Named for the light-blue granite found on its seven granite hills,1 Pulau Ubin is a 1,020-hectare, boomerang-shaped island located on the north-eastern coast of Singapore, with Selat Johore to the north and Serangoon Harbour to the south. Serangoon Harbour separates mainland Singapore from Pulau Ubin.2
Pulau Ubin’s original name in Malay, Pulau Batu Jubin, means “Granite Stone Island”.3 The island was known for its granite quarries, but these are now inactive and have become scenic viewpoints.4 Amenities for outdoor recreational activities are available on the island today, and it is well-known for being home to Chek Jawa Wetlands, a rich ecosystem.5 There have been many efforts to conserve Pulau Ubin’s rich natural and cultural heritage.
In 1825, exactly one year after Singapore was ceded to the British, John Crawfurd, the Resident, made an expedition around Pulau Ubin, or Pulo Obin as it was spelt then, to take formal possession of it. Crawfurd’s party landed on the island on 4 August 1825, hoisted the British flag and fired a 21-gun salute. The island’s occupants then were a few woodcutters living in huts.6
In view of the greater demand for coffee, Thomas Heslop Hill, a European planter, set up a coffee plantation on Pulau Ubin in 1879. Coffee estates were so prominent on the island at that time that there was a hill named kopi sua or “Coffee Hill” near a Thai temple which existed then.7
In the 1880s, there was a major move of local settlers to the island. It is believed that a certain Encik Endun Senin, who had been living along Kallang River, had initiated this move. Chinese quarry workers soon followed. By 2000, the island had 250 residents, most of whom were fishermen.8
World War II
The Japanese army occupied Pulau Ubin on the evening of 7 February 1942 during World War II. The next day, it began a heavy bombardment of Changi. The Changi fortress artillery countered with great intensity but with little effect, destroying only rubber trees on the island. Despite its actions, the Japanese had no real intention of landing in the east. That night, the Japanese made their assault across the narrowest part of the Johore Strait, and got through rapidly, thus gaining a stranglehold on the western part of Singapore island.9
Pulau Ubin was known for its granite quarries. Some granite stones are believed to be more than 200 years old. Granite quarries provided the initial draw for early local settlement, and much of the granite was used for Singapore’s early developments.10 These included Horsburgh Lighthouse (1851) whose granite block walls were quarried and shaped at Pulau Ubin by Indian convicts, the Singapore Istana (1869)11, and the Singapore-Johore Causeway (1923) which was made with granite from Pulau Ubin as well as granite found at Bukit Timah.12
By 1999, all granite quarries on Pulau Ubin had been closed.13
Training and recreation
Outdoor activities related to heritage, nature, sport and training remain the island’s main draw. In 1967, the Outward Bound School of Singapore (OBSS), an outdoor training facility for young people, was established on Pulau Ubin. The school was later renamed Outward Bound Singapore (OBS), and underwent expansion. Its new facility on Pulau Ubin was opened in 1997.14 On 10 August 2004, the National Police Cadet Corps officially unveiled its own permanent campsite on the island.15
A boat ride from Changi Point Ferry Terminal brings visitors to Pulau Ubin.16 Wooden houses, duck ponds and stray chickens are common features of life on the island.17 These, together with the disused granite quarries, coconut and rubber plantations, mangrove swamps, fish and prawn farms, and the traditional fishing kelong, combine to create a rustic atmosphere.18 Events such as Pesta Ubin (a festival) have been organised to celebrate the way of life on Pulau Ubin.19
An extensive variety of wildlife is found on Pulau Ubin. This includes 141 species of birds, such as the buffy fish-owl and magpie robin, which are no longer found on mainland Singapore. Of note too are the Red Junglefowl, and the Dugong (from Malay word duyong) – a mammal which thrives in the tropical waters of the island.20 There are swamps in the central parts of Pulau Ubin. Secondary forests and some of the most viable and extensive mangroves are found on the island too. Fringing the northern and western shorelines, these are vital sources of food for the wildlife that the island holds, especially migratory birds.21
Wild boars have also been seen around Chek Jawa – an intertidal flat located at the easternmost tip of Pulau Ubin.22 On 27 May 2004, a native wild boar (which had been hand-raised as a piglet by a villager, and had been named Priscilla the Pig) was found dead by rangers and was buried near Chek Jawa.23 Although some accounts of Priscilla the Pig described it as being “tame”,24 it is advised that a safe distance from wild boars in general be kept.25
Shelved development plans
In 1992, plans to reclaim the eastern tip of Chek Jawa were approved. In 2001, a public forum about land use in Singapore drew public attention to this. Following that, there were appeals calling for the preservation of Chek Jawa.26 Eventually, the Ministry of National Development announced that reclamation works would be deferred for as long as the island is not required for development.27
An expressway and a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) rail system linking Pulau Ubin to the mainland were planned for 2030 and beyond. It was hoped that the island would retain its rustic charm, even as it serves as a venue for sports and recreational activities, and a getaway destination for Singaporeans.28 The plan to build an MRT station on the island was shelved in the updated URA Masterplan for 2013, as noted by the Nature Society (Singapore).29
Documenting Pulau Ubin
There have been many efforts to study and conserve Pulau Ubin’s rich heritage. For instance, as part of The Ubin Project, the Pulau Ubin Cultural Mapping Project was commissioned by the National Heritage Board in 2015. This project documented the island’s “living heritage through oral history accounts and lifestyles of its residents and former residents”.30
Additionally, in December 2016, the National Parks Board (NParks) announced the establishment of a new fruit tree arboretum, and the conservation of a Chinese kampung house on the island, with plans for more houses to be restored. This was done to conserve the cultural heritage and rustic character of the island.31
In-depth archaeological surveys on Pulau Ubin were carried out in December 2017. Led by NParks and the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (ISEAS), this project focused on studying and documenting selected sites on the island, such as World War II historical artefacts, so as to also shed light on Singapore’s trade, economic and military history.32
In late 2017, it was also announced that NParks would work on a first-ever two-year comprehensive biodiversity survey of Pulau Ubin. NParks staff, volunteers, researchers from the National University of Singapore, and citizen scientists from nature groups in Singapore would be involved.33
One of the legends surrounding Pulau Ubin is the tale of three creatures – a pig, an elephant and a frog, who had challenged one another to reach Johor from the island. The last one there would be turned to stone. As it was, none of them made it. Pulau Ubin grew out of the elephant and the pig while Pulau Sekudu, translated as Frog Island, came out of the petrified frog.34
Chinese name: Chioh-sua in Hokkien, which means Stone Hill.35
Other names: In Javanese, according to Pierre Etienne Lazare Favre (1812–1887) in Dictionnaire Javanais-Francais, ubin means “squared stone”, a reference to the granite stones.36
Seow Peck Ngiam & Amanda Chan
1. Chua Ee Kiam, Pulau Ubin: Ours toTreasure (Singapore: Simply Green, 2000), 27. (Call no. RSING 333.78095957 CHU)
2. National Parks Board, “About Pulau Ubin,” media fact sheet, 24 November 2014.
3. “Atoll’s History Retold as Myth,” Straits Times, 19 June 2000, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Chua Ee Kiam, Choo Mui Eng and Wong Tuan Wah, Footprints on an Island: Rediscovering Pulau Ubin (Singapore: SIMPLY GREEN and National Parks Board, 2016), 17. (Call no. RSING 333.78095957 CHU)
4. “Quarries of Pulau Ubin,” National Parks Board, last updated 28 January 2021.
5. “Pulau Ubin and Chek Jawa,” National Parks Board, last updated April 2020.
6. John Crawfurd, “Journal of a Voyage around the Island of Singapore,” in Notices of the Indian Archipelago, and Adjacent Countries, ed. J. H. Moor (Singapore: [n.p.], 1837), 269–273. (From BookSG; call no. RRARE 991 MOO)
7. Chua, Choo and Wong, Footprints on an Island, 21.
8. “Atoll’s History Retold as Myth.”
9. H. A. Probert, History of Changi (Singapore: Prison Industries in Changi Prison, 1970), 36. (Call no. RCLOS 959.51 PRO)
10. National Parks Board, “About Pulau Ubin”; S. Ramachandra, Singapore Landmarks, Past and Present (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 1961), 23. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 RAM)
11. Chua, Choo and Wong, Footprints on an Island, 18.
12. National Parks Board, “About Pulau Ubin”; Ramachandra, Singapore Landmarks, Past and Present, 23.
13. “Quarries of Pulau Ubin,” National Parks Board; “Granite Situation Better So Quarrying on Ubin Put Off,” Straits Times, 5 August 2007, 8. (From NewspaperSG); Wildsingapore, “Pulau Ubin Residents Welcome Move to Re-open Granite Quarries on Island,” Channel NewsAsia, 13 April 2007; “Quarries of Pulau Ubin,” National Parks Board.
14. Chua, Pulau Ubin, 38.
15. Cheryl Sim, “National Police Cadet Corps,” Singapore Infopedia, published 1 October 2014.
16. “Directions and Map,” National Parks Board, last updated 27 January 2021.
17. Olivia Branson, “Pulau Ubin May Be Developed into Recreation Centre.” Straits Times, 16 July 1988, 32. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Lea Wee, “Romancing the Stone Island,” Straits Times, 19 June 2000, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Lawrence Wong, “Ubin Day 2016,” speech, 4 June 2016, Ministry of National Development; Lea Wee, “Pulau Ubin Hosts a Five-Week Open House,” Straits Times, 13 May 2016
20. Eunice Lau, “Are Ubin’s Days Numbered? Changes to Ubin May Come Sooner,” Straits Times, 14 October 1999, 36. (From NewspaperSG); Chua, Pulau Ubin, 98, 110.
21. Lau, “Are Ubin’s Days Numbered?
22. Chua Ee Kiam, Chek Jawa: Discovering Singapore's Biodiversity (Singapore: Simply Green, 2002), 28. (Call no. RSING 333.91716 CHU); Chua, Choo and Wong, Footprints on an Island, 17.
23. Desmond Wong, “The Much Loved Babe of Chek Jawa,” New Paper, 8 June 2004, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Teh Jen Lee, “Too Cruel,” Habitatnews 10 June 2003; N. Sivasothi, “Priscilla of Chek Jawa is No More,” Habitatnews (blog), 1 June 2004.
25. “Wild Boars,” National Parks Board, last updated April 2020; “5 Things about Wild Boars in Singapore,” Straits Times, 31 May 2016.
26. Lydia Lim, “Ubin’s Nature Beach Gets a Reprieve,” Straits Times, 21 December 2001, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Ministry of National Development, “Deferment of Reclamation Works at Pulau Ubin,” press release, 14 January 2002.
28. Lau, “Are Ubin’s Days Numbered?
29. “NSS Position on Pulau Ubin,” Nature Society (Singapore), accessed 18 September 2018.
30. National Heritage Board, “Pulau Ubin’s Cultural Heritage: An Evolving Kampong Community,” media release, 28 April 2016; “The Ubin Project,” Ministry of National Development, last updated 28 February 2018; National Parks Board, “Updates on The Ubin Project Initiatives,” media factsheet, June 2015.
31. “New Opportunities for the Public to Experience Kampung Life on Pulau Ubin,” National Parks Board, 3 December 2016; Samantha Boh, “NParks to Restore Kampung Houses on Pulau Ubin; Biodiversity Survey to Start in Late 2017,” Straits Times, 17 July 2017.
32. ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, “In-Depth Archaeological Survey Begins on Pulau Ubin at World War II Site,” media release, 22 December 2017; Rachel Au-Yong, “In-Depth Survey May Unearth Ubin’s Mystery,” Straits Times, 23 December 2017, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Boh, “NParks to Restore Kampung Houses on Pulau Ubin.”
34. “Atoll’s History Retold as Myth.”
35. H. W. Firmstone, Chinese Names of Streets and Places in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula, Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 42 (February 1905): 154. (Call no. RQUIK 959.5 JMBRAS)
36. H. T. Haughton, “Names of Places,” Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (1941): 80. (Call no. RCLOS 959.5 JMBRAS)
William L. Gibson, “Unravelling the Mystery of Ubin’s German Girl Shrine,” BiblioAsia (Oct–Dec 2021)
The information in this article is valid as at February 2019 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.