Singapore Ground Games

SINGAPORE 1839. Early maps of Britain’s Singapore Straits settlement reveal a landscape in transition. Developed areas strike hard edges in a territory otherwise defined by abundant hillsides, mudflats, and mangrove swamps.

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Few countries can be seen in their entirety from the rounded portal of an airplane window. Measuring barely 50 kilometers from east to west and 25 kilometers from north to south, Singapore’s compact mass is astonishing in its insignificance. Colloquially, affectionately, “the little red dot on the map.”

Descending to Changi Airport, hundreds of ships track across the strait below, all destined for one of the island’s major shipping terminals. Touching down, passengers are welcomed into the airy interior of the “world’s best,” if not cleanest, transport hub. Through customs, the taxi queue, and onward to the city center along the East Coast Parkway, a scenographic Olmstedian “pleasure road” of the purest sort. Continuing, a caravan of taxis tracing the coastline beneath the shade of precisely spaced and pruned tropical greenery. At last arriving at Marina Bay, the city’s most conspicuous destination and home to numerous cloud-grazing landmarks including the Singapore Flyer, machinic SuperTrees at Gardens by the Bay, and Marina Sands’ glamorous SkyPark which hovers across (and beyond) the peaks of three slender hotel towers.

Atop any of these landmarks the congestion of the strait snaps back into focus. Immediately beyond Marina Barrage, the barrier that separates fresh water Marina Bay from the sea, ships stack awaiting calls to dock at one of several dozen deep water berths. Looking west, the pattern of tetrised red-blue containers fades indefinitely into the distance – the Port of Singapore. Turning east, corrugated red-blue gives way to a line of lush green parkland stretching along the coastline, its arrangement no less mechanical than that of the robotically arrayed containers nearby – East Coast Park. Though varied and vast, this panoramic sweep of Singapore’s southern coastline represents, in the deepest sense, a project of singular origin. A project unified by the fundamental nature of its soil: extracted from hillsides, dredged from the sea, and imported from “sand rich” nations before being, transported, deposited, and finally compacted along the shoreline to form new ground. This process of land-making that has increased Singapore’s land area by 25% since 1960. The definitive elements of today’s southern coastline – from airport, to parkway, to port, to park; from Marina Barrage to the Sands and Gardens by the Bay – are all constructed above infilled soil. Its land area is 704km2 today, and reclamation works are ongoing, with another 50km2 to be added by 2030.

RECLAMATION OF SINGAPORE’S SOUTHERN COASTLINE. Highlighted area denotes extent of territorial expansion.
1 Changi Airport  2 East Coast Parkway  3 East Coast Park  4 Marina Bay East  5 Marina Bay South  6 Tanjong Pajar Terminal  7 Pasir Panjang Terminal  8 Jurong Island  9 Tuas / Tuas South

Singapore’s dependence on land-making is unique but easily explained. With total land area smaller than that of New York City’s five boroughs, spatial planning and territorial expansion are critical concerns for national development. Because of its limited size, Singapore has embraced every opportunity to optimize the productivity of its land area. The insistence on ‘highest and best’ often produces haltingly generic outcomes. However, in select cases the process of ‘optimization’ has radical results. For instance, Palau Semaku a floating waste disposal station off Singapore’s southern coast.

FOUNDING FATHERS. Raffles and Lee Kuan Yew valued spatial planning as a matter of ‘existential’ value.

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Rise of the Planning State

“You may take my word for it, this is by far the most important station in the East, of much higher value than whole continents of territory; It would be difficult to name a place on the face of the globe with brighter prospects.”
— Sir Thomas Raffles, letter to British East India Company, June 15th, 1819

“[Singapore] is certainly the very worst selection that could have been made for a settlement; the soil is inferior, the population scanty; neighbourhood, or passing trade, it has none; and further, it wants a harbour, to say nothing of its long-reputed unhealthiness. Against all these drawbacks I yet think something can be done, and I am attempting it: the greater the difficulties to be encountered, and the greater the exertion required, the greater the satisfaction to be obtained. I have never yet found any which repressed my energies; on the contrary, they have always increased in proportion to the occasion.”
— Sir Thomas Raffles, letter to Mr. Thomas Murdoch, July 22, 1820

From top to bottom:
1819 Raffles’ Plan drawn by Lt. Phillip Jackson
1967 UNDP “Ring Plan”
1971 Concept Plan or “Link Plan”

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Since the founding of the modern settlement, nearly 200 years ago, alteration of the island’s coastlines and topography has been something close to an obsession. Sir Stamford Raffles personally directed the first landfill operations in late 1821, on the southern bank of the Singapore River, two-and-a-half years after founding his treaty port. Munshi Abdullah said it was like “men going to war”. Raffles wrote to England that “I have had everything to new-mould from first to last; to introduce a system of energy, purity, and encouragement; to remove nearly all the inhabitants, and to re-settle them; to line out towns, streets, and roads; to level the high and fill up the low lands…”

Raffles’ successors followed in the same vein, driven by a vision of a hundred-year-effort to impose a Western rational will on an Asian landscape, on Oriental peoples, on the myriad threats implied by, and excused by, a tropical climate. Independence thirty-five years ago brought different motivations, different rhetoric, but similar results, the continual remaking of the land. Although Singapore is the smallest country in Southeast Asia, it is significantly the most developed. In many respects, Singapore represents an urban laboratory in which several of the panaceas of contemporary town planning theory have been tested and successfully implemented. Urban poverty has been almost eradicated as planners and policy-makers have experimented with textbook prescriptions on service hierarchies, public housing and integrated transport to control urbanisation pressures and channel growth, according to a carefully planned spatial distribution of land-use activities. The economic and environmental benefits are there for all to see. In short, spatial planning has provided the policy framework for a complete restructuring of the urban fabric and helped guide long-term development towards the achievement of specific planning goals.

Today, some 25% of Singapore’s total area is reclaimed land. The Tan Hock Kian Temple, built on the beach by Hokkien sailors thankful for safe crossings, is now not one but three miles from the Straits, separated from the sea by the city’s current financial district, and further on, the reclaimed land that will be its financial district in thirty years. Most of the seaside villas of Singapore’s Jazz Age rich were torn down for condos years ago. The few that survive are now a mile from the seashore, separated by housing blocks, markets, shopping centers, the highway to the airport and a park. The islands off the southwestern coast of the island have been joined together to form an offshore industrial site; the bays of the northwest have been sealed off and turned to reservoirs. At the eastern and western ends of the island, 25 square miles of land have been added, industrial estates, housing, an airport, requiring the import of tons and tons of soil.

Liquid Frontiers
With no resource-rich hinterland to provide it with material wealth, the rapid development of its urban landscape and economy has instead been built on flows of people, capital and products for the global economy. The vulnerability as a nation without a hinterland to supply it with vital natural resources becomes evident in the case of land reclamation in Singapore as (a) the natural resource sand is limited; (b) the resource is a good without substitutes; (c) the nation’s population is increasing exponentially; (d) sand dredging, the process of resource-extraction itself, is a self-accelerating cycle (e) increasingly hitting its technological, environmental and geopolitical limits. Yet, having appropriated strategies for urban expansion that come with natural limitations, the island nation suffers from a latent need to reclaim land from the foreshore for various types of development projects along its coastline.

THE NATURE OF GROUND. Large portions of Singapore’s coastal land area have been reclaimed, initially through soil transfers from existing hillsides and quarried soils, followed by dredging of the seafloor, and most recently imported sand from neighboring countries. Today, Singapore has a severe shortage of sand resources. Current investigations into industrially manufactured “grounds” suggest new typologies for future land growth.

1  Boat Quay & Collyer Quay
2  Telok Ayer
3  Padang (Esplanade)
4  Tanjong Pagar
5  Kallang Airfield
6  Sembawang
7  Jurong Industrial Estate
8  Kranji Industrial Estate
9  Tuas
10  East Coast Reclamation
11  Marina Bay
12  Pasir Panjang
13  Pasir Ris
14  Punggol
15  Woodlands Crossing
16  Changi Airport
A  Palau Brani
B  St John’s Island & Lazarus Island
C  Palau Sudong
D  Palau Seletar
E  Sentosa
F  Palau Bukom
G  Palau Sebarok
H  Jurong Island
I  Palau Semakau
J  Palau Serangoon
K  Woodlands Crossing

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SINGAPORE’S GROWTH. Singapore has rapidly transformed since achieving independence in 1965. The nation’s non-stop economic development, and to a lesser extent population growth, has been buoyed and in some cases catalyzed by extensive land reclamation initiatives. The rate of growth and attendant reclamation works are projected to continue through the year 2030.

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At every step of these economic development strategies, the entrepreneurism of the Singapore state is unmistakable. In the 1960s, a large area of coastal swamp was drained to develop the first industrial zone, the Jurong Industrial Park. In the 1970s, the waterfront district, which has always been the commercial district, was reclaimed extensively to extend the banking and financial district; the area quickly came to be known as the Golden Shoe, because of its real-estate value. In the early 1990s, a set of seven small islets to the south of the main island was amalgamated by reclamation at a cost of $4 billion, to constitute Jurong Island, to be completely dedicated to petrochemical industries; by 2003, it was producing $22 billion of products. Finally, the water-body at the mouth of the Singapore River has been reshaped as a bay through reclamation, with the reclaimed land being developed into a mixed-use district of offices, high-end condominiums, and arts and entertainment establishments, containing the iconic Esplanade Theatre on the Bay and the Sands casino and resort, and the shores of the bay reserved as public recreational areas – as are all coastlines on the island, except where taken up by port facilities. The Singapore River, polluted by decades of human settlement and the cottage industries on both sides of its banks, was subjected to a 10-year clean-up program and recovered to a gleaming pristine condition. All these highly valuable land reclamation projects have been financed completely by the state, without any dependency on private capital that might impede progress. Parcels of land are leased, by open tender, to carefully selected industrial players, who are often directly invited by the government, often as partners with state-linked companies. The Economic Development Board (EDB) has been the appointed agency, from the very beginning, to market these land parcels to potential multinational investors. The success of the EDB is often written up in hyperbolic language. Its former Chairman, Philip Yeo, has assumed “mythological” status for not only developing Jurong Island but also, since his appointment in 2001 as Chairman of the Agency for Science and Research, for being credited with single-handedly developing the biotechnology industries; between 2000 and 2005, biomedical manufacturing sector output quadrupled from S$6 billion to S$23 billion, accounting for 5 percent of GDP. For his public service, Philip Yeo was decorated, in 2006, with the Order of Nila Utama (First Class), a national recognition of the highest order.

Reclamation work continued in the East Coast, to make way for commercial and residential uses. An upcoming site was the proposed Marina Centre, which was set aside as a waterfront hotel and shopping belt. The surroundings, to be marked by parks and promenades, were to be the “green lungs” for the city area. The East Coast Park, set to be the largest recreation spot, was 75% completed. The building of an eight-lane coastal expressway was in progress, to link Changi Airport in the east and Jurong Industrial estate in the west. Reclamation work was ongoing in the West Coast as well, where new port areas and warehouses were to be built. At Pasir Panjang Port, wharf works and construction of a breakwater were ongoing, and the Jurong Marine Base was undergoing expansion. Land around Tuas and Sungei Pandan were also being reclaimed.

‘Singapore Ground Games’ is part of a series of essays analyzing the role of land reclamation in the (re)formation of eight coastal cities: Dubai, Mumbai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Incheon, Tokyo, Amsterdam, and Venice.