Fate of historic train station stirs nostalgia in Singapore

No more glittering shopping malls, chic restaurants and expensive condos, please!


The fate of a shabby but historic Malaysia-owned train station tucked away in an obscure corner of ultramodern Singapore's port and business district is stirring nostalgia for a bygone age.

The Tanjong Pagar station, built during British colonial rule over the two countries, is to be vacated by July 2011 under a recent deal to settle a longstanding land dispute between the two neighbours.

The Singapore terminal is to be relocated to Woodlands, a northern suburb across a narrow strip of water from Malaysia. A causeway that includes the rail tracks connects the two countries.

With its faded facade and four imposing life-size marble sculptures atop the main entrance, the station is an anomaly in a landscape dominated by office towers, hotels and high-rise apartment blocks.

The four sculptures represent agriculture, commerce, transport and industry - key symbols of economic prosperity during the heyday of British rule until the late 1950s.

Time seems to stand still in the cavernous but sparsely furnished passenger hall of the 78-year-old terminal, which relies on exhaust fans and breezes blowing in from outside to provide relief from the stifling tropical heat.

Lunchtime is always busy - not from passenger traffic but from customers of Malaysian delights offered by food stalls such as the greasy Ramly Burger, featuring a beef or chicken patty wrapped in a fried egg.

There are no digital boards showing departure and arrival times of the service, which stops at sleepy towns until reaching Kuala Lumpur seven hours later even though the Malaysian capital is just 367 kilometers (228 miles) away.

Instead, a blue board with the service schedule is mounted on one side of the hall and any changes to the timing have to be made manually by station staff.

The future of the station as well as other Malaysian railway land to be handed back to Singapore will be part of an ongoing review by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) on land use in the next 40 to 50 years.

"The land parcels will be put to optimal use," the Ministry of National Development said.

In a country where land is scarce and many colonial buildings have been refitted for commercial use, a group of Singaporeans has started a petition to preserve the station and its rich history for future generations.

"I want them to know that once upon a time, this station connected Singapore to the rest of the world... before Internet made it easy to Google for anything," Carolyn Seet, who started the petition in July, told AFP.

"Old buildings remind you of your roots," said Seet, an IT specialist who also created a public Facebook account called "Turn Tanjong Pagar Station into a Museum."

On Facebook, Seet wrote: "Not another restaurant. Not another condo. We need some culture and history. Think Musee D'Orsay. Not just about making money!"

The Musee D'Orsay is a museum in Paris housed in a former railway station.

Seet says she hopes to gather at least 1,000 signatures by the end of the year before handing the petition to the office of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The petition contains a few proposals including turning the station into a museum to showcase the roles of various means of transport in Singapore's rapid rise from a sleepy tropical port to a world trading hub.

As of the first week of October, the petition had gathered just 360 signatures.

Seet says her campaign is driven partly by the demolition of several history-rich buildings to make way for the country's urban development, and she worries her two young boys will have no inkling of Singapore's past from the urban architecture.

"To me, this is the last bastion," Seet said of the station, which holds plenty of fond childhood memories since it was there that she embarked on her first train ride to Malaysia.

Ho Weng Hin, an architectural conservation specialist who is co-authoring a book on the building's history, said the British made a strategic decision to have the railway building next to the port.

"The station was built next to the port for a good reason," said Ho, a partner of architectural restoration and research consultancy Studio Lapis.

"It is from here that valuable Malayan commodities such as tin and rubber were transported to the rest of the world. The railway line expanded British clout in Malaya," he said.

Malaysia, formerly known as Malaya, was under British rule until the late 1950s. Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia briefly in 1963 before it gained statehood in 1965.

Ho said the station could be described as Singapore's version of New York City's famous Grand Central Terminal building.

"Part of what makes a city great is you have the different chapters of its history still functioning and still accessible to the people," he said, adding that historic train stations in Milan and Tokyo have been preserved and kept accessible to the general public.

Lai Chee Kien, an assistant professor with the National University of Singapore's department of architecture, also feels the station's colourful past makes it worth conserving.

"There are not many places left in Singapore that can evoke memories of the pre-independence period," he said.

"Before airplanes became prominent, the railway was the main source of goods and passengers.

"Together with Keppel Harbour, the railway station is an important building that connected people to a larger history involving Singapore and Malaysia."

For 63-year-old Masudul Hasan, who has operated a drinks stall at the station for 26 years, there is little he can do except wait for the day when he will have to lower the shutters for good.

"I will miss the place, it has been so many years," said Masudul, who sleeps for just four hours and spends the rest of his time at the stall.

election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'