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2 Dec 06
Islands of plenty
Kusu and St John's are priceless jewels for all Singaporeans
Down Under with Neil Humphreys email@example.com
I LOVE the public toilets on Kusu Island. In the last two years, I must have used their services more often than I used an ATM.
I had popped over to the sacred island in a desperate attempt to calm my nerves and save my internal organs from being sucked out via bodily waste. It was this newspaper's anniversary, and our fledgling band, of which I was a member, had been booked to entertain half of MediaCorp.
My role was pivotal. I played the tambourine. I was so nervous I spent the entire morning imprinting the toilet seat onto my bottom.
Out of desperation, I decided to visit Kusu Island because it was the ninth Lunar month and I thought the sea air might stop me emitting more noise than the brass section of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
It didn't work. The choppy waves had me sounding like a human trumpet, but I did fall in love with the island.
It is impossible not to like Kusu Island. Just 5.6km from Singapore, it's accessible, but remote: A decent size for a brisk, coastal walk, but intimate. The island has daft, but entertaining, legends about giant tortoises and shipwrecked sailors, an attractive Chinese temple, three keramats (shrines) at the top of a leafy hillock, undisturbed beaches, some snorkelling, a little indigenous wildlife and well-maintained, fully-functioning public facilities. I can testify to the last part. And so can my bottom.
Kusu is a tiny green jewel in Singapore's treasure chest and managed to take my mind off my rock music debut. It paid off. I never played the wrong note once on the tambourine.
Earlier this year, I returned to Kusu to research a travel book on Singapore. Out of season, the island was largely deserted except for half a dozen Germans with appalling taste in swimwear.
I eventually wrote in the book: "Rock stars are always bitching about travelling to the far ends of the Earth to find an exclusive beach … Nonsense. Come to Kusu Island. Privacy is guaranteed. No one will ever find you."
One or two civil servants might have taken those words rather literally.
For the book, I also ventured over to St John's Island for the first time. I went partly because I'd never been there, but largely because I'd read it had once been a cholera colony and I'm a macabre bugger. It wasn't just any cholera colony. This is Singapore, remember. It was one of the world's best. Around the 1930s, St John's was considered to be the largest quarantine centre.
I'm not sure why someone would want to compile such statistics, but there you go. It's certainly another one for the encyclopaedia: No 1 airport, No 1 public transport system, No 1 smiling campaign and No 1 centre for cholera victims. If that fun fact is not worthy of a National Heritage Board plaque, then frankly, I don't know what is.
I was hoping to stumble across the odd spooky cemetery or jump into a scene from The Blair Witch Project. Instead, I walked onto the set of Escape from Alcatraz. Whatever wildlife and rich biodiversity there was (and there was plenty), it was overshadowed by the barbed wire and the watchtowers around the former detention centre.
Unimpressed, I wrote in the book that whatever redevelopment plans the Gahmen had for St John's Island, they should be executed quickly. But I never expected this.
Like some Singaporeans, I was utterly bewildered by the announcement this week of plans to turn six of the southern islands into a playground for the super-rich.
Apparently, Sentosa Cove is not enough for the yachting class so the city-state's tiny size must accommodate another private resort.
Competing with premier city destinations like Dubai, Singapore may well need to woo the high-end tourist dollar, but it must also reserve enough space for Singaporeans, young and old, to roam around a bit.
As someone who has long recognised the commendable efforts made to preserve, and enhance, the greenery of this unique garden city, it comes as a shock that the predictable Dubai route is now being advocated.
Considering they are part of a country that will always be limited by its geography, the southern islands offer so much potential. They could really be developed into something special for all Singaporeans to share.
Neil Humphreys is the author of the Singapore best-seller Final Notes from A Great Island. Being a Singapore travel book, it includes the southern islands.
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