Pulau Ubin says goodbye to its chickens and farmers
18 June 2005
Loh Chee Kong
THE birds have gone. Mr William Chen casts a casual eye at the fenced-up area, some 20 X 20m, where his chicken, ducks and turkeys once ran freely.
"What's there to remember?" he says with a shrug. "What's past is past."
The ban on poultry farming on Pulau Ubin officially took effect yesterday. For the romantics who speak wistfully about Ubin's rustic charms, it marked the passing of an age.
But for several farmers, the process of change had started years ago. Perhaps a kampung by Singapore's shores is too much of an oddity. The 75-year-old Mr Chen is shedding no tears as he prepares to leave the island where he first settled as a 14-year-old during the Japanese occupation. Before the end of this year, he will move in with his son to start a new life here.
As someone who is 100 years old, with a lifetime of memories inside him, you might expect Mr Tan Hai Liang to rage against change.
But as the government is compensating farmers on Pulau Ubin to give up their farming licences, Mr Tan is surprisingly upbeat. Or just pragmatic.
Speaking slowly, in Hokkien he said: "It's good the government is taking over."
He explained: "Already, there are fewer and fewer homes here."
According to the 1970 census, the population of Pulau Ubin was 2,028. Now, villagers say, less than 100 families remain.
Times have changed. Once, Mr Tan used to rear about 400 chickens, not to mention pigs and fish, on the farms he owned. He said, "First, cannot rear pig. Now, cannot rear chickens. Earning money is difficult." And when wild boars attacked their plantations, Mr Tan remembers with bemusement that they were told they couldn't shoot them. "Cannot shoot wild boars. Cannot rear chickens, " he said with a hearty
The fact is that living off the land - the only way of life that many Ubin residents knew - was becoming increasingly untenable. Take Mr Chong See Sua, 52, who plans to use the compensation to apply for a new flat. The father of a seven-year-old boy has been losing money on his farm.
To make ends meet, he has been operating a bumboat for six years while juggling several other odd jobs. In a sense, Mr Chong and other farmers have known for a while that they were living on borrowed time.
They don't even own the land that their houses and farms sit on. It is state land and the residents were issued a licence to occupy it temporarily.
Said Mr Chong: "I can't sell my house because nobody wants to buy it, knowing that the government can always take back the land and not compensate you a cent. All I can do is wait to be chased out. So, I'm thankful now."
He had found himself increasingly hemmed in, while he options ran out.
Mr Chong lives in a hut near Kekek Quarry which faces the Johor Straits. It is kilometres away from the main jetty, so some years back he thought of building a small jetty in front of his house. He was still toying with the idea when tall metal fences were erected along the coast to keep illegal immigrants away.
"Now, I can't even come back to my house directly," said Mr Chong. "I have to cycle such a long distance from the main jetty. It's like you live in Pasir Ris and they say you can only go home from Punggol Road."
The 75-year-old Mr Chen understands the feeling. "I've never dared to make my house better," he said. "You never know when the government will take it away."
Apart from living in a limbo, the farmers faced a very basic problem. There simply wasn't enough money to be made. One resident, who wanted to be known only as Mr Soh, has been renting a piece of land for $1, 000 per month since. He used to rear about 500 chickens on it and made about $400 every month, after paying his expenses. He stopped two years back because of poor business. Since then, he gets by doing odd jobs. And now he is in an odd fix.
While full-time farmers will be offered compensation of $26,000 to give up their farming licences, as well as further payment for their homes and farm structures, Mr Soh, who is 60, gets nothing. The licence, after all, was not in his name.
As he looks at the remains of the fully-covered bird cage he had built and the $4,000 incubator that is now useless, he says: "What can I live on? Three meals a day is difficult. I'm not asking for much. Just compensate me for all the money I've put in."
That is unlikely to happen - and other farmers sympathise with him.
But they are glad that their own struggle is over and it is time to move on. Five out of the nine licensed farmer have already accepted the government's offer. "At least I can get some compensation before I die," said the 100-year-old Mr Tan.
Thanks to N Sivasothi for the alert.