Kessler Neo’s lifelong passion for the Mass Rapid Transit in Singapore has birthed Between The Lines, a book about every MRT station on the island and its history.
“My love for the MRT started when I was in primary school,” says Kessler Neo, 33, a recruiter. “My grandparents looked after me, since my grandfather was retired. He would take me on ‘MRT excursions’ all around Singapore. There were times we would overstay, traveling along the lines for more than two hours, such that we would incur a penalty charge!”
As a result, the young Kessler learned to appreciate “the wonderful technology” of the MRT. “I was fascinated by all these train tracks that connected us to different places, and how I could be on Orchard Road at one instance and after a short time riding the MRT, I could be on the other end of Singapore, in Yishun or Woodlands. I loved the unusual, futuristic sound of its engine, and the voice recording of the announcer reading the station names.”
He even memorised the MRT lines: “Up till I was 14, I could recite the stations for the North-South Line and the North-East Line, sequentially,” he says. “Now—perhaps redemptively—I have a good memory for scriptural verses!”
The City Harvest Church member is a rarity. Riding the MRT might never get tiring for many young children, but few of them grow up maintaining the same level of passion as Kessler has. “Like most people in their 30s, the busyness and obligations of life have taken priority but I still managed to ride the Thomson-East Coast Line when they opened the first three stations in 2020,” he shares. “Every time the MRT system grows, it opens up new possibilities. I’m intrigued by where the next MRT line and station might emerge.”
FINDING BEAUTY IN THE MUNDANE
When was the last time you stopped to study an MRT station you entered? For Kessler, it is a constant practice, which is how the idea of the book sprouted the year he attended the School of Theology.
“One day in September 2019, I was walking along the underpass to Toa Payoh MRT station. Seeing the beautiful retro tiles on the wall, I began snapping selfies against that background. The tiles were bright yellow; they were eye-catching and most likely the original tiles from 1987 when the station was built—I felt transported back to the past that instance I saw them,” he describes. “I continued making my way through that tunnel, until I reached the Toa Payoh station sign, and I spontaneously decided to take another selfie.”
The next day, Kessler found himself at Bishan MRT station and decided to take a selfie with the station in the background. “Then, when I was at Esplanade, then at Pioneer later that day, I found myself whipping out my phone to do the same thing,” he adds.
“In the spirit of collecting, I began taking and collating these selfies.”
This new exercise “exploded”, as Kessler puts it. “It became my own ‘MRT excursion’ again, like what I used to do with my grandpa when I was young,” he explains, adding that the book is dedicated to his late grandfather, Neo Kim Hak.
The photos felt bare without descriptions, and that was what caused him to start researching the history of each and every station. “I started looking through multiple websites, with Google as a base, sites such as Land Transport Guru and Roots.sg,” he elaborates, pointing to his acknowledgments page which lists his sources. “I also referred to geographical publications such as Savage and Yeoh’s Singapore Street Names: A Study Of Toponomics, which I found in the library.”
It was serendipitous that Kessler began his project in 2019 and completed taking all the selfies between September and November 2019. By 2020, COVID had hit and had he started any later, his book would have been filled with masked up selfies today.
The writing took longer. “The compilation and writing took me two years,” he explains. “I also had to look at how best to research, assemble and present all the information I found.”
Kessler’s book Between The Lines includes a short writeup on each MRT station and the area it services; many pages are filled with fascinating detail, for example, “City Hall station is named after Singapore’s former City Hall, a key government office building in the civic district. It is a monumental building constructed in 1926. The former City Hall building has since been converted into a museum called the National Gallery Singapore. Many building and structures here date back to Singapore’s early colonial days (1880s) including CHIJMES, Raffles Hotel and St Andrew’s Cathedral. Through the years, many skyscrapers have sprung up amidst the district’s historical landscape… Swisshotel Stamford, designed by I M Pei and once the world’s tallest hotel is also situated in the vicinity of this MRT station.”
For Kessler, MRT stations are the heart of the system while the trains are simply the vehicles that take passengers across the island. He notes, “Each one is designed to reflect its location and bears characteristics of that place. When I looked deeper into their history, I realised that they were much more than just ‘stops’, and more thought has been put into each one than we think.
“Joshua and Moses placed memorial stones wherever the Lord had done something for Israel. In the same way, these stations have been made the memorial stones of the things that characterises these places, their history and their names.”
SELFIES AND OTHER DILEMMAS
It began as a personal project featuring Kessler’s selfies at MRT stations, but when he decided to compile it all into a book, the author faced a few uncertainties.
“If I had known it was going to be a publicly distributed book from the start, I think I might have gone with boring, simple landscape photos instead,” he laughs. “I’m becoming self-conscious at the thought that people are going to be looking at my face as they read the book.”
But in honesty, he purposefully went about to all the stations over a four-month period to take selfies at every station because “at that time, I felt it really left a mark that says ‘I was here’,” he shares. “People want their image stamped on something that they cherish, love, they delight in, and now, on hindsight I realise that that was what I was doing.
“I hope that through this book of selfies, I can also communicate the message that we can all create something by following a desire of our heart, even if it sounds silly to us at first or runs contrary to popular opinion,” he adds.
He definitely faced his fair share of contrarians. “In the midst of my adventure making this book, I encountered weird stares from people, sheepish smiles, all kinds of reactions,” he admits. “One particular day I was stopped by an MRT officer who questioned why I was taking pictures around the station. I had to explain to him what I was doing and assure him I had no malicious intent. He didn’t really probe too much.
“Besides that I have never been questioned by any curious stranger—maybe it’s a sign that most of us are too preoccupied with getting through our day,” he adds.
What happens to the book when new MRT lines and stations open? Chances are Kessler will release an updated edition. “My wonder for the MRT just increases with its expansion and opening of new stations and all the possibilities that holds,” he says enthusiastically. “I’m looking forward to Mount Pleasant station, and also Siglap, as I don’t frequent either of these places now. I know that Mount Pleasant is obscure but obscure is good for an introvert like me who likes quiet places.”
An updated Between The Lines won’t happen so soon though: “It will probably take another couple of years as the latest line—the Thomson-East Coast Line—will not be complete before 2024/2025.”
GOD OF THE PROJECT
Between The Lines may not have started out as a God project—or so Kessler thought—but He was certainly involved in it.
“There were moments where I had stopped progressing in this project and felt a beckoning to continue seeing it through,” he shares. “Likewise, I was given the necessary resources to make this happen—God has placed around me all the right people and connections, including the right recommendation for a good printing firm and a suitable online selling platform. My cell group leader gave me guidance on the necessary procedures, having authored his own book before. And my fiancée, who has a background in design, helped me fine-tune the layout and formatting of my book.”
What turned out to be a surprising blessing to Kessler was the lessons the journey brought.
“In my job, I recruit for a global data centre company; I have been in the recruitment line for over five years. My work involves a unique field in recruitment which includes gathering data and presenting insights related to the labour market. This job is an area of huge interest for me as it involves researching, digging out data, and telling a story based on my findings,” he says.
Which explains the amount of research he put into Between The Lines, which in turn yielded an unexpected gain. “I think the process of researching was the biggest blessing for me during this ‘quest’. Not only did I learn about our MRT and the history of our nation, but I also learned about the history of Christianity in Singapore,” he continues.
“I learned, while looking up Singapore’s history, that God raised up many missionaries to Singapore to establish the ground of our Christian faith during our nation’s founding years. This included the Gabrielite missionaries who set up the Montfort schools in Hougang, St Gabriel’s Primary and Secondary in Serangoon and Lorong Chuan, and Assumption English School near Cashew Station. The Marist brothers set up Maris Stella, near Bartley station,” Kessler details. “I attended St Paul’s Church and St Gabriel’s Primary School before I was converted. These institutions were crucial in introducing Christian hymns and the Lord’s prayer to me early in my life.”
He also learned about war heroine Elizabeth Choy. “One morning I detoured to St Andrew’s Cathedral, where I read about the late Elizabeth Choy, a member of the church who was known for her faith and how she endured a brutal prison sentence during World War II,” he describes. “Many of us seek to do our pilgrimage to Israel to draw close to God and to learn what He did in the days of the Old Testament or the days of Acts, but I feel we don’t really need to look so far to learn what the Spirit of God has been doing among us right here in Singapore.”
FRUITFULNESS PRECEDES DELIVERANCE
Working on Between The Lines was also a a journey of personal growth for Kessler. “The other lesson I learned was about capitalising on the low seasons of one’s life,” he says. “The selfies were taken when I was made redundant from a contract job that I had taken up so that I could attend SOT that year. I recall that the MRT trips I took during the project helped me to cope when I felt purposeless and lost, wondering where life would take me next.”
He was brought back to a 2018 sermon Pastor Paul Scanlon preached at CHC about fruitfulness preceding deliverance. “I believe this spoke to my situation: to keep myself occupied with something wholesome and fruitful in the midst of a barren time,” he explains. “Since I had no day job, I could try to complete some of my ‘pending assignments’ while waiting for the answer to my prayer. Who knew this MRT selfie endeavour would bear fruit today?”
The author hopes that his story will encourage those walking through similar “barren times”, people who may be unemployed or are not seeing desired fruits in area in their lives or not yet receiving something they have asked God for. “To keep oneself occupied with a healthy passion is a good approach,” he says. “Just do something! Go some place that you like, serve a community that you love, just do something you’ve been wanting to do!”
“Ecclesiastes 11:2 says, ‘Invest in seven or eight ventures, and perhaps one of them will bear fruit.’”
Kessler Neo’s Between The Lines is available through direct order here. The paperback version retails for $38 and the e-book for $30.