[Singapore. Map of the railway tracks]
Malaysia’s KTM railway extends all the way to Singapore’s deep south- relatively speaking, for an island 20km broad. It ends in a melting concrete railway station, a quaint sore-thumb among shiny skyscrapers. I’ve whizzed by it many times in a taxi along the expressway. The flyover affords a peek at the old-fashioned clock topping its veined roof.
Plane is a good way to teleport to Malaysia (less than an hour), but the KTM’s still the better way to travel up north. I heard that KTM has not increased its fares for over twenty years, which explains why the state-owned railway has not upgraded its trains for about the same period of time. The trains are spartan, from its 50s-like construction to its interior. The most exciting bit of your ride, if you do take care of your belongings, would likely be the midnight loo-trip. First you will ballerina-tip-toe your feet past luggage and slippers down the undulating narrow walkway, then strain your biceps hauling the carriage door open, waking up all four bunks sleeping near the door, try not to fall out of the train altogether, and finally invisible-ise yourself to squeeze past the crack between the rusty metal door and dodgy walls.
The toilet is a tiny square the size of a fat man, which means the average person must enter the space at exactly the right angle, lest he risks imbalance manoeuvring to align with the loo – which is a hole in the metal flooring (there is a toilet seat in the cubicle directly oppositie, but no one likes to sit on it). The floor is usually wettest at night, and not non-slip. The rooms are slightly better, only because you don’t share them with thirty other non-gymnasts. It is a good place to thaw out the frigid bunk temperatures though.
Anyway, other surfaces are usually clean enough. The thin white sheets are always pressed and neat.
Late in 2009, KTM finally changed the bunk curtains from a ketupat-green to a gaudy gold. It was probably meant to be festive and luxurious. As the train trundles off, a guard saunters down each carriage, a nasal baritone going ‘tiket, tiket, tiket’. Casual, friendly, half-lenient; stepping into a KTM train is a step into Malaysia. I know i’ve reached my actual destination, usually a neat overnighter to Kuala Lumpur, when the train uncle yells, ‘passport, passport, passport’. Or, when warm Malay vowels comes over the radio, through horrendous static. Malay music always makes me feel like eating kueh-kueh.
But taking the KTM train is not just the relak Malay charm. It’s getting to feel Singapore close to the ground. The slow wade out of the island is well, pretty quick actually, but you snake your way out of Singapore, along trees, bushes, wild grass across the causeway into the vastlands of Malayia. Instead of the smooth gravel Singaporeans are accustomed to, the train trundles along, all clacking tracks and jerky twists. No insulated taxis or air-conned-to-death buses, you can smell the verdant green in Singapore’s night air. Unlike MRT trains, when a KTM train comes to a rusty pause, Singapore actually feels silent, and still.
Singapore feels more like the sturdy island it is when i’m on a KTM train. Even daytime brings only green all around, HDB flats misty in the distance.
Some months ago, they’ve stopped selling tickets via its online site. I heard the train station will move to Woodlands Train Checkpoint, doorstep to Malaysia. The railway land, all 0.24% of Singapore- 3x of Botanic Gardens, will be opened to the Singapore government for development by July 2011. After all the city-glamour projects sprouting up, Nature Society (Singapore)’s proposal is a breath of fresh air. I hope the planners work with what we’ve already got- a historic, living artery through Singapore.
And i hope it remains green.
KTM- Keretapi Tanah Melayu
MRT- Mass Rapid Transit; Sg’s super fast and frequent electric rail service.
HDB- Housing Development Board; Sg’s public housing apartments arranging in maze-like lego-sticks.