Sentosa


Sentosa is currently a resort island of some 500 ha off the south coast of Singapore. It was previously a fishing village, the site of a military installation with artillery batteries and a prisoner-of-war camp during the Japanese Occupation (1942–1945).1 Developed as a resort from the 1970s, Sentosa now features attractions such as theme parks and a casino, as well as hotels and residences.2

Early history and background
Sentosa was historically known as Pulau Blakang Mati, a name that likely existed before the 19th century: An island labelled as “blacan mati” features on Manuel Godinho de Erédia’s 1604 map of Singapore (spelt “Singcapura” on the map). Other maps have variously named the island Burne Beard Island, Pulau Niry, Nirifa and Pulau Panjang. A number of these maps show Sentosa and the nearby Pulau Brani as a combined entity.3

Some sources note that up to 1830, the island was known as Pulau Panjang, and Blakang Mati referred only to a hill named by the Malay villagers living there. Blakang Mati literally translates to “Behind Death” in Malay. Accounts vary as to the origins of the name. One version holds that the name is a reference to early piracy and bloodshed nearby; another speaks of the island being the “paradise” of “warrior spirits” whose bodies were entombed at the adjacent Pulau Brani.4

In the early colonial era, small villages inhabited by the Bugis, Malays and Chinese, as well as a British signal station, existed on the island. A mysterious epidemic, now thought to be malaria, killed most of the staff at the station and forced the British to abandon it. The village was also severely affected: By 1848, only two Bugis households out of an earlier population of around 60 people were left on the island.5

The island, considered a strategic location for the protection of shipping passages into Keppel Harbour, was included in defence plans as early as 1827. It was only in the 1880s that three artillery forts – Forts Serapong, Connaught and Siloso – and the Mount Imbiah Battery were constructed on the island. By the 1930s, the island was significantly fortified and served as the base for Royal Artillery units in Singapore. The gun emplacement at Mount Imbiah Battery was, however, abandoned around this time.6

During the Battle of Singapore in February 1942, the guns on Blakang Mati were involved in the defence of Singapore.7 Following the fall of Singapore, a beach on Sentosa was one of the sites where Japanese soldiers killed numerous Chinese during Operation Sook Ching. Part of the island was turned into a prisoner-of-war camp, with about 400 Allied troops and gunners held in the Blakang Mati Artillery Barracks. The island also housed a Japanese air force unit known as Miki Unit and a number of Korean “comfort women” who provided sexual services to Japanese soldiers there.8

In 1947, after World War II, Pulau Blakang Mati became the base of the 1st Singapore Regiment of the Royal Artillery (1st SRRA), a unit of local enlistees, and also served as a base for basic military training for other enlisted men. The 1st SRRA was disbanded a decade later and Gurkha infantry units were housed on the island. Fort Siloso and Fort Serapong were converted for use by the Catholic and Protestant churches respectively, while Fort Connaught was left disused.9

The Malaysia Agreement of 1963, which laid out terms and conditions for the formation of the Federation of Malaysia, included a clause for the transfer of areas previously under the British War Department, including Pulau Blakang Mati, to Singapore.10 With the near-complete withdrawal of the Gurkha units in 1967, the island came under the jurisdiction of independent Singapore from 1 September 1967. The Singapore Naval Volunteer Force was relocated to the island after the handover.11

At the time leading to the handover of the island, a number of government ministries and agencies sought the island for a variety of proposed uses, including as a port and industrial complex, a tourist resort with a casino as well as for military installations. Then-Minister for Law and National Development E. W. Barker said in August 1967, “The Defence Minister wants the security guns there first. The Finance Minister wants part of the island for industries and the Port of Singapore Authority needs it for more deepwater berths. I sincerely hope tourism will not be left out.”12

In 1966, a Singapore–Canadian team of experts were engaged in a S$1.2-million study of the potential uses of Pulau Blakang Mati. The study, completed in 1968 and released to the public the following year, found that the island had suitable deepwater berths for wharves, but the surrounding sea lanes were too congested for further development. This rendered a port and industrial complex on Pulau Blakang Mati a less attractive prospect; at the same time, the withdrawal of British military forces from Singapore by 1971 would also free up a dockyard at Sembawang and other former military areas for industrial use.13

Albert Winsemius, an economic advisor to the government, later revealed that an agreement had been reached between energy company Esso and the government for the construction of an oil refinery on Pulau Blakang Mati, with a planned expansion into a petro-chemical complex. In mid-1967, Winsemius urged the government to reconsider the plan, stating that space for recreation and tourism would be at a premium.14

Enlisting the help of Alan Choe, then head of the former Urban Renewal Unit (now the Urban Redevelopment Authority), Winsemius convinced then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew with an economic paper and Choe’s resort proposals. He also negotiated with Esso, pointing out to them that a refinery on Pulau Blakang Mati, close to Singapore's city centre, would attract criticism for air pollution and potentially hinder expansion. An alternative location in the Jurong industrial estate was agreed upon.15

The focus thus turned to tourism, with the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB; now the Singapore Tourism Board) mooting a resort with a casino, a greyhound racing stadium, hotels and other attractions. Investors from Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and the United States were said to be interested in the venture.16

Conception of Sentosa
Plans for development
In January 1969, then STPB chairman P. H. Meadows revealed plans for a resort to attract “millions” of tourists to Pulau Blakang Mati with attractions such as chalet-style hotels situated atop hills, floating hotels, kelong (stilt fishing structures) restaurants, golf courses, and leisure activities such as horse-riding, fishing, water-skiing and scuba diving, as well as the island’s natural beaches, forests and scenery. However, the proposed casino was cancelled.17


Name

A contest to rename the island was launched in November 1969.18 The name Sentosa, meaning “Tranquillity” in Malay, was eventually selected as the winning entry by the STPB. The name was said to be aligned with Singapore’s image as a tourist attraction, and it came into effect in September 1970.19

1970s–1980s: Development and early years
In March 1971, the government announced its plan to spend S$11.5 million in the financial year 1971/72 to develop Sentosa into a resort destination that would entice tourists to spend longer holidays in Singapore.20 Having identified Sentosa as a key project for boosting Singapore’s tourism industry, in March 1972, the government unveiled a S$124-million plan for developing Sentosa, comprising S$68 million in state investment over nine years and S$56 million from the private sector.21


Subsequently, the Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) was established as a statutory board to administer the island and oversee the development of its attractions and infrastructure. It commenced operations on 1 September 1972, taking over the responsibility of developing the island from the Jurong Town Corporation.22 Much of the planning for Sentosa was undertaken by Alan Choe, who later became chairman of the SDC.23

Attractions and facilities
The first major project to be completed was the cable car system linking Mount Faber on the mainland to a hill on Sentosa in February 1974.24 Hailed as the world’s first cable car system that spans a harbour,25 the cable cars attracted an average 50,000 passengers per month; by November the same year, eight additional cars were ordered to cope with the demand.26 The month in which the cable car system was launched also heralded the start of charged admission into Sentosa.27

A month later, in March 1974, Sentosa Golf Club opened to popular reception despite having the most expensive entrance and membership fees in Southeast Asia at the time.28 Later attractions included the Sentosa Coralarium, whose main feature was an 18-metre-tall coral tower;29 Fort Siloso, which was primed as a historical attraction, following the preservation of its underground tunnels, ammunition bunkers, gun emplacements and searchlight posts;30 a maritime museum; Palawan beach lagoon; and the popular Musical Fountain, which was officially opened in June 1982 and featured synchronised water sprays “dancing” to music.31 Other attractions launched in this decade include the Butterfly Park, Insectarium and the Surrender Chambers – the latter featuring waxworks and exhibits related to World War II in Singapore.32

From 1975, recreational facilities such as refreshments kiosks, chalets,33 camping sites34 and a roller-skating complex were added.35

In a bid to draw more visitors to the island, a monorail system that linked the mainland to Sentosa, as well as plied various tourist attractions on the latter, was constructed and began operating in February 1982.36

Visitorship and revenue
Despite some 850,000 visitors in 1979, the island struggled to attract private investment and there were complaints about the poor condition of the facilities and infrastructure.37 Nonetheless, visitorship grew steadily, crossing the one-million mark for the first time in the financial year 1979/80.38

Besides its attractions, the SDC generated revenue through land sales for private development including hotels and theme parks. Under Choe, the SDC had a scheme whereby developers paid a portion of the land value as a lump sum and an ongoing 20 percent of the project’s gross earnings.39

Cable car accident
In 1983, Sentosa was at the centre of media attention with the cable car tragedy that shook the nation.40 A drillship was ensnared with the cable car system’s cables, dislodging two cars and violently shaking another. Seven lives were lost in the accident. The possibility of scrapping the cable car system was subsequently raised,41 but the system was eventually declared sound.42 However, visitor numbers to Sentosa declined significantly thereafter.43

Land reclamation
From 1979 to 1980, Sarong Island and Pulau Selegu were being reclaimed and combined with Sentosa to add to the latter’s land mass. The reclaimed land housed various attractions and recreational facilities, including the Maritime Museum, a golf course and cycling tracks.44

The islet Buran Darat was next to be reclaimed and joined with Sentosa, a project completed around the start of 1994. The site of Buran Darat subsequently became the land on which Sentosa Cove sits. Out of the total 117 ha of the Sentosa Cove’s land area, 100 ha is reclaimed.45


1990s: Dwindling interest
In the 1990s, a S$750-million plan was launched to add more resort hotels and major attractions alongside infrastructural improvements.46 Existing attractions like Fort Siloso were given extensive makeovers with interactive exhibits,47 while the popular oceanarium Underwater World Singapore was opened in 1991 and the Sentosa Merlion tower unveiled in 1996.48


A residential waterfront project on the island, Sentosa Cove, was mooted in 1996,49 with Choe (chairman of the SDC at the time) championing its development to reduce the island’s reliance on tourism for revenue by creating a community of permanent residents on Sentosa.50 However, the project was put on hold in the wake of the 1990s property slump and the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis.51

Other attractions launched during the 1990s were criticised for being expensive, dated and lacking appeal, and were eventually shut down due to poor visitorship. These included the S$60-million Asian Village (1993–2001), the S$52-million water theme park Fantasy Island (1994–2001) and the S$20 million Volcano Land (1995–2002).52

The SDC’s operating income in the financial year 1999/2000 was revealed to be S$5 million less than its S$51-million operating expenses.53 In 2000, the government commissioned an international advisory council – comprising experts in the fields of leisure, lifestyle, architecture, business and development – to help SDC in the planning of Sentosa, with the aim of making the island a “millennium lifestyle destination”.54 Later in the same year, the panel, which was chaired by then Minister of State (Communications and Information Technology and Trade and Industry) Lim Swee Say, recommended a complete overhaul of the island and having attractions reconsolidated under a sole operator.55

2000s: Overhaul
Following the release of the council’s proposal and collation of public feedback, a S$3-billion 10-year overhaul of Sentosa was announced in June 2002. The plan included better attractions, lower entry fees, new hotels and better transport options to improve Sentosa’s visitorship.56


Over the next few years, existing attractions were upgraded even as new ones were developed. Fort Siloso’s and Images of Singapore museum’s refurbishment were completed in 2004 and 2005 respectively. On the other hand, the Musical Fountain was demolished, as the S$30-million Songs of the Sea twice-nightly pyrotechnics production replaced it as a key attraction. Following a S$20-million makeover that expanded its food, retail and entertainment options, Palawan Beach was reopened in 2006.57

New draws that sprang up in the decade include surfing attraction Wavehouse, the MegaZip Adventure Park catered to outdoor activities, and the skydiving simulator iFLY.58 The first ZoukOut beach dance party, organised by award-winning nightclub Zouk, was held at Sentosa in 2000; by 2010, the annual event was drawing tens of thousands of revellers to Siloso Beach.59

Sentosa Cove, which had been shelved previously, was launched in 2003.60 The 117-hectare gated enclave features in total 2,600 homes comprising oceanfront villas, mansions and condominiums.61

In March 2010, the S$6.59-billion Resorts World Sentosa (RWS), the first integrated resort in Singapore, opened its doors. The RWS features Southeast Asia’s first Universal Studios theme park and Singapore’s first casino.62 RWS helped boost Sentosa’s annual visitorship to 19.1 million in 2011, more than double the 7.83-million visitors the previous year.63 In November 2012, the RWS unveiled its Marine Life Park, which features the S.E.A. Aquarium – the world’s largest oceanarium – and Adventure Cove Waterpark, an aquatic adventure park.64

Not resting on its laurels, the SDC has not let up on its efforts to stay relevant in the highly competitive tourism market. The world-famous Madame Tussauds wax museum opened in 2014 and incorporated the revamped Images of Singapore. KidZania, a fast-growing chain of family edutainment centres where kids get a taste of real-life experiences in a mini-city, is slated to debut here in the latter half of 2015.65

To cope with rising numbers of visitors, Sentosa’s transport infrastructure was also improved. In October 2005, the cable car station was renamed Jewel Box after a S$4-million revamp.66 In January 2007, a light rail service called the Sentosa Express began operations, replacing the previous monorail system.67 In addition, shuttle services around the island also began operating in March 2010.68 An additional bridge was constructed beside the older causeway in 2009,69 and a 700-metre boardwalk linking the mainland to Sentosa was constructed in November 2010 for pedestrian access.70



Authors
Aloysius Ho and Alvin Chua




References
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The information in this article is valid as at 20 March 2015 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

Subject
Islands--Singapore
Geography>>Geographical Areas and Countries>>Singapore Offshore Islands
Business, finance and industry>>Industry>>Leisure and entertainment
Streets and Places
Geography and Travels
Economy
Recreation>>Places of Interest
Sentosa (Singapore)--Description and travel
Sports and Recreation
Heritage and Culture

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