The Malaysian Settlement in Singapore and the memory of Charles Edwin Spooner

20 12 2010

There is an obscure little corner of Singapore which many do not notice, nestled between Kampong Bahru Road and the railway yard that stretches to Keppel Road. Stepping into the area, you could quite easily forget that you are still in Singapore except for the two blocks of flats that resemble our own blocks of public housing built by the HDB in the mid 1970s, as you will be overcome by a feeling of stepping into a different world. It is a different world in many ways, being part of the land which is owned by the Malaysian State Railway, KTMB, and very much a part of the lost world within the KTM Railway Land that with the agreement between the Singapore and Malaysian Governments to redevelop the land in place, that will probably be consumed by modernity which has relentlessly swept across much of the island in the last three decades.

A lost world exists in Kampong Bahru ...

Access to the area is via Spooner Road, a name strange enough to have caught enough of my attention when I was in school to remember that I had a schoolmate (who I wasn’t really close to), who we referred to as ‘Spooner’ (for obvious reasons), who for some reason resided in one of the flats there. The flats of course, sitting on KTM land, belongs to the Railway, as much as the train yard and the Running Bungalow that sits at the entrance to the area on Spooner Road. I am not too certain when the current two blocks of flats were put up. Judging from the style of the blocks, it would have probably been around the mid 1970s, but they were definitely there at the end of the 1970s when I was in school with ‘Spooner’. The Running Bungalow itself was built in the early 1930s, part of the effort that has given us the magnificent Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the Railway Deviation of 1932 that provided the Bukit Timah area with some of its distinctive character. Before the current blocks of flats, there had been the Perak and Selangor flats which had served as the quarters of the Railway Workers in Singapore.

Access to the lost world is via Spooner Road, off Kampong Bahru Road.

The Running Bungalow was built in the early 1930s together with the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

A reflection of the Running Bungalow in a puddle of water on Spooner Road.

View of Spooner Road, the Running Bungalow and the KTM Flats.

While the redevelopment of what must be rather valuable land in an area that is on the fringe of the CBD is probably inevitable, I do harbour some hope that the road, Spooner Road, or at least the name of the road is preserved in some way. The road is named after none other than Mr Charles Edwin Spooner, who came over as a State Engineer with the Public Works Department (PWD) in Selangor after a stint with the PWD in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Among the projects that he oversaw and possibly influenced being in charge of the Selangor PWD was the construction of the wondrous and iconic Moorish styled Sultan Abdul Samad building which many now identify Kuala Lumpur with. In 1901, Spooner was appointed as the first General Manager of the FMS Railways (FMSR) and in that capacity oversaw the rapid expansion of the predecessors to what became the Malayan Railway, including the construction of the 120 mile long Johore State Railways linking Gemas to Johor Baharu, and the magnificent station building in Kuala Lumpur, which was completed a year after Spooner’s untimely death in 1909. It was after Mr Spooner, that not only saw a Spooner Road named after him in Singapore, but one associated with the Railways in Kuala Lumpur (I am not sure if this exists anymore) and also in Ipoh (which is now named Jalan Spooner). And it is for all his achievements, spending a better part of his life in the improvement of the colonies both in Ceylon and Malaya that we owe Mr Spooner at least a place in our own history and for our future generations not only to honour the memory of Charles Edwin Spooner, but also to serve as a memory of the Railway line that once ran through Singapore.

Some residents of Spooner Road enjoying the lifestyle I had growing up ....

Another resident of Spooner Road.

The lost world of Spooner Road. There was a Spooner Road in Kuala Lumpur and one in Ipoh (which is now Jalan Spooner) as well.

More views around the flats:

Lifts at the block of flats at Spooner Road.

Enjoying a ride around Spooner Road.

Laundry pole supports...

Window louvres ...

More window louvres ...

The land on which Spooner Road and the building sit are very much Malaysian owned.

More views around the Railway Yard:

Views around the train yard ...

[This post is also featured on Trains and Boats and Planes and One° North Explorers.]

[For more posts related to the Railway Land in Singapore, the Shift of the KTM station from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands, and of Train Journeys on KTM, please click on this link.]




8 responses

20 12 2010
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21 12 2010

So interesting. Never knew about many places in Singapore until you profile them here! This one is so old school…

22 12 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for dropping by Camemberu! 🙂 Very old school indeed!

1 07 2011
R. Mahendra Raj

Very nostalgic!

The two ‘new’ blocks were built in 1983 and occupied in 1984. Prior to this KTM (yes, it was Keretapi Tanah Melayu [KTM] then and only in 1992 it was known as Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad [KTMB] after it was corporatised) staff were living in flats and quarters. The three-storied Blocks A and B were occupied by lowly-paid KTM staff. Since it was a pre-independence structure the occupation of these quarters were considered inhumane and the Railwaymen’s Union of Malaya (RUM) spearheaded its demolition. It was built much earlier then the Singapore railway station by the then British Administration. It was classified as ‘Class XI’ quarters which was the lowest in the hiearachy. Each unit was about the size of a very small room. The one-roomed ‘apartment’ is clustered with small chairs, tables, bed, radio, tv set etc. Common cooking and bathrooms were located in the ground floors. Imagine a family man living with his wife and several in this cramped place! It was not up to any civilised standards.

The other two flats located in the same Kampong Bharu vicinity were the Negeri Sembilan and Pahang flats which were of a higher type classification (Class IX) were occupied by Station Masters, Guards, Drivers, Yard Foremen, Chargemen etc.

For the record, KTM flats bearing the various names of the Federated Malay States were also found in Kuala Lumpur. Perak and Selangor were situated in Travers Road, Kuala Lumpur parallel to the railway marshalling yard. Perlis, Trengganu, Kelantan, Kedah and Johore were built in 1955 in Bukit Bungsar, Kuala Lumpur. Then of course the Negeri Sembilan and Pahang flats in Spooner Road, Kampong Bharu, Singapore. It should be noted that all the flats built in the early 1950s were christened after the existing Federated states then. Singapore, Penang and Malacca were exceptions since they were Straits Settlements.

During the transition period (1983-1984) the KTM staff were temporarily housed in the so-called four-storied Rumah Tinggi, Bukit Merah area which were actually previously occupied by the Malaysian Naval personnel who had since shifted base to Lumut, Perak. When compared to the towering Singapore apartments it is indeed ironical to call it ‘Rumah Tinggi’, is’nt it? Don’t know as to this nomenclature’s origins.

I can write a lot since I come from a three- generation of Malayan Railway personnel. I was also working for KTM for a considerable period of time, so was my father, uncles, brother and paternal grandfather. The latter who was an Engine Driver used to tell me stories of Spooner Road of the thirties.

Do you want me to pen down all those fond memories of Malayan Railway/ KTM? If you so permit I will do so. Please also note that out of ignorance some refer to ‘Malayan Railway’ as ‘Malayan Railways’. Malayan Railway has only one railway system hence it is Malayan Railway and not Malayan or Malaysian Railways.

Incidentally I was in Tanjong Pagar station after travelling by the day train and putting up in the MR Running Bunglow for the night just recently. I did this for some sentimental reasons since I have been going to Singapore since 1960. I will mention about it later especially on the evolution of KTM and in Singapore particularly.

With warm regards and thanks for the beautiful photographs (it pales in comparison to what I took recently), history and the excellent write-up.

R. Mahendra Raj
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

6 12 2012

Fond memories of the mid-60s at house No 9, Selangor Flats,Travers road. Our porch was huge, I used to play football, badminton and every other outdoor game. There was no TV.. It was very easy to cross the road to get a short-bottle of Coco Cola from the Caltex petrol kiosk exactly opposite my house.When TV finally came, Shindig, Johnny West, The Little Rascals and The Saint were some of the favorites. La Salle Brickfields was where I studied and Brother Gaston was my headmaster.. Friends, friends friends everywhere with so much fun. Then one day we had to shift, my father was posted to Port Klang and we had to move along… Nostalgia….. gone are the days my friend.

29 01 2021
Joshua Torai

This was an Amazing Place ! My Dad was Malaysian and was a Train Driver, I am singaporannand was living there with him for a few years. It was a self sustaining ecosystem of 2 blocks. The Land was ” labeled ” Malaysian property and was a no go zone for outsiders.

From the outside – it was not advisable to go there after sunset if you were not a resident. Often reports of crime and drugs being sold on dark dingy staircase-wells. If your Singaporean, Unless you were visiting someone, you were buying heroin. And you could consume it there as it was off limits to the SPF. Only the ambulance could enter and then a police car could come in.

From the Inside it was Wonderland… we had Doctor, Convenient stores ( from people’s living romoms) on every floor, a tailor , people selling food everywhere !!!!!, cooked dishes stores on multiple stores, tutors for all subjects teaching from living rooms. There was a mosque, a railway temple, and a place dedicated for Buddhist burning rituals..

We all lived together in harmony and played football in the evenings and Run on the train tracks.

I was one of only 3 Singaporean kids living there amongst a majority Malaysian population. We didn’t even react or the train noise any more …we wereball invited to all famoly events and we were the only ones in Singapore openly rocking fireworks for all the ethnic celebrations even Christmas which I never got…

It was an amazing place. Looking back now I’m fortunate to have lived there and seen all those stories that happened on all those floors….Amazing ! Thank you for posting this! Long and Winding Road indeed.

29 06 2020
Suppiah ✨ VELANDI

Fantastic work! Hope someone will also write about Malayan Railway Qtrs. The place where Spooner Rd residents came from with pictures 😊😊

29 06 2020
Raja ariffin

Indeed nolstalgic. It was 1980 my beloved father transferred from ipoh , Farlim depoh to Tanjong pagar as a railway fitter technician. We also stay at jln spooner/ Spooner road in ipoh. Suprisingly when I started visited my father in singapore in early 80’s we live at Spooner road also. We stayed at Perak flat until the demolished of all flats. Since then we moved to rumah tinggi bukit merah. Then few years we moved back at jln spooner where we stayed at melati flat. Full of memories

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