In the 1960s, Singapore gorged the soil from its tiny hills and ridges and used it to reclaim land. The island is virtually flat today, forcing the government to buy sand from neighbouring countries to continue the reclamation efforts.


In the early stages of each land-reclamation project, when the imported sand sat for some time, huge desert-like landscapes began to dominate the eastern and western coasts of Singapore, mainly Tuas, Punggol, Marine Parade, and Changi. When these deserts started appearing in the 1960s, they took the place of the beaches that locals used to frequent. Making do with what they had, Singaporeans flocked to these reclaimed spaces on the weekends to walk towards the new shoreline, in the hopes of reaching the beach they once knew.

In the late 1990s, my father would take me to these reclaimed lands on the west coast of Singapore. These places were so huge that it would take 30 minutes of driving before we could see the sea. It has always been a mystery to me why such huge landscapes exist in Singapore. The city was only 224 square miles before the reclamation projects started in 1960. By 2030 it will grow to 317 square miles.

A casual visit to the reclaimed lands has become nearly impossible in recent years. The reclaimed lands are now fenced up. So I now make it a point to visit coastal dunes in other countries to try to relive the experience of walking on the sands of Singapore in my youth. There are giant dunes in the middle of several cities today, like the Dune du Pyla of Arcachon in France, the Tottori Sand Dunes in Japan, and the Dunes under Fort Funston in San Francisco. I take photographs in these foreign places and imagine that these were the kind of images I could have taken in Singapore when I was younger. Sometimes I wish I had a souvenir for the dunes of Singapore because most of us actually forget that, as Singaporeans, we are mostly walking on water or, if not, on the sand of others.


Text and photos by Robert Zhao

Sand from Ulu Tiram

Ulu Tiram Bukit Timah

Sands Of Time by Robert Zhao

A large stockpile of sand is stored in the middle of the city.

Overlooking Bukit Panjang

Gali Batu

Sands Of Time by Robert Zhao

A group of tourists visit a stockpile of sand.

Singapore Tree

Sands Of Time by Robert Zhao

Singapore’s largest and oldest tree is hidden in a secret location.

Singapore Wild Dogs

Sands Of Time by Robert Zhao

There are no more wild dogs left in Singapore.

Sands Of Time by Robert Zhao

In tropical Singapore, we are plagued with dengue mosquitos and other insects. Fumigation is an effective way to kill and eradicate pests along with many other insects all in one fell swoop. Fumigation often creates a beautiful and surreal landscape when the smoke fills the space, creating a beautiful and surreal oasis that is almost dream like.


Sands Of Time by Robert Zhao

In Woodlands stands the remains of a secret tunnel that links Singapore to Malaysia.



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