Built on Sand: Singapore and the New State of Risk

Causeway linking johor, malaysia, to singapore, 2002
Causeway linking Johor, Malaysia, to Singapore, 2002

In June 2014, drivers crossing the causeway between Singapore and Johor, Malaysia, began to notice something strange. A slender sandbar, which had long stood in the middle of the narrow straits, had started to grow, and was slowly inching toward Singapore. Construction vehicles had arrived, and small barges passed continuously, dumping load after load of sand into the water. Newspapers soon reported that this expanding mound was to become the site of Forest City, a 2,000-hectare high-rise housing development jutting out from the Malaysian port of Tanjung Pelepas. As this privately funded project crept toward Singapore’s national border, the security state doubtlessly felt violated. In response, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong requested that the Malaysian government halt work on the project, and threatened to file a complaint with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg.

Forest City and its backstory are emblematic of an emerging issue of a transnational order. Less obvious than the increased capital flows across territories is the flow of territory itself. That is, land. Or, more accurately, sand.

With the rise of sand trading, the nation-state has entered a dangerously fluid phase. With the coastal earthworks that are under way throughout Southeast Asia and the Middle East—a series of reclamations so large that they nearly encroach on sovereign borders—territory has acquired an unprecedented liquidity. The malleability of sand makes it a uniquely volatile substance. Its softness and scalability distinguish it from other modes of infrastructure. As journalist Chris Milton pointed out in a 2010 essay in Foreign Affairs, sand is a medium by which massive environmental change can be effected via incremental processes. It is granular—neither liquid nor solid—which means that it can be transported by the boatload or by the handful. In large quantities, it can be engineered into the most fundamental of all infrastructures: land itself. In contrast to the materiality of other “fixed” infrastructures, however, sand is removed and sold by a great number of agents, and is brokered by governing authorities at local and national levels. ….

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