So often we tend to forget that our island home is more than just the Pulau Ujong that we reside on today, but a collection of 64 islands stretching from Tekong in the northeast to Satumu in the southwest.
I mourn together with the people of Seking and Semakau — whose stories have been reduced to nothing more than a landfill; the people of Sudong — whose beachfront homes were cleared to make way for a military airstrip; the people of Brani and Blakang Mati (Sentosa) — where tales of brave men are replaced with shipping containers and planted with casinos, resorts and amusement parks; the people of Sekijang Bendera (St. Johns) and Sekijang Pelepah (Lazarus) — where only the colonial structures stand firm today; the people of Ayer Chawan, Ayer Merbau, Merlimau, Pesek, and Seraya — whose homes were cleared to make way for petrochemical plants as far as the eye can see; the people of Tekong — whose history of royal significance are reduced to nothing more than an island where ah boys turn to men.; and yes for the people of Ubin — whose narratives have been reduced to nothing more than just a forested recreational getaway filled with monkeys and wild boars.
There is no denying how crucial a part the redevelopment of these islands played in Singapore's economic progress, and to hinder such a move would be seen as foolish and naïve. However, the uprooting and relocation of her people from their ancestral homes in the name of national development and social integration, without reasonable doubt, has brought about intergenerational challenges for the Orang Pulau community.
As more coastlines and mangrove forests become inaccessible due to conservation efforts, so dwindles the opportunities for the Orang Pulaus to pass down their indigenous maritime knowledge of fishing and foraging for intertidal creatures. As more traditional kampung houses disappear from this part of the Nusantara, so declines the architectural ingenuity and capabilities of her people and their profound sense of home ownership. As more trees get uprooted in the name of urban redevelopment, so distant the relationship grows of her people to their own roots as sustainable stewards of the natural world.
The lives of the Orang Pulaus of Singapore have changed almost overnight; their livelihoods which have fended them for generations deemed almost obsolete and irrelevant as though to say they have no place and value in today's metropolitan setting. Furthermore, as to how Singaporeans today know little or almost nothing about her Orang Pulau communities proves testament to the alarming rate of loss of our indigenous culture and heritage.
Singapore's history had always been painted with a colonial brush; one that glorifies the arrival of the white men as the turning point responsible in bringing us into the modern era, or the governance of the men-in-white for our transition from third world to first. Therefore, does it come as no surprise that our indigenous history receives little to no fanfare at all, where we have been slandered to nothing more than a "sleepy fishing village" for so long?
The fate of the Orang Pulaus in preserving and protecting their cultural identity and heritage continue to remain uncertain. They grow even more vulnerable, at the mercy of policymakers and the violent rate of progress and redevelopment that comes with them. But just as how the palm trees stand firm in the brunt of blustering winds, so is and shall remain the resilience of the Orang Pulaus of Singapore as they continue to strive and thrive in keeping themselves relevant, recognised, and renowned in the land — and seas — that they have called home before anyone else.
Our mission to reclaim the original narratives of our islands, and in keeping our heritage alive, continues. Happy 57th Birthday, Singapore.