Historic lighthouse guards modern Singapore

Standing off the southern tip of Singapore is a white granite lighthouse built more than 150 years ago to guide ships entering a sleepy tropical outpost of the British empire.

Singapore has since grown into one of the world's busiest ports but the Raffles Lighthouse remains a vital maritime landmark in an age when massive ocean-going ships depend heavily upon sophisticated navigation systems.

"Electronics can fail but the lighthouse will always be there," said chief hydrographer Parry Oei from the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA).

"Visual aids like lighthouses, beacons and buoys are still relevant in warning ships as they sail near to the shore or shallow areas," he told AFP.

Named after colonial Singapore's founder Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the 29-metre (96-foot) high lighthouse was built in 1855 on a 1.3-hectare (3.2-acre) island named Pulau Satumu, which means "one-tree island" in Malay.

It warns ships of dangers such as sandbars and reefs and signals the presence of slow-moving large crude oil carriers by a raised cone in the day and a special white light at night.

Singapore handled 28.4 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) of container traffic and more than 503 million tonnes of cargo in 2010, making it one of the world's top ports.

But it had a humble beginning in colonial times.

In 1836, merchants and mariners wrote a petition to the British authorities calling for the erection of lighthouses in the Singapore Strait.

Pulau Satumu was recommended because of its conspicuous position, but the lighthouse's foundation was only erected on May 24, 1854, Queen Victoria's birthday, and it started operating on December 1, 1855.

Originally powered by a wick burner and manned by seven lightkeepers, the lighthouse now uses solar power to run energy-efficient quartz halogen lamps in its rotating beacon.

Two lightkeepers operate the facility, which is closed to the public. Only staff and coral reef researchers are given regular access to the island, but the MPA recently organised a tour for the media.

"We maintain the lighthouse, take care of vessels and communicate with the Port Operations Control Centre," said Narayanasamy Manikaveloo, a lightkeeper who has worked at Raffles Lighthouse for a year.

"It is like our own home," added the 48-year-old, who stays in self-contained living quarters below the lighthouse for 10-day stretches.

At night, ships within 20 nautical miles of Raffles Lighthouse see three white flashes every 20 seconds from the beacon.

Lighthouses are distinguished by their shape, colour and height in the day, and the colour of the light and flash character at night, complying with an international set of guidelines.

Although the operation of Raffles Lighthouse has been automated since 1988 and fully monitored from the mainland, lightkeepers are still needed to man the tower at all times due to its vital role as a navigational aid in the busy strait.

Gaharudin Abd Gani, who has been a lightkeeper for 23 years, used to sit on a bench outside the lighthouse in the 1970s, watching out for possible danger at sea using binoculars day and night.

After dark, the island is exceptionally quiet.

"At night it is very scary, and we watch over one another," said Manikaveloo.

The relatively light workload, low-cost lifestyle and comfortable pace of life are among the perks of the job, the lightkeepers say.

In their free time, they watch football on Indonesian and Singaporean television channels, read books, fish and grow plants in a garden.

"Working here is very calm and relaxing. Working in Singapore is very rushed," Gaharudin said over dinner as the sun set on the horizon.