A Spotlight on Singapore’s Underappreciated Islands

Singapore might be many things, but a bastion of geographical diversity is not one of them. Sure, like many cities, there’s a Little India and a Chinatown, heritage buildings and skyscrapers, public parks and business hubs. But for all the swoonsome destination architecture in the Downtown Core, its suburban development is underpinned by an undeniable homogeneity. This is a heartland of neatly manicured flatness, HDB towers and cookie-cutter malls, whether you happen to be in its northernmost towns such as Yishun or HarbourFront in the south.

Though many visitors—and even some residents—don’t realize it, there’s an easy antidote to the uniformity of Singapore’s streetscapes readily available to anyone willing to step off the ever-expanding main island of Pulau Ujong. What’s more, these islands, both natural and artificial, serve up some of the country’s most rewarding, scenic and affordable day trips, not to mention a serious dose of history. In this bicentennial year, marking two centuries since Sir Stamford Raffles transformed the fate of this city, here’s a guide to some of Singapore’s most overlooked and underappreciated island experiences.

The old days are not quite gone on Pulau Ubin
The old days are not quite gone on Pulau Ubin

Pulau Ubin: Old town nostalgia

As Singapore develops at a breakneck pace, ushering forth wave after wave of pristine ultramodernity, there’s one place within its national boundaries where construction sites and cranes remain happily absent, and the vintage landscapes of mid-century kampung (village) life are reliably intact.

Chek Jawa Wetlands
Chek Jawa Wetlands

Though long championed as a city escape, Pulau Ubin is still underrated: This unspoiled, authentic rustic idyll is not merely a window into a fading world, but a living, breathing mini-universe where life goes on much as it did in the days before independence.

In the modest village surrounding the jetty, past a row of stores renting out bicycles to day-trippers — and before the Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Temple and popular Season Live Seafood restaurant — drop by the Cheong Lian Yuen coffee shop. In this vintage café, the walls are bedecked with fascinating monochrome time capsules of the island in the 1960s, when the Bin Kiang School still operated here, before the population gradually began flocking to fast-developing Pulau Ujong.

Free-roaming monkeys are among the island’s inhabitants
Free-roaming monkeys are among the island’s inhabitants

From here you can lose yourself amid an array of circuitous eastbound routes leading toward the Chek Jawa Wetlands. Along shaded paths with names like Jalan Durian, you’ll pass quintessentially tropical palm-fringed ponds, an orchard, abandoned quarries, cemeteries, wild-boar-inhabited woodland, an observation tower and the multicolored Malay houses of a tiny settlement. Quite apart from its aesthetic qualities, Ubin acts both as a nature reserve and a conservation area: fearless monkeys cluster around trees, monitor lizards moodily patrol the forest and rare birds such as the majestic white-bellied sea eagle and oriental pied hornbill make their homes in towering treetops.

Free-roaming monkeys are among the island’s inhabitants
Free-roaming monkeys are among the island’s inhabitants

At Chek Jawa, a circular boardwalk ushers visitors around a seascape populated by frenzied mudskippers and crabs — a vantage point where the sight of the skyscraper-strewn landscape across the water suddenly seems strangely surreal.

Pesta Ubin, a month-long celebration of the island, starts May 18 and includes activities such as heritage tours, nature trails, kayaking and cycling (more information can be found at fb.com/pulauubinday).

Pulau Serangoon (Coney Island): Beachside amusement

A wild boar not quite living up to its name
A wild boar not quite living up to its name

In the mid-20th century, a wave of theme parks arrived in Singapore with names like Great World, Gay World and Wonderland, offering a colorful mix of fairground rides, food markets, circus attractions and puppet shows. In the midst of this new thirst for entertainment, an Indian businessman named Ghulam Mahmood acquired an island just south of Malaysia from the Burmese tycoon brothers responsible for both Tiger Balm ointment and the island’s creepiest theme park, Haw Par Villa. His grand scheme was to turn Pulau Serangoon into an Eastern counterpart to New York’s Coney Island resort.

 A sandy stretch of beach on Coney Island
A sandy stretch of beach on Coney Island

While the name “Coney Island” stuck, this plan, like those of subsequent owners, came to nothing. Instead, the land was reclaimed and expanded, with a stretch of sand added to its western flank, before bridges were built to connect it to the mainland. The island was finally reopened to the public in 2015 and became an overnight sensation among avid Instagrammers. Curiosity seekers went on the lookout for a solitary Brahman bull (sadly now deceased) that had mysteriously ended up there, ruminating among casuarina trees ordinarily frequented by exotic birds such as orioles, kingfishers and blue-throated bee-eaters.

There are over 80 species of birds in the park
There are over 80 species of birds in the park

Though the remote beachside park has appeal aplenty in its own right, with its overriding tranquility, cycle path and a family of otters, it’s the dusk walk back to civilization via Punggol Jetty — one of Singapore’s finest sunset spots — and Punggol Waterway Park — one of its most scenic boardwalks — that really seals the deal.

Chinese Garden: Romantic surprise

Restaurants and retail establishments at the Punggol Settlement
Restaurants and retail establishments at the Punggol Settlement

This stop-off in the western suburbs could have been a disaster: an ersatz approximation of imperial-era China built in 1975 by a Taiwanese architect on an artificial island. Yet this traditionally inclined lake island — set amid unlikely industrial environs —
adds up to an exceptionally romantic excursion: stone lions, pavilions, pagodas, a Suzhou-style courtyard, bonsai exhibits, fish ponds and a tea house are among its prominent features.

A beachside walk
A beachside walk

The garden was designed to remain scrupulously faithful to the timeless tropes of Chinese horticultural art, and its marquee attraction is the Peking-style “Double Beauty” bridge that elegantly crosses the lake near the entrance. While you’ll doubtless
be preoccupied with photographing this entrancing structure, a stroll across it reaps huge dividends, for the southern side opens up to parkland complete with a show-stopping red bridge, guesthouse and garden, landscaped along Japan’s medieval template.

Singapore’s government declared this stunning expanse the nation’s “new national gardens in the heartlands”, with a first phase of upgrades completed in spring 2019: belated recognition for what is one of the city’s most unsung and undeniably lovely open-air experiences.    

Kusu Island, St John’s Island and Lazarus Island: Southern beauty

Coney Island is connected to the mainland via bridges on its eastern and western ends
Coney Island is connected to the mainland via bridges on its eastern and western ends

Adrift in the Singapore Strait, the Southern Islands are a chain of eight wildly diverse land masses ranging from the obscure and uninhabited (Sisters’ Islands) to the mass-touristy and overdeveloped (Sentosa). In between these two extremes, Kusu and St John’s represent the chain’s quirkier, historical side. Shrouded in polytheistic folklore — and once a burial site for disease-stricken immigrants — Kusu (also known as “Turtle Island”) was an early example of the city’s penchant for reclamation, redeveloped in 1975 from two outcrops into a beach-enhanced islet.

Thankfully Kusu retained its century-old temple, shaded by a fanning palm, that remains its centerpiece and annually receives more than 100,000 Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian pilgrims. Three yellow kramat, or Malay shrines, stand above it at the top of 152 steps (marked “Datok Kong”), commemorating three members of a pious family. Though only suitable for the physically fit, it’s a worthwhile trek back in time that encapsulates Singapore’s studious embrace of multiculturalism.

St John’s, 15 minutes away by ferry, was reputed to be Sir Stamford Raffles’ anchorage point in 1819, but its distance from the city lent it the unenviable status of a quarantine station, leper colony, drug-rehab center and penal settlement in the early to mid-1900s.

A 1975 refurb transformed St John’s into a weekend island complete with lagoons, beaches, trekking routes and a homestay; neighboring Lazarus Island, whose Maldives-esque waters and beaches are rarely trodden, can also be visited from here.

Prayerful pilgrims and visitors to the temple on Kusu
Prayerful pilgrims and visitors to the temple on Kusu

More mysterious isles

Of Singapore’s 60 or so islands, most are uninhabited or otherwise largely deserted and unused, a result of their inaccessibility or distance from the mainland — or, in the case of Pulau Tekong, because it has been turned over for military use. Despite the challenges of getting there, some of these islands could still make for an interesting day out.

Pulau Tekong: Into the wild

Closer to Malaysia than the Singapore mainland, this mangrove-rich island’s current status as a military training site belies its colorful history. As the largest of Singapore’s islands after Pulau Ujong, it once hosted a sizable, primarily Hakka Chinese population who worked on agricultural land among rubber plantations, wild pigs and deer. But as the landscape developed — in a telling foreshadowing of Singapore’s all-consuming urbanization — work opportunities dwindled, wildlife diminished and the last inhabitants left in 1987.

A walkway leads visitors over the water to the temple
A walkway leads visitors over the water to the temple

Despite being emptied of human residents, Tekong didn’t stop making headlines. In 1990, three Asian elephants swam onto the island across the Straits of Johor before being repatriated to the Malaysian jungle. In 2004, meanwhile, three armed robbers who fled Malaysia were captured there after a huge manhunt. One unexpected knock-on effect of Tekong’s ongoing expansion is that its Sanyongkong Field Camp has provided sanctuary for rare species such as the Sunda slow loris and even the endangered pangolin.

Pulau Hantu: Mysterious haunt

“Ghost Island” has had the most unlikely evolution of any Singaporean island. Made up of twin islets, Pulau Hantu was the site of ferocious battles between Malay warriors, two of whom were immortalized in the names of its constituent parts (Kechil and Besar, or “small” and “big”, since one warrior was superior in size). Now, it’s arguably the nation’s best-kept maritime secret: a sort of Singaporean mini-Siargao, it’s become a favorite of in-the-know weekend divers and snorkelers entranced by a thriving ecosystem that includes seahorses, nudibranchs, clownfish, damselfish and mushroom coral. Visibility isn’t great — at best, divers report, one can only see about three meters out — but that doesn’t deter hobbyists looking to get their scuba fix on a weekend.

The Kusu Chinese temple (pictured here at low tide) is about a century old
The Kusu Chinese temple (pictured here at low tide) is about a century old

Pulau Semakau: Conservation at work

Normally, if someone suggested you visit a landfill, you’d tell them it was a rubbish idea. But Pulau Semakau, southwest of Sentosa, has achieved the rare distinction of combining a high-tech dump with a conservation area rich in coral, marine life and rare birds. After trash is incinerated in plants islandwide, the ash is transported to Tuas in Pulau Ujong’s far west before being loaded onto barges and steered to Semakau. Though you might not expect this to be the most conducive environment for nature, these waters receive plenty of animal guests, including great-billed herons, otters, starfish, turtles and sea bass.

Pulau Satumu: Light from afar

Singapore’s southernmost island, tiny Satumu lies halfway to the Indonesian industrial hub of Batam and holds serious bragging rights as it’s closed to the public except for occasional tour offers. Hang in there, though, as the gleaming white Raffles Lighthouse — made using granite from Pulau Ubin — is a historic (but still-functioning) curio from 1855 that will instantly boost your Instagram kudos.

Recreational water sports off St John’s Island
Recreational water sports off St John’s Island

How to get there

  • Pulau Ubin. Travel to Tanah Merah station, on the East-West MRT line, and climb on a number 2 bus to Changi Village. Alight at the final stop, walk the short distance to Changi Point Ferry Terminal, wait for a ferry and pay the boatman S$3 (P115) for the 10-minute crossing to Ubin.
  • Pulau Serangoon (Coney Island). Take a train to Punggol MRT station or Damai LRT (light trail) station, walk north along Punggol Road, around the coastline (past the Punggol Settlement restaurants), then cross the bridge to enter Coney Island.   
  • Chinese Garden. Take a train to Chinese Garden station on the East-West MRT line, alight and walk the short distance that’s clearly marked towards the garden.
  • Kusu, St John’s and Lazarus islands. Visit Marina South Pier, next to the station of the same name on the North-South MRT line, and buy a ticket from one of the booths. Two-way services run throughout the day and cost S$18 (P690) for adults. To visit Lazarus, turn right at the St John’s pier and walk for around 10 minutes to the connecting causeway.

Cebu Pacific flies to Singapore from Manila, Cebu, Davao, Iloilo, and Clark. cebupacificair.com

This article first appeared in the May 2019 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

Jonathan Evans

Photographed by

Mark Teo

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