A Retrospect On The Dust-Laden History: The Past & Present Of Tekong Island In Singapore

Today, Tekong Island, also known as Pulau Tekong or simply as Tekong is used exclusively as a military training base. Most young people, especially males who have to do their basic military training on Tekong cannot visualise it being populated with civilians who worked there and who sent their children to school there. Yet the 1957 censes revealed there were 4,169 people, quite a sizeable number at that time.

A few books have been written on the island, but none solely focused on its history. The book, A Retrospect On The Dust-Laden History: The Past And Present Of Tekong Island In Singapore, fills this gap. One of the authors, Chen Poh Seng, whose great-grandfather lived in Tekong Island, has over 50 cousins who were born and schooled there. The other author, Lee Leong Sze, is a Malaysian who graduated from National Chong Hsing University, Taiwan. He subsequently obtained his PhD in Singapore.

The book describes how the island developed during the early 20th century. The main ethnic groups in Tekong were the Malays and Chinese. There were fewer than 20 Indians between 1957 and 1969. The book reveals the origins of the Malays and the Chinese, how they settled in Tekong, and worked and lived together.

The bulk of the Malay population were descended from two waves of migration from Pahang in the Malay Peninsula. The first wave fled to Tekong to escape the civil war in Pahang that was fought from 1857 to 1863. They formed a new village named, unsurprisingly, Kampong Pahang. Conflict between the British authorities and the Malay chiefs in Pahang from 1891 to 1895 led to a second wave of Malay migrants who who not only settled in Kampong Pahang but went on to form new villages. The chief livelihood of the Malays was fishing.

The Chinese came later due to the turmoil in China from internal revolt and external invasion. The Chinese who settled in Tekong Island were mainly Hakka who planted rubber as well as vegetables, tobacco and coconut. A few of the Chinese ran markets and stores in the Chinese villages. There was also a brickwork factory and a pottery which produced vases and vats.

Education was not neglected. There were one public and five private Chinese schools in various periods. Chinese was the main language of instruction, except in Aik Fah School which used Hakka in the 1950s. To raise the quality of education, the government built Pulau Tekong School in Kampong Pahang in the late 1950s. The school had an English and Chinese section, headed by different principals. In 1961, there were 201 pupils in the English section and 428 pupils in the Chinese section. The school’s name was later changed to Pulau Tekong Integrated School and one principal was assigned to it.

There were also two Malay schools, Pulau Tekong Malay School and Kampong Pasir Malay School. In 1959, there were 83 students in Pulau Tekong Malay School.

Regardless of which school they went to, children grew up learning to help one another. Some Malays understood the Hakka or Chaozhou dialect while most of the Chinese understood Malay.

This proved to be very important as the residents were largely unaffected by the racial tension in the mainland which resulted in the ugly conflict between the Chinese and Malays on 21 July 1964. The racial harmony enjoyed by the people of Tekong most probably saved more than a few Chinese lives during the Japanese Occupation. The Malays did not inform the Japanese that the Chinese harboured anti-Japanese sentiment. During the Second Sino-Japanese War which started five years before Japan occupied Singapore in 1942, the Chinese of Tekong formed a singing group to raise funds. The choir members sang in Hakka, songs against the atrocities of the Japanese. The Chinese also published a monthly magazine which reported news about the war and fund-raising activities.

After World War II, Singapore began to change and develop economically and this trend accelerated after independence. Land on the mainland was rapidly used up for development. An exception was Tekong, which remained a remote place with low economic value. This idyll was not to last. In the 1970s the government commandeered the less-densely populated area of Tekong for military purposes. Military vehicles and ferryboats were deployed to help the affected residents move to the mainland but some chose to move to the less densely populated parts of Tekong.

However, they did not stay for long. Economic prospects were poor as agriculture and fishing in Tekong did not generate much revenue. Youths left for the mainland for further studies or better-paid jobs. With more persuasion from the government, the remaining residents agreed to move.

On 9 September 1986, Tian Kong Buddhist Temple, the last temple on the island, found a new home at Bedok North Avenue 4. This marked the end of relocation. Only few households were left in Tekong and these moved out as soon as their new homes were ready.

The book captures the human history of the island. We know the lives of common as well as important people. There are also photos of important events as well as photos of ordinary people engaged in ordinary activities. An e-book version is available to all NUS staff and students.

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