Pulau Ubin

Pulau Ubin is the last remaining Kampong (village) in Singapore and also the second largest island. The island is reached by catching a bum boat near Changi Village. The boat will leave when full rather than on a set schedule and this pretty much sets the tone for a trip to the island. It’s like stepping back into the 1960s and it is really the only undeveloped corner of Singapore.  On Pulau Ubin nature is heritage.
Once there were 5000 residents on the island of Ubin but now only around 30 remain. Most of the remaining residents are elderly, born in a country environment and overwhelmed by the idea of living in a hectic city. Life here isn’t easy, electricity comes from generators and water from wells. There are no schools or doctors on the island and the residents rely heavily on the mainland for support. 
Ubin is the Malay word for granite and the island was once home to several granite quarries.  The quarrying started as early as the 19th century and was a source of income to many local families until the 70s when the quarries became depleted.  Today the old quarry sites are places of beauty, nature has reclaimed them and birds and wildlife thrive.

Also a spot packed with nature are the Chek Java wetlands which consist of a large area of sand and mudflats only fully revealed at low tide. There are at least six different types of habitats here including the rocky shore, seagrass lagoon, sandbars and mangroves which are essential for the marine life and prevention of costal erosion.

In early the 2000’s Chek Java was marked for development but the clearing of the area revealed the wealth of nature and wildlife. A campaign began to save the area from development and the focus is now on preserving the natural environment here.  This spot is a haven and nursery for a range of species, many of these contribute to the food chain and boost fish stocks  in the area. Bird life if also thriving here and you may be lucky enough to spot the distinctive hornbill. They have even discovered some chemical producing sponges which are proving extremely valuable in drug and medicine research. The ecosystem here is unique and rare, a huge surprise in such an urbanised city.
The island is also home to the oldest Malay house, now owned by the fifth generation and only occupied at weekends. There are also some local temples and a few places near the jetty for refreshments. Getting around the island is best achieved by hiring a mountain bike once you reach the island (or taking your own over on the boat), alternatively you can hire a taxi.
Recently the government announced plans to conserve and protect Ubin and we can play our part by visiting the island. This could help maintain the last remaining Kampong and save the area for future generations and visitors.

Thaipusam

Thaipusam is a Hindu festival, Thai refers to the Tamil month that the festival takes place and Pusam is the name of a star, at its highest on that day. This festival celebrates the day a Hindu God Murugan was gifted a Vel (spear) from his parents and sent to conquered an evil demon and protect mankind. After doing so legends tell us he appeared to his devotees, carrying a Vel and decorated with ornaments, sitting on a silver chariot. Below is an image of him with his spear. The festival is generally celebrated in countries where there is a significant Tamil community.
In Singapore the festival starts the night before with a Murugan procession between two local temples. In the early hours of the following morning devotees gather at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Road.
Prior to this day devotees will have followed a strict period of preparation where they eat only vegetarian food, sleep on the floor and abstain from the comforts of life, for a period of 48 days. It is believed that this preparation builds the faith that God will not let them shed blood, or feel pain, for the acts of self mortification that follow.
The devotees carry a Kavadi, the simplest of which might be a wooden pole carried over the shoulders with milk pots at either end, often carried by children. I also saw many women and children carrying simple milk pots of their heads.

The men however were generally much more extravagant. The carried large Kavadis, perhaps a meter wide which were attached to their bodies with spikes.

Some walked on nailed shoes…

And some dragged Murugan shrines with spikes in their back

 I arrived at the temple at Serangoon Road at 5am to, what was for me, a truly unique atmosphere. Tamil families in their finery, often with special matching outfits. Burning incense, music and drums and ritual chats being sang everywhere. The music and chanting encourages the men to feel no pain as they are fitted with the Kavadis. The idea is that they should almost be in trance, thinking only of God.

Once they are fitted with the Kavadi, they leave the temple and walk 4.5km to the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple on Tank road. They usually have an entourage of family and friends walk with them and they sing and dance along the way. When they arrive in Tank road they empty the milk pots over a statue of Murugan. I wish photographs could better capture the sounds, smells and colours of this festival.
The Vel spikes render participants speechless, so they can concentrate fully on their act of devotion.

Devotees believe that this festival is their way of paying penance for their sins, or as an act of thanks for a year of good fortune. They are carrying a burden, some say carrying themselves and pouring their blood (milk) over Murugan, giving their entire being over to him. In South East Asia the festival has reached a bit of a cult status and Chinese and even Europeans are sometimes seen taking part. It is believe that it may have been used as a secret society initiation.
Whatever the reason I felt privileged to be able to see these incredible acts of devotions.

Raffles and the arrival of the British

This time of year holds important links to Singapore’s history. In late January 1819 Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore. He anchored off St John’s Island and this landing site is today marked with a statue of raffles, located by the Singapore river, behind parliament house. In early February the Malay Sultan, who was thought to have rights over the island, agreed to a treaty and thereafter the British flag was planted on Singapore shores. This meant that the British East India Company had the right to set up a trading post in Singapore and it became a British settlement. A second statue of Raffles stands proudly outside the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, an apt backdrop of Victorian British architecture.

With January heralding the arrival of the British to Singapore, I thought I’d a take look at some heritage, as well as some more recent additions, with links to my homeland.

 Cafe Colbar – It’s hard not to fall in love with Café Colbar despite the lack of luxury. It’s the history of the place that grabs your attention and draws you into the past. In 1953 this was a canteen serving up comfort food for British Soldiers. In 2003 the road where Colbar stood was being widened and with its imminent destruction there was outcry and numerous petitions set up to save it. Fortunately the authorities listened and they relocated the cafe just a short distance from the original site. Every brick and plank was moved and what couldn’t be moved was replicated exactly. You can still enjoy traditional British fare here as well as the addition of Singaporean style food.

Central Fire Station – This is Singapore’s oldest surviving fire station. Singapore did not have a proper fire brigade until the late 1800s and the early brigades were made up of policemen, soldiers, volunteers and even convicts. The brigade was a little inadequate and it wasn’t until the arrival of Montague William Prett from England in 1904 that significant improvements were made. Prett was Singapore’s first professional firefighter and he was instrumental in modernising Singapore’s fire brigade and implementing changes to strengthen the force.

Gardens By the Bay – Although this might not be obvious British architecture did you know that two UK based firms designed these stunning gardens? The gardens were conceptualised in 2003 as a key component of the governments ‘City in a Garden’ vision. Singapore’s NParks envisioned a garden that would rival iconic green spaces like Central Park and Kew Gardens and they wanted to evolve Singapore’s reputation as a garden city. In 2006 NParks launched a competition for the master plan and design of the gardens. This drew in more than 70 entries by 170 firms from 24 countries. An 11-member international jury chose British landscape consultancy Gran Associates to design Bay South and Bay East was to be designed by London based firm Gustafson Porter. In November 2007 the groundbreaking ceremony was held and the gardens opened their doors to the public in June 2012.

Former Supreme Court – The Former Supreme Court building is currently undergoing a large renovation and will be re-opened in 2015 as the National Gallery of Singapore.  Tucked back off the river it can be easy to overlook this handsome piece of architecture, with the riverside buildings of the civic district drawing your attention instead. Modelled on the Old Baily in London this building is going to make a stunning addition to the Singapore Art scene.

Red Post Box – Standing outside the Philatelic Museum, this is the last functioning red pillar box in Singapore (one still exists in the Fullerton but it is not a functioning public post box).

MICA Building – Now dressed in multi-coloured shutters this is currently the home of the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. Originally however, it was the Hill Street Police Station and Barracks. It was designed by the British architect Frank Dorrington Ward and was the only police station in the pre-war years to have its own living quarters.