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.





Deporting the port

15 10 2019

Change often seems the only constant in Singapore. Its relentless pace has altered its face, so much so that many in my generation feel that home is foreign place. Nothing seems sacred, places that we have grown accustomed to and build ties with can disappear in the blink in an eye.

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Vanishing scenes at Tanjong Pagar.

One change Singapore is in the midst of, the redevelopment of the Greater Southern Waterfront. This, while positive in the longer term, has the impact of removing places that are not only familiar, but are also markers of significance to Singapore’s past. The port, which the city has long been associated with, and the reason for uch of the development along the southern shores, is being moved in two stages to the far west. The closure of Tanjong Pagar Terminal, the cradle of Singapore’s shipping container revolution, has already been effected. Cleared of most of its container handling paraphernalia, the terminal seems to have been put to use for handling Ro-Ro cargo.

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The container terminal has been stripped of it container handling paraphernalia and is being temporarily put to use as Ro-Ro cargo reception facility.

Tanjong Pagar – a promontory on which the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company, formed in 1864, would establish wharfs and graving docks. The company initially constructed a wharf of 229 metres in length in 1866, capable of berthing 4 ships of “ordinary size”, a graving dock, Victoria Dock would also be built in 1868. The opening of the Suez Canal late in 1869, brought with it increased steamship traffic and more wharfage was added. Albert Dock was also built in 1879.

Victoria Dock 1890s

A G. R. Lambert print of Victoria Dock in the 1890s. A ship in Albert Dock can also be seen in the background.

By 1885, the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company would acquire the Borneo Company. This gave the company access to 2 kilometres of wharves. The 1899 acquisition of the (older) New Harbour Dock Company at New (now Keppel) Harbour, formerly the Patent Slip and Dock Company, which built No. 1 and No. 2 Docks at New Harbour, made it a monopoly. In 1905, the company was expropriated and the Tanjong Pagar Dock Board, the predecessor to the Singapore Harbour Board and PSA, took over.

Borneo Wharf

Borneo Wharf, which Tanjong Pagar Dock Company acquired from the Borneo Company in 1885. The extended Tanjong Pagar promontory can be seen in the background.

Keppel Shipyard would assumed control of the PSA repair facilities, when the former was formed in 1968. Centred at Keppel Harbour, it continued using the historic Victoria and Albert docks until they were filled in during the 1983 PSA expansion of  Tanjong Pagar Container Terminal during. Keppel Island (the near shore Pulau Hantu) came into Keppel Shipyard’s hands in exchange.

The container terminal goes back to 1972. Its first berths, at Tanjong Pagar’s East Lagoon, came into use on 23 June 1972, when the M.V. Nihon – the first container vessel to call here came alongside. This was an especially significant event, which launched the Port of Singapore’s journey into a mode of cargo transport that now dominates sea trade.

Now that Tanjong Pagar has been emptied of the containers, its container cranes and the container ships that have become synonymous with the name, the area hasn’t looked the same. The container terminal at Keppel are also being cleared, with Brani to follow. The container terminals built at great expense at Pasir Panjang, now operational, will also eventually be cleared. A huge southern extension created out of the sea southwards from Singapore’s western reaches, the Tuas South reclamation, will house the Tuas Mega Port. This will gradually be put into service from 2021, and by 2040 will be where port operations will be concentrated. The extension will also be the future home of the ship-repair and ship-building industry.


Parting glances:

Juxtapositions (2014).

 

A mega-container vessel, the APL Mexico City coming into port (2014) – the increased sizes of container vessels require larger and deeper berths, prompting the need to develop newer terminals.

 

Another view of a Tanjong Pagar still in operation (2014)


More views of the since deported port:

In 2012.

In 2012.

Keppel Terminal in 2018.

Keppel Terminal in 2018.

Keppel Terminal in 2018.


 





Monoscapes: Dark clouds over Tanjong Pagar

22 04 2013

A storm brewing blows dark clouds over the Tanjong Pagar (port) Terminal where several container berths of the huge Port of Singapore which only recently was surpassed by Shanghai as the world’s busiest port and container port. The city terminals at Tanjong Pagar, Keppel and Pulau Brani, which provide 29 out of a total of 52 container berths of the port – the remainder are at the Pasir Panjang Terminals, will eventually be moved westwards to Tuas Port. Work on expanding the Pasir Panjang terminals and on developing Tuas Port has already commenced. The lease on the city terminals expires in 2027 which will free waterfront land close to the city centre to be developed.

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The entire port of Singapore sees some 1000 vessels at any one time, with a ship arriving or leaving every 2 to 3 minutes. The port handles some 60000 containers in a day, coming a long way from its beginnings as a trading post for the British East India Company close to two centuries ago. The move westwards will end the port’s (and shipping companies) long established association with the Tanjong Pagar area, an association which has given much of the area its current flavour, and also one which can be said to have played a huge role in the transformation of Singapore to the modern and successful island nation it is today.