Riding the Rails of Malaysia, in Singapore

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REUTERS / Shahida Patail

Passengers wait to board Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) trains at the Tanjong Pagar railway station in Singapore

The Tanjong Pagar railway station sits in the heart of the port district of Singapore, yet the frigid efficiencies of the city-state fell quickly away as I stepped under the 78-year-old station's Roman-style arches. There was no air-conditioning in the central hall inside, nor were there any boards to signal my train's arrival or the platform it would depart from. A Muslim woman in a headscarf sat at an entrance to the urinals, collecting coins from every visitor. Backpackers moved in slow circles under the ceiling fans, watching anxiously for the platform's accordion metal grill to be dragged open. The modernity of Singapore felt far away.

In a way, it was. The Tanjong Pagar station has long been an irritation to Singapore, a physical reminder of Malaysia's former sovereignty over the island nation. The train station is situated on a narrow bridge of land, which, 45 years after Singapore broke away from Malaysia, is still legally administered by its erstwhile master. It's a quaint historical oddity that has become a legal quagmire: according to the terms of the station's lease, signed in 1918 when both Singapore and Malaysia were under British colonial rule, Malaysia enjoys certain sovereign powers over the property so long as the rail service that begins in Singapore and creeps slowly through its rural hinterland up to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, still runs. For years, Singapore tried to curb those powers, suggesting, for instance, that Malaysia process the immigration papers of railway passengers at the border instead of inside the station itself. But past negotiations could not resolve the dispute.

Putting an end to decades of legal wrangling, in late May the governments of Singapore and Malaysia announced the outline of a deal that would return the station to Singapore. In exchange, either the valuable railway land itself or equivalently valued plots elsewhere in the city-state will be developed jointly by the two countries. According to the agreement, by July 2011 the Malaysian trains will halt at the border, requiring passengers to disembark the creaky carriages of the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) railway and step into Singapore's modern subway to zip noiselessly into the country.

Before that prosaic handover, I decided to ride the rails up to Tampin, a rural Malaysian town 40 minutes by car from the historic seaport of Malacca. With visions of luxury, I stepped into the first-class carriage. There was no polished brass or wood-paneled private compartment. The carpet and seat cover were frayed and mottled with coin-sized spots of damp, the air smelt like old rainwater, and beneath the grim toilet there was a vertiginous view of the tracks. The food, too, looked perilous: flaming orange-colored fried noodles that tempted nobody, mainly because my co-passengers had packed vast, pungent meals of their own.

I began to dread the six-hour journey to Tampin. Still, there is something about a moving train that invites adventure and allays peevishness, "improving your mood with speed," as Paul Theroux wrote in The Great Railway Bazaar. Soon, we rattled across the causeway bridge that links Singapore to Malaysia across the Strait of Johor, and our collective adventure began. The train slowed to a halt, as it did with monotonous regularity every 20 minutes or so. This time it was at Kulai, a tiny rubber-plantation town in the southern Malaysian state of Johor. A few minutes later the coach crept forward, stopped, then rolled backwards on its bogey wheels and screeched again to a halt.

Ten minutes went by, then 20. I climbed off the train onto the station platform and asked a railway official why we were idled. "The King!" he squeaked, gesturing towards the single-rail tracks. "The King is coming!" The figure being heralded, Sultan Ibrahim, wasn't actually the King of Malaysia. He was the sultan of Johor and one of nine sultans who swap the Malaysian throne in a revolving sequence, to rule as the country's constitutional monarch for a five-year term. In fact, he was pretty new to the job. Only a few months earlier he had succeeded his father, Sultan Iskandar, who passed away in January. I was told by the railway official that Sultan Ibrahim was acquainting himself with his subjects by crisscrossing his sultanate by rail.

This news didn't impress Don, a Filipino tourist who was planning to switch trains in Kuala Lumpur later that night and ride all the way up to Bangkok. "I took this train because of the pictures on the Internet," he grumbled. He paced up and down the platform and tried, unsuccessfully, to gauge how long we would be delayed. "I'm going to miss my connection!"

It took an hour or so for our journey to resume. As our train rumbled down the tracks the oncoming royal carriages rushing by our windows offered a glimpse of the sultan: a portly man with a goatee, standing proudly at the locomotive's controls. Over breakfast the next morning, I learned more about the cause of our delay. Sultan Ibrahim had made it into the Malaysia Book of Records by becoming the first royal to obtain a railway-driving license by manually turning around an 86-ton locomotive. "He performed the maneuver at the Gemas train station," the article in the Malaysian daily the Star said, "watched by many of his subjects who wanted to see their sultan perform the record-breaking feat."

As with any divorce, dividing assets between two countries that were once united is going to be tricky. The dispute over the Tanjong Pagar station is an apt, and perhaps unsurprising, example. But underneath all the acrimony, I sensed a lingering affection as well. Why else would the food stalls of Tanjong Pagar station, known for its milky cooked tea and Muslim biryani, be always jammed with customers?

When the last train out of Singapore leaves Tanjong Pagar station next July, as the May agreement stipulates, the hole it leaves will be filled. Planes shuttle between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur every hour or so, and a fleet of buses have sprung up to make the train journey with greater speed and luxury. The skyscrapers looming over the granite-and-stone railway station are a reminder that the station land could be put to more profitable use. And though I relished the idea that neither money nor common sense could resolve this stubborn old quarrel for so many years, mainly because the pride of two historically entangled neighbors is at stake, I can't say I will mourn the station much when it goes.

Even so, I'm happy I rode the rails out of Singapore at least once. In the hot hush of the one-room station house in Kulai, all the plants and trees in the surrounding jungle were covered with a silky skin of moss. It was a landscape too fecund to breed thoughts of solitude, or any thoughts at all apart from those of food, and for the rest of the journey I was content to think about dinner in Malacca.