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.





All at sea

24 07 2014

The launch on Saturday of Singapore HeritageFest 2014, bring us to focus on one of the key reasons for Singapore’s being, the sea. This year’s festival much of which revolves around a maritime based theme, “Our Islands, Our Home” has us looking at our maritime past as well as our present as a maritime nation.

HeritageFest 2014 opens a window to Singapore's island heritage.

HeritageFest 2014 opens a window to Singapore’s island heritage.

It is to raise the profile of this heritage, one that goes back to times well before the arrival of Raffles, that is in fact what the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) and the National Heritage Board (NHB) hopes to achieve with the establishment of the S$500,000 Maritime Heritage Fund, which the two agencies will administer – for which a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by the two agencies at Saturday’s launch.

One of the highlights of this year's HeritageFest is a lighthouse trail that includes a stop on Pulau Satumu, Singapore's southernmost island, on top of which Raffles' Lighthouse is perched.

One of the highlights of this year’s HeritageFest is a lighthouse trail that includes a stop on Pulau Satumu, Singapore’s southernmost island, on top of which Raffles’ Lighthouse is perched.

Once a common scene in the waters off the Southern Islands. Boats such as the kolek on the right, are very much part of our maritime heritage (a similar kolek is on display at the Balik Pulau Exhibition at the National Museum).

Once a common scene in the waters off the Southern Islands. Boats such as the kolek on the right, are very much part of our maritime heritage (a similar kolek is on display at the Balik Pulau Exhibition at the National Museum).

The focus of the fund, which complements the NHB’s S$5 million Heritage Grant Scheme launched last year, will be on developing community-initiated projects related to Singapore’s maritime heritage that will promote a greater understanding and appreciation of Singapore’s maritime connections, as was touched on by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Community, Culture and Youth, in his speech at the festival’s launch.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of NHB launching Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of NHB launching Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Mr Wong also spoke of the transformation that will soon take place at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), where the launch event was held. Besides a revamp of the museum with expanded galleries that will include a space allocated for the Tang Cargo and see new shops and dining outlets, the museum will be given a new entrance that will open it up to the river and give it a direct connection into the historic heart of Singapore.

Another lighthouse - the very pretty Sultan Shoal Lighthouse at the western extremities of Singapore's waters seen during the lighthouse trail as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Another lighthouse – the very pretty Sultan Shoal Lighthouse at the western extremities of Singapore’s waters seen during the lighthouse trail as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

The revamp is part of the ongoing effort to develop a civic and cultural belt around Singapore’s colonial civic district (see: The Old Vic’s ticking again) that involves also the newly refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, and the conversion of the Old Supreme Court and City Hall into National Gallery – due for completion in 2015.

The Old Vic's definitely back!

The newly refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall.

A cultural performance at the launch of Singapore HeritageFest2014.

A cultural performance at the launch of Singapore HeritageFest2014.

The launch also coincided with the first evening of a two-night series of programmes taking place around the ACM and the river, River Nights. The event, brought much life and colour to the river, and celebrated its changing identity over the years – in the same way the well received series of activities  for Singapore HeritageFest 2014 celebrates the islands.

A dragon dance performance at the start of River Nights at the ACM's front lawn.

A dragon dance performance at the start of River Nights at the ACM’s front lawn.

More information on the Maritime Heritage Fund, Singapore HeritageFest 2014, River Nights and on Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore’s Islands (an exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore held in conjunction with HeritageFest 2014) can be found in the following links:





A visit to the lighthouse on Singapore’s One Tree Island

12 04 2011

An hour by boat from Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal, lies Pulau Satumu, which by virtue of being the southernmost island of Singapore, is the southernmost point in Singapore. The island, which is some 14 km south of the nearest point on the main island of Singapore is also home to a lighthouse, Raffles Lighthouse, one of four offshore lighthouses operated by the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA), the others being on Sultan Shoal, Pedra Branca and Pulau Pisang which is on Malaysian territory. Being very much one who has always taken an interest in all things nautical, I have always been drawn to lighthouses … my very first encounters with one being the one that had shone its beacon from the top of the Fullerton Building that I loved watching on the many strolls with my parents down Collyer Quay, and when the opportunity arose to catch a boat to Raffles Lighthouse, I certainly wasn’t going to give it a miss.

Pulau Satumu or "One Tree Island", the southernmost island of Singapore, is home to Raffles Lighthouse.

The visit to the lighthouse, part of a learning journey organised by the MPA in conjunction with Singapore Maritime Week was a rare opportunity. Lighthouses are protected places in Singapore and access to the islands that the lighthouses of the form that most of us have an impression of is restricted, and I certainly did not need a second asking. So, on an overcast and rather muggy day, I found myself sitting in a launch at Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal with a large group of students, as I keenly anticipated the start of a journey that would take me to the first ever operating lighthouse that I would have ever visited in Singapore, to the gentle rolling of the launch to the undulations on the surface of the sea.

Lighthouses currently operated by the MPA, as seen on a nautical chart at Raffles Lighthouse.

The ride which took a little more than an hour, provided me with an excellent opportunity to have a look at the massive changes to the waters around the south west of Singapore. What greets the eye immediately upon leaving the ferry terminal is the reclamation taking place off Pasir Panjang, part of the effort to expand the container terminals that the area now hosts. Moving off along with the launch we were in, was a double ended ramped single deck vehicle ferry with a load of construction vehicles, a sign of the frenzy of activity that is now surely taking place offshore. The Semakau landfill (perhaps more appropriately “seafill”), which has joined Pulau Semakau with Pulau Seking (a.k.a. Pulau Sakeng), is clearly visible from the start, the long building that serves as a receiving station is instantly recognisable. The first island we actually pass along the way is Pulau Bukom on which the Shell Refinery has long been a feature, and moving southeast we soon see Pulau Jong, a tiny rocky island which is topped by green vegetation, before going past Pulau Sebarok which houses petroleum products receiving and discharging facilities as is evident by the many tanks and berthing spaces on the island. It was in going around Pulau Sebarok that we catch the first sight of Raffles Lighthouse in the grey of the overcast sky … just as I had envisaged it – well, almost … there are certainly more than a single tree that one might have expected knowing the origin of the name of the island that the lighthouse was built on. Pulau Satumu, based on information found on Wikipedia, “means one tree island — sa refers to satu (one) and tumu is the Malay name for the large mangrove tree, Bruguiera confugata”.

On the launch to Pulau Satumu.

Pulau Jong.

The receiving station at Pulau Semakau, looking beyond Pulau Jong.

Pulau Sebarok.

Enroute to Raffles Lighthouse.

The stern and exposed propeller of an unladen tanker - probably undergoing sea trials ....

Raffles Lighthouse on Pulau Satumu as seen on the approach to the jetty.

Raffles Lighthouse as seen on land.

Once on land, whilst waiting to be taken up to the lighthouse, MPA was kind enough to provide the participants of the tour with lunch, and it was over lunch that I had a chat with a member of MPA’s staff. One of the interesting things he did mention was that there were holiday facilities for staff at Sultan Shoal, as well as there being rooms within the lighthouse that were reserved just to allow Ministers to take a holiday on the island. One thing we could do before going up was to have a walk around what certainly seemed like one of the few idyllic places left in Singapore, that is until the silence was punctured by the roar of jets flying above – the island being in close proximity to the live firing range used by the Airforce at the cluster of islands that lay to the west of Pulau Satumu: Pulau Senang, Pulau Pawai, and Pulau Sudong. Still, the island does exudes a charm that has been lost from the coastal areas of Singapore with a little beach and coconut grove leading to the southernmost point of Singapore.

A bench at Raffles Lighthouse.

An idyllic scene from Pulau Satumu.

The beach leading to the southernmost point of Singapore.

Pulau Senang.

It was soon time to ascend the flight of steps up to the top of the lighthouse – 107 steps we were told, 86 built into the lighthouse and a further 17 on the iron stairway up to the top – hard work even for the fit. Standing some 72 feet high, the lighthouse, the second oldest operated by Singapore (the oldest being Horsburg Lighthouse built in 1851), was built in 1855, on what was then referred to as Coney Islet, and looks none the worse for wear in spite of its age. A little bit of its history can be found in the infopedia stub on the lighthouse. At the top we were greeted by one of the two lighthouse keepers on duty Mr. Mani. The lighthouse keepers work on a rotating 12 hours shift for 10 days, returning to the mainland for 10 off days, and are involved in the upkeep of equipment and in the event that the beacon fails – would require to operate the emergency beacon run off batteries. It is quite a quiet and lonely life for ten days … something that is probably hard to imagine in the fast pace world that we live in today. Lighthouses, which have always been important aids to navigation, has with the advent of GPS and electronic navigation means, been rendered somewhat obsolete. However, these are still around and serve an improtant function as a backup in event that electronic means onboard ship fail.

The stairway to the top ...

A window at the bottom of the lighthouse.

A pressurised vapour kerosene mantle burner system that was employed at the turn of the 20th Century at a landing just before the top.

Up the last flight of stairs.

The beacon at the top of the lighthouse.

A radar reflector.

Mr Mani, one of the two lighthouse keepers on duty showing us around at the top.

All too soon, it was time to leave, the launch taking a different route that took us to Marina South, with a stop off Marina South to watch a demo by MPA’s fire-fighting vessel Api-Api, throwing a spray of sea water with its two monitors. Soon back on dry land, we were to be greeted by a different spray altogether – one of a shower that was threatening to come down on us the whole day … fortunately we had made our trip to Raffles Lighthouse and back, with pleasant memories of a rare foray to an otherwise off-limits southernmost part of Singapore.