Pulau Ubin is a small island northeast of mainland Singapore accessible to tourists by bumboats from the Changi Point Ferry Terminal. The boat is the first environment to signal the island's identity. The fare is a mere $3 per ride, and passengers are to sit on a basic wooden bench facing each other. It appears like a miracle that anything in Singapore could be in such a condition considered the harsh domination of modernity in mainland Singapore. There are none of the HDB flats and expressways so common to the city. The island’s identity is as an escape into the past, but its very existence is dependent on Singapore’s Modernity.
When PM Lee Hsien Loong wrote that the island is “remote from the convenience and modernity of the mainland,” in 2016, he was not wrong (source). It is indeed devoid of mainland conveniences, but I would challenge the notion that modernity is not present on the island. The conditions of Pulau Uban remain as they are because it is useful for the purposes of Modernity. Its existence is indirectly subsidized by an interest to retain the rustic lifestyle. Just as a wealthy merchant can afford to possess a painting of the rustic past, a nostalgic nation can afford to possess the rustic past.
When a book is published by the state with the title, “Pulau Ubin, Ours to Treasure,” the implication is the authorial perception of ownership. That said, there is a legal cause for this belief. The state acquired the island in 1993. This notion of power over people is implicit with modernity. Its remote nature and impoverished veneer function as evidence that it is in some way inferior to the success of modernity. The correction to this veneer might be heard from the nearly 40 people who do live on the island out of choice, instead of resettling on the mainland. Footprints on an Island provides truth to this point, despite not providing any direct quotes from island residents. Those profiled are said to express love for their home on the island.
The origins of Modernity are insightful to understand why such a belief formed. Modernity was conceived during a period when technology and social studies were progressing at a phenomenal rate, and past society was perceived as painfully antiquated. (source) To define modernity, the writings of British author and professor of Chinese History at The Australian National University, Mark Elvin, provides a good springboard (pg 210-211): Modernity functions as acceptance of an authority having power over people, over the natural process of economic production, and over intellectual understanding.
From this concept, Modernity is a mandate by which an organization as large as a government can operate. It is also a way of distinguishing modernity from the past. It was a radical transformation of the colonialist mandate of racial supremacy. Instead, it mandates supremacy by nature of Modernity’s forward progression. That is to say, these definitions do not spell out any racial change, giving space for radical change, but does not actively remove the colonial power structures.
So colonialism, of course, plays a part in Pulau Ubin’s history. The first white man to set foot on the Island was John Crawfurd. He landed in August of 1824 or 1825 and immediately claimed it to be owned by the British. The existing population on the island was mostly woodcutters, but soon it would be dominated by quarry miners. The island became important as a source for granite, which is what led to the development of the Ubin Village. In 1856, a convict establishment was set up to provide cheap labor for the quarries. The population peaked as high as 4,000 residents in the late 1970s but subsequently shrunk when the quarries started to close. It diminished to under 200 people by 2001.
The colonial power structures were washed away from the island, and soon Pulau Ubin fit into the world of modernity as the refuge from Singapore’s modernity. Even those as brutal in their desire for progress as Le Corbusier, whose work paved the way for the architectural aesthetics in Singapore, had a love for the untouched past, even if it exists in the present day, and has already been influenced by the past. “In today’s parlance, he sought the other, a pure and natural man, in contrast to a Western man corrupted by the turmoil of the nineteenth century” (pg. 438). Pulau Ubin is perceived as having not been ‘corrupted’ by the mistakes of modernity since it has survived uncorrupted by the turmoil of Singapore’s 20th century.
While all the criticism exists about how to frame Pulau Ubin’s existence in the modern world, there is real value in the preservation of the past and delight in a day trip. As I stand resolute in avoiding the err of pursuing ideological purity, I cannot roundly reject all products of modernity, and I cannot roundly reject the value of this jewel in Singapore’s possession.
To get to the point, “Pulau Ubin is one of the last strongholds of local heritage–natural and man-made,” Professor Tommy Koh. The condition of the architecture and urban plan is invaluable. It can provide active insight into how kampungs evolved, and how to thrive in the modern day with minimal electricity in the tropical heat.
What I hope to impress upon you is the complicated colonial context of Pulau Ubin, and by extension, many other tourist destinations around Southeast Asia. The existence of Pulau Ubin is a distinctly modern condition, and how long it can survive by functioning as it does now will be a test for Singapore's great experiment with Modernity in the 21st Century.