Pulau Ubin villagers paying rent to SLA

From ‘No plans to evict Pulau Ubin residents’, 13 April 2013, article by Eugene Neubronner, Today online

Contrary to online speculation and some media reports, the authorities yesterday clarified that “there are no plans to evict the households currently residing on Pulau Ubin or develop an Adventure Park on the island”. Issuing a joint statement, the Ministry of National Development (MND) and the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) reiterated: “The planning intention is to keep Pulau Ubin in its rustic state for as long as possible as an outdoor playground for Singaporeans. Given this, there is no need for the residents to move out.”

The speculation started after some residents on the island received a notice signed off by an official with the Housing and Development Board’s (HDB) Land Clearance Section, which carried the header “Clearance scheme: Clearance of structures previously acquired for development of Adventure Park on Pulau Ubin”. The authorities clarified that on March 12, the HDB, acting on behalf of the SLA, informed the residents of a census survey in Pulau Ubin. They added that these households had been informed as far back as 1993 that they would be affected by a public development project, which included the development of a recreation park.

“To align with the rustic nature of Pulau Ubin and its planning intention, outdoor adventure elements were included in the recreation park, for example, trails for cycling and hiking, campsites and amenities like shelters and toilets,” the MND and the SLA said.

…The MND and the SLA said that the affected houses sit on what is now state land, and the households were now residing on state land without the required Temporary Occupation Licence (TOL). If they wish to stay on, they would need to obtain a TOL and pay rent — generally pegged at market rate — to the SLA.

If you want a taste of true ‘kampung’ spirit, look no further than Ubin, often cited as the ‘last bastion’ of rustic, indigenous wilderness. 10 years ago you could spot leopard cats, hornbills and wild boars and bask in the nostalgic Old-World smell of chicken droppings. Thrill-seeking lovers could elope there to set up campfires, cook meals in mess-tins and get lost in mangroves without being marauded by eco-tourists and moutain bikers. But perhaps not for much longer, based on the revelations of the White Paper, as we are already seeing the gradual transformation of what was once an idyllic stone quarry sanctuary into Sentosa in one of her pre-casino incarnations, a ‘fun-in-the-sun’ getaway for fans of outdoor adventure.

The selling point of Ubin has always been a ‘rustic CHARM’, a ‘throwback’ to old Singapore, but history tells us that our relentless march towards progress will somehow squeeze every last drop of its kampung soul dry. Today it may be a bike park or OBS school, tomorrow a luxury beachside villa, and you could still call Ubin ‘rustic’, ‘raw and untouched’, even when this ‘charm’ has been reduced to a puny saltwater pond in some rich man’s backyard and the only fishermen you see on the island are the ones charging you for prawning rod and bait at a spa resort, or giving urban folk a demo of how to toss a fishing net in the visitors’ centre. A far cry from Ubin’s strange, astounding natural and social history, one that boasts of temple devotees of Barbie dolls, straying elephants from Johor, sightings of dugongs, monitor lizards as well as the site of a 1920’s Chinese secret society ritual.

According to Infopedia, an ‘expressway road and a Mass Rapid Transit rail system linking the mainland’ was planned for after the year 2030. As it is, Ubin already boasts a couple of resorts, including the Celestial Resort owned by Marine Country Club which aims to ‘give glitzy Sentosa’ a run for the money, where Singaporeans and can go unwind, enjoy lush greenery, and frolic around in wild lallang for a staycation . A 100 year old kampong house has also been refurbished as a Lonely Planet endorsed Cookery Magic culinary school, where you can make Nasi Kerabu with ‘jungle herbs’. Plans for an adventure park comes as no surprise really; it’s just a sweatier theme park with no rides, air-conditioning or Wi-fi, and has been talked about for decades. In 1996, then Minister of National Development Lim Hng Kiang announced that HALF of Pulau Tekong would be turned into a ‘recreational’ centre. I remember drinking fresh coconut from a dishevelled hut along one of the bike trails some years back. On my next trip to the island there could very well be a Gong Cha outlet in place of it.

Although the government hasn’t forced their hand YET, the slow creep of modernisation and tourism overspilling onto Ubin because of our mainland exploding at its seams may drive residents away from the maddening crowd sooner or later, with or without the additional rental fee. In 1989, S Jayakumar said that Ubin residents were ‘not immune to the law’, and if they were, ‘drug addicts and other criminals’ would be headed for the island. Ironically, the island once housed political detainee Lee Tee Tong in 1980, as well as a boatload of Vietnamese refugees in 1978.

So urban dwellers, time to grab your tumblers, hiking boots and mess tins, relish the last remains of a kampung island, and let’s all sing Dayung Sampan, shall we?

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