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Till death do us unite

From the earth We created you, and into it We will return you, and from it We will bring you back again — Quran 20:55

If you have ever been to Pulau Ubin on a trip to the Chek Jawa Wetlands, you may or may not have noticed travelling past a few Muslim cemeteries along the way — a couple along Jalan Durian; several atop a hill and behind the former mosque in the expunged Kampung Surau; a few under the Common Pulai Heritage Tree; and a family graveyard down the slope across the Chek Jawa Information Kiosk.

These graves remind us on the existence of our people; the Orang Pulau of Ubin who were born, bred and eventually buried on their island home. One of these graves belong to my late uncle, Kamarudin, who passed away at the age of four in 1967.

The short distance between their homes and the burial grounds provided comfort for the Ubin Orang Pulau community; where they could still visit their dearly departed even as their souls are realms apart. However, the Muslim cemeteries on Pulau Ubin were eventually ordered closed for burials under the Environment Public Health Act in 1973. Since then, any islander who has passed on would have to be buried on mainland Singapore, a strait away from their birthplaces.

The Act was also imposed on neighbouring Pulau Tekong Besar that same year, where traces of my maternal ancestral roots spans a century from c. 1857 to 1959. Furthermore, as Pulau Tekong Besar and its islets were slated for reclamation and redevelopment into a military training site, several Muslim cemeteries there were later exhumed and relocated to Pusara Aman at the Lim Chu Kang Muslim Cemetery in 1985 and 1991.

Syed, a descendant of the Tekong Orang Pulau and distant relative, shared with me that among those whose graves were relocated were of my maternal great-great grandfather and granduncle: Kassim bin Khatib Hassan and Kamar bin Khatib Hassan. It was with his help that I managed to find my ancestral graves on 16th December 2022, and visiting them was a surreal and humbling experience.

Situated in Block H at Pusara Aman as well belonged the graves of other residents of Kampung Pahang, most notably Tekong branch of the Royal family and the island's tok penghulu (village chief): Tengku Ahmad bin Tengku Sulong bin Tengku Abdul Jalil ibni al-Marhum Sultan Hussein Muazzam Shah. Graves from other Orang Pulau communities such as Pulau Blakang Mati (Sentosa) and Pulau Sudong were also seen within the same plot of burial ghrounds, laid to rest next to each other.

While we say that only in death do we part, I have seen how through death do we too unite; how we make sense of our grief and loss and how we create meaning behind the earth that we traverse upon.

If not for these graves and cemeteries, would we then know the existence of such communities on our islands and the lives that have been lived? And does not how we treat and care for our ancestral graves reflect how we view our culture, tradition and heritage? So, when it is our time to return to our Creator, will we be among those who lay forgotten, or do we strive to be those that will be remembered for generations to come?

Harimau mati meninggalkan belang, manusia mati meninggalkan nama.
Tigers die and leave their stripes, but humans die leaving their names.
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