Monday, May 25, 2015

Forgotten Singapore – Evicted Islanders Grieve for their lost Paradise


From the 1960s on, residents of Singapore's idyllic southern islands were forced out of fishing villages and into high rises.

In 1963, five days after Singapore had merged with Malaya in what would become a fling of a union, the city went to the polls. In the South Islands constituency, which no longer exists, 5,048 voters, mostly fishermen and tribesmen, played their part in shaping the future of what would, two years later, be an independent nation. A nation that, in the years that followed, would devastate, and then forget, their rural existence. 


St John’s Island - Sir Stamford Raffles’ anchorage in 1819. By the 1930s it had become a screening centre for Asian immigrants and pilgrims returning from Mecca, and a quarantine station for those with infectious diseases. Today, it’s popular for its holiday bungalows.

Lazarus Island - Formed by land reclamation that joined Pulau Sekijang Pelepah and  Pulau Seringat and created a crescent-shaped beach, this is a picturesque getaway for tourists.

Pulau Sudong (off-limits) - Sudong and Pawai became a range for live-fire  exercises and training in the  1970s.

Pulau Semakau - Once a small fishing village, today it’s the world’s first ecological landfill, clean and free of odours thanks to an efficient waste-processing system. Pulau Seking was joined.

Pulau Satumu (off-limits) - Raffles Lighthouse was built on One Tree Island, as the name translates, in 1855. Today, only lighthouse staff and visitors with permission are allowed to visit.

Pulau Kusu - Once two outcrops on a reef, which served as the burial site for immigrants and those who died in quarantine on nearby islands, this is now a 8.5-hectare holiday resort.

Pulau Bukom (off-limits) - Kerosene was stored here in the 19th century. In 1974, the Shell oil refinery located on the island was bombed by the Japanese Red Army terrorist group. Fishermen once lived on the island, away from the industry, but today, it’s exclusively the site of the refinery; only Shell employees can live here.

Pulau Blakang Mati - A fortress and military base in colonial times, it was used by the British in the second world war, and was later a killing field for the Japanese. Today, it’s the pleasure island known as  Sentosa.

Pulau Brani - Once home to Malay fishing villages, a navy fort and the Straits Trading Company’s tin smelting plant, it’s now a container terminal.

Pulau Senang (off-limits) -The site of a penal reform experiment in the  60s, which failed when a riot broke out and  four prison staff were killed. A cemetery suggests  it had once been home to islanders. Today, it’s a military training area for live-fire exercises.

"That generation had about seven to eight children per family, so I'm guessing the population of those islands back then was nearer to 10,000," says photographer Zakaria Zainal.

Singapore's modern identity is that of a single, diamond-shaped island; yet, in reality, it is comprised of 63 islets (land reclamation is increasing their size and squeezing their number; seven were joined to form Jurong, for example), many of which, just a generation ago, were home to Melayu asli - indigenous Malays - who lived in kampungs; fished for their meals; and spoke in distinct dialects. Each island sustained a community overseen by a pengulu ("village chief"). Some had amenities such as schools, a mosque and a police station; others were far more basic.

Singapore is comprised of 63 islets, which a generation ago were home to indigenous Malays

From the 1960s, Singapore industrialised at a frenetic pace, and outlying territory in the land-poor nation was rezoned for the sake of efficiency. Three of the 20 or so coral-rich southern islands were devoted to a petrochemical plant (owned by Shell) and the world's first eco-friendly landfill (which saw two islands become one), others became military bases and leisure destinations, such as Sentosa, which receives 19 million visitors a year. 

By the mid-90s, all of the indigenous inhabitants of the southern islands had been evicted, compensated and rehoused in high-rise tower blocks on mainland Singapore.

As Singapore celebrates 50 years of independence this year, Zainal, 30, and fellow photographers Edwin Koo, 36, and Juliana Tan, 25, have traced more than 100 former southern island inhabitants, and recorded their stories for a multimedia documentary called Island Nation

"We were worried they'd say, 'It's been too long,'" says Zainal. "But they felt not enough had been said about their history. Even as we are documenting this, one lady we interviewed has passed away, so it's a race against time.

Some [islanders] felt they had lost their paradise. People broke down and cried, talking about their old wooden boat, their corals, their fish

"When the state offered compensation to acquire their land, some were OK with it because their children would no longer have to wake up at 5am to take a one-hour boat ride to school. Others felt they had lost their paradise. People broke down and cried, talking about their old wooden boat, their corals, their fish; they felt their parents' and their grandparents' way of life, for which no money was needed, had been lost. 

"These people had built their houses on the shore with their boats tucked underneath, because that was the ultimate freedom. Their new flats are like prison cages; the wounds haven't healed.

"Many still harbour hopes of returning to their islands, even if just for a day."

Anthropologist Vivienne Wee says the Singaporean authorities never considered letting the southern islanders remain on their land; only recently has an official nostalgia emerged for these communities, with the government last year announcing plans to preserve the heritage and nature of Pulau Ubin, a northern island still home to 100 villagers.

"What has been lost is a sense of history," says Wee. "There is a post-colonial perspective on our past, but Singapore is not only 50 years old. These islanders had a continuous genealogy on their territories going back to the 17th century; their families had lived there for hundreds of years. It's important we don't forget."

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