Open house at Raffles Lighthouse

Lighthouse keeper Syed Hassan Syed Agil Al-Yahya at the top of the Raffles Lighthouse earlier this year (top). The lighthouse above The Fullerton Hotel is among two decommissioned ones here. Visitors will get the rare chance to climb Raffles Lighthou
Lighthouse keeper Syed Hassan Syed Agil Al-Yahya at the top of the Raffles Lighthouse earlier this year (top). The lighthouse above The Fullerton Hotel is among two decommissioned ones here. Visitors will get the rare chance to climb Raffles Lighthouse's 88 spiralling steps to the glass-panelled dome that sits 29m off the ground, about six storeys up, as part of this year's HeritageFest Lighthouse Trail.ST PHOTOS: CAROLINE CHIA, STEFFI KOH
Lighthouse keeper Syed Hassan Syed Agil Al-Yahya at the top of the Raffles Lighthouse earlier this year (top). The lighthouse above The Fullerton Hotel is among two decommissioned ones here. Visitors will get the rare chance to climb Raffles Lighthou
Lighthouse keeper Syed Hassan Syed Agil Al-Yahya at the top of the Raffles Lighthouse earlier this year (top). The lighthouse above The Fullerton Hotel is among two decommissioned ones here. Visitors will get the rare chance to climb Raffles Lighthouse's 88 spiralling steps to the glass-panelled dome that sits 29m off the ground, about six storeys up, as part of this year's HeritageFest Lighthouse Trail.ST PHOTOS: CAROLINE CHIA, STEFFI KOH
Lighthouse keeper Syed Hassan Syed Agil Al-Yahya at the top of the Raffles Lighthouse earlier this year (top). The lighthouse above The Fullerton Hotel is among two decommissioned ones here. Visitors will get the rare chance to climb Raffles Lighthou
Lighthouse keeper Syed Hassan Syed Agil Al-Yahya at the top of the Raffles Lighthouse earlier this year (top). The lighthouse above The Fullerton Hotel is among two decommissioned ones here. Visitors will get the rare chance to climb Raffles Lighthouse's 88 spiralling steps to the glass-panelled dome that sits 29m off the ground, about six storeys up, as part of this year's HeritageFest Lighthouse Trail.ST PHOTOS: CAROLINE CHIA, STEFFI KOH

Visitors to get rare look inside its glass-panelled dome

Mr V. Uthrapathi, 51, thought he would be lonely working 10-day stretches maintaining Raffles Lighthouse on Pulau Satumu, Singapore's southernmost island which is out of bounds, like the lighthouse.

But after 20 years as a lighthouse keeper, he is quick to point out the perks: the sea breeze that makes nights on the tiny isle comfortable, the peace and quiet, and the occasional sighting of dolphins.

During World Cup season, another draw is watching the matches for free, he said, as television signals from Malaysia and Indonesia can be picked up from Satumu, 23km south-west of Singapore's main island, a 60-minute boat ride from the mainland.

But the silence that the stocky Mr Uthrapathi enjoys may turn into oohs and aahs later this month, as the Raffles Lighthouse welcomes crowds during this year's Singapore HeritageFest, which will, for the first time, include a Lighthouse Trail featuring three lighthouses.

The trail will not only take visitors out to Pulau Satumu, but also on a bus ride to see the former Fullerton Lighthouse at Marina Bay. They will also sail past the lighthouse on Sultan Shoal, near Jurong Island, during the 90-minute boat ride from Marina South Pier.

The National Heritage Board, which is organising the HeritageFest, said response to this year's offerings has been overwhelming. It is working to add more tours beyond the festival period, to cater to the demand for the island tours.

The Raffles Lighthouse was built in 1885, the second-oldest of Singapore's five still in use. The oldest is Horsburgh Lighthouse on Pedra Branca, off the mainland's eastern shore, which goes back to 1851.

Visitors will get the rare chance to climb Raffles Lighthouse's 88 spiralling steps to the glass-panelled dome that sits 29m off the ground, about six storeys up. In it is its most-prized possession - an array of quartz halogen lamps in aluminium reflectors that emit white light visible from 20 nautical miles away. Light pulses, three white flashes every 20 seconds, not only function as a location indicator, but also warn seafarers of treacherous rocks and reefs.

Visitors will see maritime artefacts, such as lanterns and wind gauges used in the 1970s, in a small museum that used to be the generator room.

Electricity from the generators was used to power and rotate the navigational lantern until 1988, when the revolving system was automated. Today, the lights are powered by solar energy.

From the Raffles Lighthouse dome, visitors can see the nearby Pulau Senang, the subject of a recent play about a failed penal settlement on the isle in the 1960s.

Despite her 129 years, Raffles Lighthouse is still well-preserved with a gleaming white exterior and polished original, century-old brass fittings, thanks to lighthouse keepers like Mr Uthrapathi. They take turns to work in pairs for 10-day shifts. Before automation, a seven-man crew stayed on the island for a month.

During their stint, the keepers perform tasks such as cleaning the light equipment and glass panels and ensuring batteries are charged. Every four hours, they have to check that the lights are working.

They make rounds on foot around the 1.3ha island, roughly the size of two small football fields, to ensure vessels do not breach the 300m radius around it. "About 15 years ago, I saw one boat nearing the island at night with no light," said Mr Uthrapathi, who used to work as a horse trainer. He quickly notified the Coast Guard.

Besides Raffles, this year's HeritageFest Lighthouse Trail also features the Sultan Shoal Lighthouse. Built in 1896, it remained an isolated, outlying lighthouse off Singapore's west coast up till the 1970s.

But Ms Tan Teng Teng, a heritage researcher, said there might soon no longer be a need for it.

"With land reclamation along the west coast and the combination of seven nearby islands to form Jurong Island, the Sultan Shoal Lighthouse is boxed in on three sides," she said.

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore manages Singapore's five lighthouses. Only one of them is on the mainland, in Bedok, while the rest are on offshore isles.

The Republic also has two decommissioned lighthouses - Fullerton and Fort Canning - that were retired after their surrounding

areas became too built-up and obstructed the view of the navigational light to mariners at sea.

Mr Wilfred Lau, 85, who visited Raffles Lighthouse in the 1950s while working as a project engineer, said Pulau Satumu was different then.

There was no television for the keepers and more manual labour was required to keep the lighthouse running, he said. "It's a lot more comfortable now," he said. "The keepers also get 10 days on, 10 days off - I like that kind of job."

But Mr Uthrapathi said that while he appreciated its peace and modern-day comforts, there was one thing - or one person - missing. "I miss my four-year-old daughter back home."

audreyt@sph.com.sg

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