From Old Woodlands to New

The Woodlands of the early 20th century was an entirely rural area, filled with forest and mangrove swamps with clusters of attap huts, rubber plantations and farms. Over at Malaya, across the Straits of Johore, all that its residents could see were just rows of tall and green Keranji trees that formed the “woodlands”.

One of the earliest modern facilities at Woodlands was the old railway station – even though it was a simple single-storey building on a platform – when the Singapore-Kranji railway line started operating in 1903. The railway station was located just beside the Woodlands Jetty, where ferries fetched the passengers across the narrow strait to Malaya.

A new Woodland Road, made of asphalt surface on a solid granite foundation, was built by the Public Works Department at the same period, replacing the old derelict Woodlands Road and acting as a direct link between Kranji Road and the railway station.

Business for the new railway station was poor at the start, as the undeveloped Woodlands was simply too far away from the town area. In the 1903 Straits Settlement Annual Report, there were only 19 season ticket holders, and the net earning per train mile was only 63 cents. Railway workers at the old Woodlands also faced many difficulties. Diseases and illnesses, especially fever, were rampant. The black dust emitted by the train engines had polluted the surroundings, making living conditions unbearable.

The ferry service at Woodlands was Singapore’s only connecting link with Peninsula Malaya. By the early 20th century, the ferries were overly burdened by the high volumes of commodities and goods’ shipping between Malaya and Singapore. The solution of a rubble causeway was proposed and accepted. Construction works began in 1920.

The Causeway was built in 1923, ending the ferry service and completed the connection of Singapore’s railway network with the mainland of Peninsula Malaya. The $17-million Causeway was officially opened on 28 June 1924 by then-Governor Sir Laurence Guillemard. For the first time, commuters and motorists could travel on road and rail between Malaya and Singapore.

The construction of the Singapore Naval Base (Sembawang Shipyard today), from the 1920s to late 1930s, also led to significant infrastructure development along the northern coast, including Naval Base Road and the Naval Base Railway that branched off from the main railway line at the Woodlands station. The Naval Base Railway had long vanished into history, while Naval Base Road had evolved into Admiralty Road West today.

After the Second World War, Woodlands remained largely rural and rustic. Rubber plantations and attap villages were aplenty. The larger villages in this northern part of Singapore were Kampong Lorong Fatimah, Kampong Wak Selat, Kampong Melayu, Kampong Sin Min, Kampong Sungei Mandai Kechil and Mandai Tekong Village. Many of the villages were only accessible via muddy tracks that branched off the main Mandai Road, Sembawang Road, Woodlands Road and Naval Base Road.

A rural road called Lorong Gambas, located off Jalan Ulu Sembawang, gave rise to the modern Gambas Avenue, one of the main roads that leads to Woodlands’ industrial estates today. Until the mid-eighties, Jalan Ulu Sembawang was a road leading to vegetable farms and fish ponds. Today, the road was primarily gone; only a short section of it, off Mandai Road, has been converted into a Park Connector Network (PCN) pathway.

About 1,899 families at Woodlands were resettled since 1969. Out of those, 877 families chose to stay within Woodlands and Marsiling rather than moving to other parts of Singapore.

During the seventies and eighties, it was common to see kampongs and the new HDB flats coexisted in the same vicinity. As redevelopment inched closer to the doorsteps, some villages managed to hold on until the last minute. Kampong Lorong Fatimah, demolished in the late eighties, was one of the last Woodlands villages.

Kampong Wak Selat, located off Kranji Road and at the fringe of Woodlands, managed to survive until the mid-nineties. It former site is now home to Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) flatted factories. A minor road in the vicinity called Jalan Wak Selat is the only remnant of the kampong today.

The development of Woodlands as an upcoming new town began in the early seventies. It was part of Singapore’s third five-year plan in 1970, which aimed to build 100,000 flats at Toa Payoh, Queenstown and three proposed new towns in Woodlands, Bedok and Telok Blangah.

At Woodlands, a rubber plantation was cleared by mid-1971. The construction of Woodlands New Town – an initial 5,000 one-room, three-room and four-room improved type flats – officially kicked off in October 1971.

A 1973 HDB magazine My Home ran an article featuring Woodlands as a “Frontier Centre” of the seventies, where it would be filling with flats, shops, departmental stores, markets, schools, banks and parks. The “Frontier Centre” concept referred to Woodlands’ close proximity to the Causeway, hence it would be welcoming tourists and visitors from Johor and other parts of Malaysia.

The initial plan for Woodlands by HDB was to build 55,000 units, in different stages, in a designated 1,000 hectares of area. By comparison, HDB only planned 425, 545 and 730 hectares of land for the development of Clementi, Bedok and Ang Mo Kio respectively. Woodlands, Singapore’s fourth new town, was expected to be the largest new town when fully developed.

Woodlands’ Neighbourhood I had provided an initial 1,400 flats to approximately 7,000 residents in the mid-seventies. By 1977, 5,400 Woodlands units were completed, most of them located on the east side of the Woodlands Immigration and Customs Checkpoint.

The same year also kicked off the construction of the Woodlands Town Centre. Upon its completion, the town centre thrived to become a bustling neighbourhood, particularly from the seventies till the mid-nineties, after which its popularity declined and was eventually closed in late 2017 and demolished a year later.

But Woodlands’ progress by the late seventies was far from satisfactory. Its development had been slowed down due to poor demand, as many HDB flat applicants viewed it as an isolated and inconvenient area. Critics were skeptical about Woodlands’ growth; some even predicted that it would become a ghost town. The new Telok Blangah housing estate, developed at about the same period as Woodlands and located much nearer to the downtown and city areas, was a far more popular choice.

The early Woodlands residents and shopowners also expressed disappointment with the new town’s inadequate transport, shopping and recreational facilities. City-bound bus services were insufficient and the nearest cinema was Rex, located at Rochor which was more than an hour’s journey away.

Things would slowly improve by the early eighties, although Woodlands’ population remained low at only 37,000 in 1981. Ang Mo Kio New Town, which was developed two years later than Woodlands, already had 200,000 residents by then.

Resettled residents from the kampongs gradually moved into the new town of Woodlands. Other residents were made up of the workers at the new industrial estates and Sembawang Shipyard. The first industrial estates at Woodlands, made up of about 150 single-storey terrace factory and workshop units for light and general industries, had been completed at Marsiling Road since the mid-seventies.

Public amenities such as markets, retail shops, primary schools, playgrounds (HDB introduced see-saws, swings and other play facilities at Woodlands in the mid-seventies) and a sewage treatment plant were added. The Singapore Bus Services (SBS) also deployed almost 60 buses in four services at Woodlands – 180 and 182 to the Central Business District (CBD), 208 to Kranji, and 169 to Ang Mo Kio via Sembawang.

To provide further accessibility and convenience to the residents, a bus interchange was set up at the Woodlands Town Centre in the seventies. It was better remembered in the eighties with its fleet of yellow-and-orange Trans-Island Bus Services (TIBS) buses that mainly plied the routes at the northern part of Singapore.

For motorists, the new Bukit Timah Expressway (BKE), operationalised in 1985, added much convenience with its connection between Woodlands Road and Pan-Island Expressway (PIE). In the late nineties, the completion of Seletar Expressway (SLE) meant that motorists could travel to Yishun, Ang Mo Kio and the central areas of Singapore in shorter times.

The Woodlands Bus Interchange at the Woodlands Town Centre operated for almost two decades until it was replaced in 1996 by the new Woodlands Regional Bus Interchange located at Woodlands Square, which became the new town centre for Woodlands New Town. The new town centre was rapidly matured within the next five years, when the Causeway Point Shopping Centre (opened in 1998), Woodlands Civil Centre (2000) and Woodlands Regional Library (2001) were added.

In the same year of 1996, the Woodlands MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) Station of the North-South Line (NSL) started operation. Both the MRT and bus services began playing an important public transport role between Woodlands and the rest of Singapore.

Besides Woodlands MRT Station, Woodlands is also served by the Admiralty and Marsiling MRT Stations. Two more – Thomson-East Coast Line’s (TEL) Woodlands North and Woodlands South MRT Stations – are added to the new town in early 2020. Overall, Woodlands consists of five MRT stations and nine neighbourhoods (N1 to N9), including the residential estates of Marsiling, Admiralty and Woodgrove.

As more basic public amenities were added, one was still missing by the late seventies – a town garden. For every new towns, it was important to reserve some areas of greenery for leisure and recreational purposes. Hence, the Woodlands Town Garden was created in 1982.

To reflect the mixture of local cultures, the town garden was designed with Chinese pavilions, Malay rest huts, small lakes and playgrounds. Various community activities were organised at the town garden, such as jogging and tree planting. There was even a floating seafood restaurant at Woodlands Town Garden, however it did not last long due to poor business.

Woodlands continued to grow in the nineties. In 1997, it was earmarked to be the regional centre for the northern part of Singapore. The ghost town prediction in its early days of development fortunately did not come true. After almost four decades, Woodlands is now home to more than 68,000 HDB flats and 242,500 residents.

Published: 09 February 2020

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1 Response to From Old Woodlands to New

  1. One small omission which perhaps needs clarifying, the old Woodlands Road was surfaced as you state but was still very narrow, winding and hilly and suffered from numerous delays and accidents.
    When the causeway construction started problems were found with the seabed and the alignment had to be moved westwards a little way at the southern end, so closer to the station than originally planned. This resulted in a very sharp bend into the station so a new deviation was constructed in 1926/7 bypassing Woodlands station altogether. A New Woodlands Road was then built on the old trackbed between Woodlands and Mandai, the old road being renamed to Marsiling Road. This was done in conjunction with the building of the branch to the new Naval base being built at Sembawang, see the relevant paragraph on my web page as follows: In the 1920s plans were drawn up for a Naval Base to be built at Sembawang and hence a branch line and new road would be built from Woodlands to serve this facility. At the same time the railway and road from Mandai to Woodlands would be upgraded. While the railway was more or less direct the road was very winding and prone to accidents. It was decided to build a new deviation for the road which would use the railway track-bed from the 15th mile. A new concrete railway bridge was built over the Sungei Mandai to take two tracks and the branch line to the Naval Base left the main line at this point but continued parallel to it as far as Woodlands, both on a new alignment slightly further west than previously. At Woodlands the two tracks crossed the old alignment and bypassed Woodlands station which was no longer used, the main line crossing the causeway and the branch running alongside the new road to the Naval Base, about 4 miles distant. This project started in 1926 and was scheduled to take 6 months.

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