A Final Look at the Old Woodlands Town Centre

The Old Woodlands Town Centre was closed on 30 November 2017, after 37 years.

The small town centre, with six blocks of low-rise flats (1A-6A), was situated only 500m away from the causeway. Hence, for decades, the Old Woodlands Town Centre acted as the bustling transition town between Singapore and Malaysia, where its booming businesses such as the money exchangers, retail shops and eateries benefited from the large number of travellers and workers commuted daily between the two lands.

In the eighties, almost three-quarter of the shops’ regular customers were Malaysians. Dozens of large and small departmental stores and shops were established, one of which was the Welcome Department Store that sold a wide variety of products in men’s and women’s fashion, toys, houseware and electrical appliances. The biggest player was Emporium, while other smaller department stores included Aik Cheong Department Store and Yee Lian Department Store.

The history of Woodlands’ development began in the early seventies. In the 1970 HDB report, Woodlands was expected to be Singapore’s frontier town for the Malaysian visitors. By the mid-seventies, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) began planning for the building of the Woodlands Town Centre. A section of the dual-carriage Woodlands Road was converted in the late seventies into a single lane Woodlands Centre Road that formed a boundary loop around the new town centre.

The first phase of the Woodlands New Town construction was kicked off in the late seventies, but the progress was slow due to the low demand in its flats. The Woodlands New Town, however, was completed in 1980 at a construction cost of $10 million.

The new town centre was well-furnished and self-sufficient with rows of retail shops, coffeeshops, air-conditioned supermarket, cinemas, library and a HDB area office. The Woodlands branch of the Post Office Saving Bank (POSB) was also opened at the main Block 2. With the completion of the new town centre, HDB was hoping that it could prove to be an attraction for residents to move to Woodlands.

Other amenities were gradually added in the early eighties. The street hawkers were resettled at the town centre’s new hawker centre. In 1981, the Woodlands Bus Interchange at Woodlands Town Centre was completed. Designed with 17 berths, it provided, at the start, five bus services in 169, 178, 181, 204 and 208.

The bustling businesses at Woodlands Town Centre, however, had turned it into a magnet for all sorts of crimes. Snatch thefts and housebreaking were so rampant that some residents branded the place as a “black spot”. But the town centre was struck by its most serious case in 1984 when an arsonist burnt down two shophouses, causing the death of 10 people, many of them died of asphyxiation. It was the worst fire-related tragedy in Singapore since the 1972 fire at Robinson’s that claimed nine lives.

Beside the negative headlines of the crimes happening at the Woodlands Town Centre, its hawker centre was also subjected to constant criticisms. In 1987, the hawker centre was even dubbed as the “dirtiest in Singapore”. It took HDB and the Woodlands Town Centre Merchants’ Association a great deal of effort to educate the stallholders, cleaners and customers to improve the cleanliness of the hawker centre.

In 1988, the HDB, Ministry of the Environment and the Parks and Recreation Department even stop cleaning Woodland Town Centre for a day to demonstrate to its residents and visitors how bad the surroundings would be affected by inconsiderate littering.

The new Bukit Timah Expressway was opened in 1985, connecting the Woodlands Town Centre to the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE) and providing much needed convenience and accessibility to the northern residents of Singapore.

The same period also saw the completion of the Woodlands Town Garden, located opposite of the Woodlands Town Centre. The $8.5-million park was designed with ponds, Chinese pavilions, Malay-style huts, arch bridges, a watch tower and a floating restaurant. An underpass across the Woodlands Centre Road linked the 12.8-hectare park and Woodlands Town Centre together.

The Old Woodlands Town Centre was also a short distance away from Kampong Fatimah, previously one of the last kampongs in Singapore. In 1989, the residents of the idyllic kampong – with its wooden houses on stilts and crude plank bridges linking the houses together – had to be resettled, and its site was acquired by Singapore from the Malaysian government for the extension of the Woodlands Immigration Complex.

In 1992, with the opening of the new Woodlands Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) Line and underground bus interchange at Woodland Square, it became the new town centre for Woodlands. The “old” Woodlands Town Centre gradually lost its importance as the new town’s administrative centre. With minimal upgrading, the old town centre would largely remain the same for the next 25 years.

The fate of the old Woodlands Town Centre was finally sealed in the 2010s, when it was announced that its site would be acquired for redevelopment, as part of the extension project for the Woodlands Checkpoint to ease traffic congestion, improve lane clearance and enhance overall security. In 2012, the town centre’s blocks of low-rise flats were chosen under the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme, and by late November 2017, the residents and shopowners had vacated the place and the town centre closed.

Published: 09 December 2017

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