Lifestyle

Pulau Ubin ‘is the place that saved us’: WWII survivor Ahmad Kassim

Pulau Ubin ‘is the place that saved us’: WWII survivor Ahmad Kassim
Ahmad Kassim, 82, has been living on Pulau Ubin for 75 years. He fleed to the island from Johor during World War II. To this day, he still lives in the house that his father built. Photo: Esther Leong/TODAY
The 82-year-old still lives in the house that his father built, more than 70 years on
Published: 6:00 PM, September 9, 2017
Updated: 7:42 PM, September 12, 2017

SINGAPORE — Ahmad Kassim was only seven when Japanese troops invaded his home near Masai, Johor, shortly after noon. His eldest brother, who was then 20, understood the severity of the situation and got the family to flee.

Twelve hours later, Ahmad and his family arrived at Noordin Beach on Pulau Ubin with just the clothes on their back. Ahmad has lived on the island since and plans to live out the rest of his life there because for him, the island “is the place that saved us”.

Ahmad is one of the 16 seniors whose first-hand accounts and stories are featured in the upcoming Witness to War: Remembering 1942 exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore.

Now 82, Ahmad recalled the day he saw several lorries carrying Japanese soldiers approach their house — which was the only one — on a rubber plantation where his father worked as a labourer.

(Photo: National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board)

The youngest in a family of four brothers and three sisters, Ahmad said it was only when he saw the troops taking away “everything, including chickens and everyday supplies”, that he noted that something was amiss.

Then, Ahmad said in Malay: “The soldiers asked my father if he had a Rolex watch. He said, ‘I am a lowly-paid worker, how can I afford a Rolex watch?’”

(Photo: National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board)

Dissatisfied with his father’s response, the soldiers wounded him with a bayonet in front of his shocked children.

Luckily, he was not grievously hurt, and the family fled the area. Trekking through forests and crossing rivers in sampans, the family of nine landed at Noordin Beach on Pulau Ubin twelve hours later.

STARTING FROM SCRATCH

For the first few years, the family lived in a Chinese neighbour’s house before moving to a bungalow that his father, with the help of other villagers on the island, built.

Back then during the Japanese Occupation, soldiers were commonly seen walking along the main road outside the family’s bungalow at Tanjong Chek Jawa, as they made their way to and from their quarters, with bayonets and swords in hand.

Despite their looming presence, “not all Japanese were bad”, and they appeared to have doted on children, said Ahmad. The different ethnic groups on the island — the Javanese and Malay communities — were also treated well, with the exception of the Chinese population whom “the Japanese hated” and bullied into hard labour.

When Ahmad was 10, he worked for the Japanese, taking on simple odd jobs like planting grass on an airfield.

Ahmad remembered there were “five to six warplanes” resting on that particular airfield, but mysteriously, “I had never seen them take off or land,” he said.

For eight hours of work, he earned five banana notes and one kilogramme of rice, which was resold to the Chinese to buy tapioca — a staple diet that also consisted of dried fish.

While life on Pulau Ubin was tough, Ahmad, who stayed on the island throughout the Japanese Occupation, described it as generally peaceful and free of bloodshed.

‘NO FORMAL ANNOUNCEMENT’

Because they were not living in the city centre, Ahmad and his family only realised the war was over in 1945 when they stopped seeing troops patrolling on the island.

People living near the shore, however, witnessed the soldiers throwing their weapons into the “deepest part of the sea” before disappearing.

A HOME ‘THAT SAVED US’

Till this day, the weathered and tanned father of three — who by his own admission is the “oldest” on the island — still lives with his wife, in her 70s, in the same bungalow his father built.

While some parts were expanded and updated, the place remains largely the same. These days, Ahmad ekes a living selling refreshments to passersby and tourists. He gets by with earnings of about S$20 per day on weekdays, and a “comfortable amount” on weekends.

(Photo: Esther Leong/TODAY)

(Photo: Esther Leong/TODAY)

His leisurely existence is also punctuated with inquisitive students, such as those from Outward Bound Singapore, who often pepper him with questions about life on the island during the Japanese Occupation.

For Ahmad, the war gave him a life and home on Pulau Ubin.

“I got married on the island; people were dancing during my wedding here and all my children were born here.

“My children (who have relocated to the main island) have also asked me, ‘What is there in Pulau Ubin? There is nothing here.’ But for me, this is the house that my father built and this is where I want to remain for the rest of my life. There isn’t anywhere else for me. This is the place that saved us,” said Ahmad.

The Witness to War: Remembering 1942 exhibition will run from Sept 23 to March 25 at the National Museum of Singapore.