Today’s Pulau Tekong is used exclusively as a training base for the Singapore Arm forces. It is home to the Basic Military Training Centre. In mid-1970s when I had my first camping on the island as a student, it was occupied by civilians who settled there for generations. We shared the wells with the local Malays who lived near our camp sites. I first tasted the challenge of using a bucket to scope water from the well. Also for the very first time, I saw men and women bathing themselves naked under the coconut trees.
In 1978 when I enlisted to Singapore Polytechnic, we called one of our classmates as Tekong simply because he came from Pulau Tekong. During weekdays, he stayed with his uncle in Bedok. Every morning, he caught bus number 2 to North Bridge Road, and changed to bus number 209 to Singapore Polytechnic (Dover Road campus). He had to spend more then 3 hours on public buses during school terms. During weekends, he would take a bumboat from Changi Point back to his hometown.
In 1981 when I served my national service, Pulau Tekong was occupied by a mixed of civilian residents and training troops. Pulau Tekong camp I and camp II were also used for reservists’ in-camp training for a short period during my national service days of which I was posted there as trainer for several months. Life on the island was rather boring. We had nothing better to do at night apart from gathering around the small canteen to watch TV programmes. Although the signal reception was poor, it was better than none. For many army boys, the main attraction would be to “xian-tau” with the canteen girl.
The canteen girl was about 20 years old then and like a blossom flower. She liked to wear white collarless T-shirt and green colour skirt. Sometime she pretended to be angry when being disturbed by the guys but turned to happy face once the guys apologised and bought more bottled drinks from her. The same scene kept repeating night after night. Those were the days for most of us in that growing up years.
Occasionally, we would explore the island for its beautiful nature and looked up for durians when the season was right. Most of the durian trees belonged to the local owners. It was illegal to pick those durians under their charge. We were mindful of the SAF acts and would only pick those durians at no-man land. Tekong durians were simply first class probably due to the soil and the sea breeze. They tasted better than D24.
At that time, we could travel to Pulau Tekong via bumboat from Changi Point or via RPL next to the Commando Camp at Hendon Road. The travelling times for bumboat and RPL were about 25 minutes and 45 minutes, respectively. Of course our preferred travelling mode was to pay $1.50 for the bumboat so that we could spend 20 minutes more on Singapore main land. On return trips, sometime we would stop at Tekong jetty and had a sumptuous meal at Tekong Seafood Restaurant before headed back to main land.
Whether spending my days on Pulau Tekong as a trainee or as a trainer, the common denominator was no training on Thursday night. There was a rumour spreading around that on a particular Thursday night, a soldier went missing during route march. The very next day when his lifeless body was found, his internal organs were exposed, citing the speculation that it was the work of supernatural being or might be just stomach rupture. Since then, his spirit would fly around the island on every Thursday night where many soldiers claimed that they had seen what not supposed to be seen. Whether ghostly encounter did happen was questionable because soldiers started to imagine and hallucinate about thing when under certain stress conditions. Nevertheless, it had become a classic Pulau Tekong ghost story.
Pulau Tekong appears in the Franklin and Jackson's 1828 Singapore map as Po. Takung where Takung might be a direct translation from the Malay word "tukar" which carries a meaning as “change”. The early name could have arisen because Pulau Tekong served as a trading station for both residents from nearby Pulau Ubin and the state of Johor.
Today’s Pulau Tekong is much larger then what it used to be because of land reclamation and joining Pulau Tekong Kechil with the main Tekong island. Land reclamation work at Pulau Tekong and Pulau Tekong Kechil had caused discomfort for Malaysia. Malaysia referred the reclamation issue to International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in July 2003. Subsequently, the tribunal ordered a year-long joint study on the issue. The conflict was resolved in April 2005 following a signing of agreement between the two countries. The agreement includes modifications of the island in "Area D". The signed agreement was sent to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea for final judgment.
There are two other significant events occurred on Pulau Tekong. On 29 May 1990, national servicemen spotted a family of three runaway Asian elephants. These elephants swam 1.5 km across the Straits of Johor and landed on Pulau Tekong. On 10 June, all three elephants were captured and relocated back to the jungle in Malaysia.
In March 2004, Pulau Tekong was the hiding place for three armed robbers. They fled from Malaysia, sparking off a massive manhunt involving RSAF helicopters, commandos, ground surveillance radar, troops from the 2nd Singapore Infantry Regiment and the Singapore Police Force. All three were caught by police officers; two by members of the Gurkha Contingent and one by the Police Coast Guard. They were later charged with illegal entry to Singapore.