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Text by Lu Xingqi / Photographs by Ken Koh

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 was vacated in July 2011 to settle a longstanding land dispute between the two neighbours. The Singapore terminal is now 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 towering presence of the four 20th-century sculptures exudes a dignified sense of legendary charm. Built in 1932, the granite stone artefacts were symbols of British-Malaya’s economic pillars, and a unique amalgam of ancient legacies and colonial glories. The four sculptures represent agriculture, commerce, transport and industry – key symbols of economic prosperity during the heyday of British rule until the late 1950s. Tanjong Pagar Railway Station was very much a part of Singapore’s colonial history and an economic conduit serving the Johor hinterland during the colonial times.

Time seemed to stand still in the cavernous but sparsely furnished passenger hall of the 78-year-old terminal, which relied on exhaust fans and breezes blowing in from outside to provide relief from the stifling tropical heat. Lunchtime was 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. Thick and aromaticsmoke and greasy tabletops became a part of the rustic picture against the stoic architecture of the railway station.

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There were no digital boards showing departure and arrival times of the service that stopped at sleepy towns until reaching Kuala Lumpur seven hours later even though the Malaysian capital is just 367 kilometres (228 miles) away. Instead, a blue board with the service schedule was mounted on one side of the hall and any changes to the timing had to be made manually by station staff.

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

While dawns and dusks characterised by the huffs and puffs of arriving and departing trains no longer feature as part of the living experience for residents in the vicinity, we turn around and examine the implications of the train station’s departure for the two neighbouring countries overlapped on this site of land.

Today’s agreement signifies the final chapter of a longstanding arrangement, which started 20 years ago, has now come to its finality.” Najip Razal, – Malaysian Prime Minister

24 May 2010 was the day the Prime Ministers of two countries sealed a landmark agreement that broke the deadlock over the status of the KTM railway land in Singapore. The signing of the deal marked the end of a long-running saga and the beginning of a new chapter in Singapore and Malaysia relations.

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Going back to the records, Singapore was locked to the 1918 Railway Ordinance that restricted the use of the land to railway operations, preventing the land from being developed. This made Tanjong Pagar Railway Station a physical reminder of Malaya’s sovereignty of the republic. In 1990, former Finance Minister of Malaysia, Tun Daim Zainudin, met with former Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, to help unlock the age-old legacy. Discussions fell through when agreement could not be reached with the two nations’ other shared issue: water. The railway discussion came to a halt.

The 2-decade impasse was finally broken when PM Najip and PM Lee Hsien Loong came to an agreement in the KTM Land Swap Deal. Under the agreement,

• KTM has shifted its Singapore Terminal in Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands since July 2011

• Four land sites in Marina South, Marina Bay and two in Ophir Rochore have been swapped for the KTM land

• Ownership of the railway land’s has reverted to Singapore

• The two neighbours now jointly develop the KTM properties in Tanjong Pagar, Bukit Timah and Kranji.

The Tanjong Pagar Railway Station – a quaint historical oddity that became a legal quagmire. Twenty years of legal wrangling was put to rest by a single stroke of the pen by two leaders from a new generation.

Today, we see the well-worn tracks that had weathered many a year and train replaced by grass. The huffing and puffing and chugging are now gone, and Tanjong Pagar Railway Station sits silently while furniture, memories and life found their own way out. What will become of this empty shell?

In a country where land is scarce and many colonial buildings have been refitted for commercial use, a group of Singaporeans started a petition in July 2011 to preserve the station and its rich history for future generations.

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“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, said. “Old buildings remind you of your roots,” said Seet, 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!” The Musee D’Orsay is a museum in Paris housed in a former railway station. The petition contained 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. Seet said her campaign was driven partly by the demolition of several history-rich buildings to make way for the country’s urban development. She worried that 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 held plenty of fond childhood memories since it was there that she embarked on her first train ride to Malaysia.

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The familiar groan of the straining diesel locomotive and the rumbling of the carriages rattling over the 30-km tracks are now gone forever. And the skyscrapers that loom over the granite and stone railway station are tell tale signs of what is to come. But the memory of this historic monument will survive long after the station’s demise as the people of both countries look back and reflect at the event of the past 20 years with a tinge of sentimentality, relief and anticipation.