Reshaping a Country: On Rachel Heng’s “The Great Reclamation”

By Jeremy TiangApril 7, 2023

Reshaping a Country: On Rachel Heng’s “The Great Reclamation”

The Great Reclamation by Rachel Heng

NEAR THE BEGINNING of Yeo Siew Hua’s 2018 film A Land Imagined, two police officers gaze out across the ocean, reminiscing about how far Singapore’s coastline has shifted in the last 30 years. The construction worker they are searching for, it turns out, went missing from a worksite fueling this expansion, reclaiming land from the sea by pouring sand into it. Later, in a flashback, we see the missing man standing on a beach, insisting that because this sand was actually taken from somewhere else, he is in fact not in Singapore but in Malaysia or Vietnam or Cambodia. Even the ground beneath his feet is of uncertain provenance.

Singapore’s small size has long been seen by those who run it as an obstacle to be overcome, and over time the island’s surface area has increased by a quarter thanks to reclamation, the creation of land that is then proclaimed to be part of the state, an act that the writer and scholar Joanne Leow describes as hovering “between fiction and reality, turning that which was sea into land,” in service of “the image that Singapore has constructed for itself as a glamorous, ahistorical tropical setting for the extremely wealthy and the world’s political elite.”

Rachel Heng’s The Great Reclamation (2023), which traces the origins of this mania for physical expansion, takes its title from an actual government program. While not the first act of land reclamation in Singapore (that dubious honor goes to the hillock that colonizer Stamford Raffles dropped into the Singapore River in 1822), the Great Reclamation was the first large-scale postindependence project, adding 1,525 hectares to the country’s coastline. As William Jamieson puts it, “Singapore sees itself as chronically undersized: it imagines itself as a larger country, and works backwards: materialising the necessary geographical puzzle pieces”—a typically technocratic move.

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The Great Reclamation begins in 1941, two decades before the eponymous event. A young boy named Ah Boon feels like a misfit in his kampong (village) on the southeastern coast of Singapore, too timorous and delicate for a hardscrabble life of subsistence fishing. All this changes when he discovers an archipelago of magical islands that appear and disappear with the phases of the moon, bringing with them a bounty of fish. Flush with newfound prosperity, Ah Boon’s parents decide to send him to school (education is an anomaly in this world), where he meets Siok Mei, the “daughter of true patriots who had returned to the Mainland several years before to join the struggle against the Jipunlang invaders.”

The Jipunlang are the Japanese, who will soon surge southward to invade Singapore. The kampong survives the occupation, though not unscathed. Partly inspired by her revolutionary parents, Siok Mei throws herself wholeheartedly into the postwar leftist student movement, protesting the policies of the returning Ang Moh (literally “red-haired,” meaning Caucasian) British colonial government. Ah Boon tries to follow, but despite his attraction to her, he lacks her conviction and commitment to the cause, and ends up adrift.

With the decline of colonial rule and partial self-government, the Singaporean authorities begin encroaching upon the kampong, building a community center with modern facilities in its vicinity. Lured in by its “calm sense of purpose, the feeling of having access to some higher design,” Ah Boon ends up working there, and in due course falls for the Gah Woman in charge of it, Natalie. “Gah Men” is a Singlish corruption of “government”; Heng fancifully extends the lingo here, designating people in the civil service as “Gah Men” and “Gah Women.” By this point, English has come to dominate the narrative; the rich mixture of Mandarin at school, Malay in the neighboring settlement and the “harsh edges” of Hokkien spoken by Ah Boon’s family has gradually been replaced by the language of the colonizer that Ah Boon will learn to use as “the armor he [holds] up against the world.”

Ah Boon’s humble origins lend legitimacy to the Gah Men’s actions, allowing them to claim they are not merely a ruling class of the elite. If he realizes he is being tokenized, he regards this as a fair price to pay for his advancement while those in power “reshape the island in their own likeness, a landscape filled with the architecture of reasoned brutality.” Soon, the Gah Men are shepherding the kampong dwellers out of their huts and into gleaming new apartments. Natalie’s real mission, however, is the Great Reclamation Project, which will destroy coastal fishing communities by imposing a thousand acres of land between them and the sea. If this happens to also eradicate the magical islands, so be it. Despite being couched in bureaucratic language, there is an edge of manic fervor to the government’s pronouncements as it hubristically seeks to reshape the country’s very substance. Yet, as one of the police officers in A Land Imagined says, “What’s the worth of a land that is capable of being forged freely at our will?” Siok Mei and her fellow revolutionaries oppose these extractive developments, but their vision of a socialist future has trouble gaining traction.

For all the apparent beneficence of the Gah Men, their parallels with the occupying Japanese forces are clear: both groups comprise an absolute, arbitrary power making decisions about how the population will live. There are similarities with the British too, although there is “a ruthless efficiency to the Gah Men that the Ang Mohs had not possessed.” Indeed, no previous regime has had the sheer implacable force of the Singapore government’s technocratic solutions: “Squatters? Move them. Communists? Jail them. Housing? Build it. Even the earth itself was deemed malleable, the constraints of geography surmountable.”

Heng’s novel is structured much like the experiences of the kampong dwellers: placidly paced at first, with change only seeping in around the edges, then everything collapsing all at once. The mode is mostly naturalistic, with one sliver of magic, those vanishing islands, as the only surreal flourish in a narrative otherwise factually compatible with Singapore’s National Education curriculum (stated goal: teaching students to “appreciate our journey to nationhood” and “cultivate the instincts for survival as a nation”). With this intervention, Heng dramatically raises the stakes by asking if the country would have been prepared to destroy a literal enchanted land—and all too plausibly decides that, yes, what cannot be measured would be deemed valueless by technocrats, and even if Singapore had possessed a genuine miracle, it would have been “taken to pieces and sold for parts by the inhabitants themselves” for the sake of running water and linoleum floors.

Siok Mei and Natalie occupy ideologically opposed positions, emphasized by their tendency to fall back on political slogans. (Natalie: “Our decisions will not always be popular. We have to make difficult choices that the people cannot make for themselves.” Siok Mei: “The state arises where, when, and insofar as class antagonism cannot be reconciled.”) Ultimately, Ah Boon is forced to decide between Siok Mei’s revolutionary fervor and Natalie’s pragmatic idea of progress, between his conflicting desires. His choice, when he finally makes it, feels both heartbreaking and inevitable, calling to mind Han Suyin’s words from …And the Rain My Drink (1956), also set in the 1950s, in neighboring Malaya: “[T]here are places on the earth, in time and space, where is no space nor time, nor light nor air, nor any ground to grow for the strange weed called love.”

In Chinese mythology, the Jingwei bird is the reincarnation of a drowned girl who seeks to fill in the sea by dropping into it whatever twigs and pebbles she can carry in her beak. Though her determination is often presented as a story of defiance in the face of insurmountable odds, it could equally be read as an exercise in futility and wishful thinking—just as Singapore continues pouring sand into the ocean, even while rising sea levels and coastal erosion put its reclaimed land at risk. The Great Reclamation ends in 1963, at which point it is already clear that the nation’s appetites will be insatiable, as impossible to satisfy as filling in the ocean. For the ordinary kampong dwellers, coerced into abandoning their traditional way of life and profound connection to the land in exchange for mere material comforts that they end up feeling alienated from, the loss is incalculable.

A Land Imagined shows the allure of so-called development with mesmerizing shots of seemingly endless streams of sand cascading from gigantic machines into the sea, but also insists we look beneath the shiny surface to witness what Leow calls “the ruins that underpin Singapore’s glamourous prosperity” and the human cost of this perpetual growth. In a similar vein, Rachel Heng’s novel uses the dreams and aspirations of a kampong boy to track Singapore’s journey to “a bright, orderly, prosperous future,” whilst clearly delineating everything that the country thoughtlessly cast aside in the name of progress, revealing how paltry this progress turned out to be—and asks if it was all worth it.

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Jeremy Tiang is a novelist, playwright, and translator, most recently of Zhang Yueran’s Cocoon (2022). Originally from Singapore, he now lives in Flushing, Queens.

LARB Contributor

Jeremy Tiang is a novelist, playwright, and translator, most recently of Zhang Yueran’s Cocoon (2022). Originally from Singapore, he now lives in Flushing, Queens.

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