Kampong Railway: The Abandoned KTM Tracks That Spawned a Village

You might have seen it as a kid. 

The train screeching and squealing through the heartlands of Singapore. 

You might have even been on it, to destinations like Kuala Lumpur or Johor. 

Everyone knows of the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) railway line that runs from Woodlands to Tanjong Pagar. It’s the stretch of tracks that is currently being turned into the Green Corridor — an urban park of sorts. But did you know that there is another, more obscure railroad hidden in Jurong?

In the 1960s, just as Singapore was embarking on its period of rapid industrialisation, it was announced that Jurong was to be the site of Singapore’s second port and a massive industrial estate. But there was a problem here. Jurong was still a rural area, with inadequate roads and infrastructure. The region was also sparsely populated, and had dense rainforests and swamps. This would make the trade and the transport of goods much harder. In order to solve this issue, the government decided to extend the main railroad line from Malaysia to Singapore towards the newly-established industrial estate.

The construction of this freight line saw the leveling of hills, the filling in swamps and ponds, and the construction of tunnels and bridges. With such high levels of investment, there were also high expectations. The link was expected to transport 500,000 tons of goods within a year of its opening and be a springboard for growth. These hopes were soon dashed when the government realised that most companies were not interested in such a railroad, and preferred to move goods by road. As such, by the early 1990s, the line was rarely used and hence, operations were seized.

Grass-laden Travel Routes:  

After its closure, the Jurong tracks have been left largely untouched by the authorities, leading to visible signs of neglect. Grass and weeds grow out of the tracks, fallen branches litter the ground, and the tunnel which was constructed for the line still stands, albeit dark and worn-down.

Considering the lack of activity along the tracks, nature has flourished in recent years. Insects like Shield Bugs and Dried Leaf Cockroaches frequent the leafy grounds, while Mango trees grow adjacent to the tracks. There are also pockets of wildlife within the vicinity, with the most significant one being the Clementi Forest. Situated between Clementi Road and the Jurong KTM tracks, the forest is home to exotic plants like the Durian, Jambu and Tapioca plants.  The discovery of these diverse ecosystems along the Jurong rail tracks have also prompted some activists to advocate for the conservation of the tracks.

The Natives of the Railway: Kampung Sungei Pandan

In 1990s, an elderly Clementi resident known as Ah Or decided to start a farm on a stretch of the tracks — planting yam and sweet potato in order to pass time. Over time, as more elderly Singaporeans got to know about Ah Or and his Kampong, this small group of farming enthusiasts grew in membership by over 3 times. The name Kampung Sungei Pandan was also born. 

Clearing weeds, chasing out snakes and doing most of the labour intensive work themselves, the residents of the Kampong formed a close bond. To many, it was a throwback to an age gone by too fast. It was a place where they could reminisce about and relive the memories of their village upbringing — a luxury in this ever-changing, ever-developing city of theirs. As such, the villagers of this little Kampong enjoyed each other’s company and contributed monetarily whenever there was a need.

In 2012, the community came under threat when the authorities cordoned off Kampung Sungei Pandan. They cited two main reasons for this. Firstly, Ah Or and his friends were illegally occupying state land without paperwork or permission. Earlier, when the land belonged to Malaysia, there was little enforcement of ownership rights. This changed in 2010, when Malaysia transferred the plot of land back to Singapore. Secondly, there were also complaints about mosquitoes breeding in the area, forcing authorities to act.

There was a heated debate on the issue — with many Singaporeans supporting Ah Or’s efforts as it brought residents and the community together. Eventually, the contentious issue was resolved when the SLA decided to regulate the community instead of getting rid of it. A plot of land was given to these residents and the authorities allowed them to continue growing the crops so long as hygiene and sanitation standards were met. 

Up till today, these elderly residents come to the Kampung as part of their daily routine. Chinese music can be heard blasting from an old CD player as the residents farm or rest at the shed that they constructed themselves. 

Praying Grounds: The Taoist Temple

In addition to farming, the Clementi residents also banded together to construct a Taoist altar along the rail line. In 2000, after it was rumoured that praying at the Taoist altar had caused someone to strike lottery, Singaporeans from around the island came to pray at the altar. Very quickly, donations piled up and the altar was renovated and reconstructed into a shrine. 

However, this large crowd of Taoists at the tracks had unintended consequences. It alerted the Malaysian Railway authorities of the illegal place of worship and  in 2002, the KTM officials commanded the evacuation of the area. Not wanting to tear down the shrine they constructed, residents then abandoned the shrine. Thus, over time, the praying ground faded out of the spotlight. 

Present Day Sites

Being a place of living history, one can still visit parts of the Jurong KTM  tracks, to see and the experience this organic, less known part of Singapore. The route one can explore includes, the tunnel at Teban Gardens Estate, Kampung Sungai Pandan and Sunset Way. That being said, it is advisable to go with someone who has knowledge of the tracks as some parts of the tracks have been cordoned off by the authorities. 


Author

Lynn Chew

Contributor

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