5 June 2014

Labrador's Forgotten Relics

Note: This article was first penned by the writer in October 2012 and the article was completed and published on 5 June 2014. 

For those who take a stroll along its esplanade, it would be difficult not to notice the conspicuous presence of Labrador Nature Reserve's iconic red beacon - Berlayer Point Beacon (or Berlayer Beacon, for short). Situated at the narrow channel between Tanjong Berlayer on the Singapore mainland and Tanjong Rimau on the northwestern end of Sentosa Island, it is certainly heartening to see that this historical treasure has remained well preserved up until the present day.


The red beacon gleamed in the sun as I approached it to appreciate its simplistic elegance. Built in 1930, the seven metre tall square day beacon serves as the port (left-hand) side navigational guide for ships approaching the channel and doubles up as the marker for the shortest distance (around 240 metres) between Sentosa and mainland Singapore. Similarly, a green conical beacon (Tanjong Rimau Beacon) plays a similar role on the opposite shore along Tanjong Rimau beach, marking the starboard (right-hand) of approaching vessels.

The green conical beacon at Tanjong Rimau can be seen clearly from Tanjong Berlayer Point.

Nearby Berlayer's red beacon, a large craggy granite outcrop once stood as an important marker for ancient seafarers. Curiously, a similar granite outcrop could be found on Tanjong Rimau. While the rock on the Berlayer coast was simply called "Batu Berlayer" (Sailing Rock) by the indigenous Malays and "Lot's Wife" by British sailors (in the reference to the Biblical story where Lot's wife gets turned into a pillar of salt), the outcrops' resemblance to a pair of dragon's teeth gave rise to the Chinese name, "Long Ya Men" (Dragon Teeth's Gate).

These unique outcrops were so significant in maritime navigation that they were documented by famous Chinese explorers Cheng Ho and Wang Dayuan and would have been some spectacle if they had survived until the present day. Alas, the two outcrops were blown up by John Thomson, the Straits Settlements Surveyor, in August 1848 in order to widen the channel for ships to access the deep water anchorage between the mainland and the islands of Pulau Belakang Mati* and Pulau Brani.

*Pulau Belakang Mati was the former name of Sentosa Island before it was renamed following the announcement of plans to turn the island into a tourist destination. The name Sentosa (which means tranquility) was picked as the winning entry of a contest held by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB, presently the Singapore Tourism Board) in 1970. 

Interestingly, the prize award of $500 was shared among 5 winners, all whom thought of the same name - Sentosa. The winners were namely Mr. E.C. Goh, a journalist, Mr. Edward Leong, the managing director of an advertising firm, Dr. S.Y. Lee (Dr. Lee Suan Yew, the younger brother of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and a medical practitioner), Mr. Tan Siak Soon, a waiter in training and Encik (Malay for Mister) Sahat bin Dol, a bus driver with the Singapore Traction Company. The prize was awarded by then-chairman of the STPB, Mr. Runme Shaw at the Board Room of Tudor Court .[1]

Sentosa was also called Pulau Panjang according to 19th century sea charts, as well as Burne Beard Island in a 1780 map and Pulau Niry, Nirifa in a map dating much earlier to the late 1600s. There are many theories which explain how Pulau Belakang Mati (the island of death from behind) got its unfortunate name but I guess we'll leave that story for a future article.

The replica of "Long Ya Men" being built at Tanjong Berlayer Point in 2005.
In July 2005, a six metre tall replica of Batu Berlayer was erected near to its original site as part of a celebration of the 600th anniversary of Admiral Cheng Ho's maiden voyage from Nanjing, China. In fact, the authorities had originally planned for this replica to replace the red beacon but this thankfully was met with much resistance from the Singapore Heritage Society, who argued that the beacon was itself a heritage site and should not be destroyed. In the end, the replica of Batu Berlayer was built just meters away from the red beacon.

As time grew by, more ships began to seek relief from their long, arduous journeys at this anchorage and there was a need for a proper harbour to address the growing numbers of ships. Naturally sheltered by Pulau Belakang Mati and coupled with its suitable deep waters, Keppel Harbour was therefore born, a harbour of most significant importance which was built in these straits in 1886. It fit the requirements of the British perfectly in their attempts to establish a Far East maritime colony in this part of the world.

While it was called the New Harbour after it was established, the harbour was later named after Sir Henry Keppel, a naval officer who visited Singapore on several occasions as between 1848 to 1903 primarily to reduce the rampant pirate activity in the Straits Settlements (Singapore, Malacca and Penang). Shortly after arriving in Singapore, Sir Keppel was the one discovered the natural, deep-water harbour prior to its establishment as the New Harbour and it was finally renamed Keppel Harbour by Sir Alexander Swettenham, the Acting Governor of the Straits Settlements, during Sir Keppel's visit at the age of 92 in April 1900.

The western limit marker of Keppel Harbour.
A tall white obelisk can be found near to the red beacon and beside it, a British pillbox faces the sea as part of Batu Berlayer's defence line, one of several concrete machine gun pillboxes along the coastline. Situated about 550m apart from each other, the pillboxes were built to resist invasion from the southern sea. This particular pillbox was built to protect the 12-pound gun on top of Berlayer Point.

While there has been much speculation behind the obelisk's actual role, it was erected by the British to serve as the western harbour limit of Keppel Harbour at Tanjong Berlayer Point. It was also said to mark the southernmost tip of the Asia continent* before the land around Tanjong Berlayer Point was reclaimed by the Singapore government.

The pillbox at the foot of Tanjong Berlayer Point's cliff.
*A subsequent location for the southernmost tip of Asia continent has also been claimed by the Sentosa management after the official opening of the Sentosa Causeway, which links Sentosa island to the mainland, on 15 December 1992. This point, which is commemorated by a plaque, can be found on a tiny man-made islet off Palawan Beach, the southern coast of Sentosa island, and is accessible via a suspension bridge.

Batu Berlayer Anti Motor Torpedo Boat (AMTB) Battery.
A Radio Antenna Tower, which was later added within the premises of the Batu Berlayer AMTB Battery.
Behind the obelisk and pillbox, a watchtower peeks out among the lush greenery atop an impossibly steep cliff, a great vantage point to monitor the surrounding waters and protect the entrance to the harbour. The watchtower was the No. 2 Director Tower of the Batu Berlayer Anti-Motor Torpedo Boat (AMTB) battery, which was a part of a larger scale defence line known as Fort Pasir Panjang or the Labrador Battery.  The Batu Berlayer AMTB Battery and the neighbouring Labrador Battery were constructed to primarily defend the western approach to Keppel Harbour.

The Batu Berlayer AMTB No. 2 Director Tower as seen from its base.
There has been much confusion about the role of this battery, and there has even been speculation about the place being a fortress. However, our friend, Peter Stubbs, a British military historical expert and owner of the FortSiloso.com website, gives a detailed explanation about the Batu Berlayer AMTB Battery in his article, as replicated below:

"Standing high on Batu Berlayar, the remains of the gun batteries that were once here may look like a fortress to some, but the impression is false. Batu Berlayar in its various incarnations was never designed to be self-defending. It was of course part of the much greater so-called ‘Fortress Singapore’ gun batteries. However, these being coast batteries could not form a fortress. Defences needed to make a fortress were never built in Singapore, which was one of many reasons for the fall of Singapore on 15th February 1942."[2]

The Batu Berlayer AMTB battery is made up of 2 gun emplacements, each with its own director tower, and a compound of fortified rooms used for storage of munitions, transmission of radio signals and other essential operations. The director tower behind each gun, which had a bird's eye view of the western approach, provided critical information (such as the target's distance) to the gunners in order for them to take down their targets successfully. Both emplacements were built to face the southwest, and their main arc of fires overlapped with that of the Labrador Battery to its right and Fort Siloso to its left. Any enemy craft which was foolish enough to get close enough these waters would soon find out about the deadly consequences.

I understand from Peter that the first AMTB Battery was completed in 1892, where it was part of an overall defence plan of the harbour entrance which depended on the firepower of two quick-firing guns and two machine guns at Berlayer Point, as well as the infantry garrisons of Passir Panjang (an old spelling variation of Pasir Panjang by the British) and Siloso covering the western mine field.

No. 2 Director Tower as seen from inside the battery.
The ‘Straits Settlements Defence Scheme, September 1893’ originally listed 1 QF gun (quick-firing gun, a weapon which can fire at a fast rate) and 1 machine gun as being at Berlayer Point, under the command of Fire Commanders, Lt. Langdon and Lt Eady of Passir Panjang. The battery's armaments were subsequently increased to 1 QF gun and 2 machine guns as stated in the ‘Straits Settlements Defence Scheme, September 1894’.

Aerial view of the battery from No. 1 Director Tower.
In a room of the Post War Harbour Board tower constructed at Batu Berlayar.
In December 1896, the armament reported by the ‘Straits Settlements Defence Scheme’ then was “1 6-Pounder QF and 2 machine guns” (incidentally the first reference Peter has seen referring to the calibre of the QF Gun). Further records also show that there were two 6-Pounder QF guns at Berlayer Point on 1st January 1898, having been taken there from Tanjong Katong. However, no mention of any machine guns were made in this report.

The list of Approved armaments showed that the QF Guns were still there on 1st January 1899 and one of these was placed in an embrasure which could be found at the beach level. This gun was pointed in the direction of Pulau Belakang Mati and could be utilised to ambush and annihilate any Motor Torpedo Boats which snuck past the main guns.  It is unclear when the rock at Berlayer Point was hollowed out to form this gun emplacement.

The alleged entrance to the "secret tunnel" which leads to Sentosa.
The inaccessibility of the "tunnel" further perpetuated the urban legend.
The embrasure is often wrongly speculated to be the entrance of a secret tunnel which allegedly ran below the channel and provided subterranean access to Pulau Belakang Mati. In fact, the reality show "Hey Singapore!", which originally ran in the 90s, dedicated a segment to unraveling the mystery behind this alleged tunnel, but to no avail. They showed shots of what they believed was the entrance to the tunnel (which happened to be the embrasure of the QF gun), some shots of the embrasure's interior as well as a similar opening on the opposite coast of Tanjong Rimau, further fueling this speculation.

Interior of the "secret tunnel" entrance, which was, in fact, the beach level embrasure housing the 6-pounder QF gun.
A shaft inside the embrasure leads up to the AMTB battery and was probably used to lower shells downwards.
As much as we'd like to believe that there is an underground tunnel linking Tanjong Berlayer to Sentosa, this would be highly unlikely as the other end of the tunnel would have to be located somewhere within Fort Siloso, and not on the foot of the cliff face along Tanjong Rimau coast as many believe, since this would expose soldiers emerging from the tunnel to enemy fire. A chat with Peter, who knows every inch of Fort Siloso like the back of his hand, reveals his firm belief that there is no entrance located within the fort itself.

Peter also believes that Berlayer Point was probably unarmed from September 1900 onwards as there were no references to the battery in the list of Singapore’s Approved Armaments from that point onwards, as well as the following years after that. Since records show that Fort Pasir Panjang acquired two 6-Pounder QF Guns around the same time, it is believed that the guns were moved from Batu Berlayer AMTB to Pasir Panjang to replace the inferior 7-inch R.M.L (rifled muzzle-loading) Guns at the emplacement located nearest the path to the beach. This was because the 7-inch R.M.L guns neither had sufficient range accuracy nor rapidity of fire for effective coastal defence. The engineer of Fort Pasir Panjang, H.E. McCallum, even referred to the 7-inch R.M.L guns as being ”the worst in the service”.[3] 

A replica 6-Inch QF Gun in the Fort Pasir Panjang No.2 6-Inch Emplacement (More info from fortsiloso.com here)
Faye, one of our team members, having a chinwag with one of the QF gunners.
To give a rough comparison of the difference in performance between the two, the 7-inch R.F.L gun could only fire 2 to 3 rounds per minute, while the 6-pounder QF guns could achieve a firing rate of 25 to 30 rounds per minute, an alarming difference of 10 times!

A Signal Station was built on Berlayar Point when the armament was removed and remained there until the late 1930s. Subsequently in the Defence Scheme of 1913, it was mentioned that there were two .303 Maxim Machine Guns situated at Berlayer Point. Batu Berlayer was to be re-fortified following the events of pre-WW2 brewing in Europe and Northeastern Asia, and the layout of AMTB defences for Singapore was approved on 4th November 1937, where the Army Council listed two twin 6-Pounders for Batu Berlayer. There were also to be three 30° fixed Defence Electric Lights (D.E.L), searchlights used to sweep the area to detect and illuminate enemy marine vessels.

The AMTB Emplacements of Batu Berlayer were complete in 1941 and the manning for the battery consisted of 2 British Officers, 55 British Other Ranks, 8 Indian soldiers  and 11 Malay soldiers. In October 1941, two 12-Pounders were reported as being placed at the battery with no Twin 6-Pounders being available. While it was fully ready for war, the battery never realised its full potential. Extracts from the Faber Fire Command War Diary stated that the 12-Pounders could not bear landwards and, therefore, never did partake in any action but Battery Commander Capt T.E. Pickard of the 31 Coast Battery RA, which manned the AMTB, recalled that “bombs fell in the sea, off the point”. Some shell splinters did fall on Batu Berlayar during this period but caused no real damage to the battery.

Unknown to most, there's more to Berlayer than what we had mentioned earlier. As luck would have it, Andrew's intrepid bashing through the Berlayer undergrowth while exploring the area in early 2011 was met with the startling discovery of more concrete structures deep in the thicket of Berlayer ridge, hidden away from the public eye.

Structure Number One was discovered when Andrew spotted a peculiar flat concrete slab while descending down the ridge face. Proceeding further downward, he realised that the slab was actually the flat roof of a concrete structure which was facing the sea.

Structure Number One, which sits along the ridge

The entrance into Structure Number One is only big enough for a single person to enter or exit at any one time.
A visit with Peter in late 2012 would help to shed some light on the mystery structure as he identified it as a PF Cell (Position Finding Cell), which was used to fix the position of a target vessel, in this case for the 6-Inch Labrador Battery which was close by. A PF cell would work in conjunction with a gun battery's Depression Range Finder to increase the accuracy of targeting. Several PF Cells still remain on Mount Serapong and Mount Imbiah on Sentosa. (You can find a very detailed write up on PF Cells from fortsiloso.com here)

Found inside Structure Number One, a plastic "kopitiam" chair and the remains of a charred wire cage trap
Stepping into the structure, it was evident that we were not the first ones to set foot within. A grimy plastic chair, commonly found in kopitiams (coffeeshops) all around Singapore, lay beside what seemed to be the charred remains of a wire cage trap. There was a pile of rocks lying on the ground with an ashy residue and bits of charcoal, the remnants of a makeshift stand for an open fire. It was a real puzzle. Why would someone burn something in this secluded structure? An even more perplexing questions would be what this person was burning here. The presence of the wire cage trap did not help, leading to my assumption that the victim was an unfortunate rat or bird although I failed to find any bones or remains around the area.

Encouraged by his discovery, Andrew continued braving the mosquitoes and thick undergrowth and bashed even further along the ridge, where he discovered a second concrete structure behind a mesh fence that was ruthlessly cut open.

First visit to Structure Number Two in 2011 - a brown shirt was found hanging from one of the columns.

Disused aquarium tank found in Structure Number Two.

Graffiti in Structure Number Two with run-of-the-mill profanities included
Standing inside the structure, we also noticed that it had a pretty high ceiling. Peter was much taller than any of our explorers so that would give you a good picture of how high the ceiling was when he could stand comfortably upright while he was inside the structure.

Peter making his way into Structure Number Two.

Exploring the interior of the structure and eagerly taking photos.
This was identified almost certainly as a Gun Shelter which would have housed a field gun, most likely an 18-Pounder. It is not known if there was a gun here at the time of the Japanese assault on Singapore. It does not appear on a list of  18-Pounder positions in Singapore, but that does not mean to say that there was no gun here. Many 18-Pounders were emplaced for beach defence in 1942 and it was only a few years ago that two Gun Shelters on Sentosa were demolished.

Other 18-Pounders were set up for AMTB defence at Pulau Hantu (Now Pulau Keppel) and on Tanjong Pengelih at Pengerang.

With both structures covered, we also took the opportunity to show Peter a ramshackle concrete water silo that was lying in the undergrowth. This probably formed part of the water supply for the troops of Passir Panjang and to prevent shortage.

Public Works Department (PWD) tag on the water silo.
It's always fascinating to know more about these wartime structures as we continue to unearth them. Many areas were let untouched once the British forces pulled out of Singapore and many of these relics may have been reclaimed by nature as time went by. Some others, like the Pillbox at Chancery Lane, became assimilated into other larger structures.

Additional Info by Peter:
There were searchlights at Labrador and Batu Berlayar. The Labrador guns had two 3 degree fighting lights, and Batu Berlayar two or three - we do not have confirmation of the exact number at this moment - D.E.L.s (Defence Electric lights) 30 degree lights. The 30 degree lights would have been fixed with no traverse. When switched on together, they will have illuminated a wide area for the AMTB guns while the 3 degree lights had a long range and narrow beam to illuminate targets for the 6-Inch Guns. These would have been able to traverse to track a target. I wonder if any searchlight posts remain?

The truth may not always be out there. Sometimes it's hidden in the deep recesses of the earth.
We'll keep digging!
There are probably more structures lying around in the forests of Singapore, waiting to be discovered. Until then, you can be sure that we will keep on searching.

Note: If you're interested to know what is left of Labrador Battery in the present day, you can find more info here.

[1] The Straits Times, 23 September 1970, Page 7 - Five who thought alike win Sentosa prize
[2] Fort Siloso - Batu Berlayer AMTB Battery, Source: fortsiloso.com
[3] National Parks Board - On-site Information Board 

Article written by Aaron Chan and Co-Authored by Peter Stubbs

Photos by Andrew Him

Article and photos - © One° North Explorers

This article would not have been possible without the kind assistance of Peter Stubbs, writer and webmaster of fortsiloso.com

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  1. Hello, where can we find the structure one & two ?

    1. If it's not mentioned in our article, then we are afraid we wouldn't be able to disclose in detail. We can only say the structure is still within the confines of Labrador Park.