Fewer going on annual pilgrimage to Kusu

It made for an idyllic getaway off the south coast of Singapore.

Families frolicked in the waves and had picnics by the waterfront, while fishermen cast their reels, waiting to snag a good catch.

Elsewhere, a crowd gathered to watch a monkey hanging nonchalantly on a branch.

Others were mesmerised by the tortoises swimming in a sanctuary. Save for a faint whiff of incense lingering in the air, there was hardly any indication that the annual Kusu pilgrimage season was under way when The Straits Times visited the tortoise-shaped island yesterday.

The tradition, which coincides with the ninth lunar month and is ongoing from Oct 5 to Nov 2, appears to be losing its lustre over the years

Some 47,000 devotees made the trip during last year's season, said the Sentosa Leisure Group, which manages the 8.5ha island 5.6km away from Singapore. Mr Ryden Fang, general manager of Singapore Island Cruise & Ferry Services, which exclusively runs scheduled ferry trips to the island, said there has been a drop in visitorship of about 5,000 people each year since 2007.

More than 136,000 people reportedly made the pilgrimage in 2001, while in its heyday in the 1990s, more than 200,000 thronged the island during the season each year. As of yesterday - nine days into this year's pilgrimage season - about 14,000 people have made the trip so far. Upon disembarkation, devotees usually first visit the Da Bo Gong Temple, built in 1923 and which houses deities Tua Pek Kong (God of Prosperity) and Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy). They then make a 152-step climb up a hillock, where three keramats, or holy shrines of Malay saints, reside.

At both sites, devotees pray for blessings for marriage, fertility, health, prosperity and peace of mind, among others.

Fish farm owner Lai Heng, 43, is a pious regular, having been making the pilgrimage annually for over 30 years. He told The Straits Times: "I used to run a radio-modelling business. "But I did not know whether to persevere in doing it, given the competitive industry.

"The divination stick I drew told me to move on and now, I am a happier man." Johor native Koh Hai De, 40, has been visiting Kusu Island with his wife yearly since 1996 "out of habit", he said. On each trip, they pray for peace of mind. Now, they visit with a new addition to the family - a five-year-old daughter.

But for others, the inconvenience of getting to Marina South Pier, from where ferries have been departing since 2006, has put them off annual visits.

This is due to a lack of parking spaces, and dust and trucks from construction sites around the pier. Only one SBS bus, Service 402, plies between Marina Bay MRT station and the pier. Previously, ferries departed from Clifford Pier in the heart of the Central Business District.

Homemaker Kuistin Yang, 52, said she would visit a temple in Hougang in years when her family or friends were not keen to make the Kusu pilgrimage. Madam Usha Subrahmanyam, 39, finally visited Kusu yesterday after a break of 10 years, and did so after she learnt of an initiative led by her neighbourhood's residents' committee. The story has been bleak for long-term observers who work on the island during the season.

National serviceman Isjacob Ishak, 22, whose father is a caretaker of the Malay shrines, has been helping out there since he was young. He said: "In the past, the queues were so long they would snake all the way down the 152 steps, but this is no longer so."

Madam Chiam Pieh Tiang, 58, who has been managing a bazaar on Kusu Island during the pilgrimage season for 28 years, said business has plunged by half in the past six years. But Mr Fang remains hopeful that the crowds will soon return.

"It will be much more convenient for visitors when the Marina South Pier MRT station opens next year," he said.

waltsim@sph.com.sg


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.