In July 2004, NParks' newsletter Ubin Tides conducted an interview with the Pulau Ubin headman, Mr Lim Chye Joo. In memory of Mr Lim, I am republishing and archiving the interview article here on Pulau Ubin Stories.
The Headman Speaks
Ubin Tides Volume 4, No. 2 (Jul 2004)
Mr Lim Chye Joo is well known to those who visit Ubin regularly. As the village headman for the island over the last few decades, he has represented the villagers on many public issues. Although wheelchair bound now, Mr Lim can still be seen regularly being pushed on his rounds at the village centre. His position and honor of being Ubin’s oldest man (currently 102 years old) meant that he is a gemstone of information on Ubin’s earlier days. We paid a visit to him at his house for an interview and were warmly invited in for a cup of tea.
Mr. Lim, how did you first arrive in Singapore and why did you decide to settle in Ubin?
I arrived in Singapore in late 1936 from Swatow, China. I sailed in a junk and the journey took us over one month. On a friend’s recommendation, we moved to Ubin and set up a small provision shop business. We grew some vegetables and reared poultry at the same time.
How did you become the village headman and was it a challenging job?
Actually there was no official appointing of village headman. After staying here for a fairly long time, many residences started addressing me as their village headman. At that time, no one really cared for the position as we were leading a very simple life and everyone was enjoying this pace of life. However, we all agreed that we needed someone to represent our villagers in times of need. The headman’s role is not as challenging as the title sounds. The village was very peaceful and the villagers enjoyed their way of living. No one attempted to make trouble, as everyone was just concerned about bringing bread home.
What was Ubin like then?
There were no proper roads on the island itself and there were many forested areas. Everyone living here was working from dawn till sunset to earn a living. In those days, life was hard but simple. Most of the villagers were working in the quarries for the British while there are others working in the rubber plantations. Most of us planted fruit trees, vegetables and reared poultry at home for sale at the main village square. Besides that, we have Malay villagers who fished for a living. Starting from the sixties, many people from Singapore mainland came here to farm and mine, with the population reaching almost four thousand in the eighties.
How has the nature in Ubin changed since you first stepped onto the island?
Flying foxes are not as commonly found as before. We regarded them as pests then, feeding on our fruits. The villagers had to keep them away by laying poison on flowering buds or shooting them down with a catapult. Large parts of the original forest were cleared and replaced by coconut palms, durians and other tropical fruits planted by the villagers.
What are some of the incidents in Ubin that have left the deepest impressions on you?
I remember during the Japanese Occupation, how the island was not as chaotic as in Singapore mainland. As long as you bow to the Japanese soldiers when you pass them, they would not make trouble. When any villager sighted Japanese soldiers making rounds, he would cycle around on the bicycle to inform the families with young Chinese woman to hide in the Malay villagers’ houses since the Japanese seldom disturb the Malays. Such was the kampong spirit of helping each other.
The simple way of living in those days is something I cherished most of all.