parallax background



William Jamieson

Art by Charles Lim Yi Yong

This is the first part of a two-part story entitled “Thirst for Sand.” Read Part 2


Before you left, at the beginning of 2002, sand was less than $5 a ton. Lunch money. Then Malaysia turned the tap off. By 2005, sand was $250 a ton.. An engagement ring, if you were short on cash. You returned to Singapore a decade later, when it had fallen to a much more reasonable price, still five times what it was worth when you left. But you hadn’t known its potential then.

Standing at the helm of the dredger, you survey, calculate, monitoring the flow of fill material. You ensure the load is evenly distributed, applying the first layer of soft clay throughout the site. The clay makes a horrible gasping sound as it settles. Air escaping to the surface. It bubbles like a tar pit, the gossip of prehistory. You yearn for the serene sibilance of the sand as you remember it, cascading in without worry or memory. Without monitoring the levels of settlement in the soil composition. A respectable material. Dry and well-behaved, not like this roiling, muttering, emotional wreck of land. Out there for eight, ten hours at a time, you can’t afford to lose a single minute, but sometimes feel you are gaining them, a headache thickening between the lobes of your brain.

The first time you came to Singapore to do virtually the same job, with virtually the same company, virtually the same wife (because you now know that people do change), the same flow was golden; shades of papyrus, sunset, Soo Ling’s bleached moustache that you only saw when it caught the light.

You used to stand over a pane of sea sealed off by perimeter bunds, and with the permission of panoramic and endless abundance flooded it with grains until it clouded over, grey and unreflecting, no depth visible. Kept at it. Nourished the mush. Watched on as day by day it grew around you, oil spreading in slow motion. Disbelief as you turned to see, one day, how big it was. And even then you still fed it a steady diet of sand until it was ready to grow up, accept responsibility and a thousand tons of bore-pile foundations anchored into its thin skin to support a few hundred million Singaporean dollars’ worth of the freshest Executive Housing Development Board flats money could buy. This was a new kind of wealth, untraceable back to this frothy plot of water, sand, and work that would yield to the demands of adulthood, maturity, productivity.

Like so my parts of this island, you had come from elsewhere, been incorporated without your awareness. Your work had taken you and your family around the world; you never returned anywhere once you left. Except Singapore. As soon as you landed in Changi again you regretted it. Soo squeezed your hand. Your hand gripped the seat rest.

—I am so glad we are home. I didn’t think it would take this long.

She smiled. You tried to review your decision, squeeze the last milliliter of sense from it, as you smelled the mossy water of the koi pond on the concourse, Soo Ling giving the small of your back a push to usher you through Changi’s glass doors into the afternoon and toward a cab rank.

Before it can be made it must be believed, and before it can be believed it must be seen: in plans, blueprints, charts, scatter graphs; through remote sensors, geomatic models, 3D renders; measured in square footage, loadbearing capacity, sunk costs, reasonable life expectancy, and eventually the miracle of rent per calendar month. This flurry of particles marbling the water must be seen decades in advance, molded, mapped out.

The cab you were in was driving along the East Coast Parkway away from Changi airport along reclaimed land over fifty years old: younger than you. There was something in your ear; a fugitive air bubble from the steep descent, a roaming spirit level tickling your ossicles. Your cab driver asked you if you were here on holiday; Soo explained that you both live here, that she is in fact a local and grew up near Tiong Bahru.

—Ah! How long away? Eight fingers and two thumbs splayed from the hand. Ten weeks . . . months . . . years? Soo nodding and raising her eyebrows. Wah lao, why were you away for so long?

—This one lah, she croaked, nudging you in the ribs, dragging me all over the world, uncle. Working hard for the family.

—Ah, I see. Good job?

—Oh, engineer.

—Very good, very good.

—We’re very happy to be back home now, after all that time.

Hardly any time at all, you think, looking out the window into acre after acre of HDB slabs lining the road: only a decade, which turned out to be nothing at all. You dug in with your finger, thinking you wouldn’t reach it: a single grain of sand, its coarseness smoothed by ear wax. As you rolled it between your thumb and finger, you thought about how it got there, when you should have asked where it came from.

The din of the dredger cuts through. It needs you to focus: this is the part you have been waiting for. A layer of sand must now be applied. Immediately you feel better. As material flows out of it, too fast to focus on any one detail, you wonder what would happen if you put your face in front of the plume of sand, covered the aperture with your mouth. There’s no way that these miserable acres of slurred earth could ever become land, much less contain its soul: rent.

Seagulls alight on the far breakwater; they circle and scoop the occasional wind before resettling. Sallow cloud is dispersed over the sky evenly, expertly.

This too shall pass. This too shall become land.

For a limited time this country was your home. You met Soo Ling here. You were easing into your forties, ready to have children. Your buddy from the Ministry, Beng Soon, introduced her to you at a party, his eye twinkling as you stepped boldly forward to kiss her on both cheeks (how European!) to seal the deal before it was even made. But that was far from you now. Marriage: a qualification like your many others that you could admire, tilt the certificate’s watermark to catch the light. The reality consisting of so many particulars dispersed in an arc: a stain in motion. Two girls, Jane and Helen, born before you had left the country, then raised all over the world

  • picking strawberries just outside Whitstable, to celebrate Soo’s citizenship test, no more than a stone’s throw from the offshore windfarm you were working on;
  • east of the Three Gorges Dam in Hubei province, Jane and Helen trading insults in Mandarin that you didn’t understand, calling each other by their Chinese names, Soo scolding them more for their shoddy pronunciation than the profanity, their accents decaying to a generic American in an international school;
  • downriver from a desalination plant in Southern California, with a baby boy (a son!), an accident.
    —Because one day he was just there, like an oil-slick, you would joke to your colleagues,
    —we weren’t planning on having another one, what with Soo getting on a bit, but there we go, a son!
  • contained within a razor wire–fenced compound in Luanda, while you did your work offshore.
  • In the interim, Punggol 21 had seen so many possible visions of itself slip through its eyelids:
  • a New Town for the 21st Century, crammed into as many brightly laminated pages of promotional materials and fiscal projections as possible, spread across as many sketches, renderings, and handshakes as it could take;
  • then a field littered with the carcasses of construction sites, doomed by a financial crisis to remain unfinished for years, decades;
  • an empty boulevard offering itself to the ochre afternoon, a lone construction worker resting in the shadow of a railway overhead;
  • an aspirational Luxury Executive Housing destination, sluiced by so many ferned canals and waterways it was as if the water had never left, had never needed to be annihilated so completely;
  • the gray shells of future condos, honeycombed by empty windows, the towers twisting and twining between them, the jeering of the men who slept and ate and shat in the temporary accommodation beneath them, at the edge of a foundation pit.

You had no intention of seeing it again. All you wanted to see was that flow, that ground, the plane of sand spangled by the tiny footprints.

Two beautiful daughters, Jane and Helen, who are currently attending American and Australian universities; a son (a son!), Jeremy, currently at home, in the cube of air-conditioning that was his room, eyes clear and reflecting a computer screen.

Instead of going back to the land you helped raise, you remembered raising it. It was simple and pure:


1. Planning

The Ministry would draw up the plans, consult with various boards and agencies on ballpark figures. The Board would hash out the specifics, conduct a preliminary survey of the site, timeline key phases. By the time you came in it had almost all been done. The initial meeting conducted in the basement of the Ministry, a few doors down from the electric ember of a shrine unfurling incense through the corridor. The bigwigs and subordinates of the Authority were crammed at one end of the table, the Board at the other. When Beng Soon arrived they all stood up. A cup tinkled as it tipped over and weak black coffee slid across the glass top to the edge of the masterplan and into the lap of a junior project manager from the Board. After mopping up the liquid that pooled at the margin of the piece of paper that occupied the entire meeting room table, the responsible party left the room, presumably to change his trousers, and never returned. The masterplan was laminated, and apart from the empty chair, there was no way of telling a mistake had been made; perhaps that was his role. Beng Soon, your liaison at the Ministry who took a shine to you, appreciated your discretion and perhaps even a few of your off-color remarks on the fairway of the Singapore Island Country Club golf course, began as soon as the door behind him had closed. He placed his liver-spotted hands on either edge of the master plan and leaned into it, holding it down with his body weight.


2. Implementation

Urbana Inc., your employers (or, to be more precise, the company you had been subcontracted to by your real employers, who were based in the Netherlands), had a sweet deal. They had won the tender for the reclamation, as they always did. Perimeter bunds were established by grab dredgers, geotextile containers forming the foundation, and rocks overlaid until it rose above the water to demarcate the edge of the site and isolate the water from the rest of the sea. Then the hopper barges would dump the hydraulic fill, the sand and motion that was pure flow, over the base of the site. Compression, consolidation, completion. The work would commence from one side of the site and continue to the other. In the beginning it always seemed so inconceivable. Tons of material dumped into the bottomless turbidity of the sea. A gentle hum of anxiety as the first few weeks crept by. It was the sand that kept you together, arriving on time by barge, by dump truck (or via a coolie-powered rickshaw, you joked to Beng Soon when you were stuck in a sand bunker on your last hole, and instead of laughing his lip curled, his nostrils flared, and, snorting a lode of phlegm into his brainstem, he dug in with his sand wedge, scattering particles all over your face and mouth). The Authority handled all the materials; you never had to worry about a thing, you could just let your attention siphon off into the flow of fill material. Weeks would pass and you wouldn’t know the difference. You wanted to have a picture of what the motion looked like, that you could keep it in your breast pocket, or in your wallet, and show it to people so they could feel closer to you. But day by day, inch by inch, grain by grain, it would reveal itself. The land that was ground, the ground that was pure. Soo Ling was pregnant with Jane, your eldest, your smartest, your scariest: you had projected the first subtle bump of belly into a son. You remember the first ultrasound but parting the murk of memory all you can see is the first hint of ground: stretching your mind back to that first spectral squib of a limb the picture is flooded with gold, khaki, bleached sepia. On one of his monthly site visits, followed by a few holes on the golf course, Beng Soon leaned into your ear after you told him the good news and said

—You have plenty of time to have a son, Alan, all the time in the world.


3. Settling

The job was done. It was time to hit the golf course. You and Beng Soon could spend some quality time together before the next job. Work on your par. Even the voluptuous velvet hills of the eighteen-hole golf course was just settling. It had been reclaimed decades ago and was waiting to hatch a new waterfront of sickly teal glass, after the teal grass of the golf course, after the teal water of the sea that saw its demise thirty years ago. A cluster of mixed-use developments will take root here, their deep-sea-creature translucence to be perforated by the sun, their bones and cells and executives pant-suited or sleekly-tied backlit by the particulate-rich light of evening (for the annual haze drifting in from Indonesia will eventually stretch around the entire year). The ping of Beng Soon’s club against the ball switched a lightbulb on in your head. You had been getting its promotional materials in the post: the color-corrected gloss of a 3D render on the hoarding of a construction site, populated by wisps of faceless people traversing a plaza. How old would you be when the land you reclaimed would be broken, and made productive? You would be an old man but you could see it coming. Through the anticipated panoramic views of the corner offices, its image already mocked-up in the brochure, type already set in a truly tasteful spread where you can see the sea, a few degrees warmer than ideal, squeezing between the oil tankers that rim the horizon. Through the spike in construction activity that the opening of the site will trigger, modelled by the finest minds in the Ministry, so they can synchronize the landfall of cash with thousands of work permits for construction workers from India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and even mainland China, to be lodged out of sight in temporary accommodation at the furthest edges of the island. The leather of the chair squelched under you as you crossed your legs to hide the darkening stain on your suit trousers, your prostate having enlarged like the island you have helped to build, the piss as clear as the warmth heavy on your thigh, and in its weight, in its weight you know its color is golden . Seeing it come to fruition the entire time through the graying of the water as the sand pulses into it, resolving into the depthless pane of a screen rising beneath the water, aching for an x axis, thirsting for the corrupt stem of the y. By then you had two daughters, Helen having brought her almond-shaped face into frame a few years into your next job. You drove up to the 21st Century New Town Reclamation site one weekend and watched as your daughters flew kites by the water, running along the brightness of the flat expanse. It was too bright to see their footprints. You couldn’t angle your face down towards them, as if you were in a dream. Grains of light lifting your face from the ground that had been peeled from a screen, its sections changing color under a click as parcels of land were bought and zoned by an adequately air-conditioned Authority planner. This was the place you had been waiting for, the place you had to retain a picture of: Key Alan Simm. You wanted to hold this ground in your mind and leave for good. Never to return, you remember thinking, the surface of the ground jiggling like gelatine at the trail this thought had left, swirling and scooped by the porthole of an airplane tilting over it as you left . . . yes . . . the good life was leaving for good and never returning . . .


The material now is so much worse than what you used to work with. The flow of it reminds you of flash-flood footage, a livid gush of discolored mud levelling the water with its mess. Tons of soil and excavated earth mixed with just enough sand so the land, once reclaimed, wouldn’t liquefy and crack under the slightest load. With soil and soft clays, the water hides inside the smoothly composed surface. You have to isolate it, and extract it.

You and Soo have both settled into a routine by now. Day and night lose tread. Most days you are at the helm of the dredger, watching sand stream into the site, or ten times as much soft clay slop in, filthy, difficult. You haven’t eaten lunch, yet you feel full, the sea chart, the maps of the reclaimed land, the gridded layers of geomatics in hi-def reds, pinks and purples and whites, deep ochers flicking between each other. Soil composition, littoral flows, and tectonic scans, cross sections of a ghost and the gristle and sinew of the still breathing and sweating animal. But looking at your watch it is the tons of sand used per minute, the faces of the subcontractors as they stand watching this seam of ash serenely drift in vapors toward them, as one wipes some indescribably small particles from his forehead beneath the yellow helmet when it is already on the hand he is wiping it with.

Your wife spends her time riding the bus, steering it with the bones of her face along the expressways. The Ayer Rajah Expressway, the Pan Island Expressway, East Coast Parkway, Central Expressway, just acronyms proliferating in any triple-lettered combination, the AYE, the PIE, the ECP, the CTE. Even they don’t pay any heed to water. The Marina Coastal Expressway just slides beneath the sea. She withdraws hundreds of dollars at a time from the joint account. Sometimes it reappears several days or weeks later in larger quantities, sometimes it disappears for good. Every time you think of asking her what she is doing with it, you remember that after adding the withdrawals and the deposits together she isn’t just breaking even, but making a profit. She must know what she’s doing.

Malaysia had banned sand exports for almost two decades, Indonesia almost a decade. Cambodia and Vietnam quickly followed suit. The contracts made before the bans were soon to peter out, you heard a senior manager at the Authority say. Officially, Singapore would have to look elsewhere for its sand. Even Cambodia and Vietnam are making difficulties for us, we will have to think laterally on this one. You couldn’t quite imagine it except as gold, but it was more valuable than gold. Not literally, of course, but in relation to its prior value, the way it swelled and shrivelled, and enabled so many things to be purchased: real estate, a ninety-nine-year lease, rent, a garbage dump, even a garden with trees made of metal, reaching far into the sky. It was like gold in the way it held all these things in reserve, as a medium of exchange, but you could only swap your time pacing along the bow of a fume-shimmered dredger for a day-long meeting in a windowless room discussing timelines and alternatives. The endless strip-lit corridor in the basement of some government building as you watched ton after ton after ton without noticing the difference. The smell of the sea for rotten earth, its minerals tingeing your nostrils. The finished plane pure and extended in your mind’s grid alone for the sputtering false start of Soo Ling crying, telling you how glad she is to be home, despite how long it took, as she looked over the balcony of the hotel bar over land that was water when you had left the first time, when the cry consolidates into a full-throated laugh, “and you never thought we would come back, you bastard, well here we are” and you clinked drinks and felt like she was your partner in whatever crime you were committing.



The word on the lips of the senior management team at Urbana. Conference calls with the Board. Dunes of their own personal vintage, stockpiles sitting in depots in Pulau Punggol Timor, in Tampines, that you desperately needed, but that they clung on to for dear life, keeping millions of tons in reserve to keep the price from spiking like it did before. 5000% in just under a week. You were sad you missed the terrifying rush of that spike. The water will take any excuse to mess with plans. To turn plans into mess. The settlement cannot be lowballed. It must remain between 0 and 1. Anything beyond is a mathematical nightmare, terra infirma churning beneath your feet, ground that you can’t figure out. Is it undergoing some crisis of confidence or finally feeling good and letting loose, harnessing its own liquidity?

Urbana Inc. calculated one billion dollars saved by the Ministry’s scheme of recycling material instead of importing sand for infill. Thousands of cubic meters of soft clays and soil, so-called good earth, excavated for new train stations and housing blocks, then transported by eighty trucks a day to wait in one long line as, one by one, their trailers would up-end and the maws shutter open to deliver this sensible landslide to the barges, a regulated natural disaster dutifully attended to by vehicles who have come to pay their respects and dump load after load of soft clays, degraded soils: good earth. It is not reused, but below your feet, just waiting to be made productive. They saved money on the material but not on your labour. You have cost them dearly, hammering the living water out of these soft clays, using prefabricated vertical drains the way a medieval surgeon applied leeches to the bodies of royalty. This could hardly be called engineering. It was a war against water itself. This is the job now, you remind yourself. First the dredging, then a layer of clay, then a twenty-centimeter seam of sand, another layer of clay. Consolidation, compression, then sand, then sand, then sand . . .

The churning of machinery gives out with a gurgle. In the silence you hear shouting from the far end of the bund carried by the wind. Before you turn you hear it mirrored in the clear fluid of your ear drum, a loosening, a mouth opening and opening for the flowing and flowing, but in or out, in or out? An accident. From afar it looks like a diagram of a cell undergoing cytolysis that you saw when Jane gave you her biology homework (not that you were any help), its wall bursting, the water streaming in through osmotic pressure to ensure an equilibrium between inside and outside. The bund had burst, and water is gushing into the reclamation, feasting on it. The sand that had just settled is washed away, a screen being wiped clean. A flat gradient of mess levels out the months of work you had seen rise beneath the water, erasing the serene gray plane with incontinent burbling. The promising plot now a slurred waste, exactly what you feared before you went to sleep. Your subordinate, who was supervising that phase, looks like he is about to throw up. You want to scream at him, go ahead, vomit straight into it, it makes no difference now, why don’t you just vomit straight into my mouth?

The next day you are summoned to the same basement in the Ministry. The same faces from the same agencies, except grayer, more deeply lined, heftier bags beneath the eyes.

You tell them what you know. Your liaison at the Authority had said there had been complications in the supply chain because of blockages upstream, the precise phrase you used, the contracts with the upstream partners, concession-holders that granted access to the good stuff expiring within this quarter, and a subsequent tailing off the sand. For now the deal with the upstream partners was off, we wouldn’t be seeing any more shipments from Cambodia, and so you had to up the ratio of soft clay to sand, which lengthened the settling, which meant more strain for the poor bund, which had to fend off the Johor Strait.

The Secretary of the board stares ahead without looking at you. The head of the Authority’s throat tightens. You give your word that you will remain competitive. This will not push the deadline by much. You just need more sand, that’s all you need.

Beng Soon looks at each of his subordinates, gives a nod, and remains still as they adjust their papers and file out of the room. He is sitting across from you, on the opposite side of the table.

—The reclamation needs to keep to schedule, he says, looking straight at you. If we wait too long, we compromise the structural integrity of the perimeter bund. One has already burst. Your colleague has cost us and the insurance company millions of dollars already. Of course, accidents happen. Sometimes they need to happen. Did you hear the one about a man who didn’t know he was on a ship until it started sinking?

Blood aggregates in your ears: is this the sound of your own breathing? The table seems to lengthen between you. You wish you could talk to him about this on the golf course, beside him, in the kart, along the rolling dream-slicks of trimmed grass.

—Without a steady flow of sand, we will need to use more recycled material. Of course, if we just sit around waiting for it to settle, more accidents will happen. As you won the tender, you are accountable for any shortfall. It’s right there, in your contract, a liver-spotted hand pointing towards the contract you haven’t read yet.

—And how would I go about doing that?

—We’re working on a condensed timeframe. You would have certain latitude in sourcing the sand. As long as it was procured by the book. Considerations could be expedited, for instance.


—Exactly. Under the terms of the tender you are well within your rights to subcontract as you see fit, and it is well within your remit to license your own suppliers for certain materials, especially materials of a certain size, of a certain quantity. As long as the materials are for a reclamation, they do not have to be sampled; there are no limits on quantity. We have to be seen to be doing our due diligence. You have been subcontracted, he mutters, you no longer have business with us, officially . The paper work has been prepared, all that is required is your signature. You will now liaise with the Authority from now on. Due diligence.

—But my contract, it’s not with Urbana, you say in your quiet voice, looking at the floor, it’s with another company and I’ve been subcontracted out to—

—You are now no longer an employee of Urbana. You are the CEO of Simm Enterprises, a contractor licensed by the Authority with procurement and reclamation services. You may lease dredgers and barges from Urbana at a very good rate, and you will be provided with the capital to get the ball rolling on procurement. I hear you have a son now. Good luck, Alan.

His arm moves, you go to shake his hand, and instead of the dampness of his grip you find spreadsheets folded several times . . . a list of numbers, a list of contractors working for the Group, the parent company of the concession holders, a list of extraction sites in Koh Kong, and the millions of tons of sand excavated per calendar month. You thought you were being demoted, but in fact you are subcontracted. You are going straight to the source. To the innumerable frontiers of sand itself. Or, to be more accurate, the innumerable frontiers of sand are going to come directly to you.

—Due diligence, you perk up, that reminds me of the one about the coolie-powered—by the way, are you going to the hit the course later this week? I feel like I could get a few holes in.

Beng Soon has already turned around and made his way down the corridor. No more time for golf.


Now you stand at the helm of your dredger watching the horizon, waiting for the next shipment pretending that you can still see the sand come in and feel good, but your thoughts are tangled in the paths of the barges shuttling your precious cargo from inlets and coves, estuaries and rivers. Names that mean nothing to you, that pass through you, a faint pain, a prickling that you cannot place except as time passing. You spend your time on the phone trying to get distances, tons, and dates right, pacing up and down the dredger supervised by a subordinate you had never met before being subcontracted. You are in your underwear as suppliers yell at you down the phone with their insane demands in the middle of the night. They want money, money for the money they spent opening up a new frontier, money for the money they spent buying off chiefs of police and village elders and provincial administrators. Or it’s the acrid voice from the Authority, whom you have never met in person, gravelled by the poor connection, calling you from a burrow, deep underground. All you can do is say yes, yes, yes of course, yes, it will be there. Yes, you say, yes, yes, yes, as you watch Soo Ling sleeping, her body expanding and contracting around her breathing, thankfully untouched by the depths you had been subcontracted to expanding to the horizon. Yes, you say. You always say yes.

The ashen torrent of sand thins from its plume, a stroke of cloud. Maybe it wants to become weather, but it is made to be land. It needed to be disciplined. You couldn’t even use the best quality material for the reclamation you were meant to be supervising. You had been contractually obliged to repair the perimeter bund that had burst, day after day picking through the entrails of the accidental swamp with your cutter suction dredger for a good omen. The Next-Generation Port Reclamation was otherwise ahead of schedule. You could see former colleagues working in the distant haze, their pixelated forms grinding away at your retinas. It is as if you have been subcontracted to sand itself, its demands inundating you, crumbling your sleep from hours into minutes.

How many tons of sand have passed before your eyes? Millions? Billions? You feel sick and rush to your bathroom. You can’t even picture what ten tons of it looks like, let alone a thousand. Bent over the sink you look at your own face in the mirror, disintegrating as you stroke it with your hand. A hundred thousand. It’s all there beneath your feet.