By Izyan Nadzirah
‘Sitting in a birdcage, where can we go? (…) Here we go to market then head home, to market and home (…) But even if I could repent (taubat) and turn to God, repent ten times, I can’t go back to the island (balik pulau).‘
Jalil bin Kerip, headman of Pulau Semakau (1949–1974)
Interview in Malay with the National Archives of Singapore, 1990
Marcus Ng (RJC, 1993) and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow (RJC, 1992) invite you to explore the 70 islands of Singapore in the exhibition Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore’s Islands at the National Museum of Singapore, which runs until 10 August 2014. As curators of the exhibition, their aim is to pay homage to the forgotten communities of the many islands, many of which were resettled on the mainland between 1960 to 1994.
What is the aim of Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore’s Islands?
MARCUS In short, to reacquaint people with the islands that make up Singapore, bar one (the mainland), trace their human and natural histories and how they have changed over time, and also chart links—economic, social, cultural—that connect the islands to each other and to the mainland.
YU-MEI The exhibition brings long-overdue attention to the islands, which are right there, literally on the horizon, yet in everyday consciousness, we don’t really think much about them. I hope more people will realise that there is a long history of life and culture on many of these islands, and that as recently as in the 1990s, there were thriving communities living there. Singapore is more than just ‘the mainland’—the sea is our lifeline, even today, and the people who live on or with the sea are an important part of that story. I also hope that looking at the history of the islands will help people think more deeply about what we can do to be better stewards of places like Pulau Ubin.
Was it easy to take photos of the islands—were there any that were under restricted access and you could only take pictures from offshore?
MARCUS Military islands such as Pulau Tekong, Pulau Sudong and Pulau Senang are off limits, so archived photos are used for these. Other islands, such as St John’s, Lazarus, Semakau, Hantu, Ubin, Kusu can be visited, and we feature both contemporary and archival images of these.
Marcus, your past works has focused largely around present landscapes that have been repurposed or are in need of a revamp to continue to attract visitors. What made you decide to feature the ‘forgotten past’ of Singapore this time around?
MARCUS For myself, I started exploring the islands, both northern and southern, as a volunteer with nature groups and activities such as Ria Tan’s Wildsingapore and NParks’ seagrass surveys. My primary interest then was the coastal and marine life in the mangroves and reefs, which is surprisingly rich and still yielding many discoveries. But in the midst of finding out more about these islands, I found out that in the recent past, many of them harboured very interesting, notable and longstanding communities—each with their unique founding myths and ways of looking at themselves and others, and whose stories have seldom been told.
Yu-Mei, how have you been supporting Marcus for Balik Pulau?
YU-MEI I’m intrigued by the idea of invisible or unseen spaces in Singapore—places or people who are right in front of us or on the edge of our vision, but we take them for granted or don’t really ‘see’ them clearly. The islands are one of these invisible spaces. Many of them are off-limits to the public now, and many of the people who once made their homes there have been dispersed onto the mainland or passed away.
Besides learning more about the islands, I saw this as an opportunity to take this ‘forgotten’ aspect of Singapore history and make it real for modern-day museum visitors. How can we conceptualise an exhibition that will effectively show some of these ‘lost’ or forgotten places?
After looking at the extensive research and interviewees whom we found, we made a concerted decision about how to make the islands come alive again, e.g.:
- We have a lot of new video interviews with former islanders, visitors or school teachers, and also footage that we found in the MediaCorp archives and short films that other island-lovers had already made of Kusu, Pulau Ubin and Pulau Hantu.
- We have personal memorabilia and photos that former islanders have generously loaned for this exhibition.
- We have a slideshow on lost or forgotten islands that is a bit more thoughtful and reflective, because I thought it was important to make people think a little more deeply, perhaps even philosophically, about the ‘place’ of our islands today, about why we need our islands—not just in terms of industrial or military training needs, but socially, culturally and philosophically, in relation to our identity as Singaporeans.
What are the motivations for the kinds of work you do in Singapore history?
MARCUS I have always been interested in the stories of people and places, and in Singapore’s context, there is actually much more ‘history’, both natural and human, that has yet to be fully explored, which in the past had been ignored or undervalued. I think this ongoing ‘rediscovery’ of hidden facets of the island’s history helps to enrich the country’s narratives and reveal a much more complex, multi-faceted and fluid picture and certainly rebuts those who feel that Singapore hasn’t much of a history, culture or past.
YU-MEI I grew up not knowing very much about local history, but when I did some freelance work for the National Museum in 2006, it really opened my eyes to the wide range and complexity of Singapore history. There were all these fascinating and historically significant stories that have been documented by academics, people writing memoirs, materials in the National Archives and other sources. I started to wonder, why don’t we know more about our past? Why had these stories not yet become stories that we naturally tell to each other as Singaporeans?
Those core questions are still what interest me today. I like learning more about ‘forgotten’ or ‘invisible’ histories, and I hope that as more and more of these stories come to light, we’ll develop a more nuanced and multi-faceted view of Singapore history and identity.
How effective is an exhibition as compared to a book or an advertisement?
YU-MEI Exhibitions are experiential and temporary. They attract people who might not pick up a book on the same topic, and they allow different media to be used in storytelling. Traditionally there are artefacts, text panels and images, but in Balik Pulau, for example, we also have video, soundscaping, light and immersive exhibition design to evoke different moods in different parts of the exhibition.
This article first appeared on our Raffles Alumni portal.