Travel

The guns of Siloso

Treasures of Singapore 19th and 20th Century guns facing the Singapore mainland Photo: Ranjani Muthiah   | Photo Credit: mail_grjgm

Over five million people visit Singapore’s Sentosa every year. But there was hardly anyone where I was in Sentosa. There were less than half-a-dozen people at the magnificently maintained Fort Siloso and just two European tour groups at Images of Singapore.

Ask anyone who visits Sentosa — and I have asked several — and there’s hardly anyone who’s heard of either of these two treasures.

Sentosa’s a name that dates to 1972 when Singapore decided to transform the military base into a playground for the world and away from the playground, around Sentosa Cove, develop a gated community of homes and condos for the richest in the world. Yet, of what was there before this transformation took place, much still remains.

On what was a wooded island with several hillocks, four forts had once been built. Fort Connaught, Fort Serapong and Battery Mt. Imbikai are no more, but Fort Siloso is there to remind you that the island once called Pulau Blakang Mati was what made the British so confident that ‘Fortress Singapore’ was ‘impregnable’.

And so are numerous buildings of a major military base beautifully restored to serve as hotels, restaurants and service centres.

When the British turned this tiny tropical island into their frontline of defence, guarding, with Labrador Battery across from it, the entrance to Singapore’s Keppel Harbour, little did they imagine that one day the attack would come from the north, through the Malay Peninsula, and not from the sea. Like the guns of Siloso, the guns of all the other mini-forts of the Royal Artillery were pointed at the seas to the south.

After Singapore fell in February 1942, the armchair analyst kept saying the guns were pointed the wrong way. They may have been, but they could — and were — swivelled 180 degrees and did fire at the advancing Japanese; their trajectory and shells, however, were not meant to take a toll on land and could do little more than knock out the fuel tanks on a couple of the other islands of Singapore.

Today, these guns, now silent, and a tableaux of waxworks figures tell that tragic story in what is a fascinating on-site museum.

It was a survey in the 1870s by Major Edward Lake of the Madras Engineers that led to Mount Siloso and Mount Serapong being developed as Singapore’s first defence fortifications. They were substantially upgraded, together with the other two redoubts, in the 1890s as well as the 1930s. Seven-inch guns of the 1880s, 10-inch guns of the 1890s and 64-pounders of the 1930s, all meticulously maintained, are sited, in most cases, where they always were. Elsewhere, there are exhibits such as artillery mortars, anti-aircraft guns and searchlights, all ready for action.

Past comes alive

As you walk through the fort, you meet the duty officer, you read the orders for the day, you find the bombardiers and loaders lying down in their bunks or in the swinging hammocks above in cramped, sweaty rooms, you meet the cook and the dhobi at work in even less comfort, you see the shells being brought up by a pulley arrangement, loaded and fired, you hear the spotters reading out the range and order the shelling of the oil tanks on another island, all offered to you life-size, with the sound effects coming to life the moment you come anywhere near the tableau or the handling of the very guns that had seen action in 1942.

And as you move on you enter bunkers converted into a splendid sound-and-sight space where you see, life-size, General Percival surrender unconditionally to a grim-faced General Yamashita in the Board Room of the Ford Motor Works, then the Japanese surrender to Admiral Louis Mountbatten in 1946, and Singapore at war and on the road to peace and freedom. It is all quite an awesome lesson in history — and the way it should be presented to capture interest.

Particularly when you learn that though the British forces were strategically outwitted, the surrender had not come as meekly as most histories record it; from February 8 to 14 there was bitter street fighting in Singapore with heavy casualties on both sides — 3,500 Japanese died and over 6,000 were wounded, while the British forces, particularly the Australians, Indians and Malays suffered, 7,500 killed and 10,000 wounded. As many as 1,20,000 British troops from different parts of the Home Countries and the Empire eventually surrendered. It’s a story brilliantly told.

As well done but not as gripping is the other history exhibit in Sentosa, Images of Singapore. Set in a huge British military hospital cleverly transformed into a museum, here is told the Singapore of yesterday, from Stamford Raffles’ time, and today with life-size tableaux and audio narrations.

The start in the re-created office of a British trader whets your appetite and that is an appetite sustained as you walk with early Singapore history.

My companion was particularly thrilled when he spotted a bare-bodied Chettiar among the ethnic grouping of those responsible for the early growth of the island-State.

But when we come to Singapore, the presentations of weddings, the arts, the ethnic street scenes etc take on a cinematic air, quite in contrast to the historical narration.

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 8:41:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/travel/the-guns-of-siloso/article3558669.ece

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