Pilgrimage to an isle of legends

11 10 2018

The southern isles of Singapore are steeped in myths, legends and traditions. While most seem to lie buried in the sands that have expanded them, one that lives on is the pilgrimage to Pulau Tembakul – Kusu Island – that some accounts have as going back over two centuries to 1813.

Kusu during a pilgrimage season of the past – crossing the causeway at low tide. (photo: National Museum of Singapore on Facebook).

The annual event draws a steady stream of Taoist devotees. Although the numbers may have fallen from the highs of the 1960s and 1970s, thousands still make the short passage by sea every ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar (which began on 9 October this year) to seek favour and blessings at the island’s holy sites. The sites are a temple dedicated to the popular Taoist deity Tua Pek Kong, and three keramat-keramat, which in this case are the supposed graves of (Muslim) holy persons who are venerated. This practice has its roots in Sufism and is discouraged by mainstream Islam and has over the years found a following amongst the Chinese.

A devotee making her way to Kusu in 1971 (source: The Aged In Singapore: Veneration Collides With The 20th Century, Nada Skerly Arnold, 1971).

Two of the island’s three keramat-keramat (found at the top of 152 steps).

Perhaps the most popular of the island’s legends is one tied very much to the name Kusu. The island, which in its pre-reclamation days actually resembled a tortoise at high tide; its head, the outcrop on which the temple was built, and its body, the mound to which the head was linked by a natural causeway at low tide at the top of which the keramat-keramat are found. This legend, which also provides a basis for the pilgrimage, has it that a tortoise (or more correctly a turtle) had rescued two fishermen from drowning by turning itself into the island.  There are several more legends that provide an explanation for the origins of the pilgrimage, the keramat-keramat and the personalities that they are associated with – all of which are unverified (see: Kusu Island – on Infopedia).

Another perspective of the island: The tortoise in the early light of day

An old postcard showing Kusu Island before reclamation.

The Tua Pek Kong temple on the ‘head’ of the tortoise (source: The Aged In Singapore: Veneration Collides With The 20th Century, Nada Skerly Arnold, 1971).

The head of the tortoise (photo: Steffen Röhner on Panoramio).

The temple and the expanded island today.


The pilgrimage season in photographs

More on the pilgrimage in modern times: Keeping alive Kusu Island pilgrimage (The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2017).


Advertisements




Sand and a sargassum sea

29 01 2015

The landscape of our southern seas, once of tiny islands, reefs and sandbars within which sea nomads and pirates took refuge, is one that has drastically been altered. Totems of the new-age now mark the landscape, particularly in the southwest, a landscape that in a matter of time would only be one of the sea’s lost innocence.

The totems of the new age seen on Pulau Ular, from Beting Pempang, with the silhouettes of trees on Pulau Hantu in the foreground. Pulau Ular is an island that is now part of a larger landmass that has it joined it to Pulau Busing to its west and Pulau Bukom Kechil to its east.

The totems of the new age seen on Pulau Ular, from Beting Pempang, with the silhouettes of trees on Pulau Hantu in the foreground. Pulau Ular is an island that is now part of a larger landmass that has it joined it to Pulau Busing to its west and Pulau Bukom Kechil to its east.

Thankfully, not all innocence has been lost and in the shadows of the grey emblems of our industrial advance, we still find some of the joys of our shallow seas, joys that perhaps offer us some hope.

Navigation chart showing locations of patch reefs and sandbars south of the Bukom cluster.

Navigation chart showing locations of patch reefs and sandbars south of the Bukom cluster.

The seascape in the area of the Bukom group of islands and Pulau Hantu, is one we do still find joy in. It is where a cluster of submerged reef and sandbars, in being exposed during the lowest of tides, reveal a world now hard to imagine, rich in life we might never have thought could be there. The reefs also offer us a glimpse at a landscape that is perhaps as alien in appearance as it is bizarre – especially in juxtaposing it against a backdrop painted by the fast encroaching industrial world.

A sea of sargassum. The view across Terumbu Hantu towards Pulau Busing, which is now part of a larger land mass that joins Busing to Pulau Ular and Pulau Bukom Kechil..

A sea of sargassum. The view across Terumbu Hantu towards Pulau Busing.

One particularly outlandish sight is that of a yellowish green sea, under which one of the submerged reefs, Terumbu Hantu, just west of the island of Pulau Hantu. While it probably cannot be described as a pretty sight, especially with the high chance of stepping on a venomous creature such as a stone fish when treading through what is a seasonal sea of sargassum, it does have a hard to describe appeal that does has one stopping to admire it.

A sea of sand ... the view across a sandbar, Beting Pempang, towards a Pulau Busing and Pulau Ular now dominated by a huge petrochemical complex.

A sea of sand … the view across a sandbar, Beting Pempang, towards a Pulau Busing and Pulau Ular.

Another view across Beting Pempang.

Another view across Beting Pempang.

Green green grass of the sea.

Green green grass of the sea.

Across from the yellow-green sea, a sandbar, Beting Pempang, proved a little more inviting. The views across it, while nothing as strange as the sargassum sea, did not disappoint. Without the cover its eastern neighbour had, it offered an opportunity to find more joy in, joy in the form of the amazing lifeforms many of us who cut ourselves off from the sea, would never imagine could exist.

JeromeLim-7326

A flat worm.

A flat worm.

A spider conch.

A spider conch.

A brittle star.

A brittle star.

A swimming file clam.

A swimming file clam.

An eel.

An eel.

In a Singapore that has little sentiment for such little joys, the future does not seem bright for the reefs in this cluster. The 2013 Land Use Plan identifies it as an area in which offshore reclamation is possible in a future when we may need ourselves to spill into the sea to gain breathing space, buried under land that will extend the shores of the Bukom group southward and westward – not a pretty thought. As long as its still is there however, there can be hope.

Possible future reclamation poses a threat to the future of the reefs (and the islands).

Possible future reclamation identified by the 2013 Land Use Plan sees a bleak future for the reefs south of Bukom.

The sky at twilight from Beting Pempang, coloured by the advancing petrochemical plants that now dominate much of the southwestern shores.

The sky at twilight from Beting Pempang, coloured by the advancing petrochemical plants that now dominate much of the southwestern shores.

More at Ria Tan’s Wild Shores of Singapore: Terumbu Hantu and Terumbu Pempang Kechil.

 





The fast fading ghosts of Ghost Island

12 09 2014

The search for the ghosts of times forgotten takes me to some fascinating places. One place I found myself in recently was an island whose name hints of quite a haunted past, Pulau Hantu – Malay for Ghost Island. Long held with much superstition, why the island, which has remained uninhabited in recent memory, possesses its rather sinister sounding name seems to have been lost on many.

Dawn over an island abandoned by its ghosts.

Dawn over an island abandoned by its ghosts.

One theory about how it got its name is that much of the island (when seen at low tide) seems to vanish like a ghost in the night with the rising tide, leaving no more than two coconut tree lined sandbars above the water. While that is quite plausible, it lacks the mystery and forbidding that many would think is more deserving of the title.

Less than ghostly apparitions ...

Less than ghostly apparitions … across the channel at Pulau Ular

A 1939 newspaper article written about stories and superstitions of old Malaya does provide a more disquieting take on the origins of the island’s name, attributing it to Pulau Hantu’s haunting by spirits of the dead connect to a “long forgotten story of death and cruelty”, revealing some of the superstition with which the island was held by the people of the coast:

Pulau Hantu, though planted with coconuts, has no one living on it. There is no water to be got there by digging, but that is not the reason for no one desiring to live there.  In the centre of the place are to be found many graves, and there is some long-forgotten story of death and cruelty which makes the place haunted by the spirits of these unfortunate people, so that it is but seldom visited by the Malays, and then only to collect ripe coconuts, which are the property of a man on the next island, to which one can wade at very low tides.

(More Stories And Superstitions Of Old Malaya: Tales related by an old Malay to “Yahya”, The Straits Times, 9 April 1939)

An are of mangroves on the northern shore of Pulau Hantu Besar.

An are of mangroves on the northern shore of Pulau Hantu Besar.

The island, or as it is more commonly taken to be today, two islands, Pulau Hantu Besar and Pulau Hantu Kechil, has since expanded in size. Additional land mass through reclamation work in the 1970s, enlarged its total area by some 12 times. While there may have been a reluctance to visit it amongst the people of the sea, it has actually long been known as a spot for recreation, and its sandy beaches and rich coral reefs have attracted many picnic goers and campers as well as divers as far back as the early twentieth century. Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC), under whose charge the two islands have come under since the mid 1970s, continues to keep the islands open for recreational activities.

The view across the lagoon between the two parts to Pulau Hantu towards Pulau Ular.

The view across the lagoon between the two parts to Pulau Hantu towards Pulau Ular.

It is perhaps in keeping with the SDC sanctioned version of the tale behind the islands’ names that sees the two parts to the island being considered as two individuals islets. This version has as much to to with the spirits dwelling on the islands as with the tale told by the old Malay in 1939, as it has with jinns and sea spirits, fitting quite nicely into the collection of stories once told of our seemingly turbulent seas.

Smoking guns at Pulau Ular.

Another view by night across the lagoon – towards the smoking guns across at Pulau Ular.

I am reminded of this coming ashore on Pulau Hantu Besar. This version of the tale is what all visitors are confronted with at the inshore end of the jetties on both islands, told from a prominently placed signboard marked with these words:

There were once two great warriors locked in a fierce battle at sea. Many people died and the blue seas slowly became polluted with human blood, upsetting the Jinns at the bottom of the ocean. In anger, one powerful Jinn created a whirlpool and sucked the two warriors deep into the sea to drown them. Undeterred, they continued their battle.

Suddenly, the Jinn sprayed water onto one of them. The other warrior, seeing his opponent blinded, thrust his sword into his abdomen. At the same time, the wounded warrior forced his sword into the other man. Both collapsed and died.

The gods felt it was wrong for the seas’ spirits to interfere in human affairs, so the Jinn transformed the two warriors into islets so that their spirits could live on. As one of the warriors was smaller than the other, his islet was known as Pulau Hantu Kecil, while the larger one was named Pulau Hantu Besar.

Wandering around the shores of Pulau Hantu Besar, just a few hours past the witching hour, I am confronted not by jinns, sea spirits or ghosts but by the glare of the gods of the new age. It is from the angry stare of smoking chimneys and lighted towers of steel that now rise to the island’s north that the jinns and sea spirits have retreated, leaving only footprints fading in the sand. With no more shadows left to hide in, it is in the echoes that we find the the ghosts of Pulau Hantu, echoes in which I can only hear, the evanescing whispers of words that will soon lose their meaning.

The angry glare of the gods of the new age.

The angry glare of the gods of the new age.


The islands of many ghosts:

Singapore’s islands, rich in the legends of a time we have been made to forget, have many fascinating tales to tell; hints of which are found in the names of many of the islands. The islands were once an integral part of a larger maritime based society that spanned across the Riau archipelago that through the enforcement of national boundaries, resettlement, reclamation and development, have broken their links to a centuries old past.

Among the tales that have survived the self-inflicted amnesia is that of the junk that was turned into the island of Pulau Jong, Junk Island, although it may not be for very much longer. The course that has been set for the junk, based on the 2013 Land Use Plan,  will set it on collision course with a larger land mass that will have it aground by the year 2030.

Several islands, having been renamed, have also lost their ghosts. One that comes to mind is the former Pulau Penyabong (now Pulau Tekukor), where warriors were said to have dueled to the death. That tale also features Tekukor’s northern companion, the former Pulau Blakang Mati, which in being re-branded as Sentosa – the isle of Peace and Tranquility, has been cleansed of what is possibly a gory past.

The islands that are the subject of this post, Pulau Hantu, were, interestingly not alone in being so named. The other Pulau Hantu, is to be found in Keppel Harbour (see post: A Sunrise from Ghost Island) and having had its ghost exorcised in 1983 after Keppel Shipyard gained possession of it, is now called Keppel Island. Keppel shipyard has since moved away from the area and the island is now where the Marina @ Keppel Bay is located.

The Pulau Hantu, or I should say Pulau-pulau Hantu, I found myself looking for ghosts on, are located in the south-west, just south of a more recently created island that has fused the previously individual islands of Pulau Bukom Kechil, Pulau Ular, and Pulau Busing – on which a petrochemical complex is being developed, together.

Apart from the hantu found in their names, there is little that is now ghostly about the islands. A popular dive spot, the islands are also where campers and fishermen, seeking an escape from the urban world, can head to. While the surreal glow from the monster of a petrochemical complex on Pulau Ular brightening up the northern shores of the two islands may not be what a camper seeking an escape might appreciate, the islands are probably as far out from urban Singapore one could practically run off to, while still remaining in Singapore.

More information on Pulau Hantu (Besar and Kechil), as well as the rich array of marine life found in its reefs can be found at the following links:

Sisters’ Islands and Pulau Hantu (Sentosa Leisure Management)

The Hantu Bloggers

A special National Day at Pulau Hantu! (Wildshores of Singapore)

Lionfish on Lion City’s birthday at Pulau Hantu!

Sea the hidden depths of Singapore (Asia One)

The view across the inter-tidal mud flat towards what would once have been Pulau Busing.

The view across the inter-tidal mud flat towards what would once have been Pulau Busing.

A different ghost in the night.

A different ghost in the night.


 





The bloodstained cliffs south of Sentosa

7 08 2014

Unlike its better known northern companion, the isle of Peace and Tranquility, Sentosa, the island of Pulau Tekukor is one that rarely gets a mention. Named in Malay after the rather benign spotted-neck dove – tekukur (as it is spelt today) is derived from the sound the bird makes, the name, so it seems, masks quite a sinister past.

A tekukur in flight.

A tekukur in flight.

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.

If one of the forgotten stories of our shores are to be believed, a curse was said to have been placed on Pulau Tekukor and despite the island’s welcoming sandy beaches, the island is one that unlike its immediate neighbours, has never been inhabited. The curse, one that left its soil incapable of supporting any useful plant life as well as leaving it without a source of freshwater, as the story goes, is a result of the island’s violent past, a past that does provide a possible explanation as to how the nearby island of Sentosa acquired its mysterious previous name,  Pulau Blakang Mati (the island of death at the back).

The eastern end of Sentosa today with Terumbu Buran in the foreground.

The paradise end of Sentosa today with Terumbu Buran in the foreground, now an isle for the living.

Pulau Tekukor was once itself, known by another name, Pulau Penyabong. Penyabung (as penyabong is spelt today), as is used in more recent times, has connotations of bloody confrontations, having been associated with the cruel but once popular sport of cockfighting. The fights, however, that were thought to have taken place on the island, so that blood not stain the soils of the more sacredly held islands, involved creatures not of the feathered kind. Pitting keris wielding Malay and Bugis warriors of the old world, these confrontations were duels to the death, for which the reward for the vanquished, was a final journey to be buried on an island that now for some, does seem like paradise on earth.

Another view of Tekukor a.k.a. Penyabong, Sisters' Islands can be seen to its south-west. The channel on the west of the island, Sisters Fairway is also known as Selat Tanjong Hakim.

Another view of Tekukor a.k.a. Penyabong, Sisters’ Islands can be seen to its south-west. The channel on the west of the island, Sisters Fairway is also known as Selat Tanjong Hakim.

Besides the curiously named Pulau Blakang Mati, another name that is thought to be linked to the bloody battles, is Selat Tanjong Hakim (now more commonly referred to Sisters’ Fairway in navigation charts). Hakim being the Malay word for judge – the selat or strait west of Penyabong, would have watched over the duels, in the same way a judge might have presided over the fights.

Another view of the former Pulau Blakang Mati.

Another view of the former Pulau Blakang Mati.

As Pulau Tekukor, the island became a commercial explosives storage facility for the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) in the 1980s- after the island was enlarged by reclamation of its western shores. There was also a proposal to turn it into a sanctuary for long-tailed macaques that surfaced in the mid 2000s that did not take off and as of today, there are no known plans for the island and the island remains as mysterious as it long has been.

The sandy beaches and 'bloodstained' cliff faces of Tekukor.

The sandy beaches and ‘bloodstained’ cliff faces of Tekukor.

In its cliff faces that are still seen today – stained by the blood of the fallen, there perhaps is the only reminder of the story of the island; a tale that, as with the many stories from our islands handed down through the generations telling us of a past we long have discarded, may never again be told.





Paradise found in a paradise lost

7 08 2012

Very early on a Saturday morning, I found myself boarding a boat headed for Singapore’s offshore landfill at Pulau Semakau. Established in the sea space that once separated two of Singapore’s once inhabited southern islands, Pulau Sakeng (or Seking as it was also known as) and (the original) Pulau Semakau, and contained by a 7 kilometre bund, the landfill has seen the creation of an enlarged single island which has kept the name of the larger of the two islands, Pulau Semakau.

The enlarged Pulau Semakau has been created from a landfill between two existing islands the original Pulau Semakau (to the west) and the smaller Pulau Sakeng (to the east) that is contained by a 7 km perimeter bund.


(Memories of Pulau Seking (Sakeng) posted on youtube by a former resident)

The original Southern Islands of Singapore – Pulau Seking (Sakeng) can be seen south of Pulau Bukom. The larger island to the west of Pulau Seking was the original Pulau Semakau to which it is now attached .

What had motivated me to catch a taxi at 4.15 in the morning just to get on the boat wasn’t so much a fascination for what Singapore does with its waste, but a intertidal walk on, what may surprise some, an expansive tidal flat on what is left of a natural shoreline that has long been known to be rich in marine biodiversity – that despite the extensive disturbance of the natural environment caused by what has gone on around the island. The large tidal flat is one of the few that’s also left in a Singapore that has been robbed of much of its natural shorelines by the extensive land reclamation work that has been carried out both on its mainland and offshore and offers an experience that is well worth waking up at 3.45 am for.

Part of the natural shoreline of the original Pulau Semakau which has an expansive tidal flat still exists in the north-western corner of the enlarged island, home to an offshore landfill.

The journey to Pulau Semakau began with a boat ride at 5.15 am.

A very comfortable hour’s boat ride from Marina South Pier was all it took to get to the island. The ride in the darkness before daybreak offered none of the excitement that had accompanied my first journeys to the southern islands, but the ride was certainly by a very similar sense of anticipation. The point of landing on Pulau Semakau was the area which once had been Pulau Sakeng, the last to be vacated of the two islands in the early 1990s and cleared of its stilted wooden dwellings that extended out from its shoreline, bears no resemblance at all to an island that for its inhabitants would have seemed like a little piece of paradise compared to the all too crowded mainland they now find themselves in.

… which arrived at about 6.20 am at what once was Pulau Sakeng (now part of the enlarged Pulau Semakau).

What was meant to have been a half an hour’s walk to the north-west corner of the enlarged island and where what is left of the tidal flats which had once surrounded the original Pulau Semakau is still left relatively untouched, turned into one that took a little more than an hour with the distraction caused by the colours of the fast lightening sky behind us. From the wide roadway built on top of the northern bund we had walked along, we trudged through a small mosquito infested forested area to get to the tidal flats, which by the time we got there, lay exposed by the tide which had already ebbed, with a few bakau mangrove trees to greet us and perhaps remind us of the coastal vegetation which would have once encircled the island, and is thought to give the island its name.

The walk into the darkness towards the western end of Pulau Semakau.

The colours of the sunrise served to lengthen what would have been a half an hour’s walk along the bund.

The view towards Pulau Jong.

Tidal flats have for me always served as wonderful places for discovery and walks I am now able to take on such flats always bring to mind the wonderful excursions of the sea grass fields off Changi Beach of my childhood, during a time when the sandy seabed there was littered with an abundance of knobbly sea stars, sea cucumbers, and crabs darting across and burrowing into the sand. Those were times when armed with a butterfly net, we would fill a small plastic pail with harvest of edible marine snails (gong-gong), shrimps and flower crabs which we could put on a grill.

A forested area separates the natural shoreline at the western end from the paved road constructed on the bund.

The sun rises over the flat.

Evidence of a concrete jetty that was once used by the island’s inhabitants seen in the mangroves.

A lone mangrove on the tidal flat.

Mangrove regeneration … besides the naturally occurring regeneration of mangroves, mangroves have been replanted along the areas of the coastline disturbed by the work that has gone on.

A group of photographers walking across the tidal flat.

Another view of the tidal flat looking towards Pulau Bukom.

A field of sea grass.

The tide starting to flow in – a view towards the edge of the tidal flat.

A sense of the space on the flat.

Right at the beginning of the walk on the tidal flat, our guide, Ron, made a very interesting discovery – a red nudibranch (sea-slug) that he had not previously spotted on the flats in the many other occasions he has visited it. There was a lot more that the flat was to reveal over the very interesting two-hour walk including three varieties of sea cucumber, two other very pretty looking nudibranchs, moon snails, anemones, flat worms, a giant clam, knobbly sea stars and even a very shy octopus that dove for cover as soon as it was spotted – best seen through the photographs that follow …

A red nudibranch not seen on the flats before.

A very pretty nudibranch – the Gymnodoris rubropapulosa.

A third nudibranch – Jorunna funebris (Funeral Nudibranch).

A flat worm.

And one in its natural environment.

Close-up of a maze coral.

Knobbly sea stars.

A tube anemone.

Another anemone.

Sea cucumber.

Zoanthids.

Moon snail.

The intertidal walk that I participated in is one of several ways in which Pulau Semakau can be visited, and was one that was run by licensed tour guide Robert Heigermoser. Other ways in which the island can be visited are on activities organised by interest groups such as the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, the Nature Society Singapore, The Astronomical Society of Singapore (TASOS), and the Sports Fishing Association (Singapore) that needs the blessing of the National Environment Agency (NEA). Guided tours and walks would often include a landfill tour. The tour which is interesting in that it introduces various aspects of the landfill including its history, as well as a bus tour around the landfill and the receiving station where waste incinerated at one of the three incinerators on the mainland is transferred from barges to tipper trucks which carry the waste to the landfill site. More information on Pulau Semakau, activities on Pulau Semakau and the landfill at the NEA website can be found at this link (Landfill Brochure) and also on this link link (Semakau Landfill).

One of the cells of the landfill that has been filled up.

The southernmost point of Singapore that the public has access to is at the end of a bund that contains a lagoon that will be used for phase 2 of the landfill when all the cells in phase 1 have been used.

The view from the bund southwest towards Pulau Pawai and Pulau Senang which is a live-firing area.

Part of the visit also included a drive through of the receiving station where incinerated waste from the mainland’s rubbish incinerators are transferred from barges onto tipper trucks.

The boat back and with the receiving station in the background.





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.