Of Raffles and Reclamation
Updated: Feb 5
The climate crisis is inextricably linked to colonialism and imperialism. When Stamford Raffles of the British East India Company arrived in Singapura in 1819, he ushered in an era of unprecedented environmental degradation.
Suddenly, Singapore saw forests razed, hills flattened, and land “reclaimed.” Enlisted in these monumental projects of destruction and transformation were scores of “low-skilled” Asian labourers who carried out backbreaking, often dangerous work, yet were treated as nothing more than disposable creatures. “The Chinese and natives,” wrote Raffles, “would be manual labourers, [just] as the negroes are in the West Indies.” Colonialism was a global project that required the subjugation of people and nature. During Singapore’s first land reclamation project in 1822, Abdullah Abdul Kadir, otherwise known as Munshi Abdullah, described the hundreds of low-wage Malay, Indian and Chinese workers involved as “looking like men going to war.” Indeed, it was a war against nature – one that peoples of this region had never before seen.
In Singapore and across the colonised world, colonial subjects were confronted with radically new conceptions of nature. Vast swathes of the natural world, which had once been held in common by the indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia, were privatised and reshaped so as to create more favourable conditions for capital. Indigenous perceptions of nature, insofar as they were recognised, were taken to be primitive and ill-suited to the modern world.
As far as the British were concerned, they were the sole bearers of modernity and it was incumbent on them to “develop” the rest of the world, so that it too might eventually become modern. But in order to gradually “modernise” their subjects, the British had to study them. Colonial “experts” thus emerged as a central pillar in the “developmental” process. British technocrats, sent out in the thousands, arrived in colonial societies to study “the natives” and ostensibly “help” them “develop.” It was taken as a given that “the natives” could not possibly shape their own destiny – only well-educated “experts” could do that. As Raffles put it in 1820: “We must assist the population by our superior intelligence, and endeavour to prove to them their true interests.”
Two hundred years later and we find a Singapore obsessed as ever with “expertise,” “growth” and “development” as the solution to all its problems – including the climate crisis (which has grown out of this very thinking). Though the fundamentals remain the same, old terms have been renovated and re-deployed as “green growth” and “green development” by our new technocratic elite. While a handful of experts determine our future, the rest of the population, particularly the indigenous people who have lived in relative harmony with this region for thousands of years, continue to be sidelined.
In the course of Singapore’s rapid development, not only has this country’s land been flattened but so too has our understanding of nature and ourselves. The peoples of this island and Southeast Asia more broadly, who were once oriented towards the sea, have been made to turn inwards, becoming a land centric people. Today, many Singaporeans perceive nature as something that exists “out there,” separated from the individual. If nature is not an ornamental feature along sidewalks, then it is a reserve, fitted with sleek boardwalks, where one may go for a stroll. Though we may occasionally hear of the furies of nature in other Southeast Asian countries, nature in Singapore remains somewhat marginal and mostly aesthetic. A fair number of Singaporeans typically “feel” nature insofar as they experience the blistering heat on their transit from one air-conditioned container to another – like from an MRT to an office, for example. That we are an island in one of the most bio-diverse regions of the world is often lost on us. Even the beach, a defining feature of most islands, has gradually receded from the minds of many Singaporeans, with less than 7.5% of Singapore’s coastline being publicly accessible today.
In some senses, independent Singapore has not only continued many of the practices of their British predecessors but brought them to new heights. Indeed, the Singapore government makes no apologies for building upon this British legacy. As Lee Kuan Yew wrote in his autobiography, following Singapore’s independence the government decided to keep the statue of Stamford Raffles to signal a “public acceptance” of Singapore’s “British heritage.” After Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, the Singapore government committed the country to dizzying levels of development and urbanisation, often accompanied by the forcible relocation of large numbers of people. Highways, skyscrapers and “new towns”shot up in areas where rainforests, mangrove swamps and cemeteries once sat. In a 1987 speech, S. Rajaratnam, Singapore’s first Minister for Foreign Affairs, reflected on Singapore’s early years of independence and echoed the words of Munshi Abdullah, when he spoke of the “[h]undreds of bulldozers and other weapons of war … [that had] ruthlessly wiped out” anything that stood in the way of Singapore’s “modernisation.” By the 1980s, some began to joke that Singapore had a new national bird: the construction crane.
Singapore’s insatiable hunger for economic growth includes its own physical growth. Since 1965, Singapore’s land area has increased by 25% and the city-state has established itself as the world’s largest importer of sand. While in the early years of Singapore’s development, the sand needed for land reclamation projects was sourced from Singapore’s hills and surrounding islands, in more recent years it is being dredged from riverbeds and purchased, in the scale of hundreds of millions of tonnes, from countries across Southeast Asia. The purchasing of this sand, often done under dubious circumstances, has created a serious environmental crisis in this region. Singapore, for instance, is one of several countries responsible for the disappearance of at least 24 of Indonesia’s islands. In light of extensive losses to islands, beaches and riverbeds, Indonesia and Malaysia have both banned the exports of sand to Singapore. As a result, Singapore now feasts its eyes on Myanmar and Cambodia. In parts of Myanmar, what were once lush paddy fields have since collapsed into muddy waters, an impact of erosion caused by extensive sand dredging. Overnight, Burmese farmers have found themselves losing acres of land, a devastating blow to their already low income levels. Meanwhile in Cambodia, a growing number of people are being displaced from the land that once sustained them. These are the regional consequences of a system predicated on growth at all costs.
But Singapore’s British colonial legacy has never been concerned solely with its immediate neighbours. This is a legacy that has spawned an insatiable appetite for growth which demands a predatory global outlook. In Cameroon, for example, Singapore companies have taken over at least 48,000 hectares of land, cleared its dense tropical forests and developed rubber plantations. According to a 2018 Greenpeace report, the process of acquiring this land was opaque and led “to widespread dispossession of community lands and resources, including those of Indigenous Baka people.” The Free, Prior and Informed Consent of the peoples of this land was not respected and goes against Article 10 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which both Singapore and Cameroon are signatories. But these are private companies, some might say – not the Singapore government itself. It might be worth remembering that it was not the British government that brought Singapore under its control in 1819 either; it was a private company, run out of a small office in London. Private interests have always been the driving force behind imperialist endeavours.
Singapore’s British colonial legacy is a transnational story of human displacement, low-wage labour and extensive environmental degradation. We find that when the environment is exploited, so too are the most vulnerable among us.
Though the rise of the nation-state has compelled us to think of ourselves in siloes, our actions towards the environment have regional and global ramifications. If we want to seriously tackle the climate crisis, it is impossible to confine our considerations to our own borders. Singapore is a small island that punches far above its weight and our neighbours certainly feel the impact. It is high time that we reevaluate whether we should even be “punching” in the first place.
 Syed Hussein Alatas, Thomas Stamford Raffles: Schemer or Reformer?, New edition (National University of Singapore Press, 2020), 31.
 A. H. Hill, "The Hikayat Abdullah." Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 28, no. 3 (171) (1955). 146.
 Sophia Raffles, Memoir of the Life and Public Services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Illustrated edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 472.
 Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, "Introduction: Seeing Singapore with New Eyes" in Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene ed. Matthew Schneider-Mayerson (Ethos Books, 2020), 10.
 Suneetha M. Subramanian et. al, "Unraveling the drivers of Southeast Asia’s biodiversity loss", United Nations University, 8 November 2011, https://unu.edu/publications/articles/unraveling-the-drivers-of-southeast-asia-biodiversity-loss.html#info.
 Sarah Novak, "To Build a City-State and Erode History: Sand and the Construction of Singapore" in Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene ed. by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson (Ethos Books, 2020). 73.
 Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 1965-2000 (Singapore Press Holdings, 2000), 50.
 Kwa Chong Guan, S Rajaratnam on Singapore: From Ideas to Reality (Hackensack, N.J: Co-Published with World Scientific, 2006). 265.
 Sonny Yap, Richard Lim, and Weng Kam Leong, Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Ruling Political Party (Singapore Press Holdings, 2009). 435.
 Vince Beiser, The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization (Penguin, 2018), 13.
 Kate Whiting, “This Is the Environmental Catastrophe You’ve Probably Never Heard of,” World Economic Forum, 24 April 2019, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/04/global-demand-for-sand-is-wreaking-havoc-on-rivers/.
 Sam Aung Moon, John Geddie, Poppy McPherson, “As Myanmar Farmers Lose Their Land, Sand Mining for Singapore Is Blamed,” Reuters, 4 March 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-sand-singapore-insight-idUSKBN20R0C1.
 Emily Buder, “When Your Land Is Stolen From Beneath Your Feet,” The Atlantic, March 11, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/584563/singapore-cambodia/.