Why the last of Changi Village’s full-time fishermen refuse to quit

Known for its beaches, nasi lemak, and ferries to Pulau Ubin, this laid-back estate is also where a few diehard fishermen set off each night to earn their catch. On The Red Dot tags along with one.
Desmond Ng and Noreen Mohammad Channel NewsAsia 21 Apr 17;

SINGAPORE: It’s 6pm, and Mr Jamalludin Ismaon is out alone on his small fishing boat, having just left the jetty at Changi Village when most of Singapore is starting to wind down.

He has little time to enjoy the glimmering twilight reflection off the sea - soon he will be busy snagging fresh bait, usually sardines, cutting them into bits to bait his hooks, casting his long lines, and reeling in his catch of the day.

This 55-year-old will be out at sea for a good nine hours, and will only return to shore at 3am with his haul of fish such as sea bass, catfish and snappers - if he is lucky. He’ll leave his catch at the mooring area for fellow fishermen to sell in the morning, mostly to restaurants.

Mr Ismaon sets out to sea, with his wife Rose who joins him on occasion.

Then there are days that he returns to shore empty-handed.

Mr Ismaon is among a small group of fishermen in Changi Village – just ten of them – who still insist on this line of work, even though the hours may be long, the work demanding, and the pay meagre.

"This is a very tough job, it’s back-breaking. You have to spend a lot of time at sea. I don’t think many young guys can do this,” he said, adding that many have quit the full-time fishing trade in Changi Village over the years.

And yet, Mr Ismaon willingly took up this work three years ago. “I grew up just in front of the river. I used to fish when it was low tide, for small fish and crabs. We would then barbecue it. That’s how I started to love the sea,” he said.

He was born and raised in Kampong Changi - one of two kampongs in this small 7sq-km estate at the eastern tip of Singapore.

Some believe the name ‘Changi’ was derived from the Chengai tree that used to grow in the district. The area was referred to as Tanjong Changi as early as 1828.

Mr Ismaon, however, has a different take - he believes that it was named by old fishermen from Indonesia and Malaya who used to moor their boats here. “When they put a pole in the river, they tie the boat, that’s the ‘chang ni’,” he told the programme On The Red Dot.

Fishermen from Malaya and Indonesia used to moor their boats here in old days, according to Mr Ismoan.


The Changi area had a different kind of visitor by sea too, in the early 1900s. Female tigers reportedly swam from Johor and stopped at Pulau Ubin before ending up in Singapore.

They would swim to Fairy Point in Changi Village and give birth in the neighbourhood, according to the National Library Board's Infopedia website.

Mr Ismaon and his family lived in a kampong house facing the sea, just next to the customs house where his father worked as a customs officer. Their family home, built in the 1960s, is still there today, albeit operating as a restaurant.

“This is the house that I was born in. The structure is still the same. From here, we can see people coming in and out, from Pulau Tekong, Pulau Ubin and Malaysia,” he said.

The house in which Mr Ismaon grew up is the last kampong house still standing in Changi Village today. It's now a restaurant.

Many of the villagers in the kampongs were relocated in the 1970s, when the area was being developed into a housing estate with its first low-rise HDB flats.

Today, new and old residents live in a mix of the HDB flats and old colonial buildings built by the British, who set up an air force base there after World War II.


As for Mr Ismaon, he moved to Tampines and Marine Parade - but he couldn’t get used to the concrete jungle.

I tried to live in the city area but I didn’t feel very peaceful. It was too crowded, there’s no sea, nothing. I didn’t like facing the walls and windows all day.

“I love Changi, it’s very peaceful. There’s nothing to trouble me here,” he said, adding that he used to return to Changi Village every weekend back when he wasn’t yet a fisherman.

Changi Village's signature tranquility and rustic charm.

He’d worked at a golf club and an oyster farm - but the call of the sea was too strong. He started fishing once again in his spare time, before he decided to jump into it full-time, just for the love of it.

These days, the Tampines resident struggles to earn even S$100 a night, which is just enough to cover his expenses such as petrol and fishing license.

“The catch was good in the past. You could earn S$300, S$400 a night with a good tide. But now, you want to earn S$100 or S$200, it’s very, very hard,” he said.

The fish are getting less. It’s not like in the past where we can catch fish anywhere. Now, sometimes we don’t catch any at all.

"But that’s what being a fisherman is all about, we cannot predict these things," he added.

The fish are getting fewer every year.


And long-line fishing can be dangerous too.

It involves an 800m-long rope that has more than 180 hooks tied to it, which means it’s easy to snare oneself on the hooks. Fortunately, Mr Ismaon has been careful enough not to.

His wife, Rose, sometimes accompanies him on his fishing trip, helping him operate the boat while he casts his lines.

She said: “I’ll try to make an effort to help him because I know it’s quite dangerous for him to go alone. So if I’m really free, I’ll follow him.”

"It’s quite dangerous for him to go alone. So if I’m really free, I’ll follow him," said his wife Rose.

Like Mr Ismaon, she feels a strong connection to the sea. The couple met on a fishing trip some 18 years ago.

Some of her friends, however, were initially surprised by what her husband did for a living.

They don’t know that there are still people who work as fishermen full-time. They always ask ‘How you survive?’
“But we survive because it’s quite interesting. If we don’t catch fish using longlines, we do prawning too,” she said.

If they catch excess bait, Rose said that she would pickle it or use it to make sambal belacan.

Rose turns any excess bait fish into sambal belacan.


No matter how tiring it gets, Mr Ismaon doesn’t intend to quit this trade.

“When I’m here every day, I feel like I’m back in the kampong. I feel like I started here, maybe I will end here,” he said.

It’s how fellow Changi kampong boy, Mr Nirbha Singh, feels too.

Born in the area, he has been operating his textile shop there since 1968 selling clothes, table cloths and carpets – even after the departure of the British airmen and their families in the 1970s hit his business hard.

Born in Changi, Mr Nirbha Singh has been operating his textile shop there since 1968.

Mr Singh still misses the peace and neighbourliness of the good old kampong days. “It was a very friendly kampong,” he said.

“We are like brothers and sisters. At night when we close our shop, we will sit with our friends at a stall for supper.

“Now everybody is busy. After 9.30pm, people are tired, they close their shop, go upstairs, have their meal and sleep. Life was totally different then.”

Watch the full episode on Changi Village here on Toggle. Catch That’s My Backyard - On The Red Dot, on Fridays, 9.30pm on Mediacorp Channel 5.

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