The island off the southern tip of Malaysia reveals the future of building in an epoch of dwindling territory.
By Samanth Subramanian
Jurong Island, a man-made smear of sand, lies just off the southern coast of Singapore. A quarter the size of Nantucket, it is thoroughly given over to the petrochemical industry, so crowded with spindly cracking towers and squat oil-storage tanks that the landscape is a blur of brand names — BASF, AkzoNobel, Exxon Mobil, Vopak. One of the island’s most distinctive features, though, remains hidden: the Jurong Rock Caverns, which hold 126 million gallons of crude oil. To get there, you ride an industrial elevator more than 325 feet into the earth, and that brings you to the operations tunnel, a curving space as lofty as a cathedral. It is so long that workers get around on bicycles. Safety goggles mist up with the heat and the humidity; the rock walls, wet from dripping water, look so soft they might have been scooped out of chocolate ice cream. This is as far as anyone — even the workers — can go. The caverns themselves are an additional 100 feet beneath the ocean: two sealed cylindrical vaults, extending away from Jurong. They opened for business in 2014. Next year, three new vaults will be ready. Then, if all goes according to plan, there will be six more.
As a concept, underground reservoirs are not new. Sweden has been building them since the 1950s; a pair in the port of Gothenburg has a titanic capacity of 370 million gallons of oil. So the Jurong Rock Caverns are less an emblem of the marvels of technology than of the anxiety of a nation. Singapore is the 192nd-largest country in the world. Tinier than Tonga and just three-fifths the area of New York City, it has long fretted about its congenital puniness. “Bigger countries have the luxury of not having to think about this,” said David Tan, the assistant chief executive of a government agency called the Jurong Town Corporation, which built Jurong Island as well as the caverns. “We’ve always been acutely aware of our small size.”
The caverns were designed to free up land above ground, Tan said. I remarked that the phrase “freeing up land” occurs like clockwork in conversations with Singapore’s planners. He laughed. Land is Singapore’s most cherished resource and its dearest ambition. Since it became an independent nation 52 years ago, Singapore has, through assiduous land reclamation, grown in size by almost a quarter: to 277 square miles from 224. By 2030, the government wants Singapore to measure nearly 300 square miles.
But reclaiming land from the ocean has its limits, particularly in an age of a warming planet. Scientists warn that by 2100, sea levels may rise by as much as six feet, and furious storms will pound our coasts. All over the world, the governments of small islands are working to respond to these hazards. Kiribati, an island nation in the Central Pacific, has bought 6,000 acres of forested land in Fiji, more than a thousand miles away, hoping to resettle some of its 100,000 people if a crisis hits. The Maldives, similarly, has talked about buying land in Australia. People have begun to leave Tuvalu, in the South Pacific; the Marshall Islands; and Nauru, in Micronesia. Five of the lowest Solomon Islands have already vanished. In humanity’s battle to save itself from a harsher climate, these diminutive islands find themselves on the front lines.
Most of these islands — in the Pacific or in Asia — are impoverished, reliant on larger nations for assistance and resources. Singapore is an exception. In countries ranked by per capita gross domestic product, it places fourth — far above Nauru, at 112, or Kiribati, at 212. Over the past half-century, building upon its function as one of the world’s great ports, Singapore has turned into a capital of finance and services. The country is so devotedly pro-business that it can feel like a corporation; its constitution includes several pages on how the government’s investments should be managed. Singapore doesn’t reveal how much money its two sovereign wealth funds administer, but a senior economist at the Macquarie Group estimated their value at just under a trillion dollars.
Among the world’s smattering of small islands, then, Singapore, with a population of 5.6 million, is a special case: a country that’s also a city, a government that owns 90 percent of all real estate, a one-party state in all but name. But how it fends off the ocean will be of deep interest to many other populous and productive cities near the water: New York, Miami, Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai, Guangzhou, all miniature nations of a sort.
Much of Singapore lies less than 50 feet above sea level. A third of the island sits around 16 feet above the water — low enough to give planners the jitters. Coastal roads are being raised; a new airport terminal is being built 18 feet above sea level. All the while, the island receives more and more rain each year. “If global temperatures continue to rise,” a government official said last year, “many parts of Singapore could eventually be submerged.”
The Jurong Rock Caverns are just one answer to a pair of intriguing questions: What does a tremendously rich and ambitious country do when it is running out of land? And what can the rest of the world learn from these experiments?
CreditSim Chi Yin/VII, for The New York Times
In the Tolstoy short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” a peasant muses in frustration: “Our only trouble is that we haven’t land enough. If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself.” Similar thoughts must have struck Lee Kuan Yew, who cast Singapore in his vision. Through his three decades as prime minister, Lee saw his country as locked in a struggle against its size. Singapore was a tiny nation, and dire fates awaited tiny nations that could not take care of themselves. “In a world where the big fish eat small fish and the small fish eat shrimps, Singapore must become a poisonous shrimp,” he once said.
The island is still awash in his apprehensions. Bureaucrats assemble reports on topics like Maximizing Value From Land as a Scarce Resource. The government works from a Concept Plan, a land-use scheme that looks half a century into the future; the plan itself is reviewed every 10 years. On the first floor of a city museum in the Urban Redevelopment Authority building, a wall is engraved with letters that spell SMALL ISLAND. It’s not until the second floor that the second half of the message materializes: BIG PLANS.
A 10-minute walk from the museum is Boat Quay, the site of the island’s very first land reclamation. In 1822, having just colonized Singapore, the British dismantled a hill and packed the material along the bank of the Singapore River. “Some two or three hundred laborers were paid one rupee per head per day to dig and carry the earth,” Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, who acted as an informal secretary to British officials at the time, wrote in his 1849 memoir. “Every afternoon, sacks of money were brought to pay the workmen.” Boat Quay’s old shop-houses — shops that doubled as their owners’ residences — have been converted into restaurants, bars and massage parlors. In the evenings, the tables heave with workers from the nearby financial district, much like Manhattan’s South Street Seaport and other ribbons of waterfront realty around the world. In the spirit of preservation, the buildings of Boat Quay have remained low, crouched close to the ground. One street away, however, Singapore’s skyscrapers begin in earnest. At the spot where the hill was broken down and carted off to build Boat Quay, there now stands One Raffles Place, clad in steel and glass, taller, in all probability, than its rock-and-mud forefather.
Once I began looking for reclaimed land, I encountered it everywhere. The five towers of the Marina Bay Financial Center are built on reclaimed land; so is an assortment of parks, wharves and a coastal highway. Beach Road, in the island’s belly, at one time had a self-evident name; now it reads like a wry joke, given how much new land separates it from the ocean. Most of Singapore’s Changi Airport sits on earth where there was once only water. The artist Charles Lim Yi Yong grew up in a kampong, or village, near where work on the airport began in 1975, so his house looked out onto reclaimed land. “It was a wooded area, but if you walked there, the ground would be sand and not soil,” Lim said. “Then you went through this desert space. It felt like I was in ‘The Little Prince.’
CreditSim Chi Yin/VII, for The New York Times
Before he turned to art, Lim, now 43, sailed in the 1996 Olympics on the Singapore team. He grew interested in the sea because he sailed, and he sailed because he came from a kampong on the coast. The kampong has long since disappeared, and the coast has changed beyond recognition. Lim’s major creation, “Sea State,” is an anthology of artifacts and installations: videos and charts, buoys and other nautical paraphernalia. Shown at the Venice Biennale two years ago, “Sea State” embodies Lim’s obsession with his country’s transactional relationship with the ocean. His art is a form of urban exploration, roving over, into and around Singapore, studying what few others see: outlying islets, sewage tunnels, buoys, lighthouses, sand barges. For Lim, most of these are easy to access. “I can just take a small sailboat and go. I look very innocuous when I’m out at sea.”
Lim is able to narrate, practically by himself, a fine-grained history of the island’s reclamation projects. He pointed me to one of the videos in “Sea State,” which he has uploaded onto Vimeo. It stars an engineer who surveyed Singapore’s neighborhoods in the 1990s to determine where it would be best to haul away sand for reclamation. Close to the coast, he found more silt than sand, so he and his colleagues went farther out to sea, to “suck the sand into the barges and deliver the sand over to Singapore.” Once, having strayed into Indonesia’s territorial waters without a permit, they were arrested. “We weren’t criminals,” he said. “We were just doing our job.”
Several countries have tired of feeding Singapore’s endless appetite for sand; Indonesia, Malaysia and, most recently, Cambodia have halted exports altogether. These bans have affected some of Singapore’s reclamation schedules, David Tan said, although he insisted that the supply lines from Myanmar were “still robust.” In any case, Singapore is trying to shrink its reliance on sand imports. “We do a lot of tunneling work for the subway, so that material goes into reclamation,” he said. Most of the infill in the reclamations under a coming shipping-container terminal — planned to be the world’s largest — is rock and soil debris from construction projects.
But the desire to reclaim never-ending shelves of land, farther and farther into the sea, will inevitably be outfoxed by physics. On a whiteboard, Tan drew me a diagram of the process: first, building a wall in the water, reaching all the way down into the seabed; next, draining the water behind the wall and replacing it with infill. As the ocean grows less shallow, it becomes harder and harder to build the wall, to stabilize the infill, to protect it all from collapse. “We’re already reclaiming in water that is 20 meters deep,” Tan said. “Maybe it would be viable to reclaim in 30 meters, if land prices go up. But 40 and 50 meters would be very difficult. It’s physically difficult and economically unviable.”
Lim had told me that Singapore holds a strategic sand reserve, for emergencies. It lies somewhere in the area called Bedok, he said. I spotted it one day as I rode past in a taxi. The site was strewn with No Trespassing signs installed by the Housing and Development Board, a government agency. Fenced off from the public, the giant trapezoidal dunes shone bone-white in the sun and caramel in the shade, as the sand waited to be summoned.
The most miserable truth about this moment of the Anthropocene is the inevitability of it all; even if the whole world switched to solar power and turned vegetarian tomorrow, we cannot remove the carbon we’ve released into the atmosphere. To live within an altered climate will require deep pockets — a fact that punishes billions of poor people with negligible carbon footprints. When Kiribati bought its land in Fiji for $7 million, critics worried that the money was being squandered; the nation’s gross domestic product, after all, is only $211 million. By contrast, the first phase of a single Singapore government project — L2 NIC, which clumsily stands for Land and Liveability National Innovation Challenge — has $96 million to disburse to finance creative ideas. When countries face up to climate change, money can expand the imagination, swell the sense of the possible.
C.M. Wang, a professor of civil engineering at the National University of Singapore, served as a project reviewer for L2 NIC, sifting through proposals for how Singapore might create more space. Wang even has an idea of his own. Approached by Singapore’s ports authority six years ago, he developed and patented a way for coastal cities to create land in the sea. At least, this is the way his staple PowerPoint presentation describes his idea for Very Large Floating Structures, which can bob about on the ocean, hold a range of facilities and “free up land.” “Singapore is the largest bunkering base in the world,” Wang told me when I went to see him in his office at the university. “Ships sail from the Suez, where they refuel, and then the next refueling stop is Singapore.” To be the Texaco station of the high seas, the island needs to maintain vast farms of oil tanks, enough to store the 53.6 million tons of fuel sold to ships last year.
“A logical move would be to store fuel in the sea, because fuel is lighter than water, so it should float,” Wang said. “What we need is a skin to go around it, a container.” He sketched a plan on a scrap of paper: two rectangular concrete decks laid out in parallel, holding oil tanks made of prestressed concrete partly submerged in the water. A ship could slide between the two decks, refuel and steam back out. Wang is working on making his design more economical, but he already has other ideas for floats. On his computer, he flicked through them: dormitories, a restaurant that resembles a crab, bridges, even miniature cities. Last October, to test a proposal from two government agencies, Singapore floated a hectare of solar panels in one of its reservoirs; it hopes, eventually, to build a four-gigawatt solar plant at sea.
Wang urged me to visit the Float at Marina Bay, the world’s largest floating stage, a 107,000-square-foot slice of steel that clings to the lip of Singapore’s esplanade. The afternoon I went, a shroud of smog covered an already sunless sky, and the artificial grass on the Float’s soccer field seemed wan and uninviting. Life preservers were fastened to the railings around the field, lest a player tumble into the sea. I sat on a bench for a while, with my back to the skyscrapers, watching office workers limber up for a friendly game. They looked happy enough with this insertion of playtime into their day, but watching them rattle around on this unnatural parcel of green was, somehow, dispiriting.
Still, unnaturalness may well be the world’s conceivable future; certainly it will be Singapore’s, as the country prepares to terraform itself in search of space. There will be more underground caverns, David Tan told me: a warren of research laboratories within the folds of Kent Ridge, right under the university; perhaps a warehousing facility beneath Jurong Bird Park. “Most of this space will be for industrial use,” he said. “People aren’t likely to live underground.” The island’s geology — a heart of granite in the west, compacted alluvium in the east — is such that most of it could be hollowed out. “Now, I’m not saying we should use it all,” he went on, in the tone of an eminently prudent man. Then he added, “But we can use two-thirds of it.”
Singapore also plans to reclaim its air. “Twelve percent of the island is occupied by roads,” Tan said. “What’s above roads? Nothing! If you put roads under buildings, you free up some land.” Sky bridges and midair concourses are already a part of some public-housing estates. As Wang told me: “In the future, you might see a little town or offices above the expressways. We might create space above our container ports.”
Singapore already has high-rise factories: towers occupied by dozens of manufacturing units, all sharing amenities like cargo elevators, electricity and truck ramps. Since 2012, the government has funded vertical farms, shelves of aluminum planters that grow spinach, lettuce and Chinese cabbage. Singapore grows only 7 percent of its food, having decided long ago that its land has more profitable uses. In the 1980s, it began dispatching its pig farms to outlying Indonesian islands like Batam, which still supplies Singapore with pork. The government has invested $380 million in agricultural projects in Australia, and it is renting land in northeast China to build itself a farm that will measure double the area of the island of Singapore. The farm will take 15 years to complete and will cost $18 billion. Given enough ready money, thorny issues of territorial sovereignty swiftly dissolve.
Whether many of these ventures will bear fruit is difficult to say. When you’re talking to a typically matter-of-fact city planner, each of these ideas seems to possess the heft of certainty. Collected together, though, this vision of Singapore — on the ground and under it, in the air and beneath the sea, a city and a country and a transnational entity all at once — feels fantastic. Then again, even Singapore as it is — born a slum-ridden speck with no oil, no hinterland and a volatile mix of ethnicities, raised with an authoritarian hand and transformed into one of the most prosperous, most politically meek nations on earth — even this Singapore tugs at the bounds of our credulity.
Singapore has always held elections, but only one party — Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party — has ever ruled the island, and only three men have ever been prime minister. Opposition parties have never been permitted to be anything more than frail invertebrates, so the P.A.P. can do as it pleases. The environmental consequences of remodeling the coastline — an altered ecology, wetlands rubbed off the map — can be waved away. Residents can be moved so that projects can proceed. In Singapore’s quandary of where to put its people, the people themselves — the living as well as the dead — can seem like pieces on a checkerboard.
The Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery lies as close to Singapore’s geographical midpoint as is possible without intruding into the grounds of the Singapore Island Country Club. No one has been buried here since 1973, but it still holds more than 200,000 human remains within its 400 acres, making it one of the largest Chinese graveyards outside China. Burials began on this site in the 1830s, and the interred include several Singaporean pioneers, men and women who settled and built the island. Someone told me that the man who introduced the governess Anna Leonowens to the king of Siam was buried in a Bukit Brown tomb, but the casual visitor will be hard-pressed to find it. The cemetery is so overgrown with weeds that it is one of Singapore’s few truly untended spaces. There is no signage, and most inscriptions are in Chinese. The tombs are dignified affairs, shaped like thrones, broad enough to hold full families. On some of the short plinths, in front of the headstone, people had placed lighted joss sticks that had long since burned down; only their stems remained, like the surviving bristles of an ancient toothbrush.
One side of the path into the cemetery was lined with a green metal fence hiding construction work on a new expressway that will soon tear through the heart of Bukit Brown. “We can’t have that graveyard in the center of the island forever,” a former city planner told me. Singapore prefers columbaria, in which urns of cremated remains are stored in cavities on a wall. “All our graves are high-rise too!” he said with a laugh. A group of citizens is campaigning to save Bukit Brown, calling it a vital piece of the island’s heritage, but more than 4,000 graves have already been exhumed, and the ground that contained them has been leveled.
In a restless polity, such single-mindedness would earn the ruling party a risky degree of unpopularity, but nothing seems to dent the P.A.P. It won an election in 2011, even though Singaporeans were angry over housing shortages and an overburdened public-transportation system. It won even more handily in 2015, after land prices rose by 30 percent three years in a row and after the government’s migration-led population target of 6.9 million by 2030 — necessary to fill out the work force, but also a strain on the island’s finite resources — kindled a public protest, a singular event in this country. But stopping the state from doing something it wants to do is, in Singapore, a task primed for defeat. An inert citizenry gives the government the freest of hands in confronting climate change, just as it does in every other sphere, far into the foreseeable future.
One afternoon, Charles Lim and I drove to a marina near the southeastern corner of Singapore and rented a sailboat, a two-man Laser Bahia in which Lim did the work of both men. The haze from Indonesia’s forest fires muddied the day; the ocean looked as if it were evaporating in front of us. Not far beyond the marina, cargo ships and oil tankers waited patiently for their turn at port. To the east rose the tall, unblinking surveillance tower of Changi Naval Base. “I call it the Eye of Sauron,” Lim said.
The wind rose and fell in heavy gusts; Lim’s hair, tousled even indoors, grew still more animated. He pointed out a man-made hill eastward along the coast from the marina, where trucks and earthmovers milled about. This was the Changi East reclamation: more than a thousand hectares of land, designed to hold the new airport terminal and its three runways. In trying to edge closer, we must have wandered into sensitive waters. A loudspeaker screamed from the naval base, punctuated by three types of sirens: “You are entering a prohibited area! Please clear now!” Lim instructed me to pull at various ropes, and we tacked hurriedly out.
A couple of hours after we cast off, we came upon Tekong Island, sitting in the strait between Singapore and Malaysia, owned by the former but nearer the latter. The two countries bickered over reclamation activities here in 2002; it took three years of negotiations before Singapore could proceed. The part of the island where Singapore’s army units train was a smoky smudge on the horizon. Our boat nuzzled against a rock wall that marked out reclamation work. The wall began on the northern coast of the island, ran eastward to sea and then looped back to a point on the southern coast. In outline, it resembled a porpoise’s nose.
“That’s odd,” Lim said. “There’s no one here.” No trucks, no security guards, no bulldozers. “Maybe they’ve stopped work because of a shortage of sand.”
Lim held the boat steady while I waded into the shallows for a better look, careful not to trespass on the island. The rocks underfoot were slick, and I barked my shin.
“How does it look?” Lim called.
A few feet from the outer wall was an inner one, and packed between the two was sand: lovely, pristine sand the color of milky Ovaltine. It was held firm and tight in its sleeve of rock, its surface so level that had I walked on it, I might have been the first visitor on undiscovered land. Trapped beyond the inner wall was a low pool of water, yet to be filled in. Around us, the ocean lay idle in the sun, ready to challenge Singapore’s ingenuity with its patient, adamant rise.
- Originally appeared at nytimes.com