SINGAPORE - On the northern shores of Pulau Ubin sit two emplacements, meant to hold guns capable of shooting 70 rounds a minute.
The battery, estimated to have been built between 1936 and 1939, was positioned to defend the Strait of Johor from enemy ships. It was part of an entire fortification system along Singapore’s north-eastern coast, from Changi to Pulau Tekong.
There were nine such emplacements in total, but the two on Ubin are rare examples of World War II relics here that have been preserved intact.
However, there is no evidence that actual guns were ever mounted on the emplacements.
Now, researchers want to know why.
They hope for answers as they embark on an archaeological survey that will run for three phases over 18 months to shed light on Singapore’s trade, and economic and military history.
“One school of thought is that (the British) ran out of money,” said ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute associate fellow Lim Chen Sian on Friday (Dec 22).
“If guns were mounted here, they would have had gunners manning the fort, and there would be a lot of debris - soldiers would be drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, eating and throwing trash. If we can find that, the entire assemblage of artefacts would suggest this place has been used.
“So far, we haven’t come across anything like that,” he said, adding that he would like to find out what happened to the post during and after World War II.
The National Parks Board (NParks), an agency under the Ministry of National Development, is contributing $38,000 to the research, while ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute is giving $107,000 in kind.
For the first phase of the study, the team of six researchers, who will live on the island, will document and study the battery in detail.
They will also carry out basic sampling, and may use sub-surface probes in areas where there is a high likelihood of buried remains.
This is the first in-depth survey of the 1,020ha island – about 10 times the size of Sengkang town and a 15-minute boat ride from the mainland. It is famous for its rich biodiversity, but not much is known about its history.
As for the next two phases of the study, Dr Lim said it was still early days yet. But he hopes to look into the cultural heritage of Pulau Ubin, already known for its rich biodiversity.
“It would be interesting to study the other people serving the military – who were the ones providing food, who were the ones polishing their boots,” he said.
He added that the survey would be of great historical value. “The United Kingdom’s greatest defeat was in Singapore - they lost a lot of people, a whole squadron of ships, so this in itself is historical on an international level.”
At the same time, he hopes the findings will eventually tell a story about life on the island. “Archaeology can not only give you the big picture but also go down to the little things, like what soldiers eat,” he said.
On Friday, Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee visited the site, which is located in the National Police Cadet Corps’ Camp Resilience campsite.
It is currently closed to the public, but an NParks spokesman said it could be made open to the public in the future.
Mr Lee later said on Facebook that the survey is part of the Government’s efforts to conserve the island’s cultural heritage and biodiversity through The Ubin Project, which was started in 2014, and will “guide NParks in the management strategies for Pulau Ubin".