T.C. Chang

on being an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ within a space


A Geographer at the National University of Singapore, Professor Chang has done extensive fieldwork at the historic site of Little India and examined how different perspectives of a space between the insider and the outsider leads to contestations.

Who is an insider or an outsider of a space?

Some people in a landscape consider themselves insiders, as they consider the land as belonging to them. One would say anybody who is Indian in Little India is an insider but that idea is contested by a lot of people. There are lots of non-Indians who own land in Little India – they might say, “I bought a house, it’s in my family’s name, I’m not Indian but I’m still an insider”. They might also think: “You may be an Indian, or a South Asian worker, but you’re not Singaporean, so although ethnically you may feel like you’re an insider, you’re an outsider as far as nationality and land ownership is concerned”.

Any landscape can immediately be a contested site because people have very different conceptions of who is an insider and who is an outsider.

How does this affect the planning of a space?

As planners, they might say, we know how the landscape should be planned, we are the insiders because we are professionals, architects, urban planners and so on. But the users of the landscapes will say that planners plan from a distance, they plan from the “comfort of their office, they should come to the ground to know the day in day out activities”. The users consider themselves the true insiders.

Planners might say you cannot spill your goods and products beyond a particular area. Many vendors have these yellow boxes where they must put their things within. I talked to some shopkeepers, they said that in India, there is no such thing as putting things in a neat pile, and part of the fun in shopping is things spilling all over, so they don’t care about your yellow boxes. These people contest the demarcation and it is these users who say “We are on the ground and we know how space should be used.”.

How should planners accommodate these users?

The planners should realise how they apply their policies must cohere with the identity of the place and the people. This is not a ‘one-size fits all’ sort of thing. You know that the place, spatial identity, the people, social identity, are very different from site to site and therefore how you implement your policies should have that flexibility for some modifications. It doesn’t mean there should be zero policy — there should be something general, a framework, but it should be tweaked depending on the identity of the place.

And the identity of a place like Little India allows for the ‘messiness’ that planners here often dislike?

I think it is not just for Little India. It applies to the ethnic historic districts like Arab Street and Chinatown, where the ‘messiness’ is just part and parcel of the life and authentic colour of the landscape. The organic ‘mess’ is natural, not that people purposely throw rubbish. This sort of thing should be tolerated in these historic landscapes because, in the past, they were probably like that. Of course, since we live today in the 21st century, we have to be mindful of some new considerations such as whether a place is safe, will it be a fire hazard, there are more people walking here compared to then. You do need to observe these considerations, but other than that I am all for organic mess.