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Pulau Ubin: Rustic or just rusting away?

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 4, 2013

LIFE seems to be ebbing away from the island of Pulau Ubin.

Its population has dwindled from 2,000 between the 1950s and early 1970s to just 38 today.

Its once-thriving town centre is a shadow of its former self, with several provision shops and a restaurant closing over the past few years. Several villagers call it a ghost town on weekdays.

'After a while, you see the same person pacing the town centre. It's most likely the same villager you saw in the morning, rather than a fresh face from the mainland,' said Ms Doreen Lim, 52, who has been living on the island for the past 18 years or so.

Ubin's charm has always lain in its quiet rural surroundings with kampung houses and forest paths, reminding Singaporeans of a slower time in years past.

But the plunge in resident numbers has re-ignited a continuing debate - how much should be conserved, and how much developed to breathe new life into Ubin?

The 10.2 sq km island, about the size of Changi Airport, hit the headlines in April when a notice by the Housing Board led islanders to believe that 22 homes would be evicted for the development of an 'adventure park'.

The Government has since clarified that the island is to be kept in a 'rustic state for as long as possible'.

Instead, its latest plan, announced on Wednesday, involves the National Heritage Board possibly publishing an e-book on little- known facts about the island and initiatives such as cooking classes, a documentary on the island's boat operators and virtual tours of the town centre.

Some heritage and environmental groups believe the Government needs to go further in actively conserving the island's cultural heritage and nature, but not go so far as to erode its rural feel.

Singapore Heritage Society honorary secretary Yeo Kang Shua envisions Ubin as a place where mainlanders can go to for a quieter life.

Ubin is 'the ideal locality to engender a new kind of kampung community where Singaporeans can return to their roots after retirement for instance', Dr Yeo told The Straits Times.

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Nature Society president Shawn Lum thinks that the island's secondary forest, which grew back as rubber plantations became disused, could be slowly restored to its original primary state by growing endemic species such as Meranti, a hardwood tree.

At the same time, introducing boardwalks through the forest - as has been done at Chek Jawa, an intertidal area on Ubin's east coast rich with rare marine life - would help attract more visitors.

This resonated with Ms Lim, who also owns Pulau Ubin Explorers Services and conducts guided tours of the area.

'Ubin is a very beautiful island and there are thousands of plants and animal species here,' she said.

'My husband and I have spotted hornbills, owls, eagles, wild boars, sea otters crossing a swamp, mouse deer and even pink dolphins since we started living here in the mid-1990s.'

But heritage enthusiast and blogger Jerome Lim, a naval architect, believes Ubin should be left rustic. 'Ubin is unstructured and unmanicured. It has a certain charm that no urban planner can replicate. Orderly trees, benches, lamps and footpaths will only ruin its look.'

Former National Parks Board chairman Leo Tan agreed.

'We always think of planning as ‘Oh, we must do this, we must do that'. We should let Ubin evolve naturally,' he said.

Dr Lum, though, said the island should not be left to decline into 'a museum' but be kept vibrant and alive with ground-up efforts.

Take Madam Samsiah Abdullah, for instance. The 57-year-old religious teacher's Malay kampung home, which is more than 100 years old, opens its doors to visitors interested in the past. The house also hosts cooking workshops.

Madam Samsiah said she has very fond memories of the island and hopes that it can stay as it is.

'This is the only place in Singapore where you can experience kampung life as it used to be. If this is taken away, then there will be nothing left for us to pass on to future generations.'

melodyz@sph.com.sg davidee@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 4, 2013

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