Sembawang—named after the Sembawang Tree (Mensua Ferruginea)—is located at the northern tip of Singapore. The planning for Sembawang New Town was first mooted in 1996, and the lands of the last kampong in the area was reacquired in 1998—relatively late in Singapore’s public housing history (URA, 1996). Despite the mix of high and low-rise, public and private housing developments, the area is often conceived as the isolated ‘final frontier’ of Singapore. Arguably, the ‘frontier’ metaphor can be further extended in three ways. Firstly, the strip of land bordering the Johor Straits was an important frontier to be protected in Colonial Singapore; material and symbolic remnants of this colonial frontier are still observed in the landscape today. Next, the isolated—and later abandoned—villages in the area served as fertile frontiers for the growth of counter-culture artistic movements in the 1980s. Finally, Sembawang also hints at being one of the last ‘natural frontiers’ in highly urbanized Singapore.
As Singapore was an important port and epicenter of trade in British Southeast Asia, there was a pressing need to strengthen its defense in light of the growing Japanese military adventurism during the 1920s. The northern coastal frontier of Singapore required reinforcements, in case of an attack from the sea. Thus, more than a thousand acres of land, approximately 6.5km along the northern coast of Singapore, was presented to the British government by the governor of the Straits Settlement for the building of a naval base, and a dry dockyard east of the base, located at Sembawang. The construction of the base and dockyard took about ten years—the mangrove fringing the coast was drained and reclaimed, and part of Sungei Sembawang was diverted. Completed in 1938 at the cost of 60 million Sterling Pounds, the base was equipped with the best infrastructure and military technology of its time (Murfett, 1993). The base was also large enough to accommodate half of the Royal British fleet and provided employment for ten percent of Singapore’s population. The newly-named King George VI Graving Dock was described as the ‘largest naval dock east of the Seuz’; it remains one of the largest and deepest docks in Southeast Asia today. With the naval base, the northern frontier of Singapore was perceived to be secured, and thus, contributed to the myth of an ‘impregnable fortress’.
Following independence, the dockyard was converted into a shipyard in 1968, while the naval base continued to accommodate international fleets—notably, it was part of the resupply line for US navy ships during the Vietnam War. Today, the shipyard remains an integral part of Sembawang’s landscape—workers cycling along Canberra Road into the docks remain a ubiquitous sight in the mornings. Besides the shipyard, clusters of colonial bungalows (also colloquially known as ‘Black and White Houses’) were built around the base to house the officers and their families; and nondescript, Spartan-looking bunkers—now overgrown with vegetation—nestled quietly among these houses. These structures, too, are physical remnants of the colonial past at this sleepy frontier. Minor roads around these bungalow clusters were named after Commonwealth countries, British colonies and their cities—Canada Road, Sudan Road, and Wellington Road. They are symbolic legacies of Singapore’s colonial past.
With the development of HDB New Towns—Yishun, Khatib and Woodlands—in the 1980s, inhabitants of the various s in Sembawang were increasingly relocated to new flats, leaving some villages abandoned and temporarily empty in the late 1980s. Such spaces became the frontier for the development of alternative cultures in Singapore—the most significant being the Artists’ Village founded by artist Tang Da Wu in 1988 (see Wee, 2003; Kwok & Lee, 2009, Park, 2013). About 1.6 hectares, the village held numerous contemporary art exhibitions and performances over two years. Lee Wen—one of the artists of the collective—reckoned that the space in which they lived and work was one of the main reasons why they remained a collective. The isolation and quietness of Sembawang, and the earthy and rudimentary settings of the village contrast drastically with the trivial distractions which plague the city—it is the former that provided the collective a conducive space to work, share and exhibit. In an almost similar vein with the artists from the Arts and Craft movement of 19th century Britain, the formation of the village was also a statement against the ‘petite-bourgeois urban society that Singapore was becoming’ (Wee, 2003: 86). This artistic utopia, however, lasted for only two years as the land was eventually acquired by the government for development in 1990. Despite this, the legacy of the Artists’ Village in Sembawang remains.
It was the peacefulness of nature and the possible (re)connection with the earth that drew the artists to Sembawang. Twenty-five years later, Sembawang as the ‘final frontier’ of development, still offers a possible connection with nature. Located in Sembawang is one of Singapore’s few natural shorelines, beautifully fringed by large, overhanging Banyan trees. Sembawang is also known for its hot springs—the only one on mainland Singapore. Before the draining of the surrounding mangrove wetlands for the construction of Sembawang New Town, the area was teeming with birdlife. Today, gradually, the birds are returning to the areas around the channelized Sungei Sembawang, creating a symbiotic coexistence between nature and culture. Nevertheless, it is questionable as to how future developments in Sembawang (and nearby Seletar) will alter its status as one of Singapore’s last natural ‘frontiers’.
Kwok, K. W. and Lee, W. (2009), The Artist Village: 20 Years On, Singapore: Singapore Art Museum and Artists Village.
Murfett, M. H. (1993), ‘Living in the Past: A Critical Re-examination of the Singapore Naval Strategy, 1918-1941’, War & Society, 11(1): 73-103.
Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) (1996), Sembawang Planning Area: Planning Report 1996, Singapore: URA.
Wee, C. J. W. L. (2003), ‘Creating High Culture in the Globalized “Cultural Desert” of Singapore’, The Drama Review, 47(4): 84-97.
Park, M. (2013), ‘Contesting, Transferring, and Translating “Home”: Production and Practice of the Artists Village (1988-2000),’ in Home+Bound: Narratives of Domesticity in Singapore and Beyond, eds. Lilian Chee and Melany Sun-Min Park (Singapore: Centre for Advanced Studies in Architecture, NUS), 84-118.
Maps from (URA, 1996)