The history of Singapore’s favorite island getaways, St John and Lazarus Island
An island paradise with crystal waters and white sand, but also an old gravesite, a quarantine station, and prison center?
The Southern islands are highlights of Singapore’s waters. This also makes it the current hotspot for the perfect Singaporean staycation. However, many are unfamiliar with St John’s and Lazarus’ Island history… With contradicting anecdotes and insufficient information in archives, most of the islands’ past is lost. Nevertheless, what is left is still interesting to dive into. So, besides its artificial beach and the intriguing population of cats, how did St John and Lazarus island history sculpt how the islands are today?
An early discovery of the Southern islands
The initial uncovering of the Southern Isles is still unknown.
However, we know that the two main islands were first stated on European and Chinese maps in 1604.
With only a small population of islanders, the islands stayed peaceful during this time. The Orang Laut’s built a community and nurtured the art of fishing, sailing, and local folklore.
Legend has it that two deer inhabited one island off the southern shore of Singapore. For unknown reasons, they decided to go their separate ways, onto two different islands. These islands, translated to Malay, would therefore take the names Pulau Sakjiang Bendera, and Pulau Sakjiang Pelepah. This meant the islands of One Barking Deer and Flags and One Barking Deer and Palms.
28 January 1819
A time of imperial island conquest
The arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles, a British Empire foreman, starts the modern history of Singapore that we know today. This, of course, includes the Southern Islands.
Thus, with idea of making Singapore a huge port and strategic base, St John’s island was then restructured into an ammunition dump.
In addition, most speculate that Raffles was the one to give the westernized name of ‘St John’.
Some theorize that the names St John and Lazarus were from two missionaries accompanying the ambassador. Another story states that Sekijang (from the Malay name) could have been misheard by the British as St-John. They could have named them even before their arrival on the islands, as they had access to maps of the area.
“Quarantine Island” for 19th-century pandemics
With populations growing in Singapore, this meant a rise in diseases. To control the 19th-century pandemics, Singapore established the St John’s Quarantine Facility. This was to accommodate passengers and immigrants sailing through Singapore.
St John’s ended up being one of the biggest quarantine stations in the world, with over 6000 people at one time. Sadly, with the growth of the facility, came the need for burial grounds.
Lazarus Island became the allocated cemetery.
1904 and 1914
The island fires
Some newspapers report fires were the reason for the loss of St John and Lazarus Island history.
In 1902 and 1914, fires had wiped out the cemetery on Lazarus Island, as well as the few abandoned quarantine facilities.
Articles state that the islands had also been home to some prison confinement sheds. This idea was short-lived when one of the prisoners had escaped.
Little of this dark past remains, with only a few desolate buildings and barb-wired fences. All hidden behind regrown vegetation that has taken back the land.
A rehabilitation center during the opium epidemic
With a thriving opium trade controlled by the government, Singapore was a victim of the opioid crisis. Before the end of the Second World War, Singapore had over 16 000 registered addicts.
Following the liberation from the Japanese in 1945, the government banned opioids and the tools for smoking them.
In 1955, St-John was therefore re-established as the quarantine island, but this time for rehabilitation purposes. They focused on giving patients new sets of skills and therapy to treat their addiction.
The move from island life to mainland
The first photographic evidence of locals on Lazarus & St-John’s islands was from 1960. It shows small wooden cabins on stilts, covered by zinc roofs.
To accommodate this growing population, the community built two schools within the area. Unsurprisingly, the school’s students won outstanding swimming achievements and broke two records in Singapore.
(Perks to living on a small island surrounded by the ocean)
The Lazarus Girls, who worked as guides, provided during these times an authentic visit of the islands. They state that it is a place of “44 houses and 400 people”.
However, most of this population moved to mainland Singapore and were rehoused in the late 70s. What was once a place of “400 locals and [a] television set” became the inhabited island that it is today.
The next family leisure centre
In the late 70s, the world went through a boom in its tourism industry. Singapore continued to improve its facilities, and they built the modern holiday retreat, Sentosa.
Lazarus Island and St-John’s Island were expected to be the next beach-resorts of Singapore.
Along with the other southern islands, St-John’s and Lazarus were taken over by the Sentosa Development Corporation in the late seventies.
Singapore claimed to have spent around $11 million on land reclamation in the Southern Isles. The aim was mostly to create links between Lazarus Island and two other islands at the northern tip
A new business venture
With rising interests, the development corporation called for investments. They even went so far as nicknaming Lazarus “Treasure Island”. This was due to its potential success within the tourism and leisure industry.
But these ideas (over 30 concept proposals) never came to light and nothing to this day has been done to create this resort paradise Singapore strived for.
The development of modern St John’s and Lazarus Island
The early 2000s played a significant role in shaping what the islands look like today. With white beaches and artificial coastlines, Singapore made significant developments to make the islands more attractive. The intention was to create a beautiful island retreat for mainland Singaporeans’ who wish to escape the city. With increased access to the island, it became a relaxing location hidden from most.
One of the developments was a causeway between Lazarus and St-John’s Island. This meant that a short 15-minute walk permitted a link between islands.
Another development was Lazarus Lagoon, the horseshoe-shaped beach. It is an entirely man-made lagoon and is today one of the most famous spots of the Southern Isles.
In addition, St-John’s island constructed chalets and housing to accommodate guests who wished to spend the night.
To this day, no housing has been made available on Lazarus and camping has been forbidden. The only way to stay overnight is by private yacht.
Last islanders move to the Singapore
The last four occupants of the islands moved to the mainland in 2016.
Since then, the islands have been uninhabited.
Access to and from the island has been improved with many boats leaving mainland Singapore for St-John’s Island. No direct access is provided to Lazarus island, except for private yacht hire.
A 25-minute ride allows visitors to experience a panoramic view of Marina Bay and the islands. With a private yacht hire, visitors can even watch the beautiful sunset over the bay and enjoy the landscape way into the evening.
Discovering St John’s and Lazarus Island today is a truly relaxing and revitalizing experience away from the fast city life.
What makes the islands what they are today
Meanwhile, what attracts people these days is the serene natural beauty of the islands. The lack of buildings, shops, and amenities is what defines the islands as so intriguing in the first place.
At first, it may seem odd to not have any structures on-site, with offers for food and beverage limited to what you bring with you. Accommodation is also unavailable, with no camping allowed and no hotels.
Visitors may counter this by using private yachts and rentals to enjoy the island experience with comfort. This also grants an exclusive view of the bay and lagoon from the water.
The overgrown vegetation is what makes these islands a true “paradise”. It provides relief from Singapore’s sometimes intimidating city-life structure.