Saturday March 9, 2013
By IGNATIUS LOW
The proposed Singapore-KL rail link brings back memories of childhood jaunts across the Causeway for this Singaporean.
AYER Hitam. Muar. Batu Pahat. As soon as I hear the names, the memories come back.
They are just snapshots now in my mind – faint, faded and incoherent – but I always marvel at the strength of their emotional pull.
The names of these Malaysian towns came up recently as my colleagues in the newsroom discussed the new plan to build a rail link between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Someone showed me a diagram with Muar and Batu Pahat marked out as stations on a rail network.
But I will always remember them as names I saw as a child on the road signs that whizzed by, from the seat of my dad’s cherry red Datsun 100A.
It was the early 1980s and the North-South Highway hadn’t been built yet.
After we endured the long jam to cross the Causeway, we sped away from the mass of cars and people in the cool, brightening morning. Away from the smallness of Singapore, and onto long, limitless roads that seemed to stretch on forever.
Somehow, the first road signs we saw always pointed the way to Ayer Hitam. I was always fascinated by that name, which translates from Malay to “black water” in English. As a child, I used to ask my parents where this mythical black water was, and could we please go and see it.
My parents, at least initially, just told me to be patient. But as the big sign welcomed us into the small town, all I could see were small houses that were starting to line both sides of the road. Here was a school and there was a row of provision shops.
Looking at cars parked in the relatively large compounds around the modest houses, and the kids in uniform cycling around, I remember thinking what it would be like to have been born there instead of in Singapore.
We would always stop somewhere in the heart of Ayer Hitam to have a meal and buy biscuits and snacks from shops that stocked a mouth-watering variety that you could never hope to see in Singapore.
We would also never fail to browse the statues and vases at these stores that stocked rows and rows of ceramics. It would be decades later before I realised how iconic they were in that town.
Before the expressway was built, Ayer Hitam was a major route intersection for travellers and many people like us stopped there.
From Ayer Hitam, you could go north to Kuala Lumpur or east towards Mersing. Yet from this point on in our travels, my memories strangely fade.
According to my parents, we have indeed driven east to Mersing, Johor, and north as far as Malacca. I only have vague flashbacks of sunset seafood dinners in Muar and buying toys in the bustling town of Batu Pahat in Johor. Once, I think I carelessly left my swimming trunks behind in a chalet at Port Dickson, Negri Sembilan.
But even if my memories of these Malaysian towns are weak, those of our journeys there remain strong.
We were a lower middle class family that lived in a three-room flat in Singapore’s Holland Drive. My parents both worked, and my dad took on two jobs for a number of years to make ends meet. We couldn’t afford the time or money to fly out of the country for a holiday.
These road trips to Malaysia were therefore the highlights of our year. My younger sister and I would excitedly pack our favourite pillows and soft toys for the trip.
I loved the excitement of the narrow roads, which were one lane each way at many points. We would squeal with delight as my dad went against traffic to overtake as many as three lorries in one go.
The road network itself fascinated me. When I was old enough, I would sit in the front seat, AA map in hand, reading off each approaching intersection to my dad and counting the milestones that paved the road.
We would also stop, like many others, along the road to buy fruits from makeshift stalls. The return trip home would always be a game of sorts – you had to be eagle-eyed in reading off the prices of durians and mangosteens as the car zoomed past and remember which stalls gave the better deal.
As night fell, my sister and I would stretch out and fall asleep on the roomy back seat – which was wide enough to accommodate both of us lengthwise.
I can’t remember exactly when we stopped driving to Malaysia but it might have been around 1985, when we moved into a larger flat in Hougang.
I was in secondary school by then and had other priorities, and my parents also seemed busier than ever before, especially with the new flat. We would take just one more trip together as a family – in Italy the year that I graduated from a British university.
Singapore was also changing. There seemed to be more malls to visit, more things to do there on the weekend, and the allure of Malaysian towns faded even further.
Like many other Singaporeans, I have stayed away, except for the odd trip to Kuala Lumpur by airplane, mostly for business.
And I find it odd, and a little sad, that I have a greater emotional connection now to more distant cities such as Tokyo, Taipei and Bangkok.
That is why I hope the rail link really materialises as planned.
A whole generation of Singaporeans is waiting to make that reconnection with their past, and many more to create new memories for the future. – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network