The surprising history of Sentosa, Singapore's staycation island

Lilit Marcus | 18th September 2022

It was formerly referred to as Pulau Blakang Mati. However, the most frequently used translation is “the island beyond which lies death.” Some people translate the name formally as “the island of misfortune.”

Sentosa, the Malay term for “peace and tranquillity,” is the name given to it today. It is Singapore’s main island for staycations and one of the top travel destinations for foreign tourists. It is full of theme parks, beaches, luxury resorts, and other amusements.

However, how did it all start?

The Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC), as its name suggests, was established by the fledgling nation of Singapore fifty years ago this September with the goal of transforming a formerly agricultural, largely uninhabited island into an urban playground.

A Malay island

The 500-hectare island curves around the southern portion of what is now Singapore, resembling the large end of a smoking pipe. Its location and shape made it an ideal location for traders heading to and from Malaysia as well as a go-to hiding place for pirates who attacked these ships.

Four primary kampongs were present (villages). The island’s population was a mixture of Chinese, Malay, and Bugis (from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi).

Then Sir Stamford Raffles arrived at the future Lion City in 1819.

In addition to Singapore, the British statesman profoundly influenced much of East Asia, which he traveled and investigated while serving in diplomatic posts there.

The British started constructing fortifications all around Singapore in the second half of the 19th century. There were five of these on Sentosa: the Imbiah Battery, Berhala Reping, Fort Serapong (in the island’s center), and Fort Siloso (on the far northwest tip).

While the British were in charge of Singapore, soldiers were stationed on Pulau Blakang Mati. For the White military personnel, Malay, Chinese, and Indian laborers performed laundry, piloted sampan boats, and cleared land.

Even though the name of the island was changed to Sentosa in 1970, history buffs will still be able to identify many of the locations on the island by name. Even though Fort Siloso is no longer a National Monument, the name Siloso is still used for a beach, an elevated walkway through the jungle, and a tram station.

The former Imbiah Battery currently serves as a viewing point for hikers, and Fort Serapong’s abandoned structures are well-liked by those who enjoy urban exploration and “ruin porn.”

As its name suggests, British artillerymen previously resided in the opulent The Barracks Hotel Sentosa. Even though the lodgings are now more cozier, visitors can still enjoy the ancient parade grounds for tanning.

A Singaporean island

The history of Sentosa and Singapore are mostly overlapping.

Singapore formally separated from Malaysia in 1965, at which point it started to consider its future as a country.

Sentosa remained largely agricultural and deserted as Singapore’s economy and industry expanded. In the 1970s, the majority of the inhabitants slowly relocated to Singapore.

The changes happened suddenly and drastically. Visitors to the island could use a cable car in the 1970s, but within a decade an above-ground tram made it simple to get from place to place. The Sentosa Causeway, which connects the two islands, was then unveiled in 1992.

As popular fashions changed, so did popular tourist attractions.

Although Underwater World, the largest oceanarium in Asia at the time, was scheduled to open in 1989, it didn’t until 1991. Over the years, the number of visitors varied, and Underwater World eventually shut down in 2016.

The Asian Village was another another remnant of the past. With various “villages” depicting Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and other Asian nations, along with certain rides, this attraction was comparable to Epcot at Disney World. In 2000, it was abandoned.

The Apollo Hotel was the island’s first place to stay for visitors. It debuted in 1978 and shut its doors in 1986.

In the meantime, Shangri-Rasa La’s Sentosa Resort opened its doors to its first visitors in 1993 and became the island’s first beach resort. The Capella Singapore opened in 2009, the W Singapore — Sentosa Cove opened in 2012, and the Sofitel Singapore Sentosa Resort & Spa opened in 2015. It took ten years, but gradually other major luxury brands catering to tourists from around the world followed.

However, not all attractions were meant to last. The iconic Merlion in Singapore that is a sibling to the one in Sentosa across the sea no longer preside.

According to Christopher Khoo, general director of the global tourism consultancy MasterCounsult, “as tourism develops, expectations rise (and we must) make room for something new.” “The renewal process necessitates concessions.”

He claims that tourists today are more interested in experiences than in historical sites.

A market for evening activities has also been formed by the city’s perpetual heat and humidity. Light displays and digital works are potential additions.

Sentosa has so many brand-new, gleaming amenities that it is understandable why some continue to believe that the island was artificially created.

The uncertainty may be brought on by land reclamation. Since 1972, Sentosa has expanded from its original area of 500 hectares on Pulau Blakang Mati, which was roughly 280 hectares.

Even with all the activity, Sentosa’s moniker promises peace and tranquility, especially when visiting one of the island’s hotels. The Capella Singapore is a well-liked location for sunset cocktails and is surrounded by vegetation.

Although Sentosa’s military history is long past, the island unexpectedly resurfaced on the political map in 2018 when then-U.S. President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Capella, where a small plaque commemorates the meeting’s historical significance.

Bringing back full-time residents to the island was one significant adjustment. However, the populations that inhabited Pulau Blakang Mati bear almost little similarity to the people who live in Sentosa today.

The only gated luxury enclave in Singapore is Sentosa Cove, which is located on the eastern coast of the island. This swiftly rose to the top of the most sought-after real estate in the nation in an area where many people live in close quarters.

Homes in Sentosa Cove can currently sell for up to $23 million Singaporean dollars ($16 million USD). The majority of them have rooftop gardens, multiple-car garages, swimming pools, and other expensive amenities.

What comes next

Singapore, which is constantly looking for new chances for development, is already considering options other than Sentosa.

Palau Brani, a trapezoidal land mass and former Navy installation halfway between Singapore and Sentosa, is most likely to become the next Sentosa. The ambitious Sentosa-Brani Master Plan would develop both islands into one substantial tourism offering, since most visitors now just catch a fleeting glimpse of Brani as they travel between islands.

The coronavirus pandemic delayed this project, like it did practically every other significant infrastructure undertaking in the world, but development has since resumed as Singapore has relaxed its regulations and adopted a “living with the virus” approach.

According to the concept, the two islands will be split into five sections: ridgefront, beachfront, lively cluster (think thrill attractions, event space, etc.), and waterfront.

Along with adding new attractions, the Sentosa-Brani Master Plan will also renovate beaches and extend nature and history pathways.

The island’s northern and southern halves will be connected by a two-tiered “sensory walkway” through Sentosa that is scheduled to open the following year.

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