Singapore has reached its end

APRIL 30 — Marina Bay used to have the best steamboat restaurants in Singapore. That line of hotpot spots are now replaced by well, the entire city.

I had never really thought much about our expanding shoreline although I should have — considering coast lines that I knew growing up are now so deep in-land you cannot even see the water anymore.

Samat Subramaniam’s wonderful article in the New York Times recently got me thinking and reading up about this.

He delves into this matter in more exquisite and accurate detail but basically Singapore needs land.

From the moment our nation came into existence, our government has taken determined steps to manage the nation’s most scarce resource.

The scale of Singapore’s sand imports are such that vast swathes of our neighbours; Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar have been affected by sand mining.

The Singapore city skyline as seen in this picture taken on April 25, 2017... it looks like the only way to go is up! — Picture from AFP
The Singapore city skyline as seen in this picture taken on April 25, 2017... it looks like the only way to go is up! — Picture from AFP

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Key eco-systems — dunes, beaches, forests — have been quarried away to be sold to Singapore for a few dollars a ton.

The problem is sufficiently significant that virtually every country in the region has enacted bans on the export of sand — and particularly the export of sand to Singapore.

Singapore is a small country. Barely 700 square kilometres, it ranks around 180 out of the world’s 196 or so countries and territories.

Single cities like New York or Beijing are far larger than our nation, yet our economy is larger than the economies of major and large-sized nations like Pakistan, New Zealand or the Philippines.

Our land area is tiny but our ambitions are vast and we are home to over five million people.

Resolving this conundrum with just a few hundred square kilometres of land is not easy — and the reality is that size has always been our enemy.

The government now owns over 90 per cent of the country’s land area — on which it works to maximise the productivity of every square foot.

Even the 10 per cent of land it doesn’t own outright it regulates tightly and reserves the right to acquire.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority co-ordinates across ministries and engages experts and academics to ensure that our land use is optimised.

But even with the some of the tightest planning in the world, we need to carve new land out of the sea.

To date, Singapore has reclaimed over 100 square kilometres of land or 10-20 per cent of our total land area.

Our airport, our industrial zones (Jurong), huge sections of the port, our finance centre from Beach Road to Marina Bay Sands, even the entertainment/casino hubs on Sentosa... all of these are built partly or entirely on reclaimed land.

Our ambitions may be limitless but the truth is we are hitting physical limit. We just can’t keep reclaiming.

Technology, costs, the physical supply of sand mean we can’t keep growing our land mass.

Even politically, if we keep growing we’ll begin encroaching on territory claimed by Malaysia and Indonesia and the South China Sea doesn’t need another territorial dispute.

This will be an enormous challenge for our governments, our planners and our population but well, we’ve overcome some seemingly insurmountable obstacles before and the chances are we will get over this.

Already we’re experimenting with high rise factories, multi-story farms and floating stages. The reality is that as a people we must get high, really high.

Sky parks, sky farms it may sound like science fiction but with the sand running out the sky will have to be the limit.