Shining and Guiding the Way… The Lighthouses of Singapore

Lighthouses, typically located on islands and shoals near the entry waterways to ports and harbours, provide the visual aids and navigational guides for mariners. In addition, they also serve as the warning markers of dangers such as rocks and reefs.

Today, five of Singapore’s lighthouses are managed by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA). Four of them – Horsburgh Lighthouse, Pulau Pisang Lighthouse, Sultan Shoal Lighthouse and Raffles Lighthouse – are located on offshore islands. The fifth one is Bedok Lighthouse.

Horsburgh Lighthouse (1851-Present)

Built in 1851, Horsburgh Lighthouse is Singapore’s first and oldest lighthouse. It is also Singapore’s most isolated lighthouse, located at Pedra Branca (“white stone” in Portuguese, also known as Batu Putih, or “white rock” in Malay) that lies 54km away from the southeastern side of Singapore. The strategic position of the lighthouse and island marks the eastern entrance of ships from the South China Sea into the Singapore Strait.

The construction cost of Horsburgh Lighthouse was funded by a cosmopolitan group of merchants, ship captains and officers, who raised about 4,200 Spanish dollars in total (total construction cost eventually amounted to almost 25,000 Spanish dollars, and was partially sponsored by the British colonial government). Government surveyor John Turnbull Thomson (1821-1884) was engaged to design and build the lighthouse.

It took seven years for John Thomson to survey, test and build the lighthouse, due to the harsh marine environment where Pedra Branca was located. Granite, instead of brick, was used as the material for the tower, in order to withstand the strong monsoon winds and waves. On 15 October 1851, Horsburgh Lighthouse commenced operation, using oil lamps for its illumination. It was named after Captain James Horsburgh (1762-1836), prominent Scottish navigator and hydrographer.

In 1966, Horsburgh Lighthouse switched to electrical source for its illumination. Twenty years later, in 1988, solar panels were installed to provide power for the lighthouse.

The sovereignty of Pedra Branca was disputed by Malaysia in the late seventies. Singapore and Malaysia agreed to refer the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1994. The court eventually ruled, in 2008, that Singapore has the ownership of Pedra Branca.

Raffles Lighthouse (1855-Present)

The 29m-tall Raffles Lighthouse was built in 1855, almost two decades after numerous petitions from merchants and mariners to the British government calling for the construction of a lighthouse in the Singapore Strait. The 1.3-hectare Pulau Satumu (“one-tree island” in Malay), located 23km southwest of mainland Singapore, was chosen for the new lighthouse.

The lighthouse’s foundation was completed on 24 May 1854, and was named Raffles Lighthouse after Sir Stamford Raffles. The lighthouse tower was built by Indian convicts and other labourers, using granite that were mined from Pulau Ubin.

Raffles Lighthouse was commissioned on 1 December 1855, and was manned by seven lightkeepers to operate its wick burner. The using of kerosene for its light continued for more than a century before the lighthouse, in 1968, switched to electrical power.

Like Horsburgh Lighthouse, Raffles Lighthouse was upgraded in 1988 to solar panels as its main source of power, enabling it to be automated and monitored by the base station on mainland Singapore. The lighthouse’s luminous intensity was increased to 117,000 candelas, with its beacon flashing three times every 20 seconds. Its light could be seen by ships as far as 20 nautical miles (37km) away.

Today, two lightkeepers are stationed on Pulau Satumu to take care of the lighthouse’s operations and maintenance. It remains restricted from public access.

Pulau Pisang Lighthouse (1886-Present)

Pulau Pisang Lighthouse is a Singapore-administrated lighthouse situated on a Malaysian island, called Pulau Pisang (“banana island” in Malay), in the Strait of Malacca. Erected in 1886, Pulau Pisang Lighthouse is Singapore’s westernmost lighthouse. The lighthouse tower is 18m tall, but its focal point reaches 135m above sea level as it stands on the highest point on the island.

In 1900, Sultan Ibrahim of Johor and Sir James Alexander Swettenham, the Governor of the Straits Settlements, signed an agreement for the British administration to build, operate and maintain the lighthouse. The tasks were later taken over by the Singapore government.

Although there are recent disputes in the ownership of the lighthouse, the location of Pulau Pisang Lighthouse remains crucial to Singapore as it denotes the western approach to the Singapore Strait. For the ships, this is the path of a main busy shipping channel.

Pulau Pisang Lighthouse underwent renovation and automation upgrading in the eighties, switching to solar power sources. Currently, its main beacon’s light produces 110,000 candelas at a range of 20 nautical miles (37km).

Sultan Shoal Lighthouse (1895-Present)

Built in 1895, Sultan Shoal Lighthouse was located on the small island of Selat Jurong, about 5.5km from the southwestern side of Singapore. Today, with the ongoing reclamation projects, it is sandwiched between Jurong Island and the reclaimed Tuas extension. The lighthouse is 18m tall; its white masonry tower stands above a white and red colonial style bungalow.

Sultan Shoal Lighthouse originally used kerosene to power its wick lamps that were enhanced with reflectors. Its revolving light provided a flash every 30 seconds, allowing its illumination to be seen as far as 22 nautical miles (40km) away. Its power supply was upgraded to electrical source in the late sixties.

The present-day Sultan Shoal Lighthouse is equipped with a rotating beacon that produces up to 110,000 candelas. It is also installed with a radar to provide additional navigational information to ships.

Bedok Lighthouse (1978-Present)

The unique Bedok Lighthouse is Singapore’s most recent lighthouse. Operationalised on 9 August 1978, it is the only MPA-managed lighthouse located on mainland Singapore, and is installed on the roof of a 25-storey Lagoon View condominium that faces the East Coast Parkway. Bedok Lighthouse was built to replace Fullerton Lighthouse, which had its beacon’s light blocked by the new development at Marina Bay.

Equipped with two beacons, the fully automated lighthouse, at a height of about 75m above sea level, is able to project its 600,000-candela light beam, flashing once every five seconds, to a range of 22.5 nautical miles (42km). Beside its maritime function, it also helps pilots to navigate around Singapore’s southern airspace at night.

A new lighthouse replacement has been proposed in 2014 to be installed on the rooftop of a nearby Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat at Marine Terrace. It will be the first lighthouse to operate on a HDB flat.

Fort Canning Lighthouse (1903-1958)

There are four other lighthouses in Singapore that are not managed and maintained by MPA. Among the four lighthouses, Fort Canning and Fullerton Lighthouses had their operations ceased in the fifties and seventies respectively.

For a long time, Fort Canning Hill was the ideal location for a lighthouse to guide the ships entering the Singapore’s harbour. In 1855, a lantern was mounted on top of the Fort Canning Hill flagstaff. It was later replaced by Fort Canning Lighthouse, completed in 1903. At 24m tall, the lighthouse had an elevation of 60m above sea level, and its 20,000-candela light, powered by a kerosene burner, was visible from 16 nautical miles (30km) away.

During the Second World War, the lighthouse was neglected by the Japanese, but its faithful lightkeepers continued to secretly hide and maintain its equipment. After the war, the British returned to take over the lighthouse, and in 1948, the Union Jack was hoisted again ceremoniously at the tower.

On 19 September 1950, Singapore suffered one of its most worst power failures in history due to a defective generator at St James Power Station. The island was thrown into total darkness for an hour and a half. During the blackout period, Fort Canning Lighthouse remained as the only constant light source in the city.

As taller buildings were built, obstructing the view and its light, Fort Canning Lighthouse became less effective by the late fifties. It was officially decommissioned on 14 December 1958, with its role replaced by the new electrical-powered and sea-facing Fullerton Lighthouse on top of Fullerton Building.

Today, a functional replica of the Fort Canning Lighthouse stands on Fort Canning Hill.

Fullerton Lighthouse (1958-1979)

Manufactured by England’s Stone-Chance Ltd, the Fullerton Lighthouse was installed on top of the Fullerton Building, serving as the navigational guide for ships entering Singapore’s harbour. Commissioned on 14 December 1958, the lighthouse was operationalised to replace Fort Canning Lighthouse, whose effectiveness was diminished due to the obstruction of view by the new tall buildings constructed at the southern side of Fort Canning Hill.

Equipped with a revolving beacon of 540,000 candelas, Fullerton Lighthouse could project its light up to 16 nautical miles (30km) away. The lighthouse, however, met the same fate of Fort Canning Lighthouse two decades later. The rapidly evolving skyline of Singapore’s waterfront began blocking the line of sight between the ships and the lighthouse. Fullerton Lighthouse was eventually decommissioned on 30 November 1979.

The remaining two lighthouses are Berlayer Point Lighthouse and Johor Strait Lighthouse. Technically a beacon (hence, it is also known as Berlayer Beacon or Berlayer Tower), the Berlayer Point Lighthouse, currently located at Labrador Park at the southern tip of mainland Singapore, was possibly installed as early as the 1930s.

At 7m tall, Berlayer Beacon flashes every five seconds to a range of 4 nautical miles (7km). Opposite across the waters is the green Tanjong Rimau Beacon, its cousin located on the northwestern tip of Sentosa. Together, the pair functions as the navigational markers for ships – Berlayer Beacon for the ships’ port (left) side, and Tanjong Rimau Beacon for starboard (right) side – that enter and exit the channel between Labrador and Sentosa.

Johor Strait Lighthouse, the last lighthouse on the list, stands at the end of the jetty of Raffles Marina, a country club located at Tuas West. Facing the Malaysia-Singapore Second Link, it provide flashes of light signals to the ships approaching the Straits of Johor.

Published: 25 August 2019

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2 Responses to Shining and Guiding the Way… The Lighthouses of Singapore

  1. David Smith says:

    Highly interesting to a former Marine Cartographer who spent 4.5 years living in Singapore. I spent 5 years editing the Light Lists as well. Well done on this article.

  2. Horsburgh Lighthouse, featured on an old Singapore stamp (shared by UK maritime journalist Paul Ridgway)

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