An ode to our nation of islands

I am 10, and stand facing the sea. My toes sink into the wet sand as the evening breeze wafts by, carrying notes of salt and nostalgia.

I have always loved the shore, and that childhood memory of East Coast Park remains one of my favourite memories. The seas of Singapore constantly surprise me, with the coral reefs, turtles and dolphins that dwell beneath the thousands of ships that crowd the straits. The seas also connect us to the islands that lie within sight of our beaches.

Singapore is described as many things: city-state, city in a garden, the little red dot. But we are also an island-nation. In fact, we are a nation of islands.

We are familiar with a few of them: Sentosa, Pulau Ubin, Pulau Tekong and Coney Island. Further thought might squeeze out more names: Pulau Brani, Kusu Island and Jurong Island.

According to the Singapore Land Authority, 64 islands surround the main island of Singapore today.

Each has its story and role to play, from Sisters' Islands, which houses the country's first marine park, to Pulau Semakau, on which charred waste is turned into new land, and Pedra Branca's lighthouse, rising from the sea east of Changi.

I write this piece from Pulau Ujong, an island you may not have heard of but which you most certainly know, for it is the main island of Singapore. It literally means "island at the end", a reference to our place off the southern tip of Peninsular Malaysia.

Each of the isles, in its own way, reinforces the reality that we are a nation borne of the sea.

This part of the country's past and present was so important that in 2014, the Singapore HeritageFest had as its theme "Our Islands, Our Home". But Singapore's islands should not be celebrated only in one-off events but also in our regular everyday lives.

Yet, it is exactly their perceived remoteness, with whiffs of the past, that consign them to the background. As academic David Lowenthal said: "Islands often physically embody desired pasts in personal memory or in collective fancy... felt to be foreign, far from ordinary modes of life and thought."

He noted with irony that we imagine islands as a paradisaical escape from a life that is hectic and overwhelming, when, actually, they form some of the earth's most densely populated places, like Manhattan (28,000 people per sq km), Hong Kong (7,000 per sq km) and Singapore (8,000 per sq km).

Yet, the perception of Singapore's islands as a relic of the past could also be generational in nature.

Last week, I paid a visit to the Singapore Maritime Gallery, a newly renovated, almost-unknown museum dedicated to our nautical heritage, tucked above Marina South Pier. There, the clues as to how society's attention moved away from the sea became clearer.

It was in the 1970s that ships started losing to aeroplanes as the main mode of travel, and when the nation bet big and won on containerisation - the process of trade through hulking metal boxes. As industry intensified its use of the oceans as trade highways, people turned the other way, with Singaporeans' gazes shifting up towards the skies.

To you and me, the image of water as a highway is now replaced by water as an obstacle. And the islands, though still as near to the mainland as they always have been, are somehow farther away. Perhaps this is why we easily think of Singapore as an aviation hub, and not as a maritime nation, for flight is aspirational in its modernity.

But I suggest we cast our eyes seawards, for our health's sake. Research in psychology has yielded evidence that exposure to bodies of water - be they lakes, oceans or rivers - lower stress levels significantly. And by accident of geography, the sea remains the largest body of water accessible to most people here.

The founder of the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, Professor Michael Depledge, showed through studies that although exposure to greenery lowered stress levels, exposure to greenery and water had the most positive effect on people. As The Guardian reported, "there is something deeply profound about water and humans".

It may not be so surprising to hear, for sea-facing properties in Singapore fetch eye-watering prices, and we often dream of Hawaii, Mykonos or Okinawa as destinations to escape from the stresses of modern living. But perhaps we should look closer at our humble islands, our unassuming "pulaus", for they provide a similar experience at the fraction of the cost.

I have spent less than $20 on many a happy weekend on Pulau Ubin, and also taken trips to the Southern Islands for biological expeditions to survey coral reefs and seagrass meadows.

Leaving the mainland on a boat always brings a sense of excitement and adventure, as one chugs away on a sea that becomes gradually open and immense, and hears the surf that crashes over the hull in salty gusts that promise a life we once were close to.

Many of us, after all, trace our lineage back to those who arrived on these shores on the promise of a better life, a promise that remains whispered in the hush of the deep blue that laps our islands.

So next weekend, why not take the MRT to Marina South Pier, visit the maritime gallery above it (free), and book a trip to our southern isles? It costs less than $20 per person, and in an hour, you will find yourself on shores from which you can view the distant Central Business District, separated by the gentle waves that teem with coral and fish in waters clearer than you thought possible for Singapore.

Our islands tell our story, and in our busy, hectic lives, perhaps we should listen to them.

• #opinionoftheday is a column for younger writers in the newsroom to write about issues that matter to them and their peers.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 26, 2017, with the headline An ode to our nation of islands. Subscribe