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If not for our kampungs

If not for our kampungs, would we truly understand what it means to live as a community? Gotong-royong is an intangible characteristic of living in a kampung. But what exactly does gotong-royong mean?

When a house is destroyed by a fallen tree, the villagers would work together — shoulder-to-shoulder —in repairing and rebuilding that house even though it is not theirs. That is gotong-royong.

When wells started drying up one by one following a dry spell, the villagers who still had water in theirs would offer their wells to be used by those who needed it more, even when it was depleting. That is gotong-royong.

When someone from among them weds, the whole kampung would be busy preparing for the special occasion the night before — where some of the women would be decorating the dais and dowry gifts while others prepared ingredients to be cooked; whereas some of the men would be busy helping out in the kitchen while others would be crafting tentages, and arranging tables and benches. All the fatigue from the night before would be forgotten the day after, as villagers feast and celebrate the newly-weds; the king and queen of the day. That is gotong-royong.

Gotong-royong is the fundamental belief that unites the people towards the betterment of society; where we do not only share each other's burdens and challenges, but also celebrate each other's happiness and success, together. We may able to survive living on our own, but living together in a kampung is where we learned to thrive.

Living in a kampung also taught us to appreciate noble values such as hard work and effort; akin to a bird that flies off in the morning on an empty stomach and returning to its nest in the evening, fed and full.

Such are the traits of the Orang Pulau; who traverse the mangroves at low tide. Even as they are shin-deep in mud and their feet are cut by the aerial roots of mangrove trees, they continue to forage for intertidal creatures, such as the siput sedut, siput timba, and ibau, to eat. For as long as the tide remains low, the Orang Pulau would be breaking their backs, harvesting their sustenance from the sea and placing them into their baskets.

And when the tide rises, they would head out to sea to cast their nets and rods, or set out bubu traps to catch some fish; or they might be in the forests foraging for mushrooms and gathering firewood; or tending to their gardens in their courtyards, harvesting and planting all sorts of fruits and vegetables. Such is the hard work of and sustenance of the Orang Pulau in their kampungs.

Unfortunately, the kampungs for the Orang Pulau community of Singapore are no longer around. All of them have disappeared in the name of national development and social integration, erased by urbanisation and modernisation. All but one on Pulau Ubin — my ancestral island; but only God knows for how long more our kampung would stand and survive.

I'm certain, should our kampung on Ubin share the same fate as those that have fallen upon Ayer Chawan, Ayer Merbau, Bukom, Blakang Mati (Sentosa), Brani, Merlimau, Pesek, Sekijang Bendera (St. John's), Sekijang Pelepah (Lazarus), Seking, Semakau, Seraya, Sudong, Tekong Besar and Tekong Kechil, I believe there is a virtue that would stand the test of time — the will and kinship of the Orang Pulau and their descendants in tiding through the waves of change and modernity.

If not for the passing down of these indigenous knowledge from our forefathers, surely our heritage would have died with them. If not for the effort of their descendants in documenting and sharing these stories with the others, then our heritage would have died with us.

So, should it be written that the last kampung for the Orang Pulau of Singapore cease to exist, then at the very least, their beliefs, culture, history, heritage, language, stories, and people would be immortalised through the efforts of their descendants in reclaiming the original narratives of their islands.

Our islands are more than just places of leisure and recreation, military training zones, landfills, or petrochemical hubs, but most significantly, a beloved home to the Orang Pulau communities of Singapore. For verily, Singapore is not an island nation, but a nation of islands.

Under scorching heat from the tropical sun,

Or braving through cold monsoonal storms;

The islanders continue to row.

Even as the waves grow rougher,

And the currents flow ever so rapidly;

The islanders continue to row.

This piece was written and presented in Malay as part of the "Jika Kalau" series at the Singapore Writers Festival 2022 on 13 Nov . The original work can be read here. I would like to thank the Singapore Writers Festival for their warm hospitality and invitation.

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