Keepers of the lighthouse

The ferry approaches the small island lined with coconut trees on a sandy beach, a jetty with clear water and corals beneath it, and overhead, a circular glass room atop a tall white tower. It looks like a beach holiday getaway but it is the unconventional workplace of lighthouse keeper V. Uthrapathi, 52, and assistant lighthouse keeper Lee Kwang Liang, 62.

At the jetty, they unload several suitcases full of their belongings from the ferry. Taking over the duties from their colleagues on the previous shift, Mr Uthrapathi and Mr Lee start theirs and become the island's only occupants for the next 10 days.

Mr Lee recalls being impressed by the surroundings when he took on the job to be assistant lighthouse keeper about a year ago. "The island, reclaimed to be about two football fields in size, has a nice beach. Sometimes turtles come to lay their eggs. There is the wind and the sound of the waves. When the sky is clear, sunrise and sunset are really beautiful. At night, it is quiet and we can see many stars."

The Raffles Lighthouse sits on Pulau Satumu, Singapore's southernmost island about a 45-minute ride away by ferry. It is one of five lighthouses managed by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA). Three of them are unmanned: the Horsburgh Lighthouse on Pedra Branca, Sultan Shoal Lighthouse near Jurong Island, and Bedok Lighthouse.

Raffles Lighthouse and Pulau Pisang Lighthouse, which is in Malaysia, are manned by a rotating team of eight keepers who go in turns as a pair to take 10-day shifts. Their main tasks are to make sure the beacon lights are working, attend to the upkeep of the island, as well as maintain its security. Pulau Satumu is a restricted area and is off limits to the public.

In the daytime, the duo go about their work independently, covering different aspects of the job.

While Mr Uthrapathi would be at the foot of the lighthouse monitoring the waters for illegal entry, communicating with headquarters or checking documentation of authorised personnel entering the island, Mr Lee would be cutting the grass near the beach or polishing the brass fittings at the top of the lighthouse.

Their most important job is to ensure the lights are working. "I help to keep a lookout even at night or when we get out of the room, first thing, we look at the tower and make sure the light is on and rotating," says Mr Lee.

Depending on their tasks and if their timing permits, they sit down and have meals together. Far away from the conveniences of coffee shops and supermarkets, they have to bring enough food to last the entire duration of their stay.

"After working a long day, to sit down and eat the food that he (Mr Uthrapathi) cooks is a very lucky thing because he knows how to prepare many styles of food and he does it really well," says Mr Lee.

Mr Uthrapathi, who has been at this job for 21 years, enjoys working on the island as it is very quiet and has large open spaces. He also relishes the freedom of planing his own work routine.

However, Mr Uthrapathi, who has a wife and a six-year-old daughter, admits there are drawbacks to being far away from the hustle and bustle of life on the mainland. "It is common to miss important dates like birthdays, weddings and public holidays because I have to come to work, but... I am already used to it.My wife is also understanding."

This article was first published on Dec 3, 2015.
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