Singapore's forgotten islands

Singapore's forgotten islands
Children posing amidst a rustic setting during the final days of the kampung at Pulau Seking.

Kusu, Sudong and Lazarus. Even if you have never set foot on these outlying islands of Singapore, chances are you would have heard of them. More so Ubin, Tekong and Sentosa.

But what about Rabbit Island or Pulau Sakra, Sebarok or Sekudu? They don't even exist "on the margins of our mental landscapes", as organisers of the ongoing Balik Pulau (Return To The Islands) exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore so piquantly put it.

Many of the outer islands didn't exist for me until I visited the exhibition recently. Yet, Singapore once had as many as 77 islands, and still has about 40.

Before Singapore became a key node in Britain's global shipping empire, its identity was anchored in a network of islands in the Riau Archipelago.

A series of heritage activities and a Drama Box play this year have helped Singaporeans to reclaim some of these forgotten isles - dozens of which have been lost to the tides of history - and to reimagine Singapore's identity and position.

One significant island lost to us is Pulau Seking. As big as 10 football fields, it was home to the last southern island kampung community before it gave way to a landfill.

Many islanders were said to be descended from the nomadic Orang Selat, or People of the Straits. For centuries, they fished or built boats, although many later became wage-earners as technicians on nearby Pulau Bukom.

Seking had a Malay primary school that closed in the early 1980s, after which its pupils had to commute by motorised sampan to the main island for classes.

By 1994, the last residents - nearly 200 in all - had been relocated from their sea-facing kampung houses on stilts to high-rises on the main island. On their island, there had been no roads, no cars, just a lot of goats.

Provision shopkeeper Teo Yan Teck, 83, was one of the few Chinese on Seking. Interviewed on camera by organisers of the mu- seum exhibition, he was asked how he felt about leaving the island. His face crumpled, and he could only utter a silent cry.

Seking has since been joined to an adjacent island to form Pulau Semakau, a huge landfill for rubbish.

I knew nothing of Seking until I attended a recent talk at the mu-seum, held as part of the Singapore Heritage Festival.

Temasek Polytechnic lecturer Normala Manap, who did an anthropological study on Seking in 1982, said at the talk: "The fact that we have let Seking become a landfill (means) we have lost a big opportunity to get insights into Singapore's roots and history."

Old and young, the islanders had a deep sense of the history of Seking, which got its name from a fable about its founder Yang Meleking. Goats were released by Chinese devotees as an offering to the benefactress, who is said to have battled pirates to found the isle.

As documented in The Sea Nomads by cultural geographer David Sopher, the Riau Archipelago was home to nomadic seafarers, who lived with their families on boats and sailed from one mangrove coast to another. Some were also pirates.

As Ms Normala put it, Seking's residents looked to a wider Malay world than Singapore.

Anthropologist Vivienne Wee, who studied Seking previously and was a panellist at the same talk, said many of its residents would go by sampan to Pulau Pangkil in Bintan to attend relatives' weddings.

Most younger Singaporeans do not know about Seking, partly because there was hardly any public discussion about whether it should be preserved - unlike in the case of Pulau Ubin, home to Singapore's last surviving village community.

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