From back of the woods to a buzzing town

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 27, 2013 

BACK in the late 1980s, Mr Terry Liew, a Woodlands resident, found it nearly impossible to find a cab driver who would send him to his home.

Said Mr Liew, 46, who was then a navy regular in his early 20s working at the naval base at Pulau Brani: "I remember I was so mad I asked one cabby why no one wanted to drive me home.

"He told me if he went to Woodlands, he would never get any passenger on the way out."

To many, the suburban town in the north, which derived its name from the rubber tree plantations in the area when it was a kampung, has always been ulu (remote in Malay), rural and far away from the rest of the population.

But things have changed over the last three decades and Woodlands is now a more developed and populated estate.

Today, there are more than 200,000 Housing Board residents in Woodlands and another 200,000 in the neighbouring Yishun and Sembawang towns.

Woodlands residents are glad to see more facilities, like schools and parks, being built.

In the last 10 years, for instance, schools like the Singapore Sports School, Republic Polytechnic and Innova Junior College have sprung up in the area.

In 2010, Causeway Point reopened with a wider variety of shops and eateries after a $72 million facelift, giving residents an alternative to downtown shopping.

Shops like Uniqlo and Dorothy Perkins, and restaurants like Paradise Dynasty can now be found there.

Madam Siti Hussin, 45, an assistant manager in a cargo shipping company who has lived in Woodlands for 15 years, said: "It's like a mini-Ion and I really like it because there are so many shops. There's no real need to go down to town so often now."

Further north, the $19 million Woodlands Waterfront, an 11ha coastal park that was completed two years ago, is frequented by nature-lovers, joggers, cyclists and families alike.

Mr Liew, a sales manager, who has lived in Woodlands for 33 years, said: "I'm happy that the old Woodlands has turned into what it is today.

"We have always lagged behind our neighbours like Yishun in terms of development."

Even bigger plans are in store for the town, as the Government plans for it to become a major employment hub in the north of the country.

Woodlands will house one of four regional centres that serve as business hubs outside the city centre.

The first two started in Tampines in 1992 and in Jurong in 2008. There are plans for a fourth in Seletar.

Last week, a prime plot of land in Woodlands Avenue 5 was launched for sale, kickstarting the development of the Woodlands Regional Centre.

Under the Urban Redevelopment Authority's latest Draft Master Plan unveiled last month, some 7 million sq ft of new commercial space is planned for the Woodlands Regional Centre, made up of two precincts.

The first is a retail hub called Woodlands Central, a 30ha area around Woodlands MRT and Causeway Point, and the second is the 70ha Woodlands North Coast, located between Republic Polytechnic and Woodlands Waterfront, which will be for business and lifestyle uses.

In addition, the Woodlands MRT station will be an interchange linking the North-South Line with the new Thomson Line.

There are plans for a future rail link to Johor Baru.

Residents are looking forward to these developments as they will add buzz and jobs to the area.

Said Madam Siti: "As I grow older, it'd be good if I can find a job near my home."

But mom-and-pop shop owners in other parts of Woodlands said they are uncertain what these big changes mean for them.

Some, like hardware shop owner David Neo, 52, is hopeful that he can benefit from the spillover effects.

"It's too early to say, but I hope the changes bring more crowds to the rest of Woodlands," said Mr Neo, who has been running his shop in Marsiling Lane for 17 years.

Provision shop manager Abdullah Ahmad, 66, echoed Mr Neo's sentiment, saying: "If more people come to live here, maybe it will become busier."

For now, residents are glad that Woodlands is no longer the "ghost town" it once was.

Said mechanic Billy Wan, 45, who moved there in 1995: "It was a bit scary and quiet last time. But now it's different.

"Along the waterfront, people go for evening strolls, picnics, cycle or fish."

Mr Francis Toh, 39, co-owner of Rasa Istimewa Woodlands Waterfront Restaurant, which opened at the waterfront in November last year, said: "People like to come here for special occasions like birthdays because of the sunset, scenery and sea breeze."

But as Woodlands becomes busier in the next 10 to 15 years, some hope it will not become too packed with people.

"Some hustle and bustle is good, but when things get too congested, I may have second thoughts on living here," said Mr Wan.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 27, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to