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HomesingaporeThe Big Read: Singapore's sun-kissed Southern Islands draw city slickers with rustic...

The Big Read: Singapore's sun-kissed Southern Islands draw city slickers with rustic charm

SINGAPORE: Fishing at St John’s Island bright and early last Sunday (Oct 15) morning were three friends — Aiden Raphael Keh, 17, Lin Jiayuan, 21, and Sim Jin Heng, 26.

The trio told TODAY that the Southern Islands’ “relatively undisturbed” nature and bountiful marine biodiversity made them ideal for “species hunting” — a niche in fishing they engage in, which prioritises catching as many species as possible, over catching the biggest or most fish.

Aiden, a student at Victoria Junior College, said: “We come to the Southern Islands to fish because we’re interested in the marine biodiversity here. So we’re basically doing a kind of survey of the piscine-fauna here in the Southern Islands by fishing, using hook-and-line.”

“We have even caught species that our local marine ethologists have never found in Singapore before. So we hope to contribute to science as well, while of course, having fun here on the islands,” he said, adding that they donate some of these rare specimens to the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

While they do not have a fixed schedule, the trio visit the islands about once a month on average — alternating also between fishing on Lazarus and Kusu islands, depending on the fish species they are hunting, and the types of habitat they are expected to be found in.

The Singapore Land Authority told TODAY that between January and September this year, some 15,000 people visit St John’s, Lazarus, Kias and Seringat islands (which are linked via causeways) on average per month. 

During the same period in 2022 and 2021, the islands saw a monthly average of 20,000 and 16,000 visitors respectively. 

While the two public ferry operators — Marina South Ferries, and Singapore Island Cruise and Ferry Services — declined to provide ticket sale figures, citing commercial reasons, both firms told TODAY that visitors to the islands are mainly Singaporeans or expatriates, and rarely tourists.

In response to TODAY’s queries about the islands’ development plans, an Urban Redevelopment Authority spokesperson said the Southern Islands are intended for “recreational and complementary uses” in the long term. 

The spokesperson added that there are “no imminent development plans”, and should such plans be made, the necessary environmental studies would be conducted beforehand.  

Notwithstanding this, as Singapore continues with its push towards sustainable tourism, the islands have a huge potential to be developed into a tourist destination, experts told TODAY.

Mr Christopher Khoo, managing director at tourism consultancy MasterConsult Services, said: “In today’s context, tourists are willing to pay for secluded, exclusive escapist indulgences. With the Southern Islands being a short extension from Singapore, this accessible convenience can be quite compelling to the ‘cash-rich, time-poor’ tourist.”

Professor Abhishek Singh Bhati, campus dean of James Cook University (JCU) Singapore, added that for land-scarce Singapore, the Southern Islands could also present a good opportunity for developing recreational facilities, where there is no competition from commercial or residential land use.

In developing tourism on the islands, he added, it would be best to offer “some form of distinction” to what each of the Southern Islands could offer, to prevent a cannibalisation of offerings to tourists.

“That will benefit these islands — the islands will grow while maintaining their natural features. At the same time, this will also help Singapore become a stronger and more formidable tourist destination in the region,” said Prof Bhati.

With Lazarus and Kusu back in the limelight, TODAY looks at how they and two other Southern Islands — long under the shadow of their glamorous neighbour Sentosa — have been charming city slickers in their own quiet, pristine ways.

Related:

Coastal forest trail, hilltop views and lagoon tidal pool: Big Sister’s Island to reopen in 2024

Tour agencies turn to social media, Singapore’s hidden gems to woo Chinese tourists

ST JOHN’S ISLAND

Once a penal settlement, St John’s Island houses a rich history. At different points in time over the last two centuries, it also served as a quarantine island, and housed an opium treatment centre for the rehabilitation of drug addicts.

Today, St John’s Island is abuzz with human activity, while also home to an array of wildlife — from monkeys and monitor lizards, to 258 recorded vascular plant species, including the Pink-eyed Pong Pong tree, which is critically endangered in Singapore.

Such rich biodiversity is the island’s main appeal for some regular visitors – including the three anglers. 

“When we talk about coral reef habitats, the Southern Islands are unparalleled. I will say St John’s is one of the best reefs in Singapore that are legal to fish — unless you go to (Pulau) Hantu, but even Hantu is a bit harder to fish at,” Mr Lin, a bioengineering student at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), told TODAY.

Measuring about 39ha (about 55 football fields) and filled with lush greenery, St John’s Island presents the perfect landscape for a variety of activities, from picnicking to camping and cycling. Visitors could also opt to spend the night on the island, by applying for a camping permit or booking an overnight stay at one of its lodges.

Ms Yin Mon Aung, 42, spends about one to two weekends picnicking on the Southern Islands every month. She settles down at St John’s Island most of the time, though her group also alternates between Lazarus and Kusu. 

Ms Yin was with four other friends when TODAY met her recently. The group, who had settled under a mangrove hut on St John’s Island, was surrounded by at least eight to 10 monkeys while they snacked. 

Still, she told TODAY that the monkeys’ presence did not bother them.

“It’s okay, animals are like that,” said Ms Yin, adding that the monkeys were likely just drawn to their food. The group would shoo the monkeys away if they get too close.

St John’s Island is also home to the Sisters’ Islands Marine Park Public Gallery, which seeks to educate the public on the rich marine biodiversity in Singapore’s waters. 

As part of public outreach efforts, volunteers from the National Parks Board (NParks) also take interested registrants on a free, 90-minute guided tour of the St John’s Island Trail, every first Sunday of the month.

KUSU ISLAND

A stone’s throw — or a ferry ride — away from St John’s Island is the 8.5ha Kusu (tortoise in Hokkien) Island.

An online article by the National Library Board’s Singapore Infopedia tells of an urban folklore, where two fishermen — a Malay and a Chinese – had wrecked their boat in the waters near Kusu, and a giant turtle had transformed itself into an island for the shipwrecked fishermen to land on.

During the colonial era, the island served as the burial site for newly arrived immigrants to Singapore, who had died while in quarantine on St John’s and Lazarus islands.

Today, Kusu is a unique blend of offerings, from religious sites to a tortoise haven. The island houses hundreds of tortoises, which can be found at two spots — Tortoise Sanctuary and Turtle Lagoon.

A tranquil space off mainland Singapore, the island comes alive during the annual Kusu Pilgrimage, where thousands of devotees throng the island with bags of fruit and religious offerings. 

This year’s pilgrimage falls between Oct 15 and Nov 12. It will also coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Tua Pekong Temple, which is dedicated to the God of Prosperity. Situated near the pier, the temple’s bright red and green facade greets visitors to the island as they disembark from the ferry. 

Exiting the temple, a short walk and a 152-step climb lead island-hoppers to the top of a hill, where the Kusu Keramat — which houses shrines believed to belong to three Malay saints — sits. Devotees arriving at the Keramat are greeted with the scent of incense, as prayers and loud chants of “huat ah!” reverberate through the space.

A Penang native, who wanted to be known only as Madam Lee, has visited Kusu Island each year during the pilgrimmage season for more than a decade — apart from the time when travel curbs were imposed by the Malaysian authorities during the pandemic.

Speaking to TODAY in Mandarin, the 68-year-old retiree said that she visits the Tua Pekong temple to pray for her health, her family’s business, and for abundant wealth.

Asked why she is willing to make the arduous trip — which involves an almost 10-hour bus ride from her hometown in Penang, followed by a half-an-hour ferry ride from mainland Singapore — Mdm Lee said the Tua Pekong Temple is believed to bring good luck.

“On our tour bus, without fail, two to three people will strike it big (in the lottery) every year following the trip,” said Mdm Lee, who herself had won a small sum in the past after returning home. 

“We’re not in Singapore to tour or go on holiday,” she said, adding that they stay only for a night before making the long journey back home the next day each time.

Still, Mdm Lee finds the journey worth the trouble, and said that she will continue to make the trip every year, as long as she is healthy and able to do so.

Beyond its religious significance, the island also holds a special place in Mr Keith Tan’s heart.

The 30-year-old pharmacist, who was offering joss sticks in prayer at the Tua Pekong temple, told TODAY that as a child, he used to spend time on the island with his grandmother.

SISTERS’ ISLANDS

Big Sister’s Island, also known as Pulau Subar Laut (3.9ha), and Little Sister’s Island, otherwise known as Pulau Subar Darat (1.7ha), are collectively called the Sisters’ Islands.

While currently closed for enhancement works, the Sisters’ Islands are made up of two islands separated by narrow but deep channels.

Big Sister’s Island serves as a platform for conservation, outreach, education and recreation, while Small Sister’s Island, which is closed to the public, is zoned for conservation and research.

The Sisters’ Islands Marine Park — which is Singapore’s first marine park — comprises the two Sisters’ Islands, and the western reefs of both St John’s Island and Pulau Tekukor.

In 2024, Big Sisters’ Island will reopen to visitors with new features, including a coastal forest trail and a lagoon tidal pool.

Ms Pow E Lin, a Professional Association of Diving Instructors course director at Marlin Divers, told TODAY that she is looking forward to scuba diving again in the island’s waters. 

If she is lucky, she may even spot the Neptune’s Cup sponge — a very rare giant sea sponge, once believed to be extinct — which she had hoped, but failed, to see on a previous dive.

The 42-year-old began visiting the Sisters’ Islands Marine Park to scuba dive after it opened in 2014, as Marlin Divers had been one of the few approved dive operators then. 

“Every island has its unique underwater topography, and corals and marine life,” said Ms Pow, who recalled seeing “lots of feather stars in different colours” while diving at Sisters’ Islands previously.

Likewise, diving at Sisters’ Islands forms a core memory for 30-year-old nature enthusiast Abel Yeo.

Mr Yeo told TODAY that his first ever visit to the islands had been unintentional, as he had won a chance to join a guided walk there with NParks through a photography competition.

Since then, he has returned to Big Sister’s Island twice — once for a biodiversity survey on its intertidal zone, and the second, for a recreational dive around both the shallow and deep Marine Park dive trails. He had also visited Small Sister’s Island once, for a permitted biodiversity survey.

On his experience at Sisters’ Islands, Mr Yeo said: “Diving there was different for sure. The trail alone was a great initiative not seen on other islands.

“There is also plenty of site-specific reading material there to (help one) better understand the marine life diversity that Sisters’ Islands was allocated to protect. It really is a conservation-centric location,” said Mr Yeo.

They also enjoyed a walk around Big Sister’s Island and learnt about how climate change and urban development were threatening ecosystems across the tropics.

“The visit to the island was a really inspiring experience for me,” said Ms Simons.

“It influenced my decision to continue studying marine biology through my degree, which led me to now completing a fully-funded PhD exploring eDNA techniques for determining responses of intertidal species to environmental change.”

LAZARUS ISLAND

Linked by a causeway to St John’s Island is Lazarus Island and Seringat Island, which is now part of an extended Lazarus Island measuring 47ha.

Probably the most well-known, and biggest, of the Southern Islands outside of Sentosa, Lazarus today features an eclectic mix of natural and built environments — from its pristine beaches and clear waters, to its tiny houses, sea sports facility, and “gourmet” convenience store.

This was what Mr Rajindra Sharvin, who was visiting the island for the first time with a group of his friends, had done. 

“We all had a free day today and we thought we should all just hang out,” the 23-year-old bartender told TODAY.

“(Lazarus) has a very chill vibe, and it’s not busy like how it is on the mainland.

“Swimming here, the water is much cleaner as compared to Sentosa and it’s much more peaceful, because there’s less tourists and less people around.”

While they had spent their day trip swimming and having a picnic, Mr Sharvin added that he may suggest an overnight stay on the island to his friends in future, as he believes it could be a “fun experience”.

Looking ahead, Dr Shawn Lum, a senior lecturer at NTU’s Asian School of the Environment, suggested that it would be useful to bring together experts from different fields for a “multi-sector brainstorming” on the desired goals for biodiversity and the health and resilience of the islands’ ecosystems.

“Bring together flora and fauna specialists, reef biologists and planners and see what levels of development could lead to resulting impacts on ecosystems,” said the immediate past president of the Nature Society.

“Measuring impacts may be tedious but it is not a difficult concept,” said Dr Lum.

He added that developments with sufficiently light footprint — such as those designed to be nature friendly and built without destroying or clearing too much habitat to begin with — could help to raise the general public’s awareness and embracing of nature conservation.

“But these need to be planned and with appropriate programmes and activities — as opposed to building things and hoping for the best,” he added.

Agreeing, Assistant Professor Zhang Jiajie, a tourism geographer from NTU, added: “Let’s (also) not forget the rich socio-cultural heritage the Southern Islands have to offer.”

“As such, rather than being too keen to jump on the ecotourism or wellness tourism bandwagon, perhaps we should take a step back and consider the ways in which we can incorporate the islands’ rich socio-cultural fabric into the picture, so as to offer a truly unique experience for visitors, both locals and tourists.”

Regular visitors to the islands also hope that their pristine environment will remain so even with more human activities and visitors.

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