Singapore's 'new' Sentosa Island

Map of Singapore, Malaysia
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post
By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 18, 2010

Not long after arriving on the island of Sentosa, I could tell that something had changed.

Amid the lush tropical greenery, a turreted silhouette loomed. As I got closer, I could see the outline of what looked like a fairy-tale castle. There, in the middle of the 1,200-acre island, stood Shrek's castle, a feature of the 49-acre Universal Studios theme park that opened in March as part of a casino resort on Sentosa.

Shrek? Casino? Sentosa?

The combination would have been unfathomable when I was growing up in Singapore in the 1980s.

During my childhood, Sentosa, a small island just off the southern coast of the Asian city-state, was that dorky place your parents or teachers dragged you to for slightly out-of-step activities. Sure, it had miles of picturesque beach. But there was also the inexplicable musical fountain, which was entertaining only if you like watching water torpedoed into the air in sync with Muzak. The Images of Singapore museum, stuffed with wax figures illustrating the country's history, was a musty stop for every schoolchild. And don't even get me started on the Butterfly Park.

But recently, the island has undergone a transformation. In the past few years, a number of trendy bars and restaurants have sprung up. A year ago, a luxury resort opened in a grand colonial building the British military put up in the 1880s. Then in February, after much anticipation, Resorts World Sentosa, a $4.4 billion project featuring four hotels, shops selling Cartier jewelry and Jimmy Choo shoes, and the country's first casino, opened its doors to a flood of gamblers and shoppers.

How would the new Sentosa stack up against the old Sentosa? I decided to investigate.

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Sentosa as a tourist attraction is a fairly recent concept. The island dates to at least the 14th century, when it appeared on early maps of the region. When British colonists arrived in Singapore in the early 19th century, the island's populace mostly made a living on the water, either from fishing or harvesting turtle eggs or by offering their services as navigators for ships, according to Timothy Barnard, an associate professor of history at the National University of Singapore.

At the time, the island was known as Pulau Blakang Mati, which means "Island of Death From Behind." Some speculate that this was due to its shady reputation as a place where many of the trading ships that passed through the deep passageway between it and mainland Singapore were raided. "It was a pirates' lair," said Barnard.

But some historical records indicate that the name may derive from a malaria outbreak that killed many residents in the 1840s, according to Sentosa Leisure Group, which manages development on the island.

In 1972, the Singapore government decided to turn Blakang Mati into a tourist attraction and held a nationwide contest to come up with a new name. Sentosa, which means peace and tranquillity in Malay, was selected, the villagers were resettled to the mainland and the overhaul began.

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