TL;DRUntil as recently as the mid-1980s, over a million pigs were raised annually in farms across Singapore, producing almost all the pork Singaporeans consumed.4 Evolving government policies, however, eventually determined that such self-sufficiency was not sustainable. The local pork industry came at the expense of other aspects of the country’s development, and was thus gradually phased out.
+65 Volume 2 – 2022
Text by Choo Ruizhiof the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)
In bak chor mee, babi pongteh, and Korean barbecues. In restaurants, hawker centres, and kopitiams. In 2020 alone, Singapore consumed 123,625 tonnes of pork, making it the most popular red meat in the country.1 Yet none of this pork was raised locally, because there have been no pig farms in Singapore since 1989.2 The pork Singaporeans eat today comes either chilled, frozen, or fresh from over 20 different countries.3 Today, the only pigs left in Singapore are wild boars which roam the forested fringes of the island. Occasionally, these animals drift closer to human habitats, surfacing on social media and newspaper articles.
Today, the only pigs left in Singapore are wild boars which roam the forested fringes of the island. Occasionally, these animals drift closer to human habitats, surfacing on social media and newspaper articles.
Yet until as recently as the mid-1980s, over a million pigs were raised annually in farms across Singapore, producing almost all the pork Singaporeans consumed.4 Evolving government policies, however, eventually determined that such self-sufficiency was not sustainable. The local pork industry, though tremendously efficient, came at the expense of other aspects of the country’s development, and was thus gradually phased out.
Over the decades, Singapore’s policymakers have had to balance the varying, sometimes conflicting demands of multiple stakeholders, so as to ensure that different aspects of Singapore’s socioeconomic growth could be managed. The local pork industry was one such area in which disparate concerns about economic viability and environmental impact intertwined, resulting in policy changes that markedly transformed how Singaporeans obtained and consumed this protein. This short essay thus surveys how changing sustainability considerations since the 1960s affected pig farming in Singapore, leading ultimately to the imported pork Singaporeans consume today.
The 1960s: Food Self-sufficiency
As compared to the present, Singapore in 1965 resembled a different country. Sprawling expanses of farmland supported large rural communities, and pig farms dotted the banks of the Kranji and Kallang rivers.
To help meet Singapore’s growing food needs, the then-Primary Production Department (PPD) set out to improve the efficiency of existing farms with better education and equipment.5 Lectures and study trips were organised, while high-quality pig breeds and feedstock were provided to farmers.6 In 1965, Singapore’s first farm school was established in Sembawang.7
Taken together, these efforts saved the country “millions of dollars in foreign exchange” by minimising the need to purchase imported pork.8 But changes were on the horizon. Competing national priorities meant that even efficient, small-scale farming could not be sustained in the long run.
The 1970s: Competing Priorities
By the early 1970s, dramatic changes were occurring in Singapore’s society, economy, and environment. In particular, Singapore’s meteoric economic growth had begun generating tensions and trade-offs. Balanced against other national priorities, pig farming in Singapore had to be reorganised. Farmland shrank to make room for new factories, housing estates, and military training grounds.
“We had about 6000 pigs before moving over here from Ang Mo Kio. But with various facilities provided to us, we have an additional 4000 pigs now, after only about half a year of resettlement.”
-Tan Hong Chuay, owner of 3.25 –hectare farm with about 10,000 pigs, in a 1977 interview with New Nation9
Meanwhile, to improve Singapore’s water security, large waterways like the Kranji River were dammed to create reservoirs. Large farms in water catchment areas such as Lim Chu Kang, Jurong, and Seletar were relocated to newly-created farming estates in Tampines, Punggol, and Jalan Kayu to prevent pig waste from contaminating new freshwater sources. Small-scale pig farmers were encouraged to raise less pollutive livestock, or to give up farming entirely.10 The era of intensive farming had arrived.
One of the government’s most ambitious experiments in intensive farming during this period was its development of the Punggol pig-farming district. Over 1,000 hectares of land was allocated to this venture. Electric cables and water pipes were laid, new roads were built, and government flats constructed to house resettled farmers.11 The Punggol Pig Centre, a laboratory specialising in pig diseases and pig farm management, was also established in Jalan Serangoon Kechil.12
By 1977, the newly resettled pig farms in Punggol had considerably exceeded production targets despite the decrease in available farmland. The PPD declared Singapore “self-sufficient in pigs”.13 Intensifying pig farming with modern technologies had allowed for more efficient, sustainable use of resources. By September 1980, Singaporean farms were producing over 1.25 million pigs annually.14 Despite these improved efficiencies, however, changes were soon afoot again. The 1980s would bring new choices and challenges.
“Does it make sense to spend some $80 million on waste treatment plants to achieve poor environmental standards? If pig farms have eventually to go, why prolong the agony?”
-Dr Goh Keng Swee, in response to a question filed in Parliament in 198415
The 1980s: The End of Singaporean Pork
Despite the local pork industry’s high production output, policymakers by the early 1980s determined that pig farming was unsustainable when balanced against other aspects of national development.
In March 1984, Dr Goh Keng Swee, First Deputy Prime Minister, announced that all local pig farms would be progressively phased out. All of Singapore’s pork would henceforth be imported.16
“When they mentioned that they wanted to phase out the pig farming, everybody was furious … it really hit the farmers who are about 40, 50 years old … when they are at this stage, you know, to tell them to go out and do other business, it’s not easy.
My farm? We had to accept it, unwillingly, unfortunately. But that was the government policy, so we had to stop.”
-Hay Soo Kheng, a pig farmer, in a 1991 interview with the National Archives of Singapore17
After “a major review of pig policy”, the state had concluded that the extreme toxicity of pig waste, expensive waste treatment plants, and the resource-intensive nature of pig farming in general made it economically and environmentally unsustainable in the long run. It would be efficient, the government argued, to “supply the whole of our pork requirements through imports, probably at a lower cost”.18
The decision had been made at the highest levels of government, who brooked no protest to this difficult decision.19 Despite widespread disappointment from farmers and even some PPD officers, the reaction to this decision amongst most Singaporeans appeared to have been relatively muted.
The ambivalent response might have been a product of broader shifts in Singapore’s economy. Many small farmers had already been transiting out of the pork industry for years, farming other crops, or exploring other livelihoods due to diminishing state support for pig farming.
For instance, stuck with excess pigs in his farms, Mr Lim Hock Chee turned to selling chilled pork from a rented booth in a Savewell Supermarket outlet at Ang Mo Kio in 1984, and was later able to take over the management of the entire store. The decision marked the beginning of the Sheng Siong supermarkets, which has today grown to an island wide chain of 61 outlets.20
“Now I’m 55. I have been farming since I was 18. What other work can I do … The happiest thing in my life is that I have raised eight children and I don’t owe anybody any money … That’s not bad, isn’t it, considering I never learnt to read and write?”
-Poh Ah Leck, owner of a small family-run pig farm, in a 1985 interview with The Straits Times21
After phasing out pig farms, the Government was not idle either. In addition to the monumental task of closing down local farms, PPD officials fanned out throughout the region, seeking suppliers in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Australia. New infrastructures were built to transport and market fresh, chilled, and frozen pork locally. Publicity campaigns encouraged Singaporeans to consume more imported pork.
“Mr Lim Chye Joo, 82, said Primary Production Department (PPD) workers came to his farm on Tuesday and put away two of his male pigs with a lethal injection […] Mr Lim has 18 females and 12 piglets left. He said PPD men will return on Monday to kill the rest.
‘It is not economical to sell them off because transportation costs for such a small lot exceed any profits to be made,’ he said.
‘The female pigs are already old. There is no point trying to sell the piglets off because farms in Punggol, Tampines, Changi and Sembawang are being closed at the same time and the market will be flooded,’ he added.”
An excerpt from “No market for these swine”, The New Paper, 26 Nov 198822
The era of Singaporean pork was over. Henceforth, Singaporeans (with initial reluctance) would begin consuming pork, grown in overseas farms, in increasing quantities.
Singapore, Swine, and Sustainability
The story of Singaporean pork illustrates how stark choices had to be made in Singapore’s early nation-building years, as leaders and citizens alike strove to balance economic imperatives with growing concerns about environmental sustainability. Entwined with these grand narratives of national progress are hence also smaller stories of sacrifice, uncertainty, and loss.
Yet policymakers and pig farmers alike met these challenges with tireless determination and bold ingenuity, reinventing themselves to meet evolving contexts. History cannot predict the future, but perhaps this brief story of swine and sustainability shows us how we can likewise rise to meet the road ahead: with grit, daring, and imagination.
Choo Ruizhi is a Senior Analyst in the National Security Studies Programme (NSSP) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). He is interested in the histories of animals in colonial and early post-independence Singapore. In his free time, he likes to wander through Singapore’s past and present landscapes on foot, by bus, and in the archives.
1 Singapore Food Agency, “2020 Food Stats for SFA Website”, https://www.sfa.gov.sg/docs/default-source/tools-and-resources/yearly-statistics/per-capita-consumption.pdf (accessed 2 Nov 2021).
2 Ngiam Tong Tau, interview by Claire Yeo, Oral History Centre, National Archives of Singapore, Accession Number 003117, Reel 7, 4 Apr 2007.
3 Singapore Food Agency, “Singapore Food Statistics 2021”, https://www.sfa.gov.sg/docs/default-source/publication/sg-food-statistics/singapore-food-statistics-2021.pdf (accessed 29 Sep 2022).
4 Salma Khalik, “We are eating less fresh pork”, The Straits Times [henceforth, ST], 14 Mar 1984, 17; Anonymous, “Farms will still rear 1.2m pigs a year”, ST, 27 Feb 1981, 11.
5 Elyssa Ludher and Thinesh Kumar s/o Paramasilvam, Food and the City: Overcoming Challenges for Food Security (Singapore: Centre for Liveable Cities, 2018), 13.
6 Anonymous, “Classes for farmers on rearing livestock”, ST, 15 Oct 1960, 4; Anonymous, “A ‘pig and poultry’ drive”, Singapore Free Press [henceforth, SFP], 4 Nov 1960, 1.
7 Anonymous, “Govt help for pig rearers”, ST, 28 Jan 1964, 18; Anonymous, “Berkshire boars for farmers”, ST, 26 Jul 1965, 6; Anonymous, “Young breeding boars offered to farmers”, ST, 20 Mar 1967, 22.
8 Anonymous, “From farmers and fisherman”, ST, 30 Jul 1967, 12.
9 Anonymous, “‘Big shift’ for pig farmers cost the govt $9 million”, New Nation, 17 Sep 1977, 2.
10 Anonymous, “Pig breeders in two areas told to quit”, ST, 21 Aug 1974, 9.
11 Anonymous, “Big pig-farming project at Ponggol off to promising start”, ST, 14 Mar 1976, 6.
12 Ngiam, interview, Reel 3.
13 Anonymous, “Intensive farming: Singapore is now self-sufficient in pigs and poultry”, ST, 3 Oct 1977, 6.
14 Anonymous, “Less land, but enough pigs, eggs”, New Nation, 23 Sep 1980, 3.
15 Goh Keng Swee, “Punggol Pig Farmers (Dispossession)”, Oral Answers to Questions, Parliament No. 5, Session 1, Vol. 43, Sitting No. 6, 12 Mar 1984.
16 Ministry of the Environment, “The Phasing Out of Pig Farms”, Singapore Government Press Releases, Information Division, Ministry of Culture, 43/APR, 07-0/85/04/23, 23 Apr 1985.
17 Hay Soo Kheng, interview by Jesley Chua Chee Huan, Oral History Centre, National Archives of Singapore, Accession Number 001289, Reel 5, 19 Jul 1991.
18 Goh Keng Swee, “Punggol Pig Farmers (Dispossession)”, Oral Answers to Questions, Parliament No. 5, Session 1, Vol. 43, Sitting No. 6, 12 Mar 1984.
19 Ngiam, interview, Reel 3.
20 Francis Chan, “Sheng Siong kidnapping: From pig farmer to supermarket tycoon”, ST, 10 Jan 2014; Mak Mun San, “Mind your ‘p’s and Queues”, ST, 11 Feb 2008; Francis Chan, “From pig farmer to supermarket chain owner”, ST, 10 Jun 2009
21 Ngiam Tong Hai and Alan John, “Picking up the pieces after Dr Goh’s bombshell”, ST, 21 Apr 1985, 2. Reel 3.
22 Nicklaus D’cruz, “No market for these swine”, New Paper, 26 Nov 1988, 3.