Jul 26, 2011

Our Prime Minister Lee, Singapore's Chief Railway Fan

Source: MAS

The end of KTM railway operations between Tanjong Pagar and Woodlands and the consequent return of railway land to the state triggered an outpouring of memories and lamentations from the public, of the once active railway line and stations. The last few weeks stretching into July marked the largest photography documentation of the rail corridor, including Tanjong Pagar and Bukit Timah Stations. Suddenly everyone becomes a rail fan, in one way or another. Interestingly if there is such a title as "Chief Rail Fan", much like the scouting movement has a Chief Scout, then one person would be most deserving of this label. Do you know who is he?

It may seem strange that Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore, should be honoured as the Chief Railway Fan. After all, did he not have a direct hand in the cessation of railway services between Tanjong Pagar and Woodlands? The subsequent removal of tracks, like the revert of railway land to Singapore, could be described as his political achievement.

From my memory, three incidents stand out that shows the love and interest our PM have for trains and the railway:

1. Meeting Ong Pang Boon in KL

The recent news on the establishing of a Ong Pang Boon Bursary in NUS (with contributions from surviving old guards like Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Toh Chin Chye and Mr Chan Chee Seng) reminded me of the following account in Lee Kuan Yew's memoirs The Singapore Story. The year must be 1956, after Lim Yew Hock replaced David Marshall as Chief Minister and the pro-communists in the PAP started to gain a stronghold in the party.

I decided it was time to take my annual fortnight's holiday. I drove up to Cameron Highlands with Choo and Loong, stopping on the way at the Station Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. We chose it because Loong was fascinated by trains, and we took him down to the platform to see them arrive and depart. But there was a more important reason for staying in Kuala Lumpur. In response to a letter I had sent him earlier, Ong Pang Boon came to the hotel to see me.

Ong Pang Boon would be 27 years old at that time and our future Prime Minister, only 4! Lee Kuan Yew's meet-up with Ong at the Station Hotel - in the episode Ong's selfless dedication shone through - would lead to him joining PAP as its first full-time Organizing Secretary, his salary paid for by a big chunk of Lee's MP for Tanjong Pagar allowance.

The young Ong Pang Boon, future cabinet minister, also PAP's first Organizing Secretary. (Source: Parliament)

Ong Pang Boon delivering an address at NUS following the establishing of a bursary under his name.

2. Eulogy for Mdm Kwa Geok Choo

When his mother passed away in October 2010, Prime Minister Lee delivered a eulogy and an excerpt is as follows.

Mama did not believe in spoiling her children. When we were small, she would walk with us down Oxley Road to a little stationery and book shop along Orchard Road, now long gone. I think it was called Naina Mohamad and Sons. I was interested in trains, and remember in particular one book all about trains displayed in the shop. It was a hardcover book, old and slightly shop-worn, really meant for adults rather than children. I found the book fascinating, but I was not to get it easily. Each time we visited the shop, I would look at it and reluctantly put it back. Only after many visits did she finally agree to buy the book, which I kept and treasured for years.

Can anyone recall the location of Naina Mohamad and Sons along Orchard Road? His account certainly leads us into wondering about the fate of the book or at least its title. If there ever is going to be a train museum of sorts in Singapore, I recommend that this hardcover book, coming from the Chief Railway Fan, should be the centerpiece artifact.

Kwa Geok Choo, Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong
Mdm Kwa with husband Lee Kuan Yew carrying the future Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong. Can you guess the boy's age? This is the boy who got to train-spot at the platform of KL Station due to his fascination with trains. (Source: CNA)

3. ST Letter to the Forum

In the third and last incident, PM Lee wrote a letter to ST Forum, expressing his joy of discovering the purpose of "token passing", by the station master to the train driver at Tanglin Halt, after 50 years! The timing of his letter in early May 2010 appears to be too coincidental; after all it was during the Singapore-Malaysia Leaders’ Retreat on 24 May 2010 that he issued a joint statement with Prime Minister Najib on moving the POA forward [link]. I did not know it then that the letter was a harbinger of bad news.

Puzzle solved 50 years later, thanks to ST photo story

I LEARNT something from the '6:39pm' picture in The Straits Times yesterday.

When I was a very little child, my parents used to take me to the railway station at North Buona Vista Road, where the Biopolis now is, to watch the train passing in the evening.

(The train station is gone now, but the track still runs there, and the area is still called Tanglin Halt.)

I used to see the station master handing a bag to the driver of the train each time it passed, looking exactly like this photo, and wondered why he did that. I never found out until now.

Today, after more than 50 years, I discover that it actually contains a brass token, and is a safety measure to ensure that the train with the token is the only one on that two-way section of track!

Lee Hsien Loong
Prime Minister

Certainly PM Lee did not need 50 years to find out the truth about the bag, even if the "6.39pm" picture was a once-in-50-years freak capture by a journalist. When Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew were there with him at Tanglin Halt, one wonders why the son did not ask the parents, both top students in Malaya, the purpose of the bag; and if the question elicited a blank stare, why the parents, both who could speak good Malay, did not approach the station master with the query. Before the NEP in 1970s, Malayan Railways would have hired a sizable number of non-bumiputras, some could even be British, but even if we allow this scenario, there is no reason why the trio could not communicate their question to the station master.

ST May 3 2010
The 6.39pm picture mentioned by PM Lee. Thanks to Nicholas Lim, another railway fan from Singapore, who scanned it for me in 2010.


Anonymous said...

so why the trio could not communicate their question to the station master??

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering myself as well. Can't seem to figure it out.