An island-boy’s race against time and tide

For decades, kampungs and thrilling sailboats races were a way of life in the region. Kolek teams were like local football clubs. Now, one Singaporean is out to resurrect what was lost of his seaside childhood. This is the 3-part story of his quest.
Mayo Martin and Lam Shushan Channel NewsAsia 26 Nov 16;

RIAU ISLANDS, Indonesia: It’s a bright and early morning as Mazlan Mohd Nasir steps out of the house to sights and sounds and smells that remind him he’s not among the high-rise HDB flats of home anymore.

His father is already up and about, leisurely watering the plants and sweeping the grounds of the complex of one-storey houses by the sea. At the jetty nearby, children wait for the sampan ferry that takes them to school on the next island.

Down the dusty road, chickens wander freely while a couple of fishermen mend their nets and a woman peddling freshly-made epok-epok makes her daily rounds.

Metropolitan Singapore is where Mazlan was born and where he and his family now live, in their Pasir Ris executive flat. But if home is what reminds you of the place where you grew up, then the island of Keban, in the southern Riau Islands, is like a homecoming of sorts.

The 54-year-old takes a deep breath. “I can tell you, even when I sleep only three to four hours, I still wake up feeling fresh,” he says. He’d gone to bed after a sumptuous dinner of steamed gong gong, flower crab, Keban-style otak-otak and fresh-as-it-can-get fish caught simply by dangling a line out the window.

He continues: “It could be because of the food and the air. But it’s also the freedom. You have your own time, you don’t hear motor cars; at night you can see the stars, the moon, the real thing. The pace is very slow, very nice - that’s why you enjoy your life.”

Every so often, Mazlan and other relatives make the two-hour journey by boat to this remote place. It’s not just that his father, 76-year-old Haji Mohd Nasir Awang, now lives here in retirement. Or that it takes Mazlan back to his island kampong childhood in Singapore, growing up surrounded by water.

This is also the place where his family is resurrecting a thrilling sports tradition from the past - first in the Riau Islands and, Mazlan wistfully dreams, one day in his homeland.

A SOUTHERN ISLAND BOY

Mazlan’s dad, Cik Nasir, was born to a family of village chiefs or penghulu in Keban, and sent to Singapore to further his studies as a teenager during the post-War years.

As a member of the pioneer generation here, Cik Nasir became a civil servant who taught at various schools, including those in the Southern Islands in the early 1960s. It was in these islands that Mazlan’s close relationship with the sea began.

Born in Eunos in 1962 (the second child in a brood of seven), he and the family moved a year later to St John’s Island. Shortly after, they shifted across to Lazarus Island, where Mazlan spent most of his growing-up years.

“I used to cross over to St John’s for school, and the teacher would arrive from the mainland every day using the ferry,” he recalls.

Sometimes, the island folk had visitors, such as VIPs, or else intrepid tourists keen on learning more about how these kampong folk lived off mainland Singapore.

“(Fresh) water was difficult (to come by) and water rationing was practised. I would follow my mother to the well to wash clothes. In the evening, I’d play, play, play," said Mazlan.

His father initiated him into island life. “When he had free time, he would bring me to go look for crabs and fish… Life was not so easy like what we have now; there was no handphone, no walkie-talkie to communicate… You just listened to the radio; there was no TV.”

But there was one aspect of island life that truly fired up the young Mazlan, and became a passion he never shook off - the annual races of the traditional wooden sailboats called kolek, or “dinghy” in Malay.

WHEN SAILBOATS RULED OUR COAST

He distinctly recalls watching one race when he was about eight.

“They organised a sea sport activity on the beach of Pasir Panjang, before it was developed into a port,” he tells us. That was the first time he finally got to see his own family’s kolek in a race. It was called Pujangga - or “poet-philospher” in Malay - and it finished third.

Mazlan was too young to join in these adult races, but the sight of the swift-moving boats with colourful sails gracefully threading the waters fired up his imagination. He would even sometimes sleep inside Pujangga.

By the time he was 10, he and his friends would take part in mini-races for youngsters on Lazarus Island.

“I remember we once finished first, and the prize was three dollars!” he laughs.

Even back then, these unique races had been a way of life in Singapore for decades. There are newspaper reports, some dating back to the 1800s, that describe these annual events taking place.

The most popular of these was held at Clifford Pier, as part of the annual New Year’s Day celebrations - like this 1905 regatta, in a photo from the Arshak C Galstaun Collection (courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore).

One newspaper report in 1938 even compared the races to the prestigious Sydney Harbour regattas. It described how “thousands of Malays thronged the foreshore at Siglap” and 40 boats from Singapore, Johore and neighbouring islands took part.

Like the maritime equivalent of the neighbourhood football club, each kolek represented a specific kampong, while the crew comprised villagers. And while the sport was associated mainly with Malays, it wasn’t surprising to see some Chinese taking part.

The regattas were held up and down Singapore’s coastline, but Mazlan didn’t have to travel too far. The Southern Islands were a popular spot for kolek racing, and it was collectively nicknamed the '5S Races' to denote five of the islands in southern Singapore: Sudong, Seking, Semakau, Seraya and Sekijang - which referred to Sekijang Pelepah, the old name of Mazlan’s home island of Lazarus.

LAND AHOY!

But by the time the 1970s rolled in, things were changing fast for the people who lived in the Southern Islands and Singapore’s coastline.

Reclamation and modernisation projects were encroaching into the kampongs and many had to move inland - including Mazlan’s family, who did so in 1974.

“All the islanders were shifted to the mainland,” he says. “We first stayed in a rented house in Jalan Tauge in Kampong Ubi. Then after the redevelopment (there), we shifted to a flat in Eunos Crescent - on the 10th floor, I still remember. Then my father applied for a flat in Bedok North Avenue 3.”

Being uprooted from the sea took some getting used to. While in secondary school, young Mazlan joined a junior sailing club, but over time he was drawn to land sports such as football and rugby, which was perfect for his well-built, athletic physique.

Many from the older generation were not used to suddenly living in small, cramped spaces far from the open waters. It was a difficult time for his father, who still clung to anything that reminded him of island life, says Mazlan.

“He ordered one (fishing) boat from Keban, which we kept at East Coast. We needed a permit to store it but after a few years, the boat gathered dust and it was hard to maintain it.

“A few years later, he decided to buy another boat, so on Saturdays and Sundays, we went fishing. We’d go to Changi, the Tanah Merah side, or Siglap side, where they’ve got prawns. If certain places had no fish, we’d attack the Southern Islands which we knew well,” he says.

But even their old haunts didn’t look familiar for long. The so-called 5S-es slowly changed: Seking was swallowed by Semakau and turned into a landfill; Seraya was sucked into the mutant landmass now called Jurong Island; and Sudong became a live-firing zone.

And where Mazlan used to ride the boat to school, crossing from Lazarus Island (Sekijang Pelepah) to St John’s Island (Sekijang Bendera), a bridge would eventually be built to connect these two.

A TRADITION DISAPPEARS…

There was also another, lesser known casualty of the mass relocation: The culture of kolek racing.

Storing the boats - that were mainly used just for racing - was too expensive for many of the ordinary folk, who had moved into landlocked flats anyway.

“Most of the islanders sent their koleks across to the Riau Islands, where they had distant or immediate relatives. But no one organised (races) anymore,” says Mazlan, who himself lost track of the family’s kolek, Pujangga.

Indeed, kolek races were only held sporadically in the years that followed. The last reported race in Singapore was in 2001. It was during a sea carnival at Sentosa’s Siloso Beach and 100 participants took part - but they all came from Indonesia.

Despite relocation, the sea continued to call out to Mazlan and his family. Many of his relatives took maritime-related jobs such as diving, being in the marine police, or working with the Maritime and Port Authority.

Even in his current job as an operations manager at a logistics company, Mazlan isn’t far from sea-related projects such as building barges.

Besides, just when he thought he had heard the last of kolek racing, Mazlan made a startling discovery more than a decade after moving inland. During a trip to Keban in 1987, he spotted a familiar-looking boat. It was Pujangga – damaged, but still intact.

…. AND IS REBORN IN RIAU

For Mazlan, it was a lightbulb moment. “I said, why is my (family’s) kolek sitting here? Why not we have a race?”

After fixing its damaged hull, he suggested they bring back the races he had so fondly remembered as a child.

“We started to talk to the kampong people (in Keban) to try and revive it. ‘Never mind, we’ll just play and build up the kolek again’,” he recalls. “And it worked - we held a race with only three koleks from the area.”

Just like in Singapore, kolek racing had also disappeared in the Riau Islands. But Mazlan’s enthusiasm was so infectious that news eventually spread that the boats were back in business.

A year after Mazlan’s three-boat mini-race, a bigger race was organised at Belakang Padang in 1988. Kolek races would again become an annual event - even if it wasn’t in Singapore.


Singapore family helps bring back centuries-old tradition in Riau islands
Mazlan Mohd Nasir grew up loving the traditional sailboat races around Singapore, but then watched that centuries-old way of life vanish. In Part 2 of his story, we witness his family’s part in reviving the kolek culture and races in the Riau Islands.
Mayo Martin and Lam Shushan Channel NewsAsia 27 Nov 16;

RIAU ISLANDS, Indonesia: The harbour at Belakang Padang island is a fluttering forest of colourful sails, in various shades of orange, red, blue and yellow, with a pier jam-packed with cheerful spectators come to see the action. It mirrors the high spirits of our host, Mazlan Mohd Nasir.

“Welcome to the Olympics - in Riau, not Rio!” the 54-year-old Singaporean quips.

The day is August 17 - Indonesia’s National Day – and we’re about to watch the first of a series of regattas that take place every year in the Riau Islands. It’s the modern-day incarnation of kolek racing, a tradition in the Riau-Singapore-Johor region since the 1800s when these fast, shallow crafts with enormous sails requiring dexterous sailors were common.

From the harbour, the skyline of Singapore’s Central Business District is visible a mere 15 kilometres away, but it might as well be a different world. Today, the Lion City is a busy port and its shorelines festooned with container ships - but 40 years ago, such kolek regattas would have been common along the coast.

Singapore’s development came with a price: The space to race these graceful, powerful and demanding sailboats that had been a way of life for nearly two centuries.

But here in the Riau Islands, after a period of also fading away, the kolek races have found their way back to popularity. Thanks, in part, to people like Mazlan.

Today, the reason for his good cheer is his family’s Pujangga – a craft with a bright yellow sail and bright orange stripe on the side which is racing.

It’s not the same Pujangga that Mazlan, as a stripling growing up on Lazarus Island in the 1960s, watched compete around the Southern Islands - and which he discovered languishing on Keban in the Riau islands in 1987.

No, it’s a new-generation version, built in 1997. Mazlan has spent many weekends shuttling from Singapore to Keban to supervise its sea trials and to train the nine-men crew tasked with steering Pujangga to victory.

But, we soon find out, simply finishing a race is easier said than done. Barely minutes after the siren to start the race goes off, Mazlan’s kolek capsizes.

As the dejected-looking sailors limp back to the dock post-race, the reason is confirmed: Water seeped in, which can happen easily with a shallow boat like the kolek.

While packs of cigarettes are given out to the crew as consolation, we turn to Mazlan to see if he’s disappointed. “There’s another race tomorrow,” he shrugs, as we head to his home-away-from-home in Keban to recharge.

THIS IS RETIREMENT

More than an hour’s ride south from Belakang Padang, past speeding boats, the occasional fishpen, uninhabited mangrove islets and villages on stilts, lies Keban island.

Roughly a quarter the size of Sentosa - a mere kilometre from end to end - it is home to about 200 residents, mostly fishermen. The shoreline is dotted with wooden houses on stilts, and Mazlan’s family compound is one of the rare concrete ones.

As we dock and clamber up a rickety, makeshift jetty, his father welcomes us. A Singapore passport holder, 76-year-old Haji Mohd Nasir Awang, regularly travels back to the city-state, but most of the time he’s here on the island.

Like many of his generation from this part of the Riau Islands, as a boy Cik Nasir was sent to study in Singapore. He served in the pioneer civil service as a teacher and raised his family there, but once he retired, he moved back to the islands where his father and grandfather had served as penghulus.

While not a village headman like them, Cik Nasir is a respected figure in Keban. “I’ve got seven children, 25 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. They’re all living in Singapore, but they all spend their holidays here,” says Cik Nasir, who still has the straight posture and build of a sturdy islander, like his son. “And they’re all happy I’m here.”

Aside from Mazlan, also visiting today are his sister Lela, his nephew Firhan (a commercial diver) and two inquisitive younger nephews. Like Mazlan, they also regard Keban as their second home, a getaway from the intense pace of Singapore.

The place lacks some creature comforts (no electricity during the day, a practically non-existent cellphone signal). But on clear nights, Firhan tells us, the sky littered with stars is a sight to behold. A short boat ride away is Sugi island, where the marshes are lit up by countless fireflies.

And then there's the view from the family verandah.

Entertainment is improvised - two small mirror balls hang attached to the ceiling fan in the living room. Shine a light on them, switch on the fan, turn up the music, and voila – you get instant discotheque, kampong-style, Lela says laughing.

BUILDING A KOLEK HUB

Inside the main house of the family compound is a special “altar” of sorts to their kolek exploits. Trophies and certificates are placed together with photographs of Mazlan’s grandmother and grandfather, who owned and raced kolek. A photo of the new Pujangga hangs over these.

Cik Nasir, who helps Mazlan supervise their kolek team, keeps an eye on the family’s long-term project in Keban - the construction of a chalet, which they hope will be a place for visitors to stay to learn more about koleks, and maybe even help boost the island’s economy.

It’s part of their long-term plan to create a kind of “kolek hub” in Keban involving the kampung folk.

But Mazlan is aware that they need to get the islanders onboard, which is why they’re taking it slowly. “We don’t want to rush because we don’t want to disturb the environment. We don’t want to shake up the place. It’s not a money-making venture; I look at building up the whole community,” he says.

While Mazlan admits that more needs to be done to pass on the knowledge of boat culture to the younger generation in Keban, he is encouraged by the growing interest in kolek racing. “I can see the enthusiasm is now really there. When there is a race, they really prepare for it.”

And of course, at some point, he hopes the enthusiasm can spread all the way to Singapore, too.

“I would love if Singapore had a team, then they participate (in the races). They can even build a kolek, leave it here (in Keban), so whenever there is a race, sailors can come and hop in.

“They can come and do sea trials, train and mix with the sailors down here. We can do a one-time race in Keban, then maybe it will start to grow,” Mazlan enthuses.

But, he adds: “Singapore is not an easy place to do a race anymore. There’s no open sea, and where are the spectators going to watch?”

YOUR PASSPORTS, PLEASE

Kolek racing in the Riau islands has seen a revival over the last two decades and more. But in Singapore, once many kampung sailors were resettled into flats in the 1970s and the sport lost headway, it never really caught on in a big way again.

The kolek eventually disappeared.

And even if a race were to be organised in Singapore inviting kolek sailors from Johor or the Riau Islands, it had become quite a hassle. Says Mazlan: “Because of security issues, immigration processes, it became very restricted and (you) couldn’t organise very freely.”

Historically, the waters between Singapore and the Riau islands have been a tricky place ever since the British and the Dutch decided to split up these territories between them in 1824. But that didn’t stop small boats from island-hopping, which was why you once had koleks from the Riau Islands competing in Singapore.

However, once Singapore became a nation-state in 1965 and the Riau Islands formally became part of Indonesia, invisible boundaries were drawn on once-open waters, and things got more complicated. On a practical side, immigration rules made it harder and more expensive for Indonesian kolek to simply make a beeline for Singapore.

The last recorded race in Singapore was held at Sentosa’s Siloso Beach in 2001. Mazlan’s Keban crew had actually been among the Indonesian participants. He says his father had to pay for the passports of all the 27 sailors for the three boats they entered; each one cost S$300.

“It’s not like a European type of event where teams have the financial strength and sponsors - these are people from the kampungs and they don’t have such funds,” he explains.

THE ‘RIAU OLYMPICS’, PART 2

So while Singaporeans today are oblivious to the annual races happening just kilometres away, Riau islanders continue to race on.

It’s back to the ‘Riau Olympics’ and we’re there on Day 2 of the races, held in Pulau Buluh, an island just across from one of Batam’s huge shipyards.

On the way there, we pass by toy-sized unmanned boats called jongs racing in open water. These smaller versions of the kolek are popular among both the young and the old.

Just like in Belakang Padang, the atmosphere at Pulau Buluh is electric. The stilt houses facing the sea are packed with people. More are coming in, literally by the boatload, and parking their vessels where there’s space.

And just like at yesterday’s race, the racing boats make for an awesome sight. They’re all bunched together at the “starting line”, their colourful sails slightly tilted forward as if straining to be let loose.

It’s during times like this that Mazlan feels alive. Even though he no longer sails himself, but manages the team, the excitement is still there. “If there’s a race that I can’t attend, I start to feel uneasy to find out what the result is. It’s something that is very, very deep inside (me),” he says.

It’s a feeling that, unfortunately, his wife and two adult children don’t share. They’re back at home in the family’s Pasir Ris flat. When asked what they think about his kolek activities, Mazlan laughs: “They don’t like it! They think I’m wasting time or money, but I tell them this is my passion, so it’s okay.”

And then we hear shouts in the distance. The boats are off.


A yearning to bring kolek races back to Singapore
The conclusion to the story of a family’s dream of reviving the glory days of traditional Malay sailboat racing - which, for over a century, made waves in Riau-Johor-Singapore waters.
Mayo Martin and Lam Shushan Channel NewsAsia 30 Nov 16;

RIAU ISLANDS, INDONESIA: For some Singapore residents watching at home, it is stirring nostalgic memories of days gone by – and the wistful hope that they might be brought again.

We are on location at Tanjung Pinang in Bintan, streaming the pre-race festivities of a kolek or traditional sailboat regatta on Facebook Live on a cloudy day in late October.

Watching this, Yazid Van Lamri writes: “Last watched this with my late father at the coastal areas of (Pasir) Panjang behind hawker centre now at nearby park.. they call it ‘lumba kolek’.”

Others like Hisham Hiseánas Huang remember how these tall, graceful sailboats that have been part of the region’s maritime culture since the 1800s used to be raced during the New Year Regatta and off Katong, Siglap, Telok Kurau and Bedok.

Arthur Lee says: “If this was part of our Singaporean history, why not have Singapore Tourism Board organise this event? I believe it could start from Clifford Pier, go around Sentosa as a tourist promotional event, and end at HarbourFront.”

Baseer Shamsudin is among those who thinks it a good idea to revive such community-bonding activities. In the old days, kolek racing was a kampung-versus-kampung event, much like neighbourhood football clubs.

It’s all very encouraging for Mazlan Mohd Nasir, a Singaporean who is working to bring back the sport of kolek racing to prominence again, at least in the Riau Islands. (Read about his efforts here.)

“It feels great having these positive responses. When there are more participants, things can become a reality,” says the 54-year-old, who grew up in the Southern Islands watching his family’s kolek, Pujangga, catch the breeze. (More on the old days here.)

LIKE WRESTLING A BULL ON WATER

The thrill of these races isn’t like Formula 1 or horse racing, where the competitors burst full-throttle from the starting blocks. But there’s a certain elegance when their brightly-coloured huge sails slowly spread as the crews labour to harness the wind.

And then they suddenly power past you, and you realise how fast these craft are. Mazlan says they can potentially go up to 11 knots (20kph) tapping sheer wind power.

And because they always seem to be tilted to the side, kolek give the impression of perpetually being this close to capsizing. Straining to control the sails, the crew stand on the gunwale at a perpendicular angle to the boat in order to maintain balance. Inside, there’s always one man frantically bailing out the water coming in.

Forget F1, this looks more like a rodeo - with nine people valiantly trying to subdue a very stubborn and gigantic bull.

There’s a little sense of awe when you realise just how much skill it takes - and pride, too, when you remember that the kolek of the Riau-Singapore-Johor region in the 1800s was way ahead of the English sailboat (which used to be beaten by the kolek in races in the 1960s, Mazlan recalls).

In fact the trapeze method of leaning out of the boat, it is said, only came to be used by English sailors in the 1930s.

What’s at stake at these races? Mazlan says there are trophies and a bit of cash, around S$80 at most for the winning team. But more importantly, it’s about “the name (of the boat) and the pride”.

AGAINST THE STORM

Unfortunately, this isn’t Mazlan’s racing season. His family’s boat capsizes twice in two races in August, which is when we first witness Pujangga in action in the Riau islands.

When its yellow sail vanishes from view for the second consecutive race, it’s not alone – eight of the 11 boats in its category also capsized, a testimony to how tough this sport is. “The wind is very strong over there,” mutters Mazlan.

The drenched sailors come up to collect their consolation prize of packets of nasi padang, water and fuel for the ride back home. “Capsize again!” one of the sailors blurts out. They’re all smiles, but Mazlan’s nephew Firhan whispers to us: “They’ll be upset.”

It’s two months before we see Pujangga again, this time in Tanjung Pinang in October in the biggest and final race to be held this year. The kolek capsizes in its third consecutive race. But this time, Mazlan is beaming.

Not only has Pujangga been joined by another kolek from Keban, where Mazlan’s 76-year-old father lives and the family is trying to revive the racing culture - Mazlan has also finally convinced his wife, who doesn’t share his passion, to leave Singapore for a bit and join him in Bintan for this race.

More than 30 kolek start out on that very tough circuit, circling a large island off Bintan. A fierce squall blows in half an hour into the race. As the rain and winds lash out, the Pujangga is among its many victims.

But for Mazlan, this third consecutive capsize isn’t a bad result at all. Before the storm hit, the kolek was among the frontrunners at some points and had managed to reach the turning point at the other island, the longest distance it had sailed this year.

“I’m satisfied,” he tells us. “They did it against the strong winds, which shows you the quality of the boat and the crew.”

He’ll have to wait till next year for his kolek to finish a race. But for now, as the survivors trickle in to much cheering and good-natured heckling by spectators cheering for their kampong teams, it’s time to enjoy the moment.

ISLANDERS COME FULL CIRCLE

Indeed at the end of the day, winning and losing isn’t the most important thing that matters to these island-folks.

After one of the losses, we return with Mazlan to his father Mohd Nasir Awang's compound in Keban. While we were busy at the race, his sister Lela and the others have been busy preparing for a sumptuous feast serving as both a celebration and a commemoration.

It’s a thank-you dinner for the valiant crew who gave it their all. It is also held in memory of Mazlan and Lela’s mother, Cik Nasir's wife, who passed away in 2003; and their brother, a diver who died in 2008. For them, family and community are one and the same.

The living room has been cleared out to make room for the guests, folks from the villages who pack themselves in to sit on the floor as the village priest leads the prayers.

Afterwards, the food streams out of the kitchen, a buffet of chicken curry, epok-epok, bubur kacang hijau, prawn porridge, roti jala and an assortment of kuehs.

As the air grows thick with cigarette smoke, Mazlan, who’s seated with the crew, leans over to us and says: “This is the time for bonding. We get together to talk and share stories.”

Since there is no race the next day, everyone stays up later than usual. After dinner, Mazlan, Cik Nasir and the crew move outside to continue their banter under the stars.

Despite having lived much of their lives in Singapore, it’s clear just how strong these Singaporeans’ bonds are with the people of Keban, who have embraced them in turn.

For Cik Nasir, it’s a life that has come full circle: The son of a penghulu who left Keban to build a family (and even help a new nation find its footing) is now back home.

For his own son, Mazlan, after losing touch with his kampung childhood by the sea and his beloved kolek, he has rediscovered in his father’s hometown. And now he shuttles between two places he calls home, to keep a unique tradition afloat for the next generation.

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