Compared to mainland Singapore, the Southern Islands’ heritage is not as well documented or understood. However, these islands have considerable heritage significance not only for Singapore, but for the wider Straits Settlements. In terms of cultural heritage, St. John’s Island used to be a quarantine centre for cholera patients; and the waters surrounding the islands is home to half as many coral species as the Great Barrier Reef despite being only 0.01% in size.

The Southern Islands refers to a cluster of islands (and informal planning area) to the south of mainland Singapore. It comprises Kusu, Lazarus, Seringat, St. John’s, Sentosa, Tekukor and the two Sisters’ Islands. Endowed with cultural and natural riches, the islands were the subject of much ‘development talk’ in the late 1980s and later in the mid-2000s, although not many concrete actions were taken aside from the transformation of Sentosa into a premier resort island. Cultural heritage and the natural environment has been of central concern in relation to the development of Singapore’s Southern Islands. For example, awareness of the sensitivity of coral reefs and marine life surrounding the islands have led to delays in the development of Lazarus Island; while religious and cultural practices have led to the preservation of Kusu Island as a cultural space. However, cultural heritage and natural heritage has often been considered as separate entities for preservation during urban (re)development. Even among scholars, the importance of the interplay of both cultural and natural heritage in urban settings and the myriad of connections between the two has seldom been considered. Where places and urban identities are forged by the coalescence of both their cultural and natural constitutes, signs of developing and managing of one constituent at the expense of the other can still be clearly observed. This is especially apparent on St. John’s Island where the National Parks Board (NParks) installed a 2.8km trail with signboards under the mandate of the statutory board. This trail aims to tell visitors about the environmental and cultural heritage of the island. While this was indeed a welcomed move, the trail largely excludes the more socio-cultural and political histories of St. John’s Islands: as a quarantine station for cholera cases; a penal settlement and drug resettlement centre, or where Sir Stamford Raffles anchored before his founding of Singapore in 1819, elements which do not fall under the purview and thus interest of NParks.

In this project, funded by the National Heritage Board, we will examine the history of Singapore’s Southern Islands in a rigorous manner, while highlighting the connections between the tangible and intangible aspects of their cultural and natural features as well as the various relations among the islands. In doing so, we hope to develop a holistic picture of the specific heritage landscape and how local communities make sense of their identities in the contemporary city.

We hope that this case study will not only relate to both academic understandings of urban heritage and place attachment but also help maximise the potential of the Southern Islands as a place for leisure, education, tourism, and nation-building. In addition, this is a timely project which will build on and contribute to recent collaborations between ICOMOS and IUCN on the relationship between cultural and natural forms of heritage

Further reading:

International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) (2016). ICOMOS & IUCN Partner on Nature-Culture Journey at the World Conservation Congress 2016-17. Available from:

URA (1996) ‘Southern Islands Planning Area: Planning Report 1996’, URA, Singapore. Available from: