A return to our islands in the sun

27 06 2014

Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore’s Islands, as the name of the exhibition currently on at the National Museum of Singapore does suggest, takes us back to the islands of Singapore. Many of more than 70 island had once been inhabited – with communities that numbered from the hundreds to the thousands who were moved to the main island as part of redevelopment efforts. These communities were not just a well forgotten part of Singapore’s history, but also of the culture and history of a wider society that existed well before the coming of the British that was spread across the Riau Archipelago.

Lazarus and St. John's Islands (Pulau Sekijang Pelepah and Pulau Sekijang Bendara), two islands, now joined by a causeway that were once inhabited.

Lazarus and St. John’s Islands (Pulau Sekijang Pelepah and Pulau Sekijang Bendara), two islands, now joined by a causeway that were once inhabited.

An old postcard showing Kusu Island before reclamation.

An old postcard showing Kusu Island before reclamation.

The exhibition, curated by Marcus Ng and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, revisits life as it was and now hard to imagine on several of the inhabited islands through a mix of artefacts of island life, archival images, and most interestingly, the experience of island life told through video interviews with some of the islands’ former inhabitants. One interview that I did find particularly interesting was that of a former resident of Pulau Seking (or Sakeng) – the last of the southern islands to be inhabited with its residents having been resettled as recently as 1994, the very emotional Mr Teo Yan Teck. The interview see Mr Teo, who have lived on the island for close to four decades, talk about how he came to settle on the island, the emotions he felt when told he had to leave and also of the burning of boats by the islanders before they were to leave the island and a way of life they were used to, for good.

A highlight of Balik Pulau is the video interviews with some of the islands' former residents.

A highlight of Balik Pulau is the video interviews with some of the islands’ former residents.

A kolek sauh from Pulau Seraya at the exhibition - boats were an integral part of island life and featured in races the islands played host to.

A kolek sauh from Pulau Seraya at the exhibition – boats were an integral part of island life and featured in races the islands played host to.

Mr Teo, when asked about how he felt about leaving the island.

Mr Teo, when asked about how he felt about leaving the island.

The fascinating exhibition, which runs until 10 August 2014, will also play an important part as a hub one of the focal points for the upcoming Singapore Heritage Festival (SHS). Now in its 11th edition, the SHS, the theme of which this year will be Our Islands, Our Home, will run from 18 to 27 July 2014 and sees over 60 programmes available for the participation of the public, put up with the help of 40 community groups, individuals and partners with the aim of drawing Singaporeans to connect with their shared history and heritage.

The festival offers an opportunity to explore some of the southern islands through excursions.

The festival this year offers an opportunity to explore some of the southern islands through excursions.

A sandy beach at Pulau Seringat - an enlarged island which incorporates the former reef island of Pulau Renggit.

A sandy beach at Pulau Seringat – an enlarged island which incorporates the former reef island of Pulau Renggit.

The sisters.

The sisters.

St. John's Island.

St. John’s Island.

Pulau Tekukor or Dove Island - hear stories of its past when it was known as Pulau Penyabong and its association with the origins of the former name of Sentosa, Pulau Blakang Mati.

Pulau Tekukor or Dove Island – hear stories of its past when it was known as Pulau Penyabong and its association with the origins of the former name of Sentosa, Pulau Blakang Mati.

Kusu Island today.

An enlarged Kusu Island today.

The highlight of this year’s SHS has to be without a doubt the opportunity it provides to reconnect with the islands, not just through the exhibition and through a series of talks that are being lined up, but also through an immersive experience that guided excursions to the islands will certainly provide. The excursions will include visits to St. John’s, Lazarus and Seringat Islands; a rare opportunity to visit one of Singapore’s lighthouses (Raffles Lighthouse) and have a look from the boat at another (Sultan Shoal); and a night of Nanyin at Kusu Island.  Space for the excursions will be limited and sign-ups will be possible from 1 July 2014 at www.heritagefest.sg. More information on the SHS is also available at www.heritagefest.sg and information on the exhibition at http://www.nationalmuseum.sg/.

The Tua Pek Kong temple on Kusu Island, the site of an annual pilgrimage.

The Tua Pek Kong temple on Kusu Island, the site of an annual pilgrimage.

The temple also sees Nanyin performances by the Siong Leng Musical Association during the ninth lunar month and will by special arrangement host a night of nanyin that sees young musicians performing an traditional music form.

The temple also sees Nanyin performances by the Siong Leng Musical Association during the ninth lunar month and will by special arrangement host a night of nanyin that sees young musicians performing an traditional music form.

Another look at the Tua Pek Kong Temple.

Another look at the Tua Pek Kong Temple.

Besides the temple, the Keramats, graves of Malay saints that are venerated, are also visited by devotees.

Besides the temple, the Keramats, graves of Malay saints that are venerated, are also visited by devotees.

Another look at two of the keramats.

Another look at two of the keramats.

 

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My islands in the sun

13 04 2010

There was a time for me when my “Islands in the Sun”, borrowing the title of Harry Belafonte’s rendition of the theme song from the 1957 movie, Island in the Sun, were the group of islands that lay to the south of Singapore. I am not sure why I called them that, but I always looked forward to a trip to one of these islands, perhaps for the chance to visit Clifford Pier and descend the slippery steps to one of the boats, or perhaps for the chance to feel the sea breeze against my face as the boat chugged along the southern seas of Singapore. It more likely though, that it was the chance to sail the high seas, as my imagination would have it, to the sheltered bays of the islands that lay beyond the Roads, where the likes of Blackbeard and Captain Hook would await, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting vessel, on their brigs with the skull and crossbones fluttering atop the main mast.

The Southern Islands of Singapore were once bustling with village life. Several, including Pulau Ayer Chawan, Pulau Ayer Merbau, Pulau Merlimau, Pulau Pesek, Pulau Pesek Kecil, Pulau Sakra and Pulau Seraya in the south western group, have been joined together as Jurong Island and have ceased to exist.

That pirates once roamed the seas around the islands was once true, the islands having been the domain of the gypsies of the sea, the Orang Laut, who living off the sea. The Orang Laut, translated into “Sea People”, were known, well before Munshi Abdullah made a mention of them in his autobiography Hikayat Abdullah, in which he describes hundreds of skulls rolling at the entrance to the Singapore River, skulls which were said to belong to the victims of the priates, to turn to piracy, roaming around much of the seas of the Malay Archipelago in boats called “Perahu Pucok”, translated into “sprout boats” that doubled up as their homes. The Orang Laut had in fact been present at the time of Raffles landing on the river, and were said to have scampered at the sight of the landing party. By the time I had got to visit the seas though, piracy had been a thing of the past, suppressed largely through the efforts of a Captain Samuel Congalton of the East India Company, and remained only as a figment of a child’s overactive imagination. The Orang Laut by then, had by then, also ceased to exist as an community, having largely assimilated into the greater Malay communities of South-East Asia, the last known communities of Orang Laut being recorded in the 1960s. This included the communities who inhabited some of the southern islands such as Pulau Brani and Pulau Bukom.

My imagination aside, the southern islands of Singapore were certainly in a world apart from the one that I lived in – one may say that it is even today where one can be transported from the hustle and bustle of the island city, into the empty silence of a deserted dolled up islands, or into the huge mess of steel and concrete that is a petrochemical complex, but back then it was a different but living world, where communities of people who would in going about their day-to-day activities, give the islands a special charm.

On the slow boat to Pulau Sekijang Pelepah, 1970.

A trip I made to the islands in 1970 that I have some memories of, maybe because of the photographs that I still have, was one on which I had accompanied my mother, who being a school teacher, was taking her class on an excursion (excursions were what school children always looked forward to at the year’s end – I am not sure if they still do) to one of the islands, Pulau Sekijang Pelepah, now known as Lazarus Island. I made it a point to sit by the opened access door of the ferry to catch the salt scented wind on my face as the ferry broke through the waves stirred up by the north east monsoons. The seemingly long and slightly uncomfortable passage, which may have caused discomfort to several of the ferry’s passengers, was finally broken by the sight of the green islands that lay ahead. As the ferry approached, the wooden structures of the houses on stilts that lined the shoreline, some extending well into the sea, connected by raised wooden walkways that doubled as kelongs beneath them, came into view.

On the jetty, Pulau Sekijang Pelepah.

Arriving alongside the rickety jetty that looked as if it was about to topple over, the tide meant that we had to step out onto the slippery narrow steps that led up to the walkway above, aided by a boatman. Stepping onto the walkway, I was overcome by a sense of fear, brought about not by the pirates of my imagination, but by having to walk over the rickety walkway of the jetty, on which gaps from missing planks featured prominently, giving me a clear view of the murky sea that lay beneath the jetty.

The land’s end of the rickety jetty complete with missing planks.

Having lived mostly off the sea for generations, modern society caught up on the islanders by the time the 1970s had arrived. Many were forced to commute to Singapore to make a living and to receive their education. There was the odd primary school that was built, including one on St. John’s Island (Pulau Sekijang Bendara) – I remember a national primary school level football competition in which the team from the school I attended, St. Michael’s School, played against opponents from St. John’s Island School in the final, narrowly losing 1-2 to the islanders, but post-primary schooling had to be for all on the main island. The island villages which were run by a headman, a Penghulu, disappeared mostly in the 1970s and 1980s due to resettlement (a few were resettled earlier due to the setting up and expansion of the Shell refinery complex on Pulau Bukom), and many who had spent almost their entire lives on the islands, were forced to adapt to the confines of the small public flat.

Today, the islands are mostly uninhabited, wiped clean of the life that once existed. Many of the islands have also since disappeared, some absorbed into larger entities like Jurong Island, where a huge petrochemical complex now stands. Jurong Island through a series of land reclamations in the 1990s, joins together several islands to the south west of Singapore, including the main islands of Pulau Ayer Chawan, Pulau Ayer Merbau, Pulau Merlimau, Pulau Pesek, Pulau Pesek Kecil, Pulau Sakra and Pulau Seraya, increasing the total land area of the former individual islands there by three times.

Island village on stilts – Pulau Brani, early 20th Century.