BORN, bred and wed on St John's Island, 67-year-old Mohamed Sulih and his wife make up half the villagers left on this haven south of Singapore.
And over the years, he has seen the island transform from a kampung of 150 villagers, to a holding area for political detainees and later, a rehabilitation centre for opium addicts.
"I feel lucky to be able to see all these changes up front," said Mr Sulih, the island's former caretaker who has stayed on even though most other villagers had left for the mainland by 1975.
The other two villagers are the current caretaker and his spouse.
There was also a reclamation project started in 2000 to build a causeway to the neighbouring Lazarus Island, and then a $120 million effort to bring water, electricity, gas and phone services from Sentosa to the Southern Islands.
More change is coming for the 39ha island with the only marine station for academic research, located in the south-eastern corner of St John's, possibly slashing operations by March next year.
The National University of Singapore's Tropical Marine Science Institute's (TMSI) coastal facilities, which opened in 2002, has been beset by high operating costs - driven by the diesel needed for generators, the boats to transport employees and security.
Its impending closure has drawn several visitors, including writer Alex Yang, to the island.
"I wanted to see the work they do as it is one of a kind," he said of his trip on Wednesday.
But plenty of things on the island have not changed, and that is why it continues to reel in a small but steady stream of nature lovers.
They include tourists, picnicking migrant workers from the Philippines and Bangladesh, Indian and Myanmar expatriates, and fishing enthusiasts.
Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC), which manages the island, said it averages 28,000 visitors every year.
Kusu Island, in comparison, gets 104,000 visitors annually.
Visitors have the option of chartering their own boats or taking a public ferry from Marina South Pier.
The service, run by operator Singapore Island Cruise, costs $18 for a two-way trip (for adults, and $12 for children), including a stopover at nearby Kusu Island.
On weekdays, the island can get as few as two visitors, said SDC's executive officer on the island, Mr Eddy Ali. But it wakes up during weekends, the island's busiest period.
More than 170 people, for instance, made a trip down to the island last Sunday.
The allure of the hilly island lies in its pristine swimming lagoons, pockets of mangroves and stretches of natural rocky shores ringed by coral reefs.
Shoals of dolphins are sometimes spotted off the island's jetty in June and August, while bird watchers go to observe the majestic dives of birds of prey such as Brahminy kites.
Said TMSI director Peter Ng: "Jumping in the water, chasing after crabs, is something you can do here, unlike a more manicured place, and you can see a lot of different animals that used to be there along mainland shorelines such as Changi."
It is also a popular camping ground for students and church groups, as well as cyclists or joggers willing to rough it out on the island's rugged slopes.
"The landscape is less organised and quite raw, and I really enjoyed the breeze and blue waters," said undergraduate Timothy Ng, 23, who cycled around the island for the first time on Wednesday.
Anglers Keano Chua, 34, and Raymond Chua, 27, went home with a haul of 13 squid after five hours of fishing on Wednesday.
"The catch is much better than on the mainland," said Mr Keano Chua, who goes to St John's to fish every week.
Other anglers such as Mr Ng Teck Seng even stay overnight by pitching makeshift tents along the coastline.
"You don't have to rush for the last ferry, which leaves at 2.45pm, and the groupers are more active at night," said the music researcher, 54.
History buffs are also enamoured by the island's past.
Naval architect and heritage enthusiast Jerome Lim, 49, who enjoyed exploring a now-exhumed graveyard there as a young boy, said: "There was always that air of mystery about the place, and as a schoolboy, it always felt like an adventure."
TMSI's Professor Ng hopes the place will retain its rustic vibe in years to come.
The authorities said there are no immediate plans for St John's Island, and it will remain accessible to the public for recreational use.
It is the quiet life there that keeps Mr Sulih, who retired in 2010, on the island - mending nets in the day, catching squid along the jetty at night, and surrounded by a clutch of free-roaming chickens and cats.
"It is peaceful and not busy like on the mainland," said Mr Sulih, whose three grown-up sons live on the mainland.
"It is like my own secret place."
MANY USES FOR THE ISLAND OVER THE YEARS
Sir Stamford Raffles anchors off the island on Feb 28, 1819, before he takes a small ketch to reach Singapore's shores the next day.
Under the colonial government, the island first serves as a quarantine area for immigrants from China's cholera- and tuberculosis-stricken areas. By the 1930s, it becomes known as the world's largest quarantine centre, where Asian immigrants and pilgrims returning from Mecca are screened.
As the country closes its doors to mass immigration, the island is used by the colonial government as a holding area for political detainees and secret society leaders awaiting deportation. It also becomes home to a rehabilitation centre for opium addicts.
The treatment centre for opium addicts is converted into Singapore's first drug rehabilitation centre in 1973.
By the mid-70s, the island is a popular school camping spot.
The National University of Singapore's Tropical Marine Science Institute opens coastal facilities on the island in 2002. A year later, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority sets up a $33 million Marine Aquaculture Centre.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 24, 2014
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