Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Light Above Pedra Branca

There is a Light
above a Rock
called Pedra Branca
and I hope it will burn forever bright.

Burning, I hope, not so much a guiding star for sailors, but for the people I belong to: Singaporeans.

Indeed, for me, Horsburgh Lighthouse, stands out not so much as an engineering feat than as a monument; a monument to the people who built it. They were our first dream team ever - a team comprising none other than the Malays, Indians, Chinese and Caucasians. And you know, wrought they did their finest mettle against the 'first test' to build a common light together. It was, as I found out, a task exceedingly difficult and seemingly impossible in so many ways.

With only sail-driven ships, raw human muscles and simplest of wooden rigs, planks and lashings, they transferred and hoisted huge pre-hewn granite blocks (doughnut-shaped sections originating from Pulau Ubin) onto steep treacherous rocks against the rough open seas and getting caught out often in the middle of tempestuous storms tossed by wind and waves, or tormented by the blistering sun otherwise.

However, the most difficult of all is the barrier of mistrust and misunderstanding confronted by the different ethnic groups working together in tight confines for the very first time. Fortunately, the situation managed to resolved unto itself (after some very bitter start); a job had to be done, and it finally got done. The final capping of the finished product must have been a very sweet moment for every hand on deck and rock, I can imagine.

In year 2002, I first learned in detail of the struggle of this first dream team in a neat little booklet entitled "The Horsburgh Lighthouse" by John Hall-Jones. My heart naturally went out to the workers, many of whom did not even know what they were in for and left with no choice marooned on a rock.

John's writing, in particular, left a big gaping void that could otherwise have contributed to our understanding of the workers' predicament and their psychology as a migrant worker looking for a better life or that of a convict worker hoping for a much cherished pardon. It was obviously a book much-ado with Thomson the man and the lighthouse he designed and built. John's characterization of the workers could have been less harsh at times, I felt, had he understood how no one (given a choice) would want to put one's life at risk for a job.

So it was with great personal satisfaction that I finally found (in the Epilogue) the photo and description of a silver farewell testimonial presented to Thomson 'by a group of leading citizens of Singapore' that I felt honoured the sweat and blood of these humble workers themselves, albeit in a very subtle yet respectable manner. We will never know who designed this beautifully intricate epergne, but I bet he certainly felt in his heart (like I did) the injustice of the underdogs and gave them back the credit they deserved.

My Own Epilogue

All this searching came about in 2002 because having been told of stories of indentured workers working the quarries at Pulau Ubin, I visited some of their unmarked graves. I remembered feeling very sad seeing them for the first time. They were graves with no names; unmarked gravestones of poor souls who died alone and whose last thought must have been the home across the seven seas they never got back to. I had made a promise then to write something in their remembrance. This I do here. To the indentured workers and convict labourers, we owe you lots.

In conclusion, whatever false start the first dream team have had, they certainly pulled themselves together quickly to weather the storm and conquered positively with resolution and endurance. They must have learned a lot working together and I believe we can learn a lot from them too. It is more than a lighthouse we inherited; it is a light that will burn forever bright to guide us in our multiracial society today.

Footnote: If we can spend tens of millions obtaining sunken Tang Dynasty Treasures to depict the history of our maritime trade, why not seriously consider repossessing this little silver of burning light for our future generations. I believe, it is presently with the descendants of John Turnbull Thomson in New Zealand.

Other information: Mok Ly Yng on "Horsburgh Lighthouse: 160th Anniversary" (Sat 15 Oct 2011)

Description of the Silver Epergne in the booklet: Before he departed a group of leading citizens of Singapore banded together to present him with a silver testimonial in appreciation of his service to the Settlement. A unique and intricate silver epergne was fashioned by a master of the craft and presented to Thomson on the eve of his departure in August 1853. Significantly it was engraved with etchings of the Pedra Branca rock and the Horsburgh Lighthouse and surrounded with figures to represent the Chinese, Indians and Malays who had worked under him.


WK Tan said...

I enjoyed this piece of Singapore
history about Horsburgh Lighthouse
very much.
Your readers may also like to know
there was a special commemorative
set of Singapore stamps --
featuring Horsburgh Lighthouse,
Raffles Lighthouse and Sultan
Shoal Lighthouse -- issued in Aug

Incidentally, Raffles Lighthouse
was also featured on the first
Singapore gold coin -- the 1969
$150 coin -- issued in tandem with
Singapore's 150th Anniversary of
its founding.
tan wee kiat

Joe Lai said...

Thank you very much, Dr. Tan. These stamps and coins are very interesting indeed.

Anonymous said...

I always learn something new from your post!Great article. I wish I could write so well.

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Joe Lai said...

Thank you very much for your kind words. I always believe everyone can write. Anne Frank said, 'How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment, we can start now, start slowly changing the world!' You can do it. Just start now, write! Be perfectly imperfect as can be but straight from the heart. That will be a good start. : )