The amazing history of Sentosa, Singapore’s island getaway

Editor’s Note — This Month’s Entry is a CNN Travel series highlighting some of the most fascinating topics in the world of travel. September’s theme is “Build it Big” as we share the stories behind the world’s most impressive feats of engineering.

(CNN) – It was known as Pulau Blakang Mati. Some politely translate the name as “the island of the table”, but the most commonly quoted translation is “the island behind which lies death”.

It is now called Sentosa, from the Malay word for peace. Packed with theme parks, beaches, luxury resorts, casinos and other amusements, it is Singapore’s main island for accommodation and one of the city’s most popular destinations for international tourists.

But how did it all begin?

50 years ago this September, the fledgling country of Singapore established the Singapore Development Corporation (SDC), which – as its name suggests – was designed to transform what was then a rural, mostly lifeless island into an urban park.

A Malayan island

The 500-hectare island is shaped like a large end of a smoking pipe, curving along the southern side of what is now Singapore. Its shape and position made it an ideal spot for merchants traveling to and from Malaysia, and a common hideout for pirates who attacked these ships.

There were three main kampongs (villages) here: Ayer Bandera, Serapong and Blakan Mati. The inhabitants of the island were a mixture of Chinese, Malays and Bugis (from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi).

Then, in 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles arrived at what would become the Lion City.

The British statesman left an indelible mark not only on Singapore, but on much of East Asia, where he explored and wrote in his diplomatic posts.

Sentosa has a smaller version of Singapore’s famous Merlion statue.

Sentosa Development Corporation

In the second half of the 20th century, the British began building forts around Singapore. On Sentosa, there were four: Fort Serapong (near the center of the island), Fort Connaught, Imbiah Battery and Fort Siloso (at the northwest tip).

While Singapore was controlled by the British, soldiers lived on Pulau Blakang Mati. Malay, Chinese, and Indian workers washed clothes, drove sampan boats, and cleared land for the white military.

Although Sentosa’s nickname was changed in 1970, history buffs will still recognize the names of many of the places dotted around the island. Fort Siloso — now a public park and history museum — is still there, but a beach, an elevated walkway through the jungle, and a tram stop also bear the Siloso name.

The erstwhile Imbiah Battery is now a lookout for hikers, and the abandoned buildings of Fort Serapong are popular with urban exploration and “disaster porn” enthusiasts.

Meanwhile, the elegant The Barracks resort, as its name suggests, was once home to British artillerymen. Although the accommodations are significantly more comfortable today, guests can still sunbathe themselves in the parades of yore.

An island in Singapore

Much of the history of Sentosa parallels the history of the country of Singapore.

In 1965, Singapore officially declared its independence from Malaysia and began to figure out what kind of nation it wanted to be.

As trade and industry grew in Singapore, Sentosa became largely rural and depopulated. Most of the residents fled in the 1970s and settled in Singapore.

Changes came quickly and dramatically. In the 1970s, visitors to the island could take a cable car, but within a decade there was also an above-ground tram that made it easy to get from place to place. Then, in 1992, the Sentosa Causeway connecting the two islands was inaugurated.

Tourist attractions came and went as popular trends changed.

Underwater World, the largest oceanarium in Asia at the time, was supposed to open in 1989, but did not open until 1991. Visitor numbers fluctuated over the years, and Underwater World finally closed in 2016.

The other relic of the past was The Asian Village. This attraction was similar to Disney World’s Epcot, with different “villages” representing Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and other Asian countries, plus a few rides. It closed in 2000.

Hotel Apollo was the first tourist accommodation on the island. It was opened in 1978 and closed in 1986.

Meanwhile, the island’s first beach resort was the Shangri-La, which welcomed its first guests in 1993. It took a decade, but eventually other big luxury brands aimed at international vacationers followed: Capella in 2009, W in 2012. and Sofitel in 2015.

A musical fountain light show was a casualty of the development, which was demolished to make way for the Resorts World complex, which includes Southeast Asia’s only Universal Studios theme park and about 1,700 hotel rooms across multiple properties.

Also on the way is Sentosa’s own Merlion, a sibling of Singapore’s famous across the water.

“As tourism progresses, expectations are higher (and we have to do) something new,” Christopher Khoo, managing director of international tourism consultancy MasterCounsult, told Channel News Asia. “The renewal process means giving way.”

These days, he says, tourists are more interested in experiences than landmarks.

The constant heat and humidity of the city has also created a market for night activities. Digital creations and light shows are on the list of possible additions.

Ferries used to bring guests to Sentosa, but these days most people come by car.

Ferries used to bring guests to Sentosa, but these days most people come by car.

Sentosa Development Corporation

So much of what’s in Sentosa is new and shiny that it’s understandable why the “it was a man-made island” misconception.

Land reclamation can be a source of confusion. Pulau Blakang Mati was about 280 hectares, and since 1972 Sentosa has grown to about 500 hectares.

Despite all the hustle and bustle, it is possible to find the tranquility that Sentosa’s name promises, especially when staying in one of the island’s hotels. Capella Resort is surrounded by greenery and is a popular spot for sunset cocktails.

Although its military days are long gone, Sentosa made a surprising reappearance on the world’s political radar in 2018 when US President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at Capella, where a small plaque records the property’s place in history.

A major change was bringing full-time residents to the island. However, the modern residents of Sentosa bear almost no resemblance to the communities that lived on Pulau Blakang Mati.

Sentosa Cove, on the east coast of the island, is Singapore’s only luxury gated community. In a place where many people live in tight quarters, this quickly became one of the most sought-after properties in the country.

Today, homes in Sentosa Cove can be sold for 23 million Singapore dollars ($16 million). Most have swimming pools, rooftop gardens, multi-car garages and other luxurious luxuries.
Sentosa Sensoryscape Rendering

Artist rendering of Sentosa Sensoryscape, coming to the island in 2023.

Thanks to Sentosa Development Corporation

what’s next

Singapore, always looking for new development opportunities, is already thinking beyond Sentosa.

The new Sentosa will be Palau Brani, a trapezoidal landmass and former Navy base located between Singapore and Sentosa. These days, most visitors notice Brani out of the corner of their eye as they drive from one island to the other, but the ambitious Sentosa-Brani Master Plan will connect the two with a $90 million Singaporean ($63 million) link.

This “Greater Southern Waterfront” initiative is a multi-decade project that will free up some of the city-state’s commercial harbor space for more tourist attractions and resorts.

Like almost every major infrastructure project on the planet, it was held up by the coronavirus pandemic, but it has restarted as Singapore lifted restrictions and adopted a “live with the virus” strategy.

The plan sees the two islands divided into five sections: waterfront, island heart, beachside, vibrant complex (think thrill rides, event space and the like) and ridgefront.

The first major initiative, a two-level “sensory promenade” connecting the north and south of the island through Sentosa, will open next year.