On the same day that we interviewed Cik Jalil we also interviewed Cik Akim.
Cik Akim was born on St. John’s Island in 1951. He moved to the main island of Singapore in 1969. Cik Akim has fond memories of the islands. He remembered that he used to study at the St. John’s Island Primary School and even passed his PSLE there. He recalled that people on both St. John’s and Lazarus Island were closely knitted. Not only that, he could still recount the events and amenities there were on the island before he shifted away. After Cik Akim got married and had children, he often brought his family to visit the island he grew up in and told them stories about it. Here are some of the highlights from the interview with Cik Akim.
Cik Akim, can you tell us more about yourself and what can you recall about St. John’s Island?
“Actually St. John’s Island’s name is Sekijang Bendera. Once the British took over then it became St. John’s Island. I was born there in 1951. Initially, the island was used as quarantine station, doctor, where first immigrant when they come to Singapore, they had to be quarantined for 14 days before they were allowed to go to the mainland, for hygiene purposes and maybe for medical purposes.”
“So after that era finished, they convert it to an Opium Rehabilitation Centre. So the whole camp was built for these purposes. Then after the opium transition, it was converted to a drug rehab centre.”
“And then during the Konfrontasi, I think it was around 1964. The Malaysian Navy was used the place for defense purposes. So they used one of the hill, at the corner of St. John’s Island facing Pulau Sambu, which they called Bukit Bendera. They put up a flag and that’s why they call it Sekijang Bendera. “
How was life on the islands like? Did you go to Lazarus Island often?
“I was born in St. John’s Island. But we do sometimes cross each other. We sometimes swim across each other. Yea we swim! For fun! When we were kids, we, the islanders, are not scared of all these.
“We would communicate with each other. We were very close because we used to … some of these people, didn’t like to stay in the quarters. They preferred to stay in the island, in the stilt house, so they cross over to work. Then they finished, they would take a sampan and row back to their home. As for myself, my family had a relative there also, so we would also just cross for fishing or for night camping…”
“We were the only island, apart from Bukom, to have all the modern facilities in those days. Our toilets were flushing. And we had a generator. I think special focus on the island because we were supplying medical treatment for all these quarantine”
“We don’t have those houses on stilts. All were nicely built quarters. We had all colonial, British-style of living quarters. Very beautiful. We even have the sewerage pump you know. The pump house. Even our sewerage were all underground. It [the island] was so beautiful.”
“While there where clinical facilities on St. John’s Island, we prefer going for traditional treatment first. We call it bomoh. If it doesn’t work then we will go for Western medicine. And if they still do not work, there was always the Marine Police on standby at around Kusu Island and our island. The police will take us to mainland, SGH (Singapore General Hospital).”
How many people were staying on the island? Were they all Malays?
“I think about 115 to 150. Most of them were staff employed by the MPA (Marine Port Authority) or maybe the British.”
“Every place that you go, you will be sure there’s a Chinese family. They are very good in business! Without them we won’t have our basic supplies. They owned the shop that supplies us with the three basic necessities – oil, rice and sugar. And I, during my school days, while waiting for my O levels to come out, I worked for him for three days. There were other Chinese families such as the laundry man, Mr Ah Luck, a teacher called Mr Choo , I think he is still alive, and a few cookees to cook for the drug addicts. Then we had Indians too. 5 or 6 families. The rest were Malays. I would say there were about a hundred Malay families.”
What was school like and did you have any activities after school?
“If they [children from Lazarus Island] wanted to go to English school, they go to St. John’s Island. There was one school [on Lazarus Island] also but the language of teaching down there was Malay. Last time, our national language was still Malay.”
“My English teacher was Mrs. Farrer. The superintendent’s wife.”
“Er… I’m a bit more home-bound. I’m not like the other boys who were more adventurous. Normally after school, I will go back help my mother to prepare goodies to sell. And then of course we go swimming, normal. Fishing as well. Then in the evenings we would always play soccer. Soccer was one of my favourites.”
“I think TV was just introduced in the late 1960s. At that time it was black and white. And at every end of the month, they will have the screening of the pictures. They provided movies. It’s free of charge. They will show at one of the fields down there. So that was our entertainment. And of course, last time we played Sepak Takraw. We played the Chapteh. We played the tin tin. Then we play hide-and-seek. And then later in the evening we would go to the mosque.”
“Sometimes there would be tourists, ang moh, coming to our islands. They threw coins for us to dive in! We found it very challenging, but we not scared! They would throw 10 cents or 20 cents. Last time 10, 20 cents was a lot.”
“We also used to catch mynahs to sell. We taught them how to talk and sell them at 50 cents. The islanders had nothing much to do so they rear birds such as mynahs, merbuk (zebra doves) and jambul (red-whiskered bulbul).”
Born to a large family of 11 siblings, Cik Akim was given to his adopted father who worked at the generator which was set up by the P.W.D. (Public Works Department) and his adopted other, a Chinese who was brought to the islands during the Japanese Occupation as a prisoner-of-war.
His biological father was from Central Java and his biological mother was from Kalimantan, Sulawesi. His biological father was given as job as a gardener when the island was used as a Drug Rehabilitation Centre in 1955. Working as gardener, Cik Akim’s biological father only earned $1.50 a day, whereas his adopted father earned $4 a day. Although it may not seem much in the present, $4 was a lot during that time.
When he was 15, he was introduced to his biological family. But all these while he had been playing with is siblings because they did not stay too far away. Their house was on top of the hill while Cik Akim’s house was down the hill. He went to school with his siblings and played football with them. Family relationships where fluid on the island.
Living on the islands, surrounded by waters means that you get to eat fish often. Other than fish, what other kinds of food do you eat on the islands?
“Yes, fishing was our main hobby, last time salary was little so we needed all these to supplement. We usually only need to buy oil, rice and sugar. The rest, we grow on our own! Reared our own chickens and ducks, so we had eggs. And we also had plenty of monitor lizards. My Indian friends would catch them to cook curry. Delicious, they said! Last time we also enjoyed our boiled ubi (tapioca), jambu air, breadfruit and of course, coconuts! Coconut drink is the most effective cure!”
“Sometimes when we came to Singapore, mainland, to visit our relatives in the mainland and then to buy a little bit of extra groceries.”
“There were goats on Lazarus Island. They got their goats from the Riau islanders. They would sail their jongs from Riau to Sekijang.”
Cik Akim left the island around 1969. It was because he started working on the main island of Singapore and had difficulties making it for the ferry timings especially since the ferries only operated six times a day, starting at 5 a.m. and ending at 6 p.m. Other islanders, he mentioned, left the island soon after because there was no more work to be done on the island. Their then employee, Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC), was returned the island to SLA and thus did not renew their working contracts. More recent cases of leaving the islands was due to the recent asbestos find.
How did you feel when you all had to shift to the mainland?
“Oh.. Very very sad. I wish… I wish lah, before we go out of this world, we can go back there, at least to stay there. Something like holiday chalets. The only thing right now is that if you want to go there, you will have to bring your own food. You have to bring your own food, like canned food, sardine, bread, especially bread and plenty of drink water, mineral water.”
“I have my own family now and I have brought them there a few times to show them my place and tell them stories.”
Is there anything else you want to tell us about your life on the islands?
We have gotong royong spirit. We help each other, we provide [for] each other, and we take care of each other. We know each other by face. So like whose son is missing or anything, their mother would know who to call straight away.