Government of water, circulation and the city: transforming Singapore from tropical 'backwater' to global 'hydrohub'

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis will revisit Michel Foucault's original arguments on the 'urban problem' and the concomitant question of circulation, which I contend has been disassociated from more general renderings of his concept of governmentality. Throughout the 1970s, and particularly during his lectures at the Coll├Ęge de France, Foucault would regularly return to the problem of urban circulation; how it has been conceived, calculated and distributed. Foucault would ponder the ways that material infrastructures have canalised people and resources, and naturalised their complex coexistence, in the interests of urban economic restructuring and state aggrandisement. Here, the 'question of water' was not only incidental to Foucault's analytics of government but absolutely integral. Indeed, according to Foucault, whether flowing through rivers, canals, pipes, pumps, sewers or fountains, or stagnating in swamps, marshes and ditches, water has required the especial attention of town planners attempting to optimise the contentious process of urbanisation. Using Singapore as a case study, I will consider how the circulation of water has been administered under the three technologies of power identified by Foucault, with the greater emphasis put on discipline and security. The overarching argument will be that the modern state was consolidated and subsequently decentralised through the material configuration of drainage infrastructure, reservoirs and distribution systems, where governmental programmes have been co-produced with the technological networks of water circulation.Although disciplinary techniques had initially been found effective in terms of pollution control and flood alleviation, counterproductive consequences of concrete modernism quickly emerged requiring a greater uptake of security mechanisms, where government would be increasingly exercised through practices of exposure rather than enclosure. Mosquitoes were now thriving in the subterranean network of drains, valuable land was being wastefully converted into dormant storm canals, whilst people had become socially and emotionally disconnected from water. Released and revalorised, water now serves as a mobile technology of government which can penetrate and pervade the urban form and the everyday life of its inhabitants, centrifugally unleashing the potency of water flows and human desire whilst facilitating Singapore's transformation into a global city. With its methodological nominalism and commitment to concrete practices, I argue that once reoriented around the urban problem, Foucault's analytics can advance environmental politics debates by demonstrating that government is a mundanely material process orchestrated through the everyday infrastructure of water management. In so doing, I also shift the emphasis from the urbanisation of nature to the naturalisation of the urban, of circulation and the art of government itself.
Date of Award1 Aug 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorMaria Kaika (Supervisor) & Erik Swyngedouw (Supervisor)


  • State
  • Political ecology
  • Foucault
  • Singapore
  • Governance
  • Water
  • Governmentality

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