The idea to turn Sembawang Hot Spring into a recreation spot started a century ago. Back then, there were already suggestions to make use of the only natural hot spring on mainland Singapore and convert it to a hydropathic establishment, garden, spa resort or even rest-houses with bathing facilities.
Located off Sembawang Road 12 milestone, or in today’s context, near the junction of Sembawang Road and Gambas Avenue, the hot spring was first discovered in 1908 on a piece of land owned by Seah Eng Keong (1873-undetermined), a local Chinese businessman. The hot spring became known as Seletar Hot Spring or Salitar Hot Spring until the 1940s. The locals, however, preferred to call it semangat ayer (or energy or spirit water in Malay).
Samples of the hot spring water were sent to London for testing. The results were favourable, and Seah Eng Keong’s company Singapore Hot Spring Limited began bottling the water to sell them under the name “Zombun”.
In 1921, Fraser & Neave (F&N) acquired Seah Eng Keong’s company, land and the hot spring. F&N continued the production of the successful Zombun, but at the same also launched a series of other beverages. Those were called Vichy Water and Singa, and were marketed as natural tonic drinks containing saline constituents obtained from the hot spring.
The production plant was abandoned when the Second World War broke out, and the hot spring was taken over by the Japanese military, who built luxury bath amenities for their high ranking officers. Approaching the end of the Japanese Occupation, in 1944, an allied air raid damaged the hot spring’s surroundings and briefly disrupted the flow of the water from its source.
After the war, F&N regained the ownership of the hot spring, which had by then recovered its flow and temperature. F&N planned to redevelop the place but did not proceed due to the projected high cost. The hot spring water was instead used by the nearby kampongs for bathing, washing and cooking of eggs.
In the early sixties, there were again calls to develop and make full use of the medicinal water of Sembawang Hot Spring. F&N again rejected the pleads, citing the difficulty in locating the source of the hot spring by geologists. There were hopes in 1965 when F&N’s subsidiary company in Malaysia, a bottling plant, looked to invest in the redevelopment of the hot spring for recreational purposes and also to bottle the water for local consumption and export. The plan did not materialise in the end, but F&N nevertheless introduced new mineral drinks called Seletaris and Spata.
In 1985, the plot of land where the hot spring was located was acquired by the government. This led to the enquiry by Chiam See Tong, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Potong Pasir, in the parliament in 1989 on the possible redevelopment plans of Sembawang Hot Spring by the Ministry of National Development. No concrete plans were in place, and by the late nineties, the spot was in a state of neglect, even though it remained popular among the public.
Sembawang Hot Spring was closed to the public in early 2002, affected by the construction and drainage improvement works carried by the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). The extension of Sembawang Air Base got the public worried that the hot spring would be permanently closed or became restricted to public access, prompting many to petition to the MINDEF. The hot spring, however, was reopened three months later.
In 2003, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) sought interested parties to conduct technical and feasibility studies in converting the Sembawang Hot Spring into a spa resort. Once again, the plan turned futile.
Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, the Sembawang Hot Spring continued to be a popular haunt for many, despite its simple and limited amenities. Dozens of plastic chairs and pails were provided free and shared by the public, who drew the hot water from the metal standpipes for their usage. The original well, a potential safety hazard, has been caged up in a small red-bricked building.
As the hot spring caught attention in the new headlines, many were interested in its “miracle healing” ability, where its steaming water, rich in minerals, is believed to help in the alleviation of ailments such as rheumatism and arthritis, or treatment of foot diseases. But many doctors, when consulted, dashed the hopes by stating there were no evidences that the water from the hot spring could cure illness. The relief the hot spring water gave might be only temporary.
After months of construction, the much anticipated Sembawang Hot Spring Park is officially opened in January 2020. After almost a century, the Sembawang Hot Spring is finally rejuvenated.
Designed with cascading pools and hot water collection points, the new park has been receiving hundreds of daily visitors so far. Naturalised streams, old Banyan trees, planted fruit trees and different species of vibrantly-coloured flowers add to the rustic touch of the park’s environment. Wooden buckets and ladles are provided and shared, and there are plenty of resting areas for visitors to enjoy a warm foot spa or some soft-boiled eggs.
Sembawang Hot Spring Park opens between 7am and 7pm daily.
Published: 11 January 2020