The mangroves east of the pier at the end of Lim Chu Kang Road celebrated the nation's 47th birthday with little style and much less substance than usual, having endured a recent trampling that relieved the mud of much of its artificial burdens. The roadward fringe of this remnant swamp is lined by shacks and statues erected by men who frequent this neglected corner of the island to fish, forage and find respite from a city built on chance and still pushing its luck. A coastguard station watches over this stretch of the Tebrau Strait, but the law of the jungle probably looms larger in this cul-de-sac between threatened farmland and a floating belt of neo-artisanal fisheries.
A derelict housing estate still stands at the junction of Neo Tiew and Lim Chu Kang Roads, serving the needs of urban warriors who train in nearby camps and march before their peers. There was, until recently, a dormitory for foreign workers across the road from the crumbling flats, but the men who build this country now reside in fresh quarters a mile or so south, at lodges nestled amid packed cemeteries and an egg farm. Every 15-30 minutes, a bus or two plies the eight-lane thoroughfare, which doubles as a military runway, providing access to towns in the boondocks of the west. But a substantial number of workers turned down the chance to party on National Day, preferring to hunker down on the wayside, by the ditch in the shade of young trees, to dine, drink and dream of the land they left for this.
A few others, tiring perhaps of manufactured grub, had made their way to the pier, where they cast a small net into the water by the planks. The sea here appears grey and grim, but the soft flats bubble with life invisible and bodies in infinite arrangements: buried clams, tunnelling worms, benthic fish and soft shore crabs comb the substratum for tinier creatures and minute cells that feed on the waste of the trees and the dropping of a littoral wood. Each throw of the mesh thus drew in a handful of estuarine catfish, which the men kept, and several smaller pelagics, which were flung back. Archerfish, mullet and shoals of perchlets darted over the foreshore, whose slopes offer a convenient, if dicey, loading bay for seafood merchants. Apart from a bevy of weekend anglers, there were also two men of Malay extract, who plunged into the murky shallows and returned with strings of green mussels, which they sorted under the sun, ditching undersized valves and hoarding the chewable portions. One of the netters passed by, holding a small Portunus by its claws. Both crab and catcher endured a few snaps of interest, before the crustacean suffered a soaking end to its inhumane adventure.
The walk back to solid ground passed a large plastic basket, one corner of which hid an adult palm civet, cowering. Watching over the tightly secured receptacle was a burly man, who revealed in curt phrases that the animal was meant to be a pet. A severe affection for the creature was evident, in the way he lavished faint attention upon his prize and the tone of possessive suspicion he wielded as his eyes flicked towards his ride. But before the owner had a chance to consider an offer he could refuse with no consequences, a small launch slid alongside the pier and the man quickly took off with his belongings.
With equal impunity but driven by a different appetite, an excitable boy and his sporting mother, clad in wellies and armed with hand nets, braved the mud beyond the mangroves. Their curiosity was rewarded with a tankful of sand bubblers and red-clawed fiddler crabs, which the two brought ashore for closer inspection. A loose swarm of large green dragonflies also occupied this zone of contention between the earth and its enmities, but the libellulids were far too alert and active to be captured, despite settling on low twigs and tolerating near brushes with slow fingers. Smaller arthropods and legless segments crept in the shadows below the trees, which bore on their trunks a tangle of petals in pale pink. The vines, spurred perhaps by a wave of heat and aseasonal desperation, are in bloom across the island, in the swamps of Punggol, by the trails of Sungei Buloh and on the edges of Pulau Ubin. These delicate beauties, for all their intensity of purpose and timeliness of celebration, are alas too light a beast for citizens with weightier concerns and too fleeting a sight to hold their own in the reckoning of a coast whose future is all but secured by a climate of doubt.