant, devout church activist, and supporter of a secular nationalist political party PDIP (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan). They could be instantly deployed to any trouble spot in Ambon and to neighborhoods where local fighters risked being overwhelmed. In addition to these main centers, the Protestants also built posko (centers for communication and gathering) at the village level under the auspices of local churches, jemaat (the smallest unit of Protestant congregation), majelis gereja (church ministries), and klasis (the unit of Protestant churches at the district level).

The Bankom (Bantuan Komunikasi, Communication Assistance), an Ambonese Protestant communication office at the Maranatha Church, and the posko at Kudamati were created to gather information about the conflict, identify victims of the wars, collect funds, and mobilize Christian fighters, especially youths and men. Kirsten Schulze (2002) estimates that over the three years of mass violence from 1999 to 2002, there existed about 25 Christian militia groups with roughly 100 to 200 members operating all over the island of Ambon. About 60 percent of these militia fighters were youths between 12 and 25 years old; a few were women. The young Christian fighters were referred to as Agas, a small mosquito with a nasty bite. Agas also stands for Anak Gereja Allah Sayang (Child Church God Love).9) Explicit in its name is the notion that the formation of Agas was regarded as a blessing from God. Agas was vital during the collective conflict and militia members were very often in the frontline during the attacks. Ronald Regang, an ex-Agas militia member who had fought since he was 10 years old, related at the Unicef Asia-Pacific meeting held in Yogyakarta, his brutal experiences of killing people (Muslims) and destroying their places of worship (mosques) and houses. When asked by a Unicef staff member why he committed violence and murdered Muslims, Regang replied, “Because that was a holy war, and I had already submitted myself to Jesus of the Christ.”10)

Boy warriors were an integral part of the Christian military force in Ambon. The Agas formed disciplined fighting units that were headed by adults and they were given specific assignments in battle. Herry Penturi, a 16-year-old Christian, was known as a small commander in the Agas due to his regular involvement in the fighting. Herry and his family were affiliated with the Bethabara Church community in Ambon. Although he was only 16, Herry was clever enough to make and detonate bombs. He claimed that his participation in the battle was to save the Christian community. His mother, Maria Penturi, always allowed him to leave for the battlefield because she believed that God had a plan for him. She explained, “If I do not permit him to go to the battlefield, then I am opposing God’s plan.” It is obvious that for Maria Penturi, God had given permission to commit acts of violence against Muslims.

In his study on Ambon’s child militias (pasukan cilik), both Christians and Muslims, Rizard Jemmy Talakua (2008) argues that religion was the strongest reason and motive for their involvement in the warfare. An ex-Agas member from Kudamati said, “Since the first days of the communal riots, my friends and I were involved in the combat zone to defend Christian communities, help Christian brethren, in the name of Jesus” (ibid., 37). Agas members, aged between 8 and 16 years old, mostly came from the crowded troubled areas of Kudamati, Batugantung, and Benteng. Talakua discussed not only Christian child soldiers but also Muslim child militias group called Linggis (“crowbar”). Interestingly, their engagement in the battlefield was also driven by “religious passion.” An ex-Linggis member from Air Kuning in Ambon town said, “We [Muslim child militias] were involved in the violence because of ukhuwah Islamiah [Muslim brotherhood], to aid and protect Muslim communities from Christian infidel attackers. We were not afraid of death since we defended God’s religion” (ibid., 37–38).

In addition to Agas, there were two famous Christian fighter groups linked to the Moluccan Protestant Church, based in Kudamati in the uplands of Ambon city. These were (1) the Kudaputih (“white horse”) under the leadership of Agus Wattimena, a member of the Rehoboth Church, who was depicted by The Economist (2001) as “a latter-day Jesus with his wiry frame and long flowing locks” and (2) the Coker, under the direction of Berty Loupatty (a member of the Emanuel Church at OSM in Ambon town). Agus Wattimena was a renowned Ambonese war commander who claimed to be the leader of approximately 20,000 Christian fighters across the Moluccas. Although the numbers could be exaggerated, he nevertheless played a primary role during the war. In an interview with The Age, Agus Wattimena stated, “Ambonese are traditionally strong fighters. If we are attacked, and the enemy is not strong, we counterattack. This is a real war. We have to protect ourselves” (cited in Murdoch 2000, 1). After the death of Agus Wattimena on March 22, 2001, the Kudaputih came under the headship of Emang Nikijuluw, Femmy Souissa, and Melkianus Tuhumury, in addition to Hendrik Wattimena, the son of Agus Wattimena.

The Coker originally stood for cowok keren (the handsome boys), a name given by its leader Berty Loupatty, a leader among Jakarta-based Ambonese street hoodlums. This group existed even before the communal conflict erupted. At first, the group consisted of dozens of unemployed youths, but they were soon joined by many Ambonese Christian young men. Coker members stood out during the conflict due to their fighting capacity and their bravery in the face of Muslim fighters. An Ambonese Protestant priest described the Coker as “a group of Christian fighters who were willing to die (pasukan berani mati) in the battlefield against Muslim jihadists and rioters, and were always in the forefront in each act of violence.”11) The Coker gained fame as the vanguard of Christian communities and territories. Headquartered in Kudamati, members of the Coker fought in many areas in Ambon and surrounding areas where Christian-Muslim communal violence took place. My Christian informants told me that whenever and wherever Christians needed help to fend off attacks from Muslim jihadists, the Coker would send its fighters. For this reason, Ambonese Muslims called the Coker cowok Kristen (the Christian boys) and not cowok keren (the handsome ones).

It is imperative to note that the Kudamati Christian militia groups were also supported by local churches (such as Gereja Sinar, Gereja Paulus, Gereja Rehoboth, Gereja Christy, and Gereja Natalia), jemaat (the smallest unit of Protestant group), and klasis, the Protestant congregation of Ambon city. Protestant ministers who were in charge at Kudamati during the conflict included Rev. Simon Maskikit, Rev. O. J. Tetelepta, Rev. N. Pattinaja, and Rev. N. Latuihamallo. During the period of conflict, their jobs included first, leading ritual ceremonies for the Christian militias before they left for the combat zone and second, delivering religious sermons and motivating the militias by quoting verses from the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, that justified their actions. Verses from the Old Testament about David’s struggle against Goliath were applied, in particular, to provide a theological explanation of the war. Christian militias associated themselves with David as a symbol of truth and goodness, while Muslims were portrayed as Goliath, symbolizing wickedness and immorality.

The third role of the Protestant ministers during the conflict was blessing the weapons to be used in the wars. These included tombak (spear), parang (blade), panah (arrow), senapan (guns), senjata rakitan (homemade guns), peluru (bullets), granat (grenades), and bom ikan (dynamite). The ammunition was placed in a particular spot or altar in a church, and the ministers would anoint it by using blessed water. After anointing the weapons, the church ministers, wearing clerical suites, prayed to God and asked Him to protect “His sons” in the battlefield and give them triumph over “God’s enemies,” that is, Muslim jihadists. After the ritual ceremonies were over, the Christian warriors then took the weapons and left for the combat zone.

Besides these groups, each Christian village across Moluccan Islands also had the Laskar Kristus (“Army of Christ”) or Laskar Kristen (Christian militias), which were responsible for protecting their regions and attacking Muslim rioters.12) The Laskar Kristus, which was primarily if not entirely Protestant, was mainly coordinated by local churches and the klasis (the Protestant Church unit at the district level). Officially and institutionally, sinode (a Protestant congregation at the provincial level named the Protestant Moluccan Church Synod or the GPM Synod for short) did not give a direct command to Christian communities to take part in the warfare, but the Synod did not prohibit Ambonese Christians from engaging in the wars either. The Synod was unable to ban Christian fighters since many pastors, ministries, and church officials were also involved in the fighting.13)

The Laskar Kristus or Laskar Kristen existed before the arrival of the Laskar Jihad in May 2000. University of Indonesia sociologist Thamrin Amal Tomagola, a native of North Maluku, even argued that the Laskar Kristus existed before the January 19, 1999 incident. But the group gained its fame after the arrival of Java-based Islamist paramilitary groups. The village-based Christian fighter groups were also called akar rumput (the grassroots). It is unclear who named the Christian militias Laskar Kristus, but it indicates that the Maluku conflict was seen as a holy war. The above Christian fighter groups were formed at the beginning of the conflict and gained momentum with the destruction of Ambon’s old Silo church by Muslims.

On November 22, 2001, a Jakarta-based national newspaper Tabloid Adil reported on the Laskar Kristus from the Ambon-based Petra Church. After witnessing a series of bloody religious communal conflicts in Ambon, the Petra Church organized the Maluku Prayer Movement (Gerakan Maluku Berdoa or GMB) as part of the Church community’s response to guarantee the safety of people in Maluku. On Friday, November 9, 2001, religious services of GMB included the baptizing of a Laskar Kristus member. The minister delivered a sermon entitled “To Become a Model of Faith, You Should Be Loyal Unto Death” (Menjadi Pahlawan Iman, Hendaklah Engkau Setia Sampai Mati). One of the self-acknowledged members of the Laskar Kristus warriors was 15-year-old Roy Pontoh (see Sukidi 2003). When he died in the village of Hila in Leihitu Peninsula, Ambon Island on January 20, 1999, just a day after the initial outbreak in Ambon City, his last statement was “I am Laskar Kristus.” It is believed that Pontoh’s death made him a martyr of Christ. On August 13, 2000, clergyman Timotius Arifin delivered a similar story at the church’s founding anniversary, recounting how a martyr of Christ in Ambon also proclaimed: “Beta Laskar Kristus (I am Laskar Kristus)!”

However, it should be noted that, unlike the Laskar Jihad, the Laskar Kristus did not receive special training. In the words of Ongky Siahaya, a grassroots field commander in the region of Talake, near UKIM (Universitas Kristen Indonesia Maluku, the Protestant Church’s main university in Ambon city), “we prayed first and then there were only two options—kill or to be killed.”14) Whereas Muslims had access to modern guns from Pindad (Perusahaan Industri Angkatan Darat, the army’s industrial arm), as well as support from Java-based holy war militias, particularly the Laskar Jihad, and some elements in TNI (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, the Indonesian military forces) (Schulze 2002, 63), the Christian militias mainly used traditional arms such as knives, machetes, poisoned arrows, homemade guns, and a few automatic weapons, either acquired from deserted police stations or smuggled in from Kupang, Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT). Some Ambonese Christians were experts in the making of guns. They included Thom Pelmelay, who was widely known as the “professor” due to his expertise in making bombs. The bombs were then distributed to Christian fighters across Ambon and Maluku. In general, however, Ambonese Christians were painfully aware that they were technologically disadvantaged, with limited finances and difficulties in obtaining arms and ammunition. As a result, many Christian fighters were killed during the wars of 1999–2002.

Christian fighters did not receive financial support from the GPM Synod to purchase guns and ammunitions. As a result, Christian individuals voluntarily conducted fundraisings through Christian networks and communal ties, not only throughout Ambon and Maluku but also in Java. Some funds were collected through family ties of Ambonese Christians who had settled in the Netherlands since the time of KNIL (Royal Netherlands East Indies Army) in the 1950s, while other funds were distributed through FKKM (Forum Komunikasi Kristen Maluku, Forum for Communications of Moluccan Christians), chaired by Jan Nanere, the former rector of Pattimura University, and Yunus Tipka, a member of the regional parliament from PDKB (Partai Demokrasi Kasih Bangsa, a Protestant-affiliated political party) and his secretary.15) The grassroots (the Laskar Kristus) agenda, some ex-Christian fighters have claimed, was defending Christian faith, territories, and communities, and was never a voice for separatism as Muslims or the central government widely assumed.

Since Ambonese Christian warriors saw the Maluku conflict as a sacred war, performing religious songs was a feature of the battleground. On January 20, 1999, a large group of Christian warriors left the Rehoboth Church in Ambon City, repeatedly singing the following:

We don’t want to go back (three times)
We had won with the Blood of Christ
We had won with His blood.

Furthermore, the Christian fighters—both the ordinary flock and church elites—moved forward while the church choir solemnly sang “Maju Laskar Kristus” (Onward Christian Soldiers) to the accompaniment of trumpets. The song was taken from the Dua Sahabat Lama No. 339, a book, written in Ambonese-Malay language, containing a collection of religious songs authored by C. Ch. J. Schreuder and I. J. M. Tupamahu. This book was translated into Bahasa Indonesia and had spread throughout Ambon and surrounding islands. Ambonese Christians, particularly the warriors, used this song as a march of war. During the conflict, the song was used to galvanize troops. A Christian woman in Waai in Ambon Island told me, “When we were attacked or engaged in the war, we, along with other Christian women, sang that song [Onward, Christian Soldier] while beating dustpans to awaken enthusiasm for fighting. By singing this song, we felt we were getting a ‘new spirit’ and courage in the face of enemies [Muslim jihadists]” (Patty 2006, 33).

Early one morning at around 4:30 a.m. in December 2000, a group of about 40 Christian young men from the neighborhood of Batumeja Dalam in Ambon city walked down Pattimura Street in town, brandishing long knives (parang) and spears, and singing the Indonesian version of Onward, Christian Soldiers. In front of them walked a young female, a then unemployed Protestant minister in the official black vestment, carrying a “Moses’ stick” that “she had found in the woods.” She claimed to have been inspired by a dream that she had. The procession walked up to the A. J. Patty Street, just inside the Muslim quarters, then marched down Ambon’s business center toward the Al-Fatah Mosque. The military had no choice but to shoot at them (Bohm 2005, 113). In addition to the song Onward, Christian Soldiers, slogans such as “I Love Jesus” (Beta Cinta Yesus) or “Jesus is Victorious” (Yesus Raya) were also used by the Christian warriors to boost the war mentality.

Protestant priests and church ministries played a central role during the communal conflict. They served not only as a channel to distribute information about the development of the violence received from other Christian centers to the local Christian communities and fighters, but also led ritual ceremonies before the fighters went to the combat zone, blessed combatants, and conducted Sunday sermons to motivate the Laskar Kristus and Christians attending the church. Sermons (khotbah Minggu) delivered often revolved around the theme of Israel’s struggle to occupy the Land of Canaan in the times of King David and Solomon, as stated in the Old Testament. Ambonese Christians depicted themselves as part of the tribes of Israel and portrayed the Land of Ambon as the Land of Canaan, whereas Muslims were represented as Goliath conquering and taking over Ambon, which they saw as belonging to their ancestors.

Verses in the Bible about the Israelites who entered the Land of Canaan and were ordered by God to drive out the Amalek (later known as the “Theology of Amalek”) were used by some pastors and church leaders to justify the wars against the Muslims (e.g. Joshua 1, 1–10). This “religious duty” is set forth in the verse, “The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17, 16). Thus, if any people seek to destroy us, declared some Christian leaders, we are commanded to do battle against them, and this battle of ours, on the basis of that verse, is an obligatory war. For Christian fighters, in the context of Maluku, the Muslims were considered as the destroyers of their land. Amalek, a descendent of Esau, was not only the ancestor of those who attacked Israel in the wilderness but also, by rabbinic reckoning based on I Samuel 15: 8 and Esther 3: I, the ancestor of Hamman in the Esther story. In Rabbinic literature, Amalek thus becomes a cipher for evil in the world, the arch enemy of Israel and, by implication, of God. Some Christian informants told me that certain priests justified going to war by citing the following verse from the Old Testament: “We are obliged to defend and preserve the life which God has given to us, and if there are people who want to destroy the life, we need to guard it, even through the wars.”

Over the course of the conflict, local pastors, church ministries, and officials were responsible for choosing certain Biblical verses and religious texts for the Sunday sermons and other religious services, based on the socio-political context and adapting to developments. Generally pastors and church ministries selected popular Biblical verses in the Old Testament revolving around violence and the struggle of the Israelites against their enemies, from the Books of Genesis, Deuteronomy, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Samuel (I, II), Kings (I, II), and Psalm. During the conflict, ordinary Protestants also recited these verses. Whenever they went to other places or to the battleground, they carried a small Bible in their pocket for self-protection, making it easier to recite selected verses and stoke the spirit of war (see Patty 2006).

Common verses in the Bible which the Christian fighters “ritualized” during the war included (1) tales of the Jews freed from the Egyptian nation (Exodus 1–19); (2) stories of war between the Jewish tribes and other peoples, and stories related to the rules of war (e.g. Deuteronomy 3, 7–9, 11, and 20); (3) accounts of how the Israelites fought with other peoples before entering the Land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua (Joshua 1: 1–11); (4) Jewish narratives of fighting against the people of Moab, Amori, Midian, Edom, Amon, and Amalek under the headship of Israeli Judges (Judges 1–15); and (5) accounts of Israeli tribes against the nation of the Philistines under the command of Israeli kings, especially Saul and David (e.g. I Sam 7; 17, 40–54; I Kings 18, 20–46).

Regardless which verses were cited by the pastors and church elites (majelis jemaat), one thing is clear: they used the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, to seek a theological foundation or to legitimize acts of violence or, in their terms, wars of “self-defense.” Many Ambonese Christians, as Rev. I. J. W. Hendriks has remarked, associated themselves with the suffering Israelites (the Bangsa Israel Alkitab); consequently they needed to fight against Muslims to gain victory and freedom from suffering. What is more, Ambonese Christians imagined themselves as the Israelites, so if the Israelites had fought against the people of the Philistines, Amalek, Egypt, and so forth, Ambonese Christians had to battle against Muslims whom they saw, at the time, as a representation of the foes of the Israeli people. Ambonese Christians believed that God would be on their side during these difficult times and would let them triumph as He had led the Israelis to victory.

In addition, they were convinced that God would protect them from the Muslim enemies as He had helped and protected the Israelis (e.g. Deuteronomy 20, 1–4; Psalm 3, 11, 23, 27). In other words, God was portrayed as the hero, helper, and guardian of the Ambonese Christians. Ambonese Christians claimed, furthermore, that they were part of the umat perjanjian (“the covenant people”), that is, present-day Israeli tribes, the chosen people and God’s heroes, and that the Land of Maluku was the Land of Canaan granted by God to their forerunners—the Alifuruese. Just as God had made a covenant with the Israelis, the same God had “made a contract” with the Ambonese since they became the followers of Jesus and received the Gospel. Since the Ambonese Christians believed that the Ambon war was a sacred duty granted by God, throughout the conflict, they—especially the Christian fighters—purified themselves by actively conducting ritual practices, religious sermons and services, reading the Bible, following the rules of war, and avoiding wrongdoings as instructed by the Holy Book (e.g. Deuteronomy 20, 1–20).

According to the Christian fighters, as confirmed by my survey findings, the rules of war they practiced during the conflict included: a ban on initiating attack, plundering, mocking or ridiculing the other, torturing the enemy, and so on. In addition, the Christian fighters were prohibited from conflict with their wives or parents before going to battle, from mentioning the name of Jesus in improper places, from insulting other religions, and from transgressing the Ten Commandments of the Torah. All these were considered “taboos of war” that would contaminate the mission of holy war against the Muslims.

Why did Ambonese Christians use the Old Testament and not the New Testament as Biblical justification? Why did they prefer David to Jesus in the time of conflict? The answer is because the New Testament, my Christian Ambonese informants said, teaches peace not violence, love not hate, and brotherhood not conflict, while the Old Testament contains heroic stories of warfare. Whereas Jesus taught his followers and pupils to “love their enemies,” David went to the battlefield against Goliath. An ex-Ambonese Christian fighter told me that during the time of conflict, the verses he recited every Sunday were those of the Old Testament, particularly the gloomy and heroic stories of the Israeli people and kings of the Israelites (Saul, David, and Solomon), which were regarded as fitting for the Ambon socio-political setting.

Concluding Remarks: Bringing Religion Back In

The analysis above suggests that religion did matter during the Maluku conflict. Christian leaders and the masses (and their Muslim counterparts) who were involved in the fighting used religion as a source and legitimation of violence, and they considered the war as a sacred one, rewarded by a place in paradise for those who joined the battle. While Muslims considered death on the battlefield as mati syahid (martyrdom) and an honorable act, Christians believed that death in war is a symbol of sinfulness and dishonor on the part of the deceased. They were convinced that Christian fighters who died in the combat zone were killed mainly because they had committed bad deeds or had transgressed the rules of (holy) war such as the ban on theft, mocking, or adultery, which they considered to be taboos. For Ambonese Christians, salvation is equal to living. Survivors of the battlefield were deemed as not having committed any wrongdoings nor transgression of any taboos.

Moreover, in the concept of Charismatic Christian theology, the war was perceived as a process of selection for Christians, a sort of “survival of the fittest.” Those who survived the war were regarded as the “chosen people,” while death was a natural consequence for those who had engaged in unlawful activity during wartime. This conception differs significantly from the Moluccan Muslims, who consider both death and survival as part of the holy jihad, as long as they followed the “Islamic rules of war.”

It is interesting to note that during the war, some Christian Charismatic groups in Ambon city built a minaret of prayer (menara doa) on the highest floors of hotels or other buildings, on the assumption that prayers from the highest spot would be heard and answered by God. The founding of the minaret of prayer was in part a reaction to Muslim attacks. They attributed their defeat to (1) the lack of prayer on the part of Christians, and (2) their Christianity being not pristine enough such that they needed purification. In order to be victorious over Muslims, Ambonese Christians should become “true Christians” by practicing norms and values taught by the Bible. This is, among other reasons, the root causes of the growth of Charismatic Christianity in Maluku, which came to challenge the mainstream Moluccan Protestant Church congregation.

Although I do not agree entirely with statements put forth by one of the Christian militia commanders Agus Watimena (as well as by the main ideologue of Laskar Jihad Rustam Kastor), purporting that the Maluku violence was a “truly religious war” (Rustam 2000; ICG 2000a; 2000b), neither should we dismiss the religious justifications of violence by those involved in the conflict as evidence of “false consciousness” or “public falsehood” (Goss 2004). In brief, violence in God’s name is not simply a spurious cover for grievance or greed (see e.g. McTernan 2003).

Religion plays an important role in communal conflict because, as Scott Appleby (2000, 4; cf. Gaylin 2003) has noted, “its confessional loyalty translates into clearly defined and durable community and its model of faith counters rational calculation and enlightened self-interest, cultivates a righteous sense of persecution, and provokes passion against evil that fuels the excesses of group hatred.” Although religions are indeed manufactured or invented within particular historical and political contexts, Appleby (2000, 57–61) has argued, “[religions] are represented as fundamental truths, providing some security in times of uncertainty, and countering the challenges of relativism and secularism of late modernity.”

This is precisely what religious radical groups (both Christian and Muslim) had presented in Maluku. Moluccan and Ambonese societies have for centuries been defined in terms of religious adherence (see, for instance, Aritonang and Steenbrink 2008; Chauvel 1980; 1990). Even in urban Ambon, the geographical and social inter-mixing of populations is limited such that the religious “other” is easily discriminated against. The historical origins and experiences of religious communities are distinct, and a contemporary and current conflict could be presented as continuous with an older conflict, as well as with a modern struggle on a global scale (see Goss 2004).

World religions, particularly Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), as well as other faiths, also possess a stock of material metaphors and military imagery, and promise reward for violent sacrifice. The concept of some transcendent authority—the will of God—translates into the absolute authority of church officials and religious myths of election (e.g. the concept of the “chosen and blessed people” for the Christians or the “best religious community of believers” for the Muslims). This provides a powerful alternative to the delusional formation of paranoia, transforming victimhood into vengeful action (Gaylin 2003, 115; Smith 1999). This is among the reasons why doers of violence, the “religious extremists,” rarely or never regret their violent acts.

Religion has the potential to translate secular differences between an “us and them,” the known and the unfamiliar, to the cosmic plane and thus into a moral struggle between amorphous forces of order versus chaos, good versus evil, for which the ultimate sacrifice—murder or martyrdom—is possible (Juergensmeyer 1992, 114; cf. 2003). If public statements by top leaders of Christian communities were more tolerant on the whole, the churches distributed exaggerated images of their victimization, as evidenced in their sophisticated web presence through sites such as Ambon Berdarah Online (Bloody Ambon Online), Masariku Networks, and Crisis Center of the Diocese of Ambon (Brauchler 2003). Lay leaders, moreover, promoted increasingly fundamentalist radical interpretations of the conflict, especially after the arrival of the Laskar Jihad and an increase in Christian losses.

Furthermore, religion did matter during the Maluku conflict since it provided a more powerful and effective force for mobilization than other forms of collective identity. This is because religion is “not only strongly linked to a sense of self, but also provides a far-reaching and uplifting ideology, powerful institutional structures and an enduring and clear-cut definition of an ‘other’” (Wilson 2008, 148). Militias that take part in religious violence, unsurprisingly, often emerge to be driven by religious zeal. As described above, the mobilization of the militias in Maluku’s sectarian conflict was full of religious symbolism. Religious institutions became a main conduit for mobilizing people to commit violence in the name of faith and God. These institutions, moreover, exercised vast emotional influence over adherents of Christianity (also Islam), and provided social meeting places, communication networks, and pools of resources.

Last but not least, religion provides the concept of a “sacred territory” and a set of ready material and symbolic targets whose desacralization provokes intense feelings. Accordingly, during the Maluku turmoil, mosques and churches were desecrated and destroyed, sacred texts and beliefs were ridiculed, prophets were slandered, and other symbols of faiths violated. For instance, the Laskar Kristus gained significant momentum after the destruction of the old Silo church in 1999, while Muslim villagers from Leihitu Peninsula turned on their Christian neighbors early in the conflict in Ambon, in retaliation for rumors of the violation of the great Al-Fatah mosque. To conclude, while religion was never an autonomous cause of conflict, ignoring its role completely would preclude a proper understanding of much of the violence in Ambon city and Maluku more generally.

Accepted: January 8, 2015


I would like to thank anonymous reviewers and the editorial board of this journal for their valuable comments on the previous draft. As always, my thanks also go to my mentors and teachers, particularly Robert W. Hefner and Augustus Richard Norton at Boston University, and Scott Appleby at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, United States. Thanks are also due to the National Science Foundation (United States) and Boston University’s Graduate Research Abroad Fellowship for providing research grants that enabled me to conduct fieldwork in Maluku from 2010 to 2011. My gratitude also goes to the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, which provided generous research fellowships (2012–14) that enabled me to write this manuscript, and to the Department of General Studies at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, which enabled me to complete this article. Lastly, I want to express my deepest thanks to my Ambonese and Moluccan Christian friends, acquaintances, and informants, especially Rev. Elifas Tomix Maspaitella and Rev. Jacky Manuputty, who were willing to share their stories, thoughts, joys, and feelings with me during my research and fieldwork in Maluku. Any remaining faults are of course mine.


Adam, Jeroen. 2010. How Ordinary Folk Became Involved in the Ambonese Conflict: Understanding Private Opportunities during Communal Violence. Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde [Journal of the humanities and social sciences of Southeast Asia] 166(1): 25–48.

―. 2009. Communal Violence, Forced Migration and Social Change on the Island of Ambon, Indonesia. PhD thesis, Faculty of Political and Social Sciences, Ghent University.

Aditjondro, George J. 2001. Orang-Orang Jakarta Di Balik Tragedi Maluku [The elites of Jakarta who were behind the Maluku tragedy]. Unpublished document.

Appleby, Scott. 2000. The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation. Lanham, MD: Roman and Littlefield Publishers.

Aritonang, Jan Sihar; and Steenbrink, Karel, eds. 2008. A History of Christianity in Indonesia. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

Bertrand, Jacques. 2004. Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in Indonesia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

―. 2002. Legacies of the Authoritarian Past: Religious Violence in Indonesia’s Moluccan Islands. Pacific Affairs 75(1): 57–85.

Bohm, C. J. 2005. Brief Chronicle of the Unrest in the Moluccas, 1999–2005. Ambon: Crisis Centre Diocese of Amboina.

Brauchler, Birgit. 2003. Cyberidentities at War: Religion, Identity, and the Internet in the Moluccan Conflict. Indonesia 75: 123–151.

Chauvel, Richard. 1990. Nationalists, Soldiers, and Separatists: The Ambonese Islands from Colonialism to Revolt, 1880–1950. Leiden: KITLV Press.

―. 1980. Ambon’s Other Half: Some Preliminary Observations on Ambonese Moslem Society and History. Review of Indonesian and Malay Affairs 14(1): 40–80.

Colombijn, Freek; and Lindblad, J. Thomas, eds. 2002. Roots of Violence in Indonesia: Contemporary Violence in Historical Perspective. Leiden: KITLV Press.

Duncan, Christopher. 2013. Violence and Vengeance: Religious Conflict and Its Aftermath in Eastern Indonesia. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Eickelman, Dale; and Piscatori, James. 1996. Muslim Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Farsijana Adeney-Risakotta. 2005. Politics, Ritual and Identity in Indonesia: A Moluccan History of Religion and Social Conflict. PhD thesis, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

Gaylin, Willard. 2003. Hatred: The Psychological Descent into Violence. New York: Public Affairs.

Goss, Jon D. 2004. Understanding of the ‘Maluku Wars’: Overview of Sources of Communal Conflict and Prospects for Peace. Cakalele: Maluku Research Journal 11: 7–39.

Hefner, Robert W. 2005. Muslim Democrats and Islamist Violence in Post-Suharto Indonesia. In Remaking Muslim Politics: Pluralism, Contestation, Democratization, edited by Robert W. Hefner, pp. 273–301. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

International Crisis Group (ICG). 2002. Indonesia: The Search for Peace in Maluku. Asia Report, No. 31, February 8.

―. 2001. Indonesia: Violence and Radical Muslims. Asia Briefing, No. 10, October 10.

―. 2000a. Indonesia: Overcoming Murder and Chaos in Maluku. Asia Report, No. 10, December 19.

―. 2000b. Indonesia’s Maluku Crisis. Asia Briefing, No. 2, July 19.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. 2003. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

―. 1992. Sacrifice and Cosmic War. Violence and the Sacred in the Modern World, edited by Mark Juergensmeyer, pp. 101–117. London: Frank Cass.

Lincoln, Bruce. 2006. Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

McRae, Dave. 2013. A Few Poorly Organized Men: Interreligious Violence in Poso, Indonesia. Leiden: Brill.

McTernan, Oliver. 2003. Violence in God’s Name: Religion in an Age of Conflict. Maryknoll: Orbis Book.

Muhammad Najib Azca. 2011. After Jihad: A Biographical Approach to Passionate Politics in Indonesia. PhD thesis, Universiteit van Amsterdam.

Murdoch, Lindsay. 2000. Revenge Fuels Cycle of Religious Violence. The Age, January 7, p. 1, accessed January 17, 2015,

Noorhaidi Hasan. 2006. Laskar Jihad: Islam, Militancy, and the Quest of Identity in Post-New Order Indonesia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications.

Pariela, Tonny D. 2008. Damai Di Tengah Konflik Maluku: Preserved Social Capital sebagai Basis Survival Strategy. PhD thesis, Program Pascasarjana Studi Pembangunan, Universitas Kristen Satya Wacana.

Patty, Febby Nancy. 2006. Membaca Kitab Suci dari Perspektif Rekonsiliasi: Proses Hermeneutik yang Mengacu dari Pengalaman Pembaca yakni Konflik dan Penderitaan di Maluku [Reading the holy scripture through reconciliation perspective: A hermeneutical process referring to readers (people) experiencing conflict and grief in Maluku]. MA thesis, Universitas Kristen Duta Wacana.

Pieris, John. 2004. Tragedi Maluku: Sebuah Krisis Peradaban [The Maluku tragedy: A crisis of civilization]. Jakarta: Yayasan Obor.

Rustam Kastor. 2000. Fakta, Data dan Analisa Konspirasi Politik RMS dan Kristen Menghancurkan Umat Islam di Ambon-Maluku [Facts, data, and analyses of political conspiracy between the South Moluccan Republic and Christians to destroy Muslim community in Ambon, Maluku]. Yogyakarta: Wihdah Press.

Schulze, Kirsten E. 2002. Laskar Jihad and the Conflict in Ambon. The Brown Journal of World Affairs 9(1): 57–69.

Sidel, John T. 2006. Riots, Pogroms, Jihad: Religious Violence in Indonesia. Cornell: Cornell University Press.

Smith, Anthony D. 1999. Ethnic Election and National Destiny: Some Religious Origins of Nationalist Ideals. Nations and Nationalism 5: 331–355.

Spyer, Patricia. 2002. Fire without Smoke and Other Phantoms of Ambon’s Violence: Media Effects, Agency, and the Work of Imagination. Indonesia 74: 21–36.

Sukidi Mulyadi. 2003. Violence under the Banner of Religion: The Case of Laskar Jihad and Laskar Kristus. Studia Islamica 10(2): 75–109.

Sumanto Al Qurtuby. 2015. Ambonese Muslim Jihadists, Islamic Identity, and the History of Christian-Muslim Rivalry in the Moluccas, Eastern Indonesia. International Journal of Asian Studies 12(1): 1–29.

―. 2014. Religious Women for Peace and Reconciliation in Contemporary Indonesia. International Journal on World Peace 31(1): 27–58.

―. 2013. Peacebuilding in Indonesia: Christian-Muslim Alliance in Ambon Island. Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 24(3): 349–367.

―. 2012. Interreligious Violence, Civic Peace, and Citizenship: Christians and Muslims in Maluku, Eastern Indonesia. PhD thesis, Department of Anthropology, Boston University.

Talakua, Rizard Jemmy. 2008. Fenomena Keterlibatan Anak-Anak sebagai ‘Pasukan Cilik’ dalam Konflik Kekerasan di Ambon [The phenomena of “child soldiers” during the violent conflict in Ambon]. MA thesis, Sekolah Pascasarjana Universitas Gadjah Mada.

The Economist. 2001. Holy War in the Spice Islands, March 15, 2001, accessed January 17, 2015,

Tomagola, Thamrin Amal. 2000. The Bleeding Halmahera of North Moluccas. In Political Violence: Indonesia and India in Comparative Perspective, edited by Olle Tornquist, pp. 21–29. SUM Report, No. 9. Oslo: University of Oslo Center for Development and the Environment.

Turner, Kathleen Therese. 2006. Competing Myths of Nationalist Identity: Ideological Perceptions of Conflict in Ambon, Indonesia. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

van Klinken, Gerry. 2007. Communal Violence and Democratization in Indonesia: Small Town Wars. London and New York: Routledge.

―. 2001. The Maluku Wars: Bringing Society Back In. Indonesia 71: 1–26.

Varshney, Ashutosh. 2002. Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Wilson, Chris. 2008. Ethno-Religious Violence in Indonesia: From Soil to God. London: Routledge.

1) Examples of Christian-Muslim tensions during and after the fall of the New Order are: (1) the destruction of churches on October 10, 1996, in Situbondo, East Java; (2) the fight between Protestants and Muslims in Ketapang, Central Jakarta on November 22, 1998, resulting in 14 persons killed and 27 Christian buildings damaged; and (3) anti-Muslim riots that destroyed at least 15 mosques in mostly Christian Kupang in East Indonesia on November 30, 1998 (see, e.g., Sidel 2006).

2) Compare their studies to Colombijn and Lindblad (2002). Although the contributors of this volume do not speak in one voice, they offer a more nuanced perspective on the violent conflicts, pointing out that the “cultures of violence” in Indonesia reach far back into the country’s socio-political history.

3) This focus certainly differs from studies of the Maluku conflict, which stress the central role of Jakarta-based civilian and military elites, Suharto’s cronies, “foreign provocateurs,” or Java-based Laskar Jihad and other paramilitary groups, with a few notable exceptions such as the fine studies of Gerry van Klinken (2001; 2007) or those of Jeroen Adam (2009; 2010).

4) It is interesting to note that despite the fact that local actors, masses, and unions have participated actively in the post-Suharto collective conflicts, including the Maluku warfare, their role has been largely neglected in analyses and studies on the communal violence.

5) Interview with Rev. John Sahalessy, Ambon, August 14, 2010.

6) Interview with ML in Ambon, September 2, 2010. Since there was a plurality of actors and motives during the conflict, it is hard to arrive at a generalization whether religious identity had played a central role in the conflict or did it only provide the symbolism and ideological conviction for those involved in the campaign to achieve more worldly goals. It is vital to recognize that just as there were some who were motivated by “worldly orientations” in their involvement in the conflict (cf. Adam 2009; 2010), there were also others who were driven by “religious passion” and “unworldly goals” in their engagement.

7) Interview with PM, Ambon, August 10, 2010.

8) Online chats with Rev. Jacky Manuputty, September 1, 2010.

9) Muslims also used young fighters or child militias known as linggis (“crowbar”) because in every riot, these child soldiers would use a crowbar to uproot and destroy targeted buildings—houses, shops, churches, etc.—before plundering and burning them.

10) Online chats with Rev. Jacky Manuputty, September 5, 2010. Jacky later adopted Ronald Regang and transformed him into a peace-maker and a peace ambassador for Maluku in international forums.

11) Interview with AL, Ambon, April 26, 2010.

12) Information on the Laskar Kristus can be found, for instance, in the Presidential Decree (Keputusan Presiden No. 38/2002) in the section Pembentukan Tim Penyelidik Independen Nasional untuk Konflik Maluku (Establishment of the National Independent Investigation Team for the Maluku Conflict). Headed by I Wayan Karya, the team was mandated to investigate (1) the incident of January 19, 1999, (2) Republik Maluku Selatan (RMS), the South Moluccan Republic, (3) the Christian RMS, (4) Laskar Jihad, (5) Laskar Kristus, and (6) coercive religious conversion and human rights violations.

13) Online chats with Rev. Jacky Manuputty, September 1, 2010.

14) Interview with Yongky Siahaya, Ambon, June 12, 2010.

15) Founded in 2000, FKKM was part of the networks of FKKJ (Forum Komunikasi Kristen Jakarta, a Jakarta-based Christian forum) and FKKS (Forum Komunikasi Kristen Surabaya, a Surabaya-based Christian forum led by Paul Tahalele), which had existed long before the Ambon conflict. The FKKM’s goals, Yunus Tipka said, were (1) to help Christians who had become victims of the Maluku conflict by providing medical assistance or food supplies; (2) to help Christian fighters find guns and ammunitions; and (3) to link Moluccan Christians with non-Maluku Christian communities.