Will historic icon end up in a scrapyard?
Calls to find signal mast a new home as it lays in Sentosa's Tanjong Beach
By Ng Tze Siong
June 29, 2009
TNP PICTURE: NG TZE YONG
IT used to stand tall and proud at the entrance to the Singapore harbour, guiding ships safely into what would become the world's busiest port.
But today this historic signal mast looks more like scrap metal.
Dismantled, broken into three rusty pieces, it lies on Sentosa's Tanjong Beach, in a deserted corner overgrown with weeds.
Recently, an urgent e-mail appeal was sent out to various Government bodies and heritage lovers hoping for a new home for the mast, following word that it may be headed for the scrapyard soon.
FORGOTTEN: (Top) The mast is lying dismantled and rusted, amid weeds near a Sentosa beach. (Above) The original location of the mast, Albert Dock, at the entrance of the Singapore harbour in the early days. This picture was taken in 1967. ST FILE PICTURE
But so far, no solution has been found.
One reason could be the cost: The restoration and reinstallation of the mast is estimated at $500,000.
The mast, while acknowledged as historically significant, has been passed from party to party over the years.
No one seems to know what to do with it. Should we care?
It may help, for a moment, to think of the signal mast as the maritime equivalent of the Changi Airport control tower.
In the days before electronic communication, signal masts like this were used to guide ships safely into port.
Colourful flags, each representing a letter in the alphabet, hung from them, relaying messages between land and sea.
That was the role this mast once performed at Albert Dock, at the heart of the Singapore port.
STANDING TALL: The signal mast was moved to Singapore Maritime Museum in Sentosa when the area around Albert Dock was developed into a container terminal. The museum was closed in 2001.
But in 1972, the area around Albert Dock was developed into a container terminal.
That was what cemented Singapore's position as a major trading port. Main attraction
But it also meant that the signal mast became obsolete. It was moved to the Singapore Maritime Museum, which opened in Sentosa in 1975.
There it stood for the next 26 years, as one of the museum's main attractions.
It was a picture of this signal mast which the museum used on the cover of its brochure to tell the story of the world's busiest port.
But the museum didn't do well.
Of all the attractions on Sentosa, which at the time included Volcano Land and Asian Village, the Maritime Museum was the poorest performer.
It attracted only 21,000 visitors a year, or an average of 57 a day - even with free admission.
The museum finally closed in 2001. Since then, the mast has been out of the public eye - until now.
Comments from the relevant organisations were hard to come by.
The mast used to be owned by the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA). It was then passed on to real estate company Mapletree Investments.
But next month, ownership will pass - yet again - to the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA).
All three organisations declined comment when contacted.
On its side, Sentosa Development Corporation can do only so much. It never owned the mast, which was on loan to the Maritime Museum.
And because the museum was run by Sentosa, and not by the National Heritage Board, the latter's hands are tied too.
Some are hoping that Resorts World, the integrated resort coming up on Sentosa, can provide a home when it opens next March.
After all, it is building a maritime museum of its own, and some hope it can find a spot for the mast, which lies nearby.
But when contacted, Resorts World said it is still premature to reveal plans for its maritime museum.
'It's a case of everyone denying responsibility,' said Dr Kevin Tan, president of the Singapore Heritage Society. 'If the property keeps changing hands, from one developer to the next, then there is no proper accountability.'
So far, the best hope rests with Raffles Marina.
Its president, Mr Francis Lee, has offered space - for free - for the mast to be re-erected at the marina in Tuas, next to the Second Link. Obstacle
'We'll be happy to provide a home for it,' he said.
But first, the funds for its restoration have to be found. That, said Mr Lee, 'would be the main obstacle'.
'Alternatively, you can erect it somewhere more central, perhaps near the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, at the Padang or near the Merlion,' he said.
'You can bring school children up into the crow's nest, which looks like it can fit 20 people quite easily, and teach them about how to signal using maritime flags.'
But then again, just how important - really - is this mast to Singapore if it has been allowed to descend into its present state?
Mr Chung Chee Kit, a director in a major shipping firm who helped organise the Admiral Cheng Ho exhibition in Singapore in 2005, said that from a historical perspective, the significance of an object is judged from the story it tells.
'In some old port cities, signal masts are actually masts removed from old ships and re-erected on land, so they tell a larger story about maritime history,' he said.
'The mast in Sentosa is made of steel, so it looks like it was constructed specifically to be a signal mast on land.
'So while it is still important, its significance lies more in its utility rather than in the story it tells.'
Nonetheless, he feels that the impasse is a sign of how Singapore has been neglecting its maritime heritage.
For a while, the old Maritime Museum at Sentosa tried to remember this heritage and pass it on.
'But it was not a very good museum,' said Dr Tan.
'I don't think a lot of thought was put into it... There was not enough research done. They put a few boats here and there, and they called it a museum.'
Mr Chung hopes the new maritime museum at Resorts World will be better.
'I hope it is designed by people who are serious about maritime heritage, and not just building a place where you have some lights, some sounds, and where you go ho ho ho and a bottle of rum - and that's it.'
Another big question that puzzles many in the maritime and heritage fraternity is this: Why were relics from the old Maritime Museum, such as its old boats and maritime maps, transferred to Mapletree Investments?
A handful is still on display, scattered around the HarbourFront Centre area. But where are the rest?
'Should relics like these be transferred from the public to the private domain?' asked Mr Chung.
For him, the obvious question to ask is: If there is this mast, rusting away at a corner of a tourist island, what else is out there?