Real rail for Batu Pahat

NST, February 23, 2013

By Md. Sharif Haron

BACK in the 1970s, a group of students in a school hostel in Batu Pahat would not miss watching the late Tan Sri P. Ramlee's movies on the tube for the world.

One of their favourite P. Ramlee films was Ibu Mertuaku, a 1962 classic directed by and starring the local silver-screen legend himself.

The story in Ibu Mertuaku, winner of two awards at the 10th Asia Pacific Film Festival in 1963, revolves around the tragic love affair between a poor musician named Kassim Selamat and the daughter of a wealthy woman.

Those students found the film heart-wrenching. Yet, there was this particular episode from the movie that they thought was utterly ludicrous. And every time they came across that particular segment, they would all burst into loud guffaws.

The said episode is about Kassim, a talented saxophonist who has gone blind following endless crying after his marriage had been cruelly sabotaged by his mother-in-law, finding a new career in music and touring Peninsular Malaysia to perform under the stage name Osman Jailani.

The tour starts in Penang with stops in Taiping, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, Seremban, Malacca, Muar, Batu Pahat and Johor Baru before it ends in Singapore. It was by train all the way.

But Batu Pahat has never had a railway station, neither has Muar, the other Johor coastal town featured in the movie. In Johor, the passenger train service has all along been running further inland, passing through Segamat and Kluang enroute to Johor Baru.

Those students should be forgiven for thinking that P. Ramlee had not done his homework. There was certainly no disrespect intended. In any case, they would have realised soon enough that it was a matter of cinematography or technique employed by the film director to symbolise the saxophonist's movements from one town to another.

Interestingly, incredibly perhaps, there is today a plan to run train services between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore that will also transit Batu Pahat, along with a number of other destinations featured in Ibu Mertuaku, half a century after the film was made.

In all likelihood, the proposed high-speed rail project that is expected to be commissioned by 2020 would not have gone to the drawing board if Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his Singapore conterpart Lee Hsien Loong had not been bold and courageous enough to resolve a contentious issue that had for decades taken bilateral relations on a roller coaster ride.

That sticky issue at hand when they met in May 2010 was on the relocation of KTM Bhd's Tanjong Pagar railway station in southern Singapore. As it happened, the two sides agreed on a timeline for this relocation to happen, so as not to let the new generation in both countries to continuously be encumbered by the baggage of history.

While a few Malaysians had initially accused their government of kneeling before Singapore, the accord has since turned out to be a win-win situation for both parties.

It has enabled both sides to jointly unlock the potential of KTMB land in Singapore through a joint-venture project. It has helped Johor to benefit from a slew of major investment initiatives by parties from across the Johor straits and beyond, to the extent that some Singaporean investors have considered Johor's Iskandar Malaysia region as the republic's own "hinterland".

In an interview with this writer not long after the May 2010 breakthrough, Johor Menteri Besar Datuk Abdul Ghani Othman also spoke about the importance of the state drawing major investments from Singapore. He said these investments would give the signal to investors from other parts of the world that doing business in Johor was an attractive proposition.

In fact, the proposed Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high-speed rail project, which was agreed upon when Najib and Lee met earlier this week, would itself have positive spill-over effects on Johor's economy and wellbeing.

Naturally, the proposed high-speed train system, with a top speed of some 500kph, will be a far cry from the one that was featured in Ibu Mertuaku in terms of design, technology and performance, among other things.

But to the former students of Batu Pahat High School, there is also a similarity that is unmistakable.

Just as the old train in the classic movie, the new high-speed train system will also stop at their hometown.

Which should probably leave some of them wondering if P. Ramlee had seen a train service coming the Batu Pahat way when he was working on the film that landed him the Special Award for Most Versatile Talent trophy at the Asia Pacific Film Festival.