Singapore is a small place. It is small enough to kayak around in a single day or drive across in under an hour. Most, if not all of us would like to think that we know almost every square inch of the country. However, there are pieces of Singapore still unseen and unknown by most Singaporeans, such as its many outlying islands and overseas properties under its jurisdiction by quirks of history and archaic legalities.
Recently, the complexities of history and historical politics has again resurfaced and dominated the news with reports of far-flung islands with competing soverign claims, hastily built outposts and which ones belongs to whom. Singapore too, has had its fair share of island wrangling, such as Pedra Branca incident leading to a focus on another similar sandy pearl in the emerald seas that has a Singaporean connection – the idyllic Pulau Pisang.
History of Pulau Pisang
Located well within the borders of Malaysia, just off the coast of Potian Kechil in Johor, lies a forgotten speck of sand with a charming piece of colonial history that sits at the highest point. It is aptly called Banana Island Lighthouse, after the island, and is Singapore’s Westernmost lighthouse, signaling the entrance to the Straits of Singapore.
Built in 1914, the lighthouse, the roadway leading to it and the rights to the land beneath it were granted in perpetuity to the government of the Straits Settlements in Singapore for as long as the Singaporean government operates the facility. The Maritime & Port Authority of Singapore now operates the lighthouse, stationing 2 officers stationed there on a fortnightly rotation.
The Malaysian government has expressed concern that Singapore would claim it as their own, in light of the International Courts of Justice (ICJ) awarding Pedra Branca to Singapore. Singapore has maintained that the island is sovereign Malaysian land and that it only reserves the right to operate the lighthouse there, as agreed with the Sultan of Johor in 1901. However, the status quo remains, flaring up occasionally amongst right wing firebrands from time to time.
How I got there
With curiosity getting the better of me, I decided to take a look at the place for myself. The journey isn’t for the couch potato and involves a drive to Potian Kechil – a town known for a brand of sleepy serenity familiar in fishing communities. As the last stop for civilisation before my planned trip to the sparsely populated island, I stopped for lunch at a Mac Donalds before driving up and down the coast, looking for a safe place to park the car for the night. From here, a 25 km boat ride is necessary. Although there isn’t a scheduled ferry service, the local jetty would be the best place to arrange an ad hoc boat ride with the local fishermen. I opted to kayak the distance on my inflatable sea kayak, using a GPS unit and knowledge of tide patterns, the weather forecast and wave patterns.
Like running a marathon on my hands
From the shore, the island hid beneath the horizon and it took an ounce of faith to keep paddling towards an unseen location in open water before a hazy speck of green and brown appeared in the distance. Several other uninhabited satellite islands provided false promises of respite after tiring hours into the journey. What started off as an promise of an exciting day out soon petered out as fatigue weakened by upper body. It felt like I was running a marathon on 2 hands. After about 5 gruelling hours, landfall was made. A small jetty to service the lighthouse was the first sign that I was on the right track. As I drifted closer, I piloted my craft towards a patch of sandy beach where a cluster of traditional houses were set up. A lonely Malay village, a sandy beach, an army of hermit crabs ambling across the sand; it was truly a piece of paradise.
Spending the night in a traditional Malay fishing village
After setting up camp amongst the roughly built clapboard homes, I trod up the path leading to the lighthouse. I met the 2 lighthouse staff, with large parangs tucked in their belts as they were coming in the opposite direction.
From them, I learnt that the village is now uninhabited for the greater part of the year except for holiday weekends when the families of the original owners return. I was also warned about pirates from across the Malacca Straits making frequent stops. They were about 10 privately houses and I walked between the empty homes, hoping to find some company for to pass the night with.
The two lighthouse keepers stayed to chat for a while and spoke about their life on the island, revealing the shortcomings but ultimately professing that they would not trade it in for the world.
The night was relatively uneventful, with the light breeze and peaceful atmosphere reining in my normally active imagination. The night sky was a rare treat for a urbanite unused to silence, darkness and a magnificent view of the constellations. Another thing I did not expect were large numbers of hermit crabs coming alive in the dead of night. The crustaceans came in all sizes and ambled across the ground looking for scraps of food such as coconuts. Not having seen any on the beaches in Singapore for a good part of my life, I amused myself with them; catching the largest ones and observing them retract into their shells and slowly emerge again.
A modest structure, the whitewashed lighthouse is 16 m High, and perched at the top of a steep slope, with banana plantations on both side. It’s design was more functional, without any ornamentation and consisted of a round tower and living quarters in an annex.
A place like no other
Pulau Pisang is unique piece of Singapore’s heritage but not easy to get to. There are no regular ferry services, nor any amenities on the island. However, it is a little adventure that anyone can embark on with some preparation and gumption.