St John's Island

by Anasuya Balamurugan

St John's Island is a southern island famous for its history as a penal settlement but is now a holiday resort.

The island has a significant history tied to Singapore. Stamford Raffles, sailing on the Indiana actually anchored off St John's Island on 28 January 1819 before heading to mainland Singapore the next day. By February 1823, the island had the signal flagstaff moved there from Pulau Tambakul (Goa Island, then later renamed Peak Island).

When hordes of immigrants began making their way to Singapore bringing not only wealth but sicknesses, St John's Island was the station for the "report boat" for the Marine Department (1823) to bring news of immigrants until the cholera epidemic of 1873 which saw 448 deaths. The epidemic prompted the master attendant, Henry Ellis, to call for a lazaretto to be built on St John's. The plans included a floating police station, a hospital at St John's and a quarantine burial-ground sited at Peak Island. The lazaretto was completed in November 1874 at St John's, just in time it seems, to attend to more than 1,300 cholera-infected Chinese coolies brought in by the S. S. Milton. Victims of beri-beri were also brought into St John's lazaretto beginning in 1901. Such was the fame of St John's lazaretto that, by 1930, she had gained world recognition as a quarantine centre screening Asian immigrants and pilgrims returning from Mecca.

When the mass immigration was closed, the island was used to house political detainees and ringleaders of secret societies. Later the holding areas were converted into a drug rehabilitation centre, and in 1975 it became a holiday campsite popular with schools and students.

A third of the island on the eastern end was acquired by the Prisons' Department for the setting up of a prison detention centre for illegal immigrants and drug addicts. The western end, on the other hand, was given a facelift with the construction of the S$30-million Marine Aquaculture Centre whose marine research facilities would take another third of the island. The work on this, Southeast Asia's first deep-sea fish farm, began in April 1997 and is expected to finish in April 2000.

Variant names
Malay name: Sekijang Bendera or "deer flag".
Chinese name: Qi Zhang Shang meaning "Mount Qi Zhang" refering to a hill (189 ft) in the island's centre, a Chinese reinterpretaion of Sakijang.

Anasuya Balamurugan

Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. St. J. (Eds.). (1991). One hundred years of Singapore. (Vol. 1). Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 8, 57, 478, 492, 506, 512. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE)

Lee, J. (1999, February 25). Barbed wire, fences go up at St John's. The Straits Times, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Lee, J. (1999, February 25). History of St John's. The Straits Times, p. 29. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

St John's to have marine research centre. (1999, February 11). The Straits Times, p. 32. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Wurtzburg, C. E. (1984). Raffles of the eastern isles. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 483–484. (Call no.: RSING 959.570210924 RAF.W-[HIS])

Further resource
Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore). (1996). Southern Islands planning area: Planning report 1996. Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority
(Call no.: RSING 711.4095957 SIN)

The information in this article is valid as at 2002 and correct as far as we are able to 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.

Places of interest
Singapore offshore islands