Saturday, April 11, 2015

Exploring Singapura 03: Fort Siloso

The Palau Ujong (Island at the End) was a forgotten piece of land before Sir Stamford Raffles established a trading post in 1819. This island, along with three scores of much smaller islands around it later became Singapore. The British valued Singapore for its strategic location in both economic and security terms. It was to be a gateway to the exotic Far East and the “Gibraltar of the Orient.”

By the 1870s, the British decided that modern fortifications were needed to protect this gem on their colonial empire. Many old forts were not located in optimum locations to defend Singapore. Therefore a series of new coastal fortifications were built. Although they were named ‘forts’ they were little more than fortified artillery positions. Only Fort Tanjong Katong could be named a fort in the real sense.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, “Fortress Singapore” had 12 coastal artillery forts. Only one of them has been renovated. This is Fort Siloso at Siloso Point on the Western tip of Sentosa Island, known earlier as Blakan Mati (Island behind the Dead). Fort Siloso guarded the Keppel Harbor in Singapore, which lay between the main island and Blakan Mati. It is said that the name Siloso has been derived from a Filipino word for ‘jealous man.’

It was in 1876 that the then Governor of the Straits Settlements, (of which Singapore was a part of) Sir William Jervois, suggested the establishment of a fortification at Mount Siloso on Blakan Mati. In a report he wrote in July that year, Jervois stated his plan.

In order to provide effectively for the protection of the Harbour... I would propose to place two works on the island of Blakan Mati, and a Battery on Mount Palmer. These works should be armed with guns sufficiently powerful to penetrate the strongest ironclad which is likely to make an attack on Singapore…
One work on Blakan Mati would be on Mount Siloso, at an elevation of 170 feet, and the other on Mount Serapong at an elevation of 303 feet above the sea.
” (Courtesy:

The construction of Fort Siloso started in 1878 and by early 1880s the earliest armaments were installed. They included two 64 Pounder RML (Rifled Muzzle Load) Guns and three 7-inch RML Guns. Fort Siloso was first manned by an 18 member contingent of Singapore Volunteer Artillery. The fortification was improvised by increasing the arsenal of and eventually became an integral part of the “Fortress Singapore.”

Singapore was not threatened during the First World War. The only occasion when the services of Fort Siloso were called upon was during the Second World War. Ironically, it was not to defend Singapore from an attack from the sea, for which the fort had been built. The guns of fort Siloso were turned toward the main island, to target the Japanese forces who had invaded Singapore from Malaya. The Japanese invasion of Malaya had been a shocking surprise to the British. The British forces in the Peninsular had no option but to retreat towards Singapore.

The British had a false sense of security concerning Singapore. Named the ‘Gibraltar of the Orient’ Singapore was thought to be impregnable. But, the infantry forces in the island lacked man power and training. The Royal Air Force in the island was not well equipped. Although the coastal batteries created a formidable defense, there were no defenses to prevent an attack from the north.

By early February 1942, the Japanese were at the Gates of Singapore. The island did not lack in man power, as thousands of British troops had retreated from Malaya. But morale was lacking and so were weapons. Many of the guns at Fort Siloso were turned the other side to be fired at the Japanese. In response, the Japanese bombed the fort, inflicting some damage. The Japanese onslaught was far too powerful for the forces trapped in Singapore. The British surrendered on February 15.

Wax model of the British surrender of Singapore
During the war years, Fort Siloso was a Prisoners of War camp and returned to British control at the end of the war in 1945. In 1956, the coastal batteries were disbanded as they were deemed obsolete. Some guns were sold for scrap metal and many forts were abandoned or demolished. In 1972, Blakan Mati was renamed Sentosa when the Government of Singapore decided to develop the island as a tourist attraction. While the other batteries in Blakan Mati and elsewhere in Singapore were abandoned, Fort Siloso was renovated and developed as a tourist attraction.

Today Fort Siloso serves as a museum of the Second World War. There is an extensive collection of artillery pieces, some of them brought to Fort Siloso from other sites. Wax images have recreated the life of a British military barrack a century ago in Singapore. Underground tunnels give a sense of history and mystery. One main attraction is the “Surrender Chambers” where wax images have recreated the surrender of the British in Singapore on February 15, 1942 and the surrender of the Japanese in Singapore on September 12, 1945.
One 8 inch BL Gun (in the middle) and two 9.2 inch BL Guns

Fort Siloso attracts considerably less visitors than many other tourist attractions in Sentosa. The owners of the fort have now installed laser games in the fort, covering a part of it. This has been done perhaps to increase the number of visitors. But those who visit for a purely historical purpose may be disappointed. Nevertheless, if you are visiting Singapore, and if you are a history lover, a visit to Fort Siloso is a must.

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