Sungai Segget, JB's wonder waterway

Sungai Segget, a small river with a deep channel, had a significant role in the early development of Johor Baru.

JB's first central market was built into Sungai Segget
on a triangle shaped island and linked to shore by bridges
The river mouth, which opened into the calm waters of the Johor Straits, was a safe harbour.  While larger boats were anchored in the straits, smaller boats like tongkangs and bumboats could travel upstream as far as Kampung Melukut, the site of present day Tropical Inn Hotel.  As settlements started around this river, it formed a nucleus that gradually grew into JB city.

It started in 1844 when Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim invited Chinese planters in Singapore and the Riau Islands to open up land in Johor to cultivate pepper and gambier.  They were ready to relocate as the land in their plantations was exhausted and infertile after being cultivated for 10 to 15 years.  Under the kangchu or River Lord system, planters who arrived in Johor, obtained a permit known as surat sungai from the ruler to open up land for cultivation.

Aerial view of JB's first market [Left] linked to
Jalan Wong Ah Fook [Right] by bridges
Immigrant Chinese with a strong pioneering spirit, arrived by small boats through the Straits of Johor and sailed up Sungai Segget to claim their sites close to rivers throughout the state.  The names of major settlements like Kangkar Tebrau and Kangkar Pulai, remain to this day as a memento of this rich era in Johor history.

Sungai Segget was the port and harbour through which local produce was exported and goods were imported.  The virgin jungles of Johor were the state’s earliest resource which provided many kinds of jungle produce like dammar, rattan, wood oil, camphor, ebony, wax, sandalwood and other types of wood. 

In 1860, James Meldrum set up Johor Steam Sawmill – Johor Baru’s first industry – at the mouth of Sungai Segget.  Wharves were built on the saw-mill’s sea frontage for logs to be hauled up and sawn.  Then timber was loaded directly on board ships and transported to Singapore which was then a busy entrepot.  After the saw-mill was demolished, the site was used as the former Customs and Immigration checkpoint.

Sungai Segget was also an important shipping channel for the export of pepper and gambier as small boats carrying sacks of these products stopped for customs inspection in JB before being exported through Singapore.  The gambier trade peaked from the 1830s to 1850s when Johor was the world’s largest producer of gambier.

In 1879, JB was a free port with a busy harbour through which timber and other produce was exported.  Besides pepper and gambier, some local produce that was exported were copra, coffee, tea, areca nuts, tapioca, sago, wood oil, rattan, resins, gutta-percha, rubber and tin.  Johor then had a thriving agriculture based economy and we even have Jalan Kebun Teh, a road name that was probably derived from the vast acreage of tea plantations nearby!

Small boats moored at Sungai Segget at the junction
where Jalan Ungku Puan meets Jalan Wong Ah Fook
[1920s - 1930s]
Many Chinese also settled around Sungai Segget and opened shops and markets to supply food and other necessities to the planter communities.  As more plantations were opened in Johor, the settlers who lived upstream depended on Sungai Segget as the main waterway to sell their produce and receive supplies from town.

Going upstream from its mouth, the river broadened into a deep bend and in the curve of this bend, there was a small triangular shaped island.  This was the site of a market that was connected to the shore by three bridges.  In 1894, this market was replaced by a new building made with wrought iron.  Perched on a small island, it literally stood in water where small fishing boats would come to unload their daily catch.

Designed in modern architecture with more than 200 stalls, this was the first market in JB.  It was the only central market in south Johor with an adjacent bus terminal and taxi stand and people from other districts would come to shop here.  This market continued until 1964 when a new central market was completed at Jalan Wong Ah Fook.  The waterways around the old market was then filled to form land between the river and Jalan Segget.

In those days, boats were the only means of transport between Johor and the outside world, and the mode of transport between various parts of town.  There were a number of landing steps or tangga (Malay) and piers or pangkalan that were used like bus-stops.

The first embarkation point was the pier constructed by the Johor Steam Ferry Boat Company that started operations in 1875 to connect Singapore’s Woodlands and JB on opposite sides of the straits.  This ferry service left Woodlands and reached Johor at a pier situated east of Sungai Segget, named Pier Kuala Segget. 

On the other side of the river, the disembarkation point nearest town was Tangga Duke at Jalan Tangga Duke.  Tangga Duke was built to commemorate the visit of the Duke of Connaught, Prince Arthur, brother of King Edward VII, on his visit to Johor in 1907.  Jalan Tangga Duke is now part of the carpark behind Foh Chong Building.

A section of Sungai Segget being re-opened in the
ongoing upgrading project along Jalan Wong Ah Fook
Pangkalan Abu Bakar was at the foot of Jalan Bukit Timbalan, Pangkalan Ayer Molek was at the end of Jalan Ayer Molek while the Grand Palace or Istana Besar, had its own pier, Pangkalan Dewan.  

The last pier along the coast was Tambatan Kapal Kerajaan, the only surviving set of landing steps, still in use at the Marine Department.  After the causeway was opened in 1924, faster and convenient road and rail transport saw the decline of transport by sea and these landing places became disused. 

Sungai Segget remained a busy harbour for several years but failed to compete against more efficient land transport.  With the increasing popularity of motorcars, the river’s west bank was filled up and turned into a parking lot.

The river was later covered and landscaped with pedestrian paths until 2014, when work started on the project to reopen the river.  Sungai Segget, an integral part of the state’s history, certainly deserves the RM240 million upgrading project which includes the Sungai Segget Water Treatment Plant, flood mitigation and beautification of Jalan Wong Ah Fook.

A version of this was published in the June 2016 issue of The Iskandarian

Three old photos courtesy of Johor Archives and JB Tiong Hua Association

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