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).






All aboard the RSS Endurance

12 02 2015

There is no better way of getting acquainted with some of what goes on on a naval ship than to have a first hand view of its operations. I got a chance to do just that on Monday, when at the invitation of the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN), I found myself out on the RSN’s largest vessel, the RSS Endurance for a voyage out to Raffles Reserved Anchorage for a look at her helicopter embarkation operations.

The RSS Endurance at berth at Changi Naval Base.

The RSS Endurance at berth at Changi Naval Base.

The helo-ops conducted to embark the Super Puma helicopter, was in anticipation of this weekend’s SAF50 @Vivo event. The event launches the Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF) year-long celebration of 50 years of its formation and will see the first of class 140 metre long Landing Ship Tank (LST) berth at the Vivo City Promenade to allow the lucky members of the public (who managed to get their hands on the highly sought after tickets) with a rare opportunity to have a look at the most versatile asset in the RSN’s fleet.

A view of the breakwater at Changi Naval Base with a glimpse of southeastern Malaysia in the background.

A view of the breakwater at Changi Naval Base with a glimpse of southeastern Malaysia in the background.

I always enjoy a trip out at sea, something I have been doing a lot of of late. Going out on the RSS Endurance was an added bonus for me, not just for the chance to see and photograph the navy in operation,  but also because it was a homecoming of sorts for me as had some involvement in her design during my days in the shipyard in which she was built – the last time I was on board was during trials that were conducted on her.

A view over the bow of the RSS Endurance towards the vastness of the sea.

A view over the bow of the RSS Endurance towards the vastness of the sea.

Besides taking those on the voyage to some of the operational areas on board, the visit also allowed us to see one of the RSS Endurance’s most important rooms, especially in the context of the Singaporean who tends to live to eat more than to eat to live – the galley. The galley, we learnt provides not just sustenance, but the cooks who the crew are often on personal terms with, work even in the nastiest of weather to help keep the morale up in serving up meals that includes many local favourites. Things did get a bit steamy during the visit to the galley, and we were quickly ushered to the cold room to cool off before settling down to a delicious lunch of nasi lemak that the galley specially prepared for our visit.

Things got a bit steamy ....

Things got a bit steamy ….

... so we had to cool off in the cold room.

… so we had to cool off in the cold room.

Along with the opportunity to witness the helo ops (helicopter operations), one more thing we got to see was of the operations to embark the vessel’s Fast Craft Utility (FCU) into the floodable dock on the vessel’s well-deck. The ability to launch fast landing craft and deploy helicopters are among the amazing array of capabilities, the RSS Endurance and her sister ships are equipped with. While the LSTs are designed primarily to support troop and equipment deployment, the capabilities also extend the ships’ capabilities to supporting a range of peacetime missions from disaster relief, search and rescue, and protection of merchant shipping.

One of the key capabilities the RSS Endurance has is being able to deploy fast landing craft through a stern opening from her well deck.

One of the key capabilities the RSS Endurance has is being able to deploy fast landing craft, Fast Craft Utility or FCU, through a stern opening from her well deck.

A Super Puma taking off at the Raffles Reserved Anchorage. Pulau Senang can be seen in the background.

A Super Puma taking off at the Raffles Reserved Anchorage. Pulau Senang can be seen in the background.

Designed and built by ST Marine, the Endurance class of LSTs proved to be particularly useful during the post 2004 Boxing Day tsunami relief efforts in Aceh. The fast landing craft launched from the vessels could be used to maximum advantage in reaching coastal locations that had been cut off in the wake of the disaster.

The city's skyline as seen from the Singapore Strait.

Enroute to Raffles Reserved Anchorage – the city’s skyline as seen from the Singapore Strait.

For those who missed the chance to win tickets to view this valuable asset in RSN’s fleet  through the online ballot, all is not lost. There would still be a chance to obtain tickets through a on-site draw. Balloting times slots for these are at 3 pm to 6 pm on Thursday and Friday; 9 am to 11 am, 12.30 pm to 2.30 pm, 4 pm to 6 pm on Saturday; and 9 am to 12 pm and 3 pm to 6 pm on Sunday. The winners of the ballot have the opportunity to have a glance at the Bridge, Flight Deck on which a Super Puma is tied down, and the steamy Galley. There is also the chance to ride the waves on one of the RSN’s Fast Craft Utility landing craft.

Smaller fast landing craft for personnel (FCEP - Fast Craft Equipment and Personnel) can be deployed over the shipside.

Smaller fast landing craft for personnel (FCEP – Fast Craft Equipment and Personnel) can be deployed over the shipside.

The cluster of islands at which Raffles first made contact with Singapore, with the Singapore he helped create in the background. St. John's Island is on the left with Lazarus Island and Kusu next to it.

Enroute to Raffles Reserved Anchorage – a view of the cluster of islands at which Raffles first made contact with Singapore, with the Singapore he helped create in the background. St. John’s Island is on the left with Lazarus Island and Kusu next to it.

The SAF50@Vivo event runs from 12 to 15 February 2015.  Besides the RSS Endurance, the capabilities of the other SAF’s services are also on display. Highlights of the event include a SAF50 launch and Total Defence Commemoration on 12 February at 5pm and a Weapons Presentation Ceremony on 15 February at 6pm, which members of the public can view from the Vivo City Level 3 Viewing Gallery. There are also a host of activities and daily performances. More information on the event and SAF50 can be found at www.saf50years.sg.

The helideck has two landing spots. A Super Puma embarked for the SAF50 @ Vivo event is seen here.

The helideck has two landing spots. A Super Puma embarked for the SAF50 @ Vivo event is seen here.

A FCU being manoeuvred for entry into the well deck.

A FCU being manoeuvred for entry into the well deck at Raffles Reserved Anchorage.


More photographs

Helo Ops

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Well Deck Ops

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The Galley

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The Bridge

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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.

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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.


 





Strange Horizons: Past, present and the probable future

14 08 2014

One of the last untouched islands of Singapore, Pulau Jong, is seen with the first to be developed for industrial use, Pulau Bukom Besar (on the right), and its smaller neighbour Pulau Bukom Kechil – a juxtaposition perhaps of past, present, and perhaps the probable future.

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Pulau Bukom Besar’s development goes back to the 1890s when Shell established a kerosene storage facility on the island, then deemed a safe distance away from the main island of Singapore, outside the then port limits. The age of industrialisation in Singapore brought with it the refinery that Shell built – which heralded the start of Singapore involvement with the oil refining business, in 1961. The expansion into Pulau Bukom Kechil began in the 1970s. More on this can be found on a previous post: Snake Island at dawn through the darkness of the storm.

Sadly for Pulau Jong and its large fringing reef, a 2013 Land Use Plan seems to show that future plans could involve its absorption into a larger land mass through reclamation, joining it with the islands of Pulau Sebarok to its southeast and the enlarged Pulau Semakau (now Singapore’s offshore landfill) to its southwest.





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.





All at sea

24 07 2014

The launch on Saturday of Singapore HeritageFest 2014, bring us to focus on one of the key reasons for Singapore’s being, the sea. This year’s festival much of which revolves around a maritime based theme, “Our Islands, Our Home” has us looking at our maritime past as well as our present as a maritime nation.

HeritageFest 2014 opens a window to Singapore's island heritage.

HeritageFest 2014 opens a window to Singapore’s island heritage.

It is to raise the profile of this heritage, one that goes back to times well before the arrival of Raffles, that is in fact what the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) and the National Heritage Board (NHB) hopes to achieve with the establishment of the S$500,000 Maritime Heritage Fund, which the two agencies will administer – for which a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by the two agencies at Saturday’s launch.

One of the highlights of this year's HeritageFest is a lighthouse trail that includes a stop on Pulau Satumu, Singapore's southernmost island, on top of which Raffles' Lighthouse is perched.

One of the highlights of this year’s HeritageFest is a lighthouse trail that includes a stop on Pulau Satumu, Singapore’s southernmost island, on top of which Raffles’ Lighthouse is perched.

Once a common scene in the waters off the Southern Islands. Boats such as the kolek on the right, are very much part of our maritime heritage (a similar kolek is on display at the Balik Pulau Exhibition at the National Museum).

Once a common scene in the waters off the Southern Islands. Boats such as the kolek on the right, are very much part of our maritime heritage (a similar kolek is on display at the Balik Pulau Exhibition at the National Museum).

The focus of the fund, which complements the NHB’s S$5 million Heritage Grant Scheme launched last year, will be on developing community-initiated projects related to Singapore’s maritime heritage that will promote a greater understanding and appreciation of Singapore’s maritime connections, as was touched on by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Community, Culture and Youth, in his speech at the festival’s launch.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of NHB launching Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of NHB launching Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Mr Wong also spoke of the transformation that will soon take place at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), where the launch event was held. Besides a revamp of the museum with expanded galleries that will include a space allocated for the Tang Cargo and see new shops and dining outlets, the museum will be given a new entrance that will open it up to the river and give it a direct connection into the historic heart of Singapore.

Another lighthouse - the very pretty Sultan Shoal Lighthouse at the western extremities of Singapore's waters seen during the lighthouse trail as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Another lighthouse – the very pretty Sultan Shoal Lighthouse at the western extremities of Singapore’s waters seen during the lighthouse trail as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

The revamp is part of the ongoing effort to develop a civic and cultural belt around Singapore’s colonial civic district (see: The Old Vic’s ticking again) that involves also the newly refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, and the conversion of the Old Supreme Court and City Hall into National Gallery – due for completion in 2015.

The Old Vic's definitely back!

The newly refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall.

A cultural performance at the launch of Singapore HeritageFest2014.

A cultural performance at the launch of Singapore HeritageFest2014.

The launch also coincided with the first evening of a two-night series of programmes taking place around the ACM and the river, River Nights. The event, brought much life and colour to the river, and celebrated its changing identity over the years – in the same way the well received series of activities  for Singapore HeritageFest 2014 celebrates the islands.

A dragon dance performance at the start of River Nights at the ACM's front lawn.

A dragon dance performance at the start of River Nights at the ACM’s front lawn.

More information on the Maritime Heritage Fund, Singapore HeritageFest 2014, River Nights and on Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore’s Islands (an exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore held in conjunction with HeritageFest 2014) can be found in the following links:





Boarding the junk at sunrise

18 07 2014

An island that always seemed to me to have an air of mystery about it is the oddly shaped Pulau Jong. Set in an area of Singapore, the southern islands, that has much legend attached to it, legend does have it that Pulau Jong or “Junk Island” in Malay, had been a junk that had been transformed by the spirit of the sea into the island. The legend is described by H. T. Haughton in his 1889 paper, Notes on Names of Places in the Island of Singapore and its Vicinity:

Pulau Jong, “junk island”, a small island of a conical shape to the North of Pulau Seking and Pulau Sebarok. The story is that Malay pirates one night attacked a Chinese Junk, which was anchored where the island now is, and just as the Malays got alongside, the Nakhodah of the junk awoke. On seeing the pirates, through terror, he uttered such a frightful yell that the sea-spirit turned the junk into an island much to the consternation of the Malays.

Pulau Jong at sunrise.

Pulau Jong at sunrise.

Lying east of Pulau Semakau (which has absorbed Pulau Seking or Sakeng) and northwest of Pulau Sebarok, the tiny mound of an island measuring some 0.6 ha., is fringed to its north by some of the deepest waters in the Singapore Strait. From afar, the island looks rather inhospitable – particularly at high tide when only it tiny cliff faces and the clump of trees rising some 23 metres on its mound are exposed. It is at low tide that the fringing reefs that surround the island expose themselves – the reefs extend as far out as 0.4 nautical miles (about 700 metres) south-east in the direction of Pulau Sebarok.

Junk Island at low-tide.

Junk Island at low-tide.

The fringing reef on the island's south-east reaching out towards the oil terminal at Sebarok.

The fringing reef on the island’s south-east reaching out towards the oil terminal at Sebarok.

A navigation chart showing water depths around Pulau Jong.

A navigation chart showing water depths around Pulau Jong.

The reefs do make it difficult to land on the relatively untouched island – one of the last to resist human intervention in the waters of Singapore, but landing on it at sunrise was certainly a worthwhile experience, not just for the rich coral life found in the reefs, but also for the majestic perspectives one gets of the island being on it, the view of all that surround it, and an interesting look at the island’s geology and the glimpses it offers into its bird life.

Heading on a dinghy towards the island.

Heading on a dinghy towards the island.

Landing at sunrise - the reefs do make it a challenge to land safely on the island.

Landing at sunrise – the reefs do make it a challenge to land safely on the island.

The island's rock formations are part of the  are Jurong Formation that marks the geology of much of Singapore's west.

The island’s rock formations are part of the are Jurong Formation that marks the geology of much of Singapore’s west.

More rocks ...

More rock formations …

A pair of collared kingfishers.

A pair of collared kingfishers.

And another perched on a rock.

And another perched on a rock.

The junk, a very recognisable feature of southern Singapore’s seascape, has long been identified as an island for possible recreational use. More recently however, it does seem from the 2013 Land Use Plan that it would be be lost to future land reclamation. From the plan we see that it would be part of a large land mass that would also include Pulau Semakau and Pulau Sebarok and like the junks that once featured in the seas around us, the familiar sight of the junk that became an island will soon one that is forgotten.

A northward view.

A northward view.

The coral fringed beach looking west towards Pulau Semakau.

The coral fringed beach looking west towards Pulau Semakau.

Cliff faces on Pulau Jong.

Cliff faces on Pulau Jong.


The reef

I didn’t spend much time in the reef, which has some rather nice looking hard and soft corals and sea cucumber. There were also sightings of nudibranchs and flatworms on the reef’s edge. For more posts on what the reef revealed and also a wonderful drone’s eye view of the island, do also check these postings out:

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The visit to Pulau Jong is part of a series of visits to some of the lesser known shores of Singapore, in search of words and sounds for an IRememberSG funded project, Points of Departure.

A pano of the southern foreshore of Pulau Jong.

A pano of the southern foreshore of Pulau Jong.


 

 

 

 

 





Finding romance on Terumbu Semakau

17 07 2014

At 4.30 am, less than 24 hours after the adventure or what perhaps was more of a near misadventure on Cyrene, on Sunday, I found myself once again on a boat headed south. The destination this time was another patch reef, Terumbu Semakau, which lies just east of the original Pulau Semakau – now part of an enlarged island of the same name that serves as an offshore landfill.

A view of Terumbu Semakau, looking across to the enlarged Pulau Semakau.

A view of Terumbu Semakau under the light of the moon, looking across to an enlarged Pulau Semakau.

Location of Terumbu Semakau relative to Pulau Semakau.

Location of Terumbu Semakau relative to Pulau Semakau as seen on a navigational chart.

Terumbu Semakau in the moonlight.

Terumbu Semakau in the moonlight.

The super moon seen setting over Pulau Semakau.

The super moon seen setting over Pulau Semakau.

Thankfully, the weather provided much greater joy than it did a day before, allowing the group I was with to take-in an almost magical view of the reef bathed in the light of the super moon and then in the early light of day. The setting was one that seemed perfect for romance – the chorus we could hear of romancing amphibians across on Pulau Semakau seemed to testify to that.

6.28 am, the lights of Singapore's southern seas, that of the ships at anchor is seen against the lightening sky.

6.28 am, the lights of Singapore’s southern seas, that of the ships at anchor is seen against the lightening sky.

The terumbu at sunrise.

The terumbu at sunrise.

Finding romance on Terumbu Semakau with the rising of the sun.

Finding romance on Terumbu Semakau with the rising of the sun.

The reef, as with many of southern Singapore’s once numerous patch reefs, bears the scars of the developments of the last five decades. Its once lush meadows of seagrass have all but disappeared, leaving the moonlit scene without the stars that illuminated our visit to Cyrene. The group did however, find a couple of stars that, so disguised, were ones I wouldn’t have recognised. Shaped as their common name suggests, these cushion sea stars are quite recognisable upturned – wearing the unmistakeable mark of a true star on their well hidden undersides.

A cushion star.

A cushion star.

The underbelly of a cushion star.

The underbelly of a cushion star.

A smaller and less richly coloured cushion sea star.

A smaller and less richly coloured cushion sea star.

The expense of the reef did, in the light of the silvery moon, reveal quite a lot more to the keener pairs of eye. Ria Tan in blog post Terumbu Semakau: still no seagrass recovery, does bring to light several interesting sightings. It was, however, as unlikely romance that might have been the highlight of the day – the romance of a pair of rare tiger cowries, taking place discreetly behind a large piece of coral.

A pair of rare tiger cowries, discreet in their romance.

A pair of rare tiger cowries, discreet in their romance.

Feeling crabby, early in the morning.

Feeling crabby, early in the morning.

A less than romantic find - a fish trap erected on the reef.

A less than romantic find – a fish trap erected on the reef.

The romance found on Terumbu Semakau, is one that may soon be lost, as foretold by the Land Use Plan that was released by the Ministry of National Development last year in support of the less than well received Population White Paper. In the plan, the reef is seen to be within an area that is potentially a future land reclamation site that will create an even larger Pulau Semakau – leaving very little of the patch reef systems that once shaped our southern waters left for us to find romance in.

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

Possible future reclamation poses a threat to the future of the reef (source: Land Use Plan 2013).

The incinerated waste receiving station at Pulau Semakau as seen from the reef.

The incinerated waste receiving station at Pulau Semakau as seen from the reef.

Branching Montipora corals in the middle of the terumbu.

Branching Montipora corals in the middle of the terumbu.

More views of the reef in the moonlight

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The visit to Terumbu Semakau is part of a series of visits to some of the lesser known shores of Singapore, in search of words and sounds for an IRememberSG funded project, Points of Departure.






The forgotten stars of Singapore

15 07 2014

It is good to be reading about Dr Siti Maryam Yaakub’s work on Singapore’s unseen and unheard of seagrass meadows in Saturday’s edition of The Straits Times. We did, as Dr Siti points out in the article, once have lush meadows of seagrass, ones rich in life and ones which contributed to some of my happier childhood experiences off Changi Beach.

The star of our fast disappearing seagrass meadows.

The star of our fast disappearing seagrass meadows.

Common Sea Stars.

Common Sea Stars.

A sea hare - a type of sea slug.

A sea hare – a type of sea slug.

Coincidentally, I found myself in wading through another meadow, early in the morning of the day the article was published, found at one of offshore Singapore’s patch reef systems that is known collectively the Cyrene Reefs. The meadow, one of the larger surviving meadows in a part of the world where a certain emphasis has been placed on creating land where the sea is, is one that is teeming with life – the most noticeable of which are the huge red or pink knobby sea stars, which had also been prominent in the fields off Changi that featured in my youthful days.

A view across the sandbar at the Cyrene Reefs towards the new container terminal at Pasir Panjang.

A view across the sandbar at the Cyrene Reefs towards the new container terminal at Pasir Panjang.

An anemone.

An anemone.

And a false anemone.

And a cerianthid.

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More Knobby Sea Stars at Cyrene.

More Knobby Sea Stars at Cyrene.

Surveying the landscape from the rather expansive sandbar at Cyrene at 4 in the morning, does provide that sense of the reef and its seagrass meadows having been put under siege by the industrial empire, one that has left its unsightly scars on much of Singapore’s western coast. To the north, the bright lights of a Pasir Panjang relieved of its “pasir” (sand in Malay) reveal that S$3.5 billion container terminal that is only a temporary one – port operations we hear would eventually be consolidated at Tuas. To the south lies Pulau Bukom, the first of Singapore’s islands to be committed to industrial exploitation and to its west Jurong Island, the monster of an island created by joining a cluster of lands through land reclamation has created; both dominated by stacks smoking in the cover of night.

What's smoking on Pulau Bukom at 4 in the morning.

What’s smoking on Pulau Bukom at 4 in the morning.

A fire worm.

A fire worm.

A shrimp.

A shrimp.

A sea cucumber.

A sea cucumber.

The visit to Cyrene, was perhaps to be remembered not for the opportunity it did provide to reacquaint myself with the seagrass adventures of my youthful days, but for the possible misadventure it might have turned into, as the quickening pace of the winds from the west – the much feared Sumatras, promised not just to cover us in rain but also threaten us with a show of light. The attempt the winds prompted to scamper off as quickly as we could from what would have been a location that was completely exposed, was one that Murphy seemed to want to intervene in when the inflatable boat that was to get us out floundered in the wind and the waves; the increasing frequency at which the flashes lit up the sky as well as the fast rising tide adding to the drama.

Before the storm ... an anemone.

Before the storm … an anemone.

The escape as captured by Juria.

We did somehow find ourselves in the relatively safety of the bigger boat. The “escape” is described as Ria Tan of the Wild Shores of Singapore saw it in her post “Near Death at Cyrene!“:

Fortunately, by some miracle, the Sumatras made a U-turn around Cyrene! The winds and waves died down. Kok Sheng redirected the dinghy to a less rocky spot, with Chay Hoon using the paddle to hold it away from the shore as every clambered on board. Eventually, everyone made it safely back to the big boat. Phew. Thanks to Alex and crew for making sure we don’t drown! (Why is it we often have a near death experience on Cyrene? During our last trip there in Aug 2013, Russel found a living cone snail!) 

The NEA weather map showing the u-turn of the storm.

The incident brought to mind a close encounter with lightning that I had as a child, the setting for which was provided once again by the waters off Changi Beach. That did teach me about the respect one has to show for the untameable forces of nature as did this new encounter. The incident did also heighten the respect that I have for the folks I was in the company of and the risks they expose themselves to. It is through their tireless efforts, that attention is drawn to the many offshore habitats we have, as well as the many threats to the habitats as Singapore looks to create more land from the sea.

The view towards Jurong Island to the reefs' west.

The view towards Jurong Island to the reefs’ west.

The news over the weekend of the creation of Singapore’s first marine park at Sisters’ Islands is a positive outcome of some of these and other similar efforts and hopefully, it with the efforts of researchers such as Dr Siti and enthusiasts such as the group I was with, we will see a lot more emphasis on the conservation and revitalisation of the once rich offshore habitats that have survived in the waters of Singapore.


The visit to the Cyrene Reefs is part of a series of visits to some of the lesser known shores of Singapore, in search of words and sounds for an IRememberSG funded project, Points of Departure.






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.

 





A view from a sandbar

5 06 2014

It was against the backdrop of the drama of a passing storm playing out in the rapidly changing light of the morning, that I found myself standing on a sandbar four nautical miles out into the Singapore Strait.

Terumbu Pempang Laut and beyond, seen in the light storm coloured morning.

The view from a sandbar in the light of the storm coloured morning.

The view from a sandbar, four nautical miles out.

A rainbow appears as the weather clears.

Walking where few now thread.

Walking where few now tread.

Reflections on the morning.

Reflections on the morning.

The scene revealed by the transformation of night into day in the darkness and light of the storm coloured morning was one that did seem rather surreal, disfigured by the craggy interventions of the natural world juxtaposed against the human interventions that now dominate Singapore’s nearshore.

The morning's drama.

The morning’s drama.

Light in the darkness.

Light in the darkness.

Juxtapositions of the natural world against the human world.

Juxtapositions of the natural world against the human world.

Spot light on the interventions of men that now dominate Singapore's nearshore.

A natural spotlight on the interventions of men that now dominate Singapore’s nearshore.

It wasn’t quite what I had intended in interrupting that much needed weekend’s slumber. The excursion was one to have a feel for the patch reef, Terumbu Pempang Laut, to which the sandbar was a part of, as well as the island to its south, Pulau Sudong, regular visitors from which it would once have hosted.

The changing hues in the early hours of the day as seen from the boat.

The changing hues in the early hours of the day as seen from the boat that left at 6am.

A northward view across the reef.

A northward view across the reef.

The expanded Pulau Sudong, as seen from Terumbu Pempang Laut.

The expanded Pulau Sudong, as seen from Terumbu Pempang Laut.

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It was as close as one could get to Pulau Sudong, now part of a restricted military zone. The island, once itself not much more than perhaps a spit of sand that was part of the surrounding reefs, had been one of several islands off Singapore’s south-western shoreline on which stilted villages of the sea had decorated.

Pulau Sudong in the 1950s (source: National Archives of Singapore Online).

The dwellings on stilts arranged around the island’s foreshore, had been on that had evolved from buoyant mobile dwellings of those, the sea nomads from the pre-Raffles era, who the occupants had inherited the seas from. Living on the sea, the nomads and their descendants also lived off it; the waters and the reefs around the island, contributing much to their livelihoods.

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Even without there being a source of fresh water, the island at its height, supported a community of several hundred and boasted of schools (there apparently were two in the 1940s), a clinic, a community centre and a police post.

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The reefs, teeming with marine life and exposed as the tide receded, was where life on the islands might have often extended to. Men would be seen laying their bubu, traps made by the fishermen themselves out of strips of bamboo, weighing them down with corals that the reef did provide. The womenfolk also found their way to the reefs, seeking a harvest of both edible produce of the sea and items such as corals that could be sold.

Corals were harvested by the women of Pulau Sudong.

Corals were harvested by the women of Pulau Sudong.

Life as the reefs might have seen, is quite wonderfully captured in words by Chew Soo Beng, who in “Fishermen in Flats” (1982), describes the activity on a Terumbu Raya, a reef to Sudong’s west:

Groups of women row their kolek to different parts of the exposed portions of the reef to gather sea produce. In the past, this activity was performed with considerable gaiety, seeming to be an enjoyable activity. Everyone carried a basket and unmarried girls wore bunga raya (hibiscus flower) in their hair.

In teams of threes or fours, usually to form a line, they combed the reef for agar-agar (an edible seaweed), gulong, the trepang and a variety of beche-de-mer. When both the tide and sun were low, the gather chatter of the women at work would drift into the village where the men, excluded from the offshore merriment, conversed beneath their favourite pondok.

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The reefs see a different merriment today. The chatter of women gathering in the harvest is now replaced by the excitement of sea birds seeking a harvest of their own. Human chatter is now heard on occasion, of those who seek only to harvest what the reef can tell them – as an part of a continuous marine survey that the tireless Ria Tan of the Wild Shores of Singapore champions.

The merriment the reefs see today are those of the sea birds seeking their harvest from the sea.

The merriment the reefs see today are those of the sea birds seeking their harvest from the sea.

It was with the group that I ventured out to the sandbar. Of the finds of the morning’s harvest, the one that did perhaps trigger the greatest excitement was a sighting of a small giant fluted clam. This find, along with what else the reef did reveal, is described by Ria in Terumbu Pempang Laut check up in her blog, which is a glorious celebration of life on our shores.

The giant clam that raised the level of excitement.

The giant clam that raised the level of excitement.

On the reef's edge.

On the reef’s edge.

One thing that Ria does point out in her post that did get my attention, is that life around the shores of the reefs and the islands might to come to an end. The reefs, along with the cluster that it belongs to which also includes Terumbu Pempang Tengah to its immediate east and  Terumbu Pempang Darat, face an uncertain future. The Land Use Plan, released to support the less than popularly received Population White Paper in early 2013, does show that the area is one where future land reclamation work could take place.

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

Possible future reclamation poses a threat to the future of the reefs and the islands (source: Land Use Plan 2013).

If that does happen, the reefs will be incorporated into part of a land mass that will include the Bukom cluster of islands and the Hantu twins, leaving the only ghosts haunting our southern shores (hantu translates into “ghost” in Malay) – there was also another Pulau Hantu that has since been renamed as Keppel Island, that of lost islands and reefs, and of a people and a way-of-life that will never again be seen.

The future of many of the islands as individuals such as Pulau Jong, are also under threat from the Land Use Plan.

The future of many of the southern islands as individual islands, such as Pulau Jong (seen here with Pulau Sebarok), are also under threat from the Land Use Plan.

Life on Pulau Sudong, one of the last of the Southern Islands to host a resident population, did itself come to an abrupt end in early 1980. By then, reclamation that added some 174 ha. to its area, had already decimated the once rich fishing grounds that surrounded it, prompting a move for many in the late 1970s to seek a new beginning in Tanah Besar as the mainland was referred to, completing an assimilation into the Malay world.

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Initially intended as a recreational island, Pulau Sudong was closed to the public in mid-1982. Used since as part of an air force live-firing area that also includes Pulau Pawai and Pulau Senang to its south, what ghosts it may have inherited from its long discarded past, may also have abandoned it.

Reflections off a lagoon at low tide.

Reflections off a lagoon at low tide.

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Strange Horizons: Snake Island at dawn through the darkness of the storm

2 06 2014

The eastward view from a location off Terumbu Pempang Laut, a patch reef between Pulau Bukom and Pulau Sudong in the Straits of Singapore, at 6.45 am on the first of June. The view sees the silhouettes of Shell’s Ethylene cracker plant at its Bukom petrochemical complex in the band of the light coloured by the sun’s rising under the shadow of the storm darkened sky. The plant, an addition to Shell’s Bukom petrochemical complex in 2010, sits on what is actually the expanded island of Pulau Ular (which translates as Snake Island), southwest of Pulau Bukom Besar. The island is now joined by reclamation to Pulau Bukom Kechil to its east and Pulau Busing to its west and is connected to Pulau Bukom Besar by bridge.

Shell’s association with Pulau Bukom (Besar), goes back to the 1890s when kerosene storage facilities were first established on the island. A refinery, which was to herald the start of Singapore’s thrust into the the oil refining business – Singapore is now among the world’s top three export refining centres, was completed in 1961.

Shell’s expansion into Pulau Bukom Kechil began in the 1970s and displaced the 200o or so inhabitants who were on the island at the end of the 1960s. In both instances, the development required land to be reclaimed from coastal reefs and mangroves as well as the islands’ hilly terrains to be flattened.

Pulau Bukom was the location of a failed terrorist attack in 1974. Mounted by a team of four from the Japanese Red Army and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian intending to blow up oil storage facilities on the island, the aim of what has come to be known as the Laju Incident (the Laju was the ferry that the terrorists hijacked in an attempt to escape), was to disrupt supplies to U.S. supported forces in South Vietnam. More on the incident can be found at the National Library’s Singapore Infopedia page: Laju Hijacking.

Shell’s complex at Pulau Bukom, which incidentally is the Anglo-Dutch company’s largest refinery complex, was in more recent times the scene of a massive fire. The fire burned for some 32 hours on 28 and 29 September 2011 before it was extinguished. The fire, although confined to a small area, caused a huge disruption to the complex’s operations and resulted in a huge financial loss to the company.





Singapore Landscapes: the tortoise in the early light of day

5 05 2014

It was in the soft light of a storm washed morning on the first of May that I found myself taking in the quiet beauty of less visited part of Singapore, an island, Kusu Island, just 15 minutes away by boat from mainland Singapore. The island is one I have not set eyes on since the days of my youth, the last I did see of it would have been some three decades ago, when reclamation had already expanded it.

Low tide in the swimming lagoon.

Low tide in the northern swimming lagoon.

The island has been one that has been the subject of many tales from the past. Taking on the shape of a tortoise or turtle when the tide came in – it had been a pair of rocky outcrops set on a reef that were separated at high tide, with the smaller of the two outcrops resembling a head, and the larger mound, the body; legend does have it as having been a turtle that turned into an island in the act of rescuing shipwrecked sailors from the sea.

The swimming lagoon at low tide in the light of dawn.

The swimming lagoon at low tide in the light of dawn.

The incoming storm - the approaching Sumatra.

The incoming storm – the approaching Sumatra.

The legend is one connected with a annual pilgrimage that the island hosts during the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar when the sleepy island sees hundreds of thousands of Taoist devotees from the mainland who visit to pay homage at the island’s Tua Peh Kong temple (set on the smaller outcrop) and also the island’s three keramats (on the mound). The tradition is thought to go back to the days before Raffles arrived (see: “Before the Days of Raffles” – article on The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 19 October 1932, Page 7) and draws some 100,000 to 200,000 visitors over the pilgrimage month.

A postcard of Kusu Island at low tide, showing the smaller rocky outcrop on which the Tua Peh Kong Temple is, from the larger side (posted by Yun Xin on the Facebook Group 'On a little street in Singapore').

A postcard of Kusu Island at low tide, showing the smaller rocky outcrop on which the Tua Peh Kong Temple is, from the larger side (posted by Yun Xin on the Facebook Group ‘On a little street in Singapore’).

A view of the temple with Lazarus Island across the channel.

A view of the temple seen today with Lazarus Island across the channel.

The sight of Kusu during the pilgrimage must certainly be an amazing one – especially in days before the reclamation of the early 1970s provided more room for the mass of visitors – the reclamation saw some 270,000 cubic metres of sand filled into the sea and provided Kusu with an additional 7.3 ha. of land area (on top of the original 1.2 ha.) with swimming (two lagoons) and picnicking facilities added.

Conservationists at work.

Conservationists at work.

That sight was, however, not the same one that I did get of Kusu in the early light. I had gone over with a group of Marine Conservationists, who were kind enough to allow Juria and me (we are both attempting to document memories of the coastline and the islands as part of a IrememberSG project, Points of Departure) to tag along. The timing of the journey, which had us embarking a boat at Marina South Pier at 5 in the morning, had been timed to bring the group led by Ria Tan (many will be familiar with her Wild Shores of Singapore site) to the island at low tide. As I was experimenting with capturing sounds of the shoreline after the brief Sumatra squall had passed, the group was threading through the flats and reefs exposed by the shallow water of the western lagoon and beyond the rock bund to document marine life in and around what is a regenerated reef that I never realised was there. You can see what the group did manage to find on Ria’s post “How is Kusu Island doing?“.

Another view of the western lagoon at dawn.

Another view of the northern lagoon at dawn.

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Sitting on the bund, I did, for a brief moment, find myself transported faraway in time, to a Singapore I once was familiar with. It didn’t take long however, before the sounds of the sea were punctured by the drone of jets flying above and I noticed the illuminated wheel and adjacent to it the unmistakable paraphernalia of the modern city looming on the horizon. It was then that I heard the chatter of my companions for the morning, busy at work, bringing me back to where I was in time and space.

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I have for long, longed to be transported to a childhood sea. And while I do know that sea is one I will never again see, I do at least have moments such as these to look forward to and be thankful for; moments, that in a world I can not longer feel for, is able to bring a sense of peace that might otherwise elude me.

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Information on Kusu Island, including newspaper articles with illustrations of what it did once look like can be found in the following links:

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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.