“Sunny Island Set in the Sea”: Singapore’s Land Reclamation As A Colonial Project



The ground on which I am standing did not exist fifteen years ago. On the 47th floor of a glass building near the central business district, I am standing in a skyscraper whose foundation was once ocean. Below me is artificial ground solid enough to hold the weight of an endless profusion of high-rise buildings. Beyond the glass windows, I am gazing towards the coast at a large, oblong piece of land that protrudes three kilometers into the ocean. This, the friend whose offices I am visiting tells me, is phase 3 in the massive $3.5 billion Pasir Panjang port development project. In the distance, dredging ships are pulling sand from the seabed. Barges are dumping continuous loads of sand into the water. Vast tracts of pulverized, dredged, and piled silt sit in heaps on a perfectly rectangular coastline. Land, in other words, is being created before our eyes. “Because the port thrives, so Singapore thrives,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong would declare at the unveiling of the terminal three months later (June 23, 2015). He was then articulating a common refrain in the national imaginary: if the economic and social future of this tiny nation-state hinges on the continuous expansion of its markets, so too, does it require the expansion of the spaces in which they operate.

Until recently, territory has been largely regarded as the unassailable material limit of sovereignty. To rule, in the modern conception, is to have authority over a bounded space; to exercise control over a people within the seemingly permanent features of landed territory. Of course, rulers have long sought to expand the zones of operation through which they could exercise their power, shifting the borders and boundaries of rule through acts of bloody conquest and dispossession. But what if today, rather than taking over already-existing territory, one can literally create it? What if land, rather than being an immovable geological fact, is actually a mobile commodity — conjured through an accretion of the most granular of forms: sand?

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Map of Singapore showing original land, reclaimed land, and future land reclamation plans. / Map by Mr-Architecture (2013).

As a desperately land-scarce nation, the island state of Singapore has, for much of its young history, been engaged in what is known as land reclamation projects, in order to increase the living and working space of the island. In the fifty years since its independence, its population has more than doubled, requiring the continuous construction of both private condominiums and the high-rise public housing that serves 80% of the population. Vertical growth, however, has not been enough to sustain a burgeoning populace; so too has the state sought horizontal expansion since its independence. Singapore’s land area has grown from 581.5 square kilometers in the 1960s to 723.2 square kilometers today, an increase in territory of almost 24%. By 2033, the government plans to increase its land area by another 100 square kilometers, making the island a full 30% larger than its original size. Most of Singapore’s reclaimed land occupies patches of sea that were once part of the Singapore Straits separating the island from Indonesia, demanding a shift of maritime boundaries every time new territory is claimed.

To achieve these monumental acts of creation, colossal amounts of sand are required. Sand may seem a fairly innocuous particulate in its granular form but this granularity is precisely what makes sand a valuable medium. Both liquid and solid, sand possesses a softness and scalability that allows its easy transportation across great distances, whether moved by truckload, bargeload, or spadeful. To note its malleability is to make more than a literal statement about its physical composition: sand is used in multiple applications from the rudimentary to digital, in the fine river sand used in concrete for its soaring skyline; bound with bitumen in the roads that line the feverish grid of city blocks; and as the base material from which silicon and rare earth elements — key components in smart phones — are mined. In each of these applications, sand, itself a form of territory, skews and transforms notions of territorial space, conquering vertical space with concrete or aiding the annihilation of distance by technology. Yet none of these applications reconfigure territoriality more than when sand is terraformed in enough quantity, turning it into the most foundational infrastructural form: land.

Acquiring enough sand to create these new landmasses is a colossal task. To supply itself with reclamation material, Singapore first leveled most of its hills in the 1960s, transforming an undulating island into a largely flat surface. Then, it dredged its coastal seabed. But local resources were barely sufficient to support the massive need, and so Singapore began importing sand from neighboring countries starting in the 1970s. In the last 20 years, Singapore has imported a reported 517 million tons of sand, making it by far the largest importer of sand worldwide (UNEP, 2014). To give this mammoth figure some context, terraforming 0.6 miles of new ground requires 37.5 million cubic meters of sand fill. This is the equivalent to 1.4 million dump trucks’ worth of sand — a line of trucks so long that it would snake from New York City to Los Angeles, and back again. Until 2007, the largest sources of sand imports were Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, but as the environmental impacts of sand mining increased, these countries began reporting the depletion of marine life, landslides and river erosion, and the erasure of at least 24 Indonesia islands since 2005, prompting these countries to restrict or ban exports of sand to Singapore (Asia Times, 2003). Today, most of Singapore’s sand fill needs are supplied by Myanmar and Cambodia, which have in turn begun to report the devastating effects of the sand trade on local populations. Accompanying Singapore’s increased demand for sand has been a huge boom in illegal sand mining. In 2012, a total of 120 million tons of sand were reported missing, a variance in import-export figures that suggest illegal mining and black-market smuggling play an integral part in the expansion of a city-state which often prides itself on a record clean of corruption (Global Witness, 2010).

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Barge of sand in the bay of Singapore./ December 2017.

Accounts of sand smuggling have accordingly become preoccupied with two aspects of the sand trade. First, noting the massive amounts of sand which exchange hands through illegal means, journalists such as Chris Milton expose its seedy underbelly, with the implicit hope that an awareness of the sand trade’s illicit economies can bolster efforts at better regulation, placing limits on states’ capacity to destroy crucial environmental resources (Foreign Policy, 2010). Second, scholars have noted that such large-scale movements of sand throw into question the legality of practices of terraforming under international law, as they exacerbate geopolitical conflict in encroaching on the territorial jurisdiction of neighboring countries. These geopolitical tensions are no more evident than in China’s terraforming excursions in the South China Sea, a form of ‘reclamation’ that has provoked heated territorial water disputes between multiple nations, provoking threats of retaliation and even war. Both these approaches attempt to reign in the expansionist tendencies of state terraforming by appeals to accountability under international law. In doing so, they misrecognize the issue as a jurisprudential one, rather than one in which geopolitical imperatives shape and reconfigure the law itself.

Take, for example, Singapore’s neighbor across the Johor Strait. For decades, since sand mining began, Malaysia has bristled at the slow creep of Singapore’s soil into their coastal waters, demanding at each instance a reapportioning of the lucrative territorial waters and sea trade lanes that lie between the two states. Yet, these demands have relatively little legal backing. Unlike the Spratly Islands dispute, under the United National Convention on the Law of the Sea, Singapore can legally ‘reclaim’ sovereignty around existing islands, reefs, and archipelagos. What the ostensible legitimacy of land reclamation practices suggest is that we are experiencing a form of volatile sovereignty quite different from pre-existing modes.

With land reclamation, states are geophysically engineering the globe at a scale which shifts the very ground on which sovereignty is thinkable. The geophysical follows the geopolitical, rather than the other way around. Joshua Comaroff notes, for instance, that because the “physical basis of the state can be incrementally eroded or expanded,” land reclamation inaugurates a “flow of territory” quite distinct from other forms of territorial expansion such as war, military occupation, or colonial expansion (Harvard Design Magazine, 2015). What the unchecked phenomenon of land reclamation highlights is no less than a shifting lebensraum: a legal expansion of the territorial space through which a sovereign may govern through the slow violence of terraforming; not simply appropriating land, but conjuring it from the water.

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Land reclamation in Johor Bahru, between Malaysia and Singapore (December 2017).

The viscosity of coastal borders augments a key insight. Far from a finite and unchanging resource, territory in its modern conception is, as Stuart Elden argues, a particular technology of sovereignty rather than an objective fact: a “distinctive mode of social/spatial organization” that is “historically and geographically limited and dependent, rather than a biological drive or social need.” (The Birth of Territory, 2013). To think of land reclamation as a distinctly new form of appropriation would miss the fact, therefore, that territory has always been a political mode and logic of spatial organization. Territories have never been the fixed, immobile delineation of the physical extent of a state’s bounded jurisdiction. In the rearrangement of borders and states, ostensibly ‘new’ territory has always come from somewhere else. This is as true of terraformed land as it is of its older precedents of colonialism and military conquest. All assert the right of acquisition, conquest or settlement through proprietary claims to the means of production provided by the earth itself. Often left unexamined in an emerging scholarly interest in large-scale geo-engineering projects is the question of what is removed or lost in these acts of sovereign making. It is easy to forget in the spectacular emergence of ‘new’ landmasses, that these very acts of movement and creation also require their barely traceable other: concomitant acts of extraction, erasure, and dispossession.

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Expansion of Changi Water Reclamation Plant (June 2017).

To pause over the term ‘reclamation’ for a while, one might recognize that dubbing an act of terraforming as “reclamation” designates a misnomer. In its deverbative form, reclamation suggests an act of restoration or return in which one is retrieving something that was once one’s own. This works as a fiction on two registers. First, it presupposes that the coastal sea itself acts somewhat as an aqua nullius, ‘empty’ space that has no history or value, except to be turned into the property of the state, with the corollary that reclamation is coextensive with an active dispossession from elsewhere. This naturalizes a thoroughly human process of dispossession as a form of natural right. Second, to name the process as a form of “re-claiming” centers the spatial locus of activity on the site in which land is being created, rather than from where it is being taken away. In the logic of reclamation, a state deserves to procure or cultivate a site for habitation or commerce; few questions are asked about the sites from which material has been extracted, and therefore made increasingly uninhabitable.

Some historical context, then. In 1819, as Sir Stamford Raffles, the colonizer of Singapore wrote excitedly about his ‘discovery’ of Singapore’s potential as an entrepôt hub for the East India Company, he wrote to the secretary depicting Singapore as a “fulcrum upon which empire shall thrive.” This narrative — that an island’s primary function is to serve a transitory role as a nodal point in global trade and shipping — has long been the imagined raison d’être of Singapore’s existence. From education foci that shift each time the ruling party determines the next big industry in which it can gain competitive advantage, to its tourist marketing strategies that proclaim Singapore as the “Gateway to Asia”, the logic of the nation always-in-transition, grateful for its colonial past, runs deep into its national identity. Today, a gleaming white statue of Raffles stands at the landing site where he first set foot on the island. With one leg planted in front of the other, arms folded across a tailcoat tuxedo, Raffles gazes into the distance at the river’s mouth. The plaque below his feet reads: “On this historical site, Sir Stamford Raffles first landed in Singapore on 28 January 1819, and with genius and perception, changed the destiny of Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis.”

The geophysical term “backwater” often accompanies this description of Singapore’s origins as a fishing village. The narrative is always the same: Singapore’s place in the world would have been inconsequential had it remained an undeveloped “backwater.” The teleological movement from obscurity to prominence hinges not only on the colonial founding, but also on a geophysical transformation. The geological dimensions of the “backwater” metaphor are thus not a coincidence. Prior to colonization, Singapore’s shores were primarily marshland and swamp, which provided fertile ground for the indigenous orang laut to fish for mudskippers. The transformation of this “backwater” fishing village not only removed their livelihoods, but also altered the structure of the earth itself: leaching the water from mud, pulverizing indigenous ways of life, dredging particulates and removing wildlife from the marshes in order to lay the foundations for a port. Colonial theft through terraforming is thus at the very center of Singapore’s story of nationhood and, by extension, at the center of the global trade it facilitates.

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Singapore port. / Photograph by Stephen Tracy (2018).

But what is perhaps new about the modern terraforming project is that, in transporting sand from neighboring countries, it quite literally removes territory from them. Rather than doing this through occupation or settlement, however, this theft of land is practically untraceable: islands that one might once have been able to map with coordinates now disappear — or rather, disintegrate — into the fragmentary, fungible particles — sand from a disappearing island in Indonesia practically indistinguishable from sand from a seabed off the coast of the Philippines. In this sense, the national imaginary in which Singapore sustains an articulation of itself as an ever expanding, modern, thriving center of trade and digital life literally requires a theft of territory, and a theft of land — war by other means — war by means of terraforming.

Perhaps most perversely, sand is being leached from the very countries from which Singapore extracts most of its hyper-exploited foreign labor. It is Cambodians, Burmese, Bangladeshis, and Indonesians upon whose construction work the state relies to build the terraformed habitats in which Singaporeans live. These are the very people whose communities live on or around disappearing islands and depleting marine life: in some Indonesian islands such as Riau, fishing communities have reported that incomes have plummeted as much as 89% since the sand trade began (Indonesian Forum for Environment, 2003). Experts have likewise reported extensive damage to coral reefs, exacerbated coastline erosion, and the destruction of ocean environments that will take decades to be restored.

There is a morbid irony in noting these environmental impacts of extraction: the very anthropogenic changes caused by such forms of extraction have become part of Singapore’s justification for land reclamation. Officials have cited sea level change as a primary motivation for raising the level of reclaimed seabeds, portraying Singapore as an entropic victim of climate change, even as the sandy bulwarks that ostensibly protect the island from such processes play a key role in exacerbating their effects. Not least, the labor hired to do the work of such infrastructural development are often precisely those driven from their own communities by such predatory practices of extraction — hired on short-term, contingent, and extremely low-waged contracts to perform highly dangerous work. In this, the workers charged with increasing the value of Singapore’s sovereign and commercial space — by building the highways, condominiums, and business hubs that make Singapore an attractive site for foreign investment — facilitate their own dispensability by constructing the very infrastructure that contributes to the decimation of their lands and the dispossession of their ways of life. There is a more direct connection between the exploitation of foreign labor and the terraforming of land than I have indexed here. From Hong Kong’s port to Dubai’s palm-shaped archipelagoes; from Macau’s casino-jammed Cotai strip to Singapore’s landmark Gardens by the Bay, reclaimed land constitutes such a lucrative site of state investment not only because of its ability to expand lebensraum, but also because of its commercial value. Terraformed land pays hubristic testament to the ability of human hands to remake their environments, turning artificially-shaped land into spectacles of economic growth.

Every towering hotel or palm-shaped bay thus obscures the unevenness with which reclaimed land becomes a fictive commodity: land becomes financialized as real estate at the same time that the labor that builds it is treated as a dispensable, exploitable commodity, easily replaced by the next reserve army made precarious through such acts of dispossession. The contradictions that follow abound. Foreign workers seldom gain access to the glimmering places they help to build, except perhaps to maintain their infrastructure. They are indispensable to Singapore’s workforce, but only precisely as surplus populations who can rarely hope to gain citizenship or long-term employment. Meanwhile, the price of terraformed real estate grows as states display them as markers of sovereign wealth. In this way, the exploitation of labor, the spectacle of sovereignty, and the financialization of real estate go hand in hand.

It is in the disposability of these workers’ bodies that I hear echoes of the coolies who worked the ports of Singapore during the colonial era. There is a national song that begins with the words: “We built this nation, with our hands; the toil of people, from a dozen lands.” Those lyrics resurface often when I think about the foreign workers who effectively serve as Singapore’s fungible coolie labor today. I wonder, had they heard the song blasting through speakers during last year’s unveiling of the port from their squalid housing quarters in the corners of Singapore, whether they would recognize themselves in those words — “we built this nation with our hands” — and the quite literal, geophysical dimensions in which acts of violent dispossession are concealed under anodyne celebrations of nation-building.

This text will also be published in Cowen, Deborah, Mitchell, Alexis, Paradis, Emily, and Story, Brett. (eds.), Infrastructures of Citizenship: Digital Life in the Global City, McGill-Queens University Press, forthcoming 2018.