Reclaimed Land in Singapore: Nation-Building in the Most Literal Sense

Top: Singapore in 1973. Bottom: Singapore in 2010. Note the large amounts of area added to the southern and eastern perimeters. Click on image to enlarge. Source: Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas Libraries,

Singapore is arguably the most globalised country in the world, and possesses one of the most vibrant economies on the planet with a rather high standard of living. No matter how rich it gets, however, it will always be limited by its minute land area (Singapore is already the second-most densely populated country in the world behind Monaco). Or will it? Over the past half-century, the city-state has added onto its total area by a whopping 22% percent, not by taking over land in neighbouring countries, but by adding onto the island using earth obtained from quarries, the seabed, and rock purchased from other jurisdictions, and then dumping that rock and earth onto the surrounding seabed until new islands and adjuncts are formed (contrast with the polder-and-dike system used in the Netherlands to create new land)

Those of you who have flown into Singapore in the past three decades have already stepped foot on artificial land, for Singapore Changi Airport was built on reclaimed land on the east end of the island in 1981 (the sand alone is worth US$1.5 billion). Or if you’ve visited the country’s largest park, you’ve been holidaying on an artificial beach. While some reclamation projects on the smaller islands have been undertaken by private industry, most reclaimed land has been constructed by government agencies, who want land for homes, recreational facilities, transportation projects (including expanding the rapid transit system and building the aforementioned international airport), larger port facilities to handle the ever-growing amounts of sea traffic, and new commercial centres to relieve pressure on the central business district (Marina Bay being the most prominent; sport fans know it as the site of an annual Formula 1 street race). All of this is governed by a master plan which is revised every three years.

One of the largest projects was completed in 2009 (twenty years ahead of schedule), which involved uniting a small archipelago of islands on the southwest coast (about 10 km2 worth) into the 32 km2 Jurong Island. Jurong is already a mecca for the petroleum business with most of the world’s heaviest hitters conducting industrial operations on the island. 1 300 000 barrels of oil are refined on the island each day. Currently under construction is an underground rock cavern intended for the storage of crude oil and condensates.

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The artificial Jurong Island is home to operations for everyone from BASF to BP to ExxonMobil to DuPont, just to name a few.

As the reclamation projects extend further and further out into the Singapore Strait and Strait of Malacca, costs will increase as the water deepens. Currently projects begin in the zone between 5 and 10 metres below sea level; future projects will have to go down to the 15-metre level, necessitating more earth, more rock, and larger retaining walls. Beyond that 15-metre limit, it would be imprudent to build any further as it would begin to interfere with the globally-important shipping sea lane that uses through the strait – 2.8 kilometres wide at its narrowest point, one-quarter of the world’s traded goods pass through the strait. There are also the major environmental costs incurred by replacing swamps and wetlands with industrial areas, and by levelling nearly every hill on your island in order to mine it for earth. A half-decade ago, Singapore got into a dispute with neighbouring Malaysia over its dredging of the Johor Strait for sand, which Malyasia claimed adversely affected marine life and shipping; the situation was soon resolved. Indonesia also ceased exporting sand and granite from nearby islands to Singapore in 2007 when it began to fear that the islands would disappear (and with the islands, so too the territorial water rights associated with said islands), depriving the city-state of a major source of construction material. Also at issue is that buildings on reclaimed land are not required to be earthquake-proofed, which may caused issues especially if the sea sand used to build much of this reclaimed land should liquefy in an earthquake (Singapore itself does not lie on a major fault line, but large earthquakes in neighbouring Indonesia can be felt). This problem will be avoided if building foundations are built directly into the seabed below the reclaimed land.

Further Reading

Koh G.Q. (2005). Singapore Finds it Hard to Expand Without Sand . PlanetArk, 12 April 2005. Available at Accessed 10 January 2011.

Koh G.Q. (2007). S’pore tremors raise fear of building on reclaimed land. Reuters, 7 March 2007. Available at Accessed 10 January 2011.

Lloyd Perry, R. (2007). Singapore accused of land grab as islands disappear by boatload. The Times (London), 17 March 2007. Available at Accessed 10 January 2011.

Olszewski, K.F. and Chia L.S. (1991). National Development, Physical Planning ant the Environment in Singapore. In Chia L.S. et al, eds., The Biophysical Environment of Singapore, 185-206. Singapore: Singapore University Press.

Oracle ThinkQuest (2000). Land Reclamation in Singapore. 21st Century Singapore. Available at Accessed 10 January 2011.

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