Muar town has quite a number of untold facts unknown to many, even among some Murians. Not many know that there was once a zoo located at Jalan Juned across the Chung Hwa High School. In fact it was built earlier than any other zoo in the state of Johore. In 1889, the Muar State Railway (MSR) began its operation linking the main road of Jalan Sulaiman and Sungei Pulai for a distance of 23 km. The rapid development of Muar made it the only town in the country ever to have its own local railway network. However, the railway service was stopped in 1925 due to financial constraint and furthermore a new road which is the present Jalan Abdul Rahman was built linking the Muar town and Parit Jawa rendered its importance drastically reduced. What is now left is the memory of its services as part of the history of Muar. Today if you visit Tanjung (now called Tanjung Emas), you can view the relic of the MSR steam locomotive on display. And at the present site of the golf course was once the airstrip catering for light aircrafts. It was used primarily to transport food and even salaries for the government servants. And how many Muarians know there was once a ‘korma’ (dates) tree bearing fruits throughout? It was situated at the roundabout near the Fire Department building and was chopped only recently to make way for development.
Another interesting feature that was once profoundly a part in the history of Muar town was the Ferry Service. This is being told and known to many but surprisingly there are some new generations who are totally oblivious of this. In this article, I am going to revisit the Ferry Service and give you a better insight of this amazing mode of transportation as it was in operation during my time.
Going on a ferry ride was truly fascinating as well as full of suspense. Two dangerous moments when you take a normal flight is the moment it takes off and the moment it is going to land. The Ferry Service is almost similar, the moment you drive your car onto the ferry and the moment you are to leave the ferry. Once it sets sail, it will be smooth sailing but you will surely encounter some uneasy moments when the river tide becomes unstable due to bad weather conditions, just like experiencing a turbulent on an airplane.
The site of the Ferry Service was known among Muarians of my time as “Tangga Batu”. It was situated at the present site of the bus station. The Ferry Service was the only connectivity fron the southern part of Muar town towards the north. Each ferry could accomodate eight cars, the size of a Morris Minor or slighty bigger. For commercial vehicles such as buses and lorries, a special ferry was available fittingly built to cater for heavy vehicles. The fare per car in the late fifties was $1.50 cents.
The ferry is very much like a barge and its movement was powered by a boat attached at the side of the ferry. The driver of the boat must be very efficient and able to navigate particularly when the tide was rough. At both sides of the ferry were railings made of very strong gunny ropes. At the river bank where the ferry was stationed was a hydraulic ram with two steel hooks. To set loose the ferry, two men would be rowing a jack on both sides to slowly lift the ram. Once it was lifted, the boat would begin and tag the ferry along into the river heading toward the other end of the river.
Taking a ride on a ferry was considered a luxury those days because only car owners and their passengers could board on the ferry. For normal walking passengers there were boats offering the services costing 10 cents per head on a one way trip. I had been on the ferry several times but there was one trip I will never forget. It was sometime in December in the year 1959 when I was ten years old. We were on our trip to Tangkak where I would be spending about a week at my auntie’s house. Mak Jah as I called her was one of my favourite aunties. She was a teacher in Tangkak and would always come back to Muar to visit her parents (my grandparents) during school holidays. This time I followed her home because December holidays lasted slightly more than a month.
When we reached Tangga Batu, there were few cars lined up waithing for their turn to board the ferry. That evening it was quite windy and it had always been on a Monsoon season. I remember the car was an Austin Minor and I sat behind together with my two cousins, Salim and Zul. Both were two and three years younger than me respectively.
It was now our turn to board the ferry. My uncle Wak Sheikh was a good and steady driver. When the ferry was attached to the ram, he drove slowly and made sure the front tyres were correctly aligned. There was one man navigating my uncle to make sure the car climbed the ram according to the alignment. Once the car was stationary, he would place an oblong wooden stopper at the front of the tyre to avoid movements of the car when the ferry started sailing. Then I came out from the car together with my two cousins to enjoy the breezy wind. In fact most of the car owners and their passengers would normally go out to enjoy the breeze. The two men jacking the ram began their rowing and slowly the ram began to ascend. The engine boat then being crated and began to tag along the ferry towards the river.
It was approximately 5pm and the clouds became darker. We were now sailing towards northern Muar and as we sailed, the sight of Muar town began to show its full view with its image decreasingly in size as we moved along. The wind began to strengthen as we noticed swaying branches danced wildly on both shores and the wind was veering from northeast to southwest. This sort of situation could create sandbanks at the river mouth and forbidden for any sailing activities.
As the ferry crossed the northern boundary of the water, it began to sway towards the west pushed by the strong wind. Ahead of us was a motorboat carrying passengers to Muar town and likewise we could see the boat being swayed towards the west but nevertheless it kept on approaching towards our direction. The supervisor cautioned everyone and advised that we all went back inside our car as the raging wind would be fatal. Our car was at the front and we could see the river water gushing quite violently. That was the time both the boat drivers exhibited their skill in water navigation. Remember it was in 1960, no mobile phone and no walkie-talkie. The two drivers navigated like as though they were engaged in a telepathic conversation and their skill prevented what could have been a ghastly collision between our ferry and the approaching boat. When we passed each other, the boat driver carrying the passengers waved at us and smiled. We reached the northern shore safely but not without having to shield every onslaught of the raging wind that kept pushing us to the west. I must give my greatest honour to whomever that boat drivers were. They did not attend any training colleges whatsoever, just employing the vast experience they had. Truly amazing.
Throughout my stay in Muar town, I have never heard of any mishap occurring at the ferry site. Such magnificent display of practical management should be envied even by Peter Drucker. It is such a pity that almost all these people are not around anymore otherwise one could write a thesis on “Management Practice” for an MBA degree based on the amazing Ferry Service of Muar town.
Who were these people managing this business?
It began with a man named Haji Salleh and as a Muarian he had a nickname…Hj. Salleh Meng. Please don’t ask me what is ‘Meng’ because I was not born yet when he began his boating business. During his time there were not many cars around and so there wasn’t any ferry, just boats ferrying passengers. Later when the number of cars increased, he started the ferry business. By the time I was born and grew, the business was taken over by his son Haji Ismail. He must be a man of great vision of that time. He dared to venture in such a risky business where banks would surely shy away. It was under his leadership that the business grew. His company was known as “Syarikat Penambang” and thus he was famously known among Muarians of my time as Hj.Ismail Penambang. I remember him but vaguely as I used to come to his house every time a movie was shown at the compound of his house.
He was a very generous man who would help whenever a poor man stepped on his doorstep. Almost every week, particularly on Thursday night, his house would entertain Muarians with outdoor movie show and free drinks would be served. Those days we called this outdoor movie as ‘papaganda’ (propaganda).
Scene at Tangga Batu in the late fifties was truly wonderful. It was in fact the busiest place of Muar town. Buses and taxies were always on the move and the trishaws as well, waiting for the passengers who had just arrived from the other side of Muar town. There was a man we all called ‘Wak Sadin’ who would be standing at the entrance of the ferry site. One intriguing feature about this legendary Wak Sadin was his cane that would be hanging at the tip of his stomach. Whenever he saw a woman or a young girl passing by without wearing a tudung, he would shout at them saying, “Hei Mambang, balek rumah pakai tudung”.
It was the 15th April 1967. I was celebrating my 18th birthday with my very close friend Sheikh Ibrahim. We had our normal breakfast of Lodeh and Satay. Muar town that morning was crowded and the traffic was almost at a standstill. Then we heard a siren and everybody was rushing towards the din. There was the Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ismail Ibni Sultan Ibrahim on his way to the new bridge linking both sides of Muar town. Soon he would officially open the bridge named after him. That was the day the Muar ferry docked into oblivion.
It was sometime in October 2012 when I paid Muar town a visit. I took the opportunity to visit the places where memories began. Tanjung was no longer the Tanjung of my time, and as I passed the Sultan Ibrahim mosque, memories of my early days began to display those moments I used to eat nasi briyani on a dulang shared by three others. When it was time to leave for Kuala Lumpur, I must pass the site where it once stood the small office of Syarikat Penambang. As I drove towards the bridge, the reminiscent of my home town will never be left behind to rot. How could I forget?