The Surprising History of Sentosa, Singapore’s Vacation Island


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(CNN) — It was formerly known as Pulau Blakang Mati. Some politely translate the name as “the island of misfortune”, but the most quoted translation is “the island behind which lies death”.

Now it’s called Sentosa, from the Malay word for peaceful. Filled with theme parks, beaches, luxury resorts, casinos and other entertainment, it is Singapore’s main island for staycations and one of the city’s most popular destinations for international tourists.

But how did it all start?

Fifty years ago last September, the fledgling country of Singapore formed the Singapore Development Corporation (SDC), which – as its name suggests – was designed to transform a then rural, mostly uninhabited island into a urban playground.

A Malay Island

The 500-hectare island is shaped like the butt end of a smoking pipe, curved around the southern side of what is now Singapore. Its shape and position made it a perfect place for traders traveling to and from Malaysia – and a regular hiding place for the pirates who raided these ships.

There were three main kampongs (villages) here: Ayer Bandera, Serapong and Blakan Mati. Residents of the island were a mixture of Chinese, Malays and Bugis (from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi).

Then, in 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in what was to become the City of the Lion.

The British statesman left an indelible mark not just on Singapore, but on much of East Asia, which he explored and wrote about during his diplomatic posts there.

Sentosa has a smaller version of Singapore’s famous Merlion statue.

Sentosa Development Corporation

During the second half of the 19th century, the British began building fortifications around Singapore. On Sentosa there were four – Fort Serapong (near the center of the island), Fort Connaught, the Imbiah Battery, and Fort Siloso (at the far northwest tip).

While Singapore was controlled by the British, soldiers lived in Pulau Blakang Mati. Malay, Chinese, and Indian laborers did laundry, ran sampans, and cleared land for the white military.

Although Sentosa’s nickname was changed in 1970, history buffs will still recognize the names of many places dotted around the island. Fort Siloso – now a public park and history museum – is still there, but a beach, an elevated walkway through the jungle, and a tram station are also named after Siloso.

The old Imbiah Battery is now a lookout point for hikers, while the abandoned buildings of Fort Serapong are popular with urban exploration and “ruin porn” enthusiasts.

Meanwhile, the elegant seaside resort The Barracks was, as its name suggests, once home to British gunners. Although the accommodations are much more comfortable these days, guests can still sunbathe on the old parade grounds.

A Singaporean island

Much of Sentosa’s history parallels the country’s history of Singapore.

In 1965, Singapore officially declared its independence from Malaysia and began figuring out what kind of nation it wanted to be.

While commerce and industry grew in Singapore, Sentosa remained mostly rural and uninhabited. Most residents fled in the 1970s and resettled in Singapore.

The changes came quickly and drastically. In the 1970s, visitors to the island could take a cable car, but within a decade there was also an above-ground tram that made it easy to get from place to place. Then, in 1992, the Sentosa Causeway, connecting the two islands, was inaugurated.

Tourist attractions came and went as popular trends changed.

Underwater World, at the time the largest oceanarium in Asia, was due to open in 1989 but did not open until 1991. Visitor numbers fluctuated over the years and Underwater World eventually closed its doors. doors in 2016.

Another relic of the past was The Asian Village. This attraction was similar to Disney World’s Epcot, with different “villages” representing Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and other Asian countries, as well as a few rides. It closed in 2000.

The Apollo Hotel was the first tourist accommodation on the island. It opened in 1978 and closed in 1986.

Meanwhile, the island’s first resort was the Shangri-La, which welcomed its first guests in 1993. It took a decade, but eventually other major luxury brands aimed at international holidaymakers followed – the Capella in 2009, the W in 2012 and Sofitel in 2015.

A musical fountain light show was one of the casualties of development as it was demolished to make way for the Resorts World complex which includes Southeast Asia’s only Universal Studios theme park and some 1,700 rooms of hotel spread over several properties.

Also on the way out is Sentosa’s own Merlion, a sibling of the famous across the water in Singapore.

“As tourism continues, expectations are higher (and we need to) make room for something new,” Christopher Khoo, chief executive of international tourism consultancy MasterCounsult, told Channel News. Asian. “The renewal process means giving in.”

These days, he says, tourists are more interested in experiences than monuments.

The city’s constant heat and humidity have also created a market for nighttime activities. Digital creations and light shows are on the list of possible additions.

It used to be that ferries brought guests to Sentosa, but nowadays most people come by car.

It used to be that ferries brought guests to Sentosa, but nowadays most people come by car.

Sentosa Development Corporation

So much of what exists on Sentosa is new and brilliant that it’s understandable that the common misconception “it was a man-made island” continues to circulate.

Land reclamation can be the source of confusion. Pulau Blakang Mati had an area of ​​about 280 hectares, and since 1972 Sentosa has grown to about 500 hectares.

Despite all the hustle and bustle, it is possible to find that tranquility that the name Sentosa promises, especially by staying at one of the hotels on the island. The Capella Resort is surrounded by greenery and is a popular spot for sunset cocktails.

Although the military era is long gone, Sentosa made a surprising reappearance on the global political radar in 2018 when then-US President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Capella, where a small plaque records the property’s place in history.

A major change was to bring full-time residents back to the island. However, the modern residents of Sentosa bear almost no resemblance to the communities that lived on Pulau Blakang Mati.

Sentosa Cove, on the east coast of the island, is the only luxury gated community in Singapore. In a place where many people live in cramped quarters, this has quickly become one of the most sought after properties in the country.

These days, homes in Sentosa Cove can sell for up to 23 million Singapore dollars (US$16 million). Most of them have swimming pools, rooftop gardens, multi-car garages, and other high-end luxuries.
Sentosa Sensory Landscape Rendering

Artist rendering of Sentosa Sensoryscape, coming to the island in 2023.

Courtesy of Sentosa Development Corporation

What happens after

Singapore, always on the lookout for new development opportunities, is already thinking beyond Sentosa.

The new Sentosa will likely be Palau Brani, a trapezoidal land mass and former naval base between Singapore and Sentosa. These days, most visitors just notice Brani out of the corner of their eye as they travel between islands, but the ambitious Sentosa-Brani Master Plan will connect the two with a 90-mile Singapore link. million dollars (US$63 million).

This Greater Southern Waterfront initiative is a decades-long project that will push back some of the city-state’s commercial port space in favor of more tourist attractions and resorts.

Like almost every other major infrastructure project on the planet, this one was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic but restarted as Singapore abandoned restrictions and adopted a “living with the virus” strategy.

The plan sees the two islands divided into five sections – the waterfront, the heart of the island, the waterfront, the dynamic cluster (think thrill rides, event space, etc.) and the ridge front.

The first major initiative, a two-level “sensory walkway” across Sentosa that connects the northern and southern parts of the island, is set to open next year.

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