National Day Special 2015 | A toast to an improbable nation: 1987

Fast track to the future

On Nov 7, 1987, Mr Chan Kian Guan, then 27, and his bride, Ms Judy Aw, then 24 (left), started their married life by taking a ride on the newly opened MRT system. They also invited their friends and family on the train ride. Mr and Mrs Chan reprised
On Nov 7, 1987, the MRT system opened for the first time. Even though there were only five stations open that first day - Toa Payoh, Braddell, Bishan, Ang Mo Kio and Yio Chu Kang (above) - about 120,000 people turned up, eager to try the trains out.ST FILE PHOTO
On Nov 7, 1987, Mr Chan Kian Guan, then 27, and his bride, Ms Judy Aw, then 24 (left), started their married life by taking a ride on the newly opened MRT system. They also invited their friends and family on the train ride. Mr and Mrs Chan reprised
Mr Hoong Mau Sui (above), 59, drove the first official MRT ride on Nov 7, 1987. His passengers that day were 400 VIPs, including Mr Ong Teng Cheong, who was then Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Hoong took the train on a 6km non-stop trip from Toa Payoh to Yio Chu Kang. PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
On Nov 7, 1987, Mr Chan Kian Guan, then 27, and his bride, Ms Judy Aw, then 24 (left), started their married life by taking a ride on the newly opened MRT system. They also invited their friends and family on the train ride. Mr and Mrs Chan reprised
Mr Hoong Mau Sui, 59, drove the first official MRT ride on Nov 7, 1987 (above). His passengers that day were 400 VIPs, including Mr Ong Teng Cheong, who was then Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Hoong took the train on a 6km non-stop trip from Toa Payoh to Yio Chu Kang. PHOTO: ST FILE
Mr Bruno Wildermuth (left), a Swiss national who is now a Singapore permanent resident, was instrumental in pushing for the MRT network in the 1970s. On the MRT’s opening day, his contributions were recognised by Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheo
Mr Bruno Wildermuth (left), a Swiss national who is now a Singapore permanent resident, was instrumental in pushing for the MRT network in the 1970s. On the MRT’s opening day, his contributions were recognised by Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong, who shook his hand. ST FILE PHOTO
On Nov 7, 1987, Mr Chan Kian Guan, then 27, and his bride, Ms Judy Aw, then 24, started their married life by taking a ride on the newly opened MRT system. They also invited their friends and family on the train ride. Mr and Mrs Chan reprised their w
On Nov 7, 1987, Mr Chan Kian Guan, then 27, and his bride, Ms Judy Aw, then 24, started their married life by taking a ride on the newly opened MRT system. They also invited their friends and family on the train ride. Mr and Mrs Chan reprised their wedding-day ride recently for a photoshoot for this commemorative issue. PHOTO: ST FILE
On Nov 7, 1987, Mr Chan Kian Guan, then 27, and his bride, Ms Judy Aw, then 24, started their married life by taking a ride on the newly opened MRT system. They also invited their friends and family on the train ride. Mr and Mrs Chan reprised their w
On Nov 7, 1987, Mr Chan Kian Guan, then 27, and his bride, Ms Judy Aw, then 24, started their married life by taking a ride on the newly opened MRT system. They also invited their friends and family on the train ride. Mr and Mrs Chan reprised their wedding-day ride recently for a photoshoot for this commemorative issue. PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Not everyone liked the idea of an MRT system in the 1970s; it took the foresight of some to push it through

It is hard to imagine now, but back in the 1970s when leaders were deciding on Singapore's public transport system, some advocated an all-bus solution - no MRT at all.

One was then Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee, who said the $5-billion price of the rail system was too expensive.

This figure was arrived at after feasibility studies in two phases - between 1972 and 1974, and from 1975 to 1978 - by American consultancy Wilbur Smith and Associates.

A televised debate on whether Singapore should have a rail system, was held in 1980, presided over by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, with a team of Harvard University professors invited by Dr Goh.

In the pro-MRT camp was transport planner Bruno Wildermuth of the consultancy, who was invited by the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong, Singapore's fifth President and then Minister for Communications. Mr Ong was a strong MRT proponent.

But it was not until 1982 that the Government finally gave the green light for the MRT. Construction started a year later.

On why the unknown MRT system was even on the table, Mr Wildermuth, 79, a Swiss national who resides in Singapore, recalled: "We had dense residential areas and a central area that was quite concentrated which could support a rail system."

Indeed, Mr Hoong Mau Sui, 59, who drove the first official MRT ride on Nov 7, 1987, said: "When the Government first proposed a train system, everybody was curious: 'Why do we need it, Singapore is so small?'. The only train system they knew was the one that ran from Singapore to Malaysia, the KTM."

On the MRT's opening day, Mr Wildermuth's contributions were recognised by Mr Ong who shook his hand - a moment captured by press photographers.

"From putting the first lines (of the MRT alignment) on the map, going through the debate, helping to build it, and to see it go into operation - it's a unique experience," Mr Wildermuth said.

He and Mr Ong were not the only ones in the news that day. Train driver Mr Hoong, then 31, woke up to see a prominent feature on himself in The Straits Times, a result of publicity interviews his company - MRT Corporation - had arranged the previous week.

Reporting to work at the Bishan depot at 6am, his instructors from London, who trained the first batch of drivers, even asked for his autograph.

"I became famous in one day. I was excited but it made me very nervous. I had better not do anything wrong - many people were watching," said Mr Hoong, who is now an archery coach.

With a symbolic, sustained sounding of the train's horn and a steady hand on the power lever, Mr Hoong took the train on a 6km non-stop trip from Toa Payoh to Yio Chu Kang on the North-South Line.

His passengers? 400 VIPs, including Mr Ong, who was then Deputy Prime Minister.

  • LAND TRANSPORT MILESTONES

    • 1970: Land-transport master plan drawn up to 1992.

    Merger of 10 Chinese bus companies into three regionally based groups; this consolidated in 1973 into Singapore Bus Service.

    First flyover, in Clemenceau Avenue, was built.

    • 1975: Area Licensing Scheme (ALS) introduced to reduce congestion in the city.

    • 1981: Singapore's longest highway opens - the 42.8km Pan-Island Expressway; as does the 19km East Coast Parkway. Other highways that followed: 11km Bukit Timah Expressway (1985); 26.5km Ayer Rajah Expressway (1988); 15.5km Central Expressway (1991); 14.4km Tampines Expressway (1996); 12km Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway (2002); and 5km Marina-Coastal Expressway (2013).

    • 1983: Trans-Island Bus Services starts - Singapore's second public bus operator.

    • 1984: Air-conditioned buses debut.

    • 1987: First section of MRT, from Yio Chu Kang to Toa Payoh, opens.

    • 1990: North-South and East-West MRT lines completed. Vehicle Quota System introduced.

    • 1991: TransitLink launches common stored-value farecard for both buses and trains.

    • 1998: Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) implemented.

    • 1999: First Light Rail Transit (LRT) system is launched in Bukit Panjang.

    • 2003: Asia's first fully automated underground metro system, the North-East Line, is opened.

    •• 2008: Five Circle Line stations, from Bartley to Marymount, open.

    • 2013: First stage of Downtown

    Line opens with six stations.

One of Mr Hoong's concerns was getting his train lined up correctly at Yio Chu Kang, as otherwise the train doors could not be opened."I was stressed for a short moment, but I had to be steady," he said. "It was a big relief after the VIPs got off."

Although there were only five stations open that first day - Toa Payoh, Braddell, Bishan, Ang Mo Kio and Yio Chu Kang - 120,000 people turned up.

They included Mr Chan Kian Guan, 55, and Ms Judy Aw, 52, who invited friends and family on a train ride as part of their wedding day plans.

Mr Chan said: "For us, it was a new start. For the (MRT) train, a brand new day. Somebody commented - it's a rolling start!"

Today, the rail system ferries two million passengers a day across a 178km network, via 142 stations, including the LRT.

One little-known fact of those early days was that engineers wanted the MRT line coming from the north to run above ground at Kallang Basin.

But Mr Wildermuth stood firm for building it underground through Orchard Road - a more costly option.

He explained: "Kallang Basin is an industrial area now but, back then, there was nothing there. It wasn't where people wanted to go."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2015, with the headline 'Fast track to the future'. Print Edition | Subscribe