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.