Pulau Tekong is an island off the northeastern coast of Singapore, with Selat Johore to the north and Serangoon Harbour to the south.1 There were originally two islands – the larger Pulau Tekong and the smaller Pulau Tekong Kechil – but land reclamation joined them as one, making the resulting Pulau Tekong Singapore’s largest offshore island. The island is currently used for military purposes.2 There are many versions of the origin of its name, most of which are rooted in folklore.
Pulau Tekong is actually made up of two islands: the 2,442.6-hectare Pulau Tekong (known as Pulau Tekong Besar in Malay, meaning “Big Tekong Island”), and the 89-hectare Pulau Tekong Kechil (Malay for “Small Tekong Island”).3 Before land reclamation joined the two islands in the mid-1990s, the main Pulau Tekong was already the largest of Singapore’s offshore islands at 17-kilometres long and 12-kilometres wide.4
In 1957, Pulau Tekong had a population of around 4,169. The residents were predominantly Chinese, although the Malays are believed to be the earliest settlers on the island.5 Among its produce then were rubber, coconut, vegetables, prawns, fish, and tropical fruits such as durians, mangosteens and rambutans. The island was once home to several kampongs (villages) such as Kampong Pahang, Kampong Selabin (Pekan), Kampong Seminal, Kampong Batu Koyok, Kampong Senyunkong, Kampong Pasir, Kampong Sungei Belang, Kampong Onom, Kampong Pasir Merah, and Kampong Permatang. All the islanders have since been resettled on mainland Singapore and Pulau Tekong is today dedicated exclusively to military use;6 Basic Military Training, which kicks off mandatory national service for Singaporean males, takes place on the island.7
In 1987, archaeologists discovered earthenware pieces at Kampong Permatang in the northwest region of Pulau Tekong, opposite the mouth of the Johore River and the old Johore Lama, a historical site. These significant finds appear to be similar to others found in Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, including Borneo. The artefacts date back to the prehistoric neolithic era, as well as the 15th and 16th centuries, indicative of past trading activities on the island. Other finds include Chinese stoneware and a big fragment of a 16th-century Sukhothai bowl. These discoveries were sent to universities in the United Kingdom for age verification.8
Elephants on the island
In May 1990, a group of national servicemen from the Singapore Armed Forces spotted three wild elephants on the island. The elephants were thought to have swum across the Strait of Johore, from Johore, the closest natural habitat.9 Help was sought from the Singapore Zoo, which obtained assistance from the Malaysian Wildlife authorities to capture the animals.10 Pulau Tekong was deemed an unsuitable home for the elephants as it was used for military training.11 The joint Singapore-Malaysia rescue team eventually subdued and captured the elephants, which were sent back to Malaysia.12
Origins of the name “Tekong”
There are many stories relating to the origins of the name “Tekong”:13
– Seafarers who relied on stars as their compass were said to follow a particular star known as the “tekong”, which would lead them to the island.
– A pirate captured by a Chinese trading ship in Singapore seas was said to have been brought ashore and had his hair cropped, an act known in Malay as ditokong. To commemorate this victory, the islanders called the island Pulau Tokong or Pulau Tekong.
– The early islanders on Pulau Tekong were believed to be Orang Melayu from Pahang who first arrived in 1857 before the outbreak of a civil war in their native land. A key area affected by the war was a district called Teluk Tekong. The refugees from Teluk Tekong chanced upon the island and named their new home Pulau Tekong, in memory of their previous homeland.
Variant meanings of “Tekong”
Pulau means “Island” and Tekong means “an obstacle”, so called because the island blocks the mouth of the Johore River.14
In the Kamus Dewan dictionary, tekong refers to “ruas”, which is connected with “bamboo” or “sugarcane”.
The word tekong could also refer to a deep cleft in a giant rock that collects water from rain and dew on the island.
In Indonesian, tekong means “something that is not straight or wavy”; in the Minangkabau dialect it denotes something heavy.
Tekong is believed to be derived from the dialect word taikong, meaning “ship’s captain”.15
1. Chen Poh Seng and Lee Leong Sze, A Rospect on the Dust-Laden History: The Past and Present of Tekong Island in Singapore (Singapore: World Scientific, 2012), 1. (Call no. RSING 959.5705 CHE)
2. Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 78. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
3. Chen and Lee, Retrospect on the Dust-Laden History, 33.
4. “How Pulau Tekong Derives Its Name,” Straits Times, 21 January 1985, 4; “Land Reclamation at Ubin, Tekong By ’95,” Business Times, 1 January 1993, 20; “Soil Checks on Pulau Ubin, Pulau Tekong to Start Soon,” Straits Times, 2 January 1993, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Chen and Lee, Retrospect on the Dust-Laden History, 34.
6. “How Pulau Tekong Derives Its Name.”
7. “Basic Military Training,” Ministry of Defence, accessed 25 May 2015.
8. “‘Significant’ Finds of Earthenware on Pulau Tekong,” Straits Times, 19 November 1987, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Rohaniah Saini, “Wanted: Tusk Force to Catch Wild Elephants on Tekong,” Straits Times, 31 May 1990, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Rohaniah Saini, “Trackers Hot on Trail of Runaway Jumbos,” Straits Times, 7 June 1990, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “Elephants Must Be Removed for ‘Own Good’,” Straits Times, 3 June 1990, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Rohaniah Saini, “Trapped: Two of Tekong’s Three Elephants,” Straits Times, 8 June 1990, 1; “Bull’s Eye! With Tranquiliser,” Straits Times, 9 June 1990, 1; Rohaniah Saini, “Praise for Joint Singapore, Malaysia Rescue Team,” Straits Times, 10 June 1990, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “How Pulau Tekong Derives Its Name.”
14. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 30.
15. “How Pulau Tekong Derives Its Name.”
The information in this article is valid as of 2012 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.