By COLUM MURPHY, Bangkok Post, 3rd July 2003
Singapore -- For three months, Buddhist monk Phrakru Panna Dhamvithes walked south from his native Phattalung province in southern Thailand in search of a spiritual haven where he could build a temple and meditate. In May 1986, he finally found his piece of paradise in a somewhat unusual place - Singapore. He has been there ever since.
Phraku Panna's new home is not among the shopping malls and high rise buildings on Orchard Road, but among the mangroves and thick forests of Pulau Ubin, one of the islands that makes up Singapore.
It is not difficult to see why he settled on Pulau Ubin.
A short 10-minute ride in a bumboat from Changi jetty, the island is a welcome enclave of raw nature in the otherwise clinically pristine city-state. Singapore still has a soul and it can be found on Pulau Ubin, Malay for `Rock Island.'
The trouble is, while visitor numbers are growing, the local population is dwindling, and it may be only a matter of time before the island loses what is arguably its greatest attraction_its people.
According to legend, the island was created when an elephant, a pig and a frog decided to race each other across the stretch of water from the main island of Singapore to the shore at Johor. Whoever lost the race would be transformed into stone. Since none of the three reached land, the elephant and the pig became the granite rock that is Pulau Ubin, while the frog became Pulau Sekudu (Frog Island).
Eight kilometres long and 1.7 kilometres wide, boomerang-shaped Pulau Ubin is densely covered with mangroves and secondary forest. The island is home to some rare animals and birds including red junglefowl, wild pigs and oriental pied hornbills.
But flora and fauna are only part of its attraction. The island boasts the last few remaining kampong, or traditional villages, in the whole of Singapore. They date back to the middle of the 19th century with the arrival of a group of Malays. The Chinese followed soon after.
At 99 years of age, the village chief Mr Lim Chye Soo has seen it all. When he arrived at the age of 30 from Swatow in China, the island was prospering thanks to its rich granite reserves - the Raffles Lighthouse was built using Ubin granite. Much of the original vegitation had been cleared for the cultivation of rubber and crops such as coffee, pineapple, coconut and jasmine. At its peak, 2,000 residents lived on Pulau Ubin. Thanks to Mr Lim's efforts, the island got its first school when Bin Kiang School opened in the 1952.
Over the years with the erosion of competitiveness in granite and rubber, people began to leave - or were resettled - on the mainland. Bin Kiang School closed its doors in 1985, and today there are only 100 residents remaining on the island. Fourteen families are Malay, the remainder Chinese. Largely reliant on diesel generators for electricity and wells for water, their lifestyle shows the humble past of modern day Singapore.
Now ecotourism is touted as the island's "saviour''.
Each day the bumboats pull into the jetty at Pulau Ubin offloading predominantly Singaporean tourists from the mainland. Last year 300,000 visitors came to the island to take advantage of the recreational opportunities on offer. Cycling is one of the main draws and the bike rental shops vie for customers near the jetty. Hiking and camping are also popular _ there even is an educational nature trail specifically designed for the visually impaired. And during religious festivals, vistors join locals in prayer and meditation at the island's numerous temples and shrines _ among them Phrakru Panna's Thai temple, and the shrine at Aik Hwa Granite Quarry, which supposedly houses the remains of a German girl who died during World War I.
Mr Ali bin Montail is the 75-year-old leader of the Malay community on Pulau Ubin. Raised on the island, he left to work on the mainland with the British RAF before retiring back to the island in 1965 where he now runs a coffee shop. He says that the island is now much cleaner than it was before.
Singapore's National Parks (NParks) manages large chunks of Pulau Ubin. In addition to reforestation with primary forest - a project that could take over 100 years to achieve - NParks is also responsible for protecting the environment at Pulau Ubin.
Given the volume of visitors, this is not an easy task.
Last year, following public outcry, the government abandonned planned reclamation projects on the island's east coast to avoid impacting marine wildlife at Tanjong Chek Jawa. Saved from damaging development, the site now faces another challenge_the harm that could be done by over-enthusiastic tourists. To prevent this NParks organises tours to the area in a bid to limit the environmental impact of tourists.
In spite of NParks' efforts, the daytrippers are starting to take their toll. On the north side of the island at Noordin Beach, Singapore's only natural sandy beach, polysterene cups litter areas of the sand_washed up by low tides or left behind by careless campers.
Now, visitor numbers look set to increase even further as NParks is converting a former quarry into a mountain bike course, capable of staging international competitions.
The good news is that the Urban Redvelopment Authority (URA), Singapore's national planning authority, has recently pledged to keep the island as it is.
The bad news is that URA says it will do so for "as long as the the island is not required for development.''
It is unclear whether this curious caveat constitutes a firm commitment to keeping the island in its current green state indefinitely or if it is merely a stay of execution.
But Mr Ali is still hopeful for the future, and is quietly confident that the island can be kept as it is now so that fuure generations might know what kampong life is like.
But will it be preserved as some curious relic to the past, a type of open-air museum, rather than as a living, vibrant, real community?
There appears to be widespread resignation that population decline is irreversible. And in the absence of proactive policies to promote repopulation of the island, it seems inevitable that the 100 residents will soon whittle down to zero.
Perhaps in its zeal to protect the island's flora and fauna and promote it as Singapore's ``recreational zone,'' Pulau Ubin most precious asset_its people_will be overlooked. Without a vibrant local community to continue the legacy of Messrs Lim and Ali it might only be a matter of time before the island loses its soul and becomes just another entertainment zone for stressed-out city dwellers, becoming a greener yet equally heartless Sentosa Island.
Back at the Thai temple, Phrakru Panna mediates, oblivious to the social and environmental changes taking place around him. He says he wants to stay forever on Pulau Ubin teaching meditation.
But if the population of locals continues to decline, it could be that his future congregations will be made up exclusively of curious mountain-biking daytrippers.
First posted to Pulau Ubin Mailing List on 19th March 2004