work-in-progress research by seewah and i.
State developmentalism underpins the transformations of land and nature in Singapore, culminating in comprehensive Master Plans that sees a tight regulation of the spaces at hand. This privileging of structural-institutional state power manifests in the manicured greenery, density of neatly packed buildings and deliberately crafted heartland hubs. Such visual tropes are consistent with the citizens’ lived experiences of our island-state, where the technocratic rationalization of space dictates how we should experience our environment and at the same time, deprives us of much intimacy with the land.
Within that liminal space from blueprint to built structures, right at the heart of construction sites, we wish to trouble that teleological path of development in Singapore by paying attention to dust. Teeming with activity around construction hoardings, what can we uncover about the dusty, material histories that Singapore's developmentalism has wrought?
We invoke speculative fabulation, à la Donna Haraway, into reading Singapore’s dusty trails, and follow dust’s transformations from physical site to its insertion into Singapore’s narrative of urban development and infrastructural resilience. Thinking with dust also requires us to attune to its rhythms and many-lives. Dust is interesting due to its transmutability across time and space—it reveals to us its different morphologies across the landscapes it has traversed. It is also tangible matter signifying death and rebirth; think of the layers of dust laying an abandoned building project down, to cosmic dust, originating from the molten core of a distant star, that swirled in Earth’s formation eons ago. Presently, tracing dust’s vast web of relations helps us uncover forgotten narratives as Singapore lands are continually reshaped in the State’s relentless pursuit of progress, while also hinting at viable alternatives for modes of being.
We look towards Woodlands as a site of enquiry, an area that we frequent so as to disturb our own normalised ways of seeing. This ‘HDB Town’ underwent a period of rapid development since the 1970s, a mini-state unto its own, and is slated to be the ‘star destination of the North’ replete with new housing, recreational and business facilities. Within a span of 50 years, Woodlands has transformed from an ulu area to a buzzing mini-city.
In between the ulu of its heavily-wooded past to its current, celebrated status as an urbanising feat by URA, what were the erasures, histories and environmental disruptions that happened here?
As we explored the area, embarking from the bustling Woodlands Central towards the Industrial Park, we noticed multiple construction sites along the way as we stir up the thin layers of dust under our bicycle tires. It is only when we train ourselves to spot them do they suddenly blossom up in droves on monumental scales; why haven’t we noticed them before? No doubt as part of the state’s development plans for Woodlands, we have grown normalised to the hoardings and cranes, as if they form our everyday environments. Even as Singapore touts itself as a grand metropolis, we are still digging away at our land in an endless bid for ‘modernity’.
It is only through a focused revisioning that these sites make themselves visible. Dust trails from the present-day, in fact, act as an interlocutor for us to defamiliarise our lived environments. When we distance ourselves from the perspective of the denizens of developed Singapore to that of dust and the kinds of sites it has traversed, the bodies it has stuck to, the disturbance it has faced and its settling over ghostly landscapes that once-weres, we open ourselves up an expansive way of seeing.
In this way, we hope that our dealings with dust presents an analytical tool. We hope it can conjure up a mediation between Singaporeans and the hidden narratives of our urban environment. To, hopefully, expand our understanding and being on the land.