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"Balik Pulau" - Exploring Singapore's island heritage

A new exhibition sheds light on what life was like for those who lived on Singapore's offshore islands. 

SINGAPORE: While many know Singapore as a sunny island, not many are aware that it is an archipelago once made up of more than 70 islands. In recognition of this rich culture, this year's Singapore Heritage Festival (July 18 to 27) is themed "Our Islands, Our Home".

Ahead of the event, the National Museum of Singapore has launched an exhibition titled "Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore's Islands". Visitors will be able to gain a better understanding of how islanders lived, worked and played, through video interviews, historical images and artefacts.

While some islands like St John's Island, Pulau Ubin and Sentosa have become popular getaways for busy urbanites, many are lesser known. For example, Pulau Seking was the site of the last kampung in the Southern islands, and it was linked to Pulau Semakau to form Semakau Landfill.

82-year-old Teo Yan Teck once ran a provision shop in Pulau Seking with his elder brother Yen Eng. They had lived on the island for close to 40 years, from 1955 to 1994, and were sad when they had to be re-settled to make way for the landfill. "At that time, we had to burn our fishing boat as there was no space to put it,” said Mr Teo. “I miss fishing on the island. The scenery and environment were good."

Indeed, as many of the islands have been transformed beyond recognition, stories like Mr Teo's become valuable links to the past. "We are always looking for new ways to work with communities and to find lesser known nuggets of interesting stories about Singapore. It's about treasuring what we have today, and appreciating what we had before as well,” said Ms Angelita Teo, director of the National Museum of Singapore. “Singapore has to move on, we have to develop in a global world. But it's also very important to hold on to our roots and to remember where we came from."

The exhibition, which runs till August 10, also highlights boat racing as an integral part of island life. These races took place regularly in the Southern islands until the 1970s, and attracted skilled sailors from the islands and even nearby Indonesia.

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