Land reclamation is a hot topic in Singapore and Malaysia these days. As a recent New York Times article observed, “land is Singapore’s most cherished resource” and land reclamation has been a chief component of the island archipelago’s development since the 19th century. Even just since its founding independent nation 52 years ago, Singapore has grown in size by almost a quarter: from 224 square miles to 277. By 2030, the government wants Singapore to measure nearly 300 square miles. This is partially related to Singapore’s ambitious targets for population growth and economic development (iconic landmarks such as the Esplanade, Marina Bay Sands, and even the Merlion are all built on reclaimed land). It is also premised in founding Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew’s vision for Singapore, which was in part based on a struggle against its small size.
This is a topic that was covered by Canadian geographer Rodolphe De Koninck in his recent book Singapore’s Permanent Territorial Revolution: Fifty Years in Fifty Maps, published by NUS Press.
De Koninck shared the decades of research that went into his book at a recent book launch at the Asia Research Institute on May 29th. The launch attracted an overwhelming audience – which left standing room only in our Seminar Room – consisting of local artists, students, heritage advocates, and established local academics from NUS and beyond. During his talk, Professor De Koninck debunked several myths underpinning the logic of land reclamation —such as that of land scarcity—and raised keen observations surrounding changes in the territoriality and topography of Singapore, such as the intentional softening of urban development through the provision of greenspace, in the form of parks and green dividers between roads. Given the controversial nature of some of De Konick’s arguments, there was a somewhat heated Q&A session where he and members of the audience exchanged views on topics including the alienation of Singaporean heritage and identity through landscape transformation.
But land reclamation is increasingly attracting concern from residents, activists and scientists. This is in part due to the increased scale of land reclamation, enabled through technological advances, and the vulnerabilities that this creates. This is combined with increasing awareness of the dangers associated with global climate change and anticipated sea level rise over the next century. There are also the grave socio-environmental consequences associated with sand mining, which is taking place in rural areas across the tropical world to feed the urban development appetite of mega cities like Singapore. This is a phenomena that a recent article in The Guardian atly described as the “global environmental crisis you’ve probably never heard of, and is the topic of our Senior Research Fellow Michelle Miller‘s current research on Indonesia. In the past, Singapore’s modest land reclamation projects (like Boat Quay) were completed using dirt and rock from extinct hills, like Ann Siang Hill which used to mark the western urban boundary of Singapore. Singapore still continues this practice through the reuse of material that is excavated during the construction of MRT (subway) tunnels, which is stored in a heavily protected and fortified reserve near the Eastern neighborhood of Bedok. But this still isn’t sufficient for Singapore’s land reclamation projects, so sand is imported from increasingly distant places, as neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia have stopped exporting sand to the island-city (for political and environmental reasons).
But environmental concerns are not the only consequences of Singapore’s extensive land reclamation and territorial metamorphosis. The constant ‘freeing up of land’ in Singapore for development purposes, has, as De Koninck noted in his talk, resulted in the destruction, of culturally sacred spaces, which is premised upon a cultural foundation whereby “nothing is sacred, nothing is permanent, nothing is culturally untouchable”. This was also touched upon in the aforementioned New York Times article, which noted that Singapore’s approach to development can make it seem as though the relocation of its people — “the living as well as the dead — can seem like pieces on a checkerboard”. Indeed, this is a controversy that has been ongoing over the past several years with the planned highway that will bisect one of the last remaining Chinese cemeteries – Bukit Brown – in the central part of the island, which will result in the exhuming of graves. This is a topic that our own Huang Jianli and Kenneth Dean have worked on, in the wake of significant civil society activism to preserve the site. Unfortunately, given the nature of a recent grant that was awarded to Prof Dean, it seems that Singapore’s strategy will be of documenting – rather than preserving – the graves.
In closing, it should be noted that land reclamation is not only a problem specific to Singapore. Indeed, each time I cross the causeway from Singapore to Malaysia, Johor Bahru and the new Iskandar Malaysia project seems to get closer. My current research in Penang, Malaysia partially concerns the ambitious land reclamation projects that are currently being launched by the State government in order to finance the extremely capital intensive Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). As in Singapore, there has also been talk in Hong Kong of creating floating islands in the sea to support their urban and territorial expansion. This is a topic which Andrew Toland has discussed in his book chapter ‘Hong Kong’s Artificial Anti-Archipelago and the Unnaturing of the Natural’, featured in the recent edited volume ‘Places of Nature in Ecologies of Urbanism’, published by Hong Kong University Press. While cities have always had a hate-love relationship with nature, such works bring urgent attention to the increasing artificiality and alienation of our cities from the natural environment. This is thus a critical issue that deserves the attention of critical urban scholars, not only in Asia-Pacific, but around the world.