Feedback to URA

by Margie Hall, 8th May 2003


Sembawang Beach: Times Past

The story of two rivers

Birds of Sembawang

List of sightings

Proposed Land Reclamation at Sembawang Beach

Your Say...

Feedback to URA by Margie Hall


Wee Sau Cheng's letter to ST (Unpublished)


Goh Si Guim's letter to ST (Unpublished)


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**NOTE: Images added by Editor

sembawang beachAs a resident of the Sembawang area for over 12 years, living close by Sembawang Park, I wish to make the strongest arguments possible against the proposed land reclamation, shown on the Draft Master Plan 2003, along the coastline from Sembawang Park Beach and Kampong Wak Hassan Beach to the outlet of the Simpang Kiri Canal. My arguments cover the beach as a natural beach, a well-loved beach which is part of the local and personal identity of users, and a historical beach area. I shall also point to the fact that the proposed reclaimed land is not needed for any purpose at the present time and, indeed, given the uncertainties of the future, might never be needed.

sembawang beachSembawang Seafront and Beach, and the adjacent Wak Hassan Seafront and Beach, are an old, well-loved and well-used location. Sembawang Park and Beach has a long history, going back to the time in the mid-1920's when a former rubber plantation was taken over and laid out with the existing narrow roads as part of the Naval Base. The Park is regularly used by large numbers of people weekdays and weekends, with the Seafront and Beach of both the Park and the Wak Hassan area as the most popular destination. At weekends particularly, many family groups come for the whole weekend, others for the whole day on Sundays. They head straight for the Seafront and Beach, pitching tents and other forms of shade on the Beach or the grass of the seawall area, enjoying non-stop picnics, swimming or playing in the water, building castles on the sand, fishing or playing badminton, exercising dogs, cats and rabbits. Such usage is based on and reinforces a love for the Park in general and the Seafront and Beach of the Park and of Wak Hassan in particular.

shaded beach The Park without its Beach would be drastically different. I fully recognise that it is the Beach that will be destroyed, not the Park itself, but the whole ambience of the Park is affected by the fact that there is a Beach, and that the paths in the Park lead down to the Beach and along it and to Wak Hassan Beach. Whilst not absolutely everybody is using the Beach, it is part of the view, part of the enjoyment, part of the tranquility that inevitably comes from relaxation by the sea. Some people walk along the seafront without stepping actually onto the sands of the Beach, but the Beach is crucial to their experience of the Seafront. To reassure people who are concerned about the Beach reclamation that the Park is not being destroyed is to miss the point. The Park and the Beach have always been experienced as an integral part of each other. To destroy the Beach is to destroy much of the meaning and enjoyment of the Park. It is like major amputation at the very least. There is a distinct qualitative difference between a park with a beach and once without a beach, especially when the beach is natural.The long-existing facilities within the Park area, such as the barbecue pits, the Restaurant and bike stand (temporarily closed and awaiting retendering) are worthy in themselves, but pale into insignificance when compared with the importance of the Beach.

Sembawang Beach-Wall A natural beach and a long-established sea-wall. Sembawang Park Beach/Wak Hassan Beach is one of the very few natural stretches of sandy beach still existing in Singapore, and should be preserved for this reason. It has a thriving ecosystem, as the activities of fishermen testify. So many beaches have already been lost to land reclamation and development. The few that are left need to be especially treasured. It is an attractive and pleasant everyday sort of beach. The seawall is also long established, and has an old-world, well-used feel, giving people a sense of continuity with past times and past generations. Mature vegetation grows along the beach, and trees growing on the seawall hang over it, providing shade to the beach.

History of the Seafront. Although few present day users may realise it, there are some historical gems on the Sembawang Seafront and along the Beach.

Beaulieu House Back 1962Beaulieu House, originally the seaside house of a David family, who were in the mining business, is older even than the Naval Base. It was acquired by the colonial government when the Naval Base was planned, and was probably built around 1910, although building plans have not yet been located. When work on the Naval Base commenced in 1924/25, it housed the senior engineers and surveyors. When the Naval Base was up and running, Beaulieu House was actually used from 1940 - 1942 as a residence by the most senior Naval Officer in Singapore and the Far East, Vice-Admiral Layton, Commander-in Chief, China Station. Postwar, whilst still part of the Naval Base, it was normally the residence of a Senior Fleet Officer like the Chief of Staff, who would descend the steps and stand on the jetty to take the salute from the crew as ships passed in or out of the Naval Base. Such a house, built to face the sea, becomes something less when the sea is taken away from it, as all those "stranded houses" at Katong and Pasir Panjang attested after land reclamation there.

sembawang beach The jetty, nowadays thronging with enthusiastic fishermen day and night, has another interesting facet to its history. With its stone walkway leading from the Beaulieu House steps, it was started by the British in the final phases of Naval Base construction in the early 1940s. But war with the Japanese interrupted the work, and it was finally completed by the Japanese after their invasion of Singapore in February 1942! It is surely a shame to get rid of such a historically interesting structure, an unintended "collaborative" effort between two nations at war over sixty years ago.

The old boat slipway, beside which people sit in the shade of mature Sea Almond trees, was also a part of the Naval Base. But those who look out to sea from the benches beyond Sembawang Road End, shaded by the old Madras Thorn tree and the Malayan Banyan tree, are sitting on another location with even older history.

Seletar Pier 1940 The Seletar Pier stood at the end of Sembawang (formerly Seletar) Road and again predated the Naval Base. Seletar Road was a mere track at the far end, and so people could travel more easily to the area by boat around the coast from Singapore Town. The Pier was used in the early 1920s when reviewing sites for the Naval Base and then by the working parties who commenced surveying and laying out the Naval Base. All the early materials and stores for the Naval Base were brought around the coast by boat to Seletar Pier and then transported in the area by a team of 20 bullock carts.

A map of the results of a Japanese bombing raid on the Dockyard on 20th January 1942 show a stray bomb landing beside Seletar Pier, which was presumably the reason it was marked as "derelict" on later maps. It was eventually cleared away in the 1970s/80s.

Local Identity embodied in the Seafront and Beach - Repository of Identity for the wider area. In more recent times, as the old inland parts of Sembawang, Chong Pang and Nee Soon were cleared away for development, the seafront and beach have become a vital part of the Identity of the Sembawang/Yishun area, a connection to the past of a wider area, and a familiar and well-loved part of people's routines - whether daily, weekly, monthly or even occasional annual users. The more that things have changed in the wider area, the more that Sembawang Beach becomes the Repository of Identity for the area. In fact, this Identity element operates even further afield - just last week I chatted to a man who used to come up to the beach from time to time as a schoolboy from the Thomson Road area, and was revisiting with his family, happy to enjoy it again. Family groups that come to the Beach are often made up of three or four generations. If the identity of the seafront and beach is retained, with the natural beach and with no reclamation work, then today's children can bring their children, the fourth or fifth generation, in 20 years time.

A suitable location for the Identity Plan. Given the emphasis on building up people's rootedness to localized places in the recent URA Identity Plan, this familiar beach and seafront should be maintained as it is. In fact it is surprising that it was left out of the Identity Plan. Perhaps that was because it is geographically somewhat smaller than other locations noted in the Identity Plan, and does not have the requisite cluster of coffeeshops!

But a picnic and barbecue environment still has an identity, the bus drivers kiosk is still there, and the Seafood Restaurant will soon reopen. There is activity, there is food, there is a longstanding usage and love for the place.

Close personal identity connections with the area's kampongs and localized past. In fact some identity connections are highly localized. Many of the people who come to Sembawang and Wak Hassan Beaches from Sembawang/Yishun/Woodlands New Towns are people who formerly lived in the coastal kampongs of Wak Hassan, Tanjong Irau and the Andrews Avenue Settlement Area. Thus the identity of the area is crucially important to provide a link to that geographically very localized past. These people and many others went to school at Sembawang Road End, in the Sembawang Primary School, now the Boys Brigade campsite. This beach was their childhood beach, just outside the school.

Beaulieu House jetty Loss of the fishing jetty. One of the important elements of the seafront and beach for many people is the fishing jetty, which will definitely not be able to exist after the land reclamation. Although the Draft Masterplan gives no indication of what the new seafront will be like after reclamation, and the URA Physical Planning Department declares it has not done any of its precise final planning, the depth of water is likely to necessitate a granite bund, not helpful for fishermen. Although some few may many manage to scrabble around on the granite and fish, as at Tanjong Berlayer Park, it would be nothing like the same fruitful and convivial experience as on the present jetty.. Some fishing enthusiasts fish in the sea, some at high tide, some at low tide, carrying on traditional forms of net fishing. This form of fishing will most likely not be possible after land reclamation.

Seafront and beach view along the coast The view from the Seafront and Beach at Sembawang Park is always scenically beautiful, and varies from tide to tide. At very low tides a wide expanse of mudflats is revealed in the Kampong Wak Hassan direction, towards Jalan Inggu, with gently lapping water at the edge. Beach combers revel in the expanse to explore, whilst birds search for food in or on top of the mud. At medium tides and high tides the scene changes, with sometimes only a strip of beach left, sometimes one can only view the water from the seawall, with the wind in one’s hair. One never knows what to expect. But walk along the seafront at Tanjong Berlayer Park and Labrador Park - the water just goes higher or lower on a monotonous man-made granite wall - not very scenic, not very varied. Vegetation is also matured at Sembawang. A reclaimed seafront, planted with young trees, like the one at Pasir Ris Park, would take a long while to give people waterfront shade. In the interim phase of the actual land reclamation process there would be little or zero enjoyment of the area for anyone.

URA has recognized that people enjoy natural seafronts, because it is proposed to put a boardwalk along the little-used seafront at Admiralty Road West, linking it to Woodlands Town Park. This is an admirable and creative idea, but it seems strange to simultaneously take away an extremely highly-used and much-loved beach and seafront at Sembawang, to ignore the feelings of a huge group of stakeholders.

A natural relaxation and swimming beach. Those many people who swim and paddle in the sea at Sembawang enjoy the experience of the natural beach and sea, and the natural sand under their feet. Whilst the new coastal outlines on the Draft Master Plan 2003 at the Exhibition and on the URA web page vary somewhat, both involve an indentation that indicates the idea of a swimming lagoon. Sand on man-made beaches and in lagoons after reclamation has a history of not staying where it is supposed to. Erosion often occurs, as at East Coast Park and at Sentosa, to name just two locations. The feet of lagoon swimmers find themselves touching mud, rather than a more pleasant surface, and low tide in a man-made lagoon can be a rather revolting sight. In no way does a contrived lagoon replace a natural beach in giving enjoyment, nor can those who create an artificial lagoon with beach know in advance what the tides will do to their newly-placed sand.

But is this land reclamation necessary anyway? On the Draft Masterplan 2003 the reclaimed land at Sembawang coast is all coloured in yellow and marked as Reserve Land, which means that there is no definite need for the land in the near future, at least five years, maybe ten.

Simpang "redesignated" from a planned housing area to Reserve Land. Already the huge adjacent area of Simpang, 534 hectares, has been lying cleared since 1987 and is on the Draft Masterplan 2003 as Reserve Land, together with some proposed additional reclaimed land. Fifteen years ago, in the 1980s, there were broad plans for the development of a new town at Simpang. These plans were fleshed out in greater detail in the Simpang Planning Area Report in 1993 in the form of two separate town layout proposals, one by private architects and one by the HDB. This planning for Simpang New Town (including proposed land reclamation of an additional 115 hectares) was incorporated with all other Planning Area Reports into the Masterplan 1998. However nothing has ever been built, and now nothing is even planned in the next five years. No housing is needed in the foreseeable future, there is no more mention of Simpang New Town in the Draft Masterplan 2003, and the area is a blank yellow area of Reserve Land.

If there is so much Reserve Land already at Simpang, why engage in land reclamation either at Simpang or at Sembawang? But especially why at Sembawang? The land is just not needed in the near future.

Unnecessary loss of amenities when plans are made for the distant future. Experience over the last twenty years in Singapore has shown that too much forward planning, too much clearing of land for future development can mean needless loss of much-loved and older style amenities when plans are changed. What is destroyed can never be put back. For instance at Pulau Ubin, some waterfront seafood restaurants on the north coast, near the Thai Temple, which were highly popular with locals and tourists, were cleared away because of future developments which have never yet happened! Such old style restaurants cannot be recreated. At Ponggol a thriving village area with seafood restaurants busy at lunchtimes, evenings and weekends was destroyed, and now in its place is a flat empty area of unused land. The finality of destruction. If Sembawang Beach, Wak Hassan Beach and the adjacent coastline are destroyed, that is final and for ever. Nobody can get that natural beach and the old seafront back again once it is destroyed. We can be very sure of that. But if the land reclamation is cancelled or deferred for the moment, it may be that other developments in Singapore in future years will result in a lack of need for reclaimed land at Sembawang. We are not sure of the precise land needs in the future. Surely it is wrong to destroy something that so many stakeholders enjoy, without truly knowing that you need it, or what exactly you need it for. Why not wait awhile?

Singapore's first planning wave is over. The present surfeit of land in Singapore denotes the end of the first great post-independence planning wave. Due to urgent population increases in the 1960s a type of broad-stroke planning was needed, with large lines drawn along coastlines in Singapore for planned reclamation. Such broad-stroke planning is no longer needed. It is a time of careful, minute short term mini-step planning, taking account of new needs and new development possibilities created by technology. In a time of slow population growth but continual technological and conceptual change, one cannot predict long term needs. In fact, much of the Draft Master Plan 2003 demonstrates this creative mini-planning, such as the park connector which will run under the MRT from Woodlands to Yishun. Unfortunately, however, the proposed land reclamation at Sembawang Beach belongs to the broad-stroke era.

New creative planning initiatives. Many new geological and technological developments, many creative ideas are already reducing the immediate need for additional surface land in Singapore. Underground developments are now known to be possible right through both the granite and sedimentary rock areas of Singapore. The 300 hectares of surface land saved by Mindef’s underground store at Mandai/Sungei Kadut is just a start in terms of what is possible underground. A host of ideas have been suggested for the Jurong to Kent Ridge sedimentary rock formation. Creativity of ideas can lead to more savings - as when old quarries have been filled up with earth and clay from construction projects and from tunneling to each provide several hectares of building land. HDB car parks are still going upwards, but hopefully soon land will be saved as basement car parks are dug for HDB blocks. Above the ground level, technological developments reduce the amount of land needed for housing, as our housing blocks are built higher and higher. The latest new housing projects in the downtown area go up to 50 storeys. With the expansion of universities in the past twenty years, especially at postgraduate level, we can expect continual innovations locally, as well as worldwide, which may make the present planning parameters, constraints and needs completely out of date in five, ten or twenty years time.

To destroy the Sembawang Beach and Wak Hassan Beach now, when there is no present need for the land for development, and a possible lack of need in the future, is a highly unjustified action. It would be tragic to destroy the Beach now and find out later it was not necessary.

Margie Hall, Ms.