The city seems to fade as one sails further from shore. First, the towers lose their colours, turning pale blue and grey and merging into one another, a wall of steel, glass and fibre that separates the sea from the country that grew into it. Then the buildings become phantoms, a long, thin line of unresolved forms and irregular tidings, and for a while, the sky appears to reign over the town that tried to scrape it away, to hide the heavens behind its heights and reach for the stars without losing its fear of flying.
But the launch soon enters the confines of a different city, slightly less dense than the one grounded in illusion but still largely defined by the utility of every square mile, an archipelago of filled lands and reclaimed seas: factories, bunkers, cranes, berths, chimneys, smokestacks and crackers that labour under a thick, dark cloud of their own making. Once a passage of distance, a gateway to a middle earth between the far east and the furious west, the straits has shrunk as its reach has grown, as beaches and bays are buried under breakwaters and bunds, as the coast crawls out to engulf its shoals, and ships from three oceans now converge and compete to drop anchor by channels with little room for manoeuvre and no margins for error.
From their vessels, sailors from colder lands descend into workcraft that forward them to piers in the middle of nowhere, at the oddest of hours, to check out their bags and lose their bearings in long rides to town. These mariners will find a country where the sea has grown distant, its people detached and detained in high places, its fairways displaced and diverted to ports with few ways in and placed way too far and apart for citizens to remember what it's like to live on an island, to run from street to shore, to flee from the tide, to float on the waves, wade in the wrack and sleep with the sound of the wind in their beds.
The straits has shrunk as its isles rose in power and industry to devour their reefs and drive their children into exile, into unchartable territories where the flats have no fish and the sky is a hole in the wall, a space with a price but no sense of place. Reduced to roads, avenues and byways nourished by a link to an insatiable hinterland, the islands that guarded the straits have traded their spot in the sun for a world of strangers in a paradise lost to gain and razed from the memory of its makers. The islands where Singapore began are now footnotes and furnaces, plants and plots, the heartland of an economy built on the fringes of the lion city and sustained by an appetite for heavy fuel.
The islands where Singapore began have been pushed away and back, consigned to the very end of a country that is all at sea but never quite at home in waters that may be captured but refuse to be tamed. Every attempt to land on these remnants of a wetter age is thus fraught, a step into clear and prescient dangers and a surrender to the elements, to the mercy of freak storms, stray tides, bleak slopes and a moat of weed and rubble – the welcome mat to a field of dreams gone bad and to seed. Every approach to these banks is an exercise in caution, a glimpse into depths that peak without warning and graze the bottom of fragile craft with living glass and limestone, followed up clumsy flops and stiff lurches toward the highest, sometimes the only, rock in a basin of coral and sand, a pan of ripples in a near-forgotten corner of the straits where the sea still runs deep and true.
The reef offers no friendly faces, only greetings of shock and horror, splashes and tumbles, snaps and rustles, the shivers of a tailfin, the tip of a feeler, a gaze of reproach, a twitch, a bump, a sinking cloud of silt that betrays the fans of a buried ray. Schools of fish dash from pool to pool, then scatter to take their chances in random holes. Little terns float by, mewing and chattering; some land on low mounds while others plunge into pails of easy pickings. Swimming crabs, red from tooth to claw, guard every puddle and patch of weed, but happily ditch their posts to scramble over stone and sponge into thicker clumps. Only when cornered or caught flat-footed on a bare trap do they brandish their chelae and wave their spiny arms in a wide-eyed invitation to bite. The pose is not a bluff – the fingers are sharp and ready to nip and tug before the crab tucks one claw in and paddles away with the other in a dangle.
Herons, grey and sacred, make a bee-line for nearby shores where they can hunt and be harassed with impunity. Off the northern flank of Beting Bemban Besar, dredgers, barges and regional freighters work their way down Selat Pauh past the reefs of Pulau Hantu, while tankers assemble between Semakau and Pulau Senang, awaiting their turn to feed the refineries of Jurong. For an hour or more before sunset, the straits sank and its isles rose in power and majesty, laying bare the secrets of their keys and beckoning to islands that once or never were, skeletal outcrops of a warmer age that once welcomed women in boats who wore flowers in their tresses as they combed the flats, before they, too, fell silent and slipped off the mind of a nation with no heed for stories from its margins.
As the sky dimmed, the reef stirred and its residents took leave of their senses to choose their own adventures on a tropical shelf. Conches and volutes grub about the sediment, the former for detritus and the other for buried victims, whose detached halves also litter the middens of other bivalve fanciers. Cushion stars – big, blue and built like rock – lurk near the crest where the colonies are at their densest, where the builders dwell in cities of stone or emerge from porous layers to swing to the tune of the tide or star in a show of their own – crowns on thorns with the light of the sun at every tender tip. The reef may feed on solar energy but the real action takes place under dark, in coils and tunnels, under sand and inside rocks, in slippery hollows and unconsolidated deposits, where death comes in a million small doses and is a debt repaid in elements that find new takers – the makers of shells, tubes, cups, bones, claws and carapaces – and return to life at the foot of a long, fluid chain.
Before we fled for brighter parts, the reef offered one more, lesser, mystery. Small plops could be heard among the sargassum that draped the periphery, but there was little to suggest that the sound came from a splashing fish or snapping shrimp. The commotions, after a few false alarms and loops through the rubble, were traced to a small decapod, about an inch or more in length, that hovered in shallow water with its head tilted slightly down. The animal, which had prominent stalked eyes and a humped abdomen, maintained a broad zone of discomfort, so there were only the briefest of intervals between a sighting and a blink that sent the torch aflail into a fire of blank spaces.
The straits no longer sings, but it now rumbles with low, long groans that temper the senses and reduce every call and crash to a hum of muted resolutions. The 'shrimp' could thus cloak its flight in the whirl of shipyards and passing shafts, but it could have also simply steered towards unexpected corners, leaping against probable lines of movement into unlit patches a good few feet from its launch. But a few gave the game away by landing on clumps of sargassum with audible impact, having flicked themselves into a flop. Their jizz, supported by the natant habit and lack of prominently differentiated chelipeds, was penaeoidean, though the prawns showed none of their kin's bent for digging in when pressed. One specimen was then bagged before the reef began to rouse and stretch for the stars, both those that still haunt its banks and the luminaries that have faded as the city spread over the shore, only to find that the straits has grown nigh impassable and shines with such brightness that its beams stain the sky and do their best to keep goodnights forever at bay.