An idyllic childhood spent playing on fields and catching fish

Tour participants will get a glimpse - from archival photos - of the lives of the bustling community then.
Tour participants will get a glimpse - from archival photos - of the lives of the bustling community then.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - In just half an hour, the Marina South Pier cityscape of concrete and glass skyscrapers of Marina Bay has been left far behind and the ferry is pulling up to a quaint, peaceful island shrouded in greenery.

But St John's Island was not always this quiet, nor was it always a vacant beach getaway for Singaporeans.

Former islanders like Mr Adam Salleh, 71, spent their childhood playing on the island's fields, climbing and swimming near the mangroves along the shoreline, and catching fish and crabs for dinner.

He lived there till he was 22, when residents were relocated to mainland Singapore in the 1970s after the island was marked for redevelopment.

"We grew everything ourselves so it was very fresh," recalled Mr Adam in an interview last month, as he stood no more than a kilometre from where his house used to stand.

"We didn't have to buy much, only some things from the provision shop like rice, cooking oil, fire starters, spices and kerosene oil."

The retiree revisited the island in preparation for guided tours that he and other former St John's islanders will be giving next month as part of My Community Festival.

Since it was established in 2010, non-profit organisation My Community has been organising heritage tours in historic neighbourhoods such as Queenstown and Tiong Bahru.

This year's festival includes tours to the islands dotted around mainland Singapore.

The tours of St John's island, which is about 6.5km south of Singapore, depart from Marina South Pier and will be held every weekend from Sept 11 to Oct 3.

They are priced at $50 (excluding booking fees), which covers the ferry trip.

For three hours starting from 8am, the former islanders will lead walking tours around the hilly 39ha island and describe what remains of their former homes and playgrounds.


St John's Island is about 6.5km south of Singapore. ST PHOTO: JOSEPH NAIR

They will bring visitors to spots such as the former quarantine facility and where St John's Island English School used to stand.

"We have these nostalgic feelings when we come back. The sad part is that a lot of the places we remember, especially our living areas and quarters, are slowly disappearing," said Mr Adam.

Other former islanders who will be tour guides are Mr Mohamed Fawzi Md Nasir, 51, who grew up on the nearby Lazarus Island, and Mr Abdul Rahim Abdul, 64.

Mr Abdul Rahim's house, located near the jetty, stands boarded up and partially demolished. This is the case for several of the other houses along the tour route.

Residents shared the island with a former quarantine station, a political detention centre, and later a drug rehabilitation centre.

Tour participants will get a glimpse - from archival photos - of the lives of the bustling community then, which included sports day activities for students and a popular provision shop.

The islanders lived together peacefully in the spirit of gotong royong, a Malay expression for a community that mobilises itself to help others, said Mr Abdul Rahim.

"We learnt multiracial living a long, long time ago," added the freelance steersman.

Mr Adam agreed, recalling how his family was close to the Chinese family next door. "We would open our house... and share everything. We helped them and they helped us," he said.

The former islanders hope the tours will educate the public on the history of the island. They also urged the authorities to preserve some of its heritage.

Mr Abdul Rahim said: "Whatever needs to be developed in Singapore, go ahead. But just keep this one small place so people can remember (and) tell our stories."

• For more information on the tour and to book tickets, go to www.mycommunityfestival.sg