A heritage tour of Singapore

Anthony Dennis discovers aspects of Singapore's oft under-valued history as part of special guided tours for guests.

In the decades long before visitors to Singapore landed at the world's most lauded airport, foreigners almost exclusively arrived by sea, and, if they did so by dark, the first sight their vessels detected of the island were likely to have been suitably oriental, scarlet-coloured oil lanterns that lined a prominent pier. 

That alluringly-lit landing point, Clifford Pier, with its elegant, half-moon like roof built in the early 1930s, became known simply as Red Lamp Pier. Nowadays, those oil lamps are purely decorative since arriving at the now restored Clifford Pier means you're likely to be checking into, or dining at, the flash Fullerton Bay Hotel to which it's now attached.

Furthermore, what was once a commanding view of the Singapore Strait from this vantage point is obscured by the mammoth Marina Bay Sands casino and hotel complex, with its triumvirate cricket stumps-like towers constructed on land wholly-reclaimed from the ocean.

The bay itself, once laden with ships, boats and ferries, has ingeniously been transformed into a reservoir, designed to reduce Singapore's heretofore dependence on its water supply from a seemingly covetous and capricious Malaysia across the Straits of Johor.

Nowadays only electrically-operated tour boats and the occasional wind-powered yachts are permitted here, though the perpetually expectorating Merlion, a creature with a lion's head and the body of a fish concocted as a tourism marketing gimmick in the early 1970s, still draws tourists.

I'm discovering these aspects of Singapore's oft under-valued history as part of the special guided tours for guests run by both The Fullerton, the elephantine former British-era General Post Office that in 2001 was converted to a hotel, and its adjacent modern sister property, Fullerton Bay, opened in 2010.

One could be forgiven for believing that, in respect to Singapore colonial-era hotels, Raffles (currently closed for major renovations) would have snaffled much, if not, all of the history that remains in this tiny, knock-it-down, progress-fixated city state. But the Fullerton – once "the most important post office in the East" –  sustains not one but two gratis historical tours thanks to its owners' commitment to showcasing Singapore's history for its guests.  

Far East, the company which owns The Fullerton, standing commandingly at the mouth of the Singapore River and overlooking Clifford Pier and the Fullerton Bay itself, seems to have a fetish for General Post Offices. 

It was last year, after all, that Far East bought the grand sandstone GPO in Sydney's Martin Place, and not devoid of controversy either. But, judging by their stewardship of the Fullerton, it appears that GPO in Sydney is in the safest of custodial hands.  

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The original Fullerton Building, opened in 1928, was named after Sir Robert Fullerton, the first British governor of the Straits Settlements, who served in the role between 1826 and 1830 with Singapore having been founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. 

In its heyday, Singapore's old GPO boasted, at well over 100-metres in length, the longest post office counter in Asia, and being a product of the British empire and just like Sydney's equivalent, it was also the point from which all distances were officially measured. 

The Fullerton Building was also the site of the exclusively European, male-only Singapore Club, dating to 1862, as well as the location of government offices where the leaders of a fledgling Singapore "made decisions that steered the course of the nation, propelling Singapore into First-World status".

In the square directly outside the Fullerton, Lee Kuan Yew – Singapore's firebrand founding prime minister who declared independence from Malaysia in 1965 and once warned Australia of becoming the "white trash of Asia" – held regular and boisterous political rallies. 

During World War Two, the building was commandeered by the invading Japanese for offices for the military with the Fullerton continuing to operate as the General Post Office, though with mail and other forms of correspondence and communication subject to strict censorship. 

Although traces of the relatively brief tenancy of the Japanese Army are hard to find, everywhere there are reminders of the Fullerton's postal past with two classic British-style pillar boxes (one slap-bang in the middle of the hotel's main bar) still acting as receptacles for mail.

Aside from the Fullerton Building's own history, a real sense and understanding is gained from the hotel tours of an important and visible aspect of Singapore's remarkable economic success: the city-state's insatiable appetite for reclamation.

Raffles itself is located on Beach Road but, due to reclamation, it's now a long way removed from any water, let alone any golden sands. In fact, the city state has physically grown by a remarkable 25 per cent since the 1970s with reclamation becoming no longer as a viable an expansion method with the option to "go up" in the form of more skyscrapers an increasingly tempting one. 

"Most of the foreign guests on my tours are surprised that Singapore had managed to transform itself from a poor, Third World country to a First World nation in a short span of 53 years," says Bill Jee, who acts as the guide on the Fullerton's heritage tours. "And yet it is still located in what is a mainly Third-World region. 

"Being a modern city with limited land, Singapore's old buildings and places were often fully or partially demolished in the name of development and progress. But now here is a need to carefully consider what we want to leave behind for future generations of Singaporeans."

Yet while Singapore is burdened by a reputation for having  negligently failed to preserve its past in its concerted effort to turn the city state into an economic powerhouse, the area immediately surrounding The Fullerton is rich in impressively restored colonial-era buildings including National Gallery, the Asian Civilisations Museum and the Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall.  

Right outside the hotel, across from its busy driveway, is the wonderful 19th century Cavenagh Bridge spanning the Singapore River and featuring a preserved metal police notice prohibiting the passage of cattle and horses due to weight restrictions.

Jee's tour of The Fullerton concludes on a high, namely on the erstwhile GPO's rooftop at the spot where a lighthouse for shipping once operated with the vacated space now occupied by alfresco bar delivering superb views. However, efforts are being made to reinstate the beacon, which still exists elsewhere in Singapore. 

From up here you can enjoy a fine view of Clifford Pier (and the ever-conspicuous Marina Bay Sands). If you try, you may even be able conjure the beams from those flickering red lanterns that lined it, beckoning the world to a now long-lost, though as it eventuates, not entirely obliterated, Singapore.

FIVE MORE GREAT HERITAGE HOTEL TOURS TO TAKE

ST PANCRAS RENAISSANCE HOTEL, LONDON

Expert Blue Badge tours of this grand 19th century historic hotel, which forms an integral part of the modern-day Eurostar terminal, reveal the splendour and history of the once derelict St Pancras Station. See stpancraslondon.com

THE ART SERIES HOTELS, MELBOURNE

Guided tours, by arrangement, of the modern Australian artwork that grace the public spaces of the Olsen, Cullen and Blackman hotels in Melbourne bring the themes of this trio of edgy establishments to life.  See artserieshotels.com.au

TAJ MAHAL PALACE HOTEL, MUMBAI 

Dating to the early 20th century, it's possible for guests to arrange guided heritage and architecture tours of this floridly-designed landmark hotel, a symbol of the heyday of the British Raj as well as of Mumbai itself. See taj.tajhotels.com

TREASURY ON COLLINS, MELBOURNE

Guests at this apartment hotel, operating in the magnificent neoclassical-style former Bank of Australasia, built in 1876, can take a self-guided tour of the building's magnificent historical features. See treasuryoncollins.com.au

HOTEL KURRAJONG, CANBERRA

A few times each year this hotel, opened in 1926 and once the favoured lodging of politicians, including Ben Chifley (who died from a heart attack in one of the rooms), runS guided tours followed by a traditional high tea. See hotelkurrajong.com.au

TRIP NOTES

FLY

Singapore Airlines operates regular multiple daily direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Singapore. See singaporeair.com

TOUR

The fully-guided The Fullerton Monument Tour and A Maritime Journey Tour are both complimentary. The Fullerton Monument Tour, departing from The Fullerton Hotel, runs Mondays and Thursdays and Saturdays while the A Maritime Journey tour runs on Fridays and Sundays, departing from The Fullerton Bay Hotel. To register for the tours visit fullertonheritage.com

To mark the 90th anniversary of the Fullerton Building this year, the hotel is staging a series of commemorative events as well as offering special deals and packages.

STAY

Doubles start from $SGD468 a night for The Fullerton Hotel and from $SGD910 a night for the Fullerton Bay Hotel from $SGD910 a night. The Fullerton Hotel is at 1 Fullerton Square, Singapore. Ph: +65 6733 8388. The Fullerton Bay Hotel is at 80 Collyer Quay, Singapore. Ph: + 65 6333 8388. See fullertonhotels.com

Anthony Dennis was a guest of The Fullerton and the Fullerton Bay hotels and Singapore Airlines

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