Former islanders ask to return to Pulau Sudong for a day

For about 150 former islanders from Pulau Sudong, their dying wish is to return to its sandy shores and breathe in the familiar salty air of the sea once again.

These Singaporeans, who grew up on the island and largely depended on its bountiful waters for their livelihood, left for the mainland when it was turned into a military zone for live-firing exercises in the 1980s.

Last month, the former islanders, many of whom are in their 60s and 70s, signed a petition to indicate their desire to return home for a day.

It was sent to their MP, Mr S. Iswaran, earlier this month. Most of them have lived in the West Coast since the late 1970s, after the Government rehoused them in Housing Board flats there.

On Wednesday, Mr Iswaran said he had done an informal check with the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) and found that there could be safety concerns. "Nevertheless, I have conveyed the request to Mindef for consideration and reply," he said.

Mindef told The Straits Times that it received the petition the same day, and it is "evaluating the request".

Its spokesman added: "Pulau Sudong is a restricted military training area used for live firing and manoeuvring. (The) public is advised to keep clear of this island for safety concerns."

Former resident Awang Chekek, 63, misses the island way of life. The last time he was in Pulau Sudong was in 1978, he said.

In its heyday, the island was home to hundreds of villagers, according to some researchers. Residents lived in stilted kampung homes that snaked across the shoreline of the 209ha isle.

Mr Awang said it is hard to forget their days as fishermen. He said: "If we had the chance to step on the island again, everyone would be very happy."

Photographers Edwin Koo, 36, Zakaria Zainal, 30, and Juliana Tan, 25, helped the former islanders put the petition together.

The trio are doing a project called Island Nation, which documents life on 12 of Singapore's Southern Islands.

They approached Mindef in January for permission to film a documentary featuring a handful of former islanders for their irememberSG fund project.

Subsequently, they found out through their interactions with islanders such as Mr Awang that many yearn to return to their old home.

The photographers then drew up a list of former island dwellers and organised a reunion for them on West Coast beach last month, where they signed the petition after a day of catching up and reminiscing.

The Island Nation team later sent the petition to Mr Iswaran. In their e-mail to him, the team also attached an endorsement letter from the Singapore Memory Project requesting access to Pulau Sudong.

Mr Koo said: "Most of the islanders are resigned to their fate... but we hope we can help them fulfil their wish, to have Pulau Sudong opened up to them just for a day.

"We are also requesting to document their journey, to complete our history annals."

Speaking in Malay, former islander Rosli Manan, 51, said in an interview with the trio that he hopes Mindef can grant their request. "We hope they will agree... even if it's for just two to three hours... I would get to step on the island again after 38 years."

This article was first published on March 30, 2015.
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