Early Singapore looked nothing like it does now, with its roads and tall concrete buildings. Singapore was once mostly marshes, mangroves and little villages. Land reclamation was necessary to ensure the growing population had enough room to expand, and this reclamation was one of the developments that helped transform this country into the metropolis it is today.
The earliest record of Singapore’s land size was 581.5 sq km in 1960. Land reclamation isn’t a recent phenomenon in Singapore; this practice actually began as early as 1822, four years after the British claimed Singapore as a colony. A nearby hillock was levelled to fill up swampy marshland at the south bank of the Singapore River to expand Singapore’s commercial district. The levelled hillock is today’s Raffles Place in the Central Business District, while the filled-in marsh became Boat Quay, then a major trading port. The area is now a nightlife stretch of bars and restaurants.
With Singapore’s growing importance as a trading outpost, much of the early land reclamation efforts were focused around the Singapore River and the ports in southern Singapore to facilitate an increase in commercial trade.
Memories of this early coastline can still be found today. Located quite far inland, Beach Road was once a coastal road named for the beaches that lined its shore and popular among rich Europeans who liked villas with a sea view. The diverse collection of temples, shrines and mosques along today’s Telok Ayer Street reflect both its history as a coastline and the major ethnic groups who came to Singapore; these religious institutions were the first places immigrants visited after a long, arduous journey to their new home country.
One project of note was the filling in of mangrove swamps at Kallang Basin, an area with a reputation as ‘the worst mosquito-infested land on the island’. On this reclaimed land, Kallang Airport, Singapore’s first commercial international airport, was built in 1937. It ceased operations in 1955 when the newer Paya Lebar Airport was built, and it is slated to become a lifestyle hub called Old Airport Square in the near future.
A total of just 3 sq km of land was reclaimed during Singapore’s colonial period, up to the 1930s. This number seems small compared to later undertakings, but is no small feat given the technology of the day.
No reclamation took place from the 1940s to the 1960s; it was a time of social upheaval in Singapore, from the Japanese Occupation during World War II to the merger and subsequent separation from Malaysia. Reclamation work began anew the year after Singapore’s independence, growing the country’s landmass exponentially by 138 sq km in just 50 years.
One major reclamation project was the expansion of the entire eastern coastline, creating new residential and commercial areas built entirely on reclaimed land, like Katong, Marine Parade, the East Coast Park and Singapore’s Changi Airport. This ‘Great Reclamation’ spanned 30 years, and one of these phases in the late 1970s set the stage for the Marina Bay area, transformed into an iconic skyline and financial hub today.
To the west, land around Jurong and Tuas was mostly reclaimed for industrial use, like the building of shipyards and facilities for the marine and petrochemical industries. Many offshore islands in the southwest were also affected by land reclamation. Some islands were enlarged, while others were merged completely to form larger land masses, like Jurong Island, which is actually made out of 7 former smaller islands. Today, it is a major petrochemical industry hub.
Some other areas in Singapore that were reclaimed are the following: parts of Punggol and military island Pulau Tekong in the north, more of the port area around Pasir Panjang and Keppel, as well as islands like Sentosa and the Southern Island cluster.
Singapore is developing new technologies to make land reclamation a more sustainable process and to rely less on sand that is needed for the landfill. With little natural resources within its borders, Singapore has had to turn to neighbours like Indonesia and Malaysia to provide sand, which became an issue when Indonesia decided to ban the sale of sand to Singapore in 2007.
Land reclamation has had a significant impact on Singapore’s borders and terrain, with coastlines pushed back and hills levelled to provide landfill in other areas. With a projected increase in population over the next few decades, Singapore will continue to grow its borders and reclaim more land to make room for its new residents.