The stilt supported bungalow growing out of the sea

10 07 2021

Influenced by the many tales that were told of lighthouses and their keepers, any mention of the word “lighthouse” through much of my younger days would conjure up images of large waves breaking against a lighthouse’s rocky foundations, and of lighthouse keepers with weather-worn faces dressed in their oilskins. I have formed quite a different impression of lighthouses over the years — at least of the ones in Singapore where it isn’t quite as chilly enough to be comfortable in oilskins and where the seas, with the exception of that around Horsburgh Lighthouse during the Northeast Monsoons, are much less tempestuous. What has helped in forming that altered impression were visits to Raffles Lighthouse at Singapore’s southernmost island Pulau Satumu and the numerous occasions on which I had set eyes on the lighthouse on Sultan Shoal, which I first spotted from the days when I was involved in ship trail trips as a naval architect.

The two lighthouses, Raffles and Sultan Shoal, are among four conventionally styled lighthouses that Singapore’s Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) operates. A less conventional fifth, is perched on the top of a high-rise building along the east coast. Together they play a crucial role as aids to navigation in an area of the world in which the sea lanes are among the most congested. Raffles and Sultan Shoal lighthouse are also part of a trio of lighthouses marking key points around the western entrance to the Singapore Strait. The third lighthouse of the trio is one on Pulau Pisang, an island off southwest Johor. The fourth conventionally styled lighthouse, Horsburgh Lighthouse, marks the eastern entrance to the Singapore Strait.

The lighthouse on Sultan Shoal is one that fascinates me. Built in 1895, the lighthouse wears quite distinct look and is quite eye-catching. While it now finds itself perched on a 0.6 ha island, the lighthouse originally rested on a shoal and looked like it was in the middle of nowhere when the tide had the shoal submerged. Having been built on a shoal, a two-storey house that has been described as a “stilt supported bungalow growing out of the sea” — to accommodate its keeper and a lascar as well as for stores and water that wraps around the lighthouse, has also given it quite a distinct external appearance.

Plans for Sultan Shoal Lighthouse (National Archives of Singapore)

Locally known as Terumbu Karimum (Trumbu Carimon) and named by British navigators after a ship that ran aground on it in 1789, Sultan Shoal was quite a treacherous spot close to the western entrance to the Singapore Strait. This prompted a tripod beacon to be placed on it before it was converted into one with a granite base. Even with the lights, the shoal made the news frequently for groundings occurring on and around it. One occasion in which this happened was in 1869, when the Mata Mata, a ship that had set sail for Penang to provide accommodation for the visiting Duke of Edinburgh, ran aground on the shoal. By the 1880s, a lightship or a ship used as a lighthouse, appeared on the scene. Used to mark the equally dangerous Ajax Shoal, one nautical mile south east by east half east of Sultan Shoal, the lightship served also as a navigational marker for ships entering the western entrance of the Singapore Strait. Ajax Shoal was named in quite a similar manner as Sultan Shoal, with Ajax being the name of a steamship which scrapped its bottom on the shoal in 1877. Commissioned in 1896, the lighthouse on Sultan Shoal took over the lightship’s role in marking the northwestern entry point to the Singapore Strait. Being quite remotely located and surrounded by little but the sea, the lighthouse was also armed. Two rifles, each of which was fitted with a bayonet, were kept in it in case of pirate attacks.

Sultan Shoal before reclamation.

Sultan Shoal would come into the spotlight in February 1942 when a troopship – part of a convoy of three ships that included the City of Canterbury and Felix Roussel, came under attack as it was approaching Ajax Shoal. The ship, which bore the brunt of the attack, caught fire. As the fires burnt uncontrollably, anchors were dropped off Sultan Shoal to keep the ship in position to permit evacuation. The ship eventually sank several days later and its wreck remained in place until last year. In all, just sixteen out of the 2235 troops and 416 crew on board lost their lives – a remarkable low number given the severity of the attack. An anchor salvaged from the wreck is currently on display at the National Museum of Singapore to remind us of this incident.

The Empress of Asia burning after an Imperial Japanese Army Air Force attack on it off Sultan Shoal on the morning of 5 Feb 1942. Sultan Shoal Lighthouse can be seen on the right of the photograph.
Blue Mountains Library, (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The anchor from the RMS Empress of Asia troopship on display.

The face of the shoal would change with land reclamation around the shoal in the 1970s. With an island to rest on, a holiday bungalow could be added for use by senior officers with the Port of Singapore Authority and in the Civil Service. That change pales in comparison in what has been happening in the seas around the former shoal since 1995, with reclamation extending Jurong Island — created from the reclamation around a cluster of southwestern islands that has brought it well within sight of Sultan Shoal to the east.

To the shoal’s west and immediately to its south, work reclamation work on the fingers of the already reclaimed Tuas South extension that will accommodate the future mega-port is taking place at relentless pace. Phase 2 of the work, which involves the construction of a finger that will come almost within touching distance of Sultan Shoal is well underway with a large section of the massive caisson seawalls being installed having already been put in place. The reclamation, which will create some 26 km of deepwater wharves that would accommodate mega-container ships of up to the hypothetical “Malaccamax” size – the largest size vessels that the 25 metre deep Malacca Strait would be able to accommodate. On the evidence of the extent of reclamation work it does look like that Sultan Shoal Lighthouse, having played a key role in the development of Singapore’s port for over a century, may no longer be relevant to the port it has nurtured. The port has certainly grown too big for the lighthouse and what the future now holds for it and the expanded shoal that it rests on, is anybody’s guess.

The caisson seawalls for the Tuas Mega-Port Phase 2 reclamation, with Sultan Shoal in close proximity.
A chart showing the relative position of Sultan Shoal (the black dot on the left on top of the second finger being reclaimed).
Another chart showing the proximity of Sultan Shoal to the second finger being reclaimed.



Sultan Shoal Lighthouse in 2014.
A closeup of the lighthouse in July 2021.
A southward view, with the caisson seawall behind the expanded shoal.





How the west was lost

9 01 2015

The mention of Tuas, a far flung location in the west of Singapore, conjures up an image of its bleak and rather uninspiring industrial landscape, a patchwork of dull and faceless buildings within which much of Singapore manufacturing output is produced.  It would have been a very different Tuas that would have come to mind a little more that a generation ago, a Tuas that for those who express little sentiment for its then untamed shores, would have seemed wild, inaccessible and unproductive; a tangle of mangrove lined tidal inlets and muddy seashores.

The shores of the wild west today.

The shores of the wild west today.

The sea at the far west (National Archives of Singapore).

Wild as it was, it was not without human habitation. Access to the far west certainly was possible, requiring a drive along the long Jurong Road that wound through a rather lonely part of Singapore. The drive would end at the mouth of the Sungei Tuas estuary, the furthest west one could possible head to for a while on a public metalled road. It lay just beyond the road’s 18th milestone and brought with it the promise of seafood at what was the fishing village of Tuas to all who dared to venture.

Tuas Village, 1970. [This digital copy (c) National Library Board Singapore 2008. The original work (c) Tan Marilyn].

Tuas Village, 1970.
[This digital copy (c) National Library Board Singapore 2008. The original work (c) Tan Marilyn].

That reward, would of course only be made possible to those who not only had to endure what seemed an endless journey, but also brave enough; there were parts of the drive that especially on the after dinner journey in the dark, would not have been ones appreciated by the fainthearted. One particular stretch was at the road’s 13th milestone, just before one came to Hong Kah Village on the return journey, had been the source of many a tale of horror. That was where the gravestones of the Bulim cemetery close to the edge of the road, in the glare of the vehicle’s headlamps, would seem to reach out to anyone passing.

The reward just beyond the 18th milestone of the long and winding Jurong Road – the restaurant is still in existence in a location close to where it originall was (National Archives of Singapore).

It is a different set of horrors that await the visitor on the journey to the Tuas of today; the roads now far from lonely. Much of what we refer to Tuas today lies west of where the village had been, on land that has come out of the sea. This includes the “hockey stick” – a huge southward projection of land to the south part of which will host the future Tuas mega-port. Tuas, at its north-western corner, is also where the Second Link is located, carrying vehicles over to Malaysia, from what had been Tanjong Karang.

A lone mangrove tree within sight of the Second Link.

A lone mangrove tree within sight of the Second Link.

It is just south of Tanjong Karang where a small reminder of the previously wild west can be found (discounting the vast coastline of the Live Firing Area to its north from which our eyes have been shielded), although it lies out of sight to most of us beyond one of the ugly security fences that kills and deprives of any joys we can still derive from the seashore.

Life where one may not expect it.

Life where one may not expect it.

The intertidal region that exists, reaches out to the Merwang Beacon. It includes a naturally occurring extension of a much altered shoreline plus perhaps, a small remnant of what could be the original foreshore. It was at this point that the western tip of the island of Singapore in its unaltered state had been at Tanjong Merawang. Around the beacon, and also in the area just north of it where a small cluster of mangroves can be found, we are able to discover that there is still a small celebration of what might have been (see Ria Tan’s post on the visit  made on 23 Dec 2014: Return to Tuas Merawang Beacon).

The intertidal zone at Tanjong Merawang looking out towards Merawang Beacon and Pulau Merambong.

The intertidal zone at Tanjong Merawang looking out towards Merawang Beacon and Pulau Merambong.

A celebration above the sea that the shore also offers, is a perspective of the western end of the Singapore Strait. On a clear day, parts of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia can be seen, with the view southwest extending to the Indonesian Karimun Islands. That lies far beyond the Malaysian island of Pulau Merambong in the foreground. It would be interesting to note that the waters around Merambong is home to Malaysia’s largest intertidal seagrass meadow. And, in it, the country’s largest concentration of seahorses is said to be found.

The coastline of the far west of Singapore as seen in a 1927 map.

The coastline of the far west of Singapore as seen in a 1927 map.

This is unfortunately, under threat (see: Seagrass meadow in danger, The Star, 24 Mar 2014). Concerns raised on the impact that an ill-conceived and highly controversial luxury development project, Forest City, which will see four huge islands rise out of the waters close to Pulau Merambong, will have, include the threat it may pose to the rich marine life in the waters that surrounds the island. What that will do to what is left of the wild west of Singapore, already decimated by the developments closer to it, time will only tell.