Proverbially, Singapore is the sunny island set in the sea. However the sea and other islands of heritage beyond the shores of the sunny island are often neglected. Sentosa doesn’t really count in this context.
Singapore initially had more than 70 islands that are part of our sovereign nation. The number has changed over the years because of reclamation and the merging of islands to form larger land masses, and the creation of other artificial ones. Check out Wikipedia for the current list of islands.
I managed to have a closer look at two such land masses and learn a lot more about the past and present islands of Singapore through three ways. Firstly, by visiting the Pulau Balik exhibition – presently at the National Museum of Singapore to 10 August 2014 (it should be part of our Permanent Exhibits if you ask me). Secondly, by being the lucky few to have successfully registered for the Lighthouse Tour organised as a signature programme of Singapore Heritage Festival 2014. And thirdly, by kayaking to the southern islands with Kayakasia.
The housing estate where I have lived for nearly thirty years is situated very closely to the western coast of Singapore. So close that the three prominent smokestacks form the landmarks of the horizon from the apartment. When they burn at night, the orange fumes and gases emitted from the smokestacks look like the Eye of Sauron, just that there are three of them instead of one. Ruefully, they are called joss sticks in my family.
Because Jurong Island is always in my periphery vision and sometimes, line of sight, coming along side it in a ferry enroute Sultan Shoal was highly interesting. Although to most others, this area must appear like a desolate industrial wasteland, which it is, it feels to me like an extension of my neighbourhood and a hop, skip and jump away from home, which it also is. Fascinating.
Jurong Island was officially opened in 2000 after the merging of 7 islands to serve as a base for more than 90 petroleum, petrochemical, and specialty petrol companies. The largest island among the 7 was Pulau Ayer Chawan. The three smokestack are standing on what was Pulau Seraya. In fact, the road the running near the smokestacks is Seraya Avenue.
Cluster of islands that formed Jurong Island, and Jurong Island now.
Just to the south-west of Jurong Island lies Sultan Shoal Lighthouse. Built in 1895, the Lighthouse is now unmanned and powered by solar energy.
Sultan Shoal Lighthouse
The highlight of the Lighthouse Tour was visiting Raffles Lighthouse on Pulau Satumu which is 23 km south-west of Singapore. It it also Singapore’s southernmost island. At 10 days at a stretch, two people are stationed at Raffles Lighthouse to supervise its operations. Except for the lack of internet connection, Raffles Lighthouse is self-sufficient with electricity, running water and basic amenities.
Normally closed off to the public, access to Raffles Lighthouse is highly restricted. It was therefore a very rare opportunity made possible in this collaboration between NHB and MPA to allow people to set foot on Pulau Satumu and ascend the 90 steps to the beacon.
Raffles Lighthouse on Pulau Satumu
It took only 10 to 15 minutes for a leisurely stroll along the circumference of the 1.3 hectare large Pulau Satumu. The waters were clean and clear. At the jetty, I spotted a parrotfish and a baby shark.
After spending one hour exploring Raffles Lighthouse and Pulau Satumu, we boarded the ferry that took us back to the mainland. In total, the Lighthouse Tour took about more than 5 hours because traveling to Pulau Satumu from Pasir Panjang Terminal took 2 hours including a detour to Sultan Shoal, and another 1.5 hours from Pulau Satumu to Marina South Pier.
The Lighthouse Tour ballooned for me an expanded perspective of Singapore’s reach. While we go about our busy lives on the mainland, it is humbling to cast an eye in the far distance and know that out there, unsung heroes are keeping watch of our waters and safely leading approaching vessels to our habours as they have done for almost 160 years. Being a seafaring merchant, I wonder if my grandfather’s vessel depended on the flashes from these lighthouses from time to time.
My grandfather’s recent resurfacing of his travel documents is as far back as family archives go. I would like to have these translated sometime soon. He also had a travel document in Dutch when Batam was a Dutch colony.
On another occasion this June, I explored on kayak the cluster of islands just to the south of Sentosa. Starting from Siloso Beach on Sentosa, we kayaked south-east to St John’s Island, continued along the south shores of Lazarus Island, headed northwards to Kusu Island and Pulau Seringat before returning to Sentosa along the beach fronts.
The cluster of islands then and now.
St John’s Island, Lazarus Island and Pulau Seringat have been linked up by overland bridges and expanded in size. Singapore Island Cruise operates ferry services from Marina South Pier to St John’s Island daily. Lazarus Island, Seringat Island and the man-made pristine cove are accessible via the link bridges.
I was told that the man-made pristine cove is called Pink Lagoon, however, I have yet to find any official name of this cove. The infographic at the Balik Pulau exhibit calls it the “800-metre long swimming lagoon” with no specific name either.
You need to bring your own supplies because there are no vendors selling food or beverages. There is a toilet at the reception area which is a short walk from the beach that looks to be in booking-ready conditions, outfitted with air-conditioning too.
The clear waters and fine sand makes for a picturesque island getaway comparable with an exotic resort destination, which is the intended effect. A webpage on Pulau Seringat posted by Wild Singapore has consolidated news clippings about developments on this expanded island.
Some key highlights I extracted from the webpage:
2000 – The plan was to offer visitors a Mediterranean resort-like setting only 17 minutes away by ferry, patterned after Italy’s renowned vacation spot, Capri.
2004 – Details later revealed included plans for a five-star 290-room hilltop hotel, a three-star 170-room beachfront hotel, 70 waterfront homes and 1,700 units of housing. There was even talk of a road from Sentosa to the islands, or a causeway, like the one linking the mainland and Jurong Island.
2006 – Thousands of cubic metres of sand were imported from Indonesia to make the beach. Another $120 million was spent to bring water, electricity, gas and telecommunication infrastructure from Sentosa to the islands. 5,000 lorry-loads of soil were brought in by barges, an entire coconut plantation in Malaysia was bought, about 1, 000 trees was trucked and shipped to the island. This was part of the $60 million worth of reclamation and infrastructure work on the southern islands of Pulau Seringat, Kias, St John’s, Lazarus, Kusu and Sisters’ islands. One idea is to develop the islands into a ‘premium resort’, a getaway for the rich.
2008 – A third integrated resort was being considered. It will be on a smaller and more luxurious scale than either of the two resorts. Most of the development will likely be on 30 ha of reclaimed land at Lazarus, Renget and Kias Islands. The total development site, comprising all seven Southern Islands, adds up to 115.6 ha – almost a quarter the size of Sentosa Island.
All this means is that in the pipeline, there will be more pollution and waste generated alongside the destruction of biodiversity and increase exclusivity for the rich. If further development takes place, I doubt the zero carbon-footprint means of visiting these islands via kayak will be allowed in the future.
Embarking on Kusu Island on a quiet Saturday
Looking back – Singapore’s city skyline from St John’s Island