A little slice of Malaya in Spooner Road
A great place to tell a story of Singapore’s transport history is Spooner Road, a rather nondescript road branching off Kampong Bahru Road in two directions. Its story, spanning almost a hundred years, covers the coming and going of different modes of transport, and the arrival and departure of a little slice of Malaya.
The railway came to Singapore as the Singapore-Kranji Railway in 1903, but a good part of the track was realigned by 1932. The new southern terminus of the railway, by then known as the Federated Malay States Railway (FMSR), was Singapore or Tanjong Pagar Station.
To accommodate the station and railway yards, an area of mostly open land between Kampong Bahru Road and Keppel Road in the south of the island, next to the Tanjong Pagar docks and wharves, was chosen.
Below is a map of the area in 1923, before the railway track was realigned. Much of the open land was known as “Western Reclamation”, perhaps because the area was once marshy, and had been reclaimed. On hillier ground stood the bungalows of Raeburn Park and Spottiswoode Park.
Below is a map of the area in 1934, after the railway pulled in.
To create space for the railway yards and accommodation for railway staff, part of Kampong Bahru Road was realigned to the west; most of the original Kampong Bahru Road, now split in two segments by the railway track, was renamed Kampong Lama Road and Spooner Road (shaded blue) respectively.
“Kampong Lama” means “Old Village”, as compared to “Kampong Bahru” (“New Village”); Spooner Road was named after Charles Edwin Spooner, the first General Manager of the FMSR (below). This honour was posthumous - Spooner had died in 1909, aged 55.
To underscore the fact that the railway was Malayan, accommodation blocks north of the railway yards were named after Malayan sultanates - there were Perak Flats, Selangor Flats, Pahang Flats, Johore Flats, Kedah Flats, Kelantan Flats. There was also an FMSR Running House or Running Bungalow, a rest stop for train drivers.
Below is a map of the area in 1970.
What’s intriguing about the map is that the location of the FMSR Running Bungalow had shifted to its present location, closer to the Kampong Bahru junction. Online articles state that the bungalow was built in the 1930s, but they omit this shift in location. As detailed maps of the area are difficult to come by, I am not sure when exactly the move took place. For now, looking at the 1934 and 1970 maps, I can conclude that the present FMSR Running Bungalow was erected sometime between these two years.
There’s more. A search of the newspaper archives reveals that other flats in the area were named after more Malayan states - there were the Negri Sembilan Flats and Perlis Flats.
Today, just two blocks of flats stand in the area - Kemuning (“Orange Jasmine”) and Melati (“Jasmine”), or 1 and 2 Spooner Road. The footprints of these blocks are too close to the footprints of the Perak and Selangor Flats for all four buildings to have existed at the same time. Hence, I deduce that the Perak and Selangor Flats - and possibly the other flats named after Malayan states - were demolished to make way for the Kemuning and Melati blocks.
When did this urban redevelopment take place? The Perak Flats last appeared in the newspapers in 1964; the Selangor Flats, 1977. My guess is that sometime after 1977, the demolitions took place, followed by the construction of the Kemuning and Melati blocks. None of the blocks with Malayan state names has survived to the present.
In the late 1980s, a second major channel of transport arrived in the area - the Ayer Rajah Expressway, running westwards from East Coast Parkway. It was laid down parallel to the railway track, past Spooner Road and Kampong Lama Road. Not long after, the latter was expunged; the site is a carpark for Keppel Distripark today.
Below is a map of the area in 1991. (It is a pity that street directories did not show railway buildings.)
Sometime between 1993 and 2007, Spooner Road was realigned into two branches. One branch served the Kemuning and Melati blocks; another served the railway yard.
Below is a map of the area in 2007.
The junction of Spooner Road (left) and Kampong Bahru Road (right) in 2008.
Significant changes came to the area from 2011, after a 108-year era of rail in Singapore came to an end. The railway track from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands closed for good; the rail operator, Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM), returned to Singapore the land on which the railway yard and surrounding buildings stood.
Once Singapore took back the land, it was only a matter of time before redevelopment happened. The track was removed; the yard and its buildings demolished.
The junction of Spooner Road (left) and Kampong Bahru Road (right) in 2013. On the left, the railway building has disappeared.
Between 2016 and 2019, the stretch of Kampong Bahru Road in the area was widened from two lanes to four. Meanwhile, Spooner Road was extended to the east to serve another mode of transport - by 2019, Kampong Bahru Bus Terminal opened. Spooner Road was once named because of rail, but is now associated with buses.
Kampong Bahru Road in 2019. It has been widened, and the old junction with Spooner Road has shifted.
What has stood the test of time - for now - are the Kemuning and Melati blocks.
Entering Spooner Road, I passed a crumbling police post, with the sign “Polis” reminding me that it was built by the Malaysians, not Singaporeans.
The post originally guarded an entrance to the railway yard, but because of the realignment of Spooner Road, it now “guards” the way to the Kemuning and Melati blocks.
The post was in a sorry state, with rubbish strewn all over.
I initially thought the post was as old as the railway itself, but according to Google Street View, it was built very recently, sometime between 2008 and 2013. Nevertheless, I hope it can be conserved as part of Singapore’s railway heritage.
The Running Bungalow. Up to 2018, it was used as a Modern Montessori pre-school, but it presently lies empty.
The Kemuning and Melati blocks, painted a delicious kueh-like green and yellow. Currently, they are rental flats.
The Kemuning block - 1 Spooner Road.
The blocks, at least four decades old, have been deprived of the usual Housing & Development Board (HDB) upgrading, making them an urban time capsule: Old doors and grilles, window shutters, old lifts with no windows, laundry racks for the ground-floor units.
There is an open-air carpark between the two blocks (I was facing the Melati block here.)
The Melati block - 2 Spooner Road.
The Melati block as seen from Kampong Bahru Road.
The walkway from Kampong Bahru Road down to the Melati block - the blocks are on lower terrain than the road.
The ground-floor lift lobby of the Melati block.
The old lifts.
Like other old blocks, the common corridor faces out.
And like other old blocks, the lift lobbies are spacious.
The future facing the past - the Melati block offers a good view of the upcoming Avenue South Residence condominium project at 1 Silat Avenue, with two towering 56-storey blocks.
According to the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s 2019 Master Plan, the area is slated for housing, but “subject to detailed planning”.
The Spooner Road area is part of the future Greater Southern Waterfront. It is a short distance from Cantonment MRT Station, which will be integrated with the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station by 2026. I can’t envision the area not being redeveloped in the future, which could entail the demolition of the Kemuning and Melati blocks, and further realignment of Spooner Road. But I hope some form of railway heritage can be retained.