Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

Part 3: Borderless cities

The Singapore-Johore-Riau Growth triangle: An emerging extended metropolitan region
The Hong Kong-Zhujiang Delta and the world city system
The evolving urban system in North-East Asia

The Singapore-Johore-Riau Growth triangle: An emerging extended metropolitan region

The concept of extended metropolitan region
The Singapore case

Scott Macleod and T. G. McGee


This chapter examines the development of extended metropolitan regions (EMRs) in ASEAN, specifically interpreting the situation in Singapore.1 It progresses from the general to the specific. The first section introduces the concept of the EMR. The second section looks at the development of these regions in ASEAN. The third section examines the development of an EMR around the city-state of Singapore, specifically the "Growth Triangle" as an EMR. The Singapore economy, once thought of as quintessentially urban, now must be thought of as part of a larger regional production and distribution complex, an extended metropolitan region. The final section examines the roots of the development of this regional economy around Singapore, its long-term prospects, and policy implications.

The concept of extended metropolitan region

The EMR model

There is a growing literature on the emergence of EMRs in Asia (see Ginsburg, Koppel, and McGee, 1991). This research is concerned with the "thickening" of market relations of production and distribution in areas that were once considered "rural" and/or "hinterlands." These areas are today characterized by extremely high levels of economic diversity and interaction, a high percentage of non-farm employment (i.e. over 50 per cent), and a deep penetration of global market forces into the countryside. These regions may stretch for up to 100 km from an urban core and are frequently found near major transportation conduits (for an examination of the Taipei-Kaohsiung corridor see McGee, 1989). In the EMRs, one finds that apparently rural areas are coming to adopt economic characteristics usually thought of as urban.2 Industrialization and rapid development are coming to affect the people of these regions in situ and are also drawing in large numbers of migrants.

What the model of the EMR adds to socio-economic analysis is that it both breaks through the artificial urban/rural dichotomy and emphasizes the uneven geography of the regionalization process. The model takes the emphasis of analysis away from issues of defining boundaries and relations between artificial constructs such as "urban" and "rural" and moves towards a deeper consideration of processes. The processes of economic and spatial development need increasingly to be seen as regional rather than as rural or urban. Thus, we suggest that one needs to consider "region-based urbanization" instead of "city-based urbanization." This point has important consequences for development planning. For example, rather than witnessing a full-blown urban transition as has been so long predicted, many areas in Asia are now experiencing a "space-economy" transition where extensive areas, often many miles from urban cores, are developing very rapidly - thus, the term region-based urbanization. EMRs have been identified in Japan (Tokyo to Osaka), China (the Shenyang-Dalian Corridor; Beijing-Tianjin; the Shanghai-Nanjing conurbation, and in the Hong Kong-Guangzhou belt), Taiwan (Taipei-Kaohsinng), Thailand (the Central Plains), and Indonesia (Jabotabek), and, as here argued, Singapore (into Malaysia and Indonesia).

These complexes are increasingly the heartlands of national economies. The EMRs of Asia are the growth nodes of the continent. For example, the Tokyo-Osaka region is estimated to produce two-thirds of Japan's GDP. In China, the Shanghai region, with about 2 per cent of China's population, produces 12 per cent of national industrial output. In Thailand, the Bangkok EMR saw the installation of 2,000 factories and 78 industrial estates between 1985 and 1989.

The key point to be made is that rapid development is no longer just occurring in the urban cores but is increasingly attracted to surrounding hinterlands.

As these regions explode outwards into the rural hinterland they often reach very rapid growth rates. However, they are also areas of immense social and environmental dislocation. Few developments since the onset of the Green Revolution have affected so many lives in Asia, yet research into these areas is just beginning. In what follows we offer a preliminary survey of the current situation in ASEAN and Singapore.


An overview

Over the past 30 years the ASEAN countries have experienced significant economic change. With the exception of the Philippines, all the ASEAN countries experienced annual growth of GDP per capita in excess of 8 per cent in the period 1965-1990, which puts them below the Asian newly industrialized countries (NICs) of Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong, but considerably higher than the rest of Asia. This rapid economic growth has resulted in significant changes in the distribution of GDP, with all countries experiencing a declining importance of agriculture, an increase in industrialization, and a stable contribution from services. This has had a fundamental impact on the social and spatial organization of these societies, particularly as it relates to urbanization.

In this section, in exploring the emergence of EMRs in the ASEAN region, the main focus will be on the five major EMRs of ASEAN: Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Jakarta, and Manila. The database for such an analysis is quite sketchy, relying primarily on census materials, government publications, and secondary sources. What is more, the databases for most of the EMRs are in such a form that only preliminary comparisons are allowed.

A typology of EMRs in ASEAN

With the exception of Kuala Lumpur, the outer rings of the metropolitan areas have generally been increasing their proportions of the total population and growing at faster rates than the city cores (see table 12.1). This would seem to be replicating patterns already observed in Western cities, reflecting suburbanization and decentralization of economic activity. The case of Jakarta, which shows a slight variation from this trend, probably can be explained by the greater areal extent of the Jakarta Special Capital Region, which has the status of a province in Indonesia and has extended boundaries beyond the area defined as city. Kuala Lumpur is even more of an anomaly; this is, in part, explained by the creation of the Federal Territory in 1972, which greatly extended its boundaries. Within the five potential EMRs, one can identify three major types.

Table 12.1 South-East Asian extended metropolitan regions, 1960-1980

  1960 population 1970 population 1980 population
'000 % '000 % '000 %
Metro area 1,446 51.0 2,074 52.0 2,413 48.0
Othera 1,393 49.0 1,912 48.0 2,575 52.0
EMR 2,839 100.0 3,986 100.0 4,988 100.0
Kuala Lumpur
Metro area 627 - 1,106 - 1,199 -
Other - - - - - -
EMR 627 - 1,106 - 1,199 -
Metro area 2,857 64.0 6,439 77.0 9,221 77.0
Otherb 1,543 36.0 1,896 23.0 2,671 23.0
EMR 4,400 100.0 8,335 100.0 11,892 100.0
Metro area 1,137 20.0 3,967 44.0 5,900 49.0
Otherc 4,471 80.0 4,909 56.0 6,658 51.0
EMR 5,608 100.0 8,876 100.0 12,558 100.0
Metro area 1,577 58.0 3,185 67.0 4,815 69.0
Otherd 1,157 42.0 1,503 33.0 2,124 31.0
EMR 2,734 100.0 4,688 100.0 6,939 100.0

Sources: Various South-East Asian censuses (1957-1981).

a. Malaysian district of Johore Bahru and Indonesian kabupaten of Riau.
b. Bekasi and Tangerang kabupaten.
c. Includes the provinces of Zambales, Bataan, Pampanga, Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna, Batangas, Cavite, and Quezon.
d. Includes Nonthaburi, Samut Prakan, Nakhon Pathom, Samut Sakhon, and Pathum Thani Changwat.

Three types of EMRs

The first type is what we will call the "expanding city state" model in which the vibrant Singapore city-state is expanding its economic activity and leisure needs into the adjacent regions of the Riau archipelago (Indonesia) and Johore State (Malaysia). Currently, this "Growth Triangle" has become the focus of much attention, raising important issues relating to the emergence of a "borderless economy" and how the various states involved and private enterprises will handle this evolving expansion of economic activity across international boundaries. This is our case-study.

Second, there is the case of Kuala Lumpur, which can be compared with Seoul in that Kuala Lumpur is surrounded by a region of comparatively low population density and has been able to control its growth through the creation of a poly-nucleated pattern of new towns and smaller suburban centres located along the major arterial routes of the city. The establishment of Kuala Lumpur as a Federal Territory has greatly aided this process of controlled growth and gives the EMR a distinctive quality compared with other ASEAN countries.

The third, and most ubiquitous, model is that of the high-density EMR and is characteristic of Jakarta, Manila, and Bangkok. In each of these EMRs, large rural populations principally engaged in rice have occupied the city peripheries, and there has been a movement of economic activity into these regions to tap these surplus labour pools. This often occurs along major arterial highways such as the Rangsit highway in Bangkok and draws labour from surrounding rural areas. This labour is often female and their employment leads generally to increased household incomes.

Economic change

These changes are reflected in several dimensions of economic change. First, these urbanizing regions are responsible for a major proportion of each country's gross domestic product. Second, these regions are made up of three ecological components: city core; metropolitan area; and EMR. These are generally experiencing rapid economic change characterized by a decline in agriculture and an increase in non-agricultural activity, which is made up of industrial decentralization and direct industrial activity start-ups as a result of foreign and local investment. Although these economic patterns vary from country to country, Singapore is the most advanced, followed by Malaysia and Thailand. In the Jakarta and Manila EMRs there is a much more dualistic form of economic growth, with significant proportions of the population being absorbed into low-income, small-scale economic activity. Third, these patterns of economic growth create an extraordinary dynamism that results in rapid land-use change, settlement creation (both legal and illegal), and proliferation of many different types of traffic response. It would be surprising in this situation if such rapid economic growth did not create various problems for these regions, including environmental damage, waste removal, and transport problems.

Social change

At the social level, these urbanizing regions are extraordinarily mixed. Villages in which households still rely upon agriculture for some part of their income exist side by side with golf courses, industrial estates, and squatter encampments. In the outer regions of these zones, this creates a considerable mixture of lifestyles and a variety of income-earning opportunities. Because there are so many more income opportunities, household income is generally increasing in these regions owing to multiple incomes earned by households. However, new consumption styles are also finding their way into the hinterland as the city comes to the countryside.

The development of EMRs in ASEAN will have an ongoing and tremendous impact on the lives of the people of the region. They will become key areas of policy debate in the near future. An intriguing facet of the EMR phenomenon is that, although it is widespread, each case has seemingly peculiar roots and characteristics. A case-study of Singapore will highlight its specificities.

Contents - Previous - Next