How the west was lost

9 01 2015

The mention of Tuas, a far flung location in the west of Singapore, conjures up an image of its bleak and rather uninspiring industrial landscape, a patchwork of dull and faceless buildings within which much of Singapore manufacturing output is produced.  It would have been a very different Tuas that would have come to mind a little more that a generation ago, a Tuas that for those who express little sentiment for its then untamed shores, would have seemed wild, inaccessible and unproductive; a tangle of mangrove lined tidal inlets and muddy seashores.

The shores of the wild west today.

The shores of the wild west today.

The sea at the far west (National Archives of Singapore).

Wild as it was, it was not without human habitation. Access to the far west certainly was possible, requiring a drive along the long Jurong Road that wound through a rather lonely part of Singapore. The drive would end at the mouth of the Sungei Tuas estuary, the furthest west one could possible head to for a while on a public metalled road. It lay just beyond the road’s 18th milestone and brought with it the promise of seafood at what was the fishing village of Tuas to all who dared to venture.

Tuas Village, 1970. [This digital copy (c) National Library Board Singapore 2008. The original work (c) Tan Marilyn].

Tuas Village, 1970.
[This digital copy (c) National Library Board Singapore 2008. The original work (c) Tan Marilyn].

That reward, would of course only be made possible to those who not only had to endure what seemed an endless journey, but also brave enough; there were parts of the drive that especially on the after dinner journey in the dark, would not have been ones appreciated by the fainthearted. One particular stretch was at the road’s 13th milestone, just before one came to Hong Kah Village on the return journey, had been the source of many a tale of horror. That was where the gravestones of the Bulim cemetery close to the edge of the road, in the glare of the vehicle’s headlamps, would seem to reach out to anyone passing.

The reward just beyond the 18th milestone of the long and winding Jurong Road – the restaurant is still in existence in a location close to where it originall was (National Archives of Singapore).

It is a different set of horrors that await the visitor on the journey to the Tuas of today; the roads now far from lonely. Much of what we refer to Tuas today lies west of where the village had been, on land that has come out of the sea. This includes the “hockey stick” – a huge southward projection of land to the south part of which will host the future Tuas mega-port. Tuas, at its north-western corner, is also where the Second Link is located, carrying vehicles over to Malaysia, from what had been Tanjong Karang.

A lone mangrove tree within sight of the Second Link.

A lone mangrove tree within sight of the Second Link.

It is just south of Tanjong Karang where a small reminder of the previously wild west can be found (discounting the vast coastline of the Live Firing Area to its north from which our eyes have been shielded), although it lies out of sight to most of us beyond one of the ugly security fences that kills and deprives of any joys we can still derive from the seashore.

Life where one may not expect it.

Life where one may not expect it.

The intertidal region that exists, reaches out to the Merwang Beacon. It includes a naturally occurring extension of a much altered shoreline plus perhaps, a small remnant of what could be the original foreshore. It was at this point that the western tip of the island of Singapore in its unaltered state had been at Tanjong Merawang. Around the beacon, and also in the area just north of it where a small cluster of mangroves can be found, we are able to discover that there is still a small celebration of what might have been (see Ria Tan’s post on the visit  made on 23 Dec 2014: Return to Tuas Merawang Beacon).

The intertidal zone at Tanjong Merawang looking out towards Merawang Beacon and Pulau Merambong.

The intertidal zone at Tanjong Merawang looking out towards Merawang Beacon and Pulau Merambong.

A celebration above the sea that the shore also offers, is a perspective of the western end of the Singapore Strait. On a clear day, parts of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia can be seen, with the view southwest extending to the Indonesian Karimun Islands. That lies far beyond the Malaysian island of Pulau Merambong in the foreground. It would be interesting to note that the waters around Merambong is home to Malaysia’s largest intertidal seagrass meadow. And, in it, the country’s largest concentration of seahorses is said to be found.

The coastline of the far west of Singapore as seen in a 1927 map.

The coastline of the far west of Singapore as seen in a 1927 map.

This is unfortunately, under threat (see: Seagrass meadow in danger, The Star, 24 Mar 2014). Concerns raised on the impact that an ill-conceived and highly controversial luxury development project, Forest City, which will see four huge islands rise out of the waters close to Pulau Merambong, will have, include the threat it may pose to the rich marine life in the waters that surrounds the island. What that will do to what is left of the wild west of Singapore, already decimated by the developments closer to it, time will only tell.





Kampong Wak Hassan: Memories of Times Past

3 09 2013

“It is sad to see that all that remains of it is just a road sign”, sighs Yunos Osman about the village of his birth, where he lived for the first three decades of his life. The sign bears the name ‘Kampong Wak Hassan’, now a 150-metre stretch of road named after the village and except for that there is indeed little to remind us of Yunos’ kampung by the sea.

The seawall at Kampong Wak Hassan.

The seawall at Kampong Wak Hassan.

This kampung was one of several coastal villages situated along a stretch of Singapore’s northern coastline along what is today Sembawang Road and southeast of Tanjong Irau, at the mouth of Sungei Simpang. The oldest of the villages, Kampong Wak Hassan, has a history that goes back to before the 1920s, when it was moved to the area.

The village had its origins in a coconut grove established in 1914 by Wak Hassan bin Ali, who lent his name to the village. Located where Sungei Sembawang had originally spilled into the Johor Strait (just west of what today is Sembawang Shipyard), it was relocated during the construction of the huge British naval base along the northern coastline (the base was to stretch some 6.5 kilometres along the coast from Woodlands to Sembawang).

Kampong Wak Hassan, photo courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

Kampong Wak Hassan, photo courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

The village was also the area’s longest surviving one, cleared only at the end of the 1990s. For Yunos, who left it in 1994, and other former residents, the attachment they have to the area is still strong. Many return from time to time to sit by the former village’s sea wall. A narrow strip of public land between the road and the wall serves as a place where bygone days can be relived.

Most of the village’s former residents now live in new kampungs, public housing estates with modern amenities. Another former resident and descendant of the village’s founder, Yazlyn Ishak, enjoys the convenient aspects of her new home. However, despite the conveniences they now enjoy, many would have preferred to not trade the days when the sea was their playground, when they woke to the sight of fishing boats returning to waters coloured by the sunrise, when their doors did not have locks, for the urban world they now live in.

New luxury housing development in the area.

New luxury housing development in the area.

For both Yunos and Yazlyn, who moved to Yishun in 1987, it is the ‘kampung spirit’ that set village life apart from their new environment. Yazlyn’s fondest memories are of the times the village came together during preparations for festive occasions and weddings.

The sea wall, now partially collapsed, is a physical reminder of their former home that both Yunos and Yazlyn hope will remain. The area is currently in the throes of redevelopment and the sea wall is the only remaining physical part of the kampung. On part of the land where the kampung once stood, a luxury residential development has already taken shape.

The sea wall still welcomes visitors very much in the same way as the village it protected once did and also serves to remind us of what walls in villages such as Kampong Wak Hassan were – they offered privacy and protection, but were never a barrier to the development of a community; something we find lacking in the new ‘villages’.

The area today.

The area today.

The changes we see taking place around the former Kampong Wak Hassan are perhaps also a reflection of how society has changed. In former times many would have lived by the sea out of necessity because it provided a livelihood. Living by the sea has now become a measure of the material success that the new society so craves.

NB. ‘Kampong’ is the older Malay spelling of ‘kampung’, usage of which has been retained in place names.


This article was published in the September/October 2013 edition of the Friends of the Museums bi-monthly magazine, Passage (see link).