Revisiting Tekong

13 01 2017

I revisited my first journey to Pulau Tekong last Friday. It is a journey that many a Singaporean son makes at the start of National Service, one that I made some three decades ago, when the island was already cleared of its previous inhabitants and made the home of Singapore’s largest Basic Military Training (BMT) complex. 31 years and three months since, it was time for my son to make his own journey. This first journey, is often accompanied by a a reluctance and a mix of emotions brought about by the fear of the relative unknown, the loss of two years of one’s prime and of life as one had known. While boys these days may be much better prepared for this and with family members now allowed to make part of the journey, it does not in anyway lessen the dread that comes with it.

My son’s journey began at noon, with a bus ride from Pasir Ris Bus Interchange. By contrast, my had begun in the militaristic setting of Dempsey Road where the Central Manpower Base (CMPB) was then based. That involved a trudge up the incline of the road that I was already very familiar with from the many occasions I needed to visit CMPB since I turned 12 to obtain an exit permit necessary to leave the country, and to have my passport extended. At the top, the induction into military life would be swift – civilian identification needed first to be surrendered and in no time I found myself lifting my right hand to take the Oath of Allegiance. Goodbyes – for those who family members had gathered – were quickly waved as enlistees were being rushed up a 3-tonner Bedford truck for what was to be a long and uncomfortable ride.

The first stop, Keat Hong Camp, was where enlistees was kitted up and given their first taste of the then infamously bad army food. We were then back on the 3-tonner  for the road trip across the island that ended on the beach at Changi. There we would wait for the Ramp Powered Lighter (RPL) for the final part of the trip and it would only be late in the afternoon that we found ourselves being marched in the then still rustic settings to what would serve as home for much of the three months to come – the Infantry Training Depot’s (ITD) rather sinister looking Camp 1.

The island has much less of a rustic feel these days – at least at the landing point at which enlistees and their family members find themselves after a much more comfortable ride from Changi on a civilian operated catamaran ferry. From the new and sheltered jetty at Tekong, the immense Ladang Camp complex comes into sight. It is where the bulk of the enlistees will be based at during their stint in BMT- some would however find themselves based inland at a second camp complex at Rocky Hill. This transformation came as quite a surprise to me, even if I may have had glimpses of the island from the air and from the boat when I visited Beting Bronok and Pengerang in more recent times .

With there no longer being a need to make the long detour to the Keat Hong with kits now being issued on the island, the journey is also a lot more efficient. In a matter of four hours from boarding the bus at Pasir Ris, family members would have been briefed on what their sons, grandsons or brothers would go through, get a glimpse of how they would sleep, be told about when to expect them home, witness the taking of the Oath, have a taste of the much improved and now catered army food with the enlistees and also wave their goodbyes.


In photographs

The journey now begins at Pasir Ris Bus Interchange.

The journey now begins at Pasir Ris Bus Interchange.

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No longer does it involve a long and uncomfortable ride on a 3-tonner. Enlistees (and accompanying family members) are now transported in air-conditioned comfort directly to the SAF Ferry Terminal at Changi Beach.

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The wait to board the ferry is also sheltered. Back then, the wait (and ride across) would have involved standing exposed to the elements.

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The jetty. Tides are no longer a consideration. Previously boarding would have been up the ramp of a beached RPL that was only able to land at the higher tides. This consideration resulted in several shortened weekends – when unfavourable tide times could translate into having to head back to camp on a Sunday morning.

Civilian operated catamaran ferries are used these days where previously Ramp Powered Lighters - which could only beach at high tide - were used.

Civilian operated catamaran ferries are used these days.

Boarding the ferry,

Boarding the ferry,

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The first view of Tekong is no longer over the bulwark of the sun baked deck of the RPL but from the air-conditioned passenger cabin of the catamaran ferry.

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A first view through a ferry porthole.

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Arriving at Tekong.

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The well sheltered jetty at Tekong.

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The view of Ladang Camp from the jetty – almost paradise?

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The welcome at the end of the jetty.

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An briefing on Basic Military Training, aimed at providing assurance to family members.

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Family members are taken on a bus tour, whilst enlistees are being in-processed.

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A view of the Parade Square at Ladang Campfrom the bus.

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A tour of a show bunk. Bed frames are a lot sturdier and mattresses much thicker (we had 2 inch mattresses supported – if you can call it that – by soft bed springs, or the little that was left of the springs).

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Bunks are also a lot more airy.

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Enlistees rejoining family members for a meal after taking the oath.

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Queuing at the cookhouse.

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Falling in.

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Ke-kanan pusing – a first march and a last look.


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Beting Bronok: that bit of Singapore beyond the northern shores of Tekong

20 06 2014

I have made a habit of getting up at ungodly hours of late. While I may not be alone on that in Singapore since the excitement of Brazil began last week, my motivation has little to do with the beautiful game and what I really am losing sleep over is a desire to acquaint myself with some of Singapore’s lesser known shores for a project I have embarked on.

One example of the colourful company one gets to keep that compensates for the lack of sleep.

One example of the colourful company one gets to keep that compensates for the lack of sleep: a noble volute – a variety of large sea snail.

One of the magical moment I am losing sleep over - first light over a submerged reef at exposed at low tide.

One of the magical moments I am losing sleep over: first light over a submerged reef on Beting Bronok, exposed at low tide.

Monday morning had me on a boat at 5 in the morning bound for a relatively remote and unheard shore north of the restricted military island of Pulau Tekong. A submerged reef with a rather curious sounding name, Beting Bronok, I did only hear of it when it came up as one of two nature areas identified for conservation in the 2013 Land Use Plan that was released in support of the hotly debated Population White Paper, which was confirmed in the recently gazetted 2014 Master Plan.

More views of Beting Bronok at first light.

Another view of Beting Bronok at first light.

Marine conservationists carrying out a survey on the reef.

Marine conservationists carrying out a survey on the reef.



Land Use Plan on Beting Bronok & Pulau Unum

We have added Beting Bronok & Pulau Unum and Jalan Gemala to our list of Nature Areas, where the natural flora and fauna will be protected from human activity. Beting Bronok and Pulau Unum extend the Pulau Tekong Nature Area. These sites contain a wide array of marine and coastal flora and fauna. Of particular significance are two locally endangered mangrove plant species (out of 23 species from 13 families), three very rare and ten rare mollusc species (out of 36 species from 16 families). Some of the wildlife species found here are the Knobbly Sea Star (Protoreaster nodosus) and Thorny Sea Urchin (Prionocidaris sp.).

Beting Bronok and Pulau Umun is one of two nature areas identified for conservation.Beting Bronok and Pulau Umun is one of two nature areas identified for conservation.


‘Beting’, as I understand, refers to a sandbar or a shoal in Malay. That sandbars were identifiable by names is perhaps an indication of the interactions that the people of the littoral might once have had with them. The opportunity for interaction today has of course been drastically diminished with the tide of development sweeping the people of the sea to higher and dryer grounds and many of the staging points for such being closed off.

The view across Beting Bronok to the gaping mouth of Sungai Johor.

The view across Beting Bronok to the gaping mouth of Sungai Johor.

A glass anemone.

A glass anemone.

The Bronok Sandbar and the waters around it, are ones once rich in marine life drawn to its reef, which is exposed only at low spring tides. The only submerged reef left in the northern waters, it unfortunately is in poor health due to the effects of nearby reclamation work. The indefatigable marine conservation champion, Ria Tan, with whom I had the privilege of visiting the reef with, likens what are her annual visits to reef, to watching a favourite grandmother “painfully, slowly fade away” (see her recent post Beting Bronok is slowly dying).

A biscuit star.

A deformed biscuit star.

Walking with a walking stick on water - Ria Tan.

Walking with a walking stick on water – Ria Tan.

Staring into the gaping mouth of Sungai Johor, the reef is fed by waters where a huge amount of fresh water is mixed in with the sea. The river, is one that does have a history. It was at the heart of the early Johor Sultanate that was established in the fallout from the loss of Malacca to the Portuguese, its waters disturbed by the movements of the floating instruments of colonialisation headed up river in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The incoming tide with a view of Pengerang on the left bank of Sungai Johor.

The incoming tide with a view of Pengerang on the left bank of Sungai Johor.

An octopus.

An octopus.

The cannons the waters hear today, are only imaginary. Fired from dry ground on nearby Tekong, in mock battles fought in that rite of passage required of young Singaporean men as reluctant recruits. The bigger battle for many on Tekong, would be fought in their minds as the young men, many fresh out of school, struggle to adapt to the rigours and physical demands of boot camp away from the comforts of home.

Another anemone.

Another anemone.

And another.

And another.

The passage in the dark through knee deep waters from the boat to the dry ground on the sandbar, while it did not quite require a battle, was one that was filled with trepidation – the graphic accounts told on the boat of painful brushes with the not so gentle creatures of the shallows does have the effect of putting the fear of God in you (see also: Chay Hoon’s encounter with a stingray at Beting Bronok and Ivan Kwan stepping on a stonefish). The utterance during the passage of what did sound like “I see a stripey snake” did surely have added effect – especially in recalling an encounter from my youthful days that had a similarly decorated creature sinking its fangs into an ankle belonging to a friend of the family.

Probably a false scorpion fish I am told.

Probably a false scorpion fish I am told.

That encounter, wasn’t so far away, at Masai in the waters of the same strait, taking place in the confusion that accompanied a frenzied rush to vacate the waters, from which we had been harvesting ikan bilis, that followed shouts of “snake, snake”. The family friend was extremely fortunate. No venom was transferred in the exchange, and other than the shock clearly visible in the colour and expression that he wore, there were no other ill effects.

A Bailer Snail making a meal of another snail.

A Bailer Snail making a meal of another snail.

Standing on the sandbar at the break of day is as surreal as it is a magical experience, especially so at the moment when the luminescent early light reveals the sandbar’s craggy coral littered surface – the magic is especially in the sense that is does also give of space and isolation, a feeling that does seem elusive on the overcrowded main island.

A nudibranch.

A nudibranch.

A seahorse taking shelter.

A seahorse taking shelter.

It didn’t however take very long before I was reminders of where in time and space I was, the roar of the emblems of the new colonial powers of progress and prosperity on an angled path from and to one of the busiest airports in the world at Changi, was hard to ignore. The area lies directly below one of the the approaches to the airport located close to Singapore’s eastern tip and built on land that has come up where the sea once had been, sitting right smack over what had once been one of Singapore’s most beautiful coastal areas, and an area in which I had my first and fondest memories of our once beautiful sea.

JeromeLim-3999 Beting Bronok

JeromeLim-4009 Beting Bronok

As did the seemingly fleeting moments I did steal from the lost paradise of my childhood days, the fleeting moments discovering Beting Bronok’s fading beauty will leave a lasting impression on me. My hope is that, unlike the names of the places of the lost paradise that have faded into obscurity, the curious sounding Beting Bronok is a name through which our future generations are reminded of what had once been our beautiful sea.

The wild shores are perhaps a little wilder than you think.

The wild shores are perhaps a little wilder than you think.

 





A picture from the past

6 08 2013

Looking through old photographs of what perhaps was a lost decade for me, the 1980s, I stumbled upon a rare one of Changi Beach, taken some time in 1987. The beach, one on which I have had many experiences of going back to the late 1960s, had by that time already lost its popularity as a place for a family outing – missing were the beach side cafes, the wooden sampans, deck chairs and rubber tubes from a time when you could drive right up to the edge of the beach and find a shady spot under a ketapang tree to park your car under.

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The coarse sand beach in the 1980s was one abandoned by many in Singapore for the man-made beach lining the reclaimed land at East Coast Park. It is perhaps beyond the foreshore that does make the photograph interesting. Along the horizon two kelongs, structures erected to harvest fish from the sea, can be seen. The structures which once dominated the seascape off much of Singapore, are now a rare sight.

Knobbly sea stars.

Knobbly sea stars seen at Pulau Semakau – once a common sight on the seabed off Changi Beach at low tide.

The kelongs remind me of happier times past, when wading out to them at low tide was possible, across knee deep water over a seabed of sea grass meadows abundant with sea life.  It was on the many walks my parents took me on in the late 1960s and 1970s that I was to catch my first glimpse of knobby sea stars, fiddler crabs, gong-gong and sea cucumber – marine creatures that are rarely seen in our waters these days (we do also have to head to our offshore islands such as Pulau Ubin and Pulau Semakau to see them).

The shallow waters during low tide off Changi Beach provided hours of endless fun with the creatures that lived amongst the sea grass. A fiddler crab is seen here.

A fiddler crab seen at Chek Jawa off Pulau Ubin.

Sea cucumber.

Sea cucumber – also once a common sight off Changi Beach.

There are also several less than happy memories I can find in the photograph. Scanning the horizon, a glimpse of Pulau Tekong is seen on the right. It just west of this spot where I would board a Ramp Powered Lighter (RPL) from the beach as a National Service recruit for a dreaded 40 minute ride on an open deck to the island. The RPLs were the means by which personnel were ferried to and from the two Basic Military Training camps on Pulau Tekong in those days. Having to beach also meant the RPLs could only come in at high tide – which translated into shortened weekends for us as when we could get back and had to go back in, was very much determined by the time when the tide was high. That meant we would sometimes get out only in the afternoon, only to have to get back to the beach on the morning of the following day. It is a lot easier these days, recruits leave from and arrive at a purpose built ferry terminal, and without having to wait for the tide, all it does take to get to Pulau Tekong is a less than 15 minute ride on a fast ferry.

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As with the means by which personnel are sent over to Pulau Tekong, much about Changi Beach has changed. Many of the ketapang, acacia, pong pong and casuarina trees under which we might once have found Malay ladies weaving ketupat pouches from young coconut leaves, have since been uprooted. In their place, we now see a footpath with stone benches and trees carefully arranged where cars could once drive up to. The beach, littered with the deposits of the tide: seashells, mangrove propagules and drift wood, and the trunk of a coconut palm, is otherwise empty as is the horizon. It is reflective of the world we now find ourselves in, a world in which we have discarded much of who we were and one which we fill with the emptiness we now seek for our souls.