Wanted: Next-gen caretakers for Kusu

Jermyn Chow The Straits Times AsiaOne 14 Oct 14;

Like the thousands of devotees who visit Kusu Island this time of the year to pray for wealth, health and fertility, Mr Ishak Samsudin is also hoping for a "divine answer".

Who can take over his job as the caretaker for the island's three Malay keramats (shrines) that are perched on top of 152 steps?

"I'm not young any more... but finding the right person is one big headache," said the 52-year-old Ishak, who followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

The caretaker of Da Bo Gong Temple, which was built in 1923, is also mulling over similar questions. With the number of devotees falling, donations have also dropped.

"We still depend on the goodwill of our devotees and their donations to maintain the temple, and it has been much harder to do so these days," said 66-year-old Seet Seng Huat, who has been running the temple for the last 15 years after taking over the reins from his parents.

"There are not as many young people who want to come along with their parents or grandparents."

Around 700 devotees visit the island on weekdays - nearly half the number five years ago.

In its heyday in the 1990s, more than 200,000 thronged the island during the season each year. This fell to 136,000 in 2001.

As of yesterday - 12 days to the end of the season - about 26,000 people have made the trip so far, said Mr Li Guoli, the manager of Singapore Island Cruise and Ferry Services, who provides daily 30-minute ferry services to the island.

Kusu Island, located 5.6km to the south of Singapore, is steeped in history. The story goes that a tortoise turned itself into the island - "kusu island" refers to "tortoise island" in Chinese - to save two sailors who were shipwrecked.

During the ninth month of the lunar calendar, devotees travel there to worship before the Tua Pek Kong (God of Prosperity) and Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) statues in the Chinese temple.

Others make the climb to the top of a hillock to visit sites dedicated to a 19th-century pious man, Syed Abdul Rahman, his mother and his sister - popular among couples hoping to conceive.

These religious sites depend on the month-long pilgrim season for their yearly budget.

Mr Ishak said that he needs more than $30,000 every year to spruce the shrines and to pay for his upkeep and that of 15 other family members who have to live on the island during the pilgrimage season.

But donations barely cover the overheads, which includes an annual tenancy fee that is paid to the Singapore Land Authority. He, however, declined to say how much this is.

"It is a bit of a struggle but we always manage to pull through because friends and devotees come forward to help... maybe it's good luck, maybe it's our prayers," he added.

The father of three said none of his children is a likely candidate to take over from him. His eldest son is a senior technician with PUB, his second daughter is an accountancy undergraduate, while his youngest son is studying art in Lasalle College of the Arts.

"I would rather they do things that interest them," said Mr Ishak, who usually takes two months off his work as an operations executive in his friend's logistics firm to tend to the keramats.

Mr Seet, who lives on the island and only goes back to the mainland once a month, said he is likely to hand over the reins to "someone in the family", although "no one seems keen yet".

For now, the father of two will continue to be caretaker "for as long my body can take it".

The declining number of devotees is also affecting the livelihoods of those like Mr Ker Teong Ee, a part-time boat attendant. He said that he usually earns $2,000 during the pilgrimage season, double his usual pay as an odd-job worker on the mainland.

"Last year, I had six people working with me. This year, we only have four. I'm not sure if I will get to do this job again next year. But what can we do?"

Kusu regular Ng See Kee, who has paid homage to the island's deities for more than 40 years, hopes the new Marina South Pier MRT station that is set to open by the end of this year will draw more visitors.

The 76-year-old said: "Hopefully, the greater convenience will bring more life to the island."