It was by chance that I was able to join in a tour to the southern islands of Singapore, organised in conjunction with the latest exhibition held at the National Museum of Singapore – ‘Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore Islands’. That was about a month ago, on one hot and sunny day. The journey took us from the Marina South Pier to St. John’s Island, followed by the Lazarus Island and then finally to the Kusu Island.
These offshore islands are like time capsules – they bring us back in time to revisit Singapore during the early 20th century – a period of time when her piers and harbours were already busy with incoming and outgoing sampans, bumboats, lighters, as well as huge steamships that docked nearby. Although the epitome of these islands is long gone, it is not difficult to imagine the liveliness and the hustle and bustle of exchanges and activities that must have gone on at these islands back then since most of their landscapes have remained unchanged till this day. Well, most of them, except for the few which have seen recent developments, such as the newly reclaimed parts of the Lazarus Island.
St. John’s Island used to be a stopover point for immigrants in the late 19th century as a place for quarantine. It was later used as a place to house leprosy victims, and then as a drug rehabilitation center for drug addicts. There are still traces of her inglorious past that are still evident to visitors of this island – the dilapidated lavatories and shower houses that stand in a row right in front of the pier, for instance. There are also a lot of cats on the island, so much so that it is almost like a cat island of sorts.
On the other hand, the Lazarus Island is connected to the St. John’s Island via a newly constructed causeway, this being a recent initiative by the Singapore Tourism Board to further develop the islands as an eco-tourism spot. This sleepy islet is a lot quieter than its immediate neighbour; there is almost nothing there except for the stillness of nature. A vacated school remains standing and at one with nature, this being the last island school in 21st century Singapore. Take a less trodden path down from this stretch all the way to the end of the island and one would find a rather isolated beach of Pulau Seringat (which forms part of the Lazarus Island). It makes for a great spot to have a picnic before you go, given that it’s quiet, serene and away from the humdrum of city life – better than any beaches you could find on Sentosa!
Last but not least is the Kusu Island, also known as the ‘Tortoise Island’. This island, though similar to her sister islands, seems a lot livelier and more interesting, perhaps due to the weaving of folk stories around the island about the legendary turtle that saved the lives of two shipwrecked sailors. Unsurprisingly then, there are a lot of tortoises here, especially at the Chinese Da Bo Gong (大伯公) temple. The ninth lunar month of the year is when the island comes alive with pilgrims making their way to the temple to pray for wealth, health and fertility. Not to forget, there are also three holy shrines of three Malay saints (Syed Abdul Rahman, his mother and sister) right at the top of a small hill on the island – 152 steps up to be exact. Devoted pilgrims could also be seen climbing all the way up to the top of this hill to pray for the exact same things that they asked for at the Chinese temple. Well, why not?
Interestingly, there seems to be a keeper of the tortoises who regularly feeds these animals even till this day. These lucky tortoises have fresh stalks of spinach to eat every day – just like Popeye does!
These islands are indeed a precious source of our nation’s heritage. Just like the exhibition ‘Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore Islands’ revealed, it is very easy to forget that Singapore is not just an island, but an archipelago of more than seventy islands. The consistency and constancy on each one of these islands harshly remind us about how much the main island itself has changed; the fate of these islands would determine how much of Singapore’s heritage and history remains for posterity.
For those who are interested, ‘Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore Islands’ will be held till the 10th of August at the National Museum of Singapore. Admission is free for all visitors. Don’t miss it!