Peace, Tranquillity and Tongue-in-Cheek? Sentosa Island

by Continental Club on May 1, 2009

Guarding the entrance to Singapore’s Keppel Harbour is an island which, for many years, was known as Pulau Blakang Mati which, in Malay, translates as the somewhat difficult to market ‘Island of Death from Behind.’ Myths and legends abound as to the origin of the name but, few disagree, there was probably more than some justification for it since, for many years, this 5km long island, fourth largest in Singapore after the main island, was considered uninhabitable.

The second most famous myth surrounding the island relates to the British surrender to Japanese forces in February 1942. Allegedly, the British fort at Siloso was orientated to guard from maritime invasion only and not, as would prove the Japanese strategy, a land-based assault from the North. The British fort, it’s said, had guns which could only fire offshore and could not be rotated landward.

While there may be justification for the Island of Death from Behind sobriquet, there is in fact none whatsoever for the British guns pointing the wrong way. They, like any of their type, were fully rotatable and did, in fact, offer up the strongest defence that they could. Aligned correctly they may have been, but ultimately Singapore was grossly under-defended and, on 15th February 1942, in the Board Room of the Ford Motor Company’s factory in Singapore, the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese was signed at 5.15pm and Pulau Blakang Mati became a prisoner of war camp.

With a far from rosy history then, the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board held a competition in 1972 to rename the island, with the winning entry being Sentosa – this time meaning Peace & Tranquillity in Malay – and a long term project to develop the island into a tourism and recreation amenity for locals and visitors was begun.

Today, with around five million annual visitors to this tiny speck of rainforested rock, neither peace nor tranquillity are words which immediately spring to mind.

The island lies 500 metres off the main island of Singapore and is reached by road, cable car or the Sentosa Express monorail, which departs from the 3rd Floor of the newly-opened Vivo City shopping mall. It is, again, a surprisingly swift cab ride from the St Regis on Tanglin Road, skirting the CBD and down to the waterfront.

The monorail ride is equally brief, though less as a result of any break-neck speed and more that it has relatively little distance to cover across the water, through the single intermediate stop and finally to the line’s insular terminus at Beach Station – which is at, erm, the beach. Oh, how their creative minds must have ached over naming that one.

A good deal more consideration has been put into the interchange facility at Beach however, with an easy transfer available to the island-wide bus system. The buses are free once visitors have paid to access Sentosa, a fee which is usefully included in the monorail ticket price.

The Blue Line bus calls first at Imbiah Lookout before heading to Siloso. The destination bus stop is immediately outside Underwater World which, having nothing with which to compare it, appears an interesting enough family attraction – especially the moving walkway which propels visitors at a uniform pace through the acrylic tunnels.

Less family-friendly but far more culturally and historically diverting is the aforementioned and now-restored Fort Siloso. It’s a short walk from Underwater World to the ticket office, from whence a ‘tram’ bus facilitates the ascent of the hill up to the Parade Yard.

Many of the buildings have been restored to their wartime appearance, if not condition. There are exhibitions and documentaries to take in, as well as tunnels and look outs, gun emplacements and arsenals.

Some of the recreations are augmented by wax-work figures – the translucent skin tones unusually conveying quite accurately the sweaty pallor of those who would have been stationed there.

It’s certainly a worthy reminder of the privations suffered by so many in the past and upon which the modern day, air-conditioned, polished, scrubbed and orderly Singapore is actually founded.

There are numerous hotels and resorts on Sentosa and it’s impossible to miss World Resorts, which is under development on the Northern side of the island, through which the monorail passes. When complete, it will include hotels, shops, restaurants, a somewhat controversial casino and an outpost of the Universal Studios theme park chain. All that said, Sentosa remains for most a day-trip destination, and the actual peace and tranquillity of the St Regis seems a welcome respite from the building work and visiting hordes on the Island of Death from Behind.


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