Building on Sand: The Forgotten Roots of Singaporean Land Reclamation from Colony to Postcolony

“What kind of world can be built from sterile and lifeless sand and land that has no roots, no history, and no memory, except for the violent extraction from its homeland?”

– Cambodian filmmaker Kalyanee Mam on her documentary, Lost World (2018).[1]

This piece gathers inspiration from Lost World, the 2018 documentary film directed by Kalyanee Mam. “Since 2007,” it begins, “Singapore has exported over 80 million tonnes of sand from Cambodia.” Drone footage shows a large ship dredging sand off the mangrove shores of Koh Kong Province, along the coastline of southwestern Cambodia. The documentary introduces us to Phalla Vy and her community in Koh Sralau, whose lives are dependent on the mangrove forests and the river for sustenance. They look at these sand-dredging ships with disdain and powerlessness. Phalla Vy’s relatives and friends share how houses along the river are empty, as many women have left to find jobs elsewhere. The community is erased on many levels: the land has disappeared, the waters have become polluted, and the community has dispersed.

The film progresses to show Phalla outside a sand-mining site in Singapore. She walks along the large sand dunes. She notes how a large part of Cambodia has probably ended up in this Singaporean construction site, which relies on sand for its rapid development. Many of these sites are located in the secluded hinterlands of Singapore, with limited access to the public. The film goes on to show Phally Vy at the Garden Domes in the Gardens by the Bay in Marina Bay area, in downtown Singapore. Marina Bay is one of the areas that has grown significantly from national land reclamation projects. The Garden Domes in Marina Bay boast the ability to change the internal environment of the Dome to accommodate a variety of plants. However, as Phally Vy quickly notices while walking around this popular tourist site, it is all artificial. This revelation has been important in understanding how Singapore’s pristine “artificial” construction rests on the extraction of natural resources from its neighbours.

Singapore has wilfully disengaged with and selectively chosen a historical narrative about itself. This construction of a nation’s history and legacy has real practical repercussions on how the modern state shuns and silences the consequences of extractive practices on the wider region of Southeast Asia. Singapore’s environmental, social, political, and economic stance internalizes and embodies British colonial policies and logics that enable this extraction. This has allowed the state to construct itself in the vision of the coloniser or encroacher. Hence, the city-state justifies sand mining to fuel continuous development within its national borders, despite the consequences such activities have in the region.

Kalyanee Mam’s film has captured the lack of voice afforded to those who are displaced and affected by sand mining, an activity that has been authorized and legalized through international, regional, and national political and legal mechanisms. The labour and land extracted and utilised to construct the postcolonial state are necessary yet invisible within the cityscape, mimicking colonial policies. When realizing that such extraction has been authorized by state and legal structures, it is important to contemplate what possible accountability structures can address the willful erasure of impact.  

Sand has been a thriving international industry. Gravel, sand, and silica (derived from sand) are crucial components for building construction.[2] The boom in construction, caused by the rising middle class in countries such as China and India, has increased the demand for this natural resource.[3] The UN Environment Programme found that about fifty billion tons are being used annually, in contrast with four billion tons of oil. Laleh Khalili wrote of the interconnected relationship between sand and oil, arguing how the modern world relies on these two commodities and how their patterns of trade hold up “mirrors to global inequalities and ecological plunder.”[4] There is increasing concern over sand, as the extraction rate exceeds its natural renewal, creating a scarce resource.[5]

Sand is an untold yet central part in the story of Singapore, deeply linked to its “culture of modernisation, development and relentless progress.”[6] It sees itself as chronically undersized.[7] As a city-state, it projects a future where it stands next to cities such as London and New York, cementing its “first-world” image. This envisioning of the island rests on the erasure of its past to construct its envisioned future. Sand mining is intertwined with land reclamation and construction, which serve as crucial pillars for national development. Since 1822, when the first reclamation works began, Singapore has grown by 25% from 590 square kilometres to over 720 square kilometres in 2020.[8] The Urban Redevelopment Authority aims to expand it by 100 square kilometres before 2030.[9] Singapore is the world’s largest sand importer, having brought in an estimated 517 million tons of sand in the past 20 years.[10]

Photo taken from Sim Chi Yin, “Shifting Sands,” Photo Exhibition, Singapore, (2017).
[Image description: A bird’s eye view of a sand-dredging project in Singapore in 2017, with many construction trucks shifting white sand along the island’s coast.]

Land reclamation in Singapore began under British rule in 1822. The partial construction of Boat Quay was among the first documented cases by the British administration throughout the nineteenth century.[11] Nearby hills were excavated and poured into the Singapore River. It serves as one of the most important emblems of the island’s colonial legacy, which now doubles as the epicentre of the financial district—with towering skyscrapers named after international banks. Drawing from Khalili’s work, the manmade island in Eastern Singapore, Jurong Island, shows a strong connection between sand and oil. Jurong island is described as a heap of sand and currently serves as a base for important international oil companies, like BASF, AkzoNobel, Exxon Mobil, and, Vopak.[12] It is the amalgamation of seven smaller offshore islands: the islands of Pulau Ayer Chawan, Pulau Ayer Merbau, Pulau Merlimau, Pulau Pesek, Pulau Pesek Kechil, Pulau Sakra, Pulau Seraya, Pulau Meskol, Pulau Mesemut Laut, Pulau Mesemut Darat, and Anak Pulau.[13] By October 2000, $7 billion Singaporean dollars were invested into the three reclamation projects.[14] The indigenous communities were usually relocated to public housing flats.[15] And the history of their displacement has been obscured by national historical narratives.

Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015) was convinced that celebrating Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), arguably the most memorable British colonial official of the country, would show Western capitalist states that the island still welcomed their investments.[16] In 1969, at the opening exhibition to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the People’s Action Party (PAP), S. Rajaratnam said that,

“[…] to pretend that [Raffles] did not found Singapore would be the first sign of a dishonest society… We started off as an anti-colonial party. We have passed that stage—only Raffles remains.”

– S Rajaratnam, Then-Minister of Foreign Affairs (1969)

This speech shows how the party shifted its foundational political motive to eradicate colonialism by embracing its colonial history and by attributing the island’s success to it. This commemoration of Stamford Raffles continued for decades. In 1972 the Singapore Tourism Promotion Board (now Singapore Tourism Board) erected a second statue of Raffles, made of white polymarble, at the landing site on the north bank of the Singapore River, near Boat Quay, where the first recorded land reclamation project took place.[17] These statues of Stamford Raffles in central Singapore are marked as important monuments with renewed reverence following the Bicentennial Celebration, marking the 200-year anniversary of the arrival of Raffles in Singapore in 2019.[18] It is interesting to note the Singaporean state’s reverence for its colonial history, going as far as attributing its growth and progress to it. In contrast, in the last decade, there have been several international initiatives surrounding the tearing down of statues of colonial figures. For example, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign which called for tearing down statues of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, UK, and Cape Town, South Africa, and for tearing down a statue of Edward Colston (a merchant who was involved in the transatlantic slave trade) in Bristol, UK, in 2021 following a local Black Lives Matter protest.[19] Singapore’s Bicentennial celebration highlights the postcolony’s relationship with subjugation and extraction, namely sand mining and land reclamation serving as imperial behaviours that are internalized in order to retain dominance and relevance.

In conclusion, this piece introduces sand dredging in the present from Cambodia to Singapore as an example of how the latter has internalised and reproduced colonial methods of expansion narratives in the construction of the postcolony. This internalising is not only done in implicit forms, such as adopting and justifying further territorial expansion through sand mining, but also in explicit forms, through statues that show reverence for colonial figures like Sir Stamford Raffles. In doing so, this piece poses the questions: what has allowed Singapore, a small island state, to expand at the expense of its neighbours? And, what language can we use to uncover the power relations that allow this?

[1] Kalyanee Mam, “Lost World,” Emergence Magazine (June 15, 2018).

[2] Mngeni Asabonga, Betek Cecilia, Musampa Christopher Mpundu, and Nakin Motebang Domenic Vincent, “The physical and environmental impacts of sand mining,” Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 72, no. 1 (2017): 1-5.

[3] “Sand, Rarer than One Thinks,” United Nations Environmental Programme Global Environmental Alert Service, accessed November 1, 2022.

[4] Laleh Khalili, “A World Built on Sand and Oil: When Natural Resources Become Essential Commodities,” Lapham’s Quarterly 12, no. 2 (Spring 2019).

[5] Vanessa Lamb, Melissa Marschke, and Jonathan Rigg, “Trading Sand, Undermining Lives: Omitted Livelihoods in the Global Trade in Sand,” Annals of American Association of Geographers 109, no. 5 (2019): 1511-1528,

[6] Sarah Novak, “To Build a City-State and Erode History: Sand and the Construction of Singapore,” in Eating Chilli Crab In The Anthropocene, Environmental Perspectives on Life in Singapore, ed. Matthew Schneider-Mayerson (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2020), 62.

[7] William Jamieson, “In Conquering the Sea, Singapore Erases Its History,” Failed Architecture, March 12, 2018,

[8] Sarah Novak “To Build a City-State and Erode History: Sand and the Construction of Singapore” in Matthew Schneider-Mayerson(edn), Eating Chilli Crab In The Anthropocene, Environmental Perspectives on Life in Singapore (Ethos Books, 2020), pp 61-78.

[9] William Jamieson, “In Conquering the Sea, Singapore Erases Its History,” Failed Architecture (March 12, 2018).

[10] Lauren Kyger, “Wave of Global Sand Trade May Be Depleting Beaches,” Global Trade (September 9, 2019).

[11] Novak, “To Build a City-State and Erode History,” 61-78.

[12] Samanth Subramanian, “How Singapore Is Creating More Land for Itself,” The New York Times Magazine (April 20, 2017).

[13] Pulau Pesek Kechil is also called Terumbu Pesek, and Pulau Sakra was a previous merger of Pulau Sakra and Pulau Bakau. Irene Lim, “Jurong Island,” National Library of Singapore, Infopedia, accessed November 1, 2022.

[14] Lim, “Jurong Island.”

[15] Ng Kok Hoe, They Told Us To Move (Singapore: Ethos Publishing, 2019).

[16] Ng Yi-Sheng, “Raffles Displaced in the Arts, Culture and History of Singapore,” Bibiloasia, National Library, Singapore 16, no. 4 (January 1, 2021).

[17] Sheng, “Raffles Displaced in the Arts.”

[18] “The Bicentennial Experience,” Singapore Bicentennial Office, last updated March 12, 2019, accessed November 1, 2022, .

[19] Tarun Timalsina, “Why Rhodes Must Fall,” Harvard Political Review (March 21, 2021).

*Cover image: Still from Kalyanee Mam’s Documentary, Lost World (2018).

[*Cover image description: A blue and green ship in Cambodia, dredging sand along the banks.]

Edited by Genie Yoo, reviewed by Alyssa Kreikemeier.

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