Wednesday, July 20, 2011

End of the line

The Tanjong Pagar railway station was taken over at midnight,
on July 1, 2011, by Singapore.

I know it's been more than 10 days since the date of this article but I've been busy with house guests, outstation trips and pressing deadlines.  However, I think it's still current given the despair voiced by poets and artists over the loss of the last Malaysian property in Singapore.  I wonder what's the reaction to the plan to demolish the Malay Village in Geylang after the Eid celebrations in September?  

Saturday July 9, 2011

End of the line

By Louisa Lim

A group of party-goers decided to take to the tracks after learning about the closure of the historic Tanjong Pagar railway station. However, saying goodbye to the past is never easy.
What were they thinking?”
That was my first impression of the passengers on the final train into the Tanjong Pagar railway station. To spend eight hours onboard a wobbly, old train to Singapore was one thing, but to spend eight hours onboard a wobbly, old train just so you could bid goodbye to a railway station in Singapore ... well, that’s just plain lunacy.
But the Tanjong Pagar railway station is the Mick Jagger of railway stations: it may be old and decrepit, but it still has its fair share of groupies. I spotted one of them, Singaporean Zakaria Jaafar — who was proudly clad in a black “Last Train to Tanjong Pagar” logo tee — just as I heaved my bags onto the Ekspress Rakyat’s upper-level compartment and plopped onto one of the musty cushion seats.
“This isn’t just any railway station,” corrected Zakaria, a jovial 45-year-old oil company employee who was returning from a holiday in KL with his family. “This used to be the only way Singaporeans could travel to Malaysia and vice-versa. Previously, passengers needed to use ferry boats to cross the 1km straits.”
And today, Tanjong Pagar would be closing down for good after almost 80 years of operation. Like many historical sites in fast developing countries, the land it is sitting on has been earmarked for development. After this, the Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB) station would be relocated from Tanjong Pagar to the Woodlands Train Checkpoint, a place often criticised for lack of toilets and cramped space.
“It looks too much like a prison,” commented at least one other person.
Meanwhile, Singapores’ Straits Times reported that a steady stream of people had been visiting the old station to catch a glimpse of its last days. Others like me had taken it a step further: we would be joining in a party of more than 100 people on June 30, to celebrate the station’s final moments by making a last journey there by train.
Inside, the mood was pensive. Apart from the group of Chinese aunties who were yakking up a storm in Cantonese behind me, much of the conversations that floated around were muffled by the thundering clatter of metal against track. It became obvious, as soon as the train pulled out of KL Sentral, that this was not going to be the type of party that left one dazed and confused the next day.
Rendezvous with ghosts
“The last time I travelled by train was back in 1984, before my daughter was born,” said Zakaria. “I’m actually doing this for her today. She’s 16, but she’s never taken the train before.”
Staring past the grimy windows, I can make out wooden houses nestled among the graceful sweep of coconut trees and shimmering green padi fields. The images of pastoral beauty occasionally gave way to dull, grey slabs of concrete and heaps of multi-coloured rubbish that dot the tiny industrial towns. As this scary prophecy flashed before me, I couldn’t help but wonder: Just how much has changed? Would the train’s very first passengers from 1932 recognise Malaysia if they saw her today?
While the outside scenery evolved over years, the carriage still looked as if it was stuck in a time warp, at least according to Zakaria.
“As far as I can recall, not much has changed since my last trip,” he said, scanning his surroundings. “The only difference is that there’s air-con instead of fans now, and the seats are not wooden anymore.”
Two men pushing a cart full of ready-packed food and drinks shuffled past the aisle. I waited for them to pass, before getting up to explore the other carriages. I ambled unsteadily past groups of people — kids, teenagers, the elderly — sitting placidly in their seats, their faces lit by the afternoon sun that streamed through the windows.
After his four-month journey across Asia by train, American novelist Paul Theroux wrote in his book, The Great Railway Bazaar, that “the trains (in a country) contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture.”
“Thai trains have the shower jar with the glazed dragon on its side, Ceylonese ones the car reserved for Buddhist monks, Indian ones a vegetarian kitchen and six classes, Iranian ones prayer mats, Malaysian ones a noodle stall, Vietnamese ones bulletproof glass on the locomotive, and on every carriage of a Russian train, there is a samovar. The railway bazaar with its gadgets and passengers represented the society so completely that to board it was to be challenged by the national character,” he recounted.
While I didn’t see any noodle stall on this train, I did see many friends and families. They filled the train with myriad colours and hailed from all social and economic strata of society. Some were Malaysians, but many more were Singaporeans. Among them was Melissa Lam, 19, a journalist with big hair and even bigger personality.
Lam, who had taken a budget flight from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur the day before just so she could be part of history, revealed that she was inspired by Before Sunrise, the romantic drama in which a couple meets onboard a train.
“None of my friends wanted to do it with me so I got a ticket myself,” she said, snuggling up to her only companion, Ollie the Frog, a giant green plush. “Nobody wants to talk to you on a plane but on a train, you have all the time in the world to make friends. People are friendlier because they are more relaxed, I guess.”
However, some people like Emily and Edmund Tan, retirees, cite practicality as the main reason they have been travelling to KL by train for more than 10 years.
“We choose to travel this way because it gives us a freedom of movement. But of course we’re going to miss the old station, especially the teh tarik and the potato soup there,” remarked Tan, whose lined face lit up as he recalled the many eateries there.
Speaking to random people at a time, I discovered that nobody knew the fate of the teh tarik man or the famous nasi briyani stall once the curtains came down. All they knew was that there’s nothing quite as delicious anywhere else in Singapore.
Balik kampung
Three hours into the train ride, I discovered that there was a rite of passage that every reluctant train passenger had to go through: using the toilet. Trying to relieve yourself in a moving train makes learning a new language like Russian look really easy. Without proper technique, there’s a pretty good chance that you will mess up ... literally.
But no matter. I burst out of the toilet feeling rather triumphant for a first-timer. Basking in the glow of my own personal victory, I was momentarily oblivious to my surroundings, accidentally bumping into a stern-faced train supervisor. Mohamad Sharif Baharom, 51, however, was not as crotchety as he looked.
“I’ve been travelling this route every day for the past 30 years,” said Sharif, who spent countless Hari Raya and New Year’s Eve days onboard the train. “I’ll go from KL to Singapore, and then stay a night at the KTM living quarters in Tanjong Pagar, before heading back to KL the next day. It gets lonely, so I always wind up celebrating the major holidays with my passengers.”
Sharif also expressed sadness at the closure of Tanjong Pagar.
“I’m sad to leave my old post,” he said. “People have been comparing it to the Woodlands checkpoint but I don’t think they can. It’s a beautiful place, but of course, people prefer new things these days.”
The gloominess that hovered between us immediately evaporated when the train pulled up at Segamat. A large group of party-goers and media trolls from Singapore and around the world clambered onto the train, armed with drinks, cameras and high spirits.
Perhaps the most unlikely party animal among them was Rosemary Ong, who had travelled to Segamat with her friend and father that very morning. Dressed modestly in shorts and T-shirt, and lugging a big trolley bag for “shopping purposes”, the vivacious 50-year-old real estate agent said she had taken a day off work for the occasion.
“I like the idea of anything new, and a party on a train sounds exciting enough,” she said, grinning manically. “Honestly, though, I still feel very sad about Tanjong Pagar, even though I hardly take the train. It’s Singapore’s very own kampung, and when I went there last night to get tickets, I could see how many people loved it. Even the old ticket-seller had a good cry when he rolled down the shutters for one last time.”
While Ong is more of a car-and-plane person, she confessed that sitting in a train brought back a rush of fond memories.
“We used to have a house on KTM land, and it would shake whenever a train passed by. The trains also acted as our alarm clocks at 6am every morning,” she said.
It was then that we heard the announcements. Ekspress Rakyat would be arriving at Tanjong Pagar in another half an hour. I looked out the window, hoping to get a glimpse of the Green Corridor, a new proposal by the Nature Society of Singapore to preserve the lush greenery that had sprung up around the station. But it was dark out, and all I could see were outlines of cars and people alongside the tracks. They clapped, cheered and honked as we chugged past, and we returned their greeting.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the train arrived on schedule. I stepped off of it, only to find myself swallowed up by this sweating, heaving, shouting mass of humanity. People were rushing forward to pose for pictures with this magnificent steel giant, so I trudged to a little corner with my luggage, hoping to steer clear of this bedlam.
From the sidelines, I watched as KTM officials became instant celebrities. Visitors clutching mementos — caps, bags, key chains, mugs, you name it — crowded around these men in blue for photographs and autographs. Station manager Shamsul Bahari, 43, said he had signed more than 1,000 autographs since morning.
A number of people also leapt onto the tracks to pocket some rocks as a souvenir. But it was reported that one of the most coveted souvenirs was the 50 pieces of S$200 (RM490.40) silver-chromed sculpture fashioned from bits of old railway track. Those who bought them believe they would increase in value.
The Sultan of Johor appeared soon enough, and he too, was not spared from the autograph-signing and picture-taking frenzy. With one final bellow, the last train pulled out of Tanjong Pagar, with the Sultan at the controls.
“I didn’t understand what was the big deal at first as old railway stations close down all the time in my country and nobody really cares,” said Dipashree Das, 30, a journalist from Bombay. “However, the more I did my research, the more I found out why they get so emotional about it. Some have been travelling for decades. There are also many couples that met, feel in love and got married here.”
Das did not have to complete her sentence because I already knew.
“The station’s their last link to the past,” she said anyway, frowning as the last of the revellers trickled away. “From today onwards, Singapore will just be another big, modern metropolis.”
Follow Louisa Lim at
Related Story:
A quick history lesson

Always rolled your eyes and wondered what the big deal about the Tanjong Pagar railway station was? Here are some fascinating facts that might change your mind:
● It’s supposed to have been the southernmost point of an ambitious vision to link Europe’s vast rail network to one that would span Asia, and eventually connect with the rest of the Far East. If completed, Singapore would have served as the gateway.
● Its main building opened on January 2, 1932. In his speech to officiate the opening of the station, Governor of Singapore, Sir Cecil Clementi Smith, said, “We stand here at the southernmost tip of the continent of Asia”, adding that he had “not the slightest doubt that for centuries this Singapore terminal station will stand here as one of the most nodal points in the whole world’s scheme of communications.”It is thought to have been designed after Helsinki’s Central Station and shares elements with Washington D.C.’s Union Station. The style of architecture selected, Art Deco, was thought to combine Western and Eastern influences.
● The four Angelo Vannetti sculptures on the fa├žade of the building represent the four pillars of the Malayan economy – agriculture, commerce, transport and industry. A Chinese temple also inspired the green-tiled part of the station’s roof.
● The railway platforms were some 366m long, built to cater to the longest of mail trains. Third class passengers had to use a side access to the platforms.
● In April 2011, the Government announced that the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station would be conserved as a national monument. Prior to this, there had been suggestions to turn the place into a museum, or refurbish it into a pub-and-restaurant.
Excerpts taken from

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