Whether it is by sea, air or even digital space, Singapore is one of the world’s most connected cities today. It is plugged into an array of networks that are largely invisible unless there is a breakdown in their operations. The disruptions due to the recent pandemic, for instance, pulled back the curtain on the global supply chains that power everyday life in Singapore.
These networks have not only helped the city-state stay connected to a globalised society, but have also shaped its inhabitants’ image of their home. Most will recognise Singapore as a single landmass when in fact it is an archipelago of 64 islands. It is a testimony to how successful the ruling People’s Action Party government has been in moulding Singapore into an integrated urban entity since the 1960s. As part of the construction of a modern nation-state, citizens were rehoused from kampongs all across Singapore, including its surrounding islands, into public housing estates on the mainland. These physical dislocations and disconnections were the foundation for the connected island nation of today.
The documentary PULAU (2022) attempts to reconnect three of Singapore’s islands—Pulau Sudong, Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong—with the memories of two former inhabitants and a descendant. They each recount how their islands once housed thriving communities that were untethered to “Singapore”. Instead, their island and the surrounding seas were their anchor. But it all changed in service of a new nation: Pulau Tekong and Pulau Sudong were closed off for military use, while Pulau Ubin was left out of the modernisation drive. The reorientation pushed these islands to the periphery of “Singapore”. As a former Pulau Tekong inhabitant unconsciously utters: “[T]he island has no more people already. They’ve all shifted to Singapore.”
Just as the islands have emptied, so has the sense of “island-ness” amongst the people of Singapore. The consolidation of islands with the mainland and the drive to connect Singapore to the world has rendered it impossible to recognise the city-state as an island. This is no land that is isolated, detached and surrounded by the sea. It is hyper-connected in every way possible. Expressways. Park connectors. Tuas Port. Data centres. 5G. MRT. Racial and Religious Harmony Circles. Embassies. Changi Airport. All around Singapore are the physical manifestations of the multitude of networks that bind its people to one another and to the wider world.
Get to the Point (2022) is a filmic tour of this “Islandwide Coverage experience”. From the view in a car speeding along the expressway, it zooms out to lines of video displaying Singapore’s urban infrastructure. As they run across the screen, fragments of texts fade in and out offering at times cryptic, existential and self-referential commentary:
“The ghosts of the rivers whisper from the sewage underfoot.”
“Where do the body and soul reside?”
“Is getting to the point the only point of life?”
Like the nostalgic Nokia game of Snake, the film chases its own tail. At the end of the five-minute ride, one wonders: What was the point of it all? The dense and multi-layered connections across the city-state enable the seamless and perpetual movement of people, goods and ideas that keep its economy and society running. But to what end?
A prevailing sentiment of alienation runs through both films. The older generation (of interviewees) unable to retain and return to their roots after the tectonic shifts of geographies. A new generation (of filmmakers) struggling to stay rooted in an island where land has been paved over with properties, roads and other infrastructure designed to aid economic movement. Each is disconnected from this island they call home. Each has become an island in their home.
They bring to mind a question of our times: how essential is land to a home? This is particularly when countries are launching “digital citizenship” programmes that stretch notions of territoriality. Many have also embraced the ways of a “digital nomad” by living and working anywhere as long as there is access to the Internet. In fact, we see in PULAU how homes live on without land: as boats on sea, as an online community or as memories captured in photographs and momentary gatherings. What holds each together is the connections that they house within.
It would be naive, however, to conclude that home is where the heart is. The pandemic lockdowns, Russia’s on-going war on Ukraine and the growing movement to “decouple” from China all demonstrate how essential land is in defining territories, and even identities. After all, connections can only be made when there are pathways to travel on and nodes to gather around—infrastructure that needs physical land. In the case of Singapore, Get to the Point suggests that the island’s land has been designed for “the emergence of a programmed environment as total interface” that shepherds and harnesses bodies and their data. If I may add: an arrangement that the state has maintained is for the greater good of a “home”.
This network is what entangles many in Singapore to this home. Instead of people sinking roots into the island’s land and growing them with time, the connections to home are tethered and virtual like in a Wi-Fi network. The state is the router that centralises transmissions and receptions, an efficient and invisible arrangement for all—as long as one has access. The signal grows weak for those at the periphery. What is worse is to be cut off: thus becoming an island.
Yet, while an island may be disconnected, it is always surrounded by the sea. This is the network that connects all lands. It keeps them anchored and at bay. As rising sea levels flood islands and reclaim the lands, many homes will be disconnected. Many more will have to be reconnected too. What roots will remain? How can connections between home and land be rebuilt? Despite decades of building up connections to become a global city, Singapore can never disconnect from the fact that it is an island.
About the Writer
Justin Zhuang is an observer of the designed world and its impact on everyday life. Since 2009, the journalism graduate has covered architecture and design for various magazines in Singapore and around the world. Zhuang has authored several books and projects inspired by observations of everyday designs in Singapore. They include Reclaim Land: The Fight for Space in Singapore (2009) and Everyday Modernism: Architecture & Society in Singapore (2022).
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.