New Sentosa heritage trail tells of island's change from military outpost to fun haven

The public can easily access the stories of erstwhile Sentosa at the 30 heritage sites peppered with trail markers and signs. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - As the British prepared to hand Sentosa back to Singapore in the 1960s, the island was suddenly beset by suitors.

Newly formed ministries and statutory boards all wanted a hand in its development. The defence minister wanted to place security guns there, the finance minister wanted the island for industries, and the then Port of Singapore Authority needed it for its deep water wharves.

Amid competing interests, the bid to turn Sentosa into a leisure haven by the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board was in danger of falling by the wayside. But a strategic tour of Pulau Blakang Mati - as Sentosa was then known - organised by the late prime minister Lee Kuan Yew ended the debate.

"That Sunday morning, I won that battle," said the late Dr Albert Winsemius, economic adviser to Singapore from 1961 to 1984 and a firm believer that Sentosa should be steered towards tourism.

"(It was) helped somewhat by the fact that (after the Singapore Armed Forces had taken over the former British barracks), the surroundings were not clean... I remember there was an empty tin, beer tin in the garden.

"You know, if you want to alert the PM, show him something which is not clean."

This early history of Sentosa's development is explored in the National Heritage Board's (NHB) latest heritage trail, developed together with Sentosa Development Corporation. The trail charts the island's transformation from a British military complex to the well-loved "state of fun" that it is today.

Including the newly gazetted Fort Siloso, the former British barracks that have now been turned into hotels, and remnants of defunct attractions, it takes visitors on a five-hour journey around the island.

The public can easily access the stories of erstwhile Sentosa at the 30 heritage sites peppered with 30 trail markers and signs.

This heritage trail - the first that is not on mainland Singapore - was launched on Thursday (March 17) to commemorate Sentosa's Golden Jubilee this year.

"Through this trail, we hope to bring Singaporeans and tourists alike on an island journey through time to discover heritage sites and stories - both familiar and unfamiliar," said Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's deputy chief executive of policy and community, on Thursday.

"In doing so, we hope that they will learn more about Sentosa island, its military and leisure heritage, and realise that there is always something new and exciting to discover in Sentosa."

Before its rebrand, Sentosa was known as Pulau Blakang Mati, which means island behind death. The name could be traced back to stories about the Malays and Bugis burying their dead on the island after violent clashes in the surrounding areas.

The waters around Sentosa are vital shipping routes, vied over by many Western powers over the years. The Portuguese made and then abandoned plans to build a fort on the island; the British eventually used it as a military outpost, building Fort Siloso and fortifying the island against invasion.

Sentosa was used by the British as a military outpost, building Fort Siloso. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

The British also built extensive barracks to station troops, almost all of which have now been converted into hotels and recreational centres featured in the trail.

Most famous of these is Capella Singapore, where the Trump-Kim summit was held in 2018. In the days of British colonial administration, it used to be blocks 48 to 51 of the barracks used as a mess and as quarters for unmarried officers.

During the transition period before the British departed Singapore in 1971, it was also used by the Singapore Armed Forces.

Mr Winston Wong, 74, who was trained by the British as a combat engineer to clear sea mines in the waters around Sentosa in the late 1960s, remembers his experience there fondly.

"We learnt a lot about the British way of life. I also learnt horse-riding and how to sail there. We made friends with the British, some of whom later perished during the Falklands War between Argentina and the United Kingdom," said Mr Wong, who is now a volunteer guide in Sentosa.

Mr Winston Wong was an SAF combat engineer who was stationed on Sentosa, and is currently a volunteer guide. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

The trail also remembers Sentosa's early attractions. At the entrance to Mount Imbiah Nature Trail, visitors can still see the remnant tracks of the first monorail service which operated from 1982 to 2005.

At what is now the Sentosa Cove residential estate, there is also the site of the Coralarium, which exhibited a wide variety of corals, seashells and marine invertebrates from 1974 to 1995.

Ms Asmah Aziz, 64, was among the first batch of bus guides on Sentosa in the 1980s. She lived on Pulau Seking, now part of Pulau Semakau, and took 2½ hours each day to get to work.

Ms Asmah Aziz was among the first batch of bus guides on Sentosa in the 1980s. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

She met her husband, who worked at the nearby golf course as a greenkeeper, during her shifts.

"Everywhere on Sentosa was our date spot," she said.

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