Sentosa, Singapore’s staycation island, has a surprising history

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(CNN) — It was formerly known as Pulau Blakang Mati. Some politely translate the name as “the island of trouble,” but the most cited translation is “the island behind which death lies.”

Today, it is called Sentosa, from the Malay word for “peace and tranquility.” Full of theme parks, beaches, luxury resorts and other amusements, it is Singapore’s main island for staycations and one of the city’s most popular destinations for international tourists.

But how did it all begin?

Fifty years ago this September, the fledgling nation of Singapore formed the Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC), which — as its name suggests — was designed to turn a rural, mostly uninhabited island into an urban playground.

A Malay island

The 500-hectare island is shaped like the big end of a smoke pipe, which turns to the southern part of what is now Singapore. Its shape and position made it an ideal place for traders traveling to and from Malaysia — and a regular hideout for pirates who attacked these ships.

There are four main kampongs (villages). The island’s residents are a mixture of Chinese, Malay and Bugis (from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi).

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

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

Sentosa used to have its own version of Singapore’s Merlion.

Sentosa Development Corporation

In the second half of the 19th century, the British began to build forts around Singapore. In Sentosa, it has five — Fort Serapong (near the center of the island), Fort Connaught, Berhala Reping, Imbiah Battery and Fort Siloso (in the far northwest).

While Singapore was controlled by the British, the soldiers settled on Pulau Blakang Mati. Malay, Chinese and Indian workers did laundry, drove sampan boats and cleared land for White military members.

Although Sentosa’s moniker was changed in the 1970s, history buffs will still recognize the names of many of the places around the island. Fort Siloso — which is a National Monument — is still there, but a beach, an elevated forest path and a tram station also bear the Siloso name.

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

Meanwhile, the elegant The Barracks Hotel Sentosa, as its name suggests, was once home to British artillerymen. Although the accommodations are more comfortable these days, visitors can still soak up the sun on the former parade grounds.

An island of Singapore

Much of the history of Sentosa is parallel to the history of Singapore.

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

As commerce and industry grew in Singapore, Sentosa remained rural and uninhabited. Most of the residents left 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 that made it easy to get from place to place. Then, in 1992, the Sentosa Causeway, connecting the two islands, was unveiled.

Tourist attractions come and go as popular trends change.

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

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

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

Meanwhile, the first beach resort on the island was Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort, which welcomed its inaugural guests in 1993. It lasted a decade, but eventually other major luxury brands catering to international vacationers followed suit. — the Capella Singapore in 2009, the W Singapore — Sentosa Cove in 2012 and Sofitel Singapore Sentosa Resort & Spa in 2015.

However, not all attractions have staying power. Sentosa’s Merlion, a sibling of Singapore’s famous across the water, is no longer holding court.

“As tourism continues, expectations are higher (and we have to) make way for something new,” Christopher Khoo, managing director of international tourism consultancy MasterCounsult, told Channel News Asia. “The process of renewal 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 visitors to Sentosa, but these days most people arrive by car.

Ferries used to bring visitors to Sentosa, but these days most people arrive by car.

Sentosa Development Corporation

So much of what exists in Sentosa is new and shiny that it’s understandable why the common misconception that “it was a manmade island” continues to perpetuate itself.

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

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

Although the military days are long gone, Sentosa made a surprising re-emergence on the world political radar in 2018 when then-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 big change is the return of full-time residents to the island. However, the modern residents of Sentosa bear almost no resemblance to the communities that settled on Pulau Blakang Mati.

Sentosa Cove, on the east coast of the island, is the only gated luxury community in Singapore. In an area where many people live in cramped quarters, it has quickly become some of the most sought-after real estate in the country.

These days, homes in Sentosa Cove can sell for up to $23 million Singaporean ($16 million USD). Most of them have swimming pools, rooftop gardens, multi-car garages and other upscale luxuries.

What’s next

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

The new Sentosa is likely Palau Brani, a trapezoidal land mass and former Navy base between Singapore and Sentosa. These days, most visitors only notice Brani out of the corner of their eyes as they drive from one island to another, but the ambitious Sentosa-Brani Master Plan will turn both islands into one huge tourism offering.

Like almost every other major infrastructure project on the planet, this one was halted by the coronavirus pandemic but restarted as Singapore eased restrictions and adopted a “living with the virus” approach.

The plan sees the two islands divided into five sections — waterfront, island heart, beachfront, vibrant cluster (think thrilling attractions, event spaces, and more) and ridgefront.

Apart from the new attractions, the Sentosa-Brani Master Plan will also expand the nature and heritage trails and transform the beaches.

The first major initiative, a two-tiered “sensory walkway” through Sentosa linking the north and south sides of the island, is set to open next year.