Protect Pulau Ubin from too much progress

Important to preserve rustic charm of island that offers precious retreat from city life

My dream destination for a birthday treat isn't Paris, or a fancy restaurant, or a posh mall. It is Pulau Ubin.

I spent a recent birthday on the rustic island. We headed there in the morning, took a 20-minute, $2.50 bumboat ride from the Changi ferry terminal and got off at the Ubin jetty.

We had nasi lemak and tea for breakfast, rented a bicycle and went riding on the trails. We parked our bikes near the boardwalk area. By then, it was close to noon and the sun blazed down. And still I went on, onto the boardwalk that snakes around the mangroves and along the coast, adamant to enjoy the island as much as I could on my special day.

We ate a simple lunch of sandwiches we had packed, and then biked back a different way from the boardwalk, past a quarry, kampung houses and meandering country roads.

And then we walked in the forested areas near town until we got hungry, and had seafood at one of the restaurants before taking the ferry back.

That was one bucolic birthday celebration.

We went back to Ubin a couple of times, most memorably for a Bird Race event with the Nature Society when we joined serious birders on a hunt around the island spotting birds and ticking off species. We were novices but had expert help from seasoned teammates. We also had beginners' luck and brought home two trophies.

And so I was relieved to read in yesterday's Straits Times that Pulau Ubin will stay as it is. A day earlier, the paper reported that residents had received notices from the Housing Board (HDB) saying that the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) wanted to clear some of the squatter houses there.

Online, copies of the letter were circulating. It mentioned "clearance of structures previously acquired for development of adventure park on Pulau Ubin". It went on to inform residents: "SLA has sought HDB Land Clearance Section (LCS)'s assistance to clear the above squatter house. In connection with the clearance, officers from LCS/SLA will visit your premises to conduct a census survey for the purpose of determining your eligibility for resettlement benefits."

The news drew dismay from people like me, who value Ubin for its rustic appeal. The island, with about 100 residents who fish, farm or run smaller businesses, draws 300,000 visitors each year.

The SLA and the Ministry of National Development issued a joint statement last Friday to declare: "The planning intention is to keep Pulau Ubin in its rustic state for as long as possible, as an outdoor playground for Singaporeans."

The letter, it transpired, was not a notice of eviction but was to tell residents they had to start paying rent to continue living where they are.

The statement did not explain why the earlier HDB letter had specifically mentioned an adventure park being set up. Readers will wonder if HDB was trigger-happy, or if there was a development plan that MND later asked the relevant agencies to back away from.

But the assurance that Ubin will be kept as an outdoor playground for locals for as long as possible hits the sweet spot.

I can't conjure up any reason why Ubin should ever become a Sentosa.

Ubin is special because it is only a short boat ride away from the mainland, and yet remains rustic and relatively unspoilt. It hasn't been gentrified. Most of all, it offers to the hyperactive modern Singaporean city psyche, a retreat from the intensity of city life. The lush greenery, abundant wildlife and kampung lifestyle soothe the eyes, slow the heart and stir the soul.

It's important to me that there remains a rustic corner of Singapore where time seems to slow down, a place that the flames of property fever have not licked, where I can still go to get away from it all without needing a passport.

A country, to be a home with soul, needs not only bustling commercial and office buildings and residential buildings; it also needs pockets of serenity, green areas and natural spaces. A wise state learns to leave pockets of wilderness untouched, in the same way a wise parent makes sure her children have time to daydream so they tap into their creative selves.

Urban planners of course know this, which is why so much space is devoted to green areas in Singapore, and why Singapore is expanding its already extensive Park Connectors Network of cycling and jogging trails islandwide.

But planned gardens and manicured pathways are no substitute for nature areas. The former, like the Gardens by the Bay, stirs admiration for human ingenuity. But nature humbles by showing us the limits of being human, reminding us of our connection with the soil, and that we share this habitat Earth with many other denizens of life.

There is an inherent tension between the desire to preserve and the need for progress. But to be a country that inspires love, and doesn't just draw investors' dollars, we must pay more heed to the instinct for the former.

In an interview with The Straits Times recently, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan spoke candidly about the challenge for Singapore, to be both a fast-paced global city which needs exciting jobs to keep the young content; and a slower-paced village for the retiring. A big country like Japan offers both: fast-paced Tokyo and slower Fukuoka.

"Do you want to be Fukuoka, do you want to be Tokyo? Unfortunately we are both. Our old folk, the majority of our population cannot be in Tokyo, we are Fukuoka, so we have to look after them. But we want to look after them in a way... (so that) there's still opportunity for those who want the Tokyo type of life."

The late former deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee was visionary in refusing to turn Sentosa over to industrialists, resolving to preserve its natural charms as a getaway for locals and tourists.

Today, Sentosa has some rustic appeal, but it has become too gentrified, with its expensive resorts and Sentosa Cove, a gated community of sea-facing mansions and condominiums for the super-rich with fast cars and luxury seacraft.

When population pressures mount, parts of Ubin may need to be developed one day. But I hope most of the island remains an affordable rustic getaway and that it is never tarted up into an exclusive enclave for the rich.