All at Sea

Pulau Semakau's landfill of waste, nature, and former village lives.

21 Dec 2011
All at Sea

It’s a land of ash and water, a repository of urban waste eight kilometres south of Pasir Panjang. Lovingly managed by the National Environment Agency, Semakau Landfill stands as the final resting place of Singapore’s non-recyclable refuse. After a soporific half-hour boat ride from the mainland, visitors are enthusiastically greeted with a crash course in solid waste management, as NEA staff and hired guides regale them with accounts of how this engineering marvel was built, even as they issue earnest reminders that the city-state is fast running out of space to discard and dispose of its trash.

But, standing on the bund that separates land from sea, it’s easy to forget all that and pretend that you are no longer in a nation with few hints of a countryside. To one side, there is a seemingly endless savannah of unmown grass and scrubland. Lalang and rampant casuarinas have naturally taken root on the soil that forms the topmost layer of a network of landfill cells, each the size of several football fields. Essentially massive pits for holding ash, these cells were formed when engineers hemmed the seabed between two islands, Sakeng and Semakau, with a bedrock of clay topped by a seven kilometre-long wall of boulders and an impermeable lining that prevents the incinerated waste from leaching into the sea.

On the other side, the seaward edge is a wall of green: impenetrable mangroves and dense jungle that meld into the Straits of Singapore with each rising tide. You can just make out the city in the distance, a hazy line of cranes and towers that provide a visual footnote to the story of Sakeng and Semakau, which were reshaped and remoulded in 1995 to create the world’s first and (so far) only offshore landfill.

The beginning of the end

The birth of Semakau Landfill was a maritime milestone, and not just because it offered a unique, almost ideal, waste disposal solution to a land-scarce city that was increasingly uncomfortable with mainland dumps, such as the former Lorong Halus landfill. The making of Semakau Landfill was also a rare instance of collaboration between the authorities and local conservationists, two parties who seldom see eye to eye, but who came together to preserve Semakau’s extensive natural habitats during the landfill’s construction.

The island’s coral reefs were protected from silt by floating screens, while two plots of mangroves were planted and replanted (the first batch failed) on the fringes of Semakau to replace a patch of swamp lost to the cells. It was a costly move, but you could say that the investment paid off when in 2005, Semakau Landfill was declared a new destination for the public and a showcase for an approach to environmental protection that reconciled the needs of a growing economy with nature preservation.

The guides today never tire of pointing out that these efforts culminated in the odd couple of a wasteland amid wild habitats: mangroves, mudflats, and reefs harbouring crowd-pleasing populations of aquatic life, replete with teasing sightings of otters, dolphins, and turtles. It’s a scene that has drawn not a few newlyweds for photo ops and tempted many more visitors to sign up for shore tours run by the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research. Now in their seventh year, these annotated encounters with nature-with-a-touch-of-human-nurture came about when wildlife enthusiasts saw the opportunity to show the public what remains of Singapore’s natural marine heritage, while the NEA recognised the added value of giving Singaporeans a firsthand look at the fate of nearly every piece of unrecyclable rubbish they ditch.  

Indeed, the landfill is a trove of discoveries and a productive classroom for biologists, who have led field trips to the island since the 1980s and still do under the aegis of Project Semakau, a research-cum-education programme spearheaded by the Raffles Museum. My own introduction to the place came in 2007 when I volunteered in a marine conservation programme to monitor the health of local seagrass beds. Seagrasses, which once formed extensive meadows around the mainland, are a vital yet underrated habitat that feeds and shelters all manner of marine creatures, from turtles and dugongs to crabs, prawns, and the young of many edible fish. Semakau abuts Singapore’s largest surviving bed, a literal green mile of long blades in low waters and a nursery for armoured sea stars and anemone fish.

But it was only later, during my research for a commemorative book on the landfill, that my curiosity was stirred about the past lives – both natural and human – of the two former islands, prompting my own imperfect unearthing of fragments that few recall and almost none mourn.

Sea people

It has been said (and in one survey, quantified) that in the Singaporean scheme of things, the awareness and appreciation of the island’s natural spaces rank far below the value accorded to the city’s built heritage. In the case of Semakau Landfill, however, nature has trumped culture and continues to thrive, while the islands’ human communities are evident only in crumbling beams by the beach and foundations overgrown by a forest of ferns and creepers.

In 1993, after plans for the razing of Sakeng were announced, Edmund Waller, a professor of architecture at the National University of Singapore, pleaded for the preservation of the village that occupied the half kilometre-long island. Decrying the eminent loss of what he called “the most important living cultural landscape to survive in modern-day Singapore” and “a spectacular kampung by any standard,” Waller pressed the case for Sakeng as a community with a history almost as long as, or possibly longer than, that of the mainland.

The earliest written record of human settlement on Sakeng dates to 1848, when Robert Little, a passing colonial doctor, noted the presence of seven “well built” houses and 30 residents. But Normala Manap, a budding ethnographer who charted Sakeng’s social history in the early 1980s, has suggested that the island could have been occupied, or at least visited earlier, based on archaeological digs that uncovered Ming-era painted ware. Two other observations – an anomalous outcrop of white kaolin clay that was a mystery to both islanders and researchers, and a line of reddish (possibly baked) coral-stone blocks suspected to be the foundations of vanished buildings – supported this notion. 

Some of the islanders claimed descent from the Orang Selat (“people of the Straits”), who were the “calefare” or bit players to Raffles’ landmark deal with Temenggong Abdul Rahman to open a British trading base in Singapore in 1819. These native seafarers were later hounded to the peripheries when the port grew and they were suspected of piracy. Indeed, Keng, the woman who bestowed her name on the island, was said to have been a buccaneer herself, and Sakeng villagers were known to have waylaid passing vessels even in the late 19th Century. Before the landfill eradicated all traces of old Sakeng, a solitary hill on the island housed two keramat or Muslim graves-turned-shrines, one said to be Keng’s and the other belonging to a “Syed” or Arab of mysterious provenance.

Both, like the surviving keramat on Kusu Island, were reputed to be highly efficacious sites of pilgrimage that drew locals as well as mainlanders who prayed for favours and bedecked the tombs with funerary regalia. Such practices were de rigueur for the islanders, who betrayed a worldview blending religious orthodoxy (there was both a mosque and a Muslim school on Sakeng) and antecedent faiths. Manap, in recalling the weltanschauung of the villagers, had this to say: “They believed that all things in nature have spirits. The trees, water and even rocks have spirits and as a result they treat nature with great reverence. They even named themselves after trees, flowers and sea creatures.”

The secrets of Sakeng and its people are moot, though, for Waller was spurned, despite having drawn up for the authorities a proposal for a landfill that would have skirted this final outpost of tradition in an archipelago of oil refineries and chemical plants. The village, though self-sufficient in spirit and partly so in sustenance, was also living on borrowed time, for by then, its wells had dried up and potable water had to be ferried over from Bukom, and many younger residents had moved to the mainland.

Today, all that remains of Sakeng is a massive ash transfer station and a pier that serves as a launchpad for coastal explorers. Neighbouring Semakau had also been a base for fisherfolk and coconut farmers of Malay and Teochew origins since the mid-19th Century. But the people of Mangrove Island (“Semakau” is derived from bakau, Malay for mangrove) surrendered much earlier – in 1977, when the two-kilometre long island was earmarked for petrochemical development. In the mysterious ways of local urban planners, this scheme was later aborted. But the reprieve came too late. The village on Semakau – like the one that once overlooked Chek Jawa on Pulau Ubin – was quickly swallowed by a littoral forest of pandans and sea almonds, whose seeds arrived on wind and water to reclaim the rustic landscape.

Islands lived and lost

Today, almost every outing to the shores of Semakau Landfill is a journey of discovery: of cryptic starfish that cling to the dark side of boulders at the foot of the seawall, of dog-faced serpents that emerge after dusk to feast on crabs and mudskippers, of countless nameless things that swim, creep or fly through a landscape of soil and surf. For those who crave respite from the madding crowd of a city that consumes more than it creates, the landfill is a dump of life, a menagerie of fish and fowl, a slippery slope of glorious mud, batty rubble, and glowing reefs.

But to others, for whom these isles were home and haunt, the present landfill, for all its ecological glory, stirs little other than a sense of loss – one not unlike that which affects those who return home after a sojourn abroad to find a beloved landmark bulldozed. It was evident when a handful of former Sakeng residents visited the landfill in 2005 as guests to witness the second life of an island newly declared a haven for birdwatchers, stargazers, and tidechasers. It was evident in the voice of Pak Ghani Dualip, an ex-villager who recalled in halting Malay a youth of carefree days and yearly boat races between kolek (sampan) of neighbouring islands. It was evident, too, in the recollections of the Teo brothers who once manned the island’s sole sundry shop and now reside in a Clementi flat with their collection of fading photographs and a lifetime of memories.

For all appearances, these men seemed no different from any other “uncle” or pakcik in a coffeeshop when I spoke to them to get a glimpse of their former lives on Sakeng. But in their words and eyes, there was a palpable air of deep longing for a community uprooted and dispersed. It seemed that with little to live for on the mainland, all the Teos could do to watch television and make occasional trips to Riau in search of their youth, while Pak Ghani, hampered by a bad leg, spent his days with his grandchildren in a flat overlooking Bukit Panjang.

Semakau Landfill is a place of contradictions: a “Garbage of Eden” (as New Scientist magazine lauded), a showpiece of environmental foresight in a straits where virtually every island of substance has been reclaimed and paved over, a habitat in harmony with its post-industrial side. Visitors now flock to its shores in search of a scene that appears unspoilt, untouched, and quite unlike the Singapore they thought they had always known. Adventure begins with a walk down the bund under the wings of passing herons and sea eagles, followed by a stroll through a wooded path that ends before a sprawling meadow of seagrasses and gaudy sponges, a terra nova or land before time, a vision of pristine shoals.

But, standing on the bund that keeps the sea and its storm of stories from soiling the cells, it’s easy to pretend that the islands never had a past and forget all that had passed in a mere square mile of land on the fringes of a grander state. It’d be a shame, wouldn’t it, to dredge up a footnote of questions that will never be answered nor even asked? Better perhaps to tell ourselves that nature never had a chance before the city blinked and built a wall to store its waste and preserve its way of life –  one that was lost on the men for whom home and habitat were two sides of the same coin, and who still dream of houses that stand just above the waves.

Words & Images Marcus Ng


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