• Singapore Art Museum
  • Sentosa Boardwalk and Meander Shoal
  • VivoCity and HarbourFront
  • Labrador Park and Dragon’s Teeth Gate
  • Bukit Chermin Boardwalk
  • Marina at Keppel Bay
  • click for more information

While on an expedition to Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve three years ago, I met Fyerool Darma, a Singaporean artist with a penchant for regional folklore, materializing class struggle, and the historical amnesia of global cities. Today, Fyerool promises to show me the ‘real’ Singapore.

Fyerool wants to start our journey at the Singapore Art Museum. I meet him and Nurul Huda Rashid, an artist who endeavors to de-colonialize the visual frameworks and digital technologies that mould our bodies and the stories we tell. The museum is closed for renovations. But we are not here to talk about that. Fyerool begins our tour with a QR code, or more specifically, the many identical QR codes that have been blown up and repeated as a mural along the hoarding that covers the museum’s entrance on Bras Basah Road.

This public art work, Safe Entry (2020) by Heman Chong, recalls the national digital check-in system that the Singapore government launched during the Covid-19 pandemic as a means of contact-tracing when outbreaks occur. Unlike the QR codes of the national digital check-in system SafeEntry which mark public space and were viewed by some as a suspicious form of mass-surveillance, the codes of Chong’s work do not register our arrival, but rather transport us to a video of Terminal 2 at Changi Airport. Chong made a video of his walk through the terminal the day before it closed for renovations during the spring 2020 “circuit breaker,” a 56-day partial lockdown enacted to limit the spread of the virus in Singapore. The airport is empty. Nurul comments that the QR code is like the new digital skin of the city and asks Fyerool if he is taking us to see the Singapore Stone as well.

Fyerool instead takes us to Meander Shoal to visit what he considers the original entrepôt of Singapore. From a vision of Changi Airport, we find ourselves on Sentosa Boardwalk, which connects the pleasure island with HarbourFront. We blink the sweat away from our eyes—the blurry malaise of all tropical visions—as we ride the moving walkway to the center of the bridge to survey the shoal. Bad cover songs of the latest pop hits score our automated journey.

On one side of the bridge is Sentosa. Originally called Pulau Blakang Mati (“island of death behind”) before the British colonized Singapore, the island was a base for regional pirates and saw much bloodshed. The government developed the island as a tourist attraction in the 1970s and renamed it Sentosa in 1972, which means “peace and tranquility” in Malay. Today, it is home to a gated community, Universal Studios, a casino, and many attractions for tourists. Nurul turns to me and asks: “Does an island forget that it is an island when it is full of these buildings? Maybe it thinks it is just land.”

From the bridge, Fyerool points to the horizon. In the distance, we barely make out the outlines of the offshore petroleum refineries, container ships, and a small sliver of jetty reaching out from the mainland. He tells us about Hindu and Buddhist narratives that mention a duel between a Naga (a snake deity), and a Garuda (a mythic bird) that started because the former was caught whilst attempting to steal the latter’s eggs. This story is derived from the Middle East, yet it was set at the edge of the South China Sea. Fyerool believes that the fight happened here. Perhaps this story is a metaphor of the exploits of the pirates that once occupied these straits. He points to the jetty and says that this is also a place where contraband is smuggled into the country.

Nurul notices a man using a net to scoop up garbage and dead fish from the surface of the sea. I remember something from A Tropical Tapestry, Hubert S. Banner’s 1929 travelogue of the Malayan Peninsula, illustrated with woodcuts by the Singapore-based artist Dorothy Hope-Falkner. He described the straits around Singapore “as a mighty highway of Venetian glass.” The sea is a glass-green. The man is alone with a small net and yet tasked with the monumental labour of maintaining the glassy façade of the sea. He might as well be cleaning the windows of a skyscraper.

We walk to the jetty where contraband supposedly arrives in Singapore. In some ways, I think Fyerool and Nurul are using the Strait to smuggle in narratives through the cracks in Singapore’s façade.

On the other side of the bridge is VivoCity mall, Singapore’s largest shopping center. We walk through the mall and come upon a work by American graffiti artist Chris “Daze” Ellis titled View into the Future. Nurul wonders if Daze requested the potted plants to be placed in front of his work, or if this is just an inclination of the mall operators to use foliage as infrastructure, as a kind of space filler and simulacra of natural greenery that shields art from the unwashed hands of the public.

We make our way to HarbourFront Centre, which houses the Singapore Cruise Centre, the third place on our itinerary. It is closed today and the stores are shrouded in black cloth. The advertisements in the center warn against gambling. There is an odd advert with a middle-aged man in tacky clothes and a fedora in front of a stock image of an island. Nurul comments that the advertisement illustrated how the imagination of “peasants” is still policed. She takes a photo with her phone and traces yellow lines on the image of the man’s face that recall facial recognition software. Fyerool recalls how, before Covid-19, the center was an important node in travel between Singapore’s islands, a contemporary extension of the trajectory of past pirates.

From the port we walk to Labrador Nature Reserve. It is only by going through the nature reserve that we’ll make it to the pirates’ jetty where Fyerool wants to take us. As we make our way to the waterfront to the tip of the jetty, we notice banners warning of contraband that call on the public to report any suspicious activity. We arrive at the mouth of the Strait. We see Sentosa on the other side. Nurul takes a photograph and draws an imagined historical militarized gaze of the Strait upon it with red and green lines. It is said that the waters around Singapore mainland and its islands are a literal minefield and any journey needs to be carefully plotted and mapped.

We are told by an information board that where we stand is what remains of the Dragon’s Teeth Gate, stones that once framed the Strait. A Chinese explorer named it as such. The board declares this a historic site. British sailors called the stones Lot’s Wife, referring to the biblical story of a woman turned into a pillar of salt for going against God in looking back upon the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The original stone gates were supposedly blown up by the British in 1848 to widen access to the deep harbor. What remains is a tall red cliff in front of a playground. It is perhaps one of the last sandpit playgrounds in Singapore. Fyerool says the sand comes from Indonesia. Nurul looks out at the sea and laments: “Our straits have lost their resonance as sea body, instead they are yet another simulacra that accentuates the island-ness of Sentosa, as ‘escape’ from Singapore, blue aesthetics against the imported sands of reclaimed lands.”

From this spot in front of the playground and at the end of the jetty, we can see Sentosa and the evolution of jungle into the more luxurious elements of this city. Fyerool points out the six towers of Reflections at Keppel Bay, a luxury waterfront residential complex designed by Daniel Libeskind. He draws our attention to a black-and-white colonial bungalow below the complex built in the Tropical Mock Tudor style in the early 1900s. He tells us that it was the residence of the port master and it allowed him to see all the ships coming to trade in Singapore. He says there is a rumor that the house was given to the Port Authority of Singapore after its independence in 1965 and that it was used by the CEO as a residence. The building is built on a hill known in Malay as Mirror Hill. Libeskind’s glistening building seems well-placed. Nurul quips that its shape makes one think that perhaps this is Singapore’s New Dragon’s Teeth.

Fyerool wants to end our tour where we can overlook the contemporary Keppel Harbour—now a parking lot for private yachts. The deep harbor and sheltered waters drew Sir Stamford Raffles to Singapore in 1819. The small harbor is packed with clean, glaringly white ships. You can barely see the water here.

As we make our way to the main road we run into a friend of Fyerool on a moped. Fyerool moonlights as an art handler and runs a network of freelancers with his friend. Art doesn’t really make money. A living wage is found in the service industry around it. The friend is here installing art and artifacts on two of the largest ships we saw off the pier, supposedly for one of the richest families in Singapore. He drives off, and I tell Fyerool that I’m shocked that there is such work here. Arts and artifacts are sold on the boats, Fyerool tells us. Laws are different on international waters; so is tax. I imagine the deep blue of the international waters beyond the pier. Nurul shrugs. The sea is a stage, and things appear more beautiful against the glittering water. I think of mirror hill, of the reflections of the skyscrapers, and of another passage from A Tropical Tapestry:

“The Romance of Industrial Progress? You mutter that you did not voyage ten thousand miles from Birmingham in search of that … You close your eyes once more, perhaps to slumber through the hot drowsy hours of the afternoon. And when you open them again, you wonder if at last dreams have not come true.”

A month after we attempted to retrace the ghostly steps of piracy in the shoals, armed raiders would attack ships in Singapore Strait. Whether or not we found the real Singapore on our tour, I don’t know, but these indeed remain pirate islands.


SINGAPORE ART MUSEUM: CODE IS THE NEW DIGITAL CITY SKIN Singapore Art Museum, opened in 1995, is home to one of the largest public collections of contemporary art from Southeast Asia. Like many art spaces in Singapore, it occupies a registered national monument, the former St. Joseph’s Institution. Built in 1852, the former school sits on the site of Singapore’s first catholic chapel, on land gifted to the Church in Sir Stamford Raffles’ first plan of modern Singapore of 1822. The museum is currently closed for renovation. However, the hoarding around it has been turned into a space for the commission series “Walking in the City.” The museum’s website reports that it “will engage with themes such as history (of both the building and the island), society, urban development, and the environment.” Two commissions by Heman Chong, Writing While Walking and Other Stories and Safe Entry (both 2020) are the first projects in the series.

SENTOSA BOARDWALK AND MEANDER SHOAL: THE SEA IS A STAGE Sentosa Boardwalk is a causeway that crosses Meander Shoal, the strait that connects Sentosa Island, once called Pulau Blakang Mati, to mainland Singapore.

Pulau Blakang Mati (which literally means “island of death behind”) was renamed Sentosa (meaning “peace and tranquility”) in 1972. The island’s new name was the result of public competition in 1969. The island’s development as a tourist destination from the late 1960s to the 1970s was part of the Singapore government’s plans to develop the economy and make it into a global destination. The founding Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, at one point suggested that a nudist colony be set up on Sentosa.

The island’s history stretches back far beyond the founding of Singapore by Raffles in 1819. The dark name it first had supposedly relates to a bloody history of piracy. It is also associated with a lethal outbreak of malaria in the nineteenth century that wiped out the Bugis settlers that lived there. The Bugis are an ethnic group from Indonesia believed to have Austronesian ancestors from South China.

Throughout the Japanese occupation of Singapore during the Second World War, besides hosting a prisoner-of-war camp, the island was the site of Operation Sook Ching, a systemic purge of the Chinese believed to have supported China’s resistance of Japan. It is believed that around 70,000 people were killed.

Due to the development of the island in the 1970s, the communities that lived there were moved to the mainland. These included a Gurkha community—Nepalese soldiers that are part of the Singapore Police force. They had found their way to Singapore as part of the former British Army and played an important role in Singapore’s independence.

In more recent times, Sentosa was the site of former American President Donald Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June 2018.

VIVOCITY: GREEN DESIGNED INTO SIMULACRA On the other side of the boardwalk is VivoCity. Designed by Toyo Ito and opened in 2006, VivoCity is Singapore’s largest mall. Many of its shops and dining venues create tropes of national identity: a British restaurant incorporates iconography of the British royalty, for example.

The local collaborating architectural firm, DP Architects describe the mall’s designs as “drawing from qualities of the bay waters adjacent to the site... VivoCity’s undulating forms give continuous curvature to the structure’s halls, façade and roof, reformulating the typical hard-edged, ‘big box’ mall type.”

Via the mall’s basement, VivoCity is also connected to the HarbourFront MRT station, which doubles as one of the largest bomb shelters in Singapore.

HARBOURFRONT CENTRE: THE PEASANTS REMAIN POLICED HarbourFront Center, formerly known as World Trade Centre, is a ferry terminal that opened in 1977. The terminal includes a cruise centre for boats that serve the regional islands and a ferry service that connects Singapore to Batam and Bintan Island in Indonesia.

LABRADOR PARK AND DRAGON’S TEETH GATE: WE MOMENTARILY INTRUDE INTO THE HORIZON Labrador Park was originally known as Pasir Panjang Beach, or Long Beach. The park is now home to several guardians: victims of the Japanese Occupation during the Second World War, Pontianak, Penanggalan, mudskippers, lizards, and squirrels, to name a few. The jetty is now closed permanently for marine conservation, yet there was a period where this stretch of coast was a landing site for illegitimate trading.

The park is also home to the infamous Dragon’s Teeth Gate. In around 1349, Wang Dayuan, a traveller from Quanzhou, China, described his visit to what he called Long Ya Men, or Dragon’s Teeth Gate, rocks that once stood at the entrance to Keppel Harbour, and reported how a crown had been found there in ancient times. The shape of the Gate was said to be a relic of the duel between a Naga and a Garuda.

This area is also important to the myth of Singapore. The Malay Annals record how Sang Nila Utama, founder of the Kingdom of Singapura, was caught in a storm along the coast of what is today Labrador Park and had thrown his crown overboard as a gift to the sea. The area was also a gateway for the local Orang Laut seafaring peoples; some settled on land while others remained on boats out in the straits and around the surrounding small islands.

BUKIT CHERMIN BOARDWALK: THE NEW DRAGON’S TEETH ARE CAPITALISM Bukit Chermin translates as “mirror hill” in Malay, and it was said that the water was so clear here that it was like a mirror. Currently Bukit Chermin is home to a luxury residential development, Reflections at Keppel Bay, designed by the architect Daniel Libeskind.

MARINA AT KEPPEL BAY: WHILE THE RICH LUXURIATE The Marina at the foot of Reflections was developed as a dock for international luxury yachts. It is the floating parking lot for many of Singapore’s wealthiest people, as well as the base for several pleasure boat companies. This deep water harbor is what first attracted Raffles to Singapore.