By Laura Schwartz
Singapore River in 2011. Copyright: William Cho
The Republic of Singapore turns 55 this year and as usual, the National Day fireworks will take place where the Singapore River empties into the bay. Much like the country itself, the river reflecting these lights has shapeshifted throughout the past century.
In the final scene of the film Saint Jack (1979), the protagonist throws a packet of photos into the river, a dramatic moral decision that today would earn him a fine of up to $2,000. That may sound draconian but it’s understandable when you learn the government devoted $170 million and the entirety of the 1980s to cleaning up the river. This was a massive undertaking that involved dredging foul-smelling mud and redirecting bumboats, which ferried goods from riverfront warehouses to cargo ships at sea, to a new anchorage at Pasir Panjang.
Ellen Philpott-Teo, an Architectural Historian lecturing at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, commented that the river was “the most important avenue of trade in early Singapore.” Sir Stamford Raffles’ ambitious plans for the island included heavy redevelopment of the river, which began less than a year after he landed. Marshes were drained, jungle was cleared and riverfront communities were reorganized into Malay and Chinese kampongs, not unlike how the administration in the 1980s relocated 4,000 squatters into public housing and hawker centers.
Boat Quay between 1860-1900. Courtesy of The National Archives (United Kingdom)
Pegged as the nation’s first development project, Boat Quay was born from mangrove swamps filled in with reclaimed land, and by 1852, three-quarters of all shipping activities in Singapore were conducted here. Its banks laden with merchant offices, warehouses and jetties, Boat Quay would remain the pulsing heart of trade for over a century, facilitating the movement of everything from silk and porcelain, to tea and rice, to ironware and cotton.
These days, the Singapore River, which spans 3.2 km from Marina Bay to its upper reaches at Kim Seng Road, is best known for tourist cruises and the sleek quays, Boat to Clarke to Robertson. It’s almost as though the river has retired. Its long days of facilitating trade are in the past and now it can gurgle along, serene and clean, playing with visitors and basking in the lights of vivacious celebrations and trendy bars.