The 'living treasures' of Pulau Ubin

In 938LIVE’s Heritage & History this week, Chew Wui Lynn hops on board a boat and explores Pulau Ubin, meeting some of the estimated 38 residents who still call the island home.
Chew Wui Lynn, 938LIVE Channel NewsAsia 17 Jun 16;

SINGAPORE: From around 1950 to 1970, there were more than 2,000 workers on Pulau Ubin, who worked in either its quarries, or plantations. It was home to coffee, nutmeg, pineapple, coconut, durian, tobacco and rubber plantations, as well farms for prawns, fish and poultry.

By the 1970s, however, the granite mining industry began to decline, and soon to follow were commercial crop cultivation and rubber tapping, which ended in the 1980s. In 2012, it was recorded that just 38 residents remain on Pulau Ubin.

Today, when one steps onto the island, they will be transported back to the Singapore of 50 years ago. The buildings in and around Ubin are mostly low-rise, zinc-roofed structures, and residents use well water for drinking and washing their clothes.

Some of the residents are wildlife experts, and can identify the various kinds of hornbills on the island. Others have an extensive knowledge of herbs, and say they can sell them for up to S$100 a kilogramme.


Anthropologist Dr Vivienne Wee was one piqued by the island life. She carried out a year-long study on the lifestyles of Pulau Ubin’s residents and former residents under a Cultural Mapping Project commissioned by the National Heritage Board.

She shared some anecdotes on some of the island's residents: "These 38 people represent the number of people who live on the island every day. For instance, there's Osman who has a kayak. He will paddle all the way out to Sekudu, or Frog Island, and would come back with several kilos of the little fish you find in nasi lemak.

“There’s also a woman here who’s very knowledgeable in herbs, and when I showed her a medicinal book of Chinese herbs, she could name all of them. She can even tell if it grows here, or in Singapore, or elsewhere,” Dr Wee added.

She also said that most of the residents work in Singapore, and cannot make the last boat which pushes off at 6pm. As such, they would rather come back on weekends.


A long-time Ubin resident is Mr Tan Leong Kit, a former quarry worker who quit due to health reasons. He also used to rear air-flown piglets from the US and sell to other farmers back when he used to have a pig farm in Bishan.

His farm then folded, which led him to set up a drinks stall on the island and and later open an ice kachang stall in Bedok. The elderly Tan makes about S$1,000 a month selling drinks, and S$300 from cleaning a local temple.

“I grow herbs mostly. I'm old now, so I need to stay in a quiet place," Mr Tan shared. "When one is getting on in years, one needs a quiet place. I have children and grandchildren, and it can get very noisy."

Another long-time islander is 80-year-old Ahmad Kassim, who lives in a house his late father built. Recalled its history, he said:" We came from Malaya, when the Japanese invaded and the British left.

"To build a house, I had to put up the support pillars and secure them, when the supports were complete, I used zinc for the roof," Mr Ahmad added. "I had neighbours to help me out. But nowadays, people have money and do not build houses with their own two hands.”

938LIVE’s Chew Wui Lynn brings us Pulau Ubin's highlights in this week’s Heritage & History. Stream or download the podcast here:

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