The shores of Singapore were once dominated by forests of mangroves, accounting for some 13% of the land area at the time of the arrival of the British. A substantial portion of the mangroves have since been lost through development and land reclamation, and today, only small concentrations of the watery forests can be found on mainland Singapore, occupying less than 1% of the land area.

The much maligned mangroves are seen as mosquito infested swamps in which one has to hold one’s breath, with little economic benefit. What we don’t often see however, are that Mangroves are important ecosystems and a habitat for the rich diversity of plants and animals, and are important as a nursery for young aquatic life, as well as a natural barrier that protects our shores from erosion.

The island’s northern coast was especially rich in mangroves and it was in the mangroves of the north, that the Orang Seletar, the nomadic boat dwellers of the Johor Strait, lived off and found shelter in. Much of the mangroves were lost through the course of the 19th century as plantations extended their reach northwards and into the 20th century, when the construction of the air base at Seletar and the naval base at Sembawang saw large tracts of the intertidal forests being cleared and today only a fraction of the watery forests of the Orang Seletar are still with us.

One large concentration that I found myself in, during my search for stories that the shores hold for Points of Departure, was the magical patch found at the estuary of Sungei Khatib Bongsu. One of the last un-dammed rivers of the north, the estuarine channels of the right bank of its pristine lower reaches is where one finds an area of much natural beauty.

The labyrinth of its tree shaded channels, as well as the remnants of its more recent prawn farming past, makes the mangrove forest an especially interesting place to take a kayak through. In the silence of the waterways, the sounds that are heard are the chants that its many avian residents sing. The rich collection of winged creatures in the mangroves’ population, includes several species that are at risk of disappearing altogether, as has been the case of the traces of its previous human population and a colony of Black-crowned Night Herons.

The herons, victims of measures intended to control the mangrove’s mosquitoes, will not return, nor will the Orang Seletar. The arrival of the modern world as well as the establishment of previously non-existent national boundaries, made it difficult for the people of the strait to continue a way of life that had survived for centuries.

Across the strait, the people of the strait in Johor have since moved ashore, where several Orang Asli Seletar communities have been established. In Singapore however, there is little that is left to remind us of Orang Seletar who in moving ashore, have been assimilated into the wider Malay community.

It may not be long before Khatib Bongsu loses the mangroves that give it its magic. Part of an area designated as South Simpang, it seems destined to be buried under a future public housing development in the form of Simpang New Town, despite previously being listed as a nature area for conservation.

There is also the possibility of a dam being built that will cut the river off from the sea, as part of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) plan to increase Singapore’s freshwater resources. The Seletar-Serangoon Scheme put forward by the PUB involves the impounding of Sungei Khatib Bongsu, Sungei Simpang and Sungei Seletar to create the Coastal Seletar Reservoir, which the mangroves will certainly not survive.

The work to do this was to coincide with the planned reclamation of the foreshore at both Simpang and Sembawang. This could commence as early as next year and with that, the stories the mangroves now tell, will only be heard as echoes of the past.

About the Orang Seletar and the strait:

In a 2002 paper, “Singapore's Orang Seletar, Orang Kallang, and Orang Selat: The Last Settlements”, Mariam Ali provides us with some insights into the Orang Seletar on both sides of the strait, in the days after national boundaries were established:

Some of the Orang Seletar who live in the south coast of Johor can trace social linkages to Singapore. Observers have established the presence of different bands of Orang Seletar in the Straits of Johor. According to Carey there were three major groups in 1971 – two settlements in Johor and a small one in Singapore. They numbered about 200 in all and each division was also noted by Thomson as early as 1847. Ariffin estimated that the Orang Seletar in Johor numbered 514 individuals in 1977, living in four different communities. In Singapore, as Orang Seletar told Ariffin that there were six to seven families related to him who had moved into flats and who were identified as Malays. These, according to Ariffin may have amounted to between 32 and 38 individuals.

In the same paper, the author also describes how life may have been for the Orang Seletar in Singapore:

For a long time, the Orang Seletar in Singapore had lived a nomadic life in the mangrove swamps on the river banks found on both sides of the Johor Straits. The following is an account by Ayong (a Chinese man who married a Orang Seletar woman and lived among the Orang Seletar), who lived with Tema on the boat up to 1975:

Last time (i.e. formerly) when we live on boats, we row the boats non-stop from six in the evening to six in the morning. Turn by turn. Say I row for three hours, then you row. You do the cooking, after cooking, I have my meal first. After makan (eating), I rest for half an hour. Then I continue to row the boat. After my turn at rowing, I fish from inside the boat ...

We would sell things and with the money we buy rice, sugar or coffee. We keep (them) in the boat. Buy more of rice. We don’t have to buy vegetables and fish. Chicken we buy. Only fish, prawns and crabs we don’t have to buy. Sometimes we get fed up with this food, we don’t want to eat them. Only eat vegetables and some chicken and meat of what. When I first followed them, it was very difficulty ...

To stay (i.e. live) in the boat, first I was to stay inside from night to morning, cannot sleep. Mosquito bites, children all cry through the night. Inside the boat, the boat was about this size. The boat was covered with kajang (a woven palm-leaf). If it rain, the leaf leaks. If heavy or choppy sea, we hide inside the river. The river is small, and a lot of mosquitoes. Do cooking or set some fire, or what lah. We all start living on land eleven years already, starting 1975 or 1973.

An extract of the feebback provided by Nature Society (Singapore) feedback in relation to Khatib Bongsu to the URA in November 2013:

Present here is the endangered mangrove tree species, Lumnitzera racemosa, listed in the Singapore Red Data Book (RDB). Growing plentifully by the edge and on the mangrove is the Hoya diversifolia. On the whole the mangrove here is extensive and healthy, with thicker stretches along Sg Khatib Bongsu and the estuary of Sg Seletar.

A total of 185 species of birds, resident and migratory, have been recorded at the Khatib Bongsu area. This comes to 49 % of the total number of bird species in Singapore (376, Pocket Checklist 2011, unpublished ) – almost comparable to that at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. 13 bird species found here are listed in the RDB and among these are: Rusty-breasted Cuckoo, Straw-headed Bulbul, Ruddy Kingfisher, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Changeable Hawk Eagle, White-chested Babbler, etc. The Grey-headed Fish Eagle and the Changeable Hawk eagle are nesting in the Albizia woodlands in this area.

The mangrove dependent species present are : Crab-eating Frog, Dog-faced Water Snake & Malaysian Wood Rat. The Malaysian Wood Rat is regarded is locally uncommon. In 2000, Banded Krait (RDB species) was found here near the edge mangrove. Otters, probably the Smooth Otter, have been sighted by fishermen and birdwatchers in the abandoned fish ponds and the Khatib Bongsu river.