Digging deep to overcome constraints

The unveiling of the Jurong Rock Caverns (JRC) reiterates the main lesson of independent Singapore's survival, which is that size is not destiny. As an engineering feat, the JRC expands the very notion of physical space, in which high-rise buildings once acted as the chief means of escape from the geographical constraints of an island city-state. Reclaiming land was another way of providing industrial land and space. Of course, Singapore went underground as well to escape the spatial determinants of destiny.

However, with the JRC being sited four times further underground than the deepest MRT station, the project exemplifies the country's need to dig deeper into its physical resources to unlock economic possibilities.

Located 150m below the ground, the JRC is Singapore's deepest underground public works endeavour so far. Its strategic importance is underlined by the fact that the underground commercial storage facility for oil products it provides will benefit the petrochemical industry, which accounts for about a third of Singapore's manufacturing output. The caverns reaffirm the boldness of vision inherent in Jurong Island itself, a project that was attendant with risks but proved indispensable in transforming the nation's industrial landscape.

As a first in South-east Asia, the caverns signify Singapore's determination not to be overtaken by developments in a dynamic region where the building of infrastructure is key to the region's emergence as a major player in Asian affairs. The JRC will enhance the integrated infrastructure that exists already, to strengthen Singapore's role as a leading global energy and chemicals hub. This expansion of Singapore's infrastructural capacity in turn will increase South-east Asia's draw as an economic destination.

Certainly, cost must be a primary consideration in embarking on such projects. Indeed, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that the endeavour was challenging, risky and costly. Expensive it certainly is, at $950 million, particularly since it costs about 30 per cent more to build underground storage infrastructure than to reclaim land. But the cost-benefit analysis does include the advantages of freeing up land above ground for higher value-added activities such as petrochemical plants. Now, every effort should be made to maximise returns on the project.

A start has been made with the JRC having secured its first customer, Jurong Aromatics Corporation, for two of the five caverns. A clear eye on the financial bottom line will complement the innovative daring and engineering capability behind a project which proves yet again that what Singapore lacks in size, it can more than compensate for in imagination.