On August 10 2018, some of us had an interview with a former islander Cik Jalil and his wife and son.
Cik Jalil was born on Lazarus Island in 1943, during World War II. He left the islands in 1976. Before relocated to Singapore, he was teacher at the St. John’s Island English School, an English-medium primary school. After he retired, he spends some of his time researching on the history of the islands he was born and lived on.
His son, D’zul, was also born on St. John’s Island. He lived on the islands until he was around 6 or 7 years old before he followed his father to the main island of Singapore.
Here are some highlights from our interview with him.
Do you recall life on the islands before you left?
“In the past, most of the people who lived in the islands were fishermen and they had no education. The first person who received education was me as well as a few other friends of mine in the 50s. During that time, people ate mostly fish and rice. Life then was tough, and people ate beras hancur (“broken,” low grade rice). One sack costed 10 cents and they weren’t even packaged. We also had vegetable grown around in our village. In the past one package of normal grade rice was 50 cents. That was too expensive for us. So, we ate the low-grade rice which had the properties of a normal grain of rice that was being cut into four smaller pieces.”
At this point, his son entered the discussion
“I was raised in the islands till I was 6 or 7 years old. The only thing that I cherish there is the freedom. So, in the morning I will go out and explore the whole island and come back only at night. I also will go the sea and swim in the sea and I could just jump from the jetty to swim… I was there till I was 6 years old and when I was in primary school I shifted to mainland.”
Was there a reason for leaving St. John’s Island?
“Well, there wasn’t anything left on the island in the first place. Especially so since the government told us to leave the island. Firstly, the main reason was the Indonesian Konfrontasi that occurred in that time. The government was afraid that there were any civilian casualties since Indonesia had its naval fleet around Singapore’s straits and had their soldiers stationed there too. That was during the 70s roughly around 1974. The government was afraid that the civilians might be affected by the conflict especially so when there is already the case of the MacDonald’s House bombing as well as the kidnapping of a shipping crew. Hence, we were told to move to mainland. The schools were closed, houses were abandoned. I did not come back after the confrontation as there was nothing to come back to.”
You stayed on both Lazarus Island and St. John’s Island. Were there any differences in living on these two islands?
From his son:
“My grandparents stayed at Lazarus Island. But we stayed at St. John’s Island. Every weekend we would visit them at Lazarus Island as it was nearby. But life in Lazarus Island was very different as I remembered we had to take water from the well and so on. In St John’s Island we already had taps to get water.”
If you had a choice, would you want the island preserved, developed or would you just leave it be.
“In the past when we left the island we were very sad at that time. But as time went by, there were no such feelings anymore.”
His son added…
“I don’t really feel attached to the island. My father really did feel attached back then and when he was leaving the island he was very sad. Like he said, as time went by, he did not feel so sad anymore.”
What was the atmosphere on the island like when you had to leave?
“It was quite normal we just had to shift out. There wasn’t much tears and so on. There were some who cried and who were quite sad before we left. We had gatherings before the shift which made our farewells but nothing much.”
Cik do you have any stories that you want to share with us or would you like to ask us any questions?
“I wondered why you did not ask about the origin names of the islands? How did the name of the island Sekijang came about? How did the name Sekijang Bendera and Sekijang Pelepah came about as well? If you never ask you will never know.”
Isn’t Sekijang the English versions of, Lazarus and St John’s Island?
“Yes, Kijang is a small deer, “Rusa,” refers to the bigger deer. “Kancil” or “pelanduk” refers to the mouse deer. Kijang is slightly bigger. Rusa is the big deer. The origin of Pulau Sekijang, the name “sekijang” is from a man from Butun in Java. This story is very long though.”
(Goes to take a document from his room)
“This is what I wrote. This story is very long, if I tell you today I cannot finish it. […] This is the origin story of the islands. […] this story was never written or documented anywhere else.”
“The story of the names of St John and Lazarus was that, during the time when Raffles came to Singapore, he docked on the Sisters’ island. On his ship he had two missionaries. Raffles was in search for water, and so Farquhar ordered the two missionaries to go on land to find water. These two individuals were St John and Lazarus. When St John went to the island of what we call today as St John’s Island, he did not find any water. However, when Lazarus went to the island beside it, he found a spring and brought back water to the sisters’ island. As such when they returned, Farquhar named the island according to their names, Lazarus and St John.”
“Now about the story of Sekijang Pelepah (Coconut leaf/ Lazarus island) and Bendera (flag / St Johns Island), it originated from the time when the Chinese and Indian immigrants came to the island. They gathered there first before proceeding to mainland. On one day, one of the immigrants was infected with chicken pox. As such, on the jetty of Pulau Sekijang Bendera (Lazarus island), they erected a yellow bendera (flag) as an indicator that someone was ill and that the place was used to quarantine them. It was then when the local people called it “Sekijang Bendera”.”
Does that mean people in the past, before the time of when the flag was erected, they called both islands “Pulau Sekijang”?
“They differentiated them by calling them Pulau Sekijang Besar (Big Sekijang Island) and Pulau Sekijang Kecil (Small Sekijang island). Sekijang Besar is St Johns, and Sekijang Kecil is Lazarus. So, from Pulau Sekijang Besar it became Pulau Sekijang Bendera. When the British built a water containment system in the island to collect rain water – which they built a tall water tower/tank on the top of the hill, the people referred to it as a “bendera besi” (Metal flag) which was actually just a water tank. As such, St John’s island became known to have two flags, one was the yellow flag on the jetty that I told you earlier and the other is a tall metal “flag” on the top of the hill which refers to the water tank. Hence the name of the island became “Pulau Sekijang Bendera” (Small Deer, Flag Island)”
“If you want to know of the origin story of Lazarus island, one has to start from this area here (the bay of Lazarus island), in this Telok (which is Malay for ‘bay’). The term Pelepah originated from the […] from two Indonesian men. One of them was Ode La Kadim, who sat under a tree. During high tide, he saw many pelepah sink into the sea. Pelepah refers to the leaf of the coconut tree that comes with its stalk and so on. Since the whole island was already named Sekijang – which the story is also inside the document, he added to the (Lazarus) island the word Pelepah. Hence it was called, Sekijang Pelepah.”
Are there any other features of the islands that you can recall? Such as the Quarantine Station or Opium Treatment Centre.
“Yes, there was an opium centre there as well. That was in the 60s. At that time, the quarantine centre was already redundant due to the advent of the use of the airplane for travel. Nobody used ships to transport people anymore. The quarantine centre was shifted to Paya Lebar airport where people travelled there. The quarantine was shifted to the old Tan Tock Seng hospital which was located near Moulmein road.”
“[…] The Opium Rehabilitation Centre was the last use of St John’s Island. The last year of its use was 1975 the same time as when the residents were being relocated to Singapore.”
His son continued on.
“I remember the Jetty. Because I got stuck underneath the floating platform. I remember it was a long jetty with a floating platform at the end of it. I was four or five at that time. I just jumped in the water and I got stuck underneath the platform. I also remember that there was a pond near the school where my father taught in. I remembered playing football there with my brother.”
What are your thoughts on how the government managed the Southern islands?
“[…] What the government could do is to have a proper road system around the islands. All my pictures were destroyed during the time of when we were told to shift. In the past we did not have albums, we stored our pictures in boxes. The time we were told to shift out, all of them were gone.”
We would like to thank Cik Jalil and his son for sharing about their life on the islands. Despite the close proximity between St. John’s and Lazarus Island, both islands developed quite differently. While St. John’s Island became built up and had more modern facilities such as taps with running water, Lazarus Island still relied on wells for their sources of water; while islanders lived in quarters or bungalows on St. John’s, most of the islanders on Lazarus still lived on houses on stilts that straddled both land and sea. Even so, there is a strong connection between the people on both islands – families moved about between the two islands freely and they adapt to both kinds of lifestyles easily.
Our interview with Cik Jalil also helped us gain an insight on what the islanders thought the name of their island came about. Names of streets in Singapore are often easy to trace back, for example streets can be named after our founding fathers or their purposes. However, when it came to the naming of our islands, they are usually more difficult to trace because their names not only changed many time throughout Singapore’s history, but also because the names which the islanders called the islands had been given even before there were proper records.
When we first started the project, there were documents of how St. John’s was a bastardisation of the word Sekijang. However, we did not know how the name Sekijang came about or why Lazarus Island was referred to as Sekijang Pelepah by the islanders. Thanks to Cik Jalil’s dedication in researching on the origins of the names of the island, we had the opportunity to gain insight of the different names of St. John’s and Lazarus Island before they were given those names and how these names came about according to the islanders’ legend. Although we have to take legends with pinches of salt, it was still interesting to note that these stories of origin are the ones that are accepted and passed down from generations to generations.
Stay tuned for a glimpse of our next interview with another islander, Cik Akim.