(CNN) — It used to be called Pulau Blakang Mati. Some politely translate the name as ‘the island of woe’, but the most quoted translation is ‘the island beyond which lies death’.
Now it is called Sentosa, from the Malay word for peaceful. Filled with theme parks, beaches, luxury resorts, casinos and other entertainments, it is Singapore’s main island for staycations and is one of the city’s most popular destinations for international tourists.
But how did it all start?
Fifty years ago in September, the burgeoning country of Singapore formed the Singapore Development Corporation (SDC), which – as its name implies – was designed to transform a then-rural, largely uninhabited island into an urban playground.
A Malay Island
Shaped like the large end of a smoking pipe, the 500-acre island curves around the south side of what is now Singapore. Its shape and location made it a perfect place for traders traveling to and from Malaysia – and a regular hideout for the pirates raiding these ships.
There were three primary kampongs (villages) here: Ayer Bandera, Serapong and Blakan Mati. The inhabitants of the island were a mix of Chinese, Malay and Bugis (from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi).
Then, in 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in what would become the Lion City.
The British statesman left an indelible mark not only on Singapore, but on much of East Asia, which he explored and wrote about during his diplomatic posts there.
In the second half of the 19th century, the British began building fortifications around Singapore. On Sentosa, there were four of these – Fort Serapong (near the center of the island), Fort Connaught, the Imbiah Battery, and Fort Siloso (at the extreme northwest tip).
While Singapore was in British hands, soldiers lived on Pulau Blakang Mati. Malaysian, Chinese and Indian workers did the laundry, sent sampan boats and cleared land for the white military.
Although Sentosa’s name was changed in 1970, history buffs will still recognize the names of many of the places on the island. Fort Siloso — now a public park and historical museum — is still there, but a beach, an elevated walkway through the jungle, and a tram station all bear the name Siloso as well.
The former Imbiah Battery is now a lookout point for walkers, while the abandoned buildings of Fort Serapong are popular with fans of urban exploration and ‘ruin porn’.
Meanwhile, the elegant resort of The Barracks, as the name implies, was once home to British artillerymen. Although the accommodations are considerably more comfortable today, guests can still sunbathe on the former parade ground.
A Singaporean Island
Much of Sentosa’s history parallels the history of the country of Singapore.
In 1965, Singapore officially declared its independence from Malaysia and began to figure out what kind of nation it wanted to be.
As commerce and industry grew in Singapore, Sentosa remained largely rural and uninhabited. Most residents trickled out in the 1970s and settled in Singapore.
Changes came quickly and dramatically. In the 1970s, visitors to the island could take a funicular, but within a decade there was also an overground tram that made it easy to get from place to place. Then, in 1992, the Sentosa Causeway, which connects the two islands, was unveiled.
Tourist attractions came and went as popular trends changed.
Underwater World, Asia’s largest oceanarium at the time, was supposed to open in 1989, but didn’t open until 1991. Visitor numbers fluctuated over the years, and Underwater World finally closed in 2016.
Another relic of the past was The Asian Village. This attraction was similar to Disney World’s Epcot, with several “villages” representing Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and other Asian countries, plus some attractions. It stopped in 2000.
The Apollo Hotel was the first tourist accommodation on the island. It opened in 1978 and closed in 1986.
Meanwhile, the first seaside resort on the island was the Shangri-La, which welcomed its first guests in 1993. It took a decade, but eventually other major luxury brands targeting international vacationers followed – the Capella in 2009, the W in 2012, and Sofitel in 2015.
A musical light show with fountains was a victim of the development, as it was demolished to make way for the Resorts World complex that includes Southeast Asia’s only Universal Studios theme park and some 1,700 hotel rooms spread across multiple buildings.
Also heading out is Sentosa’s very own Merlion, a sibling of Singapore’s famous across the water.
Today, he says, tourists are more interested in experiences than landmarks.
The city’s constant heat and humidity have also created a market for nighttime activities. Digital creations and light shows are on the list of possible additions.
Ferries used to take guests to Sentosa, but today most people come by car.
Sentosa Development Corporation
So much of what exists on Sentosa is new and shiny that it’s understandable why the common misconception “it was a man-made island” persists.
Land reclamation may be the cause of the confusion. Pulau Blakang Mati was about 280 hectares in size and Sentosa has grown to about 500 hectares since 1972.
Despite all the hustle and bustle, it is possible to find that tranquility that Sentosa’s name promises, especially while staying in one of the hotels on the island. Surrounded by greenery, the Capella Resort is a popular spot for sunset cocktails.
An important change was the return of full-time residents to the island. However, the modern inhabitants of Sentosa bear little resemblance to the communities that lived on Pulau Blakang Mati.
Sentosa Cove, on the east coast of the island, is the only gated luxury community in Singapore. In a place where many people live in tight quarters, this quickly became one of the most desirable properties in the country.
An artistic rendering of Sentosa Sensoryscape, coming to the island in 2023.
Courtesy of Sentosa Development Corporation
What is next
Singapore, always looking for new development opportunities, is already thinking beyond Sentosa.
The new Sentosa is likely to be Palau Brani, a trapezoidal landmass and former naval base between Singapore and Sentosa. Today, most visitors just see Brani out of the corner of their eyes as they drive from one island to another, but the ambitious Sentosa-Brani Master Plan will connect the two with a $90 million Singaporean ($63 million US) link.
This “Greater Southern Waterfront” initiative is a multi-decade project that will displace some of the city-state’s commercial port spaces in favor of more tourist attractions and resorts.
Like almost every other major infrastructure project on the planet, this project was held up by the coronavirus pandemic but has restarted as Singapore dropped restrictions and adopted a ‘living with the virus’ strategy.
The plan sees the two islands divided into five sections: waterfront, island heart, beach, lively cluster (think thrill rides, event space, and the like) and ridgefront.
The first major initiative, a two-tier “sensory walkway” through Sentosa connecting the northern and southern parts of the island, is set to open next year.