In S'pore, all roads led to the General Post Office

Artist's chance find of stone marker leads NHB to chart milestone system

BEFORE the road system of modern-day Singapore was introduced, people meant it quite literally when they said they had reached a milestone.

They used to find their way across the island with the help of large stone markers found on roads. Standing erect a mile, or about 1.6km, apart, the milestones were labelled with numbers and led people to both rural and modern parts of the island.

For instance, a movie-goer might have directed a rickshaw puller to stop at Bukit Panjang's 10 mile junction where an open-air cinema used to stand.

Singapore's milestone system is now being documented by the National Heritage Board (NHB), after someone stumbled upon what could be the last such stone here.

In May last year, artist Akai Chew, 28, found the relic hidden among the roots of a tree on the side of the road between Geylang Lorong 6 and 8. A Facebook post he made about his discovery led film-maker Chang Soh Kiak, 56, to contact NHB, whose Impact Assessment and Mitigation team later started a study on milestones.

NHB researchers, who called the mile post a "rare" find, said the milestone system was implemented after the Singapore Municipal Committee started developing roads beyond the town centre.

Made of sandstone and then granite, they were likely introduced by the British around the 1840s. Markers were usually about 2m in height, with about 35cm exposed above ground.

The team identified popular roads associated with mile posts such as Hougang's lark kok jio, or sixth milestone in Hokkien. Some names have stuck. For instance, a station on the Bukit Panjang LRT Line is called Tenth Mile Junction.

Mr Alvin Tan, assistant chief executive of policy and development at NHB, said the project is important as "milestones represent a key component of the history of public roads in Singapore".

Freelance map consultant Mok Ly Yng, 47, said the milestone system was first mentioned in the Singapore Free Press in 1843. He said 25 milestones were purchased the year before by the British.

The General Post Office, where the Fullerton Hotel stands today, was point zero for measuring road distances. All roads here stemmed from this point, a system that can trace its roots to the Roman Empire. "It's exactly as the saying goes - all roads lead to Rome," said Mr Mok, who worked with the Singapore Armed Forces Mapping Unit and the National Archives of Singapore. "There had to be an address system for the authorities to react to reports of tigers and murders across Singapore," he added.

The imperial system was replaced in the 1970s by the metric one using kilometres and mile posts were gradually removed.

The mile post discovered by Mr Chew has since become one of two markers that are part of the national collection, after it was removed by the Land Transport Authority last November due to road works. NHB worked closely with LTA to extract the marker. It also produced a video on the extraction process, which was uploaded today to its YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/yesterdaysg

Mr Chew thinks it was a pity the marker was removed: "Removing it removes it from its context." However, now that it has been uprooted, heritage blogger Jerome Lim believes it might be more meaningful for the milestone "to be preserved in a museum for greater public access".

melodyz@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2015, with the headline 'In S'pore, all roads led to the General Post Office'. Print Edition | Subscribe