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Island Esapes: Interview with Dr Bernard Cheong

This outgoing head of a medical group never imagined a dilapidated hideout would be turned into a luxurious hotel.

While his more privileged classmates at the Anglo-Chinese School at Barker Road travelled overseas for ski trips during the school holidays, a young Dr Bernard Cheong devised his own plans.

Together with friends who lived in his neighbourhood near Upper Paya Lebar Road, the 12-year-old took a bumboat from Clifford Pier and headed to what was known as Pulau Belakang Mati – renamed Sentosa in 1972 – to camp on the island.

Not only was camping on Pulau Belakang Mati illegal, his parents were kept in the dark of his secret expeditions. “I told my parents that I would be staying over at a friend’s home, which was a very common thing to do during the holidays,” recalls the 56-year-old head of a group of general practitioner clinics.

“I wouldn’t call myself adventurous but it was an escape for me. Although Sentosa has changed a lot over the past few years, it’s been easy to keep abreast, thanks to the Internet,” he added. Well known for his passion for watches, he is the first collector and non-watchmaking industry ambassador for Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, the Swiss-based luxury watch industry think-tank.

To hide from park rangers, a young Dr Cheong and his friends would escape from their camping site at the eastern tip of the island and hide at abandoned colonial houses. Once home to British military officers, several have been converted to become the luxurious Capella Singapore hotel.

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Military Accommodation (1970)

“As a kid, it was a lot of fun to camp but Singapore had very few camping sites. Pulau Belakang Mati was a very interesting place. It was very small so you could walk everywhere. There was also a bear, which was important to know because that meant you needed to find a two-storey house so it would not get to you. But it was harmless – it scampered off when it saw humans. There was no need to pitch a tent. All we needed was a mat and we slept on the floor.”

During his explorations in the ’60s and ’70s, he also discovered underground tunnels that linked Sentosa back to the main island. Access to these has now been sealed. “It was very easy to navigate. All we needed was torchlight – and stupidity. On hindsight, it was so dangerous and I could have died.”

Indeed, Capella Singapore was a sight to behold when it was completed in 2009. Dr Cheong says: “I never knew those houses could be turned into something so beautiful. They were so terribly rundown with bats and swallows, which produced a lot of bird’s nests that I picked for my family. Even though we have taken a longer time to evolve than other cities, we had time to plan well. I think no other city has been so consistent with its urban planning.”

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