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Our Forged Identity

Jiajin originally wrote this pictorial essay on Marina Bay for the class “History and Theory of Landscape Architecture” as a student at the National University of Singapore. At the start of the class, students each shared a piece of landscape that they liked; they then reflected on this after a semester of learning.

Figure 1: Lily Pond at Art Science Museum (Cai Jiajin, 2019)

To many Singaporeans, residents, and visitors, Marina Bay is the identity of Singapore. It consists of numerous unique, landmark architecture, from the Merlion and Esplanade to Marina Bay Sands (MBS), Art Science Museum, Gardens by the Bay, and Helix Bridge – all to be found in one location.

Figure 2: National Day Parade at Marina Bay Floating Platform (Mothership, 2022)
Figure 3: News Broadcast in Singapore (CNA, 2021)

With the presence of these landmarks, combined with a vast waterbody in the foreground and the towering Central Business District in the background, it is no wonder that Marina Bay holds such a strong identity in Singapore.

This identity is amplified by the media, where images of the city skyline can be seen in the background of newscasters or aerial footage of Marina Bay when reporting news. Such images or aerial footage can again be seen during National Day rallies; National Day Parade is often held at the Marina Bay floating platform.

Furthermore, Marina Bay is frequently mentioned on tourism websites. For instance, on Tripadvisor's Top 30 Singapore Landmarks, 12 are from Marina Bay, which is remarkable given how Marina Bay only occupies a small fraction of Singapore.

It is astonishing how the view of Marina Bay is so heavily used in our media outlets and promoted as a tourist destination when it does not possess any historical value/significance. The land where most of these landmarks stood did not exist until 1992.

Marina Bay is just one of a few zones along the Marina Reservoir. Other zones include Marina Centre, Marina East, and Marina South, as shown in the map below (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Schematic zoning plan from ArcGIS (Cai Jiajin, 2022)
Initial Reactions to Marina Bay

Like many Singaporeans, Marina Bay has always been my favourite spot to unwind. I still recall my first visit to Marina Bay in 2016; I was unaware that such a spot existed in Singapore. I only remember seeing the Merlion and Esplanade back in my primary school days (Marina Bay Sands opened in 2010, Art Science Museum opened in 2011). The beautiful architecture and city lights sparked my interest in photography. I have been attracted to this place ever since.

(Left) Figure 5: First visit to Marina Bay (Cai Jiajin, 2016) (Right) Figure 6: Present-day Marina Bay (Cai Jiajin, 2019)

Having been there numerous times, I thought the spaces and the activities/events held on-site would be an exciting topic to write on. However, as I dug deeper into my research of Marina Bay, I realised there is so much more that was unknown to me about the site. For instance, I learnt that the development houses the world's largest underground cooling district and that this project was built on reclaimed land. For this essay, I decided to explore the topic of reclaimed land and how it influences the identity of Singapore.

Brief History of Land Reclamation in Singapore

Surprisingly, land reclamation in Singapore was not a recent trend that started 10 or 20 years ago. The history of land reclamation dates back to colonial times in 1822, when Sir Stamford Raffles called for the first land reclamation project at Boat Quay (formerly known as South Bank), which was originally a low-lying mosquito-infested marshland prone to flooding. (Lim Tin Seng, 2017) Singapore has been using land reclamation to expand our land space ever since. Figure 7 presents a summary of the history of land reclamation projects in Singapore.

Figure 7: Timeline generated based on information gathered from “Land from Sand: Singapore’s Reclamation Story” (Lim Tin Seng, 2017)

Origin of the Materials

From Figure 7, we can see that Marina Bay was part of “The Great Reclamation.” According to Temasek Digital's interview with Mr Ho Wah Hin, a Coastal Engineer from Surbana Jurong, a large amount of soil needs to be acquired for this operation to be carried out. Thus, HDB decided to obtain soil from Tampines; since the area consists primarily of hilly terrains, the high grounds were 'cut', and soil was transported via large conveyor belt systems, 26000m long. Other sources include soil removed from construction sites and soil removed from tunnelling of MRT tracks underground. (Temasek Digital, 2019) According to URA, by the late 1990s, Marina Bay had covered approximately 360 hectares of land.

However, the origin of the sand used for reclamation is still widely debated. According to Lim Tin Seng, "By the mid-1980s, however, these resources began to run out, and Singapore had to import sand from neighbouring countries." Thus, we started to look at importing soil from neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia. All three countries have since banned sand exports, with Malaysia's ban in 1997, Indonesia's in 2007 and Cambodia in 2017. Since then, Singapore has become the world's largest importer of sand. (TODAY, 2019)

Since resources began to run out locally in the mid-1980s (Lim Tim Seng, 2017), phases VI and VII would be affected, which happens to be the reclamation of Marina South and Marina East. Reclamation of these two bodies of land will have to use imported sand from other countries.

Figure 8: Reclamation Boundaries for (Left) Marina South and (Right) Marina East. (Temasek Digital, 2019)
Consequentialism: Why does origin matter?

Soil/sand is unlike other types of resources. It symbolises the motherland and is the base on which all other resources are dependent. We are all aware of how sensitive of a topic it can be regarding land, borders and boundaries. It was reasonable when we were flattening terrains to recycle the soil for our reclamation projects.

However, it becomes unjustifiable when we begin to purchase sand from other countries, especially when this would devastate the livelihoods of local communities and ecosystems, caused by sand dredging. One of the ways sand dredging works is similar to a claw machine, such as shown in Figure 9. If the waters are shallow enough, a crane would be stationed on a ship or along the shores, and the claws would be used to scoop up sand/sediments found at the bottom of the sea, lakes or rivers.

Figure 9: Sand Dredging in Cambodia, “A Disappearing World: Singapore is harvesting land from Cambodia” (The Atlantic, 2019)

This process severely damages the local ecosystem. For instance, seven beaches were missing, reported to be caused by excessive sand dredging in Cambodia. (Reuters, 2016) The livelihoods of the locals were also affected as they could no longer fish, as the crabs and fish population dwindled with natural habitats destroyed by sand dredging (The Atlantic, 2019).

Bringing back to the context of Singapore, it feels ironic that we have the vision of A City in Nature, guidelines and measures to protect our local biodiversity and natural habitats yet, we are expanding our greenery at the expense of destroying natural habitats elsewhere.

(Left) Figure 10: Cloud Forest (Cai Jiajin, 2018). (Right) Figure 11: Supertrees (Cai Jiajin, 2016).

It feels even more ironic, considering the sand used for reclamation and development of Gardens by the Bay (Marina South) is likely to be built at the expense of destroying a natural environment elsewhere. This possible destruction was done to build “Supertrees” and an entirely artificial environment with non-native plants flown in from other countries.

Palimpsest: How did land reclamation change the landscape of Marina Bay

Palimpsest is somehow relevant in the context of Marina Bay, as sand is used to erase and redraw our former shoreline/land boundaries. Especially with Marina Bay's development rate, it has become near impossible to find where our former shoreline ended as infrastructures have quickly taken over empty plots of reclaimed land. I attempted to trace the former shorelines by looking for old colonial buildings such as Customs House, built in 1932 and Fullerton Hotel, built in 1928. Located beside the Customs House, the former shoreline can still be seen protruding from the promenade walls.

Figure 12: Former shoreline beside Customs House. (Cai Jiajin, 2021)

I found that similar to the theoretical groundings of form generation, where the process of designing is expressed, the process of planning, designing, and constructing should be as important as the final outcome.

If we sincerely want to have a sustainable design, we should have a deep understanding of our materials: their properties, how they are manufactured/produced, and the impacts of choosing such materials. It is no longer sufficient to look at our site from a micro perspective. The world has become even more interconnected than before. We should be looking beyond our individual needs/wants. No man is an island.


Cai Jiajin is driven by curiosity. His work experience spans various sectors of the landscape industry, from maintenance to design. He is motivated to elevate the role of the profession in today’s society.

Edited by Dr. Ervine Lin and Ruen Qing Wong


‘Ban on Sea Sand Exports for Environmental Reasons, Singapore Not Targeted: Malaysian Minister’. n.d. CNA. Accessed 28 April 2022.

BBC News. 2017. ‘Cambodia Bans Sand Exports Permanently’, 13 July 2017, sec. Business.

‘Explainer: Why Sand Is so Highly Valued and the Controversy Surrounding Cross-Border Trade’. n.d. TODAY. Accessed 28 April 2022.

‘Indonesia Bans Land Sand Exports to Singapore - Singapore History’. n.d. Accessed 28 April 2022.,effect%20on%206%20February%202007.

‘Land From Sand: Singapore’s Reclamation Story’. n.d. Accessed 28 April 2022.

One, Only. n.d. ‘The Grave Losses Caused by Mining the Jewel of Cambodia’s Mangrove Forests’. Accessed 28 April 2022.

Reuters. 2016. ‘Cambodia Digs into Sand Mining Industry as Beaches and Crabs Vanish’, 3 November 2016, sec. APAC.

‘S’pore’s Alleged Use of Too Much Cambodian Sand to Reclaim Land Highlighted Again in Recent Documentary’. n.d. Accessed 28 April 2022.

Subramanian, Samanth. 2017. ‘How Singapore Is Creating More Land for Itself’. The New York Times, 20 April 2017, sec. Magazine.

‘The Deadly Cost of Sand Mining’. n.d. The ASEAN Post. Accessed 28 April 2022.

‘The Marina Bay Story’. n.d. Accessed 28 April 2022.

‘WAVE OF GLOBAL SAND TRADE MAY BE DEPLETING BEACHES’. 2019. Global Trade Magazine. 10 September 2019.

A Disappearing World: Singapore Is Harvesting Land from Cambodia. n.d. Accessed 28 April 2022.

Building Marina Bay District from the Ground Up. n.d. Accessed 28 April 2022.

From Swamp to City: Story of Land Reclamation | 10 Things You Don’t Know About Singapore. n.d. Accessed 28 April 2022.

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