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The Singapore River is Ageless

James Seah


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Singapore River is ageless until the end of times, meaning lasting forever, eternal for as long as Singapore last on this planet.  Since time immemorial, centuries before Stamford Raffles founded the island of Singapore in 1819, the Singapore in its original geography position and location existed.  The Singapore River is not man-made.  Its size, shape, length and location was naturally created in Singapore.


However, the land utilisation and purposes of the Singapore River over the decades has changed for inland transportation, the buildings along the river-banks, the open spaces for recreation  and sight-seeing which visitors, tourists and Singaporeans to enjoy.


Over the decades, the government and peoples of Singapore worked together to transform the Singapore River to change and improve the environment into a better, clean, green and beautiful Garden City.


The Singapore River precinct, with three distinctive quays –  Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay – is the historic heart of the  city and the foundation upon which Singapore has been built.   Its diverse offerings and welcoming ambience are a draw for both locals and visitors.  Its preservation and continued vitality are important for reasons both economic and cultural.


In the early days, the Singapore River provided an ideal natural artery around which the city could flourish as trade ebbed and flowed  across the archipelago.  The transformation from tidal creek to port and commercial centre was necessary to the rapid growth of the island as an entrepot in Southeast Asia.  Unfortunately, the river also suffered problems with congestions and pollution over the years.   From the initial days of flourishing trade and activity at the Singapore River had become heavily polluted.


During its early stages as an independent nation state, the Singapore Government embarked on a massive program of renewal and reform.  The end of the colonial era had pressing issues that needed attention: urban overcrowding and lack of basic amenities such as piped water and sewerage – especially in the city’s heart near the river.  The 1960s ushered in a period of unprecedented urban renewal, as run down and dilapidated sections of the city were cleared to give way to modern high rises.  By the 1970s, the river became unable to deal with modern container shipping and trading activity gradually moved to Keppel Harbour, paving the way for the redevelopment of the river.


In 1977, the government – spearheaded by the Ministry of Environment – began the mammoth task of cleaning up Singapore River.  By the end of 1983, the river’s environment had improved dramatically, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) would take the responsibility of formulating comprehensive redevelopment strategies for derelict areas around the river.  Works undertaken to redevelop Singapore River included dredging the river, rebuilding the river walls along the entire stretch of Singapore River and the construction of a 6km long promenade along both banks of the waterfront.


Today, Singapore River has been reborn.  Transformed from a working waterway to an attractive waterfront environment for housing, recreation, entertainment and commercial new developments have generated renewed activity, while conserved buildings lend charm and preserve the memory of the river’s past.


Singapore River Festival 2017


With thanks to Singapore River One and Asia PR Werks Pte Ltd, I have the pleasure and opportunity to be invited to participate in the Singapore River Festival 2017 events and activities.


Singapore is a country of immigrants from India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries from all over the world.  It is not a homogeneous country for mainly natives.


Our forefathers arrived in Singapore in the 1930s mainly by sea and landed at the Singapore River.  Some returned to their homeland later while others, like my father, rooted in Singapore and set up a family as Singapore Citizens and never return to China when he passed away in 1977.


In fact, the site where Stamford Raffles first landed on the Singapore River, near the Parliament House in Singapore, is marked as the historical spot to learn the history of the Singapore River.


However, the purpose of the Singapore River for inland transportation has changed over the decades. When Singapore was a colony under the British Administration, the emphasis of the economy was for entrepot trade to take advantage of the strategic position to trade with countries of the east and west in the world.


In 2011 when I posted the blog about my father and the Singapore River here and another blog in 2014 here , I did not expect the archived blogs could be revived in the Singapore River Festival 2017 initiative as “People of the River”.  The personal material which I have researched and blogged as the resources for the Singapore River Festival 2017 as “People of the River” to share.


Media Session on 24 October, 2017


The Singapore River Festival 2017 returns on November 3 and 4, 2017.  Unlike previous year’s edition, this year’s edition focus on the local people and stories of Singapore River and will celebrate the vibrant lifestyle of our three quays – Clarke Quay, Boat Quay and Robertson Quay – with a series of events and activities.  To pay tribute to the people and memories that make up the rich heritage of the iconic river, the Singapore River organisers, Singapore River One, which invited Captain Frederick James Francis and I among those featured in the Singapore River Festival’s first ever initiative that pays homage to those intrinsically linked to the river and its heritage.


It is indeed my privilege and honor to be invited to share my personal stories about the Singapore River memories.


The following photos of the media session on 24 October, 2017 which I presented together with Captain Frederick James Francis, author of the book “Singapore History – Islands and Islanders”.


Channel News Asia “live” interview with “Singapore Tonight” on 27 October, 2017




At the interview, I mentioned about the unpleasant remarks by some tourists about the water in the Singapore River in the old days before the clean-up of the river.


Glenda Chong, my favorite English news presenter on MediaCorp TV smiled when I mentioned about what some tourists said: "The water in the Singapore River should be bottled and sold as ‘smelling salt’ "


I hope these third generation of “People of the River” to pass on our younger generations of Singaporeans.  During the Singapore River Festival 2017, I would like to encourage every Singaporean to visit the Singapore River with their great grandparents, grandparents, family, relatives and other People of the River for inter-generational activities for family bonding and meaningful fun experience for everyone.