Tekong revisited

A retiree who used to visit the island is inspired to write a book about life there before it became a military training centre
Rachael Boon, Straits Times 24 May 09;

Mention the nearby island of Pulau Tekong and most Singaporeans think of army boys doing their training in its forests.

However, before the army came along in 1987, the island, which is 7.5km offshore from the north-eastern part of Singapore, was home to a community of 5,000 people.

Its fishermen and pig farmers may have long since been resettled on the mainland of Singapore, but a retiree has teamed up with a Malaysian professor to write a book on what life was once like on the small tropical isle.

The book, which includes historical black-and-white photographs, will be published later this year.

Retiree Chen Poh Seng (far left) and academic Lee Leong Sze spent a year reseaching, interviewing past inhabitants and transcribing oral history tapes for the book. -- PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Mr Chen Poh Seng, 66, grew up on the mainland but has fond memories of Pulau Tekong, having spent most of his primary school holidays there visiting relatives.

Memories of the island and a fascination with its history inspired him to produce the book with the help of academic Lee Leong Sze, 36.

Mr Chen, who used to teach and was also in the publishing industry, says: 'I've always known Pulau Tekong only superficially and wanted to do something to preserve its cultural history and learn more about its community.'

The fifth-generation Singaporean adds: 'Since my paternal grandfather, uncle, aunt and other relatives lived on the island, I thought why not take the opportunity to do the book when we still can find the original inhabitants.'

The book, A Hidden Biotope: A Historical Remapping (1942-1987) Of Tekong Island, chronicles the development of the island and what life was like for its residents from 1942 to 1987 before it was turned into the Singapore Armed Forces' Basic Military Training Centre.

Since then, tens of thousands of Singaporean males have undergone the rite of passage of doing their basic training for national service there, complete with the ritual of having their heads shaved.

In its pre-army days, the island's population reached as many as 5,000 in number.

Malays, the island's earliest inhabitants, made up 40 per cent of its population while the majority were of Chinese descent. Interestingly, in the Chinese community, 70 per cent belonged to the Hakka dialect group and the rest were Teochew.

This mix is unlike that of mainland Singapore, where the Chinese were mostly Hokkien.

Taiwan-based Dr Lee, an assistant professor in Hakka and Chinese culture at the National Kaohsiung Normal University, notes: 'Most of the Hokkien and Teochew businessmen already had flourishing businesses on the mainland. Hence when the Hakka arrived, they decided to eke out a living on an island less inhabited.'

A Malay, Tengku Ahmad Tengku Sulong Hussein, was made a village chief among the Chinese majority.

The research, interviews of past inhabitants and transcriptions of oral history tapes took Dr Lee and Mr Chen a year. Dr Lee wrote the book in 2007.

The research process was given a hand in 2006 'by Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, which placed a notice looking for former residents of Pulau Tekong', Mr Chen says.

More than 100 of them were reunited for the first time since leaving the island in a meeting organised by Mr Chen and Dr Lee at Thai Village Restaurant in Changi Village.

Thirty of them were picked for in-depth interviews.

The Chinese edition of the book was completed last March. It will be published by the National University of Singapore's Department of Chinese Studies at the end of the year. There will be an English edition later.

Mr Chen and Dr Lee met in 2005 when they worked on a history and architecture book, The Living Heritage: Stories Of Fook Tet Soo Khek Temple.

Mr Chen was its editor. He later approached Dr Lee with his idea about Pulau Tekong.

The Malaysian-born Dr Lee is a Singapore permanent resident. Although he works in Taiwan, he comes back here for four months each year. The pair also worked together via e-mail and phone calls.

The assistant professor was happy to collaborate with Mr Chen because 'the Chinese, as a majority in Singapore, left their mark in the villages around Singapore, but this has been lost due to our nation's progress. It would be nice to let future generations know what rural life was like before city living'.

On the importance of the book, Mr Chen says: 'We still have so many islands and their histories to explore. I hope that people will be inspired to learn and share our heritage.'


Island life
  • Pulau Tekong is the largest of Singapore's offshore islands at 24.43sq km, but it is still expanding because of land reclamation.
  • The island blocks the mouth of Sungei Johor, hence its name Tekong, which means obstacle in Malay.
  • It was once home to 5,000 inhabitants.
  • Their ethnicity was roughly 60 per cent Chinese and 40 per cent Malay, with a few Indians as well.
  • Among the Chinese, 70 per cent spoke the Hakka dialect and the rest, Teochew.
  • After 1920, the island was mostly known for its rubber plantations.
  • The last inhabitants moved out in 1987.

Blast from the past: A family riding their car on Pulau Tekong, a resident getting her hair done and a house on the island. -- ST FILE PHOTOS