Thanks to Malaysia, Singaporeans have a place where they can relive the past

tanjong pagar railway

In the final days of Tanjong Pagar Railway

“Bhai makes one of the best teas.” Salem S.O. took a sip of his tea and put his cup back onto the table. The rest of the men around the table nodded in unison and picked up their drinks too. It was a humid Tuesday afternoon and the lunch hour crowd had just left. From 11a.m. on, all of the 50 or so tables at M.Hasan Railway Station Canteen were filled with workers from the nearby port and offices. As the lunch hour ended, the crowd had dispersed, leaving behind their plates of leftover curries and noodle soup and customers like Salem and his uncles.They are the people who neither live nor work nearby, but will travel here as often as once a week, ordering multiple rounds of teas and lingering to admire their surroundings. In the evenings and during weekends, they even come with their families — all three generations in tow — as part of their weekly or monthly gatherings.

All the food in this canteen is Halal: no pork, and all other animals except fish are slaughtered according to Islamic law, which explains why most of the customers are Muslims. But the food is only part of the reason why Salem and the others alike keep coming back here. Except for the one or two outstanding dishes, the Malay and Indian cuisines served here, according to them, are common and ordinary in taste. What keeps them attracted to this canteen is that it looks, smells and sounds like the past. The aged stonewalls and exposed water pipes; the train engines’ deafening boom; and the pungent smell of belacan that wafts freely in the air and then clings to people’s clothes — all of them attract the connoisseurs of the old and the forgotten.

This canteen was set up in 1982, by a Bhai named Mahmoodol Hasan. Bhai is a mispronunciation-turned-common-reference for the Bengalis, Muslims from the Bengal region of India, usually spotted with their turbans and long beards. The term also refers to other Indian Muslims who share similar traits. Mahmoodol, who came from New Delhi, wears a skullcap and a long white beard. The Bhais are known for their rich and creamy teh tarik, a type of milk tea that is poured successively from one container to another to cool the drink.

Up till the ’70s, Bhais were commonly seen selling the drink on the streets. Mahmoodol set up his stall outside the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, but moved inside when the government cleared the congested streets, resettling the street hawkers to indoor food centres. But the change of location did not alter the way of being at his canteen. Here, time ticks away at a pace that echoes the olden days. Customers are not wolfing down their meals, but taking their time as they eat and chit chat. Some sit down for hours with just a cup of tea. Such behavior would have invited stares from shop owners of other coffee shops hungry for the next customer, but Mahmoodol doesn’t mind at all. He said this is the “old style”.

The canteen’s antiquated approach has much to do with its location. The station it is in was built in 1932 as part of the British plans to facilitate travels between Singapore and Malaysia. While it is located in the former, the station and the accompanying land belongs to the Malayan Railways Limited, a company owned by the Malaysian government better known as Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM).
This once neighbourly arrangement soon turned into an ugly tussle of legalistic states’ rights. The station, which is on the skirts of the business district, sits on a prized land. Singapore wanted very much to acquire this land and develop it into something of greater economic value. It had many times proposed to relocate the station and offered to compensate KTM with another land of equal value, but was rejected time and again. This impasse has helped to preserve the station. From the grand European architecture to the station clock that has stopped at 1.28 for years, and the signboards set in an outdated typeface to the train platform’s faded yellow demarcation, it has been left untouched, quietly withering against the backdrop of the flourishing city.

Signboard's old school typeface

Signboard’s old school typeface

“Nothing here has changed,” said Salem. It is a rare thing to say about almost anything in Singapore. Since independence in 1965, the Singapore government has made development its topmost priority. Pre-independence buildings were demolished and replaced with international-style glass edifices. Construction sites are such common sights that locals called the tower crane Singapore’s “national bird”, to poke fun at the country’s speed of change and to lament the histories that were forsaken for economic success. Malaysia’s refusal to move the station is often seen as spiteful and intentional to hinder Singapore’s rapid development. But this has turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Singaporeans desperate to hold on to a slice of the past. Many are convinced that the station would have been gone by now if Singapore had succeeded in acquiring the land. “It would have been an extension of the container port,” said Lito Tan, a customer who travelled halfway around Singapore on a cab just to have his fix of the station’s famous nasi briyani, a spiced rice serve with meat curry.

The station sits directly behind what is the world’s largest container transshipment hub, where cranes work feverishly 24 hours a day to move containers in and out of the country efficiently and on time — a symbol of Singapore’s drive for perfection. But as Yazrin Mohd Ami, a regular customer to the canteen, puts it, “people always remember the imperfections.” The soccer coach had brought his two young daughters here to share his stories about the station’s peculiar features, from its wobbly ceiling fans to its signage in Malay, a change from the generic-looking air-conditioned fast food joints that his girls prefer.

Some also come here to find the freedom associated to the old Singapore, when it was less systematic and orderly. “Those were the good times,” said another customer B.P. Lim. He remembers the days when people used to dip their skewers into the same pot of gravy at the street hawker stalls. It may be seen as unhygienic, but to that, B.P. said: “We are still alive isn’t it?” Customers at the canteen do not share their food with one another, but they occasionally throw out their leftovers on to the railway tracks for the hungry birds sneaking at the platform. Feeding stray animals is not illegal, but littering is. Despite that, nobody at the canteen seems shackled by the restrictions.

Even though Singapore maintains its sovereignty over the land where the station is, its neighbour still owns it, giving rise to a laissez faire environment within a country known for its strict rules and regulation. Besides the fragrance of the food, one is also often shrouded by the smell of burning cigarettes in the canteen. There are people smoking at almost every table, even though the law states that only 20 per cent of an outdoor eating area is allowed for smoking. A stallholder, who declined to be named, said the authorities seldom check on them “because this is Malaysia’s land.”

There are many things about the railway station that hasn’t changed, but its role to Singaporeans has evolved. Over the years, it has silently transformed itself from an umbilical cord of the two countries, transporting them from one to another, to becoming just a thread for Singaporeans like Salem and Yazrin to hold on to their past. According to Mahmoodol, most of the visitors to the station are here to eat, as Singaporeans today are more likely to drive their own cars than to take a train to Malaysia and vice versa. He estimates only 10 per cent of his customers are train passengers. Soon, even these people will stop coming too. In May last year, the leaders of both countries finally agreed to cease the railway operations here by July this year and relocate the terminus to a new checkpoint. While the station building will be preserved as a national monument, Mahmoodol has been told to leave after his lease ends in June.

Without the canteen, without the food, and without the trains to facilitate the reminiscences, it is unlikely that people will still come back. Ironically, Mahmoodol feels what has been luring his customers here is also bringing his business to a grounding halt. He believes that the station’s worn out look is an eyesore to Singapore and blamed KTM for not maintaining the building. “Because it’s ugly. Singapore doesn’t like,” he said. “If they (KTM) do nicely, maybe Singapore won’t take it back.” Mahmoodol is still hoping. If the government would grant him his wish to continue operating in the station, he promises to “renovate the canteen to make nicer”, although he is not sure if it will still mean the same to his customers.

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