Keeping Pulau Ubin alive

More needs to be done to ensure Singapore's last remaining offshore community - Ubin - goes on as a living kampung
Kok Yufeng The New Paper 15 Oct 18;

In 2014, the Ministry of National Development (MND) launched The Ubin Project to preserve the 10.2 sq km island's cultural and natural heritage and sustain its unique identity.

For the islanders though, Ubin's charms mask challenges.

Village chief Chu Yok Choon, 73, told The New Paper in Mandarin that while it would be best if the island was preserved, it does not take away the fact that daily life can be tough.

He said: "On this island, to get anything we want is difficult."


Transportation, for example, is one of the many bugbears.

People and goods get to the island by boat from Changi Point, using boatmen who ply the route from 5.30am to 7pm.

They usually wait until their 12-person boats are full before making the trip, and islanders told TNP that the boatmen have to charter them once operating hours are over.

Ms Mary Tan, 45, who is married to an Ubin resident and helps out at the family's bicycle rental shop on the island two to three times a week, said in Mandarin: "If you want to book a boat at night, it is double the price, and it is not as if you can get one even if you pay for it."

Bringing over supplies and provisions such as food and fuel from the mainland can also be difficult and costly.

Mr Lee Ah Yong, 58, who helps run the Chew Teck Seng Provision Shop, told TNP that he pays $50 to $100 for a boat to bring in supplies for the shop.

Ubin sees about 300,000 visitors a year and while the throngs of tourists, students, campers, and nature and fishing enthusiasts bring some hubbub to the island, on most nights, it falls silent.

Villagers said that over the years, their neighbours have died or moved back to the mainland and only a handful remain on the island daily.


For Dr Chua Ai Lin, 44, executive director of the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS), the key to protecting what is Singapore's last remaining offshore island community is to keep it going as a living kampung.

She told TNP: "(A kampung) is not a collection of buildings, it is the people who live there."

The SHS is part of the Friends of Ubin Network, a community formed in 2014 to drive MND's The Ubin Project, and has been working over the last four years to conserve and revitalise Ubin's living heritage.

Dr Chua said many families with roots in Ubin feel a strong relationship with the island and the younger generation want to see a future for it.

A study commissioned by the National Heritage Board in 2015 found a thriving kampung-centred social network on Ubin, which expanded beyond its shores.

The National Parks Board (NParks), which manages Pulau Ubin, told TNP that a recent census found that the local community had about 100 people, including those who return to the island on weekends.

Still, Dr Chua said that the practicality of making a life

Many of the houses and buildings are in a poor condition and restoring them is one step to bringing those with an Ubin connection back to the island, she added.

But it is not that simple.

While the islanders own their structures, the land, acquired by the state in 1993, does not belong to them.

The Government has been helping to restore some amenities and kampung houses, but those earmarked for restoration are empty and belong to the state.

To remain on Ubin, households and businesses have to obtain a temporary occupation licence from NParks, and pay a licence fee based on what the site is used for, its location away from the mainland, and its size.

This adds to the feeling of uncertainty for many .

Dr Chua said: "If (the residents) have no security about the length of their tenure, why would they put in money to repair the house?"

To address this, NParks said that it has extended the temporary occupation licence periods from one year to three years.

Dr Chua and Mr Chu both raised concerns about the difficulty in transferring the temporary occupation licence.

Mr Chu said the son of an Ubin resident who died had been trying for months to get his father's licence transferred to him but to no avail.

Dr Chua said: "This year alone, four elderly Ubin people have died. The question is how can we facilitate a smooth handover of their legacy on Ubin to the next generation."

For Dr Chua, preserving Ubin's unique heritage also requires cooperation from all parties as some of the issues can be complicated.

She gave the example of Ah Ma's Drink Stall, which was given a facelift by National University of Singapore architecture undergraduates this year.

The stall was rebuilt using traditional kampung-style construction methods to retain its rustic character but had to meet modern building and fire-safety regulations.

Dr Chua said: "We learnt that there are so many government regulations and licences to apply for. We had a lot of help from NParks and from MND, both in terms of paying for many of the costs, but also critically, facilitating a lot of talks with other agencies."

The project, initiated by SHS, community group Kawan Ubin and Sea Angel, a group of volunteer lifeguards, is a pilot for the rebuilding of future kampung homes on Ubin and can serve as a model of how to help the Ubin community, she said.

With many getting on in their years, islanders are also finding it hard to look too far ahead.


Like many Ubin residents TNP spoke to, Madam Ong Ang Kui, 80, who runs the 23-year-old Ah Ma's Drinks Stall, takes it one day at a time.

While she prefers to be on the island instead of her flat in Bedok, Madam Ong said she will move when she gets too old to continue selling drinks.

She said: "I will miss it but there is no choice. If not, who is going to take care of you? Outside of the island, there are my grandchildren, my daughters-in-law, my children."

Ms Tan, who lives and works on the mainland as a real estate agent, noted that the island's youngest residents are about 50 or 60 years old.

She said: "How many people can continue to stay here and for how long more?"

She added jokingly: "Twenty years ago, there were still people to quarrel with.

"Now I don't hear any squabbles any more,"

Man finds remains of his late grandparents’ home on Ubin
Kok Yufeng

His parents would tell him about his late grandparents, who died before Mr Syazwan was born, and what it was like to live in a kampung, drawing water from wells and growing a large sireh (betel) tree plantation out back.

Mr Syazwan, 22, a full-time national serviceman, found the site of his grandparents' home in April after searching for about a month.

He has since joined the Friends of Ubin Network, formed in 2014 to drive the Ministry of National Development's Ubin Project, which aims to preserve the island's charm.

The network came up with the idea of having a single agency to manage Pulau Ubin, and the National Parks Board (NParks)took on the role of the island's central management agency in June 2016.

Its director for Pulau Ubin, Mr Robert Teo, told TNP: "This management model allows NParks to have a greater overview of Pulau Ubin and better manage it to achieve The Ubin Project's vision."

Apart from greenery management, nature conservation, recreation management and public outreach, NParks now takes charge of additional functions such as the maintenance of roads, bridges, drains, beaches, quarry lakes and cemeteries.

Mr Teo said it also manages about 70 temporary occupation licences issued to the local community and has been conducting community improvement works.

The board has helped to dispose 15 tonnes of bulky refuse and debris accumulated over decades, improved drains and repaired trails leading to residents' houses.

Designated as a nature area, Ubin is home to 730 native plant species, including at least eight not found elsewhere in Singapore, more than 300 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, and 240 species of butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies.

Mr Teo said NParks, together with the community, has undertaken numerous initiatives to conserve Pulau Ubin's rich biodiversity over the years, such as field research, surveys and habitat restoration efforts.

For Mr Syazwan, only the foundation of his grandparents' house remains.

He said: "I honestly believe that the future of Pulau Ubin will still be bright.

"But what we really need is to put in more effort and to really spread the word around that Pulau Ubin needs to have more people, and more volunteers to help around."- KOK YUFENG