By Lamvi Dao, Rosli Mohamad, and Ghani Ibrahim
In Malaysian, Pulau means island. Bidong island belongs to Malaysia. At one time, this small island housed more than 40,000 refugees in the south side. The rest of the island was not open to the public. It would be a crime if the police found you in the forbidden area.
The Pulau Bidong island is in the northeast of Kuala Terengganu city and Merang town. To get to the island, it takes about 40 – 50 minutes by boat.
On August 8th, 1978, Bidong was officially open to house refugees, however, there were people from Vietnam had lived on the island soon after Saigon fell into communist. From 1978 until 1991, the island was mostly home to Vietnamese refugee Boat People, who escaped Vietnam to flee Communists. In the late 70s, Pulau Bidong was also home to Cambodians, who tried to flee the Khmer Rouge regime.
In 1978, Malaysian Government and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) started to use Bidong to house the refugees instead a location on the mainland. In the early years, people lived under the trees, tents, or anything they could find to avoid the tropical hot sun, rain, and ocean storms. As years went by, Malaysian Government, Malaysian Red Crescent Society (MRCS), UNHCR, and other relief agencies organized the island into a more orderly conducted. It had longhouses, hospital, schools, clinics, temples, churches, coffee shops, post office, vocational school, and some refugee owned shops like bakery shops, tailor shops, fruit stands, small markets etc.
In the early years, food was scarce, but eventually food was much more adequate: plenty of instant noodles, condensed milk, green bean, sugar, chicken, fish, and vegetables. In 1990, due to excessive supply of instant noodles, that were wasted, each person was given 5 packs of instant noodles per week instead of 7 packs. Bidong had so many fishes around the island. They were also a main source of food to the refugees. There were at least two Malaysian owned grocery stores, that carried many other goods. Boat People owned mini grocery stores and city live market were popping up quickly as well. Fresh (drinking) water was always an issue, which had to be transported from mainland by boat. We called it Supplied Water. As people would stay longer for screening, this was the case for who arrived after March 14th, 1989, many wells were dug by the refugee to be used for bathing, cooking, and farming.
The Malaysian Police Task Force was organized and did an excellent job to protect people from getting hurt such as illegal fishing, illegal wandering into the mountain for wood, crimes, and orderly conduct. Jail like Monkey House was established to jail people, who violated the island policies. Later, they set up multiple Security offices in each residence zone along with the main Island Camp office, which refugee people would vote or appoint officials enforce policies, nightly patrola, and security of everyone. The forbidden area covered 90% of the island. Only the small portion of the south side was used for UNHCR offices, and refugee housing.
March 14th, 1989
To stop waves of boat people, who kept leaving Vietnam, the UNHCR posted March 14th of 1989 as a closing date for “automatic acceptance to the third country”. For those arrived the island after this closing date, they had to go through screening processes, which they must prove that they were political refugees and not economical refugees. They were also given three chances to prove their political status. Due to this screening process, over 9,000 refugees were repatriated back to Vietnam from Malaysia because they were not qualified for political status. However, majority of these repatriated refugees were again given another chance from Vietnam by the UNHCR and most of them were granted asylum in third countries, thereafter. Also, for those arrived after March 14th, 1989, they spent longer time on Pulau Bidong until the island shutdown in October, 1991 and Sungei Besi Refugee Center in Kuala Lumpur. The average time was between 2 – 3 years. However, some of them would spend more 10 years in hopping to “pass” the screening. Unfortunately, some of these long time residents were repatriated to Vietnam.
There was one Elementary school, one High school, and many English schools were built in each zone, A, B, C, D, and F, and a vocational school. In the early stages of vocational school, there were English classes to prepare youths and adults for resettlement. Besides these English classes there were trade classes such as carpentry, auto mechanic, and tailoring courses. However in the late 1989 more trade courses were offered – business studies, hairdressing, and nursing.
There was a large hill on the right side of zone C beach , which for a cemetery. There was also an older cemetery site, which was up on the mountain. It could take up to 30 minutes to reach the site from the UN offices area. There were about 40 graves under a large water tank. Next to the these graves, there was also a small hermitage with paved yard. Lamvi used to come up here to get cakes that were left behind by the worshippers. This cemetery might not be known to many people. There were also marked and unmarked graves scattering around the island. They were mostly in zone F.
There were plenty of entertainments and activities available to the refugees. However, these were not available in the early years. In the late 80s, a musical stage was set up next to longhouse B15. There were regular music festivals performed by the refugees and Malaysian musicians as well as UN, MRCS, Police Taskforce personnel. Soccer was a big thing on the island At one time, the island had up 24 teams to compete for soccer games. There were two divisions: adult and kids. Rattan ball game sepak raga bulat) was also getting popular. We learned it from the Police Taskforce, who were excellent players. Boy Scout was a very strong organization to keep kids active with all kinds of outdoor activities. Beside Boy Scout, the Buddhist temple and Catholic church also had their own group to keep the kids active and learning. While many activities were available to kids, the adults did not have much fun besides volunteering for office works such as security, sanitary, post office, schools, and others. Lamvi’s dad was an English teacher for a zone D school. Along zone C beach, there were two large coffee shops. These two shops, Club and Happy, were the top spot for adults, who were mostly young men. Only soft drinks like 7Up, Coke, Pepsi…and cakes were available. From here, anyone could have perfect view out to the sea and the Shark island. Sometimes, dolphins were jumping not too far from shore. It was a view. Next to the Food Supply cage and which was about a few meters from Sick Bay hospital, there was also a two story coffee shop. This shop was famous for its ice cream and nightly Chinese and Indian movies.
Do you know?
The beaches were the best entertaining spots on the island. Except for those hot afternoons, mornings and evenings surely gave you the most relaxing feeling. Alcohol was not legal on the island, however, some refugees were able to buy from fishermen or produced homemade wine with grapes, apples, and other ingredients. Sometimes, we ran into a drunken guy, people would try to calm him to avoid detection from the Malaysian Police Taskforce or Refugee Security personnel.
The island was clean but due to overcrowded population, it took time to clear out wastes. However, the air was very clean and we did not have any motorized vehicle except for Power House station, which provided electricity to the whole island. The refugees dug wells throughout the island to get fresh water from the mountain. Some wells were at sea level, therefore, the water was salty while wells on the mountain had fresh and colder water, which was ideal for drinking. More and more modern public toilets were built with bigger pipes that run into the Jetty’s side, which was Zone A. In the early years, public toilet was your choice of anywhere on the island. Due to overcrowding and waste, rat population was widely populated. The Sanitary Office gave our prizes for killed or trapped rats. Prize was either a pack of instant noodles, sugar, or the best one was a condensed milk bottle.
Bidong was officially closed with a farewell ceremony on October 30th, 1991.
There are proposals to turn Bidong into a vacation spot and/or museum but thing has been going slowly, which can be affected by political reasons: Malaysia has strong tight with Vietnam. Without maintenance, trees outgrow old longhouses, schools, buildings, and many other structures. The weather also takes toll on structures like Catholic church once was filled with parishioners and kid voices. The Buddhist temple is still standing with the help of locals. Over the years, more and more former Boat People visit Bidong to witness the place once was their home. The island is worth for an education trip for Malaysians like students to learn more about Malaysia history and the history of Boat People.
Terima Kasih Malaysian Government