How to lose an island: Singapore, colonialism, and the environment

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Title

Asia in Transition



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School of Arts and Humanities


Polain, M. (2022). How to Lose an Island: Singapore, Colonialism, and the Environment. In: Telles, J.P., Ryan, J.C., Dreisbach, J.L. (eds) Environment, Media, and Popular Culture in Southeast Asia, Asia in Transition, vol. 17, (pp. 277-290). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-19-1130-9_16


Singapore became independent from Britain in 1964. Four years earlier, my parents decided to walk away from their life in Pulau Damar, near a tiny coastal kampong (Malay village), backing onto jungle overlooking a cove and Pulau Dumar Laut (island), approximately twenty-seven kilometers west of the city of Singapore along (then) jungle tracks; walk away from the farm they managed, the land they’d leased and the house my father had built himself. They had lived through a colony’s independence before and foresaw they would soon be displaced. Less than a decade after independence, my mother took her children back to show us Pulau Damar. Our driver was obliging but confused. Eventually he pulled up on the highway’s shoulder and gestured ahead. We looked down on a vast industrial complex. No jungled hills—no jungle at all—no beach, no cove, no island. The immense concrete and steel complex was guarded; we could go no closer. It seems Singapore prefers not to dwell on its colonial and pre-colonial history. Most pre-independence architecture has been destroyed. Of its original seventy or more islands, approximately only fifty remain. And yet, each consisted of a thriving ecosystem—biological and social, human and more-than-human. Using a ficto-critical structure, the concept of palimpsest, and historical information drawn from Singapore’s archives, this chapter explores how memory, post-memory, auto/biography, and imagination create and maintain layers of unofficial history that resist silence and challenge official history’s claim to truth.



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