The Story of Singapore’s outlying Islands: A talk by Ng Ching Huei
Reported by:Letty Seah
Singapore is often referred to as an “island city”. The term “island city” is somewhat of an oxymoron. On one hand, the word “island” brings into mind images of attap houses, coconut palms and sampans… …all of which are emblems of simpler times, before the advent of computer chips and Microsoft. The word “city” embodies everything that is quite the opposite of a quintessentially “island” environment and lifestyle. A “city” is typically characterized by high-rise buildings, bright lights, skyscrapers and a fast pace of life. Henceforth, while Singapore is an “island city”, the current landscape is certainly more reflective of a “city” vis-à-vis an “island”. There are exceptions to this, however, with outlying islands like Pulau Ubin and Saint John’s Island offering a sense of reprieve from the urban modernity.
While most people might be acquainted with the aforementioned outlying islands, it is worth mentioning that there are more than 70 lesser-known outlying islands in Singapore, albeit tampered in the name of progress and in the quest for development. “Who were the founders of these outlying islands?”, “What did they do on these islands?” and “Where are some of these islands in present times?” were some of the questions that Mr. Ng Ching Huei, a researcher of the National Heritage Board, sought to answer as the guest speaker for “The Story of Singapore’s Outlying Island” talk.
“The Story of Singapore’s Outlying Island” lecture, held on the 18th of July was organized by the National Heritage Board in partnership with the NUS History Society as part of the 2014 Singapore HeritageFest. The theme for this year’s HeritageFest is “Our Islands Our Home”, inviting participants to rediscover the history of Singapore’s surrounding islands. As Mr. Ng aptly pointed out, History is not solely “three dimensional” about facts and statistics but also “four dimensional”, involving memory. In the lecture, Mr. Ng complemented statistical and factual data with anecdotes of people who lived on these islands.
“Boundary” was a key concept shared by Mr. Ng in the lecture. The lecture was thus organized according to the various clusters in which the islands were situated. The islands were grouped into five main clusters, namely the Northern Islands (east of the Causeway), Southern Islands (Sentosa Cluster), Southern Islands (Western Cluster), Former Ayer Chawan Cluster (Jurong Islands) and the Western Cluster (west of the causeway).
Having said that, the islands may appear to be neatly categorized in the five main groups, but in practice, it is a challenging and complicated task having to enumerate the outlying islands in Singapore. Mr. Ng studied various existent maps and took painstaking efforts to identify the 70 islands. The difficulty in conducting a census on these islands can be attributed to the multi-ethnic composition in Singapore. Due to the ethnic diversity in Singapore, different ethnic groups have differing ways of delineating the territory and naming the territory and thus differing definitions of whether or not the territory constitutes as an island. One tongue-in-cheek example cited by Mr. Ng would be the origins of what we have to know as Saint John’s Island. He noted that Saint John’s Island was initially called Pulau Sekijang Bendera but over time, people started calling the island Sejang Island, a supposed shortened form of Sekijang Island and eventually the name Sejang became romanized into Saint John’s Island as we know today.
Along the same lines of the concept of “boundary” was the discussion of the Straits of Singapore, in which Mr. Ng attempted to trace the origins of the islands. In his discussion of the Straits of Singapore, Mr. Ng highlighted the fluid nature of territory before territory was delineated into fixed international boundaries, before Singapore became a political entity. To the south of the Straits of Singapore lies Pulau Karimun Kecil. Pirate raids were rampant in the Karimun Island; inhabitants thus had to be prepared to defend themselves against piracy. Unfortunately, due to the lack of historical record, such piratical raids were left undocumented.
Aside from the concept of “boundary”, another key idea broached was the idea of change and continuity underwent by these outlying islands. The first milestone was the development of Singapore as a trading hub under the second Resident of Singapore John Crawfurd. As a result, trading partners from different countries began to sail into the seas surrounding the various outlying islands. The second milestone would be Singapore’s “second industrial revolution” in the 1980s – a harbinger of a new era where modern lighting amenities allowed work, leisure and entertainment to continue throughout the night. While the outpost of these outlying islands underwent little change, certain islands were redeveloped. One case in point would be the redevelopment of the southern islands such as Pulau Selegu to form Sentosa, a tourist destination. There were also attempts to utilize the land at Coney Island to construct an amusement park by the Aw brothers, founders of Tiger Balm, but failed to take off.
While some saw opportunities in mainland Singapore, others seek emancipation from the humdrum of mainland Singapore and found solace in the outlying islands. One such individual who saw the islands as a solution to his economic woes was Mr. Adolf Monteiro, who served as a keeper to the Raffles lighthouse. Mr. Monteiro, faced with financial constraints, felt that it was impossible to deal with the cost of living in mainland Singapore. Thus, he and his family relocated to Pulau Senang. He eventually moved to Pulau Pawai, a neighbouring outlying island.
In thinking about the issue of change and continuity, Mr. Ng attributes the rekindled interest in the histories of outlying islands to the desire to maintain a balance between development and preservation of our heritage. He also accounts the increased focus on outlying islands in recent times to government calls to “remember the past”, as well as improvements in science and technology that allow for the restoration of images of the outlying islands, which would have otherwise been lost. An example of how breakthroughs in science and technology can help to restore images of the past would be the photographs of Pulau Sekeng shown at the start of the lecture by Mr. Ng. With the help of computer editing, these photographs with tarnished negatives were restored.
Given our current landscape, Singapore at first glance may appear to be more city than island. Yet as Mr. Ng had shown in the lecture, Singapore, with more than 70 outlying islands, is undoubtedly an “island city”.
Letty Seah is currently a Year 3 History Major