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Singapore’s Lost Coast: Land Reclamation, National Development and the Erasure of Human and Ecological Communities, 1822–Present

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Beginning during the colonial period, and greatly accelerating following independence in 1965, Singapore has used land reclamation to increase its national domain by nearly 25 per cent. The construction of new land was a key component of the nation’s celebrated rise from ‘third world’ to ‘first world’ in the postcolonial period. But the economic benefits of remaking Singapore’s coastline came at significant ecological and social costs. Nearly all of the original shore, and its attendant mangrove forests and natural beaches, were lost. So too were two-thirds of Singapore’s coral reefs. While carrying out this reclamation, the state also erased a number of sites at which people made a living from the sea, including indigenous communities on the outer islands, age-old fishing villages, kelongs (large, traditional offshore fishing platforms) and prawn farms. The history of land construction in Singapore offers a number of important insights concerning the relationship between humans and our environments. First, it reveals how the tensions between an ideal situation (a city or state’s relationship to other places) and a less than optimum site (its physical environment), when combined with a forceful, proactive government, can bring about immense environmental transformations. Related to that, this case sheds light on the ways in which governments – especially in developing nations – can use transformation of terrestrial and marine environments, in the name of progress, as a means of expanding and legitimating their authority. This history also reveals a perhaps unforeseen consequence of bulldozing and burying sites at which humans derived their livelihood from living oceanic resources: the loss of a cultural connection to the sea, based on knowing nature through work. Finally, this history raises the question of how environmental advocates can pursue conservation in a setting like Singapore’s shores, which we can no longer consider pristine or natural. That is to say, the ongoing efforts of environmentalists to protect flora and fauna in Singapore’s waters speak to the necessity of, and challenges presented by, preserving hybrid (neither entirely natural nor entirely artificial) marine environments.
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Keywords: Anthropocene; Singapore; environmental hybridity; habitat loss; land reclamation; marine conservation; site and situation; state authority

Appeared or available online: September 6, 2019

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