Being There

Pulau Ubin to the letter

The postman always stops to say ‘hello’ on the rustic, random route order of shacks on Pulau Ubin

Playing postman on Pulau Ubin can sometimes be a bucolic trek through the woods.
Playing postman on Pulau Ubin can sometimes be a bucolic trek through the woods.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

The slightly wilted piece of spa junk mail (“50 PER CENT OFF IF YOU SIGN UP NOW!”) in my sweaty, mosquito-bitten hands has been on Singapore’s most tortuous delivery route.

Mailed the day before, it has been processed today at the Singapore Post sorting centre off Loyang Avenue at 9am, put into a bag, taken across the water off Changi Point by a grumpy, leathery bumboat ferryman at noon, put on a van with me and now, two hours later, it has reached its end point: Mr Lee’s rusty red letterbox, its hinges hanging on for dear life by bits of wire.

Irritated lizards scuttle out when I slot in that amazing one-time relaxation and wellness offer.

Mr Lee, like any resident of Singapore, is owed his spa deal, no matter where he lives, even if his home is on Pulau Ubin, home to about 90 households and falling.

Helping me, the rookie postman, is 70-year-old Harun Jomahat, who has been lugging bank statements, CPF announcements and mobile phone bills to the island, 10 minutes off the mainland’s north-east corner, since 1997. He is now a part-timer, a returning retiree who serves only Pulau Ubin.

Mr Harun is the postal equivalent of a time traveller. He is the last of his kind in that he essentially serves one kampung, albeit one spread across the island’s 10 sq km. His route is filled with familiar faces. They nod at him, he nods back. He does not carry a mobile phone because, if there is an emergency, he says he can rely on the residents for help.

Other times, it is mainly 
trudging on muddy tracks to get to 
an addressee. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

One family invites him to share a haul of durians taken from a nearby patch. He declines but I take a bite. Some old-timers are alarmed at seeing me, togged out in my striped blue SingPost full-time worker’s smock, but I reassure them that Mr Harun is not being replaced.

My day on Ubin started at 10am at the Singapore Post’s Loyang Delivery Base, when I meet Mr Harun, one of SingPost’s 1,040 postmen and women. He has picked up his daily stack of about 70 or so letters, a mere 0.0025 per cent trickle of the 2.8 million-piece flood that is processed each day.

The Ubin load does not vary much by season. The residents, it seems, are not deluged with Chinese New Year or Hari Raya cards. Many are elderly, with children living and working on the mainland.

The addresses could not be simpler. There are road names on the island but no one uses them. So a typical address is 32, Pulau Ubin, Singapore 508419.

The job also entails traversing 
undergrowth to slot the mail. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

From the Changi Point Ferry Terminal, I wait with Mr Harun. We travel like everyone else and hop on the bumboat only when there is a 12-person minimum.

On the island, he retrieves his scooter, probably the only one on the island. When it comes time for its annual Land Transport Authority inspection, it has to be wrestled onto a bumboat and taken to the mainland.

I follow in a rented van, the mail in my hands, arranged by route order. 

House numbers were, perhaps, once based on a system but now, as tracks are overgrown and wooden shacks melt into mouldy piles in the tropical undergrowth, the numbers take on the random logic of thrown dice. 

You need to know by heart that Mr Tan at 32H lives next to Mrs Lim at 412.

It is durian season now and, along the way, we pass groups of fruit hunters. They, along with the visitors to the Chek Jawa nature reserve, hikers and the mountain-bikers, now provide the only source of commerce for the island’s coffee shops and bike-rental kiosks.

At 70, Mr Harun can still move his two-wheeler adeptly around puddles.

But I have to get off the van and walk to a few homes at the end of muddy tracks only a jeep or Mr Harun’s scooter can traverse. At one place, a hut policed by two sleepy dogs, an elderly Chinese woman sitting outside cleaning vegetables asks me what I am giving her.

“Er, a letter,” I say, then walk off. What an odd question, I thought. 

It is explained to me later that Mr Harun, if he can afford the time, can read mail for the illiterate, translating from English to pidgin Malay, or at least let the resident know that one of their children should take a closer look at a certain CPF Board announcement.

It is a forehead-slapper of a revelation for me. I hope Mr Harun can repair the damage to public relations I have wrought.

For rookie John Lui, mail calls 
are a cinch with old hand Harun 
Jomahat (far right) on hand. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Now, at about 1.30pm, with Mr Lee’s spa offer safely in his letterbox, I ask Mr Harun how long he can keep on delivering mail on Ubin.

“For as long as they want me to,” he says. For many postmen, Mr Harun’s beat is about as rustic and old-fashioned – and therefore desirable – as it gets.

A postman delivers an average of 3,000 letters a day around a Housing Board estate and might not speak to a single home owner. Mr Harun delivers 70 pieces and will chat with as many people as he has the time for.

But as more homes become abandoned on Ubin, could Singapore’s only ferryhandled postal route be dropped one day? Not likely.

As long as there is an address on Ubin and someone else needs to get a letter sent to that address, the route will stay, says Mr Harun. It is a public trust.

“They paid for that stamp,” he says.