Reminiscing about the past

By Chia Kun-liang

Heritage and history teaches us to appreciate our future

By Chia Kun-liang |

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The young reporters gather in Merlion Park with The Fullerton Hotel Singapore in the background.

As we constantly strive for the contemporary in the 21st century, we should not forget the rich historical values and evocative stories behind our local heritage. After all, without remembering the past, how do we appreciate the future that lies ahead?

Starting with the opening of the heritage Fullerton Hotel in 2001, Sino Land has been deeply committed to preserving the key historical and iconic landmarks along Singapore’s waterfront, with the aim of offering our future generation authentic sites to explore understand our past communities and the history of Singapore.

Behind each of these landmarks, lie different eventful happenings that await to be discovered. Among them, the Customs House along Collyer Quay Street offers us some of the most thrilling and sensational past recounts of its time, when it was still the home of the Singapore Customs Police.

Constructed in the late 1960s, the two-storey high Customs House is one of the historical architectures that was preserved and restored by Sino Land. Around 1969, the building housed the harbour division of the Singapore Customs Police. Singapore’s strategic geographical location made it possible for her to become a major sea port along main shipping routes, and during that period the nascent city state facilitated large quantities of sea trade. With such a bustle at the harbour, it also made the harbour vulnerable to security threats and illegal smuggling.

Taking this into consideration, a 23 metre-high control tower was built at the Customs House. With this control tower, customs personnel could have access to a wider view of the incoming sea traffic, hence allowing them to promptly identify suspicious boats entering the harbour. Once a boat was suspected of an attempt to smuggle in goods that were liable to duty, customs officers would gather and head out to sea to intercept the boat swiftly. Such encounters were not uncommon and were not the only ones that happened at the Customs House. Numerous other kinds of incidents including raids conducted on the open sea and encounters with pirates occurred as well. 

Madam Florence Minjoot, a resident Fullerton Heritage tour guide, holds vivid memories of the Customs House’s history. During the time when the building still housed the harbour division of the Singapore Customs Police, her uncle worked there as a customs officer. She shared his close encounter with several armed men whom once attempted to commit illegal smuggling.

With only a torchlight and a screw driver in his hands, he clearly knew that he was in no position to confront those people with weapons on the vessel. Hence, he had to think of a way to avoid threat. Madam Florence said: “Being very quick witted, he quickly told the Vietnamese men that he was on the wrong ship, and the next thing he did was to U-turn and walked off the boat.” This was how her uncle managed to escape danger, and it was just one of the many intense encounters he and his fellow officers had faced.