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My thoughts on the OCBC Mangrove Park development at Sungei Durian, Pulau Ubin

Photo taken from NParks and CNA, showing a digital rendition of how the mangrove park would look like in a decade.

On 29th October 2022, plans were announced for the development of the OCBC Mangrove Park which could foresee the planting of over 8,000 mangrove trees spanning an area of 4 hectares at Sungei Durian on Pulau Ubin [1]. This collaboration between NParks and OCBC is expected to be completed by 2026 and is part of Singapore's ongoing efforts in protecting our shores against the effects of climate change, and also complements restoration efforts for Ubin's natural landscape.


While I applaud and strongly support for the development of the OCBC Mangrove Park and its valiant effort in reviving Ubin's natural heritage, I am concerned over the growing over-emphasis on conserving the island's natural landscape in recent years that it has placed the Ubin Orang Pulau community's cultural heritage at risk of being overshadowed, neglected, and gradually forgotten.


Sungei Durian holds a special place in the hearts of the Orang Pulau community on Pulau Ubin. The river served as a natural boundary between two Malay kampungs, where residents of the namesake village of Kampung Sungei Durian to the west would pass by Sungei Durian to attend classes at the Sekolah Melayu Pulau Ubin or perform prayers at the Pulau Ubin Mosque in Kampung Surau in the east.


Sungei Durian is also a very special place for my family, as its northeastern tributary was named Sungei Awang Minyak — after my grandfather — by the local Orang Pulau community, simply because he used to dock his sampan by the mangrove trees there.


The mangroves on Pulau Ubin — be it as massive as the Chek Jawa wetlands or as humble as the mudflats of Sungei Durian — were a source of sustainability and sustenance for its Orang Pulau community.


The mangroves are rich with biodiversity, which the Orang Pulau depended on for their sustenance. When the tide was high, the community would cast their rods and nets hoping to catch the fish which would merrily swim around the aerial roots of the mangrove trees; and when the tide was low, they would forage for intertidal creatures — berkarang in Malay — such as the siput sedut (Cerithidea obtusa), siput timba (Nerita histrio), ibau (Austriella corrugata) and maybe catch some crabs, too.


My mom and uncle once shared with me how my grandmother was such an avid and highly experienced forager, having spent countless hours in the mangrove and covered shin-deep in mud; honing and refining this intergenerational skill to the point that she treated berkarang as a hobby that could feed for the family of twelve.


Besides food, the mangroves also provided shelter for the Orang Pulau. Once a fortnight, my mom would accompany my grandfather and traverse through the cluster of nipa palm trees (Nypa fruticans) along the northern banks of Sungei Durian, which was a stone’s throw away from their house.


With a parang in hand, my grandfather would harvest the mature fronds of the nipa palm and bring it back home, where my grandmother would fold these leaves around a wooden rod or plank and then sew them together using a rattan twine to create atap roof shingles. These shingles would be left to dry in the sun and would be used as and when those on the roof needed to be replaced.


I strongly believe more could and should be done in conserving and celebrating our cultural heritage. Our natural and cultural heritage are inseparable; for our culture could not exist without nature, and nature could not flourish without our culture.


This is the intimate symbiotic relationship that the Orang Pulau has with their natural environment for generations; one where we learned that by taking care of nature — by allowing nature to replenish itself by taking what she provides in moderation — nature, would then take care of us.


As a descendant of the Ubin Orang Pulau community, I humbly request for the recognition and celebration of our people’s cultural heritage within the new OCBC Mangrove Park and to involve the indigenous Orang Pulau community as partners or potential custodians in this exciting development.


I hope that in doing so, it would help to invoke a renewed sense of pride and belonging for the Ubin Orang Pulau community — whose hearts, minds and soul have never forgotten their island home; and for future generations of Singaporeans to learn, live and love our often-overlooked chapter in the Singapore story.


References:


[1] Leo, Lakeisha. “Mangrove Park with about 8,000 Trees to Open in Pulau Ubin in 2026.” CNA, October 29, 2022. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/sustainability/pulau-ubin-mangrove-park-2026-nparks-ocbc-sungei-durian-3032241.

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