In 1947, the island became the base for a regiment of the Royal Artillery – comprising local enlistees – and also hosted basic military training for other enlisted men. The regiment was disbanded a decade later before Gurkha infantry units moved to the island.
In 1963, the British War Department handed over Pulau Blakang Mati to Singapore as part of the formation of the Federation of Malaysia. From 1967, with the near-complete withdrawal of the Gurkha units, the island came under the jurisdiction of independent Singapore.
During the latter period, a number of government ministries and agencies sought the island for various proposed uses, including as a port and industrial complex, a tourist resort with a casino, as well as for military installations.
This was when it emerged the Government had reached that agreement with Esso. The rest, as they say, is history.
“Not many people know this today, but if history had taken a different turn, Sentosa could well be celebrating our anniversary as an oil refinery,” Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) chief executive Thien Kwee Eng told CNA.
In September 1970, an American firm that was approached to do a feasibility study on Sentosa’s transformation released findings that confirmed the project was viable and would increase tourist arrivals.
The Dillingham master plan, named after the firm, was drawn up to transform the island into an international-standard vacation complex, with proposed attractions including a golf course, open air theatre, gun museum, coralarium, aquarium and a “pirates cove”.
The S$124 million budget, comprising state investment and private sector contribution, would be used to develop the island with those attractions in mind.
In September 1972, the SDC was established as a statutory board, and Mr Choe joined its board of directors.
He immediately recognised the enormous task ahead, highlighting that while several landmarks on the mainland handed over by the British could be easily turned into attractions, Sentosa was a “different animal”.
“It’s always been a military island. When we took over, there was no money, no causeway. So, we started by adapting a lot of the old buildings used by the British for military garrisons,” he said.
Mr Choe suggested repurposing some of these empty structures into attractions, noting that they were still clean with proper sewage and greenery. Some were eventually used for the coralarium and a wax museum near the ferry terminal. Others were preserved for their historical value.