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The Last Island

02 May
Mon, 12am

By Marcus Ng

It's easy to forget that Singapore is an island.

It's also easy to forget that Singapore isn't just one isle, but an archipelago of more than 65 islands.

And who can blame us, when we have lost much of what made Singapore an island. The closeness of the sea, a horizon that barely ends, the surge of the tide as the moon threatens to swamp the shore with each waxing — much of what makes an island feel like an island has been removed, and remains far removed, from our lives, as the city sprang forth and the strait shrank before it to swirl at the far end of a reclaimed coastline and the margins of landward minds.

We may not feel like islanders, but many still long for a sense of islandness. The pandemic put paid to weekends in Bali and Boracay, but millions still throng Sentosa, seeking perhaps a change of scenery or a certain solace in a game of chance. But the former Pulau Blakang Mati hardly feels like an island any more, now that a causeway binds it to Telok Blangah, and the thrills it offers, in its sanitised beaches and safe rides, are merely escapades rather than a true escape from the confines and comforts of the mainland.

Pulau Ubin receives but a fraction of Sentosa's visitors. A trip there is a journey that unravels from the start, as one joins a ferry line that moves to the whims of a weathered crew, steps into a launch that mirrors the foibles of its captain, sharing makeshift seats with weekend warriors on wheels and pilgrims to rocky shrines, and surrenders to the skills of the skipper as the vessel chugs down Changi Creek, its deck at the mercy of each passing wake and exposed to the sounds, scents and splashes of the northern strait in their estuarine glory.

Many of the 300,000 or so visitors – possibly more, in these deprived times – who land on Pulau Ubin each year are likely drawn to the novelty of Singapore's 'last village'. (This dubious title is shared with Kampong Lorong Buangkok off Yio Chu Kang Road, which is also an 'island' of rural holdouts in a sea of urban developments). But Pulau Ubin is also Singapore's 'last island'. Here, traces of islandness that have vanished from the main island linger on — in the village where sundry shops and seafood eateries stand with their backs to the tide; in mudflats and beaches that are not enclosed by stony walls; and in the isolation that comes from distance and separation. This sense of remove deepens, even alarms, as night falls and one sees the gulf between what passes for island life in the city, where everything is a given, and what it means to live, literally, on an island that enjoys no quarter from the elements and where gods and ghosts outnumber the living.

These aspects of islandness, with all their challenges and contradictions, will likely come to the fore as islanders and stakeholders wrestle with the future of Pulau Ubin, as well as what, and who, defines Singapore's 'last island'. In the longer durée, however, islands and islandness, in all their diversity and shifting dimensions, have shaped the fate and even the very notion of Singapore, which continues to make much of its islandness as a little red dot in a sea that is at once a lifeline and a source of existential dread. Far from being geographical footnotes at the bottom of the map, Singapore's islands could be said to chart the very beginnings of a maritime polity. Even today, many of these islands, especially those that support lighthouses, such as Pulau Satumu and Pedra Branca, serve as littoral assets that guard a strait of strategic significance.

Turn back the clock to the 17th century, and the western tip of Sentosa was already being fingered by Jacques de Coutre, a Flemish adventurer, as the ideal site for a Portuguese fort — nearly 250 years before the British built Fort Siloso on the same spot to defend their crown jewel in the east. This was because the island overlooked the only known passage then between the Melaka Straits and the South China Sea. Portuguese sailors were long familiar with Sentosa (which they dubbed blacan mati), as well as two nearby isles called Pulo Siquijan (now Pulau Sekijang Bendera and Pulau Sekijang Pelepah). These islands' names, which speak of 'death from behind' and a pair of barking deer, likely pre-date Western rutters and hail from a time when founding myths made their way into hazy but lasting collective memories.

Pulau Sekijang Bendera, now better known as St John's Island, embodies the myriad dimensions of islandness in Singapore. Its waters served as a safely distant staging ground before Raffles set a wary foot on the mainland in 1819. The island, a well-known maritime landmark for centuries, then housed a vital flagpost that advertised Singapore's status as a British port to passing ships.

Later, St John's Island was prized more for its isolation and distance. Between 1874 and 1976, it was a place of confinement for new migrants as well as questionable returnees suspected of harbouring infectious diseases. The qualities that made it an ideal quarantine station also lent the island to penal functions: in the 20th century, St John's Island became 'home' to prisoners-of-war, political detainees, opium addicts and boat people. The use, or misuse, of islands as penal sites was extended to Pulau Senang, an island near Raffles Lighthouse to which secret society members were exiled until a bloody riot in 1963; and Sentosa, where opposition politician Chia Thye Poh was housed from 1989 to 1992.

The closing of the quarantine station on St John's Island in 1976 unleashed a different side of islandness. This island became a place to get away from the denseness of the city, an escape from school and work routines in sanitary quarters-turned-campsites. In the same decade, other islands in the south, such as Pulau Sekijang Pelepah (now better known as Lazarus Island) and Pulau Sudong, were also designated as sites of recreation for a mainland horde.

This vision of islandness, however, had no room for an older layer of littoral life, as the islanders who had inhabited these shores for generations were forced to remove to high-rise flats. Still other southern isles that were home to traditional settlements not unlike those on Pulau Ubin – replete with schools, shops, suraus, shrines and peculiar inselic  histories – also shed this facet of islandness as Pulau Seking, Pulau Semakau, Pulau Bukom Kechil, Pulau Brani and the little archipelago that became Jurong Island gave way to container terminals, petrochemical complexes and an offshore landfill.

Today, the only island in the south to survive as a home is Kusu. There, the caretakers of two 19th-century shrines, one on the island's peak and the other on a rock below, still welcome pilgrims and maintain a mosaic of rituals that tread the lines between regional faiths. Old photographs of the island show a tenuous bar of sand that once linked the hilltop keramat and seaside temple, but this intertidal obstacle has long been buried under fill, as Kusu underwent an expansion that reduced its islandness with lawns, lagoons and other urban amenities. A similar fate befell coral islands such as the Sisters and Pulau Hantu, which had their fringing reefs buried under stone and soil, though new colonies have resurfaced in the decades since to reclaim artificial bays, reaching densities that draw regular dive boats and warrant the making of a marine park in the waters off Pulau Subar Darat and Pulau Subar Laut.
The islandness of Singapore's southern islands has shifted, faded, and faltered. They no longer serve as prisons, but beckon as getaways of last resort. Their rubble once formed the foundation of urban quays, by which bridges and monuments were erected with the blocks of a 'granite island'. Diminished by such contributions to nation-building, they continue to house facilities – industrial and municipal – that would mar the health and comforts of the main island.

In an earlier age, many of these islands were settled by the 'first peoples' of Singapore, who saw these waters not as barriers to freedom, but as a moveable feast that nourished their bodies, sheltered their families and connected them to friends and kin on other isles on both sides of the strait. And until this age of landlocked anxieties, these islanders even came to town, turning the basin off Clifford Pier into a carnival of sails and seamanship during an annual regatta that returned a sense of islandness to a city that was already starting to eye the world at large while losing sight of the isles in its midst.

What stories of islandness can one find on Pulau Ubin? What elements of islandhood remain on this sliver of granite and silt that has escaped the fate of its southern kin but must now endure the contestations of a post-modern crowd? What can the quarries, villages, mangroves and mudflats tell us about a space in flux, and whether Singapore's last island could, in our desperation to save or sustain it (for whom?), lose much of what makes it an island? Is there meaning in islands that exist in name but not in nature, and what do we gain in having a place where it's easy to forget that you are in Singapore, an island that feels like home but is never enough, where the sea and its spirits are kept at arm's length, always at war with the tides and at a loss with itself and its isles?

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