Activities of the Singapore River: Then vs Now

By Jeryl Koh

The Singapore River, a place that many consider to be integral to Singapore’s heritage and identity. For tourists, it is a landmark that they have in their bucket list upon visiting Singapore. For the locals, it is a place that many associate with Singapore’s early days, where it was the center of economic activity buzzing with life. Hence, this leads to the main point: What role does the Singapore River play in the past compared to now?

In the past, the Singapore River was widely known to be essential for Singapore’s economy. The river was a crucial port area where boats and ships would load and unload cargo. Bumboats, traditional wooden boats, were commonly used for transporting goods along the river. In addition, warehouses lined the riverbank, storing goods that were transported by boats. Needless to say, many workers were needed to transport goods on land, namely coolies. Coolies were essential for the functioning of the port activities along the Singapore River. They were typically hired to carry heavy loads of goods to and from ships, warehouses, and other storage facilities along the riverbanks, as seen in the pictures below.

Nowadays, the Singapore river serves many different functions. The Singapore River is a major tourist destination, attracting visitors with its scenic views, historical landmarks, and vibrant atmosphere. Boat Quay, Clarke Quay, and Robertson Quay are also popular for their wide range of restaurants, cafes, and bars. These areas come alive in the evenings, offering a diverse culinary experience and a bustling nightlife scene. All these are just some of the many activities that happen at the Singapore River in the present.

Lastly, the state of the Singapore River is vastly different in the past compared to now. In the past, factories and warehouses along the river often discharged industrial waste and effluents directly into the water. Traditional waste disposal practices were also not environmentally friendly. The river served as a receptacle for domestic waste, sewage, and industrial runoff. Thus, the accumulation of untreated sewage and industrial pollutants led to unpleasant odors along the riverbank and poor water quality raised health concerns among the population residing in the vicinity. Fortunately, the government took action and cleaned up the river, leading to clear waterways as shown in the picture below.

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