Sentosa Heritage Trail: See The Small Island With Big History Singapore

To the south of mainland Singapore, the island of Sentosa sits proudly as a multifaceted leisure destination and a popular respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. But the sandy beaches, hotels, theme parks and attractions belie a long and rich heritage that is waiting to be explored.

Featuring 30 heritage sites – including the recently gazetted National Monument Fort Siloso – and supplemented by 10 heritage trail markers, the new Sentosa Heritage Trail, developed by the National Heritage Board (NHB) in partnership with Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC), traces the transformation of the island from a military complex to a leisure destination, uncovers stories of the communities who once lived there, and sheds light on the story of modern Sentosa’s reinvention. These trail markers are augmented by another 20 existing interpretive signs to enrich guests’ knowledge of Sentosa’s history.

Existing in records dating back to the 1600s as Pulau Blakang Mati – which translates to “Death from the Back Island” in Malay – the island was home to various coastal communities such as the Orang Laut and other regional groups and was also coveted by colonial powers due to its strategic location on the much-used straits of Singapore. During World War II (WWII), the construction of Fort Siloso, Fort Serapong and other military facilities marked the island as an important base for military activity, and some remnants of its wartime past remain hidden in plain sight.

Sentosa Heritage Trail – Lesser-known Stories Of Sentosa’s Kampong Communities

The Sentosa Heritage Trail also unearths the history of the early settlers on the island comprising diverse communities across different time periods. Early records dating as far back as the 17th century confirm the presence of Orang Laut communities on the island, who made their living by fishing and selling commodities to passing vessels between mainland Singapore and Blakang Mati. Even after Blakang Mati was turned into a British military outpost, civilian communities still lived on the island, with many continuing to do so even after WWII. These civilian communities made a living by fishing, operating small shops and providing a ferry service between the island and mainland Singapore.

The Sentosa Heritage Trail delves into the island’s military history, which began when Singapore became a British colony in the 1800s. Blakang Mati was recognised for its strategic potential in Britain’s defence strategy for Singapore, which was centred on defending Keppel Harbour and the shipping straits around the island. The completion of Fort Siloso and other forts and batteries on the island also meant that barracks and quarters to house military personnel had to be built.

Many landmarks from Sentosa’s time as a military bastion still exist today as buildings that have been seamlessly integrated into Sentosa’s modern landscape. Former barracks have been repurposed into hotels and restaurants, while forts and other military structures have been restored and utilised for education and entertainment, giving heritage sites new leases of life to meet the needs of modern visitors.

Sentosa Heritage Trail – From Blakang Mati to Sentosa

This year, Sentosa is commemorating the 50th anniversary since the island was established as a leisure destination in 1972. The Sentosa Heritage Trail and its companion guide cover the island’s early history (including its military heritage) and feature some of its earliest attractions such as the Singapore Cable Car and the site of the former Musical Fountain and Fountain Gardens. The companion guide also includes stories of the island’s early days as a leisure destination. In addition, heritage trail markers are placed along with remnants of the old monorail track and within Resorts World Sentosa to highlight the locations of these former landmarks.

Sentosa Heritage Trail – Explore Sentosa’s Heritage at Your Leisure

Mr Alvin Tan, Deputy Chief Executive (Policy & Community), NHB, said: “Through this trail, we hope to bring Singaporeans and tourists alike on an island journey through time to discover heritage sites and stories – both familiar and unfamiliar. In doing so, we hope that they will learn more about Sentosa’s island, military and leisure heritage, and realize that there is always something new and exciting to discover in Sentosa.”

Mr Michael Ma, Assistant Chief Executive, SDC, said: “The Sentosa Heritage Trail is an opportunity for our guests to unearth Sentosa’s storied past. With many of our historic landmarks still existing today, the trail also underscores SDC’s commitment to preserving Sentosa’s rich history for future generations. The trail complements our recently-launched range of heritage- and sustainability-themed tours, SentoSights, and we invite Singaporeans and our guests to rediscover Sentosa in our 50th year as a multifaceted leisure destination.”

To explore the fascinating history of Sentosa, trail-goers can embark on three thematic, bite-sized routes according to their interests and in their own time. These routes are:

Kampongs and Barracks (2 hours on foot and with public transport), 3km

This route explores the lives and livelihoods of the people of Blakang Mati, as well as their living spaces that included kampongs, barracks, and luxurious bungalows.

Forts (2 hours on foot), 4km

This route explores the extensive fortifications on Sentosa, including Fort Siloso, Imbiah Battery and Fort Serapong, and how they featured in the defence of colonial Singapore.

Memories of Sentosa (1 hour on foot), 2.5km

This route revisits some of the locations that are iconic of Sentosa’s reinvention as a leisure destination in the 1970s, and the memories associated with these landmarks.

The Sentosa Heritage Companion Guide & Map (Map available in 4 languages from early April) can be downloaded from NHB’s heritage portal Roots.gov.sg and Sentosa.com.sg. Printed copies of the guide will also be available for a limited period at NHB headquarters at Stamford Court. All photos courtesy of National Heritage Board.

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