“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?