The haunted island in Northwest Singapore and its laird

17 11 2017

Pulau Sarimbun, a little known island tucked away in the northwest corner of the Johor or Tebrau Strait, has quite an interesting chapter in its history. Now forlorn and isolated due to the area’s heightened security, it was once a picnic spot and later a place of retirement for a Boer War veteran turned planter, tin miner and waterworks engineer, Mr W A Bates Goodall.

1932 Malaya, Jahore Straits, Pulau Serimban near Lim Chu Kang

Mr Goodall’s bungalow on Pulau Sarimbun in 1932 (photo courtesy of Mr Stephen Downes-Martin).

Mr Goodall arrived at our shores as part of his deployment when he was in the service with the Manchester Regiment in the early 1900s but left soon after as “soldiering in the east did not appeal to me”.  He visited the island regularly for picnics from 1923 to 1932 and as the “Robinson Crusoe life” appealed to him, decided to live in a bungalow perched on a cliff on the island upon his retirement after 13 years in the waterworks department in 1932. Mr Goodall was sometimes also referred to as the Laird of Sarimbun Island and “ruled” over four “subjects”: a Cambridge educated Chinese clerk, a Malay boatman and two Chinese servants and rented the island for some $35 annually. Mr Goodall lived on the island until his passing in October 1941 – just a few months before the Japanese invaded.

Pulau Sarimbun as seen on a 1938 map.

Interestingly, Mr Goodall wasn’t the island’s first inhabitant. There was apparently a mysterious Russian who lived in a hut on the island, who paid  a rent of “three peppercorns” annually at the end of the 1800s. Sarimbun Island was described in a The Straits Times 15 March 1936 article as “sunny, shady and delightful a spot as can be imagined” and commanding a view “embracing the Jalan Scudai waterfront of Johore, and the Pulai, and Plentong Hills”. The same articles also explains that its name means “shady island” in Malay*, which the people of the strait thought was haunted. A rare indigenous fossil fern thought to have been extinct in Singapore, the Dipteris, was found on the island in 2003.


Mr Max Bevilacqua Bell and the attempt to cross breed Friesian cows with Indian cows in Lim Chu Kang 

It is hard to imagine that Singapore had an agricultural past. The northwest corner, while we know was given to rubber (see also: A Lost World in Lim Chu Kang), was apparently also where cattle was reared.

The very rare photograph of Pulau Sarimbun was sent to me by Mr Stephen Downes-Martin in October 2015. Mr Downes-Martin, who lived in Singapore as a child in 1959, 1960, and then again in 1970, was the stepson of Mr Max Bevilacqua Bell,  a businessman whose association with Singapore began from the early 1920s and lasted until the 1970s. Among Mr Bell’s ventures in Singapore was in cattle rearing. Mr Bell had a farm in Lim Chu Kang on which he attempted to cross breed Friesian cows with Indian cows but the war put a halt to that venture. A photograph of Mr Bell’s house in Lim Chu Kang also came in the same email.

Mr Bell’s farm in Lim Chu Kang in the 1930s (photo courtesy of Mr Stephen Downes-Martin).


* Sarimbun probably follows the naming convention adopted for Singapore’s islands by the Orang Laut, which have a prefix sa- or se-. Rimbun in Malay translates to “lush” from a perspective of vegetation – which well describes the island.

 

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Still in the dark, where the darkness began this Sunday, 73 years ago

8 02 2015

In the darkness of a Sunday night, 73 years ago today, the end was to begin for Singapore. Just after 8 pm on 8 February 1942, the first wave of landings were made by Japanese troops  along the poorly defended and mangrove lined northwest coastline of the island.

In the dark: WWII landing site at Sarimbun Beach today with its fence to prevent a new invasion of  illegal immigrants and goods.

In the dark: WWII landing site at Sarimbun Beach today with its fence to prevent a new invasion of illegal immigrants and goods.

Defended by the ill prepared and poorly equipped Australian Imperial Forces’ 22nd Brigade, who were spread out thinly over a long stretch of the coastline, coupled with Percival’s misjudgement in focusing the defence of the island in its east, the area, the mangroves proved to be no barrier and the coast was very quickly overrun. The defence of Singapore was to fail miserably just a week later, a defeat that was to plunge Singapore in more than three years of darkness as the light of the Japanese Empire’s south.

“Sarimbun battle” by Unknown; original uploader was Grant65 at en.wikipedia. – Lionel Wigmore (1957) “Defence of Western Area” in Australia in the War of 1939–1945: Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (PDF), Canberra: Australian War Memorial, pp. 310 Transferred from en.wikipedia by Gorbi. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Much of the area today is still shrouded in darkness. Cut-off from the rest of Singapore by its relative inaccessibility and isolation – much of it is off limits as a large part of it lies within the Live Firing Area (and even where it isn’t, there is a fence intended to keep the new invasion of illegal immigrants and goods out that also cuts us off from our seas), it is an area seemingly forgotten even if there are markers in place to commemorate an event that should remain in the minds of all of us in Singapore.

A page from the Australian Imperial Forces 2/20 Battalion unit diary. The 2/20 Battalion was defending the sector where Sarimbun Beach is at the time of the landings.

A page from the Australian Imperial Forces 2/20 Battalion unit diary. The 2/20 Battalion was defending the sector where Sarimbun Beach is at the time of the landings.

Japanese forces landing on Singapore on the night of 8 February 1942 (Australian War Memorial – Copyright Expired).


Related:

Japanese footage from the Romano Archives, 1942 The Taking of Singapore, which includes some landing scenes:

Another landing site, The Pier: A lost world in Lim Chu Kang