Borders, Mobility and New Infrastructures in an Age of Shifting Power Configurations

09.-10.01.2018, Workshop, Singapur

This workshop is focused on borders, mobility and new infrastructures in Asian contexts, but making due consideration of how these articulate with shifting archipelagic, Eurasian, oceanic and planetary power configurations. We are interested in the interaction of contemporary developments with the longue and moyen durée of capital, culture and empire.

Since the 1980s, critical scholarship on borders, geopolitics and territory have been rejuvenated through greater engagement with social and political theory that also responds to changing (bordering and other) process and practices. These include (but are not limited to) the rise of biometric borders, which shift the border from the state frontier per se to a range of databases and sites, cross-border cooperation, European integration and the evolution of regional communities elsewhere, such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), enclosure, migration and refugee flows, conflict and fortification plus renewed visions of connectivity, such as China’s Belt and Road initiative (Callahan, 2016; Sidaway and Woon, 2017).

These contradictory moves belie claims that globalization would yield a ‘borderless world’. Instead the range and number of borderlands and borderscapes have multiplied, along with scholarship about them (Sidaway, 2015). Just as the scope and scale of border studies has widened and deepened, movements of people, ideas and things, as well as the broader social implications of those movements have attracted more scholars under the umbrella of (new) mobility studies (Sheller and Urry, 2006).

Such trends have especially been legible in Singapore, where arguably:
“the raison d’être for the founding of modern Singapore in 1819 and its development through the nineteenth century was the changing global trading milieu in which the port of this tiny island – specifically the modern mega-port along the Singapore River – was to play a major role. The port of Singapore ranked as one of the busiest in the world, linking the island to the rest of the globe via a web of international maritime trade routes. While the modern state of Singapore has diversified its economic base significantly since becoming independent in 1965, the role of the port in the modern city state is still emblematic of Singapore’s place in global history.” (Aljunied and Heng, 2011, 19)

These Singapore-story and global narratives however may overwrite others emanating from anticolonial struggles (Ho, 2004) or decontextualize subaltern connections and complexity that merit careful attention (Amrith, 2013; Sivasundaram, 2017; Tagliacozzo, 2005, 2014).

In attending to these, our conception of the meaning of borders and mobility is not restricted to geopolitical borders, but refers to an array of social, economic, and cultural spaces. Infrastructures equally include non-physical networks (social, commercial and cultural). Some key themes that we wish to address include:

  • Shifting geo-strategic mobility regimes on land, at sea and in the air
  • The politics of bordering and changing methods of circulatory government
  • New infrastructures, technologies and apparatuses of control

We are therefore interested in maritime, terrestrial and aerial routes and the ways that they serve as, in the terms of a classic account of The Political Uses of Access in the Borderlands of Asia, “both a geographical and political idea, both an end and a means” (Ispahani, 1989, 1) .

In particular, though certainly not exclusively, we are attentive to the consequences, visualization and reception of China’s Belt and Road initiative in Asia and beyond, including attendant reconfigurations in conceptions of Eurasian, Asia-Pacific, Euro-Atlantic and Indian Ocean spaces. In addition to other grounded accounts of borders, mobility and infrastructures in Asian contexts, we therefore invite delegates to develop historically informed and contextual accounts of Belt and Road, its connection with a range of commercial, cultural, state and development discourses especially (though not only) beyond China, including resistances and alternatives to it and disjunctures that accompany these.  

The workshop will also inaugurate the Max Weber Stiftung (MWS) research group (within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at NUS) on: “Borders, Mobility and New Transnational Infrastructures.” For details of the group, see here.


A/P Douglass Kammen, Department of Southeast Asian Studies, NUS
Dr Weiqiang Lin, Department of Geography, NUS
A/P Vatthana Pholsena, Department of Southeast Asian Studies, NUS
Prof James D Sidaway, Department of Geography, NUS
Dr Chih Yuan Woon, Department of Geography, NUS