Once, when I was about four, I arrived back in Singapore from Seremban on the KTM Ekspres Rakyat to be greeted by members of my family at Tanjung Pagar Railway Station. Only thing was, I didn’t recognise the people who were talking to me.
Only when I heard, in English, “Oi, come back already don’t know how to call Mummy already har?”, did I realise that the woman speaking to me was my mother.
I spent a lot of time in Seremban with my Hainanese paternal grandmother (Ah Por), who’d whisk me away from Singapore, months at a time, because at that time, it was still a little unusual for both parents to be working, and Ah Por took it upon herself to help my parents look after their kids, even though I seemed to be the only one that was afforded this looking after – my sister and brother seemed pretty alright under the care of nannies.
Ah Por’s mode of transport to and from Seremban was the Ekspres Rakyat, and because I was born stateless, (there was no such thing as an automatic right to citizenship by birth in 1969), it was pretty easy to stick my photo into her Malaysian passport and travel wherever she went – which was just two places, usually – Seremban and Singapore.
We travelled first-class, which meant the carriages had some air-conditioning. I can’t remember if that made the journey more comfortable or what, but I remember enjoying the travelling, though I really don’t remember all that much of the trains (the last time I rode on an Ekspres Rakyat was in 1991), except these things:
The toilet – it was always a fascinating thing to take a dump in a hole that went straight onto the tracks. I often wondered if I had ever shat across state lines.
The naaaaasi-lemak-caaaaaaaarly-pop man – he sold nasi lemak and curry puffs on the carriages by calling out ‘naaaaaasi lemak caaaaaarly pop’ every time he boarded from various small stations like Tampin or Kulai and I’d always plead with Ah Por to get me some to stuff myself with (so that I could crap across state lines later).
The long delays – it was almost always expected that there’d be a delay of some sort on any train journey in Malaysia, and I remember once, when the train stopped at Gemas (where the railyards were, if I remember correctly), and then pulled out of the station in the wrong direction for reasons unknown, unless you counted all the speculative reasons the other passengers came up with – animal on track, suicide on track, animal suicide, drunk train driver, etc.
But in those days, it didn’t matter how late you arrived in Seremban, as long as you got there eventually, so delays were really no big deal, even if it meant asking a relative to drive from Seremban to Segamat to pick you and your grandson up, because the train suda rosak tak jalan lagi.
Furthermore, the five hour travelling time (excluding delays) was still slightly faster than if you took one of the even more unreliable buses from Singapore, or if you bothered to drive up in the pre-North-South-Highway days. (And trains didn’t have to stop for you to relieve yourself across state lines).
Occasionally, my whole family – Pa, Mummy, sis, brother and me, would take the train to Seremban, with about a ton of goods for the relatives because in Malaysia, you couldn’t get such quality things as the latest fashion, the latest in powdered/dried beverages, and the latest in barbecued pork.
In those days, anything that was brand new had to be taxed by the Malaysian Customs Service. This meant bargaining and pleading with the Kastam officers that the brand new stereo you were buying for your cousin was actually 2 years old and you had a (forged) receipt to show for it. This usually involved a protracted negotiation, and was also one of the causes of delays in the train service, especially since you were checked for goods prohibited from being brought into Malaysia before you actually departed Singapore.
The Kastam checkpoint at Tanjung Pagar then was just two benches on the platform itself, with a dozen officers rummaging through your bags and telling you that a particular item ‘tak boleh lah, ada problem, ini’, which is Malaysian Kastam lingo for ‘let’s begin the negotiations’.
My father used to demonstrate his Kastam Ekspres Lane system. What he’d do was place his suitcase (and ours) onto the bench, and then open his first such that his hand was behind the open case, facing the Kastam officer, with a ten-dollar note conveniently visible to that officer. He was then instructed to close his suitcase and be on his way to the carriages, ten dollars lighter.
I had forgotten what an imposing and grand building the Tanjung Pagar Railway station was until I came across this Malaysian trainspotter’s website, and decided to go and take a look again.
It still looks the same as it did all those years ago, except for the little food court, and the lounge reserved for passengers of the Eastern & Oriental Express service – the really really expensive train ride that takes you from Singapore to Thailand. Probably the only difference was the emptiness of the place – it used to be such a bustling station, and I suppose the North South Highway and the really comfortable express buses have lessened the appeal of the slower train ride.
My parents’ generation still call the KTM and its stations Malayan Railway, and although I don’t think they have any sentimental attachment to the Tanjung Pagar station, some of my older relatives used to remark that the flyover that is part of the Ayer Rajah Expressway was ‘built there on purpose’ so that it would ‘block the eyesore’ that is the railway station, seeing that the station is a little run-down and dilapidated (just drive into the car park and the potholes will prove it so).
In more recent times, the Tanjong Pagar station was known to me and my friends as the place to go to for cheap ‘Malaysian-like’ hawker food, including the famous heavily-seasoned, beef-dripping patty sandwich known as Ramly Burger (which, to my knowledge, is so good, it’s banned in Singapore). There apparently was also a pub that was, according to a friend from the Sunday Times who asked if I would accompany him on a ‘sleaze patrol’ for a story, staging illegal strip shows after dark.
It will be a pity when the station is finally torn down to make way for whatever it is the city’s planners have in store for the area. But in the meantime, as long as talks as regards the water supply, the causeway and the railway continue to stall, there’ll still be time to saunter into the grand old building and appreciate the place, from the old decor to the more recent signboards – including a placard sometimes placed at the Kaunter Tiket that announces ‘Komputer Rosak’.