A Singaporean student’s race against time to document Golden Mile Complex in its final glory

Sabai, Sa-bye.

Amanda Tan

Published: 8 February 2023, 2:43 PM

The sun begins to set. Long shadows stretch across the ground. As most Singaporeans wind down, the day has just begun for the businesses at Golden Mile Complex (GMC). 

Amid flashing neon lights, scantily clad mannequins and lively chatter from foreign tongues, a young man scurries from stall to stall, giving tenants the occasional nod or a simple hello.

It looks nothing out of the ordinary, until you realise Muhamad Khair Bin Mas’od is neither of Thai descent nor can he speak a word of Thai. Yet, the 25-year-old is unusually invested in the community, visiting the place multiple times a week to the point he dubs himself as “that annoying stink they can’t get rid of”.

The final-year student from Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information says: “At this point, I’m part of this community in this weird way. I’m not Thai, I don’t frequent the bars or anything but I’m here all the time. I’m going in and saying hi to everyone. It’s a nice feeling.”

Khair is on a mission to capture photos and lived experiences of the people who’ve spent years building a livelihood within the iconic Thai enclave before the en-bloc sale of the complex, scheduled for May 2023, happens.

Chasing these fleeting moments started off more as a “practical purpose” for Khair. This Was GMC is his final-year photojournalism project for school which is due for submission in March. As the deadline aligns with the en-bloc sale, he believed this makes it a timely and newsworthy coverage. 

He even shares that during the early stages of the project, he felt indifferent towards the $700 million deal.

“I know some Singaporeans feel a bit strongly about it, saying like thank God it’s going. Then there’s also people who frequent this place and really don’t want to see it go. For me, I was just like… it’s closing. It’s an old building, it kind of makes sense.”

But since embarking on this project, which he has undertaken independently, his opinion has changed.

“The mystique of this place is that it’s closing and as a Singaporean myself, I didn’t really know so much about it… but as I did the project, I developed this connection and appreciation for the place and the community that lives here.”

Now, Khair finds himself in the thick of it all.


Khair shares that when things get hectic on the upper floors, he seeks refuge in a small restaurant on the basement floor which is run by a Singaporean man. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/AMANDA TAN


He first made a trip down to GMC in September 2022, with nothing but Google Translate and pure hope that tenants would open up to him. But as with most things, nothing went according to plan.

“No one really wanted to talk to me. I kept getting rejected. I literally came here five times in September and October and I just got a bit demotivated.”

Despite the cold-shoulders from tenants, Khair returned two months later at the end of November. But a new set of problems arose: shutters had started to come down.

A second-generation hairdresser whom he’d become acquainted with the previous month was nowhere to be found.

“We talked and I said ‘okay, let me know when I can come back for a (proper) interview and shoot photos of you’ as it was a bit busy (then). But when I came back a month later, she had already left and didn’t let me know.”

The pressure started to get to him, but Khair took this in his stride, sharing: “I guess you can’t be too hopeful that people care that much about your project. You have to make that effort to be ‘aggressive’ with it. You cannot just leave things to fate and hope for the best…”

With more tenants closing shop each passing day, it was a race against time for Khair. He pivoted to looking at lifestyle content on GMC on platforms like YouTube, keeping an eye out on people who’ve given interviews before.

This tactic eventually landed him his first interview with a young bar owner named Ritz, giving him the confidence boost to try again. 

Khair also shares that there are, surprisingly, a handful of Singaporean tenants who speak Thai. Through them, he managed to secure more interviews with the Thai tenants. 

But he could only converse through Google Translate, a process he describes as “very slow” and “annoying”. To combat this, he scoured Facebook groups for a bilingual Thai who’d be open to being his translator and managed to find a 19-year-old Thai. He pays him out of his own pocket.

So far, Khair has spoken to tenants like a restaurant owner, a manicurist, and a florist, among many others. While he doesn’t have a quota, he plans to cover the various aspects of GMC such as culture, F&B and entertainment.

“I can’t talk to everyone but as long as I try to encapsulate what I can in an article that tells a fair story of GMC, (that’s good enough).”


He shares that he intentionally colours his photos in a certain way to bring out that element of nostalgia and the grittiness of GMC. PHOTO CREDIT: KHAIR BIN MAS’OD


He has also reached out to a sociologist and an architectural conservationist to get their comments on the community and the building. But prior to speaking to such experts, he had to first consult the Internet.

He shares that the 16-storey building was one of the first mixed-use developments in Singapore, paving the way for the popular malls we know today like ION Orchard and Jurong Point that feature a combination of commercial and residential uses.

“It’s a testament to the architects of the time who were, I guess, ahead of the curve,” he says, noting that GMC was completed in 1973, mere years after Singapore gained independence.


Golden Mile Complex, recognisable by its signature step-terraced facade, has been hailed as one of the finest examples of Brutalist architecture in Singapore. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/AMANDA TAN


On conservation efforts, Khair says: “I think it’s also very valuable to preserve it in that sense because if there are no vestiges of these things still around, then it would just be forgotten with history. But if it’s preserved, people can still see it for what it is.”

For the sake of this project, he also trawled the library – a rare occurrence for him as he doesn’t read books.

“It’s my fatal flaw… but I really needed a lot of guidance in terms of how I wanted to shoot it. Documentary photography is such a different arena because you’re dealing with humans and their stories and there’s a lot of considerations that you have to take in terms of privacy and access.

“I picked up some books from the library and I’ve been reading a lot and taking a lot of cues from Annie Leibovitz who’s a world renowned photographer and Alex Webb who is an amazing documentary photographer.”

Locally, he drew inspiration from The Night We Never Met by Aik Beng Chia, a photo series documenting the patrons and singers of Club Hawaii, Singapore’s oldest nightclub.

Besides referencing acclaimed photographers, he also enlisted the help of image-generating software MidJourney to create a shot list. He describes it as an uncanny process as it really informed the way he approached shoots.

He explains: “It’s a lot about using the resources that you have. For me, I don’t really have people that I can talk to to develop this skill. I’m not acquainted with people who do documentary photography and also in school, they don’t really teach you so I just used whatever tools that were available to me – go to the library, then use technology to help me out.”


For MidJourney, he gave the AI prompts like “young Asian man buying groceries in a Thai supermarket, portrait, in the style of Wong Kar Wai”. IMAGE CREDIT: MIDJOURNEY


This Was GMC is his attempt to express the tenants’ emotions. As he doesn’t hold any personal memories here, Khair really had to dig deep to ensure he was doing the community justice.

His efforts, thankfully, paid off. Upon sharing his project on Instagram and TikTok, he was met with great reception from both locals and Thais. He adds that the positive feedback he got also served to show that the younger generation does care about such issues.

“It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that people don’t know about it… maybe we mistake the lack of activism or lack of conversation about this place as them not caring about the issue but actually from my experience at least, there are a lot of young people who do care about this community and this building going down and they have an interest in it… There just needed to be someone to start the conversation.

“We’re in this weird place where we’re so advanced and yet when you look at certain parts of Singapore, there are buildings like this that are old and crumbling. Even though you might not have an opinion on it, you do want to not see it go just to hold on to the past somehow. Even though you might be like me, not involved in this place, (with no) significant memories here, it does bring this feeling of nostalgia and it’s a contrast to modern Singapore and you don’t get this all the time.”

Speaking on his experience as an outsider looking in, he shares: “It might seem very sleazy, it might seem dangerous, it might not seem like the clean Singapore that we’re used to but there are just such sparkling personalities that you will meet here.”

Although he doesn’t speak their language and doesn’t understand some of their customs, he feels that having that conversation with them and being invited into the intimate moments of their own lives – even just briefly – is magical and is what he enjoys most about this project.


Once his final-year project is submitted, Khair intends to get the story in local and regional news. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/AMANDA TAN


The night grows old and the last streaks of golden fade away. As the last of the stalls close for the night and the lights begin to flicker out, Khair walks out of the complex.

While this might be the last of GMC, while these tenants are swept away by the unstoppable current of changing times, he is content knowing that his efforts to retain the warm memories won’t be forgotten.

“My goal is to capture those final memories before they perish and hopefully I can take as many photographs as I can… When people see the photographs, they’re going to say this was GMC, this was the Thai community, this was what it was like before it all closed.”

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