Pulau Ubin p1By Howard Lee

To really see how much Singapore has globalised, make a trip to Pulau Ubin during a long weekend.

My family decided to take the bumboat to what was supposed to be the last of our idyllic islands this National Day weekend, and was confronted by a long queue at Changi Point that snaked out of the terminal building and back into the park that sits above. In that queue was a mix of voices, languages and nationalities – Chinese, Indian, Caucasian, Japanese, maybe Korean. All appear to be at home, yet were distinctively not from our shores.

The same situation when we got off at the island and attempted to rent bicycles. Even the shop hand who assisted us had a distinctive Chinses accent, as he dealt with a mix of other nationalities asking for the same.

If we were to imagine Pulau Ubin as another part of our globalised city state, this would be it, but perhaps with less Orchard Road posh, or a lot more run down in the dark and dusty bicycle shop.

The few coffee shops there were just as packed, and the mix of voices could not be more obvious, as customers waited for their food impatiently, while waiting for the rain to subside.

Pulau Ubin p2But peddle a short way away from the main street Jalan Ubin, and you will find a completely different picture. Forests and mangroves still line the sides of the bitumen paths, wide enough for one motor vehicle. One families stopped by the roadside to enter the forest to pick durians. Ripe rambutans littered the road, and one of the few trucks that passed by carried a few basket loads of the fruit, to be sold back at the main “commercial centre” along Jalan Ubin.

Further down the track towards the scenic quarries, little shelters and drink stores were erected by the islanders for cyclists and hikers to take a break. We stopped at one such, where three people, speaking the familiar local mix of Chinese and English, served us drinks.

The drinks were from PET bottles, and the coconuts were the supermarket variant, pre-cut into little pentagon towers, but you should have seen the little old lady who prepared them. Using a traditional all-steel kitchen cleaver, she hacked deftly at the tops with sure hands and keen eyes. She must have been in her 60s, but yet clearly the one who is key to the little business.

As we sat, another man cycled up. He carried a similar cleaver in a cardboard and string holster – in the style that might be reminiscent of the gang fights of old – and it became apparent what he was doing with it, as he spoke about not being able to find durians in the forest. The other man at the store then engaged in a discussion about the best durians he had, as the elderly woman broke out a box of “bak kua” (barbequed sliced pork) to share, which attracted the attention of their pet dogs.

As they sat chatting, I marvelled at the bustle that we experienced just moments ago, as it transited easily into the quiet and homely drink store. Time almost stood still as we sat drinking next to the mangrove forest.

This was, in a very real sense, Singapore, but living the city life might lead us to believe that it does not exist anymore. Here was a family, or perhaps group of friends or neighbours, content to live a simple life away from the hustle and bustle, enjoying to simple pleasures that modernity bring, but would just as easily live without it.

Pulau Ubin p3As we hurtle towards another 50 years of relentless progress, such sights will increasingly fade from sight. Perhaps Pulau Ubin, now the site for a renewable energy project and home to a National Parks outpost, might soon lose its quiet and peace, as such drink stalls fade from existence. Globalisation is already pressing at its doors.

But it will do well for us to remember, this National Day, that there are still parts of Singapore, and people within, who aspire not the gleaming metropolis, but the simple pleasures of life. In our march towards progress, are we satisfied to leave them behind or let them fade? Or do we think about what Singapore means to them, beyond the great nation-building-economic-survival narrative, and learn from them instead what it means to survive and be content?

Singapore needs to be a space that can accommodate all these aspirations, even as we struggle to find the physical space to fit this diversity of aspirations. Doing so would successfully distinguish us as a nation that values each and every one of us, rather than some unattainable crystal-box ideal that demands nothing but relentless progress.

Because the elderly woman who deftly hacked coconuts, and would likely do the same with the durians her neighbour picks from the quiet forests, is no less Singaporean than anyone else of us.

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