By Marc Servos

Think of the island of Sentosa and it’s likely that you’ll conjure up images of theme-park rides, lavish hotels and breezy restaurants and cafés; a place to decamp for the weekend. Scratch beneath the surface of the island’s history and its former name of Pulau Blakang Mati, or ‘island behind death’ before it was renamed in 1970, rings truer to its previous incarnation. From pirates as far back as the 14th century plundering, looting and killing the inhabitants, to the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, Sentosa’s bloody history is rooted in being a frontier town and fortification. Reminders of its military history remain not only with Fort Siloso, one of Sentosa’s historical attractions, but with the remnants of others also remain on Sentosa, as well as Labrador Park across the water, some of which can still be explored today.

Between the 15th and 19th centuries, piracy was rife and lucrative. Spice was then what oil is today and its traders ruled the Straits of Malacca. Plans to protect Singapore’s harbor were drawn up in 1827 by former soldier James Brooke, the ‘White Rajah of Sarawak’, to finally combat the threat and military installations were established on mainland Singapore as quickly as 1829. The first two fortifications in the immediate harbor area were Fort Teregah on Pulau Brani in the early 1860s, where a coaling station and a tin smelting pot were established, and Fort Faber, built in response to the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion in India against the rule of the British East India Company. However, it became apparent that a greater need to protect this vital spot was recognized by the late 1870s and so construction installations began on the mostly uninhabited Blakang Mati and on Fort Pasir Panjang across the western strait to be twinned with Fort Siloso.

Siloso houses a wealth of World War II memorabilia, including its coastal guns and the remaining fortified military structures and tunnels. The fort is open daily, free of charge to visit and can either be visited via the Fort Siloso Skywalk, an 11 story treetop trail, or the Heritage or Gun Trails.

Located near Fort Siloso to protect the western entrance of the harbor was Mount Imbiah Battery, which served as a command post screening merchant ships before they entered the harbor. It was broken up in the 1930s, shortly before World War II, but the gun emplacement of the battery can still be seen on the Mount Imbiah Trail, next to a bird watching tower and the Megazip.

Further inland were Fort Serapong and Fort Connaught. Today, only remnants of Fort Serapong remain as it was destroyed to prevent the advancing Japanese forces from gaining control of its powerful guns; the route to it is officially off limits as the structure is declared unsafe and authorized access is only through guided tours. Fort Connaught’s location was where the eastern end of Sentosa Golf Club’s Tanglin Course is today, across Cove Drive from One 15 Marina Sentosa Cove. Although there is no trace of the fort, post-war aerial photographs show its three guns still facing in the general direction of the Japanese line of advance.

Further east around Serapong Golf Course and adjacent to Serapong Lake was an Anti-Motor Torpedo Boat (AMTB) battery that was in operation from the 1890s right up until 1956. Prior to land reclamation, it was situated in the then-separate small island of Berhala Reping and connected to Blakang Mati by a concrete railway bridge for ammunition trolleys from Serapong Pier. The military structures remain largely intact, but are covered with overgrowth as a small jungle has taken over this location.

Today, one can also see former military structures other than the coastal artillery installations. Two colorful machinegun pillboxes are at Palawan Beach and at Labrador Park, while some larger structures have been converted into functional facilities. For example, The Blakang Mati Artillery Barracks, built in 1904 and also used as a prisoner of war encampment during the Occupation, was transformed in 2005 to become the offices of Sentosa’s Tourism Agency, and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and Images of Singapore are housed in what was a military hospital, known as the “sick quarters”, from 1893 until 1950.