Monday, May 24, 2004

Money can't buy my perfect island retreat

Ubin man returns to kampung lifestyle
Reports by Fawziah Selamat

GOODBYE Singapore. Hello Pulau Ubin. That's probably what Mr Othman Mohd Seh uttered as he set off on the bumboat for Pulau Ubin four years ago.

This Singaporean, a 59-year-old retired firefighter, just could not feel at home in, well, Singapore.

An Ubin native - he was born and raised there - Mr Othman could not wait to return to his childhood stomping ground which now serves as his sweet retirement enclave. This, despite knowing that even if he had all the money in the world, he cannot buy a permanent home on the island. Pulau Ubin belongs to the state. Residents are given a Temporary Occupation Licence - a licence for temporary use of state land. Being an Ubin native has its privileges. The Singapore Land Authority is not issuing any new licences to live there. Only those who are native to the island can be residents.

'Everything just feels right here (on Ubin). When I lived on the mainland, all I could think about was going back to Ubin,' said the divorcee with four children. Having failed to convince his then-wife of the pleasures of kampung living, Mr Othman reluctantly packed his bags for the mainland in 1965, the year he got married. Home then was a cramped three-room flat in Bedok North. Still, Mr Othman would take his family to Pulau Ubin, to stay at his parents' spacious six-bedroom kampung house on weekends and public holidays.

'The city is just too noisy and crowded,' he said. 'Ubin makes me feel rested.' Today, it has become Mr Othman's home. His parents' house was demolished in 2000 - the land on which it stood had been earmarked for development by the Urban Redevelopment Authority. But even that couldn't kill his dream of retiring on Pulau Ubin. He moved into a friend's kampung house - the friend preferred the mainland - and has no wish to look back. Mr Othman says he enjoys a lifestyle that he thinks he would not have been able to afford had he remained on the mainland. 'I'd probably have to settle for a one-room flat or move in with my children. There's no way I would be able to enjoy such a wide space,' he said. 'I'd probably have to be more thrifty with my money as well.' With his pension of $840 a month, he has more than enough to live on Pulau Ubin, where his average monthly expenditure doesn't exceed $500.

As he had planned to spend the rest of his days on Pulau Ubin, he spent half of his $40,000 nest-egg on his son's wedding, as well as a gift of an all-expenses paid honeymoon in Australia, when he retired in 2000. His only worry: Giving up his dream retirement home one day since he does not have a permanent right to live on Pulau Ubin. 'The saddest day of my life would be when I'm told that I have to leave Ubin,' he said. 'I hope the day never comes.'

STEPPING off the jetty at Pulau Ubin, we expected the kind of vehicles even Third World nations would reject. After all, Pulau Ubin, aka Pulau Junkyard, is where koyak (Malay for rundown) cars go to die a natural death - running till they can sputter no more. But coming at us instead was a spanking blue van with wild, red flames printed on its sides. We looked around to see if we could spot Scooby Doo. But it wasn't the Mystery Van. It was Mr Othman's entertainment-mobile.

The second-hand van, which he retrofitted himself, comes complete with an LCD monitor to play his favourite Inul (that hip-swivelling J-Lo of the Indonesian dangdut scene) VCDs and ear-drum splitting speakers to blast his favourite techno tunes. Yes, you read right. This 59-year-old retiree enjoys the kind of thumping beats more popular with young bengs. And judging from the many disoriented cyclists we met along the way while Mr Othman drove us around Pulau Ubin with the speakers blaring, we weren't the only ones surprised by his odd choice of music.

Bought at the rock-bottom price of $6,000 - vehicles on Pulau Ubin do not require a COE - the van serves as a means of extra income for Mr Othman as he uses it to ferry daytrippers around the island. We're now just waiting for Mr Othman to install ghetto-pimp hydraulics to convert his van into the ultimate souped-up vehicle.

WITH the beach just a short 10-minute walk from his house, it's not surprising that Mr Othman leads the ultimate beach-bum lifestyle. Lazing by the beach, fishing on the open seas and cycling around the island - all that's missing is a choker of seashells around his neck to get him dubbed Pulau Ubin's 'Budak Pantai' (Malay for beach boy).

But Mr Othman already has his moniker-quota filled. He was nicknamed 'Man Keras' (Malay for Iron Man) by his firefighter mates - a play on his name as well as a reference to his bulging physique. And a framed article of the time he was crowned Mr Fire Service - a body-building contest for firefighters - in 1976, hangs proudly on his living-room wall. No longer in his prime, Mr Othman nevertheless fools many into thinking that he's younger than his 59-year-old self.

Casually dressed in a tank-top and bermudas, Mr Othman doesn't look a day over 49. Perhaps his exercise regime has something to do with that. 'Ubin is great for jogging although I've since discovered that I love cycling even more,' said Mr Othman as he pointed out his mountain bike. 'But of course, since I don't have a fridge, I have to run to the shops to buy ice. That's about 2.4km - just like when I had to do my IPPT,' he added as we winced from remembering the days we used to fail that very fitness test.

HIS kampung house is not a mansion (it's as big as a three-room HDB flat) and the compound leaves much to be desired (discarded appliances and rubbish are piled up not too far away). City slickers will no doubt complain about Pulau Ubin's less than modern ways - Ubin residents power their lights and appliances using a generator, and water is still drawn from wells - but Mr Othman dismisses such inconveniences as being too trivial for him to worry about. 'You just get used to it,' he said, without breaking a sweat.

We, on the other hand, sweated buckets in the baking heat and almost tripped over ourselves in our desperate bid to swat away mosquitoes. And mind you, we were indoors at the time. To save costs, the generators are not switched on till evening, when natural light has to be replaced by man-made light.

So don't even think of making yourself an iced tea to cool yourself down. But make no mistake, as Mr Othman has shown with his van, this kampung aficionado isn't about to leave all the inconveniences of modern technology behind. A karaoke fan, his living room can barely contain his entertainment unit - two large speakers, a 21-inch television set and a single player which plays CDs, VCDs, DVDs as well as your almost-defunct videos. 'With this (his entertainment unit), I never feel lonely,' said Mr Othman, who lives alone.

Source: The Electric New Paper, May 24 2004, Taken from,4136,62457,00.html

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