The volunteer lifeguards of Pulau Ubin: ‘We won’t give up until the body is found’

Kampong spirit lives on in a community christened “Sea Angel”, who conduct their own search-and-rescue efforts in waters off Singapore.
Justin Ong Channel NewsAsia 7 Jul 17;

SINGAPORE: Fifteen minutes is all it takes for the fish farm to shed its creaking, bobbing picture of calm set against rippled waters off Pulau Ubin. As storm clouds rush into view, a fearsome racket arrives, mixing the howling wind with slamming doors while white-capped waves lash against flimsy wooden moorings.

Four years ago, the same abrupt change in conditions saw a fisherman in the vicinity thrown off balance by a sudden gust as he hauled in his catch. The elderly man was knocked unconscious by his boat’s propeller as he fell into the sea, and drowned.

“His face got all smashed up. It wasn’t nice. It was very ugly,” said the farm’s owner Phillip Lim, who retrieved the body by himself from the Johor Straits.

Armed with bare-bones diving gear and a modest motor-sampan, the 55-year-old and three other like-minded souls have dutifully served as voluntary lifeguards for the last decade, plumbing Ubin’s waters in search, rescue and salvage missions.

They form part of a wider community dubbed “Sea Angel”, made up of farmers, fishermen, kayakers and other outdoorsy folk aiming to keep the area safe.

At its helm is Lim, who in 2007 experienced a close shave himself when he tumbled out of his boat during a thunderstorm. “I had engine failure, my leg was stuck, half of my body was in the water,” he recalled. “One of the farmers saved my life - if not I would have died a long time ago.”

The incident was a turning point for Lim. A few months later, witnessing the collapse of a nearby kelong, he quickly swung into action, gathering his trio of dive buddies to search for bodies under the debris and recover precious personal belongings.

“I HAD TO HELP”

Lim’s self-professed rescue team has since logged at least 15 dives but they are, as he sternly told Channel NewsAsia, “not interested in records”.

The stories, however, are plentiful: the dead body with an entire leg of meat chewed clean by a wild boar; a senior fisherman who suffered a heart attack out at sea; the numerous boaters, kayakers and sailors towed to safety after capsizing in the middle of the channel.

There is even an origin tale, involving an American family on holiday in Singapore in 2009.

"The parents and their two children, six to seven years old, were kayaking through Ubin when they drifted apart due to a heavy storm,” said Lim. “Visibility was really bad, about 10 metres only.”

“We approached the parents and they told us to save their children first. We found the kids, sent everyone to a kelong, gave them towels and hot drinks.”

“And they gave us the name of Sea Angel.”

Another enduring memory, his “most painful” one yet, was that of a kayaker struck by lightning in 2007.

“When I approached him in the middle of the waters, his body was on fire. And he was still alive. I looked at his face, in pain and stunned… We sent him to hospital and the next day he passed away. It’s very sad. He was just 35.”

Lim recounted his toughest outing to date as an attempt to salvage a farmer’s sampan which had sunk to the bottom of the sea.

“I took two days. It was hard because I was alone, and the visibility in these waters is not good… But the old man is over 80 years old. It’s the only sampan he has, and it’s his livelihood. I had to help him get it back.”

To do so he had to make repeated dives about 12 metres deep, dredging up bulky wreckage with his thin, slight frame.

Lim is accustomed to far greater depths and dangers, having worked as a commercial diver for an oil and shipping company and “seen friends die underwater”. But in the years that passed he has also suffered two collapsed lungs and contracted asthma.

“Small thing,” said Lim, grinning widely in a break from his otherwise unsmiling, weather-beaten appearance and disposition.

“WE HAVE NO TIME TO WAIT”

It begs the question of whether the Sea Angel community are putting themselves in harm’s way by taking matters into their own hands. But their founder rejected the idea.

Said Lim: “We are all trained in first-aid, CPR etc. We are quite well-versed with the terrain, current and underwater features here. All my divers have communications equipment, night-vision goggles and BCDs (buoyancy control devices) so in an emergency, we can surface. If the current is too strong, we abandon.”

And while the divers typically work alone, above water, the rest of the community also chips in, he added.

For instance a fisherman might help watch for passing motorboats as nearby farmers take turns looking out from their individual vantage points.

“Once we spot something, we'll activate, using phones, surrounding people as fast as possible,” said Lim. “We've no time to wait.”

“Drowning cases only have about five to 10 minutes of a chance of survival. If by diving I can save somebody, even though I lose my own life, it doesn’t matter.”

“But if we miss the window, then no choice. We have to start to do a surface search for the body.”

“Regardless of what, we have to find their bodies. Because it’s someone’s child or parent. That’s our principle. We will not give up until the body is found.”

This unflinching position has seen Lim clash with authorities on more than one occasion. His gripes include being stopped from diving and officials activating their own personnel hours too late.

“It’s not that we don’t want to work with authorities. But it’s difficult. All the times I found dead bodies, I ended up being interviewed by this and that, and my farm got inspected.

“They have a lot of red tape. If we call them and wait for them to SOP here, SOP there, I think we would have saved the person by then.

“They have to open up to working together with the community.”

“KAMPONG SPIRIT - THERE’S NO PRICE”

Back in 2002, it was the same defiant streak which led to Lim swapping high-rises and highways for life on a big floating plank accompanied by no-filter sea views, a permanent breeze and a dozen hyperactive dogs.

“I’m a kampong kid. I can’t stand living in the city,” he said.

Wife and kids - a son and a daughter, both in their 20s - live on the mainland but see him once a week and are supportive of what he called his “social work”.

Aside from search-and-rescue, the Sea Angel community counts mangrove restoration and protection of marine life amongst their activities.

They also venture inland to lend aid to Ubin’s elderly and needy by delivering meals, looking after their medication and raising funds where required.

“Ubin is the last proper village we have in Singapore,” said Lim. “The kampong living way, the kampong spirit - there’s no price. If you need, I will help you.”

“Rather than staying at a home where you don’t even know your neighbours. Real, human-to human interaction is more important than just reading books and going to school.”

“That’s the spirit we want to pass down to the next generation of youngsters. That’s why’ve been trying to call for more people to join us.”

Though apparent that his beliefs form the bedrock of Sea Angel’s initiatives, Lim refused to describe himself as a leader. “I can’t say that. It’s everybody’s effort.”

His farm business has also not yielded much income since a devastating plankton bloom in 2009 - yet he does not think it right to return to Singapore now.

“I cannot give up. Because there’s a need for a community to be here.”

“Anyway, I don’t think too much about the future,” said Lim. “My philosophy is simple - today I can do something, so I do it.”

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