Accord ends oddity of empire in mini-Malaysia

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 September, 2001, 12:00am

There are not many experiences in Singapore that one can fairly describe as surreal. Vigilant policing means recreational drugs are scarce, the city-state is run with exacting efficiency and many people arrange their lives in a predictable fashion.

But there is at least some head-spinning release to be had at the railway station - a lofty, antiquated masterpiece that sits between the container port and the business district.

Book your ticket for Kuala Lumpur, pack your bags and head for the train. As you approach the platform, an official will check your passport, look you up and down and satisfy himself that it is OK for you to enter . . . Malaysia.

All this happens, however, before you have actually left the country you are in.

Singapore's immigration comes only long afterwards, near the Causeway on the northern side of the island.

The station's bizarre practice has its roots both in the days when the two territories were part of the British empire, and in the troubled relationship that modern Singapore and Malaysia have experienced since.

The Tanjong Pagar building has changed little since the ribbon was cut in 1932, with glorious murals and ornate statues celebrating the rubber and tin industries. Back then, it was owned by Malayan Railways. These days it is operated by Keretapi Tanah Melayu, its Malaysian successor.

Even after Singapore split from the federation in 1965, the railway station remained part of the neighbouring country's territory, an unchanging 'mini-Malaysia' bordering the city's booming downtown.

The unusual arrangement was one of many irritants between the two sides, especially when Singapore shifted its own Customs and immigration to the north in the 1990s, kicking off the weird passport routine that applies today.

At the time, Singapore officials suspected that drug traffickers were tossing parcels of dope to colleagues waiting beside the tracks, and they wanted to check luggage as soon as the trains entered their territory.

All the strange practices, however, are now destined to end. This month, Singapore and Malaysia agreed to settle all their niggling disputes, including the thorny issue of the station.

As part of a complex formula, a tunnel will be driven under the waterway between the countries and the station shifted to the north, near Kranji. The Tanjong Pagar plot will then revert to the ownership of Singapore, which may bring in the wrecking ball.

'It is changing,' one station vendor said. 'But that tunnel, it won't open until 2007, so we've still got some time.'