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.

Dr Wee noted that former Nominated Member of Parliament Kanwaljit Soin was the only one to question the move to destroy the settlement in Seking, in Parliament in 1993. Dr Wee said turning the island into a landfill was a "demolition and rubbishing" of its history.

Another significant isle whose history could be better known is Pulau Senang. Now known largely as the location for military live-firing exercises, it was a penal settlement from 1960 to 1963, and the site of a bloody riot that took place in 1963.

Older Singaporeans know the incident well, but most younger people do not. I certainly didn't before May this year, when I watched the Drama Box play Senang, about the experimental prison without bars.

In this dramatic retelling, British warden Daniel Dutton experiments with hard work as a way to reform the detainees on Senang. But he becomes increasingly severe in his demands, forcing them to build a jetty in harsh weather on one occasion. An uprising by the detainees on July 12, 1963, led to the deaths of four officers, including Superintendent Dutton, and brought the shutters down on the experiment.

Senang is a reminder of how the islands were natural sites for imprisonment and exile.

Sentosa the tourist magnet used to be called Pulau Belakang Mati and was once a military base.

In 1970, it was renamed Sentosa, which means "peace and tranquillity", from the Sanskrit word Santosha. Long-time political detainee Chia Thye Poh, arrested in 1966, was confined to Sentosa from 1989 until his release in 1992.

Sentosa as we know it today is an amalgamation of several smaller isles, just as petrochemical hub Jurong Island is made up of islands in the Ayer Chawan archipelago.

A short film shown along with the exhibition sums it up well, noting: "The story of Singapore's islands is one of growth, in size and economic significance, and loss, in numbers and nature, as habitats and homes give way to the needs of a modern city."

In 1998, long after many of Singapore's islands had disappeared, then Indonesian president B.J. Habibie dismissed Singapore as being no more than a little red dot.

Singaporeans have since embraced that nickname, using it to underline how this little island nation has transcended size to take its place on the world stage.

But a red dot doesn't show context. Zooming in on our many islands past and present allows us to see mudflats and porcelain shards, and ways of life long forgotten, yet still part of our history.

hoaili@sph.com.sg

This article was published on Aug 3 in The Straits Times.

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