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The Surprising Story of Sentosa, Singapore’s Residence Island – CNN | Gmx Pharm

Editor’s Note – Monthly Ticket is a CNN Travel series that explores some of the most fascinating topics in the world of travel. September’s theme is Build it Big as we share the stories behind some of the world’s most amazing engineering feats.

(CNN) — It used to be known as Pulau Blakang Mati. Some politely translate the name as “the island of sorrows,” but the most commonly cited translation is “the island beyond which lies death.”

Now it’s called sentosa, from the Malay word for peaceful. Packed with theme parks, beaches, luxury resorts, casinos and other delights, it is Singapore’s main island to stay in and one of the city’s most popular destinations for international tourists.

But how did it all start?

50 years ago in September of this year, up-and-coming Singapore founded the Singapore Development Corporation (SDC), which – as the name suggests – would transform what was then a rural, mostly uninhabited island into an urban playground.

A Malay island

The 500-hectare island is shaped like the big end of a pipe and curves around the south side of present-day Singapore. Its shape and location made it a perfect spot for traders traveling to and from Malaysia – and a regular hideout for the pirates who raided these ships.

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

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

The British statesman left an indelible mark not only on Singapore but also on much of East Asia, which he explored and described during his diplomatic posts.

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

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

Sentosa Development Corporation

In the second half of the 19th century, the British began building fortifications around Singapore. There were four of these on Sentosa – Fort Serapong (near the center of the island), Fort Connaught, the Imbiah Battery, and Fort Siloso (on the extreme northwestern tip).

While Singapore was controlled by the British, soldiers lived on Pulau Blakang Mati. Malay, Chinese, and Indian laborers washed laundry, piloted 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 places on the island. Fort Siloso—now a public park and history museum—is still there, but a beach, elevated walkway through the jungle, and tram stop also bear the Siloso name.

What was once the Imbiah Battery is now a lookout point for hikers, while the abandoned buildings of Fort Serapong are popular with fans of city exploration and “ruin porn”.

Meanwhile, as the name suggests, the elegant The Barracks resort was once home to British artillerymen. While the accommodations are significantly cozier today, guests can still sunbathe on the former parade ground.

A Singaporean island

Much of the history of Sentosa runs parallel to the history of the country of Singapore.

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

As trade and industry grew in Singapore, Sentosa remained largely rural and uninhabited. Most residents perished in the 1970s and resettled 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, making it easy to get from place to place. Then, in 1992, the Sentosa Causeway connecting the two islands was unveiled.

Tourist attractions have come and gone as popular trends have changed.

Underwater World, then the largest oceanarium in Asia, was scheduled to open in 1989 but didn’t actually open until 1991. Visitor numbers have fluctuated over the years, and Underwater World finally closed in 2016.

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

The Apollo Hotel was the first tourist accommodation on the island. It 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 other big luxury brands for international vacationers eventually followed — the Capella in 2009, the W in 2012, and Sofitel in 2015.

A musical fountain light show was a casualty of the development as it 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 in multiple buildings.

Also on the way out is Sentosa’s own Merlion, a brother to the famous one across the water in Singapore.

“As tourism increases, expectations are higher (and we need to) make way for something new,” Christopher Khoo, chief executive of international tourism consultancy MasterCounsult, told Channel News Asia. “Renewal process means yielding.”

Nowadays, tourists are more interested in experiences than in sights.

The city’s constant heat and humidity have also created a market for nighttime 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 exists on Sentosa is new and shiny that it’s understandable why the common misconception “it was an artificial island” keeps floating around.

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

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

Though the days of the military are long gone, Sentosa surprisingly re-emerged on the world’s political radar in 2018 when then-US President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Capella, where a small plaque marks the place of the Property documented in history.

A major change was the return of 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 island’s east coast is Singapore’s only gated luxury resort. In a place where many people live in a confined space, this has quickly become one of the most desirable properties in the country.

These days, homes in Sentosa Cove can be sold for as much as SGD 23 million (US$16 million). Most of them have swimming pools, roof gardens, multi-car garages and other upscale luxuries.
Sentosa sensoryscape rendering

An artist’s rendering of Sentosa Sensoryscape, coming to the island in 2023.

Courtesy of Sentosa Development Corporation

What’s next

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

The new Sentosa will likely be Palau Brani, a trapezoidal landmass and former naval base between Singapore and Sentosa. These days, most visitors just catch Brani out of the corner of their eye as they travel from one island to another, but the ambitious Sentosa-Brani master plan will link the two with a $90 million (US$63 million) link in Singapore .

This Greater Southern Waterfront initiative is a decade-long project that will displace some of the city-state’s commercial port space in favor of more tourist attractions and resorts.

Like almost every other major infrastructure project on the planet, this one has been held up by the coronavirus pandemic but has been restarted as Singapore lifted restrictions and implemented a “living with the virus” strategy.

The plan calls for the two islands to be divided into five sections — waterfront, island heart, seafront, vibrant aggregation (think thrill attractions, event space, and the like), and ridgefront.

The first major initiative, a two-stage ‘sensory walkway’ through Sentosa connecting the northern and southern parts of the island, is scheduled to open next year.

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