When I started this fellowship— bleary eyed, relieved, and fresh out of finals—I was both excited and nervous. I knew that I liked reading, writing, and spending copious amounts of time fixating on minute details and obscure texts. This is what I imagined and hoped research might look like. However, when I finally sat down to begin, I realized that I didn’t know where to start. Working without a curated syllabus or substantive parameters, I spent my first few weeks reading whatever interested me. I went through countless pivots and existential crises, but decided to take my own advice that I often give as a writing fellow, and simply trust and enjoy the process.
What began as a vague interest in East Asia, surveillance, housing equity, and urban policy morphed into a detailed investigation of Not in my Backyard-ism (NIMBYism) in the context of conversations around migrant dormitories in Singapore. I pored over texts discussing Singapore’s public housing policies, work permit regime, and Total Defense ideology. I struggled to decipher theories like Stephen Graham’s New Military Urbanism, Michel Foucault’s Biopolitics, and Henri Lefebvre’s Right to the City. I familiarized myself with different research methodologies, both their usages and limitations. Not all of this made it into my final paper, but they significantly influenced my thinking.
While I appreciated being given free rein, I knew that I also needed structure. With much needed support from my peers and mentor Professor Passell, I developed an effective system to document, communicate, and reflect on my findings. I quickly progressed from a Notion rookie to a Notion fanatic. I learned how take agency over my own learning, establish healthy boundaries and professional relationships, and ask for help. I am forever indebted to my group of loyal paid nerds who willingly listened to my half-baked ideas and panicked rants over homemade meals.
Halfway through the summer, I began to question the efficacy of research as a form of change-making. Or at least the way I was approaching it. Much of what I was doing felt needlessly indulgent, intellectual but impractical, and far removed from the communities I claimed to care about. While I enjoyed armchair philosophizing, the aesthetic of browsing through dimly lit archives, and indulging in highbrow humor, I desperately wanted my work to feel more grounded. I wanted to be held accountable for my ideas, to test my theories against reality, and for someone to call me out for labeling my work “exploratory” as a way to avoid being held liable for any mistakes.
I came across a podcast interview with Rob Henderson on the dangers of luxury beliefs being promoted by upper-class Americans. He argues that wealthy elites don progressive beliefs as a way of displaying their status, uncritically promoting “high status” ideologies that trickle down and wreak havoc on lower classes (Henderson). He claims that affluent Americans have been able to experiment with loosening norms around monogamy and religion at little personal cost, while those same ideas have harmed poor and working class individuals who do not have the same kinds of safety nets (Henderson). Although I have mixed feelings on his examples, I found his premise to be useful for parsing through my feelings of guilt and uncertainty. It helped me to understand the weight of beliefs and the responsibility that comes with challenging established norms and practices. It gave me a deeper appreciation for the phrase, “don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up”.
Specific to my own research, I became skeptical about the use of NIMBY language. NIMBYs are often unfairly characterized as backwards, self-interested, and irrational, allowing opponents to summarily dismiss and delegitimize their concerns. A paper by Maarten Wolsink examines the implications of NIMBY’s pejorative connotations. Wolsink explains that NIMBY was originally conceptualized as a logical response to siting proposals where costs are localized but benefits are spread among society, leading to imbalances that elicit opposition (87). NIMBYists are not only concerned about personal costs and benefits, but also the processes that dictate how siting decisions are made (88-89). For example, who is involved, how objections are handled, the motives behind siting decisions, and whether decision-makers can be trusted (89). Therefore, NIMBY attitudes should be seen as reactions to situations and injustices caused by the forces of capital and state actions rather than behavior reflective of individual dispositions (qtd. in Wolsink 86). Wolsink also criticizes the way NIMBY language has been used by legislators to dismiss residents’ concerns and cut them out of decision making processes (89).
This understanding led me to reframe my project. My literature review surveys existing research on Singapore’s housing policies, work permit regime, and Total Defense ideology in efforts to untangle the dynamics at work behind both NIMBY attitudes and the motivations underlying state authorities’ and online commentators’ use of the term. My analysis of Facebook comments under a Channel NewsAsia post that announced the locations of new Quick Build Dormitories discovers that among the responses, only a fraction of opposition can be classified as NIMBY concerns. Most comments address systemic issues such as the exploitation and over reliance on foreign labor, government and contractor mismanagement, virtue signaling, and general land use equity concerns rather than specific sitings near individuals’ homes. My results support Wolsink’s observation that opposition does not always equate to NIMBY attitudes, and sheds light on concerns that pejorative NIMBY language obscures. In the future, I hope to investigate different negotiation processes between stakeholders and the impact they can have on outcomes and attitudes.
Following my six week research period in New York, I spent a month in Berkeley, California. During my time there, I came across posters outside houses asking that community members “welcome new neighbors, not new towers”. Talking to friends from the area, I learned about clashes between Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY), NIMBY, and housing equity activists. I was fascinated to learn that, similar to what I had been reading about the Singaporean context, NIMBY language is being weaponized by YIMBYs to push for the deregulation of land use protections in the Bay Area. YIMBYs, mostly young professionals, are advocating for the construction of new —mostly luxury—housing to solve the housing affordability crisis. However, they have been criticized by housing equity activists for being complicit in trickle-down housing policies and deprioritizing the need for low income housing. Seeing similar conversations and battles in rhetoric being played out in a new context, I was excited to discover the transferability of the understandings I had gained from my research. I found myself being able to engage with the issue critically and thoughtfully. I now appreciate the slow, at times frustrating, and perhaps slightly indulgent but ultimately fruitful process of research that I was able to experience. I feel ready to apply my learning next summer, and I see a wide range of contexts where the perspective I have gained might be valuable.
Henderson, Rob. “'Luxury Beliefs' Are the Latest Status Symbol for Rich Americans.” New York Post, New York Post, 17 Aug. 2019, https://nypost.com/2019/08/17/luxury-beliefs-are-the-latest-status-symbol-for-rich-americans/.
Wolsink, Maarten. “Invalid Theory Impedes Our Understanding: A Critique on the Persistence of the Language of NIMBY.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 31, no. 1, 2006, pp. 85–91. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3804421. Accessed 20 Aug. 2022.