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Sentosa, a 500 hectares resort island lying off the southern coast of Singapore, is well-known for its luxury resorts, theme parks, golf courses and a casino. However, the now-popular island had a rather bleak past.

Swimming lagoon and chalets at SentosaSwimming lagoon and chalets at Sentosa. Mid 1970s. Collection of National Museum of Singapore.

Early History

Historically known as Pulau Blakang Mati, which translates to 'island behind death', the island was inhabited by the Bugis, Malays and Chinese during the early years of British colonial rule.

The island was considered to be a strategic location for the protection of shipping passages, and in the 1880s, the British constructed the Mount Imbiah Battery together with three forts – Fort Serapong, Connaught and Siloso.

Royal Garrison Artillery military parade at Pulau Blakang MatiRoyal Garrison Artillery military parade at Pulau Blakang Mati (Sentosa). 1918. Collection of National Museum of Singapore.

The island was further fortified in the 1930s when Fort Connaught was rebuilt and equipped with three 9·2-inch guns that had the range and arc of fire to outshoot the solitary gun at the Mount Imbiah Battery, thus leading to the decommissioning of the latter.

Sentosa during World War 2 and the Japanese Occupation

During the Battle of Singapore in February 1942, the guns on Blakang Mati were turned around to aim at Japanese forces on the mainland.

Fort Siloso Cannons Fort Siloso cannons at Sentosa. Mid 1970s. Collection of National Museum of Singapore.

When Singapore fell to the Japanese, Blakang Mati was turned into a prisoner-of-war camp, where some 400 Allied troops and gunners were detained.

WWII Japanese Map of SingaporeA rare, large coloured pictorial map of Singapore Island during World War II, published by the Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbunsha in 1942. Collection of National Museum of Singapore.

A beach on the island was one the massacre sites where Japanese soldiers gunned down Chinese men between the ages of 18 and 50 during Operation Sook Ching.

Post-war years

Following the end of the Second World War, Pulau Blakang Mati served as base of the 1st Singapore Regiment of the Royal Artillery (SRRA) in 1947.

Passing out parade at Pulau Blakang MatiPassing out parade at Pulau Blakang Mati (Sentosa), Singapore. 1948. Ahmad Falizi Bin Mohd Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

When the SRRA disbanded 10 years later, Gurkha infantry units were housed on the island, while Fort Siloso and Fort Serapong were converted for use by the Catholic and Protestant churches respectively. The Singapore Naval Volunteer Force was later relocated to the island in 1967.

Pulau Blakang Mati was slated to be an oil refinery when the government reached an agreement with energy company Esso.

However, Albert Winsemius, an economic advisor to the government, and Alan Choe, the then head of the Urban Renewal Unit (now the Urban Redevelopment Authority) convinced then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew that the island would be better suited for recreation and tourism.

Following renegotiations, Esso agreed to shift the refinery to Jurong.

Plans were subsequently made to turn Blakang Mati into a resort island with chalet-style hotels, beaches and golf-courses.

Tourism Boom

A contest to rename the island was launched in 1969 and Sentosa, which means ‘tranquillity’ in Malay was selected as the winning name. The name change came into effect in September 1970.

A cable car system linking Mount Faber on the mainland to Sentosa island was completed in February 1974. A month later, Sentosa Golf Club opened.

Cable CarSentosa cable cars travelling between Mount Faber and Jardine Steps stations. Mid 1980s. Collection of National Museum of Singapore.

Later attractions included the Sentosa Coralarium, a maritime museum, the Palawan beach lagoon and the Musical Fountain – which featured synchronised water sprays “dancing” in tune with music.

Coralarium at SentosaCoralarium at Sentosa. Mid 1970s. Collection of National Museum of Singapore.

Musical Fountain at SentosaMusical Fountain at Sentosa. Mid 1980s. Collection of National Museum of Singapore.

Fort Siloso and its underground tunnels, ammunition bunkers, gun emplacements and searchlight posts were preserved and turned into a historical attraction.

Cable Car Accident

In January 1983, two carriages from the cable car plunged into the sea after an oil-drilling vessel struck the ropeway. Seven people lost their lives in the tragedy.

Cable Car accidentImage depicts the mast of oil rig Eniwetok caught up in two cables of the Sentosa Cableway resulting in a cable car being swung and a person thrown out. 29/1/83. Captain R F Short Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

The cable car resumed operations in August 1983 following tests and repairs, but visitor numbers to Sentosa declined significantly thereafter.


Sentosa has undergone a massive overhaul following the turn of the turn of the century.

Fort Siloso was refurbished and existing attractions were either upgraded or demolished. New attractions such as the MegaZip Adventure Park and skydiving simulator iFLY were created.

Sentosa Cove, an exclusive gated enclave comprising of over 2,600 home was also launched in 2003.

Resort World SentosaPHOTOGRAPHS FOR THOUGHT I - 像由心生摄影集: 南海明珠  (圣淘沙名胜世界 - RESORT WORLD SENTOSA). Lee Leng Kiong Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

In March 2010, Resorts World Sentosa (RWS), one of the only two integrated resorts in Singapore, opened its doors. RWS features a Universal Studios theme park and a casino.

Today, with its many attractions, Sentosa remains a popular destination for both Singaporeans and tourists alike.