Located 5.5 km southwest of mainland Singapore, the offshore island of Pulau Bukom (also spelt “Bukum”) houses an integrated oil and petrochemicals site with manufacturing facilities for fuels, lubricant base oils and specialty chemicals.1 It was known as Pulau Bukom Besar until 1995 when “Besar” was officially dropped from its name.2 Due to successive development and land reclamation works, the petrochemicals complex presently spans the cluster of islands that include Bukom Besar, Bukom Kechil, Pulau Ular and Pulau Busing.3
Pulau Bukom was thought to be named after rangkek bukom, the Malay term for a shell of the Conus family, which the original shape of the island was said to resemble.4 According to one account, the word “bukum” could also have derived from hukum – Malay for ”judgement” – as it was believed that the local ruler used to try cases on the island.5
The story of Pulau Bukom and the petroleum trade started in 1891 when M. Samuel & Co. of London decided to use Singapore as a base for the import and distribution of kerosene from Russia, and appointed Syme & Co., a merchant and agency house in Singapore, to establish and manage a petroleum tank depot.6 The government rejected their application to store bulk petroleum in town and this led Syme & Co. to establish the facilities on Pulau Bukom. More popularly known as “Freshwater Island” then, Bukom was a suitable alternative because it not only had a deep and sheltered harbour, but its proximity to the mainland allowed better facilitation of the local distribution of kerosene.7
By September 1891, Syme & Co. had acquired 8 ha of land for $3,000 from the owner of the island, Captain Giovanni Gaggino, and thereafter commenced the construction of the petroleum tank depot.8 The storage facilities were complemented by a wharf, pipelines to transfer the oil between ship and tank, as well as lighters that provided bunkering services. Built at a cost of over $60,000, the depot, which had a tank capacity of 4,500 tonnes, opened on 16 September 1892 when its first shipment of kerosene arrived on board the S. S. Murex.9
In 1897, M. Samuel & Co., formed a separate company, Shell Transport and Trading, to operate its rapidly expanding oil business.10 It subsequently merged with the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company in 1907 to form Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world’s major energy companies today.11
Over the ensuing decades, Pulau Bukom was further developed and expanded through land reclamation; by 1942, the island could accommodate 60 storage tanks and five wharves. When the Japanese invaded Malaya, the British torched 42 tanks to prevent the resources from falling into enemy hands. During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–45), Bukom was used as a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp where some 300 Australian and New Zealand POWs were tasked with salvaging the wrecked facilities and equipment. After the war, Shell employees proceeded to repair the damages, and the installation was restored to working order by 1950.12
Singapore’s first oil refinery
In December 1959, Shell announced plans to establish a refinery on Pulau Bukom, which was already the biggest centre for oil storage, blending, packing and bunkering in Southeast Asia, and one of the largest in the world.13 Shell and the Singapore government inked an agreement on 1 March 1960 and construction started on 14 June that year.14 Costing $30 million to build, Singapore’s first oil refinery was officially opened by then Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee on 26 July 1961.15 Four more refineries were added over the next two decades, which raised processing capacity from 1 million tonnes of crude oil a year in 1961 to 25 million tonnes a year by 1980.16 Besides the refineries, Shell also built other facilities for the manufacture of products such as liquid petroleum gas, bitumen, lubricants and hydrocarbon solvents.17
There were as many as 5,000 residents on Bukom in the early 1960s, the majority of whom were Shell employees and their families.18 Amenities on the island included housing, two markets, chapels, a mosque, a community association, four clubs, an open-air cinema, two schools and a clinic.19
Due to limited land, the continued expansion of the refinery complex on Bukom Besar has spilled over onto the neighbouring smaller island of Bukom Kechil, prompting the resettlement of some 2,000 inhabitants to make way for crude oil storage facilities.20 At the same time, a bridge connecting Bukom Besar and Bukom Kechil was completed in 1969.21 The initial idea to fill in the channel between the two islands was found to be too costly and thus it was not pursued. By 1970, there were 1,200 people still living on Bukom Besar, including about 100 Shell employees and their families. The majority of workers commuted daily by ferry between Bukom and mainland Singapore.22
By the early 1970s, plans were announced to level the hills on Bukom Besar and Bukom Kechil and the earth would be used to reclaim the surrounding seabed.23 Between 1974 to 1980, Pulau Ular, originally a submerged reef with two visible islets, underwent land reclamation and became a 30-hectare island linked to Bukom Besar by bridge.24 Pulau Ular and an adjacent island, Pulau Busing, have since been integrated with Pulau Bukom Kechil through land reclamation.25
The Shell refinery complex became the target of a bomb attack on 31 January 1974 by four armed men – two from the Japanese Red Army and two from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.26 Explosives planted at three oil tanks were detonated without causing serious damage. One of the tanks caught fire but the flames were quickly put out by firemen.27 The overall damage, including the loss of crude fuel oil, amounted to S$45,000. In their attempt to escape, the group – later dubbed the “Bukom bombers” by the newspapers – hijacked the ferryboat Laju at the Bukom jetty and held its five crew members hostage.28 After several days of negotiation involving the governments of Singapore and Japan, the hijackers agreed to release the hostages in exchange for safe passage out of Singapore. The Laju hijacking is considered Singapore’s first encounter with international terrorism.29
The Shell Eastern Petrochemicals Complex was opened in May 2010. Taking four years to complete and costing S$4.1 billion, the project links the network of petrochemical plants on Bukom and Jurong islands by subsea pipelines.30 Bukom is presently the largest wholly owned Shell refinery globally in terms of crude distillation capacity, producing 500,000 barrels a day.31 The complex also houses an ethylene cracker complex and a butadiene extraction unit.32 On 28 September 2011, a fire broke out at the refinery, leading Shell to evacuate its staff and shut down the facilities.33 The fire was extinguished over 30 hours later.34 Shell progressively restarted operations on Pulau Bukom in October and the complex returned to full production by December.35
Vernon Cornelius-Takahama and Janice Loo
1. “Pulau Bukom Manufacturing Site,” Shell Singapore, accessed 21 September 2016.
2. Tan Hsueh Yun, “Singapore Islands Get New Names with Reclamation,” Straits Times, 22 November 1995, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “Reclaiming the Land, Protecting the Environment: Using EMMP to Protect Singapore’s Natural Heritage,” DHI Group, accessed 21 September 2016.
4. Nicky Moey, The Shell Endeavour: First 100 Years in Singapore (Singapore: Shell Companies in Singapore, 1991), 28. (Call no. RSING 338.2728 MOE)
5. H. T. Haughton, “Notes on Names of Places in the Island of Singapore and Its Vicinity,” Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society no. 20 (1889): 78. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
6. W. G. Huff, The Economic Growth of Singapore: Trade and Development in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 238. (Call no. RSING 338.95957009 HUF)
7. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 2 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 97 (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS]); Moey, Shell Endeavour, 26–27.
8. Moey, Shell Endeavour, 27–28; Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 97; “Death of Captain Gaggino,” Straits Times, 14 February 1918, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Moey, Shell Endeavour, 27–28; “The Arrival of the ‘Murex’,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 16 September 1892, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Moey, Shell Endeavour, 30.
11. “Company History,” Shell.com, accessed 23 September 2016.
12. Moey, Shell Endeavour, 34, 36.
13. “$40M. Shell Refinery for Singapore,” Straits Times, 1 December 1959, 9 (From NewspaperSG); Huff, Economic Growth of Singapore, 279.
14. “‘Singapore’s Own Refinery’ – Spade Work Begun,” Straits Times, 15 June 1960, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Shell Companies in Singapore, Pulau Bukom (Singapore: Shell Company of Singapore, 1962), 3. (Call no. RCLOS 665.5 SHE)
15. “Refinery Opens: Proud Day for S’pore – and Sarmanis,” Singapore Free Press, 27 July 1961, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “First Refinery Comes of Age,” Straits Times, 5 April 1981, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Moey, Shell Endeavour, 40–45.
18. Andrew Fang, “It’s a Good, Healthy Life for All on Bukom,” Straits Times, 26 July 1961, 9. (From NewspaperSG); Shell Companies in Singapore, Pulau Bukom, 19.
19. Shell Companies in Singapore, Pulau Bukom, 19–20.
20. Bill Campbell, “360 Bukom Families Make Way for More Oil Tanks,” Straits Times, 18 February 1970, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “A 500-ft Bridge to Join the Two Pulau Bukoms,” Straits Times, 20 December 1968, 11; Campbell, “360 Bukom Families Make Way for More Oil Tanks.”
22. Campbell, “360 Bukom Families Make Way for More Oil Tanks.”
23. William Campbell, “Swamps Are Replaced By Modern Refineries,” Straits Times, 11 October 1971, 33 (From NewspaperSG)
24. “Chemical Complex for Bukom under Big Expansion Plan,” Straits Times, 24 October 1974, 9; “Steel Bridge Joins Bukom to Ular,” Business Times, 12 May 1878, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
25. DHI Group, “Reclaiming the Land, Protecting the Environment.”
26. R. Chandran, et al., “Safe Passage for Bukom Bombers,” Straits Times, 1 February 1974, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Leslie Fong, “The Laju Affair,” Straits Times, 17 February 1974, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Chandran, et al., “Safe Passage for Bukom Bombers.”
29. Bilveer Singh, “Singapore’s Encounters with Terrorism Prior to the SQ 117 Skyjacking,” in Skyjacking of SQ 117: Causes, Course and Consequences (Singapore: Crescent Design Associates, 1991), 28–30. (Call no. RSING 364.154095957 BIL)
30. Fiona Chan, “Shell Opens $4B Chemical Complex,” Straits Times, 5 May 2010, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Shell Singapore, “Pulau Bukom Manufacturing Site.”
32. Shell Singapore, “Pulau Bukom Manufacturing Site.”
33. Winston Chai, “Fire Forces Evacuation at Shell’s Bukom Refinery,” Business Times, 29 September 2011, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Leonard Lim, Amanda Tan and Jennani Durai, “Shell Begins Shutdown,” Straits Times, 30 September 2011, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
35. Ronnie Lim, “Shell Restarts Some Bukom Plants after Checks,” Business Times, 11 October 2011, 11; “Full Production at Bukom By Year-End,” Business Times, 29 December 2011, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as of 2016 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.