SINGAPORE: Taking the hour-long boat journey to Sultan Shoal island resembles a rewinding of Singapore’s landscape. First, two of the city-state’s gleaming new palatial playthings - Marina Bay Sands and Sentosa Cove - shrink from view. Next come Pasir Panjang port’s gangly ”giraffe” container cranes, and Pulau Bukom’s hulking oil refinery tubs.
Then, neatly poised between the stark, reclaimed land patches of Jurong Island and Tuas, standing ground amongst an odd tanker or two, is the distinctive white, copper and beige structure which marks out Sultan Shoal.
Everything about the outcrop - 0.6 hectares, smaller than a football pitch - is curious. There is a man-made lagoon which fills with seawater at high tide - but swimming is not allowed.
At the other end, two holiday chalets have sat dormant since 2012, the property of PSA Corporation or what was once the state-run Port of Singapore Authority.
Sandwiched in between is the 122-year-old lighthouse, a white Victorian column perched atop a two-storey design brick-laid with clashes of colonial and local influences.
It is a transporting experience standing at this western point for vessels entering and departing Singapore’s waters, said lighthouse keeper Lee Kwang Liang.
“This is a very special island, beautiful by itself,” the 64-year-old added.
He is one of eight men employed by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) to look after its five lighthouses.
Lee’s fellow keeper, 54-year-old N Manikaveloo, explained: “At any one time, four of us will be on an 11-day shift (at Pulau Pisang and Raffles lighthouses), while the others do unmanned lighthouse maintenance.”
Bedok lighthouse, Horsburgh lighthouse on Pedra Branca and Sultan Shoal are unmanned. The latter was only automated in 1984 at a cost of S$500,000, according to reports then.
FROM LAMP TO LED
When Sultan Shoal’s light first shone in 1896, it was a simple cluster of three single wick oil lamps. In later years, a kerosene burner was used, before diesel generators took over.
Even then, the lighthouse had to be manned by a crew of four, who manually operated the lantern at sunset and sunrise - and kept watch at night to ensure the light stayed on, according to Dr Parry Oei, MPA’s chief hydrographer and port services director.
“With the advent of technology and the growing difficulty in recruiting lightkeepers, we successfully automated Sultan Shoal lighthouse in 1984 using solar energy,” he recalled.
“We have now transited to using energy-efficient LED navigational lanterns, since 1992.”
The present-day lighthouse works by emitting two white flashes every 15 seconds, over a range of 15 nautical miles (almost 28km) and from 18m up.
A radar beacon also provides additional assistance to ships, but the increasing use of technology has done little to dim the significance of the lighthouse keeper’s job in their eyes.
“Yes, we come out to these unmanned lighthouses just once a month, and take up to about 1.5 hours to do the maintenance,” said Mr Lee, who has three years of experience under his belt. “But the keepers are still responsible for making sure the light is working and to help ships enter Singapore’s ports safely.”
STANDING STILL; STILL STANDING
Both Mr Lee and Mr Mani were effusive in comparing their lighthouse keeping to their previous deskbound professions.
“This is very unique work, very different from a job on the mainland,” said Lee. “For older people like me, this is very good for keeping ourselves occupied, active and fit at the same time.”
“It’s also a nice place for those who are semi-retired and want to and still can continue working,” he joked.
Said Mani, employed by MPA for eight years now: “In the city, it’s very hectic and stressful. When we come out to the lighthouses we get a sea breeze and a good view.”
Rust-tipped ships in the near distance notwithstanding, Sultan Shoal’s coconut tree-dotted shoreline and well-maintained greenery still make for an idyllic scene - albeit one off-limits to the public.
Nature, it seems, has found a way to preserve itself on the island. After 2,300 coral colonies were relocated to other islands to protect them from ongoing works at the Tuas port, the remaining 500 corals were observed in February to have a survival rate of about 90 per cent, according to Dr Oei.
And Sultan Shoal lighthouse too, in all its quaint, charming glory, “will not go”, said Lee.
“It’s a fixed structure, a benchmark, a key point. Should electronics fail, what do you rely on? That’s why we still maintain it after 100 over years.”