A vestige of 16th Century Singapura?

1 12 2013

Ravaged by the passage of time and probably neglect, a structure which harks back seemingly to the days of empire and dominion, sits somewhat obscurely and well forgotten on the southern slope of Bukit Purmei in Kampong Bahru. Dominated by the emblems near it of a Singapore that spares little thought for such vestiges of its past, the structure, a walled compound, with an entrance archway suggesting a European origin, hides a world that has much to do with the days of empire that is anything but European.

The well hidden reminder of a past we have long discarded.

The well hidden reminder of a past we have long discarded.

The walled compound, referred to in the past as Keramat Bukit Kasita, is well hidden from view. Located on what can probably be described as a short spur on the Bukit Purmei slope, it sits on the edge of a public housing estate, behind a disarray of zinc topped shacks. A narrow path leads through the shacks – home to the guardians of the compound, who perhaps are also the keepers of a past which  would otherwise have been discarded; rising up to where the archway is. Beyond the locked gates – a more recent addition to the archway, it is the unmistakeable sight of Malay graves – many have its headstones covered in the yellow cloth that is associated with Malay royalty, that greets the eye. There are also several on which green cloth is wrapped over – green being the colour of Islam.

The concrete jungle Keramat Bukit Kasita now finds itself in. The blocks of flats painted in light blue and white are of Bukit Purmei.

The concrete jungle Keramat Bukit Kasita now finds itself in. The blocks of flats painted in light blue and white are of Bukit Purmei.

One of the keepers of the tombs, a rather chatty lady who identified herself as “Umi”, tells the group of us standing by the archway that the tombs are those of the Riau-Lingga branch of the Johor Royal family, hence the yellow cloth and the name Tanah Kubor diRaja by which the site is also known as. The earliest grave there she says, is one which dates back to 1721. She also made mention of a “Sultan Iskandar Shah”, buried at the site, about which I was rather puzzled as I was intrigued. 

A look into the compound from the back of it.

A look into the compound from the back of it.

“Wouldn’t Sultan Iskandar Shah be buried in Melaka” I ask. Umi tells me there might have been more than one “Iskandar Shah”, as names are often recycled down the line.

A Berita Minggu article from Nov 1998 tells us of a notice which identifies the tomb of a “Sultan Iskandar Shah” under in a yellow shed.

Interestingly a Berita Minggu article published on 29 November 1998 also makes mention of “Sultan Iskandar Shah”, drawing reference to a notice put up at the site on which the words “terdapat sebuah makam seorang sultan, Almahurum Sri Sultan Iskandar Shah, di pondok tuning itu“, which translates into “there is a tomb of a sultan, the late Sri Sultan Iskandar Shah, in the yellow shed”.

A zinc topped dwelling, one which hides the walled compound from view.

A zinc topped dwelling, one which hides the walled compound from view.

The article which is written based on an interview the newspaper did with a previous keeper of the tombs, an En. Azmi Saipan, also mentions that this “Sultan Iskandar Shah”, was thought to have died some 400 years previously – placing him in the 16th Century, well after the passing of the Iskandar Shah, the last king of Sang Nila Utama’s Singapura and the founder of Melaka, that we know well from our history texts.

What greets the eye at the bottom of the spur.

What greets the eye at the bottom of the spur – used as a barber shop until very recently.

There is a suggestion that is offered by a Radin Mas heritage guide which is put together by the Radin Mas Citizens’s Consultative Community, that the burial site was set up in 1530 by Sultan Alaudin Riayat Shah II – who established the Johor Sultanate out of the ruins of the Melaka Sultanate which was deposed through the Portuguese conquest of Melaka in the early 16th Century. Whether or not Sultan Alaudin Riayat Shah II who ruled from 1528 to 1564 could be that “Sultan Iskandar Shah” the keepers speak of isn’t certain, although the association remains a possibility. This does also does date the burial grounds some two hundred years before the “oldest grave” which Umi made a mention of.

The grounds of the former De La Salle School which opened in 1952 are right next to the keramat.

The grounds of the former De La Salle School which opened in 1952 are right next to the keramat.

We also learn from Umi that she was from a family of caretakers appointed by a member of the Johor Royal family to take care of the Istana Woodneuk and the grounds of the former Istana Tyersall until some 15 years ago, before being asked by a “Tunku” to move to Bukit Purmei to look after the Bukit Kasita site, which she says is still in the hands of the State of Johor. A check on the Singapore Land Authority’s one map site shows however that Bukit Kasita is within a parcel of land which is owned by the Housing and Development Board – although I am given to understand that it is possible that the site itself could still be owned by the Johor State.

Query on ownership of land on which Keramat Bukit Kasita is on via SLA's One Map site.

Query on ownership of land on which Keramat Bukit Kasita is on via SLA’s One Map site.

While it is uncertain what origins of the site are, we do know that there is at least the graves of a branch of the Johor Royal line all of which can be traced back to Sang Nila Utama and his successors who ruled Singapura and subsequently the Sultanate of Melaka, is can be found behind the walls. This branch, are the descendants of the rulers of the Riau-Lingga Sultanate which was set up by the Dutch out of the remnants of the Johor-Riau-Lingga Sultanate they controlled through the appointment of the Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah the younger son of Sultan Mahmud Shah III following his death in 1812 and cemented by the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824.

The locked gates.

The locked gates.

It was Abdul Rahman’s elder half brother, Hussein who was set up by Raffles as Sultan of Johor and Singapore, in Kampong Glam – Hussein’s descendants are buried in another site at the Old Malay Cemetery in Jalan Kubor.

The 'Tomb of Malayan Princes'.

The ‘Tombs of Malayan Princes’ at Jalan Kubor.

The Riau Sultanate was abolished when the Dutch drove an uncooperative Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah II, the great-great-grandson of Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah through his great-granddaughter Tengku Fatimah, from his seat in Pulau Penyengat into exile in Singapore in 1911. Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah II, the very last Sultan of Riau-Lingga, died a poor man in 1930 and along with several of his descendants, is buried at Bukit Kasita. This does make the cluster, one of three connected, albeit distantly, with the Johor Royal family.

Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah II, the last sultan of Riau-Lingga who died in exile in Singapore in 1930 (source: www.royalark.net).

The other two are the Tanah Kubor Temenggong at Telok Blangah where the Temenggong with whom Raffles negotiated with in setting up the East India Company’s trading post in Singapore, and  from whom the current line of Johor Sultans descended,  Temenggong Abdul Rahman is buried; and the Old Malay Cemetery at Kampong Glam, where the “Tombs of Malayan Princes” – many of whom were descendants of Sultan Hussein, is found. Tanah Kubor Temenggong along with the Masjid Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim are on land owned by the State of Johor. The tomb of Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim after whom the mosque is named is also found in that burial site. It was Temmenggong Deang Ibrahim’s son, Abu Bakar, who established the current Johor Sultanate.

Another view of the Tanah Kubor diRaja / Keramat Bukit Kasita.

Another view of the Tanah Kubor diRaja / Keramat Bukit Kasita.

It is thought that the area where Bukit Kasita is, was where one of the oldest settlements in Singapore was established well before the arrival of Raffles and the resettlement of the Temenggong and his followers by Raffles to the Telok Blangah area. It might have been Abu Bakar as Temenggong who permitted the establishment of a settlement by followers of the ousted last Bendahara of Johor in Pahang Tun Mutahir in 1863, many of whom fled to Singapore and Johor at the end of the Pahang Civil War of 1857 to 1863. Tun Mutahir was defeated by the Bendahara’s younger half brother Tun Ahmad who established the Pahang Sultanate.  The settlement came to be known as Kampong Pahang – which is shown in a map of Singapore from 1907, one of several villages of the same name set up by fleeing followers of Tun Mutahir, another of which was on Pulau Tekong.

Detail of a 1907 map of Singapore showing Kampong Pahang at Bukit Purmei / Bukit Kasita.

Detail of a 1907 map of Singapore showing Kampong Pahang at Bukit Purmei / Bukit Kasita.

As to how the Bukit Kasita site came to be venerated as a keramat, a clue is found in a paper published in the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 2003 by P.J. Rivers. Rivers identifies two graves which are venerated as keramats, one is of a Raja Ahmad which Rivers identifies as Keramat Bukit Kasita. The second grave is that of a Raja Tengku Fatimah which is venerated on the basis that the waters of spring next to the tomb which is said to have healing powers.

Another keramat, that of Radin Mas Ayu, just a stone's throw away on the slopes of Mount Faber.

Another keramat, that of Radin Mas Ayu, just a stone’s throw away on the slopes of Mount Faber.

Outside the gate two urns containing sticks of incense provide evidence of the veneration of the site, which the Berita Minggu article says attracts visitors of all races. Umi does confirm this, telling us that there are indeed visitors who come from as far as Europe, who offer prayers at the site.

Yellow is seen along with the colour green.

Yellow is seen along with the colour green.

Before we leave, we ask Umi about the significance of the green seen on some of the graves. Umi tells us that they are of descendants of “shaikhs” from Iraq, related to Muslim holyman Habib Noh (of Keramat Habib Noh). Whether it is completely true or not is hard to establish. She adds the grave of an infant seen under the tree in the middle of the compound, is that of a grandchild of Habib Noh. As we thank Umi for her information and turn to leave, Umi adds that the tree is a holy one which should never be cut down.

URA's Draft Master Plan 2013 shows the Keramat Bukit Kasita area as a reserve site.

URA’s Draft Master Plan 2013 shows the Keramat Bukit Kasita area as a reserve site.

Whether or not the tree will ever be cut down, would depend very on whether the site and the wealth of history that comes with it is discarded in the same way much of what made us who we as Singaporeans are has been sacrificed for the glitter of the soulless world we have come to embrace. What is known today, based on the latest (2013) draft of the URA Master Plan, is that the site is a reserved site for which there are no immediate plans. In that there is hope that what may be a link we have to a world we might otherwise have lost touch with, may somehow survive.


See also:

A Straits Times Article published on 6 Dec 2013:

HDB estate with grave links to the past. Muslim burial site in Bukit Purmei holds historical, spiritual significance.





A walk around the yard

14 07 2011

In the days that led up to the closure of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, I was able to meet many people who were in some way connected to the station and to the Malayan Railway or what is KTM in its current incarnation. That allowed me to not just hear the wonderful stories some had to share, but also to be brought around places that would have otherwise been hidden to me. One of the places I did get to see was the train yard at Tanjong Pagar, sandwiched in between what was the KTM flats at Spooner Road in Kampong Bahru and the Malaysian Customs yard, and the lead up to the station itself.

A walk around the yard took me back to a time we have forgotten. The highlight was the turntable which was installed in 1932.

The end of the line … the yard closed together with the station on the 30th of June 2011.

The yard is a wonderful place to discover, one on which I had heard many stories about from friends who went to school in the area at a time when perhaps access to the area was much less controlled. One of those that I met in and around the neighbourhood who was actually a son of a signalman with the Malayan Railway and lived in Spooner Road in the 1960s spoke of how the children growing-up in and around the area would see the yard as a huge playground, one which provided a host of hiding places when playing hide-and-seek. Many were oblivious to the danger playing in the yard posed, and there were several occasions during which unfortunate incidents involving a moving locomotive and a child did occur.

The yard was a playground for many who grew -up in and around it.

A general view around the train yard.

The yard is also where the most wonderful of railway implements could be found, one that was used to turn a locomotive of more than a hundred tonnes around with only the strength exerted by a single person. The turntable which according to a caption on a wonderful aerial photograph of it published in The Straits Times 2nd July 2011’s edition (a scan of which can be found at this link), was built in 1892, and installed in the yard when the station was built in 1932.

The locomotive turntable which was installed in 1932.

A view of one of the girders and wheels of the turntable which supports weights of well over 100 tonnes.

The lever (in a vertical locked position) which can be lowered to turn a locomotive on the table through the effort of just one person.

As with much of the former railway land around Singapore, stepping into the yard seems like a step back in time … one which takes one back to the softer and gentler Singapore that we have somehow lost in trying to catch up with the developed world, not just in the setting one finds oneself in, but in the many people that one meets. It is in meeting the wonderful folks who kept things running behind the scenes at Tanjong Pagar that I have come to understand the attachment many have for the places these folks have not just worked in, but which has become very much a part of their lives – some having worked and lived around the yard for over a quarter of a century. Some expressed a sense of loss. Loss for a life that they would soon leave behind as they prepared to make that big move out of Tanjong Pagar.

Spanners in the works ….

Scenes that we have lost in the modernisation of our island nation.

Familiar scenes for many who lived and work around the yard which is now lost with the big move out. Many workers at the yard have worked there for many years.

A reflection we will no longer see …

Even as the move out wasn’t quite complete, there were signs that some of the structures in the area were already being dismantled. Walking past the carriage washing and maintenance sheds and the locomotive shops and sheds, and turning around the corner, I could see that the maintenance shed for the luxury E&O Trains, the last of which departed from Tanjong Pagar on that very wet Sunday in June when the flood waters rose, was already being taken down.

The locomotive shop and shed.

The loco shop.

The loco workshop.

A locomotive in the shop.

Coming to a halt.

The E&O maintenance shed being dismantled.

Continuing on past the yard on the approach to the station – a route that is taken by the staff at the station on a daily basis, there is a cluster of buildings, some which were meant to house senior officers at the station, and one that served as the Railway Sports and Recreation clubhouse. Further along, we come to the final stretch that leads to Tanjong Pagar … one that goes past the section of tracks to and from the station’s platforms, and past the new and old signalling houses, which for many who would have seen it everyday on the way into the station, would be on a road that will never again be taken.

The railway sports and recreation club house.

The railway inspector’s shed.

A daily walk down a road that as of the 1st of July for many who worked at the station, will never again be taken.

A last glance down the road.


Posts on the Railway through Singapore and on the proposal on the Green Corridor:

I have also put together a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station which can be found through this page: “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Do also take a look at the proposal by the Nature Society (Singapore) to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, at the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page. My own series of posts on the Green Corridor are at: “Support the Green Corridor“.






The long and not so winding trek down a route less travelled

11 07 2011

I was one in that crowd that had gathered in a car park of Silat Estate early on a Saturday morning for what was to be a trek that did seem along parts of the trek to a bridge that was a little too far. Despite a start at a time of day when most would be catching up on their slumber, the trek which was led by Ministor of State for National Development BG Tan Chuan-Jin had attracted a sizable group of participants that included the good folks behind the proposal to retain the former railway land as a continuous green corridor, members of the Ministry of National Development (MND) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) teams, plus many more who came in a show of support for the green corridor proposal.

The early Saturday morning trek started at Silat Estate and for most ended 13.6 kilometres later at the truss bridge at the Rail Mall - one of the bridges that will be retained. BG Tan (in blue) continued one his trek with some members of the NSS to Kranji after a pit stop at the Rail Mall.

Silat Estate is the southernmost point at which the tracks are accessible with the stretch leading into the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the Kampong Bahru train yard beyond the Kampong Bahru flyover closed to the public, and trekking along the corridor from that point up some 23 kilometres to Kranji (which BG Tan did), gives many of us the opportunity to take a pedestrian’s glance at a part of Singapore that was left largely unseen for a better part of a century save for the view one got of it from the speeding train. It is a part of Singapore that many who have their interactions with the more accessible parts of it, hold dearly in their hearts … bringing many back to a time when Singapore had a less built-up feel to it. For many like me, the railway land will always have a place in my memories for several reasons. There are many parts of Singapore that I will always associate with the railway – one being the Bukit Timah and Bukit Panjang areas where I had my first encounters with trains through the bridges and crossings that have given the area a unique character.

Ghostly figures in the dark ... the group setting off on the trek at the set of tracks close to Silat Estate at 6.25 am.

First light under a road bridge at Henderson Road.

The trek provided me an with opportunity to have a good look at some of the less accessible parts of the railway track before that is gone forever, having seen much of the areas south of the Tanglin Halt area previously only from the window of the train. It was not just for me a final chance to do so, but also to hear first hand from BG Tan and his team on the plans the MND had for the railway land. I was pleased to find that the Minister of State was friendly and approachable and certainly very forthcoming in explaining the considerations that the MND would be taking in planning for the use of the land. Throughout the trek, despite the rapid pace at which he moved down the tracks – he stopped slowed down to talk to participants as well as passers-by and also take quite a number of photographs himself, as well as finding the time to show that he has a sense of humour – remarking that there were quite a number of “lost soles” that we encountered along the way.

The trek provided me with an opportunity to have a good look at some of the less accessible parts of the railway track before that is gone forever.

The tracks near Alexandra Road.

A particularly green stretch near the former Alexandra Halt ....

Among the things that I was able to find out from the brief encounters with BG Tan that the trek afforded, was that there were as yet no specific plans for the redevelopment of many parts of the former railway land as yet. There are some though that will soon go ahead, as was mentioned by Mr George Yeo in a speech he made in his capacity as Foreign Minister during the budget debate in March of this year in which he made mention of plans in place for the development of Silat Estate and the expansion of the One North Business Park commencing from 1st July (see Straits Times report dated 4 March 2011). Even with this, BG Tan felt that the opportunity was there to integrate the idea of the green corridor into the redevelopment of the former railway land was certainly there. There also are no specific plans as yet for Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and Bukit Timah Railway Station which many would like to see use of which would make it more accessible to members of the public than what we have seen with a few other National Monuments and Conserved Buildings. One thing that was significant that did come out was that there were indeed considerations for what is termed as a “green spine” – which was mentioned on the day of the walk by the Minister for National Development Mr Khaw Boon Wan in his blog post “A Green Opportunity“, which was consistent with what BG Tan had mentioned and he did go on to mention that the MND would certainly be consulting NGOs and other interested parties, as well as obtaining feedback from the public as it draws up its plans (which he was keen to stress may take several years) for the use of the new found space, at the same time moderating expectations by saying that in an ideal world we could preserve much of what we see as it is, but in a land scarce Singapore, some balance was needed although the green spine idea was very much in their minds.

BG Tan catching up with the head of the group after spending some time to chat with participants and taking a few photographs along the way.

A couple holding hands under the AYE slip road out to Alexandra Road ...

The area around Jalan Hang Jebat.

The same couple ... they held hands all the way ...

Scenes of old Singapore on the approach to the Queenstown area.

More scenes of old Singapore on the approach to the Queenstown area.

One of the ideas put forward by the Nature Society (Singapore) or NSS which is fronting the green corridor proposal is the retention of the tracks and sleepers – something which we will unfortunately not see. This, BG Tan stressed was something that the authorities on the Malaysian end wanted to have returned to them. And while that and a few girder bridges (the ones at Hillview Road, near Ten Mile Junction and close to Kranji Loop) along the length of the tracks will very quickly disappear – these have to be returned by by 31st December this year, we will see the two black truss bridges over the Bukit Timah area and the girder bridge at Hindhede Drive retained, along with the one over the Sungei Ulu Pandan north of Clementi estate that was part of the Jurong Line retained.

Joggers along the track near Tanglin Halt.

What used to be a popular shortcut at Commonwealth Drive which is still very much used.

Songbird cages at Commonwealth Drive.

Graffiti on the walls of an abandoned KTM building at Tanglin Halt ... another part of Singapore we don't normally see.

Under the road bridge at Commonwealth Avenue.

The group heading out towards the Ghim Moh / Mount Sinai area.

Ghim Moh area.

While the removal of the tracks is perhaps unfortunate from a heritage perspective – for one Bukit Timah Station would certainly lose its character and part of its heritage
without the tracks and in particular the loop lines (a lot has already been lost as the historical equipment and most of the signal levers have already been returned to KTM), there are encouraging signs that the bulk of the green corridor proposal is being considered along with the intention of the MND to consult NGOs and other stakeholders, as well as obtain feedback from the public. The willingness to engage is also made very obvious from Saturday’s trek which wasn’t just for the invited few but opened to one and all that for many ended at what had seemed like a bridge too far near the Rail Mall. With a few brave hearts BG Tan set off for the remaining 10 kilometres of his trek up to Kranji finishing it some 3 hours later, and what was left was hope that the the greener and softer Singapore which many seek is possibly one that will take a raod less travelled and one that perhaps would lead to a bridge that isn’t too far …

Through the first of two Holland Road road bridges.

A human train seen at the Clementi Road woodland near Holland Green.

Cyclists seen crossing an obstacle in the midst of the lush greenery at the Clementi Raod woodland.

The media interviewing BG Tan at Bukit Timah Station.

BG Tan posing with a family at Bukit Timah Station.

All that's left of the signal levers at Bukit Timah Station.

The now fenced up Bukit Timah Station - many hope that the building would remain accessible whatever the plans are for it.

Continuing on the 3 kilometre stretch that will remain open up to the 31st of July.

Towards a very green area that borders the nature reserve at Bukit Timah. One of the thoughts in th green corridor proposal is to allow an uninterrupted green corridor to allow the passage of flora and fauna from the reserve to the southern ridges.


The Green Corridor:

The Green Corridor is an idea that is mooted by the Nature Society (Singapore) (NSS) to keep the railway corridor which extends through much of Singapore as a continuous green corridor, one that the railway has allowed thrive amidst the wave of urbanisation that has swept across much of the Singapore that the railway corridor runs through. A proposal was submitted to the Government of Singapore last October in which the NSS proposes that the corridor be allowed to be retained once railway operations through Singapore stops with the shifting of the terminal station of the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) in Singapore, to Woodlands. The idea also extends to the disused Jurong extension, part of which is currently under threat from the construction of a new road in the Faber Heights area near Clementi.

The NSS’ proposal can be found at this link. More information on the Green Corridor can also be found at The Green Corridor (website). You can also show your support for the Green Corridor by “liking” the We Support the Green Corridor Facebook Page.


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Public feedback sought:

The URA welcomes feedback and ideas from the community in shaping the future development plans for the railway lands. The members of the public are invited to visit and provide their ideas at www.ura.gov.sg/railcorridor/.






A final journey: the last passage to the north

5 07 2011

From where I left off on the previous post, the 0800 Ekspres Rakyat left Tanjong Pagar late at 0838. The train then continued its passage to the north, a passage that I would be able to take in for the very last time from the vantage point of a train – the final homecoming on The Last Train into Tanjong Pagar coming in the dark of night. The passage has been one that I have especially been fond of, taking a passenger on the train past sights of a charming and green Singapore that is hidden from most, sights which in entirety can only taken in from the train. This last passage in the dim light of the rainy morning was one that was especially poignant for me, knowing that it would be one that I would take accompanied by the groan of the straining diesel locomotive, the rumbling of the carriages over the tracks, and the occasional toot of the whistle.

The morning train offered passengers a last glance at the passage through the rail corridor in Singapore.

The short passage takes all but half an hour, taking the train from the greyer built-up south of the island around where Tanjong Pagar Station is, to the greener north of the island. The passage takes the train first out from the platform and through an expansive area where the view of the familiar train yard is mixed with the familiar sights of the Spottiswoode Park flats, the old and new signal houses, and the Spooner Road flats, before it goes under the Kampong Bahru Bridge towards the corridor proper. The initial 10 minutes of the passage is one that brings the train past Kampong Bahru, along the AYE for a distance, before coming to the first bit of greenery as it swings past Alexandra Hospital and up the Wessex Estate area towards the flats to the right at the Commonwealth Drive / Tanglin Halt areas – an area I am acquainted with from spending the first three and the half years of my life in. It is just after this, close to where the actual train stop which gave its name to Tanglin Halt first encounters a newer and more desired railway line, passing under the East-West MRT lines at Buona Vista.

The Spooner Road KTM flats on the left and the Spottiswoode Park flats in the background as well as the expansive train yard provided the backdrop for many a journey out of Tanjong Pagar.

It is soon after that the anticipation builds as the train passes by the Ghim Moh flats towards Henry Park. Just north of this is the area with arguably the prettiest bit of greenery along the entire stretch of the green corridor. We come to that the train passes under the concrete road bridge at Holland Road. The sight of the bridge also means that the train is just a minute or so away from what used to be the branch-off for the Jurong Line which served the huge industrial estate, and then what is perhaps the jewel in the crown along the corridor, the quaint old station at Bukit Timah. At Bukit Timah Station the old fashioned practice of changing the key token to hand back and over authority for the two sections of the single track through Singapore is undertaken, a practice replaced by technology along the rest of the Malayan Railway line. Beyond Bukit Timah is the rather scenic passage to the north through whichtwo truss bridges, four girder bridges and five level crossings are crossed before reaching the cold and unfriendly train checkpoint at Woodlands. That offered the passenger the last fifteen minutes to savour the passage through Singapore and some of the sights that will not be seen again. The level crossing are one of those sights – something that is always special with the sight of cars waiting behind the barriers or gates, yielding to the passing train – a rare sight that I for one have always been fond of seeing. All too soon it had to end … the rain washed morning provided an appropriate setting for what now seems like a distant dream, one of a forgotten time and certainly one of a forgotten place.

The 30th of June saw the last time the exchange of key tokens being carried out along the KTM line. Bukit Timah Station was the last place where the old fashioned practice of handing authority to the trains using a single track was carried out on the Malayan Railway.

II

the last passage to the north

0839: A last glance at Tanjong Pagar Station as the Ekspres Rakyat pulls out.

0839: A quick glance the other way at teh old signalling house ...

0839: The train pulls past the cluster of houses before the train yard comes into sight.

0839: The new signalling house comes into sight.

0840: The train passes a locomotive being moved from the train yard.

0840: A ast glance at where the Spooner Road flats which housed the railway staff and their families.

0843: A passenger Gen smiles in the passageway of the train carriage. Gen was the last to decide to join the group, deciding only to do so the previous day.

0848: The train passes under the new railway, the MRT line at Buona Vista. Hoardings around seem to indicate that the area would soon be redeveloped.

0848: The Ghim Moh flats come into view.

0851: Through the greenest area of the Green Corridor - the Ulu Pandan area close to where the Jurong Line branched off.

0853: Bukit Timah Station comes into view ...

0853: Key tokens are exchanged as a small crowd looks on ... the train slows down but doesn't stop.

0853: The train crosses the first of two truss bridges over the Bukit Timah Road ...

0854: A look back towards the bridge and Dunearn Road ....

0854: The train speeds past Rifle Range Road and the strip of land next to what was the Yeo Hiap Seng factory .... this is one area that I well remember on my first train journey in 1991 when the narrow strip of land hosted the small wooden shacks of many squatters who occupied this stretch of railway land.

0854: A glance at to the right at Rifle Range Road

0854: Passing over the danger spot close to where the short cut many take to Jalan Anak Bukit is.

0854: The train passes under the road bridges at Anak Bukit ...

0855: The bridges at Anak Bukit are left behind ...

0855: Over the girder bridge at Hindhede Drive

0856: The very green corridor near Hindhede Quarry ...

0856: Into the mist at the foot of Bukit Timah Hill towards the second truss bridge.

0857: A passenger Angie, sticks her head out to have a better look at the amazing greenery.

0858: The train continues on its way after crossing the second truss bridge.

0858: Through the Hillview pass.

0859: A lone man greets the train with an umbrella near the Dairy Farm Road area.

0859: The greenery greets the train around the Bukit Gombak area.

0859: The closed gate and waiting cars at the first of five level crossings at Gombak Drive.

0900: Towards the second and widest level crossing at Choa Chu Kang Road ... Ten Mile Junction comes into view.

0900: A small group of people gathered at the Choa Chu Kang Road level crossing to greet the passing train. The signal hut marks the location of what was Bukit Panjang Railway Station from where the first train to pull into Tanjong Pagar Station departed on 2nd May 1932 at 4.30 pm.

0901: Across the Bukit Panjang (or Choa Chu Kang Road) level crossing and under another new railway line - the Bukit Panjang LRT.

0902: Past an area I became acquainted with through my days in National Service ... the Stagmont Hill area.

0903: Across the third level crossing at Stagmont Ring Road.

0904: The fourth level crossing the Mandai crossing at Sungei Kadut Avenue.

0904: Past the KTM houses at Sungei Kadut Avenue and onward towards Kranji.

0907: Across the last (and narrowest) of the level crossings at Kranji Road and on towards Woodlands Train Checkpoint.

0907: Looking back at the Kranji level crossing and at the last of the rail corridor through Singapore ... time to get left to disembark the train for immigration clearance out for the very last time.

0908: Arrival at Woodlands Train Checkpoint - no photo taking allowed.


Posts on the Railway through Singapore and on the Green Corridor:

I have also put together a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station which can be found through this page: “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Do also take a look at the proposal by the Nature Society (Singapore) to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, at the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page. My own series of posts on the Green Corridor are at: “Support the Green Corridor“.






A peek into the early days of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

28 05 2011

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station began its life in the fourth decade of the 20th Century, opening with a promise that it was to have been the southern point of a rail network that was to span the continent of Asia and connect to the then well established European rail systems. The vision was an ambitious one, a link would not only be created between Europe and the Far East through the railway, but it would also have the potential to reach across the Pacific and Indian Oceans via sea routes, with Singapore – already then a well established port, serving as the principal gateway.

The first act of the station, was however not as a terminal for the carriage of goods or to see the rush of passengers through its main hall. With the station’s main building close to completion at the end of 1931, it provided a venue for a Manufacturers’ Exhibition that opened on 2nd January 1932.

The exhibition was the first of its kind in Singapore. Coming at a time when the world was still suffering from the effects of the Great Depression, the exhibition purpose was to bring to light Singapore’s hitherto unheard of manufacturing potential. Providing local manufacturers with a platform to showcase their products and capabilities, the exhibition also helped to promote Singapore’s growing importance as a economic centre in the British Far East – with the very grand looking new station as its centrepiece.

The exhibition’s aim, stated in the official guide, had been “to present as many aspects as possible of actual and potential manufacture in Singapore”. Included amongst the exhibitors were companies that were to become household names in Singapore including the likes of Robinsons, John Littles, Malaya Publishing House (which was to later become known as MPH), Diethelm and the Straits Trading Company. Opened by the then Governor of Singapore, Sir Cecil Clementi, the exhibition also provided many members of the public with their first view of the internals of the main building of the new station.

The main building of the station was first used as a venue for the first Singapore Manufacturers’ Exhibition which opened on 2nd January 1932 (image source: Willis’ Singapore Guide, 1936).

The actual opening of the station to railway traffic wasn’t until some months later on the 2nd of May 1932. This was commemorated with the arrival of a passenger train, the first to pull into Tanjong Pagar. As reported by the Straits Times on 3rd May 1932, it “comprised of an engine and three saloons to travel over the new deviation”. Leaving Bukit Panjang Station at 4.30 pm, it carried a load of guests including the Governor, the Sultan of Perak and Mr J Strachan, the General Manager of the FMSR and arrived “punctually at 5.15”.

In his speech at the opening, Sir Clementi was to explain the motivation for building of a station of such a stature, saying:

We stand here at the southernmost tip of the continent of Asia; and, since the Johore Strait is now spanned by a causeway which was opened for traffic on June 28, 1924, we may even say that we stand at the southernmost top of the mainland of Asia. This point is, therefore, a real terminus as well as a natural junction between land-borne and sea-borne traffic; and it is very right that the terminal station of the Malayan railway system should be built at Singapore, the gateway between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and immediately opposite the Tanjong Pagar docks, where every facility will be afforded for interchange between railway and ocean shipping.

The Governor also added 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.”

While this, eight decades later, has not quite come true (although we are still talking about a Pan-Asian rail network) for the station, there is little to dispute Singapore position as a transport and communications node in the modern sense. The Governor could not of course have predicted the phenomenal growth that air transportation was to see at that point in time.

The location of the station, across from the docks at Tanjong Pagar, was deliberately selected so that the southern terminal of the what would have been an intercontinental overland railway network could be integrated with ocean shipping and extend the reach over the Pacific and Indian Oceans (image source: Willis’ Singapore Guide, 1936).

The station, one of many of Swan and McLaren’s masterpieces, even in its current state of disrepair, is a wonderful piece of architecture to marvel at and was described by an article in the 7th May 1932 edition of the Malayan Saturday Post as having a “palatial appearance”. Overshadowed by the towering blocks that have come up at its vicinity,an elevated road, and buildings and containers stacked high at  the docks it was meant to feed, it does however take a bit of effort to take in the station’s grand appearance.

A feature of the grand building that is very noticeable is the entrance arches,which are flanked by four triumphal figures. The work of sculptor Angelo Vannetti from the Raoul Bigazzi Studios Florence, they stand guard over all who pass through the arches and into the station’s grand vaulted hallway. Described as “lofty and cool” in the same article, the main hall extends three storeys or some 21.6 metres above the visitor, providing a “sufficient pocket of air” to allow the hall to be kept cool in what even then must have been the oppressive tropical heat. It is this lobby that impresses the most. Six sets of mosaic panels, designed to resemble batik paintings, catch the visitor’s attention immediately.

The main vaulted hall of the station in its early days. An impressive integration of architecture and public art. The lamps and the clock seen in this picture – has long since disappeared, but the hall remains, even in the state the station building is in today, a particularly impressive piece of architectural work. Caption reads ‘Booking Hall, Singapore Station’ (image source: Willis’ Singapore Guide, 1936).

There is a lot more clutter in the hall today … the lamps and the clock we see in the hall in the station’s early days are also missing.

The Willis’ Singapore Guide (1936), gives us an idea of Tanjong Pagar and the operations of the FMS Railway from the station in and  around the time of the station’s opening. It describes the FMSR as running from Singapore for 580 miles to Padang Besar. There it meets the Royal State Railways of Siam.The FMSR also incorporated a 121¼ miles of the Johore State Railway, which was leased to it.

As is the case today, the East Coast Line branched off at Gemas and extended to the port of Tumpat some 465 miles from Singapore. A short branch line connected the line there with the Siamese Railways at Sungei Golok.

We are also told of a branch line connecting Port Swettenham (now Port Klang) with branches also serving other ports along the west coast of Peninsula Malaya. These were at Malacca, Port Dickson, Teluk Anson and Port Weld.

A total of 1321 miles of metre gauge tracks were laid, providing some 1067 miles of track mileage. The guide also provided information on the daily schedule of trains from Singapore to Penang, with a day and night express service run daily. It would then have taken some 22 hours to reach Penang from Singapore and some 9 hours (which doesn’t seem much different from the journey these days) to reach Kuala Lumpur.

The journey in the 1930s to Kuala Lumpur took some 9 hours.

The express train services in 1936 (source: Willis’ Singapore Guide, 1936)

On the evidence of the guide, which I suppose would for first class travel, the service provided does seem a lot more luxurious and comfortable as compared to what we’ve become accustomed to these days. As described by the guide, the Restaurant Car served “an excellent breakfast, luncheon or dinner”, at a “reasonable price”.

Sleeping Saloons with two berth cabins were provided on the night trains (as they are now) and a “commodious Buffet Parlour Car is attached to the night express trains between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur”. Breakfast, tiffin and tea baskets were also available at the principal stations. This could be ordered en route with the “Guard of the trains or any Station Master” who would have been able to “telegraph free of charge”.

Once the last train pulls out of Tanjong Pagar Station, it would bring to an end a little over 79 years of operation of a station that was to see centuries as one of the ‘most nodal points in the whole world’s scheme of communications’.


The information contained in this post has been put together from various newspaper articles and as well as the Willis’ Singapore Guide 1936, to provide a glimpse into the early days of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

More information on the station and its architecture can be found on a previous post: “A final look at Tanjong Pagar Station“.

I also have a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station and if you care to read about them, do drop by my page “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Also, if you are keen to find out and support the Nature Society’s (Singapore) proposal to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, do drop by the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page. I do also have a series of posts on the Green Corridor if that is of interest – please visit them at “Support the Green Corridor“.






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.]