Today we're embarking on our one and only official Singapore field trip, to Semakau Landfill! Boat ride, talk, nature walk!
For overseas readers, I’d like to explain that this is not a trip most Singaporeans take. But we should! It’s an eye-opening view of the country’s inner workings: how we’ve been forced by land scarcity to create a ridiculously eco-friendly waste management system – I mean, this is an active landfill that doubles as a nature reserve! (I’ll explain more below.)

First, to Marina South Pier. (Folks also come here to go camping on St John’s Island, or to offer prayers at the temple on Kusu Island.) There’s some crazy-ass restaurant ships here: Chinese food aboard the Cheng Ho V, American food on a genuine riverboat.
Meet Subaraj, our guide and all-round Singaporean wildlife expert! (Not an oxymoron: Singapore has pretty big biodiversity, and he knows it inside-out). 

He gives us a bit of background to the islands as we pass them on the ferry. How the islands have mutated over the years, due to the government’s reclamation efforts – Sisters’ Islands becoming the conjoined twin of Sister’s Island; Pulau Bukom transforming into an international oil refinery, Jurong Island created out of a small archipelago, thus becoming Singapore’s biggest offshore isle.
Most of these islands began as little random rocks in the sea, he says, like this one: Pulau Jong, aka Junk Island (the ship, not garbage). No beach: just a straight-edge cliff where the tide rises and falls. 

He remarks how Singapore’s protected from tsunamis and earthquakes due to the buffer lands of Sumatra and Malaysia. So the only thing that can destroy Singapore… is Singaporeans.
There’s a visitors’ centre on the island, barely ten metres from the ferry terminal. Inside, we have a presentation from Ivan Yap from the National Environment Agency (previously from the WMD, Waste Management Department, not Weapons of Mass Destruction, he said.) Also a minivan ride - our group split into two; I had a certain Mr Loh.

So here’s the story: we used to chuck all our waste in a landfill in Lorong Halus. (Ironically, the name means “gentle lane”.) This operated from the early ‘70s to ’99, and suffered from all the usual problems of conventional landfills: sinking land and methane production as the organic matter decays.

So, we’ve got a new policy now. We recycle 60% of our rubbish – not just glass and metal and plastics, but even wood pulp, horticultural waste, “e-waste”, construction materials, e.g. the steel reinforcements and copper slates. Another 38% is incinerated. This reduces the mass of the rubbish by nine tenths. Plus, we use the fires to superheat water, thus powering turbines that generate electricity, which they can sell back to Singaporeans.

The ashes are then dumped into barges. The non-incinerable waste, too – e.g. treated sludge, insulation boards, etc. And every night, the barges make their way to the island.

Pulau Semakau started life as two islands: the original Pulau Semakau and the smaller Pulau Sakeng. Both were originally populated with Chinese and Malay kampungs: the Semakau residents were cleared and rehoused by the HDB in the 1980s, and the Sakeng in 1994. (KS used the word “displaced”, which made me feel suddenly terribly sad – that families can be driven from their homes not only by war, but also by prosperity.)

The government then joined up the islands with a 7km bund, lined with marine clay and impermeable geomembrane (no idea what this is, but someone mentioned polythene). The enclosed sea space was then further divided into cells, where the waste could be dumped.

(Why did they choose the islands? Because they’d been the dumping ground for the Singapore harbor dredgings for years.)

When a cell reaches ground level, it’s capped with 30cm of earth. Then they move on to the next cell. They’re nearly done with Cell 10, after that they’ll do cells 3 and 9, and from then on it’s Phase II, which – using the Osaka model of offshore landfills – will probably not be divided into cells: it’ll just be one big lake for refuse.

*

So why is this substantially different from a normal landfill? Well, first off, it doesn’t smell and it’ll last way longer – current projections say they’ll fill up by 2045, after which they may add an extra bund.

But – and this is such an important thing for Singaporeans – it keeps the place looking really nice. The area was opened up for tourism in 2005, for stargazers and sport fishers and wedding photographers and nature enthusiasts: plus, they made a special point of inviting the old kampong residents back for a tour. They were mostly old folks – young people had insisted on living on the mainland – and they’d been resettled mostly on the West Coast, to keep some sense of community intact.

The jungle on the original Pulau Semakau is intact: even some coconut palms and mango trees amidst the wilderness, leftover from the old kampungs. This is where you go for the intertidal walk, communing with sea slugs on the sand. (Also, clouds of ravenous mosquitoes.) We didn’t go in, because it was still high tide, but it seems the Prime Minister, his wife and a bunch of grassroots leaders went recently and made a Singapore flag with the starfish.

They had to cut down some mangrove forests to make way for the bunds, but they replanted them. Mangroves are essential for marine life: their roots are where baby prawns and fish and other wiggly things can survive, feeding off the nutriments of the brackish water. (Also pretty good for shielding villages from the full effects of a tsunami, as folks in Indonesia discovered back in ’06.) From certain points, you can see the contrast of the old and new mangroves: babies and ancients, all doing the same work.

And the wildlife isn’t just surviving: it’s flourishing. Young monitor lizards, inched out of their habitats on other industrialised islands, wind up here, in full view of our cameras. A couple of years ago an otter swam in: he’s enjoying the bounty of the island’s fish – unlike the human visitors, he isn’t required to practice sport fishing, throwing back his catches. Raj even sees dolphins now and then. And the corals are growing back.

And the craziest thing: the earth dumped on top of the landfill land contains seeds, which naturally sprout into undergrowth. Seeds get blown in from the wind and on the droppings of birds. And some of the plants growing have never been seen in Singapore before, because the soil for reclamation comes from Cambodia. Strange flowers, stranger fruit.

And the brilliance of the butterflies, and the birds: terns, egrets, swallows, even greenshanks on their migratory route from Siberia.

You see, it’s a little utopia, extremely Singaporean: the idea that you can take a dump on a tiny island and make a paradise of it. And while we’re wandering along the bund, admiring the casuarinas and sea almonds and coastal hibiscus (planted by grassroots leaders? Not sure), we’re confused about whether we’re delighted by nature or by the united forces of art, science and competent government.

Oh, as artists we long to find cracks in this paradise. Such as: can all that dumping in the sea really be good for the sea? Are the incinerators really keeping to standards of minimal air pollution? And when you’re done with the dumping, you mention the prospect of development – seems like a spot for ecotourism, but you expect industry, just like on the neighbouring islands. Who knows what kind of land needs we’ll have by 2045?

But it is wonderful to remember that things *work* here. I was walking with Zeya, and he was staring at a basic tarmac road, saying, “If only the roads in Myanmar were like this.” The things we take for granted on this island.

The flip side of this is, no-one else seems interested in imitating this model. All other countries in the region are way bigger, with loads of places to dump their trash. Recycling and burning and barging and landfilling and capping and communing with Gaia is the expensive way to do things. Not for the likes of most of us.

Ah, but I’m just wonderfully weirded out by how this place offers that sense of both the familiar and the sci-fi. Disorienting the way art should be.

Oh, and remember the old Lorong Halus landfill? They’re now channeling the methane to power water purification plants. Yeah, they really do seem to have thought of everything.    
So why is this substantially different from a normal landfill? Well, first off, it doesn’t smell and it’ll last way longer – current projections say they’ll fill up by 2045, after which they may add an extra bund.

But – and this is such an important thing for Singaporeans – it keeps the place looking really nice. The area was opened up for tourism in 2005, for stargazers and sport fishers and wedding photographers and nature enthusiasts: plus, they made a special point of inviting the old kampong residents back for a tour. They were mostly old folks – young people had insisted on living on the mainland – and they’d been resettled mostly on the West Coast, to keep some sense of community intact.

The jungle on the original Pulau Semakau is intact: even some coconut palms and mango trees amidst the wilderness, leftover from the old kampungs. This is where you go for the intertidal walk, communing with sea slugs on the sand. (Also, clouds of ravenous mosquitoes.) We didn’t go in, because it was still high tide, but it seems the Prime Minister, his wife and a bunch of grassroots leaders went recently and made a Singapore flag with the starfish.

They had to cut down some mangrove forests to make way for the bunds, but they replanted them. Mangroves are essential for marine life: their roots are where baby prawns and fish and other wiggly things can survive, feeding off the nutriments of the brackish water. (Also pretty good for shielding villages from the full effects of a tsunami, as folks in Indonesia discovered back in ’06.) From certain points, you can see the contrast of the old and new mangroves: babies and ancients, all doing the same work.
And the wildlife isn’t just surviving: it’s flourishing. Young monitor lizards, inched out of their habitats on other industrialised islands, wind up here, in full view of our cameras. A couple of years ago an otter swam in: he’s enjoying the bounty of the island’s fish – unlike the human visitors, he isn’t required to practice sport fishing, throwing back his catches. Raj even sees dolphins now and then. And the corals are growing back.

And the craziest thing: the earth dumped on top of the landfill land contains seeds, which naturally sprout into undergrowth. Seeds get blown in from the wind and on the droppings of birds. And some of the plants growing have never been seen in Singapore before, because the soil for reclamation comes from Cambodia. Strange flowers, stranger fruit.

And the brilliance of the butterflies, and the birds: terns, egrets, swallows, even greenshanks on their migratory route from Siberia.

(Also familiar stuff: the foreigners were fascinated by the mimosa, the touch-me-not fern that closes its leaves when brushed with your fingers. Adriaan learned the hard way that these buggers have thorns.)
You see, it’s a little utopia, extremely Singaporean: the idea that you can take a dump on a tiny island and make a paradise of it. And while we’re wandering along the bund, admiring the casuarinas and sea almonds and coastal hibiscus (planted by grassroots leaders? Not sure), we’re confused about whether we’re delighted by nature or by the united forces of art, science and competent government.

Oh, as artists we long to find cracks in this paradise. Such as: can all that dumping in the sea really be good for the sea? Are the incinerators really keeping to standards of minimal air pollution? And when you’re done with the dumping, you mention the prospect of development – seems like a spot for ecotourism, but you expect industry, just like on the neighbouring islands. Who knows what kind of land needs we’ll have by 2045?

But it is wonderful to remember that things *work* here. I was walking with Zeya, and he was staring at a basic tarmac road, saying, “If only the roads in Myanmar were like this.” The things we take for granted on this island.

The flip side of this is, no-one else seems interested in imitating this model. All other countries in the region are way bigger, with loads of places to dump their trash. Recycling and burning and barging and landfilling and capping and communing with Gaia is the expensive way to do things. Not for the likes of most of us.

Ah, but I’m just wonderfully weirded out by how this place offers that sense of both the familiar and the sci-fi. Disorienting the way art should be.

Back to the boat again.
Oh, and remember the old Lorong Halus landfill? They’re now channeling the methane to power water purification plants. Yeah, they really do seem to have thought of everything.  
 





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