Pulao Ubin is perhaps the last place in Singapore where vestiges of the old kampong life in its pure form could still be seen. Kampong (or Kampung) are traditional Malayan villages typically made up of a mosque, rice fields and houses set on stilts. The kampong and the pre-Filipino Barangay shares remarkable similarities essentially in religion, architecture and customs. The former is much larger in terms of scope and organization compared to the latter, principally a grouping of extended family members that came to the islands in long wooden boats where it got its name.
We Filipinos adapted the word Kampong but used it to refer to a follower, a vassal or a subject . You might have heard your in laws call you a “kampon ni satanas”, aside from this phrase the word is rarely used. The old Tagalog version referred to the clusters of communities under a chief and the people were collectively called “kampon”.
Our prefilipino ancestors most likely used “kampong” like the Malays, but as it is common for historians to try to revise and make spectacular claims of discovery, they wanted the story to emerge distinctively aboriginal. They called it Barangay. Kampong, even to modern Singapore,Indonesia and Malaysia, are considered the original communities.
There are historians that subscribes to different schools of thought in immigration patterns. There are some that even rejects the idea of land bridges. I remember this being taught in school and now we’re not even sure if those land bridges ever existed. In the end, even if someday someone would be able to definitively prove where the migrations waves came, if there ever was communal migration, we would still have to understand that this does not prove the origin of our historical identity as Filipinos, or the unified nation we know today, but only the origins of some of our prehispanic population.
There’s a lot of words we share with the Malays that has taken a totally different meaning like “ulam” – to us are viands, to them, herbs that are eaten without cooking. Pulao is a word that’s also familiar because it is where we got “Pulo”, and they mean the same thing. We share more words with Malaysians and Indonesians than I ever thought. Working closely with them highlighted even the curious commonalities that otherwise I would have not noticed. Eating with ones hands is considered tradition. I noticed that they also call people (insisting like we do to “makan, makan” meaning “kain!” in our language) to eat with them. Their sweets (collectively called kui muih) closely resembles and tastes like ours. Another example is the steamed rice in leaves they call “ketupat”, which appears in our southern provinces as “puso”. The town where I rent a room was named after the movement of “hurling objects”, which in Tagalog is “pukol”. If we have remained in the faith of Islam and Spain didn’t enter the picture, we would be able to absolutely relate, culturally and linguistically, with these wonderful people.
I believe that places like Pulao Ubin remind people what it was like back in the day when people lived simply and relied on their community and faith to aid them through hard times. When you talk about the old way of life around here, this is it. There’s probably around 100 people left in the island and kampongs has almost completely vanished in this former colony. I believe modernity has taken away much of the old ways. It takes tangible proofs, like the houses in this island, to relive some of the traditions that had quietly died in their memories.
The island is just a short boat ride away from the central island. Granite had been quarried out of the island since the British times. Fishing and digging out granite were the chief source of livelihood in the island. There are talks of resurrecting the quarry operations. Although in the past years Singapore’s government has been promoting and developing the island as a tourism area with a great deal of success. The granite is among the hardest rocks known to man and is known to be good counter top kitchen material. The Piedra Blanca’s lighthouse (named as such by the Portuguese because of what appeared to be white rocks but were actually made white by bat droppings) was said to had been constructed with the quarried rocks from Ubin.
Pulau Ubin is home to some of the most beautiful wild animals in the country. Wild boars roams freely in its forest. Monkeys hang on trees, noticeably observing people passing by. The Oriental Pied Hornbill, absent for some decades, has long since reestablish itself in the island. They somewhat became the symbol of the islands reemergence popular resident. In our country we have some of the most critically endangered horn bills, like the Sulu hornbill, considered among the top in the list or rarest birds in the world.
Another great spot to see in the island is the Chek Jawa, a wetland that has been left untouched for years until it was discovered in the early 2000’s. The government abandoned reclamation projects and instead created facilities for tourists to use in observing the wetland’s ecology.
The only stone house (made of bricks) in the island was built by a British officer in the 1800’s. It has been recently restored by the government. Not only that it’s the only English cottage style house in the country, it is also the only known house that was built in Singapore to have a genuine fire place.
Curiously, there’s this one huge boar that appears to be domesticated leisurely walking around the area near the colonial house. There’s a large population of this animal in the island. The only guys that’s keeping the wild boar population in check are these enormous reticulated pythons. Wild boar meat is lean and flavorful. An Uncle in Olangapo (he passed away a few years ago) hunted wild boars for its meat. If he’s alive and he happened to live in Ubin, I’m sure he’d destroy the islands ecosystem! He also hunted pythons and almost all kinds of animals that can be consumed! When I hear stories about hunters and hunting, I’m reminded of him. He don’t use guns, instead, he sets up traps which I found really fascinating. Some of the most exotic food: bats, eels, pythons and boars, we got to taste because of him.
Developing the island and opening it up to public housing is still currently being considered. Since it has been improved for visiting tourist, attracting attention to its wonderful ecology and great natural beauty, it could stay this way for some more time.