Saturday, February 21, 2009

Singapore, Sentimentally

I kid you not when I say my first trip to Singapore was by boat. With that, however, I didn't mean a million-dollar big boy toy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It was an old tongkang (junk) with a faded tarpaulin cover - a true junk in more ways than one. It was rickety and flimsy, but outfitted with a motor.

With a vessel as such, my entry was decidedly inconspicuous. To my credit (and eternal regret!), however, I didn't enter Singapore furtively under the cover of night.

Definitely no rendezvous with shifty-eyed tekongs (boatmen) in the middle of Johore Straits, a la contraband smugglers. If only life was that adventurous!

Instead, I had one of those boring 24-hour immigration passes distributed quite freely then, giving me the freedom to sightsee, shop and litter the streets of Singapore with equanimity (this was well before Lion City became a 'fine' destination).

I was then 17 and a boarder in Sekolah Tun Fatimah, Johore Baru. It was the school holidays (can't recall which term), one of the few that I spent with my mother, stepfather and their children.

Because I was raised by grandparents, my relationship with Mak and her brood was, at best, distant. So, schooling in JB was the perfect way (at least to Grandma) for me to get to know my step-siblings better.

My late stepfather, a miner all his life, was then working in a bauxite mine located in Teluk Ramunia in the district of Pengerang, Johore.

The family relocated to Pengerang in the late 1960s when the iron mine in Bukit Besi, Terengganu, Bapak's last place of work, ceased operations.

The easiest way to get to Pengerang from Johor Baru at that time was also by boat, skimming the shores all the way from Tanjung Puteri, our point of embarkation, to Kampung Sungei Rengit, where Mak and family lived.

If my memory served me correctly, it was a two-hour boat ride from Tanjung Puteri to Kg Sungei Rengit. There were quite a few roads going Pengerang way but the overland route was deemed unsafe for a young woman travelling alone.

Not only were the roads twisting and turning across some remote corners of south-east Johore, the journey was also twice as long compared to sea travel.

For someone prone to travel sickness, puking away into Johore Straits in a two-hour boat ride was a far better alternative than continuously emptying one's guts into a plastic bag in a five-hour bus trip.

It took only 45 minutes by boat from Sungei Rengit to the south-eastern shores of Singapore. I remember the shopping centre we headed for immediately after getting off the boat. It was called Rochor Centre.

For a teenage kampung girl whose shopping till then was pitifully limited to Kedai Payang marketplace in Kuala Terengganu, Rochor Centre was heaven on earth. There were far too many things to contemplate and too little money to spend.

Nonetheless, I was happy as a lark to step foot on Singapore soil, even if my mode of arrival varied very little from that of an Indo-Chinese refugee. I had made it to Singapore!

To my simple mind, being in Singapore meant I had successfully scaled the heights of sophistication. Finally, I had that something extra to crow about to my bucolic peers back home in Terengganu. I had been to Singapore; I had 'arrived'.

Thoughts of those long-ago days crossed my mind when I was in Singapore recently. From the comfort of my 4th floor hotel room with its five-star amenities, superb view and first-class service, my mind couldn't help but wander to 1971.

I could almost feel the young girl's excitement, hand clutching her purse tightly, safe in the knowledge that in the worn purse were some Singapore dollars courtesy of her mother.

My emotion was like a roller-coaster as I recalled how the girl deliberated, long and hard, on how to stretch those dollars to make her Singapore trip worth her while.

Just as the girl has turned into a middle-aged mak cik (aunt), Singapore too has changed. Its vibrancy seemed somewhat muted, its people less harried.

Today's Singapore is also sanitizingly clean and one couldn't quite shake off the "Big Brother Is Watching You!" feeling.

Be that as it may, I enjoyed myself revisiting Singapore, in the way that an old couple enjoy the quiet company of each other..


ray said...

Komen Pak Malim kucing ray yg alim.

Seronok tak, naik bot, kata Pak Malim yg bongkok sabut. Saya takut naik bot, sebab kucing, kan, takut air, kata Pak Malim sambil minum air.

Kak Teh said...

Puteri, I cantremember much my first visit - in terms of going. But coming back - yes, still etched in my mind, those pears and apples that Mak would insist we bring back. And not to mention kain batiks worn, hidden under layers of kain batiks, the custom checks. Those I remember, that was as close as being an accomplice to a smuggler . So exciting for a young kid overdosed on The Adventures of The Secret Seven.

Oldstock said...

Salam Kama,

I bet it was a thrilling boat ride from Sg. Rengit to Singapore. As you said, life back then was a little laid back. Day passes were available, so there was no need to get proper passports. Rochor Centre and the surrounding area (Sungai Road) was a favourite place to shop for cheap stuff.

Seems to me, you are quite familiar with Johor and Singapore. I'm sure there are more interesting stories to tell. Looking forward to these soon :-)

p/s - Kg. Sungai Rengit banyak restoran jual lobster.... sedap.

Kama At-Tarawis said...

Pak Malim, kucing ray yg alim

Naik bot seronok sekali
kata kama yg agak tuli
walaupun pening tak terkira
kata kama yg slow mcm kekura..

Kak Teh - you are soo right, all those batik sarong/lepas pakai dua tiga sekaligus to avoid byr cukai. my grandma bought a few watches, and wore them all (hidden udner her long-sleeved baju). Those days customs & immigration were quite strict, yes?

Oldstock - the truth is I am a sentimental old fool.I enjoyed my brief visits to Sg Rengit because the place was a seaside pekan just like Dungun, only quieter, and I am always at peace by the sea..

Anonymous said...

I like the line that went, "... enjoyed myself revisiting Singapore, in the way that an old couple enjoy the quiet company of each other.."

kay_leeda said...

Kak Puteri,

Rochor Centre..ah..I remeber that place to. Infact THAT was the place to be if one goes to Spore at that time. I was pretty young too, must have been 7 or 8. Since I had an uncle who lived at Sembawang, we used to go to Batu 13. Beli pinggan mangkuk..pyrex and segala. I wonder what has become of these places now.

MrsNordin said...

I remember going to Singapore for the first time when I was in Std. 4. It was during a school holiday. When school re-opened, we had to write an essay, "Cuti Sekolah". So I wrote about my trip to Singapore. Siap draw gambar the flats lagi! That was the one thing that intrigued me most about Singapore ~ the highrise buildings. I was too young to know about shopping then. Hee.. hee...

Anonymous said...

Hi Puteri,

Good thing, the Sultan of Johor didn't spot u from his helicopter, else.....

This post of yours had bought back some memories for me. Wah u from the elite Tun Fatimah School, all very snooty, betul kah? I'll keep my bawdiness remark to myself since first time commenting here, courtesy mah.

I hang around Peninsula Plaza & the Orchard road area alot in those days, mum & dad loves to shop at Robinson's lah. Buy most of our grocery at Woodlands on our way back to JB coz back in those days SIN$ was smaller or on par, sigh...

I knew we had something in common instinctively.Sama kampung mah.

U have a great one.

Tommy Yew.

Roslan said...


What a pleasant surprise! I didn't expect Teluk Ramunia or Sg.Rengit of Pengerang, Johor has anything to do with you.
My late father was working there from 1960 to 1963 as a pegawai Kastam and I normally went there to spend my school holidays. I first knew how to swim in the sea in front of the custom's quarters fronting the beach of Teluk Ramunia and I also learnt the art of and subsequently enjoyed fishing there. Yes, I remember the pink-looking bauxite (or was it red?) very well in those days.
One of my elder brothers got married to a local girl there and settled down in Sg.Rengit for good.
I wonder whether you still have relatives in Teluk Ramunia/Sg.Rengit or everyone has packed their bags and gone back to Dungun?


Kama said...

Mat B - I simply couldn't resist the backhanded compliment, hehehe

Kay - I don't remember ever stepping foot elsewhere in Spore but Rochor when I was in Pengerang.. Then again I always went with my mom, so had to follow her..

Mrs N - I was more interested in buying pears and canned lychees each time I went to Spore those days.. such foods were special treats in my life..

Tommy - Waaa, Tommy, welcome to my humble abode. Where got snooty mah.. we kampung mali gals all shy and demure..LOL

Yeah, Robinson's was 'the' place to shop in Spore then. It was also my grandma's favourite haunt each time she made the overnight trip from Terengganu to Spore those days in the 1960s..

Roslan - How interesting! Bapak was in Pengerang for quite some time, more than a decade, from 1967 till 1980 I think. He buried his mother there. Upon retirement, everybody balik Dungun.. we hv no one there anymore, Lan, only pusara my step-grandma.

tireless mom said...

Dear Kak Puteri

The mention of Spore etched fond memories. Back in STF we made a point that we go to Spore almost once a year. Some of my friends had even walked across the Tambak Johor to make sure they get the lychees in Woodlands. Quite similar to your boating experience but on foot.

Zarina said...

Alamak Kak... hari tu pegi S'pore kenapa tak contact saya?

I can bring you to those makan places where M'sia ones sure kalah punya! Here got quality and oooomph!

Kama said...

TM - My stint in STF was too short to include walking across Tambak Johor to Woodlands to buy and eat lychees. I knew abt it though, all those longtime boarders during my time boleh dikatakan semua did it. Must be quite a sight, ya.. a long line of 'katak hijau' on foot on the causeway.. hehehe..

Zarina - tq for your kind thoughts. Tapi kak puteri spent more time dalam hotel room than outside. Spore now tengah panas betul kan?