As an avid hiker and trekker, I have taken the KTM train from Tanjong Pagar to the rural areas of Malaysia. The train often was a more direct means of getting to those places than the buses were, since it passed through many small towns that could be reached by bus only after transferring buses at a major city.
As someone who trekked as a means of escaping the stresses of city life, I thus associated Tanjong Pagar Railway Station as the gateway to relief from my oppressive ordinary life. Once I stepped into the station, I could look forward to a few days of “simple” living, where my primary activity would be putting one foot in front of the other. I would be uncontactable by phone. If anyone wanted to come and get me to do things, they would have to walk to me through a few days of leech-infested jungle. That element of physical obstruction made me feel further away from my ordinary life than I would have if I’d flown to Tokyo.
For a few days, I would not have to observe daily the expressions of desperate and earnest striving written all over the faces of the workers and students of Singapore. For a few days, I would be exposed to a wider variety of sights than I had been in the entire year before. Not just the natural sights, but the more inhomogeneous look of Malaysian urban areas, compared to Singapore’s.
The tidiness of Singapore’s urban scenery becomes oppressive after a while. When everything is orderly, one wonders what terrible things have been done to the disordered. One gets bored from the predictability of things. Why do I prefer trekking on an obstacle-strewn jungle trail to walking on a smooth concrete pavement? Because I get bored walking on the latter. In a similar way, even negotiating the broken, dirty sidewalks of Malaysian cities becomes a fresh stimulus to my dulled mind. For once, I have to look where I’m going, because there might be something unexpected. The unexpected has no place in Singapore.
This mental association of Malaysia with escape from mind-numbing dullness strengthened over the years to the extent that even seeing the railway tracks would send a warm fuzzy feeling through me. When I worked in Biopolis, I would cross the railway tracks every day walking to and from Commonwealth MRT. There was a more ‘civilised’ route to Buona Vista MRT, but I loved the ‘back route’ to Commonwealth because there was a very short trek on a muddy path down a steepish hillock to the railway tracks. Even this short section of ‘greenery’ (by Singapore’s standards) lifted my mood a little. Across the tracks were the Tanglin Halt HDB flats, some of the oldest in Singapore. Their age and striking difference from the newer flats turned them in my eyes into a symbol of resistance against homogenisation in the name of development. Going to and from work, I would expose myself to these symbols of resistance, each time nursing a kernel of sadness at the thought that they could not resist for much longer; that Development would soon be victorious. I have not been back in Singapore for two years. I have no idea if they are still there, and I do not really want to know, for fear that they are not.
The moment I mounted the high kerb of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, I would feel that I was ‘in Malaysia’. In Singapore, the kerbs are all of a uniform height, so that one’s legs grow accustomed to it and one does not bother to mentally register the height of any particular kerb that one is stepping on or off from. Just as one’s mind grew accustomed to following instructions in a predictable environment, one’s legs grew used to the features of a predictable physical environment. So the mere fact that one had to mind the height of the kerb at the railway station would, every time, send a jolt through my mind that told me: “You’re somewhere different now.” Then I would enter the main station hall, espy the scruffy yet oddly charming decor, and it would hit me: I was effectively in Malaysia. I would shortly be in a queue in Customs, and I would get into a metal snake that would take me away. Away from the routines that had so numbed me for the past year.
Scruffiness. Another of my primary impressions of the railway. Walking up Rifle Range Road on my way to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, I would observe the railway tracks by the road. On one side, orderly terrace houses. On the other side, shopping complexes, in the middle, these dilapidated colonial-era tracks, surrounding by exuberant vegetation. A little tube of unruliness cutting through this spick-and-span island.
To this day, I enjoy hearing the hoot of trains and watching them pass. And I wonder if it’s because I associate trains with KTM trains, once my means of escape from homogeneity and predictability.