Keeper of light

Source: The Straits Times  10 Mar 2014

Wednesday, Mar 12, 2014
Toh Yong Chuan
The Straits Times

SINGAPORE – The colonial-style building has a private jetty where a 20m luxury yacht can dock and a dining room with a 180-degree sea view. A private beach lined with coconut trees is just steps away.

“I can have morning coffee facing the sunrise. For dinner, I just turn my chair around to see the sunset,” said Mr Syed Hassan of his outdoor dining patio, which is about the size of two squash courts.

But unlike those who have paid tens of millions of dollars for their Sentosa Cove bungalows, the 65-year-old has not forked out a single cent for the seafront home.

He is a lighthouse keeper and the oldest in Singapore.

For days at a time, he resides in Raffles Lighthouse on Pulau Satumu, Singapore’s southernmost island, which is a 45-minute boat ride from the mainland. As part of a little-known eight-man crew, he helps to maintain the country’s collection of five lighthouses.

These include the famous Horsburgh on Pedra Branca and the unmanned Bedok Lighthouse. The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) announced in January that the latter will move from the top of Lagoon View condominium to a block of public flats in Marine Terrace. Sultan Shoal, which is also unmanned, Pulau Pisang and Raffles round up the quintet.

Mr Hassan and his lighthouse comrades take care of the latter pair, working in two-man teams.

They rotate with 10-day blocks, doing a stint at the lighthouses followed by an equally long break on the mainland.

Life on the island is not lacking in modern amenities despite the lighthouse being 159 years old. There is electricity, as well as airconditioning, drinking water, sewerage facilities and even a 3G mobile network. M1’s signal on the island is the best, said Mr Hassan.

But the biggest challenge is battling loneliness.

There are few visitors because the island – about the size of two football fields – is off limits to the public.

“But we have racoons, monitor lizards, turtles and dolphins that visit us,” he said.

“Once, we even found a shark in the lagoon.”

Work is generally uneventful and the occasional storms are about as exciting as the job gets.

Having a colleague for company keeps him sane.

“If we don’t have anyone to talk to for even one day, we end up talking to ourselves and we can get mad,” he quipped.

That is why it is important to keep to a routine and remain occupied daily. His day starts before sunrise, when he hoists a flag to signal to passing ships that lighthouse keepers are on watch.

“We do a lot of housekeeping because this is our second home,” he said. “We cook, do laundry, do gardening and even burn our own rubbish because there is no trash collection service.”

Armed with a pair of binoculars, he spends most of the day perched on a spot with a commanding view of ships that pass through the southern limits of Singapore’s territorial waters, while keeping in touch with MPA’s operations centre.

From sunset to midnight, he does hourly checks to ensure that the lighthouse’s revolving beacon which guides passing ships is working.

Many nights are also spent thinking about his family. Despite having been on the job for 12 years since he was retrenched as an administration worker with soft-drinks maker Yeo Hiap Seng, he still misses his wife, five grown-up daughters and four grandchildren.

“I’ve lost count of the number of birthdays I’ve missed, including my own,” he said.

When The Straits Times visited Raffles Lighthouse two weeks ago, he disclosed that a colleague recently quit.

“This job is not for everyone. It is suitable for those who are older, and definitely not if they have young children,” said the secondary school graduate.

But the perks of having fresh air and a relatively stress-free job have kept him going and will continue to. “I don’t spend any money here and I don’t have to take the crowded buses and MRT to work,” he said with a laugh, adding: “I am also never late for work.”

And of course, the breathtaking view every day does not hurt. “Where else in Singapore can you see such an unobstructed and beautiful sunrise and sunset from the same spot, with the sea, ships and clouds as the backdrop? The view is priceless.”