It was a year ago that interest in the former Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) railway line that ran through Singapore started to peak as the realisation hit many in Singapore that the last days of the railway line were upon us. Many embarked on their own journeys through Tanjong Pagar Station to have the experience of the railway and a journey through the grand old station. There were many who also explored the land on which the railway ran on foot – catching glimpses and taking snapshots to remember a world that was about to change forever. Whether it is from the vantage of the rail carriage or from the ground, there is no doubt many would have realised that a world far apart from the one we lived in existed along the corridor along which the railway ran through, one that in many ways took one, without leaving Singapore’s borders, far away from Singapore.
One of the places along the corridor that would certainly have been noticed is a cluster of zinc roofed buildings close to where the 778.25 km distance marker was, a place if one was on the northbound train one would pass about 7 minutes out of the station just around the bend after passing under the Gillman Flyover and Alexandra Hospital. The cluster of buildings belongs to the Masjid Hang Jebat, a mosque that lies not on railway land but on a part of Singapore, Wessex Estate, that once was home to British army personnel. It is to Wessex Estate that the mosque owes its establishment; but that it exists to this day is probably a result of the railway that ran beside it – protecting the area from being developed all these years. The name of the surau and later the mosque, comes from Jalan Hang Jebat in Wessex Estate, at the end of which the mosque stands.
The setting for the mosque certainly takes one far from the Singapore we have come to know. Set amid the wonderful greenery that the area is blessed with, the coconut palms that tower over the mosque and the cluster of banana trees reminds us of an old Singapore we have quickly sought to forget. On one of my recent visits to the area, a man emerges from the cluster of buildings now decorated with green floral motifs and greets me. He is Jimmy – the man who apparently is behind what now decorates the buildings. Jimmy tells me that the motifs are fairly recent addition, painted on to coincide with the Prophet’s birthday. “The decoration changes every year,” Jimmy says, going on to explain that he was the artist behind the decorations.
As I step through what looks like a little canteen that is reminiscent of the ones we find in the villages across the Causeway, Jimmy relates how he has been connected to the mosque since he was a young boy. He then lived in a block of flats in Queens Crescent which has since been demolished and has come to the mosque ever since. Saturdays he says are especially busy days at the mosque and like he did in his younger days, many come for religious instruction (including intending converts to the religion) and to play Sepak Takraw in the yard.
It was in fact in serving the residents of the area, Queens Crescent being one, as well as nearby residential clusters in the early days of Queenstown that included Queens Close, Stirling Road and Tanglin Halt, that was instrumental in seeing what was started as surau, a prayer room, expand into the mosque it is today. The surau was built in the early 1960s exclusively for use by Muslim serving in the British forces based in Wessex Estate, in what was an area that was fenced-up (although many in the area managed to find a way in). With the British withdrawal in 1971, the surau and the land on which it sits on were opened up and donations were collected to expand the prayer room into a mosque to accommodate the growing population in the area.
Today, the mosque sits in relative silence, no longer serenaded by the sounds of the railway, evidence of has been removed. It is a refreshing escape from the noise and haste of the new world that Singapore is, but for how long, we don’t know. Behind the mosque, a clump of banana trees reminds me of a world we have long since abandoned. I observe a few kampung chickens coming down from a wooden coop running freely around the grassy area by the banana trees. The chickens, I am told, had until recently been wild – having emerged from the surrounding vegetation after the railway stopped running. That perhaps is a sign that the wild world that was once part of the railway land will inevitably be tamed … My hope is that tamed it is not and the wonderful parts of that world which still are there such as this mosque, will still be there to remind us of that gentler world from which the cold grey one we now live in once came from.