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Pulau Ubin and the unsettled S’pore psyche

The public unhappiness over fears that Pulau Ubin was to be developed has two abiding messages for us. The first is that pockets of rural spaces are close to sacred for many Singaporeans.

The public unhappiness over fears that Pulau Ubin was to be developed has two abiding messages for us. The first is that pockets of rural spaces are close to sacred for many Singaporeans.

Pulau Ubin is more than an underdeveloped island off the mainland. It is also a crucial space that offers psychological distance from the metropolis, allowing visitors to bathe in nostalgia and imagine themselves as more than mere city-dwellers, if only for a few precious hours.

The second is that the fortunes of Pulau Ubin, like many other spaces in Singapore, are in bureaucratic limbo. The fate of the island is held in suspension, contingent on the country’s housing needs, and this uncertainty has a long-term profound impact on Singaporeans’ sense of belonging and psyche.

The lesson here is not that spaces must be sacrificed for the country’s housing needs but that spaces, regardless of natural or heritage worth, are transient in Singapore and it is better not to get too attached to them.

FROM 1958 TO 2002

Indeed, the uncertainty of Pulau Ubin’s fate has been reflected in official documents through the decades.

The 1958 Master Plan designated the island as “Mineral Workings” and “Fisheries Reserves”. The 1977 and 1980 Master Plans labelled the island “Rural” and “Unplanned”, respectively. And from the revised 1985 Master Plan to the present 2008 one, Pulau Ubin is seen as an “Open Space, Sports and Recreation, Agriculture, Reserve Site”.

Hints of development grew clearer in the 1991 Concept Plan. It stated that “Pulau Tekong and Pulau Ubin will be safeguarded for leisure and recreation purposes for as long as possible. However, if the population exceeds four million, they will be developed by Year X — linked to the mainland by the MRT and a major road.”

The current 2001 Concept Plan removed mention of development but expressed plans to keep Pulau Ubin, Lim Chu Kang and other existing nature areas in their rustic state for as long as possible. A road link from the mainland to the island is still on the cards. The same position was reiterated in the Parks and Waterbodies Plan and Identity Plan 2002.

This uncertainty also played out in the Chek Jawa saga. In 2001, news of impeding reclamation works on the eastern shores of Pulau Ubin provoked outcry from nature enthusiasts. At stake was the rich biodiversity of marine life. On Jan 14, 2002, the Ministry of National Development (MND) announced the decision to put off reclamation work for as long as the island was not required for development.

Interestingly, the 2001 reclamation announcement coincided with the 2001 Concept Plan which, as mentioned above, had already announced the state’s decision to keep the island in its rustic state for as long as possible. Today Chek Jawa remains just as vulnerable to development as there is no legal protection for the site, unlike the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.


Nothing is as unsettling as an open-ended existence.

In the minds of many, our reluctance to save such spaces goes against the grain of the official narrative. If we are, as we are often reminded, a country lacking in natural resources, why then are we so hesitant when it comes to protecting whatever little we have?

This dissonance between rhetoric and practice may not have been noticed during our developing years when economic well-being was the national priority. However, with a more mature and better-informed population, it will become louder and, given the current concerns of overcrowding, political.

Heritage is now part of the political conversation and new ways to enrich this conversation have to be explored.

Would the gesture of gazetting a part of the island — or even a small portion of Bukit Brown for that matter, say, the hill on which rests the Ong Sam Leong grave, the biggest in the cemetery — derail the nation’s housing plans? Or would it send the signal that heritage and national identity are worth sacrificing for?

Such a gesture would not only bring state-civil society relations to a new level but, more importantly, offer a much needed sense of permanence and durability to our national identity.


The truth is nation-building is an inherently political project. One cannot expect citizens to sink roots into the land or be called to defend it without expecting them to be angry, even confrontational, when spaces like Pulau Ubin and Bukit Brown are vulnerable.

It is thus important for civil servants and civil society activists alike to understand that the bridges of communication must always be kept open in order for dialogue to take place. Without this dialogue, both parties will become more entrenched in their positions and less willing to compromise.

On one hand, civil servants have to break the habit of evoking “national interest” to counter heritage arguments. The state does not have a monopoly over the definition of “nation” and civil society groups, after all, have national interests at heart too. Furthermore, it may be counter-intuitive to some that destruction of heritage and natural land can be for the good of the nation.

On the other, civil society has to persistently reach out to civil servants and government agencies, offering their expertise and ground knowledge in order to produce better-informed policies. Civil society groups must find the stamina to continually seek out agreeable government representatives who are willing to engage them sincerely.


Looking ahead, the question over Pulau Ubin is about striking a balance between withholding development and preservation — for they are not the same thing.

The Government’s recent announcement that it plans to keep Pulau Ubin in its current state for the foreseeable future is the withholding of development. This alone is not enough.

The Parks and Waterbodies and Rustic Coast Subject Group Report of the Parks and Waterbodies Plan and Identity Plan 2002 succinctly observed that inactivity will not preserve but, instead, lead to the further deterioration of the social and natural environment. This is because preservation is difficult when there is no community.

Hence, a balance must be struck. This takes considerable long-term thinking, planning and control over what happens to Pulau Ubin. With political will and civil society initiative, there is no reason why this cannot be done.


Terence Chong and Yeo Kang Shua are executive committee members of the Singapore Heritage Society.

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