SINGAPORE — Fishing at St John’s Island bright and early last Sunday (Oct 15) morning were three friends — Aiden Raphael Keh, 17, Lin Jiayuan, 21, and Sim Jin Heng, 26.
The trio told TODAY that the Southern Islands’ “relatively undisturbed” nature and bountiful marine biodiversity made them ideal for “species hunting” — a niche in fishing they engage in, which prioritises catching as many species as possible, over catching the biggest or most fish.
Aiden, a student at Victoria Junior College, said: “We come to the Southern Islands to fish because we’re interested in the marine biodiversity here. So we’re basically doing a kind of survey of the piscine-fauna here in the Southern Islands by fishing, using hook-and-line.”
“We have even caught species that our local marine ethologists have never found in Singapore before. So we hope to contribute to science as well, while of course, having fun here on the islands,” he said, adding that they donate some of these rare specimens to the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.
While they do not have a fixed schedule, the trio visit the islands about once a month on average — alternating also between fishing on Lazarus and Kusu islands, depending on the fish species they are hunting, and the types of habitat they are expected to be found in.
The Singapore Land Authority told TODAY that between January and September this year, some 15,000 people visit St John’s, Lazarus, Kias and Seringat islands (which are linked via causeways) on average per month.
During the same period in 2022 and 2021, the islands saw a monthly average of 20,000 and 16,000 visitors respectively.
While the two public ferry operators — Marina South Ferries, and Singapore Island Cruise and Ferry Services — declined to provide ticket sale figures, citing commercial reasons, both firms told TODAY that visitors to the islands are mainly Singaporeans or expatriates, and rarely tourists.
In response to TODAY’s queries about the islands’ development plans, an Urban Redevelopment Authority spokesperson said the Southern Islands are intended for “recreational and complementary uses” in the long term.
The spokesperson added that there are “no imminent development plans”, and should such plans be made, the necessary environmental studies would be conducted beforehand.
Notwithstanding this, as Singapore continues with its push towards sustainable tourism, the islands have a huge potential to be developed into a tourist destination, experts told TODAY.
Mr Christopher Khoo, managing director at tourism consultancy MasterConsult Services, said: “In today’s context, tourists are willing to pay for secluded, exclusive escapist indulgences. With the Southern Islands being a short extension from Singapore, this accessible convenience can be quite compelling to the ‘cash-rich, time-poor’ tourist.”
Professor Abhishek Singh Bhati, campus dean of James Cook University (JCU) Singapore, added that for land-scarce Singapore, the Southern Islands could also present a good opportunity for developing recreational facilities, where there is no competition from commercial or residential land use.
In developing tourism on the islands, he added, it would be best to offer “some form of distinction” to what each of the Southern Islands could offer, to prevent a cannibalisation of offerings to tourists.
“That will benefit these islands — the islands will grow while maintaining their natural features. At the same time, this will also help Singapore become a stronger and more formidable tourist destination in the region,” said Prof Bhati.
With Lazarus and Kusu back in the limelight, TODAY looks at how they and two other Southern Islands — long under the shadow of their glamorous neighbour Sentosa — have been charming city slickers in their own quiet, pristine ways.
ST JOHN’S ISLAND
Once a penal settlement, St John’s Island houses a rich history. At different points in time over the last two centuries, it also served as a quarantine island, and housed an opium treatment centre for the rehabilitation of drug addicts.
Today, St John’s Island is abuzz with human activity, while also home to an array of wildlife — from monkeys and monitor lizards, to 258 recorded vascular plant species, including the Pink-eyed Pong Pong tree, which is critically endangered in Singapore.
Such rich biodiversity is the island’s main appeal for some regular visitors – including the three anglers.
“When we talk about coral reef habitats, the Southern Islands are unparalleled. I will say St John’s is one of the best reefs in Singapore that are near the beach — unless you go to (Pulau) Hantu, but even Hantu is a bit harder to fish at,” Mr Lin, a bioengineering student at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), told TODAY.
Measuring about 39ha (about 55 football fields) and filled with lush greenery, St John’s Island presents the perfect landscape for a variety of activities, from picnicking to camping and cycling. Visitors could also opt to spend the night on the island, by applying for a camping permit or booking an overnight stay at one of its lodges.
Ms Yin Mon Aung, 42, spends about one to two weekends picnicking on the Southern Islands every month. She settles down at St John’s Island most of the time, though her group also alternates between Lazarus and Kusu.
The part-time cleaner said that she enjoys being on St John’s Island because it is beautiful, quiet, and relaxing, and she could take in the fresh air while spending time with her friends.
Ms Yin was with four other friends when TODAY met her recently. The group, who had settled under a mangrove hut on St John’s Island, was surrounded by at least eight to 10 monkeys while they snacked.
Still, she told TODAY that the monkeys’ presence did not bother them.
“It’s okay, animals are like that,” said Ms Yin, adding that the monkeys were likely just drawn to their food. The group would shoo the monkeys away if they get too close.
St John’s Island is also home to the Sisters’ Islands Marine Park Public Gallery, which seeks to educate the public on the rich marine biodiversity in Singapore’s waters.
As part of public outreach efforts, volunteers from the National Parks Board (NParks) also take interested registrants on a free, 90-minute guided tour of the St John’s Island Trail, every first Sunday of the month.
A stone’s throw — or a ferry ride — away from St John’s Island is the 8.5ha Kusu (tortoise in Hokkien) Island.
An online article by the National Library Board’s Singapore Infopedia tells of an urban folklore, where two fishermen — a Malay and a Chinese – had wrecked their boat in the waters near Kusu, and a giant turtle had transformed itself into an island for the shipwrecked fishermen to land on.
During the colonial era, the island served as the burial site for newly arrived immigrants to Singapore, who had died while in quarantine on St John’s and Lazarus islands.
Today, Kusu is a unique blend of offerings, from religious sites to a tortoise haven. The island houses hundreds of tortoises, which can be found at two spots — Tortoise Sanctuary and Turtle Lagoon.
A tranquil space off mainland Singapore, the island comes alive during the annual Kusu Pilgrimage, where thousands of devotees throng the island with bags of fruit and religious offerings.
This year’s pilgrimage falls between Oct 15 and Nov 12. It will also coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Tua Pekong Temple, which is dedicated to the “God of Prosperity”. Situated near the pier, the temple’s bright red and green facade greets visitors to the island as they disembark from the ferry.
Exiting the temple, a short walk and a 152-step climb lead island-hoppers to the top of a hill, where the Kusu Keramat — which houses shrines believed to belong to three Malay saints — sits. Devotees arriving at the Keramat are greeted with the scent of incense, as prayers and loud chants of “huat ah!” reverberate through the space.
A Penang native, who wanted to be known only as Madam Lee, has visited Kusu Island each year during the pilgrimmage season for more than a decade — apart from the time when travel curbs were imposed by the Malaysian authorities during the pandemic.
Speaking to TODAY in Mandarin, the 68-year-old retiree said that she visits the Tua Pekong temple to pray for her health, her family’s business, and for abundant wealth.
Asked why she is willing to make the arduous trip — which involves an almost 10-hour bus ride from her hometown in Penang, followed by a half-an-hour ferry ride from mainland Singapore — Mdm Lee said the Tua Pekong Temple is believed to bring good luck.
“On our tour bus, without fail, two to three people will strike it big (in the lottery) every year following the trip,” said Mdm Lee, who herself had won a small sum in the past after returning home.
“We’re not in Singapore to tour or go on holiday,” she said, adding that they stay only for a night before making the long journey back home the next day each time.
Still, Mdm Lee finds the journey worth the trouble, and said that she will continue to make the trip every year, as long as she is healthy and able to do so.
Beyond its religious significance, the island also holds a special place in Mr Keith Tan’s heart.
The 30-year-old pharmacist, who was offering joss sticks in prayer at the Tua Pekong temple, told TODAY that as a child, he used to spend time on the island with his grandmother.
Big Sister’s Island, also known as Pulau Subar Laut (3.9ha), and Little Sister’s Island, otherwise known as Pulau Subar Darat (1.7ha), are collectively called the Sisters’ Islands.
While currently closed for enhancement works, the Sisters’ Islands are made up of two islands separated by narrow but deep channels.
Big Sister’s Island serves as a platform for conservation, outreach, education and recreation, while Small Sister’s Island, which is closed to the public, is zoned for conservation and research.
The Sisters’ Islands Marine Park — which is Singapore’s first marine park — comprises the two Sisters’ Islands, and the western reefs of both St John’s Island and Pulau Tekukor.
In 2024, Big Sisters’ Island will reopen to visitors with new features, including a coastal forest trail and a lagoon tidal pool.
Ms Pow E Lin, a Professional Association of Diving Instructors course director at Marlin Divers, told TODAY that she is looking forward to scuba diving again in the island’s waters.
If she is lucky, she may even spot the Neptune’s Cup sponge — a very rare giant sea sponge, once believed to be extinct — which she had hoped, but failed, to see on a previous dive.
The 42-year-old began visiting the Sisters’ Islands Marine Park to scuba dive after it opened in 2014, as Marlin Divers had been one of the few approved dive operators then.
“Every island has its unique underwater topography, and corals and marine life,” said Ms Pow, who recalled seeing “lots of feather stars in different colours” while diving at Sisters’ Islands previously.
Likewise, diving at Sisters’ Islands forms a core memory for 30-year-old nature enthusiast Abel Yeo.
Mr Yeo told TODAY that his first ever visit to the islands had been unintentional, as he had won a chance to join a guided walk there with NParks through a photography competition.
Since then, he has returned to Big Sister’s Island twice — once for a biodiversity survey on its intertidal zone, and the second, for a recreational dive around both the shallow and deep Marine Park dive trails. He had also visited Small Sister’s Island once, for a permitted biodiversity survey.
On his experience at Sisters’ Islands, Mr Yeo said: “Diving there was different for sure. The trail alone was a great initiative not seen on other islands.
“There is also plenty of site-specific reading material there to (help one) better understand the marine life diversity that Sisters’ Islands was allocated to protect. It really is a conservation-centric location,” said Mr Yeo.
He highlighted the conservation laws — that prohibit fishing, trappings, and camping for example – in place there, which are not applicable to the other Southern Islands.
Calling it a “marine life sanctuary where conservation is the priority,” Mr Yeo said he hopes to participate in any conservation programmes that may arise from the park’s enhancements, when it reopens next year.
For Ms Dina-Leigh Simons — a postgraduate researcher at the University of Liverpool’s Department of Earth, Ocean and Ecological Sciences — her visit in 2018 to the Sisters’ Islands Marine Park had been life-changing.
While she is from — and currently based in — the United Kingdom, Ms Simons had visited the park as part of a marine biology module during her undergraduate exchange programme at the National University of Singapore.
She told TODAY that her class and professor had visited the park to learn more about the different species residing there, and had spent a morning completing an intertidal biodiversity sampling in the marine reserve.
Responding to TODAY’s queries, a spokesperson from the Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) said that several “light touch ventures” — “augmenting recreation” on the Southern Islands to balance tourism appeal and conservation efforts — are being implemented on Lazarus and St John’s islands.
These would “retain the rustic charm” of the Southern Islands and encourage sustainability awareness and appreciation for the natural environment, the spokesperson added.
Enjoying the island’s new additions last Sunday afternoon were Ms Yeong, the educator, and her friend, Ms Yong Yee Ling, 45.
Ms Yeong said the pair would spend two nights in the tiny houses on the island. The first half of their trip would be dedicated to a silent retreat, while the rest of the time would be spent exploring and trying out the new water activities.
Asked why they had decided on the tiny houses for their brief getaway, Ms Yong, who is between jobs, said: “We were intrigued by the concept of these little cabins. We saw it overseas before, like in Australia, but I think it’s the first time in Singapore there is such a concept, so we thought of trying it out to get a taste of how it feels.”
Apart from the island’s new offerings, visitors can also read, rest and relax on its vast beaches, take a dip in the sea, rent a bicycle, or spend time camping outdoors at designated camping grounds, after securing the appropriate permits.
‘TOURISM AS A NATURAL CONSEQUENCE’
Experts told TODAY that the islands’ proximity to mainland Singapore could make them a prime location for domestic visitors seeking a quick, low-carbon getaway.
Prof Bhati of JCU said: “People have to find ways to let loose, to let down their worries and enjoy.
“Why do we need to go to other countries? Why can’t we go to islands close to Singapore — which are a 15, 20-minute, or half-an-hour ferry ride away — and just enjoy your weekends there?
Thus, the development of the Southern Islands offers an opportunity to promote low-carbon tourism next to or near mainland Singapore, “where Singaporeans don’t have to spend big bucks on flights, (yet) can go to these islands for tourism”, he said.
Mr Khoo of MasterConsult Services, added: “These islands are not that big, and really not suitable for large-scale industrial parks or housing developments, so the next most logical step would be to consider them for leisure purposes in the first instance, and then tourism as a natural consequence.”
Beyond serving as a day-trip destination or weekend getaway for domestic visitors, experts also spoke of the islands’ potential in propelling Singapore’s standing before international tourists.
If developed well, the enhanced offerings could even help Singapore to shed its reputation as a mere stopover or layover destination, the tourism experts added.
Dr Kevin Cheong, managing partner at placemaking and destination development advisory Syntegrate, said: “In Singapore’s city metropolis offering, one expects the compactness and accessibility to be our greatest advantage. This, however, may position Singapore as a destination that can be experienced in two to three days.
“The differentiated and contrasting position of the Southern Islands in the form of nature-based islands with rustic seclusion can help to shape tourists’ perception that Singapore is much more than a compact city of experiences.
“We must stop selling Singapore as a mere stopover or layover destination — we are not doing ourselves any justice.”
FINDING THE RIGHT BALANCE
While the Southern Islands have plenty of tourism potential, experts stressed the importance of striking a balance between development and conservation — and ensuring that new activities and built infrastructure do not detract from the islands’ original appeal, nor come at a hefty cost to the environment and biodiversity.
To this end, environmental experts and conservationists said that a holistic approach — by consistently monitoring the developments’ environmental impact, conducting regular stakeholder engagement sessions, and ensuring developers and businesses adopt sustainable best practices — is key.
Ms Sam Shu Qin, a co-founder of non-profit organisation Our Singapore Reefs, which champions efforts to protect Singapore’s coral reefs and marine biodiversity, said: “We have marine biodiversity around the Southern Islands and some of our marine life — corals, seagrasses — are very sensitive to environmental changes.”
As such, it is important to monitor the health of marine life in the area, and the water quality, which may be affected by pollution, construction activities or inadequate sewage and waste management.
“Due to logistical constraints and being offshore, waste management has to be monitored especially when coping with a high influx of visitors.”
Mr Lin, the NTU student who does “species hunting”, said: “I just hope that people can be more conscious about their impact on the environment. So the very first basic step is to not litter. And maybe when they are swimming around, try not to step too much on the corals, destroy habitats, or uproot the sea grass.
His friend Aiden added: “I’m quite happy that these islands are getting more appreciation through the activities that are being introduced.”
“But I hope this does not come at a cost where it negatively affects our marine ecosystem, which of course is irreplaceable and gravely underappreciated.”