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The Big Read: The Ubin boatmen, and a trade stuck in time

SINGAPORE — A quiet and guarded group of 34 boatmen ply the waters between Changi and Pulau Ubin daily. But the spotlight was unexpectedly thrust on the low-profile community recently, following the news of a botched escape by former City Harvest Church fund manager Chew Eng Han. After plenty of convincing, they open up to TODAY about their livelihood and way of life.

Mr Kit Kau Chye, 70, an Ubin boat operator and Changi Point Ferry Association chairman. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

Mr Kit Kau Chye, 70, an Ubin boat operator and Changi Point Ferry Association chairman. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

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SINGAPORE — With his easy-going grin, wiry frame and trendy sunglasses perched atop his brown-streaked hair, Rudy, 32, is the odd one out among the mostly grey-haired boatmen whiling their time away at Changi Point Ferry Terminal, waiting for their turn to bring customers across the sea to Pulau Ubin.

His bumboat looks rather different from the rest too, decorated with personal knick-knacks such as an umbrella disguised as a katana sword, a Rilakkuma bear, and a Guy Fawkes mask which a friend had left behind post-Halloween.

Above: Rudy, 32, freelance Ubin boat operator. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

Rudy, who studied mechanical engineering at the Institute of Technical Education, was working as an events coordinator for three years at venues such as the Mastercard Theatre at Marina Bay Sands and Esplanade, as well as events such as the Formula One race.

His life took a completely different turn, however, when he decided to try something new as a freelance boat operator in 2013, having gotten his licence through the Singapore Polytechnic. He later became an Ubin boatman, a job which he has been working at for the last two years.

Being a boatman has helped him discover a love for the sea and a sense of freedom, the bachelor said.

He is among the 34 boatmen who ply the waters between Changi and Pulau Ubin daily. The community was in the spotlight recently following the news of a botched escape by former City Harvest Church fund manager Chew Eng Han.

Above: Tan Poh Teck arrives at the State Court on March 1, 2018. He was nabbed for assisting ex-City Harvest Church fund manager attempt to leave Singapore. Photo: Koh Mui Fong/TODAY

Chew had allegedly engaged the services of a boatman Tan Poh Teck, 53.

The community was quick to distance themselves from him, saying Tan was “not one of us” as he owned a fish farm and was not ferrying people full-time.

They were also angry that he had besmirched their reputation, with most of them earning a humble income - between S$1,200 and S$2,000 a month - from an honest day's work. Apart from ferrying people to the island, the boatmen earn money from fishing trips and increasingly, taking family members out to sea to scatter the ashes of their departed loved ones.

Through word-of-mouth, Rudy took over from a veteran Pulau Ubin boat operator who suffered a stroke, and has been ferrying customers between Changi Point Ferry Terminal and Pulau Ubin for the past two years.

The Bedok resident said that before he became a boatman he had not heard of Pulau Ubin, let alone stepped onto its shores.

Rudy is the youngest and newest recruit among the Ubin boatmen, comprising mainly gruff seamen in their 60s to 70s who have been plying the trade for decades —having had the job passed down to them from their fathers or stumbling onto it after marrying a local on the island.

The boatmen are a guarded bunch, preferring to keep a low profile. It took plenty of convincing for them to open up to TODAY about their livelihood and their way of life.

Above: Boats parked at Changi Point Ferry Terminal waiting to bring customers to Pulau Ubin. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY


Even before stepping foot on Pulau Ubin, Changi Village emanates a rustic feel, with time seeming to stand still, especially at the jetty where the sight of the bumboats takes one back to the ‘70s.

Unlike the rest of Singapore where everything mostly works like clockwork, the seemingly unsystematic way of organising the boat trips can also require getting used to for some.

As passengers trickle in and sit on the wooden benches, it is an exercise in patience – both for the boatmen and the customers – as each boat will only leave with a dozen passengers on board.

Once the number is reached, the passengers make their way gingerly down the walkway, and onto the bumboats. Before moving off, the boatman collects S$3 from each passenger, a fare that has gone up by only 50 cents over the years. After payment is fully collected, the boatman cranks up the engine, and the bumboat roars into life, tossing up white foam on the teal-coloured sea water as it sets off on a ride that typically takes 15 minutes or so.

Above: Mr Kit Kau Chye, 70, Ubin boat operator and Changi Point Ferry Association chairman. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

While it could take a while for first-time visitors to figure out how the system works, all the boatmen abide by an unofficial queuing system where they scribble down their licence boat number on a whiteboard, to indicate who arrived first, according to Changi Point Ferry Association chairman and veteran boat operator Kit Kau Chye, 70.

Other than ferrying people to and from Pulau Ubin, the boat operators cater to a myriad of chartered services. These include six hour-long fishing trips for enthusiasts, groups of monks visiting the Wei Tuo Fa Gong Temple on the island, and grieving families taking the boats out into the sea off the Changi coast where they will scatter the ashes of their deceased loved ones.

Late-night trips to Pulau Ubin are also part of the services - be it ferrying shutterbugs on a quest to capture the Ubin wildlife on night photo walks, sending large groups to the nearby Smith Marine Floating Kelong Restaurant, or bringing campers back to the mainland after campfires. Occasionally, the boatmen will be activated to ferry visitors who inadvertently missed the last boat.

Alex (not his real name), a boatman in his 50s, is always the first name on the night duty list. He usually gets four to five night bookings a week. These jobs can earn him nearly double the usual daytime rides, at S$60 a trip between Changi and Pulau Ubin.

For other trips, the rates are up for negotiation, depending on the distance, duration, and the level of familiarity between the customers and the boatmen, among other factors, said Mr Kit.

For instance, prices can start from S$80 for a one-hour journey to as much S$500 to S$600 for a fishing trip, which are often the most lucrative but require the boatmen to spend long hours out at sea.

For Mr Kit, the trips taking families out to scatter ashes in the sea are “fast and easy” and earn him the most money, although he provides such a service for free for those who cannot afford to pay. Such services can cost as low as S$80 or as high as S$1,000 each trip, depending on the religious rites, with the boatmen taking a cut from the funeral service companies.

While some of the boatmen TODAY spoke to said they can earn up to S$2,000 a month with these extra bookings, Rudy, for example, takes home between $1,200 and S$1,800 as he does not do much of chartered boat services currently.



By 7am to 9am each day, most of the boatmen will already be by the docks at the Changi Point Ferry Terminal. However, they often have to wait till noon before business picks up.

After the boatmen ferry the first wave of visitors to Pulau Ubin during lunch time, it will be another long wait at the island’s jetty. Time crawls by as the boatmen idle away the hours.

On a typical weekday afternoon at Ubin jetty, some boatmen would be resting on the benches, staring into the distance or fiddling around on their phones. Others would be reading newspapers, while a few would be listening to Chinese oldies on the radio inside their docked bumboats.

During their spare time, the boatmen sometimes head off into the island to look for their friends.

They consider themselves lucky if they manage to do four trips a day, before ending work at about 5pm, and heading back to their homes, mostly in the eastern part of Singapore such as Bedok or Tampines.

Above: A worker repairs boat parts at the only repair boatyard on Pulau Ubin. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

When the wooden bumboats need fixing, they will be sent to a boatyard nestled among the mangroves, along Sungei Jelutong in the south of Pulau Ubin. This is the only boatyard on the island, and it is run by Mr Choo Seng Sim, who is in his 70s. Here, the boats can get a fresh coat of paint, or their engine fixed.

Mr Choo employs two brothers from Myanmar. One of them is Mr Zawmin Tun, 39, who has been working in Singapore for the last decade and earns about S$1,500 a month. “I’m happy here,” he said. On weekends, he goes to the mainland to get his groceries from Peninsula Plaza.



As the association chairman, Mr Kit’s job involves keeping the peace among the boatmen and helping them with their needs. These include settling disputes with customers or between the boatmen themselves, and roping in translators for boatmen who do not understand English.

Mr Kit collects about S$55 every month from each boatman, and the funds go toward paying helpers to manage the flow of passengers on busy weekends, as well as annual celebratory dinners at a seafood restaurant in Changi Village.

While most of the boatmen have known one another for decades, and see each other almost every day, there is a hint of an unspoken rivalry among the group despite the occasional banter.

“We see each other day in day out… But that’s it”, said one boatman in Mandarin, who declined to be named.

But Alex noted: “As long as you don’t anyhow snatch people’s customers, people won’t dislike you.”

Being a greenhorn to the business, Rudy said he bears the brunt of the good-natured ribbing.

“They’ll tease me by saying, ‘Eh, small boy, faster lah. Do your job chop chop. Don’t be too slow, don’t be too weak. Come on, old man is moving much faster than you,” he said.

At the same time, the veterans have been offering him pointers, such as how to manoeuvre the boat during inclement weather, low tides or at night. They also dish out life advice such as to “work hard and not give up”, said Rudy, who looks up to the old-timers.

While he is thinking of branching out into doing fishing trip boat charters, he is aware that he will need to earn his stripes. The old-timers zealously guard their prime fishing spots, he noted. He is “still learning the way” around these unofficial boundaries, he said with a rueful grin.

Above: A bum boat is seen off Pulau Ubin. TODAY file photo


While their livelihood is not in imminent danger of disappearing, the boatmen said that business has been dwindling, compared to the days when there were more residents on Pulau Ubin who would regularly shuttle between the island and the mainland.

Today, the business comes mostly from tourists and foreign workers visiting the island during the weekends for a rustic getaway.

Despite the situation, most of the boatmen are resigned to their lot.

But there are a few who are trying ways and means to get more customers. For instance, to make his bumboat stand out from the others, Alex has painted it with bright yellow stripes, and placed a rattan chair on board.

“I like to keep it clean and tidy, a little bit different from the rest…It’s about providing good service,” he said. He claimed that 80 per cent of his customers came to him because they were attracted to his boat, which he had forked out S$30,000 to S$40,000 to buy.

If one looks closer, some other boats bear the stamp of their operators. There is one with a bonsai plant on top, while Mr Kit has lined the interior of his boat with name cards including those from casket companies and reporters, among others.

Under the existing first-come-first-serve system where the boatmen “turn up every day hoping for customers”, regular Ubin visitor Terence Tan, 37, wondered if improvements can be made to help the community.

Mr Tan, who is the founder and executive director of social enterprise Artsolute, has been involved with various community initiatives on Pulau Ubin.

For instance, the Changi Point Ferry Association could look at adopting a system to better match demand and supply, with all enquiries and bookings going to a centralised body which then distributes the jobs evenly so as to ensure all the boatmen can make ends meet, Mr Tan suggested.

“If a few don’t make it through, they quit and the fleet (eventually) becomes smaller and smaller,” he said.

A list of important contact numbers should also be clearly placed at the Ubin jetty, Mr Tan proposed. Currently, visitors who miss the last boat might have to roam around the island knocking on residents’ doors, or seek help from the Pulau Ubin Police Coast Guard, which will then ring up the Changi Point Ferry Terminal office to see if there are any boatmen who happen to be on the night shift.

If these stranded visitors are lucky, assistance can come swiftly from boatmen resting in their boats. Otherwise, they may have to wait between 30 minutes and an hour, for the boatmen to make their way down from their homes on the mainland.

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Some of the boatmen have been trying to leverage social media to boost their business. Mr Kit, for example, advertises his services on a Facebook page which was set up by his nephew. The page lists his mobile phone number, and Mr Kit said he has gotten quite a number of enquiries and bookings as a result, so much so that he is sometimes overwhelmed and passes on the business to other boatmen.

Meanwhile, the younger boatmen such as Rudy are careful not to be overly aggressive in getting customers, even though they have an advantage over the older boatmen in terms of being digitally savvy and proficient in English.

“As an outsider, I don’t want to change the culture and change how they deal with the customers… That’s how they have done (business) all these years, so I have to respect it ,” he said.

Some of the older boatmen also lamented that it was pointless to try and modernise the business. For example, they felt that a demand-based system or a fixed hourly departure schedule would not work, as visitors to Pulau Ubin arrive sporadically and not in groups.

A boatman in his 60s, who declined to be named, said in Mandarin: “What’s the use of (doing) something new when there are not even many customers?”

Alex added: “It’s not like taxis who you can actively search on the roads for customers… we just have to wait for them to come.”

Given the relentless pace of Singapore’s development and the lack of interest from the younger generation in the trade, most boatmen feel that it was a matter of time before the trade dies.

To Mr Kit, the younger generation are just not cut out to brave the storms and sweltering heat working as boatmen.

“I don’t know what will happen in the future,” he said. “It looks like this business will be history, because there are no successors. Let nature take its course.”

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