Sunday, May 30, 2004

Ma Zu Temple

In my post on May 21 2004, "Have you been to Ubin yet?", I wrote about my first trip to Ubin and my visit to the Ma Zu Temple on the west of Ubin.

As mentioned, the temple has been demolished and is now OBS land. The first time I heard it mentioned in recent years was during Dr Chua Ee Kiam's talk on 22 April 2004. During the talk, Dr Chua briefly mentioned the temple but I do not recall any photos of the place. It was at this point that he reiterated the fact that many times, when we actually miss a place, it may actually be too late to capture a photo of the place which is true in this case.

Thus, I consider myself really lucky while search through the National Archives of Singapore's PICAS that I found these 3 pictures of the Ma Zu Temple. I might never have identified the photo if not for a lingering doubt that I have not seen this place in recent times. First of all, the picture of captioned vaguely as "Chinese Temple on Pulau Ubin" circa 1992. Secondly, the sign on the temple was not "Ma Zu Temple". It actually says "Ban Gang Tian Hou Gong" in Chinese which I loosely translated as the "Heavenly Empress' Temple" from "half bay/port".

Honestly, these words ring no bell with me at all. However, the part that gave it away was that it was a female deity. Afterall, in my knowledge, "Ma Zu" means mother goddess or mother ancestor. With this latest clue, I quickly called my mother on the phone and she confirmed that "Ban Gang Tian Hou Gong" is the name of the now-demolished temple we call "Ma Zu Temple".

Now the mystery that remains in my mind is why is "Ma Zu Temple" actually called "Ban Gang Tian Hou Gong" with a little subscript at the left that says "Pulau Ubin" in Chinese. (Do note that in traditional Chinese script, we read from right to left)

Of course, the first place I went back to was my original source of information - my parents. My father explained that the Ma Zu Temple is originally from a small fishing port at the mouth of the Serangoon River. Serangoon River was called "Ban Gang" by the Chinese, according to my father, because it was bigger than most rivers but not big enough to be "Gang" which I think means bay or port. Thus it was called half port. It was at the river mouth, or "gangka (river mouth or river foot), of this "half port" that the original Ma Zu Temple stood.

Map of Serangoon River courtesy of

According to my mother, Ma Zu Temple usually attracted seafaring folks or rather people who depended on the sea as their livelihood. Sailors, fishermen, boat builders, etc. My mother kindly supplied the information that most island countries usually have devotees of "Ma Zu", such as Taiwan for example. I also remembered reading about Ma Zu in my primary or secondary Chinese textbook which spoke of the fishermen and sailors praying to Ma Zu for safety in their voyages. It is understandable why the original temple was at the mouth of Serangoon river as originally, according to my mother, that area was a jetty or fishing village where fishermen would drop off their catch for the day. It is pretty much the Pasir Panjang or Jurong fish wholesale market that we have today. With the high concentration of folks that depends on the sea for their livelihood, it is obvious that Ma Zu Temple is appropriately situated.

However, Ma Zu Temple was then moved from the original "ban gang" area to Pulau Ubin as the "gangka" - the river mouth of serangoon river - was being developed. The fishermen and the fish market were, in my mother's words, "chased off" by the government. Similarly, the temple was asked to move as well. It was then that it moved to Pulau Ubin, to an area that my father said was termed as "xin gang" which means new port. According to him, "xin gang" referred to the river between Pulau Ubin and Pulau Ketam, along OBS' coast line. The particular stretch of shoreline on Ubin along this river was also termed as "xin gang" or "new port". It was also here that my mother lived her first 12 years. It was also termed "new port" as it was developed much later than the other parts of Ubin such as the Malay villages in the east and north of Ubin. This is the reason why the sign on the temple still reads as the temple from half port which is to indicate its origin. Sort of like a "katong laksa" stall in Changi.

In the 1990s, the Ma Zu temple was again "chased off" from Ubin as OBS land takes over. According to my father, the temple has now moved back to the mainland again, at a location in Sengkang! My parents suggested that perhaps I should go visit the temple in its current location and interview the people at the temple. Perhaps, I will.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Bin Kiang School Alumni

On 22 April 2004, Dr Chua Ee Kiam- an author of 2 books on Pulau Ubin - gave a talk at the NParks office to Ubin volunteers on the nature and cultural heritage of Pulau Ubin. During this talk he mentioned the (now torn-down) Bin Kiang school of Pulau Ubin. According to Dr Chua, the school functioned from 1952 to 1985 and was demolished in the year 2000. He felt there were probably not many pictures taken of the school before it was demolished. Hearing that, I was inspired to embark on a mission - to uncover as many historical records (pictorial and otherwise) of the school.

Picture by Dr Chua Ee Kiam

My first action was to approach my mother, because she had been enrolled as a student in Bin Kiang School from 1958 to 1963! Initially, my mother was of the impression that the photos of her days in Ubin were at my grandmother's place. However, a search by my auntie only revealed two photos taken on Ubin.

Still, my family was lucky in having pictorial records as my uncle worked in a photography studio on the mainland. According to my mother, most families on Ubin were unable to own a camera and have no photos of their families. Since my uncle owned a camera and often visited the island, he took photos of the family. Sadly, they were mostly portrait shots with no indication of the surrounding.

Undeterred, my mother began a search of her own photo albums. Just as we were about to give up hope, we discovered a treasure amongst the yellowing pages. A photo of my mother's class in Bin Kiang school!

(The year which this photo was taken is at the moment undetermined)

Encouraged by this find, my mother was insistent that she still had her Bin Kiang School report book somewhere in the house. Hearing this, I was absolutely excited. After ransacking the multitudes of cupboards in the house, we finally found the tiniest little yellowing booklet that says "Bin Kiang School - Student Results Book" in Chinese characters. (Bin Kiang School was a Chinese-ed school. The other school on the island was a Malay school.) All this time, this little piece of history was sitting in a cupboard in my own room and I never knew to treasure it.

Cover of the Bin Kiang School report book.

The interesting thing about the report book I discovered was a little subscript that says "Pulau Ubin. Singapore. 17." I was puzzled by what the 17 meant. I thought it was like one of those exercise books nowadays where it allows you to fill in the year after the generic "19__" The part that didn't make sense was Bin Kiang school was not established in the 1700s! After questioning my mother, I found out that 17 was actually the postal code of Pulau Ubin! Incredible! The postal code in Singapore since my birth has always been four digits. This is just amazing to my lack of knowledge in Singapore history.

For more information on Bin Kiang's history, there is a brief write-up by Raffles Girls' School on "Pulau Ubin's Vanishing Kampong". In it, a section deals with school life and includes some details on Bin Kiang School. There are even photos of Bin Kiang school before it was demolished and a picture of students having classes.

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

Friday, May 21, 2004

Have you been to Ubin yet?

Today on a bus ride home, I chanced upon a conversation between 2 persons discussing a trip to Ubin. It took me by surprise that I would so fortuitously hear Ubin mentioned on such a random occassion. Then again, I have been living on a pendulum of opinions (between thinking everybody has been to Ubin or the other extreme) ever since I started guiding with Pedal Ubin!

My first trip to Ubin was in the late 80s or early 90s (the timing is rather fuzzy to me by now). I remember I was still a primary school kid and my dad has dragged me out with him to a mosquito infested, dirty, smelly jetty early in the morning. The jetty was brimming with people and I learned that we were going to Pulau Ubin to visit the Ma Zu Temple (a deity that looks after the seafaring folks - fishermen, islanders etc) on the island.

The Ma Zu Temple seemed like a really popular spot for the devotees on mainland Singapore and on the island. That day, I was also reminded by my father that my mother was born on the island of Ubin and lived there till the age of 12. We walked around the island after visiting the temple and my dad pointed out the prawn pond and ramshackled, desserted hut that was once the home of my mother and her family.

That was the last time I've seen the house and the Ma Zu Temple. All of it is now Outward Bound School (OBS) land. The temple, house and along with one third of the land on Ubin was cleared to make way for the school and I heard they are still considering expansion. Personally I feel a deep lost for my personal heritage. I would never be able to see my mother's home with the eyes of a comprehending appreciative adult.

Nonetheless, the next time I stepped foot on Ubin was in 2003. I went with 2 other photographers to photograph the sights of the island, touted as the last "kampong" in Singapore. To my knowledge, many different groups of people visit Ubin consistently. Thus, I had the impression that Ubin was as well visited and as well known as Sentosa. Afterall, both had resorts and man-made lagoons.

However, during a session of Pedal Ubin on April 25th 2004, in a conversation with one of my guests, a gentleman I estimated to be in his 60s, I was shocked to discover that in all his years since birth in Singapore, he has never stepped foot on Pulau Ubin until that very day. After sounding my parents out, they affirm that in their experience, it comes as no surprise that as much as there are many Singaporeans visiting the island every year, there are just as much or more who has never been on the island.

I was fortunate enough to have had a glimpse of my mother's home in my lifetime but there are many others who never had the chance to see it as it is now. Perhaps it is time to head down to Ubin now and revel in it before its all gone.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

The Ubin Tiger - April 1997

Thanks to news archives of
"Tiger Talk Taken Seriously By Singapore Authorities"
Reuters World Service 29 April 1997

"It may sound like the stuff of urban legend, but Singapore authorities are taking seriously talk of tigers at large on one of the city state's outlying islands.

State television and the daily Straits Times newspaper said on Tuesday that police had warned residents of Pulau Ubin, located between the main island of Singapore and the coast of Malaysia, to stay indoors at night.

Police have also advised the public to keep away from the island, the Straits Times said.

The warnings came after quarry workers and an island resident separately reported spotting animals that looked like tigers.

 Although some three million people are crammed into Singapore's 648 sq km , Pulau Ubin has just 600 residents, and large patches of swamp, jungle and remnants of old rubber plantations.

Police and experts from the National Parks Board and Singapore Zoological Gardens have searched for the animals but so far found nothing.

But the report gained some credence because the island is within swimming distance of the Malaysian mainland and an elephant turned up on Pulau Ubin in 1991. Tigers disappeared from Singapore by the early 1930s, the last one having been shot in 1932."

"Tiger Reported On The Loose In Singapore"
Deutsche Presse-Agentur. April 25, 1997.

The following text is from an article reporting possible sightings of a tiger in Singapore. "Residents in a wooded area of Singapore claimed Friday to have spotted a tiger on the loose in the densely populated city-state. Police confirmed that officials had been dispatched to search for the animal.

'It's true. People have seen a tiger here,' a shop keeper on the island of Pulau Ubin, a part of Singapore which lies less than one kilometre off the coast of Singapore's mainland, told the German Press Agency dpa.

'Some men came over here to look for it. They had five or six rifles,' the shop keeper, who would identify herself only as Miss Koh, said. Police confirmed that personnel from the Singapore Zoo had gone to the island Friday morning to investigate reports of a roaming tiger.

 'Some officials from the zoo went over and conducted interviews with people who said they saw the tiger,' police spokesman Douglas Yeo said. 'Based on their expert opinions, they think the reports are very unlikely.'

Others said a wild tiger could possibly have reached the island by swimming across the narrow strait separating Singapore from the Malaysian state of Johor.

'Now that Pulau Ubin is being depopulated, wild animals are coming in from Johor,' K.P. Tan, a naturalist who studies flora and fauna in Pulau Ubin's jungles and villages, said.

'There are a lot of wild boar on the island which swim over, and tigers are very good swimmers. If a boar could make it, a tiger certainly could.'

Tan noted a well-documented case in which a wild elephant swam to the island five from Johor five years ago and had to be captured by authorities.

 Pulau Ubin, one of the few largely forested parts of Singapore remaininng, is roughly five kilometres (three miles) long and two kilometres (1.2 kilometres) wide and has about 300 inhabitants, who live in small villages or on farms.

The number of people living on Pulau Ubin has been diminishing in recent years as the government prepares to step up development on the island."

"Mystery girl of Ubin."

"Mystery girl of Ubin."
By Tan Shzr Ee. The Straits Times, 09 March 2003
(c) 2003 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

An urn in an obscure Pulau Ubin temple, said to hold the remains of a WWI German girl, has been attracting devotees since the 1930s

THEY call her the German Girl, or the Nadu Guniang - a Malay-Chinese appropriation of the words 'Datuk' and 'Miss'.

She makes her home in a yellow shack by an Assam tree, among carpets of lallang and grass.

The place: Pulau Ubin's south-western plains, far away from the cries of cyclists daytripping from the Singaporean mainland, or other gourmets slurping down prawns by the northern island's eateries.

All around her wooden hut, the air is dead still. But signs of human activity show through the lick of flaming candles and smoking joss-sticks twirling around her altar of an abode every day.

She is dead - and has been dead for more than 80 years.

A trickle of devotees on the island - and across the sea from Singapore - still meander round to the obscure spot to pay their respects regularly.

'I've been coming here for years,' says Madam Cheng Xuan Li, 39, a factory worker who troops down to the site every weekend with her family, armed with packets of Qoo Grape and floral offerings.

'An old friend told me about this temple. I have prayed for things, and have received them. It's only right that I return the favours.'

She is not the only visitor. Pulau Ubin resident Chye Leng Keng, 74, reveals that worshippers from as far as Thailand and Myanmar have come to pay homage as well, over the years.

Throughout his entire life, the old man and his wife have been living in a corrugated-iron hut, stapled together with age and dust, only footsteps away from the temple.

He is the key witness to the strange proceedings that take place every time devotees troop in to worship the deity.

'People come, sometimes with mediums who claim to speak German, and they ask for all sorts of things,' he says.

'They pray for health. They ask for Toto and 4D numbers.'

But the story began even before Chye himself was born.

Local folklore goes that the girl was the daughter of a coffee plantation manager who lived near the present temple site in the early 20th century.

At the end of World War I, British soldiers rushed in to intern her parents but she was said to have escaped through the back door.

In her haste, she fell into a quarry behind the coffee complex, stumbling to her death.

Her corpse was discovered by Boyanese plantation labourers, who threw sand over her body and offered prayers, flowers and incense as a gesture of goodwill each time they passed her.

Eventually, a group of Chinese workers on the island carted her remains to the crest of the quarry's hill and gave her a proper burial.

'How she became a temple of worship - I have no idea,' says Chye who used to work in a shipyard and has three grown-up children living on the mainland.

'The workers had probably been treated well by her parents, and maybe did what they did as a gesture of thanks.'

Whatever the long-winded route the German Girl's tale took to become reincarnated into its present-day myth, worshippers and Toto punters have not stopped coming.

From the 1920s to the 1970s, they left a trail of bananas and soft drinks on the burial ground for Chye to steal - as a hungry teenager and, later, as a cheeky old man up to nosey antics.

'I'm not pantang (superstitious),' he says proudly.

'I don't believe in all this ghost talk. I've never seen one in my 70 years in this place.'

In 1974, the grave was exhumed to make way for quarry excavation work and relocated to its present spot near Chye's hut.

He remembers playing kaypoh at the dig, sticking his head in the crowd to see a rusty cross and a few strands of hair recovered from the grave. These were apparently transferred to an expensive Jiangsu urn, bought for the ritual of ash-transferring by quarry company Aik Hwa.

Today, the supposed urn - a heavy white jar decked with tattered scarves - sits upright on a dust-caked altar strewn with a battleforce of eerie feminine tributes: hair brushes, nail polish, powder, Safflower Oil, Florida Water, Hazeline Snow and the odd tube of Revlon lipstick.

Newer displays - red packets rolled into tokens used for casting 4D numbers - bear imprints as fresh as this year's Powerpuff Girl ang pow logos.

A red medium's table and chair sit quietly in another corner, adjacent to the altar.

For all the fuss over the urn, Chye swears that it is actually only a replica of the original 1974 pot, which he believes to have been stolen by vandals simply for its beautiful Jiangsu design.

'It doesn't look the same as the one I'd seen. But people still worship it,' he says.

'Anyway, Singaporeans are strange. It's ironic that this German girl - a Roman Catholic going by her crucifix - should become some kind of Taoist deity for all these Chinese punters.'

The mystery has not only intrigued him but also caught on with two curious filmmakers. Ho Choon Hiong, 28, and Michael Kam, 34, stumbled across the temple while making a documentary on Pulau Ubin's nine temples and 11 shrines in 2000.

They have done the extra legwork of tracking down the former coffee plantation's 19th-century land deeds to a certain Daniel Brandt and Hermann Muhlingans of Germany.

But beyond these two names, they have failed to unearth further information on the supposed girl or her parents. Further enquiries with the German Club and other sister organisations here have drawn a blank.

A Sunday Life! check with the Singapore Land Authority and the National Archives similarly revealed nothing.

Yet Ho, who has been tracking this temple (below) for two years, does not intend to give up - not least when there is talk that it may be torn down to make way for expansion of the Outward Bound School nearby.

'I'm just hoping that it can be preserved or saved in some way, even if the land were to be taken over,' he says.

'One day, I want to find out who the German girl really was and what she looked like,' he adds.

For now, however, he is content to unravel the other mystery behind the urn: whether it contains the ashes of anything vaguely, formerly human, or, as Chye insists, is simply a replacement vessel for the Jiangsu original.

Balancing on a stool and blowing dust off the stacks of offerings, the intrepid Ho scales the altar on bended knee. He pries nervously at the lid of the porcelain jar.

'I have a clear conscience,' he says with a grin. 'Nothing to be afraid of.'

The big moment arrives: The lid is cranked open.

The urn contains nothing.

Nameless, faceless, speechless - and now, formless.

Why would anybody still worship an empty pot? But adamant devotee Madam Cheng insists: 'Ah, but that's exactly why she's a deity. She's invisible but everywhere, like Tua Pek Kong. Her power is omnipresent.'

First posted to Pedal-Ubin Mailing List, 8th Mar 2004. Thanks to Eunice Low of National Library for her help in acquiring this article.

See also: Changing with time in this blog.

Monday, May 17, 2004

The Straits Times, 17 May 2004 - "Burglars steal $35,000 from Pulau Ubin House"

Burglars steal $35,000 from Pulau Ubin House
By KC Vijayan
The Straits Times, 17 May 2004

TWO dogs in the compound of a wooden house on Pulau Ubin did not stop the home from being broken into and the burglars getting away with $35,000 in cash on Saturday morning.

The incident is believed to be the first reported burglary involving such a
large sum to have occurred on the island in recent times. Burglary is rare there and on the occasions it has happened, only small sums
have been taken.

Home owner Moh Seng Whee, 65, and his wife, Madam Ee Yam Ngoh, 56, left the house at around 7am. She went fishing and he to drive his cab. When Madam Ee, who is also a taxi driver on the island, returned about two hours later, she spotted a side door to the living room had been forced open and called her husband.

They found that about $15,000 in cash that he had placed in an unlocked top
drawer in the room was no longer there. About $20,000 in cash which she had hidden in an adjacent store room in a plastic bag was also missing. The other three rooms in their home were not disturbed. Neither of them had known where the other's money was kept, said Mr Moh.

Mr Moh, who has lived on the island from birth, said the money was the result of 10 years of saving, plus contributions from their daughter who lives on the mainland.

The Mohs have lived in the single-storey wooden house, located about 1km from the island's jetty, for more than 40 years. The first sound that greets any visitor is the barking of their two dogs.

Mr Moh said that though he had a bank account, he and his wife kept cash at home for their daily and other general expenses. But they would not be doing so
any more.

He added that it pained him to think of the losses.

The police are investigating the case and have appealed for anyone with information to contact them on 1800-255-0000.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Couple loses S$35,000 life savings in Pulau Ubin break-in

By : Johnson Choo, Channel NewsAsia
Date : 16 May 2004 1830 hrs (GMT)

SINGAPORE : A couple lost S$35,000 in cash when their house on Pulau Ubin was broken into on Saturday.

Both husband and wife had left their house at 7 am, returning two hours later to find their life savings gone.

Moh Seng Hwee and his wife are both taxi drivers plying the roads of idyllic Pulau Ubin .

They normally do not lock up their house, and when they left home on Saturday morning, it was just a normal day.

But when his wife returned at 9 am, she was heartbroken.

"When she got back, she found the house ransacked. She called and told me the money's gone," said Mr Moh.

The door linking the kitchen to the living room was also broken.

Mr Moh's wife, in her mid-50s, discovered her S$20,000 in cash missing. It had been hidden in between egg-trays and wrapped in a red plastic bag.

Also missing was Mr Moh's S$15,000 in cash, kept in a black pouch in an unlocked drawer in the living room.

Anyone with information on the case can call the police hotline at 1800-255 0000. - CNA

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

"Flying elephants do not cross the river"

"World has turned, but have we?" by Richard Lim
The Sunday Times, Page 4, Sunday, 25th May 1997.

"In Chinese chess or xiangchi, one player has two elephants, among other pieces, and his opponent, two ministers, because the two words sound alike (xiang). They are roughly the equivalent of the bishops in chess, except that the elephants and ministers cannot cross the half- line of the xiangshi board, which is marked by a river.

An age-old proverb has come out of this rule: fei xiang bu guo he, or "flying elephants do not cross the river". There are just some things that one cannot do.

But in 1990, two elephants swam across the strait from Johor to Pulau Tekong, and in the following year, another one swam across to Pulau Ubin. I remember a former colleague laughing about it then - another truism turned on its head."

Originally posted to Pulau Ubin Mailing List, 3rd April 2004

"Pulau Ubin abode for Thai monk"

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

Eradication of the silicosis problem in Singapore

Asian-Pacific Regional Network on Occupational Safety and Health Information (ASIA-OSH). Mineral dusts and prevention of silicosis, vol 4; No.2, September 1997

Eradication of the silicosis problem in Singapore.
By Lee Hock Siang.

Updated by PAP/SUT/TRS.
Approved by BKL. Last updated on 12 February 2001


When Singapore launched its industrialisation programme in the 1960s, the importance of protecting workers from occupational health hazards was foreseen. The government established the Industrial Health Unit in 1970. Focusing attention on the problem of silicosis in Singapore was the new Unit. The Unit is now known as the Department of Industrial Health (DIH), Ministry of Labour.

The DIH keeps the statistics on all reported and verified occupational diseases. The Factories Act of 1970 made silicosis an industrial disease that should be reported. Silicosis was the leading occupational disease in the early 1970s, and it was the leading occupational respiratory disease in the 1970s and 1980s (Figure 1). At end of 1995, 362 cases of silicosis had been verified, 8% of which were contracted in granite quarries (Table 1).

High risk of silicosis in granite quarries in the 1970s

In 1970, there were 25 granite quarries employing about 1,200 workers. Quarry operations involve drilling, blasting and stone breaking at the quarry face; the granite rocks are then loaded and transferred to the crushing plant for crushing and screening. Dust monitoring carried out in 1968 and 1971 revealed very high dust levels.

Radiological surveys

A radiological survey of 1,188 granite quarry workers in 1965 revealed that 8% had silicosis. A follow-up survey of 1,230 quarry workers, carried out in 1971, showed that 15% had silicosis (1).

Consultation with WHO

The government took a serious view of the situation, and in 1972 a World Health Organization (WHO) consultant in industrial hygiene was engaged to study the dust control problems in granite quarries. The consultant concluded that there was a serious dust hazard in the quarries and recommended that: 1) quarry operators should be required to take action to reduce dust levels 2) each quarry should submit a plan of action 3) regulations should be developed for the control of dust in quarries 4) quarry operators should establish a dust monitoring programme.

All of these recommendations were implemented by the government.

Study on the sources and extent of dust emission

Following the WHO Study, the Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research (SISIR) in 1972, in cooperation with the Granite Quarry Owners and Employers Association of Singapore, carried out a survey covering 21 quarries. The report published in 1973 (2) found that only one of the quarries had an effective dust control system and that 50% of the larger quarries had very high levels of dust emission. The major sources of dust emission were drilling operations, crushing units, screen units, transfer points and loading points.

In both the WHO and SISIR reports, local exhaust ventilation together with the wet method were recommended as effective means of dust control in quarries.


The Sand and Granite Quarries Regulations were enacted in 1971. Licensees of any quarry were required to install dust extraction systems, to provide dust masks and to provide quarry workers with annual chest X-ray examinations.

Silicosis was declared a compensable occupational disease under the Workmen's Compensation Act in 1972.

The Abrasive Blasting Regulations enacted in 1974 prohibited the use of sand as an abrasive for blasting. Hence there have been only very few cases of silicosis among sandblasters in Singapore.

Silicosis campaign

To focus attention on the problem and to create awareness among both workers and management, in 1973 the Ministry of Labour launched a campaign against silicosis which included a mobile exhibition and media coverage. Quarry owners were called upon to take preventive measures to protect the health of their workers.

Implementation of dust control measures

Between 1972 and 1973, the government formally requested all the then 25 granite quarries to install local dust exhaust systems (3). Despite the expected technical and financial problems, the number of quarries which installed such systems increased from 12 in 1974 to 21 in 1976. SISIR was responsible for the design of most of the dust control systems. By 1979, all granite quarries had installed dust control systems.

Dust monitoring

Regular monitoring of dust exposure is essential in order to assess occupational exposure and to evaluate the effectiveness of dust control measures. There was a significant decline in dust levels, particularly after the implementation of dust control measures in 1973 (Table 2).

Respirator usage

In a study of 201 quarry workers from five granite quarries, carried out in 1988, the prevalence of respirator usage was about 60 70% among drillers and crusher attendants, who were the more exposed group of workers (4).

Medical surveillance

Pre-employment and annual chest X-rays have been a legal requirement for granite quarry workers since 1972, and for all silica-exposed workers in factories since 1985. Chest X-ray screening is useful in the early detection of silicosis. As a result, a large number of silicosis cases were detected in 1973.

Decline of silicosis cases

There was a sharp decline in the number of new cases of silicosis after 1975, and a further decline after 1990 (Figure 1). In the 1990s, occupational asthma has replaced silicosis as the most common occupational respiratory disease (5). Only one case of silicosis was verified in 1995 and three cases in 1994. The persons concerned had previously been working in granite quarries for many years.

A radiological survey of 219 workers currently employed in six operating granite quarries, carried out in 1990, showed that the prevalence of silicosis among drilling and crushing workers was 12.5%, the prevalence among maintenance and transport workers being 0.8% (6). Among those first exposed to granite dust in 1979 or later, no cases of silicosis were detected, possibly suggesting that the reduction in dust levels achieved since 1979 has been successful in preventing silicosis among active quarry workers over the ten-year period.

Phasing out of granite quarries

In recent years, the government has stopped renewing the licenses of many quarries. The number of quarries has declined from 25 in 1970 to three in 1995.


Silicosis was a significant problem among granite quarry workers in Singapore during the early years of industrialisation. The government recognised the problem and sought the assistance of experts to study it and to recommend solutions. Legislation was introduced in 1972, and dust control measures were enforced. Public education was carried out at the same time. Dust levels fell significantly after 1973, and this was followed by a decline in the number of silicosis cases. Today, silicosis is no longer an important disease in Singapore.


1. Supramaniam JMJ, Devi S, Yeoh SA, Chew PK, Chow KW. A Radiological Survey of Granite Quarry Workers in Singapore. Proceedings of the 8th SEAMEO-Tropmed Seminar: The First Symposium on Occupational Health in South-east Asia, May 1971: 98 102.

2. Leow SB. Investigation into the Dust Emission from Granite Quarries in Singapore and Pulau Ubin. Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research, 1973.

3. Tan KT. A Review of Dust Control in Granite Quarries. Singapore Community Health Bulletin 1979;20:34 9.

4. Chia SE. A Study of the Usage of Respirators Among Granite Quarry Workers in Singapore. Singapore Medical Journal 1989;30:269 72.

5. Lee HS, Phoon WH, Wang SYT, Tan KP. Occupational Respiratory Diseases in Singapore. Singapore Medical Journal 1996;37:160 4.

6. Ng TP, Phoon WH, Lee HS, Tan KT. An Epidemiological Survey of Respiratory Morbidity Among Granite Quarry Workers in Singapore: Radiological Abnormalities. Annals Academy of Medicine Singapore 1992;21:305 11.

Lee Hock Siang
Department of Industrial Health
Ministry of Labour
18 Havelock Road #05-01
Singapore 059764

Originally posted to Pedal Ubin Mailing List, 15th March 2004