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The Singapore River (Sungei Singapura, 新加坡河) is a river that runs parallel to Alexandra Road and feeds into the Marina Reservoir in the southern part of Singapore. The immediate upper watershed of the Singapore River is known as the Singapore River Planning Area, although the northernmost part of the watershed is classified under River Valley planning area.

Singapore River planning area sits within the Central Area of the Central Region of Singapore, as defined by the Urban Redevelopment Authority. The planning area shares boundaries with the following - River Valley and Museum to the north, Tanglin and Bukit Merah to the west, Outram to the south and the Downtown Core to the east.


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Singapore River at night, as seen from Raffles City

The Singapore River is approximately 3.2 kilometers long[1] from its source at Kim Seng Bridge to where it empties into Marina Bay; the river extends more than two kilometers beyond its original source at Kim Seng Bridge as Alexandra Canal, as far as the junction of Commonwealth Avenue.Template:Citation needed


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Collyer Quay as viewed from what is now Marina Bay, circa 1900s

The mouth of the Singapore River was the old Port of Singapore, being naturally sheltered by the southern islands. Historically, the city of Singapore initially grew around the port so the river mouth became the centre of trade, commerce and finance.

At one time, Singapore River was the very lifeblood of the colony, the trade artery, the center of commercial activity, the heart of entrepot trade, the vessel of importance, the capillaries of life and the place which was frequented by the secret societies, the swaylos (Cantonese for coolies who worked on a boat) and the coolies who worked for the philanthropist Tan Tock Seng at Ellenborough Market and the towkay (Hokkien for business owner) Tan Kim Seng who was busy filling his godown with the riches of the East.

Singapore River is where the colourful and romantic history of the river and the myths and legends can still conjure up memories of the lighters, bumboats, tongkangs with their painted eyes to see the danger ahead and sampans of yesteryear. This is where the Malayan princes once sailed and this is where the bullock carts plodded their way up and down each bank as the river found its way to the former rocky river mouth. This is also where an early civilisation was conquered by the Javanese Majapahit Empire, in the year 1376.

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Boat Quay along the banks of the Singapore River, circa 1900s

Some of the temples, shrines and other places of worship still stand in the vicinity of the river. Bridges such as Anderson Bridge, Elgin Bridge and Cavenagh Bridge still remain, the Merlion, the shophouses, and the large trees such as Banyan and Madras Thorn. Some parts of this area include quays such as Clarke Quay, Boat Quay and Robertson Quay, which generated trade and extensive demand for services with the boats that landed at the quays. Boat Quay itself was handling three quarters of the shipping service in the 1860s. Shophouses and warehouses flourished around the quays due to their proximity to trade during the colonial era, but presently house various bars, pubs and restaurants, as well as antique shops.

The river still borders places where seamen and others, for example, near Raffles Landing Place, made offerings and burned their joss sticks. Poles with streamers flying were once used to tie up the barges as the water lapped against the old stone steps and walls.

Sir Stamford Raffles lost no time after January 1819, when he landed on Singapore River among the orang laut, in bargaining with the Temenggong, the Johor chief who then ruled the place, having settled in 1811. At the very moment of landing, Raffles must have realised the importance of the river for, in the same year of 1819, the north bank was drained for government buildings and, in 1822, the south bank was reclaimed and a retaining wall and steps were built.

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Robertson Quay along the banks of the Singapore River

Through lack of knowledge or foresight, the bridges were constructed too low and the river was too shallow for the demands that were to be made on its use. This historic river, which Raffles had fashioned from salt marshes, sand bars and mangrove swamps, has witnessed the British rule and the Japanese occupation, and has supported years of economic activity by the Chinese, Malays, Indians and others. However, with the expansion of trade came congestion and pollution.

Old maps of the river state that it actually originates from Bukit Larangan (currently Fort Canning Hill).

Pollution and cleanup[]

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Clarke Quay along the banks of the Singapore River

Starting in the 1819, there was heavy traffic on the Singapore River due to rapid urbanization and expanding trade.[2] At the same time, it brought in water pollution caused by the disposal of garbage, sewage and other by-products of industries located along the river's banks. The sources of water pollution into the Singapore River and Kallang Basin included pig wastes from pig and duck farms, unsewered premises, street hawkers and vegetable wholesaling. Riverine activities such as transport, boat building and repairs were also found along the Singapore River.

Some 750 lighters plied along the Singapore River and Kallang Basin in 1977. Waste, oil spills and wastewater from these boats and lighters added to the pollution of the rivers. In 1977, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew called for a clean up of Singapore's rivers, which included Singapore River and Kallang River. The clean up costed the government $300 million and involved a relocation of about 4,000 squatters, along with hawkers and vegetable sellers, whose daily waste flowed into the river. Public housing was found for the squatters, while street hawkers were persuaded to move to hawker centres. The government then dredged foul-smelling mud from the banks and the bottom of the river, clearing the debris and other rubbish.[3]

Despite decades of effort, river cleanup remains a works-in-progress. On 26 November 2017, during a speech at the 60th anniversary of Berita Harian, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong put the blame on Singaporeans for polluting the river with litter and trash. [4]

Singapore River today[]

The river is now part of the Marina Reservoir after damming the Singapore River at its outlet to the sea to create a new reservoir of freshwater. The dam is known as Marina Barrage. Template:Citation needed

Whereas the original mouth of the Singapore River emptied into Singapore Straits and its southern islands before major land reclamation took place, the Singapore River now empties into Marina Bay - an area of water partially enclosed by the reclamation work. The Port of Singapore is now located to the west of the island, using most of the south-west coast, and passenger ships to Singapore now typically berth at the Singapore Cruise Centre at Harbourfront. Thus the Singapore River's economic role has shifted away from one that of trade, towards more a role accommodated for tourism and aesthetics for the commercial zone which encloses it.


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Sculpture along the Singapore River - The River Merchants by Aw Tee Hong

There are a number of sculptures along the Singapore River.[5] Many of these depict the life of people living and working along the river during the early days of Singapore.

Notable sculptures include:[6]

  • First Generation, made by Chong Fah Cheong
  • Fishing at Singapore River, made by Chern Lian Shan
  • The River Merchants, made by Aw Tee Hong
  • A Great Emporium, made by Malcolm Koh
  • From Chettiars to Financiers, made by Chern Lian Shan
  • Singapura Cats, made by various artists


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