Air, Light and Dust: Surveillance and Discipline within Maternity Hospitals in Colonial Singapore

NTU History PG_3
14 Sep 2022 05.00 PM - 06.00 PM Zoom Alumni, Current Students, Industry/Academic Partners, Prospective Students, Public

In the late 19th Century, there were many campaigns for sanitation and public health. They were largely concerned with order, openness, visibility, ventilation, and the spatial demarcation of different activities. Apart from water (fluids) sanitation (Ruth Rogaski’s Hygienic Modernity), air, light and dust are also elements of weisheng. In Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing, she gave suggestions on how ventilation and sunshine factors should be considered when building a hospital. The pavilion-ward hospital was structured to create a non-infective pattern of air flow to
counter miasmas and germs. It seems reasonable for hospitals to be built on a favourable site with ventilation, adequate drainage and free from noise. Specialized maternity hospital locations required extra attention as pregnant women and

newborn babies were fragile and vulnerable. One utmost concern of the Colonial Government over population at the turn of the 20th Century was the high infant mortality rate among the natives.

These elements are intangible, invisible, ubiquitous, filling up the entire space within tangible walls; they create invisible barriers within what Brenda Yeoh identifies as “contested public space”. Altogether, air, light and dust not only form a sanitary code to be adhered to in hospitals, but rather, they are elements of surveillance and discipline. Therefore, this paper aims to highlight how native bodies were being disciplined in a physical space through the shift of birth delivery location from filthy homes to sanitized hospitals to achieve “modernisation”. This paper examines from an architectural history perspective, how these invisible boundaries become visible in Westernized hospitals through sanitary maintenance and sacrifices in the delivery and birth customs of the local patients and their relatives. These barriers are not definite, uniform and impermeable, their formation and disintegration are also not a one-sided interaction between the Municipal and patients.

Sophia Chen is a second year Masters student at Tsinghua University, Beijing, majoring in World History. Her research interests are in Food History, History of Medicine in the Tropical region, History of Christianity as well as Overseas Chinese from 18th to 20th Century in Southeast Asia, particularly focusing on the Straits Settlements.