Another strange horizon where the sun has risen on is one to the west of the city, and one which includes the island of Sentosa, once a military garrison named Pulau Blakang Mati and now a playground on which one of Singapore’s two integrated resorts has been built. It is across from the western end of the island – close to the area where the western rock of the “Dragon’s Teeth Gate” or “Batu Berlayer” at Tanjong Berlayer which together with another rocky outcrop, marked the ancient entrance to the harbour, that we now see the rising of the sun against silhouettes which are of another strange and unfamiliar world.
Dominating the view across the horizon, are the six distinctive towers of the recently completed residential development “Reflections at Keppel Bay”, seemingly bowing to welcome the new day. That is the last of the developments to be completed on a 32 hectare site that was originally what may have been seen as a dirty and grimy shiprepair yard, Keppel Shipyard. The yard, besides being Singapore’s most established repair yard, boasted of having the oldest graving (dry) docks in Singapore, inheriting the docks from Port of Singapore Authority when its shiprepair operations were privatised in 1968.
At the point that the yard vacated the area , which was in 1996 to move to Tuas allowing the land on which it stood to be redeveloped, four graving docks remained. This included Singapore’s very first graving dock, Dock No. 1. This was built by a British mariner, Captain William Cloughton, on land purchased in 1855 from the Temenggong of Singapore at what had been called Pantai Chermin or “Mirror Beach”. Completed in 1859, it was Cloughton’s second attempt at constructing a dock there. The dock came under the Patent Slip and Dock Company when that was formed in 1861. A second dock company, the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company, added a second dock close by at Tanjong Pagar in 1868, Victoria Dock. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 also saw demand for ship repair increase. Patent build their second dock, Dock No. 2 in 1870. Tanjong Pagar followed with Albert Dock in 1879. Both Albert and Victoria Docks were filled in at the end of 1983, when the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) took them over to allow an expansion of the container terminal at Tanjong Pagar.
The two rival dock companies were to merge in 1881. Patent, which had been renamed New Harbour Dock Company, came under the control of Tanjong Pagar. This private entity was expropriated by the colonial authorities in 1905, passing control of the docks to the Tanjong Pagar Dock Board. The Singapore Harbour Board took over the operations of the shipping related activities along the waterfront in 1913, launching King’s Dock, in the same year. At 272 metres in length, it was reportedly the largest graving dock east of Suez and the second largest graving dock in the world at the time of its build. A last graving dock was to be added in 1956 – the Queen’s Dock. The PSA took over from the Harbour Board in 1963, before control of the shiprepair docks were transferred to Keppel Shipyard in 1968.
The development of Reflections at Keppel Bay, on the plot of land west of Queen’s Dock, was preceded by other developments in the area vacated by Keppel Shipyard. On Keppel Island (or Pulau Keppel), a marina, the Marina at Keppel Bay was completed in 2008. The island is linked to the mainland by Keppel Bay Bridge, completed in 2007. Pulau Keppel, which was previously known as Pulau Hantu (one of two Pulau Hantu or “Ghost Islands” in our southern islands group), was itself a more recent development. An extension to the shipyard was built on it in 1983 when Victoria and Albert Docks were transferred to the PSA for redevelopment. It was renamed Pulau Keppel at the same time. Another development in the area is another residential one, the Carribbean at Keppel Bay. This was completed in 2004 and occupies the area around the oldest docks, No. 1 and No. 2. The four rather historic docks, have been retained in some form, and are now water channels within the developments.
For the area, the year 1983 is one that will probably be remembered less for the development of the former Pulau Hantu or the loss of the historically significant Victoria and Albert Docks, but for the tragic events of the evening of the 29th of January. On the evening of the fateful day, a drillship, the Eniwetok, leaving Keppel Shipyard, drifted into the Sentosa cable car system. Its drilling derrick became entangled in a cable causing two cabins to fall into the sea killing seven people. Another four were left dangling precariously with some 13 terrified passengers trapped inside. A daring but successful rescue attempt directed by our present Prime Minister, then Colonel Lee Hsien Loong, was mounted involving the use of two helicopters operating in high winds from which rescue personnel were winched down to the cabins to pull the 13 to safety, one-by-one.
Waking up to a Keppel Harbour today in which there is little to remind us of the world that once was. With the docks now disguised to blend into the new world that has been built around them, we will soon forget what they were and the contribution they made to the development of the port on which much of Singapore’s early success was built. The four docks (as well as the two to the east) were also very much the stepping stones over which the shiprepair industry, an important source of jobs in the post independent economy of Singapore, was built. It is a fate that will probably befall the place where another leading pioneer shiprepair company, Sembawang Shipyard, now operates at. That yard, together with its historic docks built to support the huge British Naval Base, was the subject of a recent Land Use Plan released to support the much talked about Population White Paper. It is mentioned in the plan that “new waterfront land along the Sembawang Coastline being freed up once existing shipyard facilities are phased out” to provide land for new business activities and it may not be far away before we would have yet another strange horizon for the sun to rise up to.