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A "recycled teenager" learning to blog.

Mar 22, 2013

From Blakang Mati to Sentosa

Blakang Mati, an aerial view, which shows the island of Pulau Brani and wharves and dockyards of Keppel Harbour in the background.

The young, confident-looking Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in the State of Singapore in 1959 looks far ahead to build and develop Singapore for our ancestors and present and future generations.  With the sweat and blood with many founding fathers of Singapore.  Our great, great grandfathers, grandfathers and fathers of Singapore. [Note:  Non-sexist male gender term used to represent father as female for mother in this English language]. 

Long, long ago, Singapore was a small fishing village which Sir Stamford Raflles founded in 1819 with the vision of  a trading entrepot by ship in South-East Asia with flourishing business marketplace for east and west.  Immigrants from countries far and near to look for business opportunities, earn a livelihood, a stable and peaceful place with harmony, hope and homeland.

In the early 1900s when travelling and communication was tedious, slow and difficult from place to place, country to country.   On horseback, bullock-carts and jinrickshaws was common among the wealthier folks in Singapore.

Some Europeans and Americans have never heard the whereabout of Singapore.  The post offices in Singapore have received letters addressed on the envelopes as Singapore, CHINA.

In modern-day Internet, would anybody have heard of telling people to visit Singapore in China?

Here's a general knowledge quiz.  Has anybody heard of "Sarong Island" in Singapore?

Please click on the answer here with related blog topic.

There are some people in the world, especially the elders, have never travelled out of their homeland in their lifetime, from birth to leaving this world for many decades.  It is not surprising.

My elder auntie (tua kim) loved travelling to many countries when she was alive and enjoyed learning places, peoples, languages and cultures which she tasted different "foodages" on tours .  She had the filial piety of her children, grand-children and great grand-children to make her happy.  She always had great stories for her to tell after her travel.

Four decades ago,  Singapore was not a place of interest for international tourists...

Former journalist of The Straits Times, Ms Violet Oon and now Singapore's Food Ambassador, had written a special feature article "Sentosa - from military backwater to fun and games amid the greenery" in "The Straits Times Annual for 1975" as excerpted to share her first experience about 28 years ago to Sentosa via cable car on this blog.  (Source:  The Straits Times Annual).
Some tropical paradises are natural.  Others have to be man-made, admittedly with the help of nature.  One such creation is taking shape on an island off the south coast of land-hungry Singapore.  Retitled a romantic Sentosa, or "tranquility," from the slightly gory name of Blakang Mati ("death behind the island"), it is envisioned as a Mecca for tourists in South-East Asia, for people who want to escape from it all but who yet want the mod cons of 20th century living.

In its 740 acres of rolling hills and sun-kissed beaches, Sentosa has the makings of a hit resort - 200 colonial houses left by the British army, electricity, running water, and best of all, it is only five minutes away from the throbbing heart of Singapore city by ferry, or seven minutes by cable car.

Where else would you find the natural life, minus cars and polluted air, with birds singing in the trees and a leisured holiday life, so near to one of the world's busiest cities?  That's exactly what the Sentosa Development Corporation, a statutory board set up by Parliament to develop the island, is banking on to sell it abroad.

Mr. K.Y.D. Gin, the general manager of the corporation, more popularly known as the S.D.C., said:  "We're going to sell Sentosa as a convention centre and the perfect holiday retreat.  The businessman can get away from the pressures of daily life and yet be in constant touch with is associates around the world.  He need not feel that he's out of the thick of business."  He can reach the Stock Market in less than half an hour and, if his wife feels the need for big city shopping, she can always hop over for the afternoon.

Oozing enthusiasm, Mr. Gin went on to say:  "We have great plans for the island.  The golf course, developed by the Sentosa Golf Club (Pte) Ltd., is already fininished and people have been playing on it since early April, (1975).

"Other plans include the $1.8 million coralarium project, which features decorative displays of corals and shells on the eastern side of the island, at the foot of Mount Serapong, which is due to be completed this year, an artificially created swimming lagoon three quarters of a  mile long and 500 feet wide on the southern coast, which is already completed; a gun museum at Silosa on the western tip; a maritime museum owned and operated by the Port of Singapore Authority; a new ferry terminal; a Malay/Chinese village, an artists' village, restaurants, hotels, chalets, amusement parks (including a pirate's cove for children); and a centre for the performing arts."

All this will definitely coast a great deal of money.  The corporation expects to invest $100 million in developing the island, and expects also an injection of capital from the private sector for hotels and other projects to match this figure.  The corporation will be in charge of the master plan and the overall aesthetics of the projects, but actual development of major projects will be by the private sector.

I was glad to hear him say: "We are keeping the natural habitat intact as far as possible and will only approve buildings and structures which look tasteful.  We won't have high-rise buildings though we might allow eight to ten storey blocks after taking into consideration the coverage of the site, design and landscaping."

Most of these plans are dreams for the future.  What is Sentosa actually like?  Like most Singaporeans I knew that there was quite a big island off the south coast - but I certainly did not expect the land area to be so considerable.

Ever since the cable car between Mount Faber and Sentosa came into operation I had been eager to try this new mode of travel.  Having read of the wild jams during the weekends, I decided to be clever and go on a weekend.  But about 100 other people had the same idea, and I had to spend half an hour standing in a queue.  So I was not in the best of moods that I at last boarded the car.  Fortunately there was a little boy of four sharing the car with me, and his awe and delight at this new adventure cheered me up.  After all, he had been waiting too.

I experienced a sudden feeling of panic when the car left the safety of the station and was expelled into thin air.  It took me quite a few seconds to collect myself before I could look out of the window.  I literally gasped at the sight that greeted me - a lush, green island, much bigger than I had imagined, seemingly untouched by the upheavals of construction that were invading it, and charmingly dotted with elegant houses up and down the valleys.

In front, to the left of the island, was a cluster of attap houses which I assumed to be the local village.  A 180-degree turn of my head, however, and I suffered a shock.  A strange sight greeted me - hundreds of tall buildings, boats fighting for their places in the harbour, hundreds of cars, and thousands of people moving like a colony of ants.  That was the city I lived in.

Since my first visit I've been back several times, and have never failed to experience this slightly unearthly feeling of being out of this world, in a sort of Shangri-La.  That to me is the magic of this island, its soporific effect on problem-bogged minds.  It is no wonder then that thousands of Singaporeans have not waited for the promised delights of amusement parks, hotels, restaurants and chalets before rushing to Sentosa to spend the day.

But it surprised me that there were so many people strolling hand-in-hand down the tree-shaded avenues on a week day.  Where, I wondered, did they all come from?  My question was soon answered when I paid a visit to the lagoon.  I was anxious to see what ruin man had wreaked on the landscape by creating this artificial pool of which I had heard so much.

The road down the steep slope was unpaved and my guide's Land Rover took a lot of punishment - and so did I.  It took me some time to collect myself at the bottom of the hill.  The lagoon did not look too bad.  Almost natural and once the palms and trees grew, it would be possible to guess that all this was fashioned by man.

The "all this" included the widest beach I've ever seen in Singapore, achieved I was told, by importing tons of sand from Malaysia.  Much work was involved in creating this inland sea.  About 300,000 cubic yards of  sea-bed had to dregedd, resulting in a minimum depth of six feet of water at the lowest tide.  The project cost over $3 million.  Four openings connect the lagoon to the sea, ande oil pollution from the harbour is prevented by floating beams.

The effort was worth it.  At last I can speak of a beach in Singapore and not be ashamed of the poor excuse for one we had to offer in Changi; no need now to be apologetic to every visitor who could not quite understand why this tropical island of ours did not come complete with wide stretches of sand.

As far as possible, the existing trees had not been cut down and this lent an air of permanence to the scene.  Already, people were taking advantage of the sun, and a mood of gay frivolity prevailed.  One hundred yards away a family was enjoying a day's outing, and a group of young people were at play.

To my tentative "Hi," they responded with offers of friendship.  Full of the free spirit of youth they were not suspicious of strangers and were willing to share their fun.  I asked them what they were doing out on a Wednesday morning.  Did they have no work at all?  Laughing, they explained:  "We're all on the night shift this week in our place of work, and too this opportunity to organise an outing for ourselves."

"Don't you think Sentosa is simply marvellous?  It's the best place for relaxation in Singapore," exclaimed one of the girls, a waitress.  The others continued: "Most of the people you see here are either on holiday or like us, working in the afternoon or night shift.  Instead of wsting time at home or wandering round town, we finally have a place to spend our spare time wholesomely."

To these young people, Sentosa meant:  "An escape," "a place to relax completely," "a haven," and a "perfect holiday spot."  As far as they were concerned the promise of the island had been fulfiled."

..... the old people just nod their heads and say:  "We were right, after all, there is death behind the island."  It seems that the island was given the name Blakang Mati because it was unsafe in the 19th century to venture to the southern shores, away from the protection of the big island.

Violet Oon as she appeared at the 50 plus Expo 2013 at Singapore Expo on 24 March, 2013.

She remembers her first visit to Sentosa over two decades ago.  Wonderful memories. Thank you for sharing your collective memories of Singapore, Violet.

Sentosa is my children's favorite childhood memories as posted to the Singapore Memory Portal here in Singapore.

Maylene and Wei at Sentosa in 1990
For Peranakan food fans at the invitation of Violet Oon, "Welcome to my world! Come to market, cook and dine with Violet Oon on an exhilating culinary journey."

From "death behind the island" to "The Island of Tranquility" in Singapore and the decades of Sentosa through its tourist developments and improvements to become one of the "die, die must visit place in the world" for everyone to Singapore.



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