Jean Chia And Chua Ai Lin, For The Straits Times

Pulau Ubin's place in local hearts and history

The boardwalk (above) at the Chek Jawa wetlands of Pulau Ubin. Efforts have been made to document the nature and history of the island, leading to conserving and reviving some of the plant and animal species there. However, there is a lack of "cultur
The boardwalk (above) at the Chek Jawa wetlands of Pulau Ubin. Efforts have been made to document the nature and history of the island, leading to conserving and reviving some of the plant and animal species there. However, there is a lack of "cultural data" on the way people (below) live on the island.ST FILE PHOTOS
The boardwalk (above) at the Chek Jawa wetlands of Pulau Ubin. Efforts have been made to document the nature and history of the island, leading to conserving and reviving some of the plant and animal species there. However, there is a lack of "cultur
The boardwalk (above) at the Chek Jawa wetlands of Pulau Ubin. Efforts have been made to document the nature and history of the island, leading to conserving and reviving some of the plant and animal species there. However, there is a lack of "cultural data" on the way people (below) live on the island.ST FILE PHOTOS

It will be Ubin Day again today, when the island has an open house for visitors.

At last year's Ubin Day, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke of the need to document the island's cultural heritage in order to "honour our past, treasure our present and shape our future".

PM Lee's remarks reflect the Government's growing recognition of the importance of heritage awareness.

Earlier this year, the National Heritage Board (NHB) commissioned research on Pulau Ubin which includes an oral history project and video documentary. Concurrently, the agency is embarking on an unprecedented nationwide survey of the country's tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

Cultural self-knowledge is important. Despite Ubin's accessibility, we know startlingly little about its rural culture.

The island's rudimentary infrastructure means that different skills are required to live there, and it is precisely these skills that distinguish the culture of Ubin from that of the mainland.

What special knowledge is required on a day-by-day, or season-by-season basis? What leads someone to live on Pulau Ubin? What is life like when the weekend crowd disappears?

One might be surprised to learn that, despite the island's size and dwindling number of residents, there are unique environmental and ecological practices, human-animal relations, settlement patterns, community networks and religious traditions that characterise "island life".

In the context of contemporary Singapore, these characteristics become particularly fascinating for citizens and tourists alike.

Over the years, there have been efforts to document the nature and history of Pulau Ubin. NParks has recorded and indexed the island's biodiversity with help from nature group volunteers.

These efforts have paved the way for conserving and even reviving some of the plant and animal species familiar to the island. In addition, NHB has previously commissioned historical research on Ubin, which will allow us to install heritage walking trails and informative signs at historically significant sites.

With the right mix of diligence and building code allowances, we may even be able to conserve and restore some of the climate-appropriate architectural heritage in the area.

However, we still do not have enough "cultural data", that is, information on the way people live on the island. There is no comprehensive study of the traditions and practices of Singapore's last remaining island community.

Hence, we know little about the livelihoods of Ubin's residents and the contemporary challenges they face. Without this information, it is difficult to know what to conserve, how development should proceed or assess how residents (and visitors) would be affected by development plans.

We do know that life on Ubin has never been static.

Before colonialism, Ubin was home to the indigenous, riverine, semi-nomadic Orang Seletar (people of the Seletar River), who fished and harvested from the forest and mangrove swamps along the Seletar River and the Johor Strait.

Following the arrival of the British, the population increased to serve the needs of the larger Singapore island. From granite quarries to farming and agriculture, parts of Ubin were linked to various economic industries on the mainland.

In the 1980s, farming practices and communities began to diminish, and Ubin became a place of recreation and tourism.

Pulau Ubin holds particular significance for Singaporeans. A visit to Ubin is to go "back in time" to an era before public housing and mass rapid transit.

There is very little motorised traffic to mask the sounds of nature and local architecture in the form of timber houses built by villagers themselves is well suited to the tropics before the era of air-conditioning.

Residents use well water (though visitors consume water brought from the mainland), and diesel generators are the primary source of power (or in the more experimental present, solar panels and biodiesel generators).

As our nation matures, we need to acknowledge the continuance of the past in our present. Beyond merely documenting cuisine, cooking techniques, "traditional" customs or "dying" trades, the nationwide survey on Singapore's cultural heritage must study how the national narrative of progress has encompassed the lives of Singaporeans over the years. This would include recognising the significance of our cultural loss.

As we sow the seeds for our future, it is critical not to underestimate the value of such self-understanding.

Discussions over Pulau Ubin's future are closely tied to the larger question of how we understand ourselves and the role we play in shaping our own future.

Is ours a root-less future without any consideration of our proud past, or is it a future arising from a shared history?

Ubin presents a wonderful opportunity for Singaporeans to be involved in shaping a way forward that considers our cultural heritage. We would be wise to take it.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

Jean Chia is an anthropologist and member of the Singapore Heritage Society, where Chua Ai Lin is president.

For Ubin Day information, go to https://www.facebook.com/pulauubinday