A Meeting with a Land Surveyor

This weekend I was very fortunate to meet Mr KL Loh, a land surveyor who has been working for over 40 years in land surveying (and an avid collector of Killifish and moss expert!). He was very kind to invite me over to his house, and to tell me more about his work as a land surveyor, and we also looked through the symbols I’ve been collecting for the last few years. (Many thanks to Mr Loh and his family for having me over – and Caleb for introducing us in the first place!)

It was really really amazing to finally speak with a real land surveyor and to hear it directly from someone who makes official, practical marks which are being used in actual architectural and civil engineering projects in Singapore and we had many many urban stories or anecdotes to share and talk about. I will slowly process it all and write more about it in time to come.

It appears that most of what I have been collecting is not always “survey markers” but also a lot of informal civil engineering markers. True survey markers always have a plate and a reference number. The number is stored inside a big database known as the Integrated Land Information Service and anyone can retrieve information from this service (such as property titles, boundary plans, cadastral maps, control points) for a small fee.

This is the cover plate for what would be a real control point made by a land surveyor.

On INLIS, this is a list of information that is provided:

a. Property Title Information comprising title, ownership, encumbrances, last transaction information and Land Encroachment Details
b. Property Ownership Information
c. Property Title Information – Estate and Land Description
d. Property Title Information – Encumbrances Information
e. Property Title Information with Cadastral Map
f. Historical Information which lists instruments and caveats lodged against a title or unregistered land after it has been computerised
g. Caveat Index Information which lists caveats lodged and still affecting an unregistered land
h. Land Information – Lot Particulars
i. Land Information – Lot History
j. Encroachment Boundary Plan
k. Certified Plan
l. Strata Certified Plan
m. Registrar of Title Plan
n. Road Line Plan
o. Horizontal Control Point & Vertical Control Point
p. Image of HDB Leases
q. Image of HDB Instruments
r. Image of Private Property Instruments
s. Image of Index to Land Book
t. Image of Index to Caveat Book
u. Image of Private Property Deeds

Available Graphical Information (as listed on INLIS):

• Cadastral Map
• Property Title Information with Cadastral Map
• Road Line Plan
• Horizontal Control Point & Vertical Control Point



Trimble CU Controller

Some of the interesting things I learnt were that (1) the control points are also sometimes on turf and i have only collected ones on pavements but surveyed points sometimes aren’t always on concrete pavements or roads, and (2) the control points have the potential to go missing – KL said that many control points were made much more quickly in modern times, and as a result some of them would disappear after a few years. So when surveyors returned to look for them after many years (or when looking for other control points listed on INLIS) these points might have disappeared (soil movement might also cause their position to shift!). Apparently in the old days some of the control points were marked out with granite blocks and they were laid into the turf/ground with more time and care; a few still exist in older places such as Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and possibly Bukit Brown.

With regards to blocks that stick out on grassy turf… having read a book on LTA Guidelines recently, I have also realized that there is also much more to learn about those boxes and pipes we sometimes see on roads. I have frequently wondered why sometimes pavements have little metal boxes sticking out and it appears they are not all the same! Those little boxes or tubes serve very different purposes in monitoring different things. Here are diagrams of what some things that stick out from roads might be:

Pneumatic Piezometer




Water Standpipe


More significantly, for my work, it seems the variance in shapes and drawing depends a lot on the individual surveyor/clerk of works who is drawing it on the ground – whether for his own reference, or for his company to be able to recognise the mark. As many of these marks aren’t official survey marks, the person drawing it for their temporary reference while working on a civil engineering or road project could technically take any “artistic” liberties with it and draw almost anything so as to make the marking recognisable to himself during the duration of the project.

The Singapore River as a Bow-shaped Canal

Recently, I read, with some incredulity, that the Singapore River was to be diverted for the digging of new MRT tunnels (Downtown Line).

ST Breaking News (28 April 2012) – Singapore River diversion a herculean task:

“The plan to divert the Singapore River may be the most ambitious part of the MRT Downtown Line project. The herculean task, to begin by the end of the third quarter, will reroute part of the river next to Riverside Point into a bow-shaped canal. (…) The river is being moved so that the Land Transport Authority (LTA) can bore two train tunnels under it for the Downtown Line 3.”

ST Breaking News (28 April 2012) – Singapore River to be diverted for MRT tunnels:

“Part of the Singapore River, the site of Singapore’s earliest settlements, will be moved so that an MRT line can be built under it. In the first undertaking of its kind, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and Korean builder GS Engineering & Construction will dig a bow-shaped canal to divert the river. It will then clear the drained portion of age-old debris and fill it with a stabilising material before boring two train tunnels under it. The original path of the waterway will be reinstated after the tunnels are completed.”

Screen shot 2012-05-07 at AM 08
Source: ST

Screen shot 2012-05-07 at AM 08

Map Source: OneMap. Annotation by Debbie.

The fate of excavated debris and soil is something I have puzzled over for some time now. What will happen to all this “age-old debris” after they dig it up? Do they use it to fill up other spaces? Do they bury it somewhere else? Do they give the soil to others to reuse in other landfills? What happens to the soil from (commercial) excavations?

It has been known that sometimes the government does allow a pause in these redevelopment/construction works to allow for archaeological digs. This has happened for a number of old sites around the central part of Singapore, such as the Old Parliament at Empress Place, the National Art Gallery (a very short spell though). But crucially, because this has not yet actually happened, there is still a possibility for a proper request for an study of the dig site at the Singapore River before it too has been built over forever.

Back in April, I made some notes about John Miksic’s lecture on “Guerrilla Archaeologists and the Singapore Story” here on my other Documentations blog. When he spoke about the importance of archaeology particularly in areas which were endangered and about to be dug up, I also immediately thought of the Downtown Line excavations which are all in the town area. I’m interested in the DTL excavations around Sungei Road. But of course, now it appears, the Singapore River itself is also at stake.

What is the importance of doing an archaeological dig? Why is it important to study the Singapore River then? Well, I think one thing that is often eclipsed in accounts of “Singapore History” is the presence of a history before Raffles. These archaelogical studies, as well as the acquisition of the Beilitung Shipwreck (however much the ethics might be dispute) are reminders that Singapore is not only in existence because of its colonial history, but it has a much longer history as a place in this region.

Photo taken on 4th May – Around the River Valley Station Construction Site


Photo taken on 4th May – Around the River Valley Station Construction Site


Photo taken on 4th May – Piling works have already started as evidenced by photos taken around the site.


The part of the waterway that they are planning to divert.


This signboard has the list and phone numbers of all the agencies involved.

I suppose the first thing to do is to raise awareness of the value of an archaeological study in that area. Someone has already set up a facebook group here for starters – Singapore River diversion – Protect Our Heritage where they are asking for 6 months to allow the NUS team to study the site. Will this be acceded to? Perhaps we need more public support to persuade the authorities to allow this break in construction for an archaeological study. But after all, what is six months to study a historical site that might never be accessible again for all eternity?

It looks like I might have to update my animation of the changes in the Singapore River…. although by the way things are going, maybe I should have to wait to see if other parts of the Singapore River also gets moved about. It’s already been shown that here in Singapore there are no sacred cows: there are no monuments, no heritage sites, no geographical features, and no buildings here that cannot be wilfully moved or destroyed. But this is an attitude that needs to change – or at least for people to be more educated about what will be lost from all this, and what we could have gained from it as well…

The Singapore River as a Psychogeographical Faultline

Another view of the River (from a screenshot I took in August 2010):

cte and river
This CTE tunnel is under the Singapore River. Do you think the drivers passing through this part of the CTE are even aware that they are actually moving under the Singapore River itself? Under the waters and the waves and the boats and everything? Its funny how these things are so central and so many people pass through this area but most people still don’t really look at the things around them.

Sungei Road Chairs




In the morning and afternoon, these chairs are used by people at the market stalls, and in the evening and night, they are often left on the fence for people to use, where people sit late into the night to talk; and where casual passerbys, homeless people, or lost travellers sometimes stop to borrow them for a while. Although the shophouses have been burnt down, the land has been fenced up to keep people off it, and the market is slowly being edged out by the construction work, the community still persists and keeps camp on Sungei Road.

Empty Chairs on Sungei Road

The day before, I took a walk from my house to the Immigrations building to collect my passport. It was long and lovely and although I did not intend to, I ended up having to do this trip twice because I forgot to bring my old passport on the first trip.

However, as a result of this oversight, on my walks I observed a female construction worker/surveyor doing some measurements and annotating on the ground with a correction pen and had a leisurely walk home again from Lavender to Little India. There are many new markers on the ground that have only just appeared in the last day, and surveyors can actually be seen everywhere. The trail is hot!

All the annotations refer to C935, sometimes also represented with a LJH which stands for Leighton-John Holland, a joint venture between two Australian rail building companies. You can see plastic road dividers being sloppily sprayed with the initials LJH all around the Sungei Road area, and many large objects around the area such as the electronic traffic diversion signs are also labeled with C935.

Later that night after Korean classes, I walked home from Bugis to Jalan Besar/Little India. The Victoria Street Wholesale Market was already being demolished, and with the shops taken out of the buildings, you could see the huge bricks which had been used to construct it in the first place. It is funny because my memories of it are less as a market but rather as a night time playground, walking around its empty but fishy corridors and imagining all the dried produce stored within.

The compressed and cramped roads of Sungei Road are still active even at night. As always, the chairs have been stashed on the posts of the very fences that were used to keep the people out from the empty grass and on the pavements. It is a funny thing when there is a market place but the place is fenced off to the people such that people are only allowed on the roads – and yet one can see how the people have also fought back so much to keep this space in spite of everything.

And there used to be fewer chairs before they dug up half of the road – I remember this clearly as we used to “borrow” a few of these chairs and sit on them at night so being able to find the chairs was crucial – but for some reason the number of empty chairs seem to have suddenly multiplied recently. As I walked past late at night, a group of old men were still sitting and talking in the middle of Sungei Road. Were they trading old stories or talking of new ones, or keeping an eye on the street? Its hard to tell, but this is visibly a major transitional phase for Sungei Road. I just hope that it remains full of life even after they construct the new station in the middle of the Thieves Market…

Made-up Road Names and Temporary Islands

“There was once an “island” in the middle of Kalang Basin called “Pulau Geylang”. In his speech at the opening of the Kallang Airport on 12 June 1937, Director of Public Works, Major R.L. Nunn, revealed that the “island” was found to be composed almost entirely of sawdust, possibly waste material from the many sawmills dotting the length of the river, and was consequently removed and the area reclaimed to construct the Kallang Airport.”

Michelle Tay, Assistant Archivist / From Emporium to Singapore City: Mapping the Journey


Yesterday I also found another colonial town plan map (dated 1878) that has a picture of Kampong Saigon on it. (Pulau Saigon!) I also find it tediously difficult to find old maps of Singapore. You would imagine someone would have made a definitive map book of Singapore by now. It must be intellectual property issues here, but I wish someone would print a map book with every single old map of Singapore in it. Or if only I could do it myself.

And going off on a slight tangent, last night I also read an article about a group of women in Rome wanting to push for more roads to be named after women (Toponomastica femminile) because most roads are named after men and other things and there is an incredibly low representation of women names on Rome’s roads. I have the feeling this is a situation that would be even more pronounced in Singapore. Now most of my own work with maps and research about maps can be said to have developed without much thought of issues of gender, so I realise it might be interesting to consider what the roads are trying to spell out. Discussing it with friends, we also realised that not only were the number of actual prominent “women pioneers” rather small and the roads named after them even fewer, on some occasions those roads named after females were actually wives or daughters of colonialists in Singapore rather than having a road named after them by their own right. So if one were to develop such a list in Singapore today, it would need to also separate these into different categories. It’s not the same if you’ve named the road after a woman but she was in fact closer to being a trophy wife or an ornament, rather than the actual participant in the life of the city.

I would like to tabulate a list of all the roads in Singapore, and to check off on a list to see what they are named after.

My guess would be that the following main categories will emerge:

– Fruits
– Important Men
– Actual Women
– Wives/Children of Important Men
– Social activities/Events
– The Names of Other Places
– Generic Number names (Ave 1, Ave 2, Ave 3…)
– Made-up names (edgefield, compassvale, etc)

I am certain there are more roads named after fruits than women.

A walk along Stamford Canal

Full Name: Stamford Canal
Description Name: Canalized Stream
Description Text: a stream that has been substantially ditched, diked, or straightened

We took a walk past Stamford Canal the other day. It was completely covered of course, but peering down the large storm drain cover, I could see it was at least a 3 metre drop down.

This is a topographic image from the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, in a Oral Reply by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources to Parliamentary Question on flash floods in Orchard Road (in December 2011). He describes Stamford canal as such: “Stamford Canal drains a catchment area of 631 hectares… It starts upstream at the Botanic Gardens and Dempsey Hill. It extends downstream to Bras Basah and City Hall areas and ultimately drains into the Marina Reservoir.”

In trying to defend the flash floods on Orchard Road, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan uttered this:

“Members (of the parliament) will notice that, in fact, the Stamford Canal is already very deep. If we go any deeper, we will create a Stamford basin, which is not the objective…”

But when something is completely underground in large parts, what do we care about its shape? It could be a Stamford basin for all we know. Canal, River, Basin, Pond, these can just be abstract terms for abstract shapes of water bodies.

Recently, I have also noticed that they are raising the roads outside my area (Little India/Farrer Park/Jalan Besar). This has dragged over many months and caused endless congestion on Jalan Besar and most of Little India (which is always heavily used by cars, pedestrians, and armies of trishaw drivers from Albert Square.

The construction work is slow, prolonged, and seems almost half-hearted in my opinion, with only single bricks laid each week. It has also forced human traffic in this area off the pavements and on to the vehicular roads because nobody wants to climb up a half-metre step to be on a pointless pavement for a few metres. And Little India has always been a place where unruly human traffic often takes over the road without a care for oncoming traffic.

Reading the responses by MEWR, it appears that they place greater importance in making sure that the vehicular roads remain passable at all times. The result is a somewhat disagreeable situation in which all the shophouses appear to be “sinking” into the ground, and where pavements are completely incondusive to walking. The old shophouses, which are the very core of this area, are more prone to becoming the “flooded basement” in Liat Towers and Lucky Plaza that were unfortunate enough to be “lower” than what they wanted to protect (the vehicular roads) by raising. Surely in all this, I find that there is a lack of understanding of what is truly important in the country, and what needs to be protected or preserved.

Also, I spotted this rampant case of stupidity at the end of Jalan Besar Road:

Just in case you couldn’t recognize what the traffic crossing looks like now, they decided to make a poster to tell you what it looked like.

It doesn’t actually look like that at the end of the road, although I suppose they just meant to tell you that it looks like an utter mess and perhaps they wanted to reassure (or taunt) people that as unlikely as it seemed, there would still be a traffic crossing at the end of the construction chaos. Because, you know, they are trying very hard to make them very hard to find around this area.