Strategies of Opacity: Evading the Algorithm as an Indonesian Motorcycle Taxi Driver

Henry Chim

University of Sydney

Public transport in Indonesia is lacking, plagued by traffic jams. Cities like Jakarta run because of armies of motorcycle taxi drivers called “ojek” who zip around the city delivering passengers and goods. Initially operating from informal stands, ojek was transformed overnight by the ride hailing apps GoJek and Grab. Ride hailing companies became the new intermediary between drivers and passengers, leading to widespread protest. Initial protest centred around banning ride hailing apps, but as more drivers adopted the system, protests shifted towards pay and working conditions. Contemporary discourse in social sciences has been extremely critical of ride hailing with condemnation from academics like Aulia Nastiti, Alex Rosenblatt and Luke Stark. Focusing on algorithmic management, they document how individual driver autonomy is eliminated through their precarious employment structure and reliance on exploitative working conditions. This paper highlights the subaltern responses by ojek drivers that subvert algorithmic management from ride hailing companies. Drivers can manipulate their app platform through “strategies of opacity” to disguise activities, improving their flexibility and working conditions whilst under the management of the ride hailing apps. These strategies are conceptualised through Gerald Mars’ concept of fiddling, a framework centred around acceptable “cheating” at work.


Henry Chim is an independent scholar and anthropologist affliated with the University of Sydney.

Informalisation Of the Online-Based Motorbike Taxi Drivers In Indonesia

Victoria Fanggidae

University of Melbourne and Perkumpulan Prakarsa

The advent of digital ride-hailing apps in Indonesia in 2015 raised tensions between the existing ‘conventional’ motorbike taxi drivers and the app-based drivers. This study aims to capture the profile and perceptions of both. It builds upon a base study that began with a survey of 213 motorbike taxi drivers in Jakarta and Surabaya in mid-2017 by the Jakarta-based think tank, Prakarsa. The survey revealed that traditional drivers lacked the capital to compete, while app-based drivers struggled to procure the capital and legal collateral to stay viable in the industry now saturated with drivers. Driver incomes have decline as bonuses are reduced are and incomes are reduced by costs such as fuel, vehicle maintenance and phone credits. Drivers must also work longer hours, with some of them working over 80 hours per week and becoming more prone to traffic accidents. Without concrete improvement in public transport sector including safety regulation, our research finds that this transitional phase in the provision of transport infrastructure in Indonesia brings only minimial benefits to transport workers and commuters.


Victoria Fanggidae is currently pursuing her PhD at the School of Social and Political Sciences (SSPS), the University of Melbourne, researching Indonesian workers’ perception of risk and social insurance. She works in Perkumpulan Prakarsa, a Jakarta-based think tank that focuses on social policy, fiscal policy and sustainable development issues.

Going Places: Digitisation of Spatial and Social Mobilities in Ho Chi Minh City

Catherine Earl

RMIT Vietnam

In 2013, the United Nations published a prediction that by 2030 two-thirds of the world’s middle classes would be in East Asia, with Vietnam among the top three countries for middle-class emergence. Despite this, there remains little but growing research about Vietnam’s middle classes. Among the issues that research to date has not addressed are the ways forms of digitisation are integrated into middle-class ways of living. There is a dearth of research about how middle classes use (1) digital communication, such as zalo and viber; (2) app-based services, such as Grab transport and food delivery apps; (3) biometric and other forms of data capture, such as fingerprint door keys; and (4) digital entertainment, such as streaming services. Using qualitative methods, this paper will contribute theoretically by analysing the digital divide in HCMC and investigating the attitudes, practices and experiences of HCMC’s middle classes. It will examine how middle classes use a range of technologies and determine issues of digital privacy and the digital divide in Vietnam. It will provide evidence to assess to what extent urban middle classes may lead change by influencing, modelling lifestyles and being trendsetters.


Catherine Earl, a social anthropologist, is Lecturer in Communication at RMIT Vietnam. Her research interests focus on the rise of middle classes in Ho Chi Minh City, gender and social change, and issues of urban sustainability.

Improvised Infrastructure: The Motorbike-Taxi Economy in Indonesia

Robbie Peters

University of Sydney

The motorbike-taxi drivers of today and the public minibus drivers of the past in Indonesia reveal how an improvised public transport infrastructure funded by the household can overlay, and even substitute, an inadequate transport infrastructure funded by the state. I argue below that improvised infrastructure is only possible when its repair and maintenance are handled by the underemployed majority through their survival strategy of crowding – or bringing the city together in one place. Crowding makes improvised infrastructure possible. Unlike the fixed infrastructure of planners that controls possibilities, the improvised infrastructure of the underemployed opens possibilities. In particular, it opens the possibility of redistributing social goods to redress the injustices caused by the maldistribution and malfunctioning of fixed infrastructure. Through the lens of improvised public transport and the people who bring it about in the large port city of Surabaya, I elaborate these ideas to show how redistribution is a subversive political project that challenges and reworks state projects of distribution. I argue that this redistributive project is only possible, however, through strategies of tinkering and unaccountability that enable the underemployed to put infrastructure on their terms and profit from it.


Robbie Peters is an anthropologist whose current work tackles such issues as the cultural politics of death and its commemoration in the Indonesian city; the on-demand motorbike taxi economy in Indonesia and Vietnam; and the effect of new cash transfers programs on Indonesia’s urban poor.

Urban Mobilities and Digitisation of Urban Life

Dr Catherine Earl1, Dr Robbie Peters2, Mr Henry Chim2, Ms Victoria Fanggidae3

1RMIT Vietnam,  2University of Sydney, 3University of Melbourne

Chair: Dr Catherine Earl


With a greater range of options for modes of travel in Southeast Asia, bicycles and motor scooters remain popular but arguably diurnal forms of transport. Conceptually driven by the interdisciplinary ‘new mobilities’ paradigm, this panel aims to explore the future of two wheel mobilities in Southeast Asia. More precisely, the panel seeks empirically-rich papers that investigate intersections of urban mobilities and forms of digitisation in urban life in Southeast Asia, with a particular focus on Indonesia and Vietnam. We invite authors to focus on new phenomena of digitisation that enable, enhance or constrain mobilities. To what extent does the future of two wheel mobilites connect with the past, memory and previous experiences? How does digitisation shape emotions of traveling by two wheels, for example in terms of personal security? How do forms of digitisation shape how the body experiences the natural world and built environment when going on two wheels? What relations exist between infrastructural developments and digitisation of two wheel mobilities? How does digitisation influence stranger-interactions and ways strangers are encountered, for example on a motor scooter taxi or ride share? How disruptive are forms of digitisation on existing and emergent urban mobilities?


Censored: 5th Passage and the [Public] Making of Singapore’s Contemporary Art History

Dr Michelle Antoinette

ARC DECRA Fellow & Lecturer in Art History & Theory, Monash University

This paper re-examines the significance of 5th Passage to Singapore’s contemporary art histories. This short-lived, yet groundbreaking artist-run initiative operated in Singapore during 1991-1994 at a time of momentous transformation and development for Singapore’s contemporary art scene. The collective was catapulted into the public spotlight in 1993-1994 after its support of a politically-sensitive performance by the artist Josef Ng, which became highly sensationalised through media coverage in the popular press. Famously, an image of Ng’s performance made the cover of The New Paper, showing the artist with his back turned while cutting his pubic hair. The ensuing controversy surrounding Ng’s performance effectively ended the 5th Passage initiative, led to a ban on performance art funding in Singapore for 10 years, and ongoing paranoia around performance art. If art histories are a means by which art and artists are propelled into critical public visibility – a means of making art public – then beyond its sensationalised publicity, there has been a relative invisibility and silence around 5th Passage’s critical significance. This paper argues that rather being a passive omission or forgetting, such invisibility may rather be understood as acts of suppression and censoring of the 5th Passage story in Singapore’s contemporary art history.


Dr Michelle Antoinette researches modern and contemporary Asian art histories. She is ARC DECRA Fellow (2017-2020) and Lecturer in Art History and Theory at Monash University. Her major publications are Reworlding Art History: Encounters with Contemporary Southeast Asian Art After 1990, and Contemporary Asian Art and Exhibitions: Connectivities and World-making.

Anti-Yellow: Forms of Performative Dissensus in Singapore Art

Dr Yu Jin SENG

Senior Curator, National Gallery Singapore

The colour yellow evokes a visual imaginary that is centuries old starting from anti-Asian paranoia racism in the ‘yellow peril’ to blame the ‘other’ in forms of cultural production such as literature, film, popular culture and art. In the cultural politics of Singapore in the 1950s and 60s, the anti-yellow culture movement (反黄行动) emerged from the Chinese Middle School students as part of the boarder anti-colonial drive. They objected to the general colonial disinterestedness of the moral welfare of the colonial subject exposed to ‘decadent’ culture of the West such as in film that propagated pornography and violence. When the ruling People’s Action Party came to power in 1959, the anti-yellow drive transformed into forms of social discipline and control to curb Western decadent culture. For instance, Operation Snip Snip was launched in 1974 to discriminate against men with long hair who were associated with drugs culture and deviant behaviour. This paper will examine how performance artists in Singapore like Lee Wen, Zai Kuning, and Vincent Leow adopt strategies of resistance to un-discipline body, cultural and spatial politics through their use of yellow as a colour burdened by its histories of racism, exclusion and suppression.


Dr Yu Jin Seng is a Senior Curator at the National Gallery Singapore. He recently completed a PhD at the University of Melbourne, on the history of exhibitions in Southeast Asia. Seng’s research interests cover regional art histories focusing the history of exhibitions and artist collectives in Southeast Asia.

Meeting the Funding Conditions: Forms of Control in the Singapore Art Scene

Anca Rujoiu

Independent Curator, and PhD Candidate, Monash University

State funding is prevailing in Singapore, a situation that implies strong financial support for art institutions, individual artists, and periodical events, amongst others. Since the establishment of the National Arts Council in 1991, state funding has framed the conditions of the development of the arts in Singapore through specific conditions of eligibility, assessment process, and evaluation for grant applicants and receivers, which correspond to national priorities and the nation’s vision for the arts.  While state funding tends to be called into question in direct cases of restriction over content and distribution through withdrawal of grants, this paper will investigate more subtle forms of control. Based on an analysis of the grant framework and interviews with Singapore-based artists, this paper will look into what is at stake for meeting funding conditions, and how this process impacts upon the early stages of a project’s conception or the later stages of a project’s development once a grant is awarded. The paper will foreground the recent activities of several artists and independent art spaces – for example, the collaborative project softwallstuds – to develop alternative forms of funding for their activities, such as communal support and membership schemes.


Anca Rujoiu is a curator based in Singapore. She is a PhD candidate at Monash University in Melbourne pursuing research focused on artist-run initiatives in Southeast Asia. Rujoiu was curator of exhibitions and later head of publications (2013-2018) at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore.

OB Marker: Strategies of Dissent in Contemporary Art Practices in Singapore

Jeffrey Say

Programme Leader, MA in Asian Art Histories Programme, LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore

This paper comes in the wake of the recent controversy in Singapore in September 2019 when Yale-NUS (National University of Singapore) cancelled a programme on dissent and resistance that was proposed by the notable Singapore playwright Alfian Sa’at. This episode brings into focus the effectiveness of the OB marker (or out of bounds marker) in determining the boundaries of acceptable political discourse in Singapore. Singapore has gained a reputation of having a strict censorship regime while allowing some free space for expression provided it is within the OB marker, an unspoken rule that certain topics are out of bounds.  This paper seeks to examine the ways in which the OB marker affect how visual artists express social and political concerns in Singapore and the artistic strategies that they employ to navigate the parameters of civic and public space. This paper proposes to show that visual artists in Singapore who engage with politicised themes employ conceptual and performative strategies which enabled them to circumvent the OB marker but which may be read as dissensual and subversive in their effect. Humour, satire, creative performance and interventions in the public space are some of the strategies used to counteract the dominant political narratives.


Jeffrey Say is an academic and art historian based in Singapore. In 2009, he designed the world’s first Master’s programme focusing on Asian modern and contemporary art histories. He is a frequent speaker on art at public institutions. Say co-edited Histories, Practices, Interventions: A Reader in Singapore Contemporary Art (2016).

Contemporary Art Censorship and Strategies of Resistance and Dissent in Singapore

Jeffrey Say3, Anca  Rujoiu1, Dr Seng Yu Jin2, Dr Michelle Antoinette1

1Monash University, Australia, 2National Gallery Singapore,  Singapore, 3LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore

Chair: Dr Michelle Antoinette


“Censorship is an act of violence”, writes Singapore poet and playwright Alfian Sa’at, in his censorship manifesto for artists in Singapore. Indeed, Singapore is widely known for its strict censorship regime, and the arts have been no exception to this. This panel will explore issues of censorship, resistance, and dissent as they relate to the contemporary art scene in Singapore and its intersection with civil society. While earlier political histories form a backdrop to our concerns, the panel will focus on the art and politics since the early 1990s. This includes examining state interventions in Singapore contemporary art and their implications for art practice and production, such as the crucial role of government funding; the different strategies of resistance and dissent adopted by artists which challenge political boundaries and hegemonic discourses; and the kinds of art historical narratives that are forged for Singapore in the light of art censorship or suppression. The panel draws together papers from those closely involved in researching Singapore’s contemporary art history, exhibitions, and art practice, informed by art historical and curatorially-led research.



The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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