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Pulau Ubin's Constant Vulnerability to Redevelopment

Updated: Jan 17th, 2020 06:52 PM

Hi all; and considering that this is the first post of 2020 on WUJ, a very Happy New Year to you!

I came across this Facebook article by Ria Tan from WildSingapore which reminded me of the constant vulnerability that Pulau Ubin faces when it comes to redevelopment in an ever rapidly-modernising Singapore.

Photo courtesy of Ria Tan

As highlighted in her post, among the more notable features conceptualised in Urban Redevelopment Authority's (URA) Master Plan 2030 include a road link from Punggol which cuts across Ubin and into Pulau Tekong, before circling back into the mainland at Changi East as well as the reclamation along the eastern shores of Ubin, which would potentially bury Pulau Sekudu and the entire Chek Jawa Wetland Reserve. Her other concerns raised include the reclamation along Pasir Ris and Changi shores.

However, the proposal for a "Pan-Ubin" road link and reclamation along the eastern shorelines of Ubin was not something new. In fact, these features first appeared in the Land Concept Plan as far back as 1991.

Concept Plan 1991

So, if it has always been there but nothing had ever been done for almost the past three decades, then there really should be no cause for alarm, should there? Well, in 2002 something almost happened.

According to an article written by Vina Jie-Min Prasad and Jaime Koh extracted from Singapore Infopedia, Chek Jawa was already slated and confirmed for land reclamation. The URA had earlier in 1992, approved plans for land reclamation for military training purposes - thus its first appearance in Land Concept Plan 1991. It was only almost a decade later in 2001 before Chek Jawa became known to Singaporeans all over.

In May 2001, the URA organised a public forum chaired by then-Minister for National Development, Mr Mah Bow Tan, to discuss land use and Concept Plan 2001. In that forum, the issue of Chek Jawa was brought up for the first time and it slowly drew in public attention. However, despite a flurry of letters sent in by members of the public and nature groups to call for the conservation of Chek Jawa, the URA responded in July 2001 in a press statement stating that plans for the reclamation were to proceed as planned by early 2002.

Concept Plan 2001

Yet, members of the public especially nature groups and conservationists did not give up and instead went on a staunch public campaign in the hopes that the government may review the plans. Nature groups organised public tours to Chek Jawa within the small time frame left and received overwhelming responses from the public, with one of the tours being participated by over 1,000 people on October 20th, 2001. Other aspects of the campaign included the distribution of leaflets, talks, public petitions and publications. Within the last half of the year, the amount of support to save Chek Jawa grew exponentially.

On December 20th, 2001, just a few days left before reclamation works were scheduled to begin, Mr Mah Bow Tan met representatives of nature groups and interested members of the public to discuss ways to save the wildlife in Chek Jawa. On the very same day, the Ministry of National Development (MND) announced that reclamation plans for Chek Jawa would be deferred for the time being for the discussions, only to be officially declared on January 14th, 2002 that Chek Jawa would not be reclaimed for as long as there were no need for any development on the island. In the years that followed, Chek Jawa and Pulau Ubin had been left relatively undisturbed.

Chek Jawa is a good example of what could have been done to prevent redevelopment on the island, but what about redevelopment that had already begun but was abandoned along the way?

In the 1980s, there were plans proposed for Pulau Ubin to be transformed into a recreational and leisure destination. Chances were that it was to echo that of the plans already underwent for Pasir Ris and Changi to become beachfront resorts of the east. Furthermore, given its proximity to the new Changi Airport that officially began operations in 1981, it was also possible that Pulau Ubin had promises of becoming a thriving tourist destination that could help boost Singapore's young economy.

Aerial view of Pasir Ris Hotel. Photo courtesy of Aspirant SG

Among one of the proposed development projects planned was that of a water amusement park - and the land around Kampung Surau was chosen for said development - as shared with me by the residents of the former village. And so, residents around the village were told to evict and have their homes demolished. Having their homes and place where they made so many memories growing up with their friends and family removed was already heartbreaking enough for the residents, but imagine having to grasp onto the reality that even after 40 years - nothing had been done. Till this day, many of the former residents of the village, including my mom, still strongly bemoaned the loss of their beloved kampung.

Kampung Surau today is nothing more than a densely overgrown forest; void of any sign of culture, community and heritage. Yet, little do the countless amount of people that venture their way to Chek Jawa know that the forested route between Kelichap Hut and Pekakak Hut cut across the very grounds of the former village; once home to over 100 residents staying in over 30 different houses. An entire thriving Malay kampung community wiped off the map in the name of supposed "development".

Kampung Surau (highlighted in red circle) as (not) shown on the map provided by NParks

Kampung Surau is strangely poorly documented, which I find odd given that the village was where the Sekolah Melayu Pulau Ubin (Pulau Ubin Malay School), Muslim cemetery, a World War II fort and surau (small mosque); the very namesake of the village - once stood. And so, if it was true that Pulau Ubin is up for a massive redevelopment as seen in the URA Master Plan 2030, then this decade - more than ever - proves extremely crucial for the culture, community and heritage of the kampungs around Ubin to be documented thoroughly. If we fail to do so, Ubin too may suffer the same fate as the Southern Islands and Tekong; undocumented, uncared-for and unwanted.

While The Ubin Project, initiated by the MND in 2014, aims to "preserve the island’s rustic charm, natural environment, biodiversity and heritage" which will "maintain the island as a unique sanctuary that can continue to be enjoyed by Singaporeans for generations to come," and to also "retain Ubin in its rustic state for as long as possible", it is the term "for as long as possible" that does not give Ubin its due comfortable protection. As long as possible might be forever or as soon as tomorrow because it all lies in the mercy of demand, time and once again, development.

For me, as a descendant from the Pulau Ubin community - more exactly from Kampung Surau - I will do whatever I can to document the kampung of my late grandparents. Wan's Ubin Journal had always been a platform for me to document my Ubin journey and adventures and I hope WUJ will continue to stay or even grow in relevance for the oncoming decade to those who come across it. 

Either I spend the next ten years of my life documenting and contributing to the archival of Ubin's history and still see Ubin untouched, or I spend the next decade doing nothing and watch as everything that I care for disappear because I was naive into believing that Pulau Ubin would stay the way it is; no matter how much I hope and pray that it will.

Pulau Ubin is home to the last remaining offshore kampung in Singapore. More should and can be done to appreciate, celebrate, preserve and promote this extremely valuable island, along with its cultural heritage which is in an indispensable part of our national identity. 

May the new year and new decade bring about happiness, peace and positivity to all of us. Happy New Year 2020!

Love our Kampungs
ﺳﺎﻳـڠـﻲ ﮐﻤﭭﻮڠ كيةا  
Sayangi Kampung Kita

May Pulau Ubin thrive again, with its people in its heart. 


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