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What Kusu Island lacks in size, it makes up for in spiritual weight. Rich in history and empty of crowds, it’s the perfect place to find peace.

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Going Places Singapore soaked up much sun and great fun at St John’s, Lazarus and Seringat. This week, we continue our Southern Islands jaunt to one brimming with legends and prayers.

There aren’t many people on the ferry heading to the Southern Islands, but those who are there are an entertainingly diverse lot. In the back is a heavyset but fit-looking European, clad in running shorts and headphones. Off for a day-long jog, Wilson (the photographer) and I guess. In front of him is a young couple, snuggling and eating strawberry Pocky.

And then there’s Amy, an Indonesian in her late 20s, soberly staring out at the passing waves. Why has she come out to the Southern Islands today? She can’t speak English, so we converse in Chinese – hers near-fluent, mine rustier than some of the hulking oil tankers dwarfing our ferry.

“Kusu. I’m going to Kusu,” she murmurs. “I go every year. I went last year – and the year went very, very well.” A smile peeks out of her lips. “So I want to do it again, and hopefully get the same result. I pray for a peaceful and happy year ahead.”

Step back in time

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If St John’s, Lazarus and Seringat are like triplets – conjoined triplets, at that – you could describe Kusu as the unloved sibling, disconnected from the others. Yet it is very much linked in history.

At one time, St John’s was a quarantine centre the world’s largest for a period, some say. Later, it housed Allied POWs under the Japanese. After the war, it became an opium treatment centre. In 1956 alone there were some 680 patients there, mostly male. During the quarantine years, patients who died on St John’s were buried on Kusu.

Both St John’s Island and Pulau Ubin were rumoured sites of Japanese torture, so it’s not surprising many consider them haunted. But not Kusu—it’s always been a place of peace.

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So, why name the island after a tortoise (as kusu means in Hokkien)?

Legends abound, but the most popular story is that two shipwrecked fishermen, a Malay and a Chinese, were saved from death by a tortoise who transformed into the tiny island. Before land reclamation enlarged Kusu to 8.5 hectares, the island’s outline did look pretty tortoise-esque. Especially if you squinted. That’s probably why dozens of these critters live in a sanctuary in the centre of the island, contributing to its sleepy air and gloriously sluggish pace.

I can testify that there is nothing more hypnotic than watching a leathery face peek out of a shell to peck at a morsel of cabbage. So slowly did this fellow chew that time ceased to matter as a concept.

Prayers written in stone

Equally timeless are the Chinese temple and Malay shrines here – a pleasant reflection of Singapore’s open, multi-cultural approach to spirituality. Today, the island feels like an oasis, with barely any weekday visitors. But when the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar hits, thousands of pilgrims flock here. What do they come for? I ask Fuziyah, the bubbly, round-faced caretaker.

She wrinkles her eyes to look up at me. “They come and pray, they ask for a baby, for 4D success, and many, many come asking for health.” On most weekends you’ll see families crowded around a shuddering grandmother or –father as they totter from altar to smoky altar.

But if you want to visit Datok Gong, the other shrine, strong legs are a must. Situated 152 steps up a hillock is a curious blend of Muslim and Chinese iconography.

Emblazoned along the staircase are wishes visitors have left behind, scribbled in ink on the painted yellow rock. They range from the practical, to the heart-breaking, to the quirky: Pass all exams. I wish daddy will be a good daddy. Hope to excel in my studies (‘excel’ is misspelt as ‘ecxel’. Good luck to whoever you are.) I wish to keep my job longer and to find a good man in my life 2/9/2014.

Scanning the heartfelt, messy wishes, I wonder whether Amy the amiable Indonesian left her mark on the stones today.

King for a day

Waiting for the ferry to take us back to Singapore – which, after a day on these tranquil islands, now feels like ‘the real world’ – we catch up with three fishermen we spotted earlier in the morning. The laidback trio had told us then that they hoped to catch grouper or bass, but didn’t seem concerned either way.

I ask a yawning member of their group how the day went. He takes a drag from his cigarette, pushes his Oakleys against his eyes, and frowns. “We were too successful,” he answers wryly. “The fish were so big they broke our lines.”

“Catch and release,” grins his buddy.

“This guy, ru-bbish!” the third laughs. “We caught nothing,” he whispers, still smiling.

None of them seem remotely fussed about sailing home empty-handed. If I had to guess, I’d say a day out in the sun, feeling like kings of the Southern Islands, was enough for them.