'Living heritage' study of Ubin wraps up

Mr Ahmad and his wife Sapiah Taib, 78, in their kampung house on Pulau Ubin. His expertise in building and repairing kampung houses and digging wells was uncovered and recorded by anthropologist Vivienne Wee and her research team as part of the first
Mr Ahmad and his wife Sapiah Taib, 78, in their kampung house on Pulau Ubin. His expertise in building and repairing kampung houses and digging wells was uncovered and recorded by anthropologist Vivienne Wee and her research team as part of the first comprehensive study of Pulau Ubin's living heritage.PHOTO: MATTHIAS HO FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Mr Tan with some of the herbs that he forages on Pulau Ubin.
Mr Tan with some of the herbs that he forages on Pulau Ubin.PHOTO: MATTHIAS HO FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Year-long research records structures and islanders' skills, shows island is not in decline

One of the few Singaporeans who know how to build and repair kampung houses and dig wells still resides on Pulau Ubin.

Mr Ahmad Kassim is 80 years old and has been living on the island for 70 of them. He can rattle off the various steps involved in what is usually a two-month process of building a kampung house.

"You go into the forest to collect suitable wood, lay the foundation, build the frame... Eventually, you add the zinc roof," he said.

"It takes gotong royong (kampung spirit) to complete it."

His expertise was uncovered and recorded by anthropologist Vivienne Wee and her research team as part of the first comprehensive study of Pulau Ubin's living heritage.

  • 85-year-old 'epitome of entrepreneurship'

  • Foraging in his medicinal garden in Pulau Ubin and the surrounding forest in just shorts and slippers, a sprightly 85-year-old grabs fistfuls of the elephant's foot plant.

    Mr Tan Leong Kit sells the herb for about $150 per kg to the occasional customer.

    It takes him about a year to amass 1kg of the herb, which is said to expel intestinal worms and bring down fevers - information he picked up from his grandparents.

    He was described as the epitome of entrepreneurship by anthropologist Vivienne Wee, who studied Pulau Ubin and its islanders for a year as part of a project commissioned by the National Heritage Board.

    Mr Tan also sells drinks from his kampung house, which used to be a canteen for the island's granite quarry workers. A zinc sheet painted in bright yellow cries out to cyclists: "Y you so like that buy a drink lah."

    A former pig farmer in Bishan, he relocated to Ubin in the late 1970s after pig farms were discontinued on mainland Singapore.

    He carved a niche for himself by bringing in piglets from America to rear on Ubin until they were big enough to sell. His farm closed down in the 1980s.

    Mr Tan, who has eight children and 21 grandchildren, said he prefers to stay independent. He earns about $1,000 a month from his odd jobs. His wife, who lives in Tampines, returns to the island every weekend.

    Speaking in Mandarin, he said: "Island life is something I enjoy. I can take walks whenever I want to and the air is good."

Dr Wee, managing director of anthropology company Ethnographica, was commissioned by the National Heritage Board (NHB) to map the island's social history.

Her year-long research, which has just concluded, recorded about 90 structures, including houses, huts and coops, on the 10.2 sq km island, off the north-eastern coast of mainland Singapore.

It also identified other skills of islanders, including the cultivation of indigenous fruits, herbs and spices; fishing and crabbing by line, hook and trap; and having knowledge of wildlife such as hornbills and wild boars.

The study further puts to rest the assumption that the island is a sleepy backwater island in decline.

Previous newspaper reports said there were 38 official residents on the island - down from 2,000 between the 1950s and early 1970s. But Dr Wee's research has found that there are more than 130 people who live and work on Pulau Ubin.

She has also identified a "kampung-centred social network founded on kinship, neighbourly relations and friendship" on the island.

She said the network is not only thriving but also extending beyond the island's shores to include non- residents and regular visitors.


Capturing ‘way of life rooted in our history’

Younger Singaporeans are also integrated into the day-to-day affairs of Pulau Ubin. The island gets about 300,000 day trippers annually.

Dr Wee said they are tied to the island through informal apprenticeships, fitness and leisure, or because of their family businesses.

For instance, financial consultant Emily Chia, 26, returns to the island thrice a week to help her father run the family's bicycle rental shop. "I really love this place, the people and the way of life," she said.

Dr Wee said the constant flow of non-residents to the island and their induction into the network reflect that it is likely to continue to grow, expand and evolve.

The project also documents different aspects of Ubin's unique island heritage, including the social history of the island, religious practices and festive events, such as the annual six-day-long Tua Pek Kong Festival, which drew 5,000 people last year.

Dr Wee said the study is significant as it captures "a way of life that is rooted in our history".

First suggested by the Singapore Heritage Society, the project is one of NHB's contributions to The Ubin Project, led by the Ministry of National Development.

The ministry is working with the community and other government agencies through its Friends of Ubin Network to gather ideas on how to maintain the island's rustic charm. Its plans include preserving Pulau Ubin's nature, biodiversity and heritage.

Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's assistant chief executive of policy and community, said the project's findings will help the authorities develop sensitive strategies to retain and enhance the island's heritage and "ensure its transmission from one generation to another".

Those interested in learning more about Pulau Ubin can catch the premiere of film-maker Royston Tan's new documentary on May 14 on the island's wayang stage as part of this year's Singapore HeritageFest.

A 25-minute documentary capturing Dr Wee's research is available on NHB portal Roots.sg.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2016, with the headline ''Living heritage' study of Ubin wraps up'. Print Edition | Subscribe