A Changi well hidden from sight

18 10 2013

Looking across a sun baked tarmac during a rare opportunity I had to pay a visit to Selarang Camp, it was quite difficult to imagine the square decorated by the shadows of rain trees along its its periphery, cast in the dark shadows of the war some 71 years ago.

The sun-baked Selarang Camp Parade Square decorated not by the shadows of yesterday, but by those of today.

The sun-baked Selarang Camp Parade Square decorated not by the shadows of yesterday, but by those of today.

Surrounded not by rain trees, by the buildings of Selarang Barracks, the shadows of yesterday were ones cast by the events of the early days of early September 1942, events for which the barracks completed some four years before to house a battalion of the Gordon Highlanders, would long be remembered for.

A model of the barrack buildings around the square as seen on a sand model in the Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

A model of the barrack buildings around the square as seen on a sand model in the Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

Little is left physically from the days of darkness in today’s Selarang Camp. One of the oldest camps still in use, it is now occupied by HQ 9th Division of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). There is little resemblance the tarmac and its surroundings bear to the infamous barrack square now half the size of the original where scenes, possibly descending on chaos from the thousands of Prisoners of War (POWs) – estimates put it at some 13,350 British and 2,050 Australian troops, a total of 15,400 (some estimates had its as high as 17,000) who were made to crowd into a square which measured some 800 by 400 feet (244 x 122 metres), and the seven buildings around it – each with an floor space of 150 by 60 feet (46 x 18 metres) – a density of 1 man for every 2.3 square metres not counting the kitchen tents which had to also be moved into the square and makeshift latrines which had to also be dug into the square!

The original square seen in a 1967 photograph.

The original square seen in a 1967 photograph.

The event, referred to as the Selarang Barracks Incident, is one which is well documented. What had triggered it was an escape attempt by four POWs, two Australian: Cpl Rodney Breavington and Pte Victor Gale, and two British: Pte Harold Waters, and Pte Eric Fletcher. To prevent similar attempts in the future, the Japanese captors, under the command of the newly arrived Major General Fukuei Shimpei (under whose charge the internment and POW camps in Malaya had been placed under), tried to persuade the men in captivity to sign a non-escape statement.

The barrack square during the incident (photograph taken off an information board at the parade square).

The barrack square during the incident (photograph taken off an information board at the parade square).

This was on 30 August 1942. The statement: “I, the undersigned, hereby solemnly swear on my honour that I will not, under any circumstances, attempt escape” – was in contravention to the Geneva Convention (of which Japan was not a signatory of) and the POWs were unanimous in refusing to sign it. This drew a response from the Japanese – they threatened all who refused to sign this undertaking on 1 September with “measures of severity”.

The Non-Escape Statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

The Non-Escape Statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

It was just after midnight on 2 September, that orders were given for all British and Australian POWs (except for the infirmed), who were being held in what had been an expanded Changi Gaol (which extended to Selarang and Roberts Barracks which was used as a hospital), to be moved to the already occupied Selarang barrack buildings which had been built to accommodate 800 men.

From Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957).

From Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957).

There was little the POWs could do but to make use of whatever space that was made available, spilling into the non-sheltered square around which the barrack buildings stood. The space was shared with kitchens which the captors insisted had to also be moved into the area. Conditions were appalling and access to water was restricted and rations cut (some accounts had it that no food at all was provided), and were certainly less than sanitary. With water cut-off to the few toilets in the barrack buildings rendering them unusable, trenches going as far down as 16 feet had to be dug into the hard tarmac of the parade square to provide much needed latrines.

The ‘Selarang Square Squueze’ as sketched by a POW, John Mennie, as seen on an online Daily Mail news article.

To put further pressure on the POWs to sign the statement, the Japanese had the four recaptured men executed by an Indian National Army firing squad. This was carried out in the presence of the POWs’ formation commanders on the afternoon of 2 September at the Beting Kusah (also spelt Betin Kusa) area of Changi Beach (now under an area of reclaimed land in the vicinity of the Changi Airport Cargo Complex). The execution and the escape attempt by the two Australians is described in detail in Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957), Chapter 23 (see link):

The four men executed included two Australians—Corporal Breavington and Private Gale—who had escaped from a camp at Bukit Timah on 12th May, obtained a small boat and rowed it about 200 miles to the island of Colomba. There in a semi-starved condition they had been rearrested, and at length returned to Singapore where Breavington was admitted to hospital suffering from malaria. At the execution ground Breavington, the older man, made an appeal to the Japanese to spare Gale. He said that he had ordered Gale to escape and that Gale had merely obeyed orders ; this appeal was refused. As the Sikh firing party knelt before the doomed men, the British officers present saluted and the men returned the salute. Breavington walked to the others and shook hands with them. A Japanese lieutenant then came forward with a handkerchief and offered it to Breavington who waved it aside with a smile, and the offer was refused by all men. Breavington then called to one of the padres present and asked for a New Testament, whence he read a short passage . Thereupon the order was given by the Japanese to fire.

Map of the Changi area in 1942.

Map of the Changi area in 1942.

Another account of the execution which also highlighted the bravery of Cpl Breavington was given during the trial of General Fukuei Shimpei in February 1946 at the Singapore War Crimes Court:

All four prisoners refused to be blindfolded, and 16 shots were fired before it was decided that the men were dead. One of the prisoners, Cpl Breavington, a big Australian, made a vain, last-minute plea to be allowed to bear alone the full responsibility and punishment for the attempt to escape. He dies reading the New Testament. The first two shots passed through his arm, and as he lay on the ground, he shouted: “You have shot me through the arm. For God’s sake, finish me this time.”

An aerial view of the Changi Airfield, the construction of which was initiated by the Japanese in 1943. The coastal end of the east-west intersecting strip was where the Beting Kusah area and Kampong Beting Kusah was located. The kampong was cleared in 1948 to allow an RAF expansion of the airstrip.

An aerial view of the Changi Airfield, the construction of which was initiated by the Japanese in 1943. The coastal end of the east-west intersecting strip was where the Beting Kusah area and Kampong Beting Kusah was located. The kampong was cleared in 1948 to allow an RAF expansion of the airstrip (photograph taken off a display at the Changi Air Base Heritage Centre).

After holding out for a few days, the fast worsening conditions became a huge cause for concern due to the threat of the disease and the potential it had for the unnecessary loss of lives. It was with this in mind that the Allied commander, Colonel Holmes, decided to issue an order for the POWs to sign that the non-escape document under duress. With the POWs signing the statement on 5 September 1945 – many were said to have signed using false names, they were allowed to return to the areas in which they had been held previously.

POWs signing the non-escape statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

POWs signing the non-escape statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

The incident was one which was certainly not forgotten. It was on two charges related to the incident that General Fukuei Shimbei was tried in the Singapore War Crimes Court after the Japanese surrender. The first charge related to the attempt to coerce the POWs in his custody to sign the documents of non-escape, and the ill-treatment of the POWs in doing so. The second was related to the killing of the four escapees. General Fukuei was sentenced to death by firing at the end of February 1946 and was executed on 27 April 1946, reportedly at a spot along Changi Beach close to where the four POWs had been executed.

A photograph of the executed General Fukuei Shimbei from the Selarang Camp Repository.

A photograph of the executed General Fukuei Shimbei from the Selarang Camp Repository.

Walking around the camp today, it is an air of calm and serenity that one is greeted by. It was perhaps in that same air that greeted my first visits to the camp back in early 1987. Those early encounters came in the form of day visits I made during my National Service days when I had been seconded to the 9th Division to serve in an admin party to prepare and ship equipment and stores for what was then a reserve division exercise in Taiwan. Then, the distinctive old barrack buildings around the square laid out on the rolling hills which had once been a feature of much of the terrain around Changi were what provided the camp with its character along with the old Officers’ Mess which was the Division HQ building.

The former Officers' Mess - one of two structures left from the original set of barrack buildings.

The former Officers’ Mess – one of two structures left from the original set of barrack buildings.

Another view of the former Officers' Mess.

Another view of the former Officers’ Mess.

It is in the a heritage room in the former Officers’ Mess, only one of two structures (the other a water tank) left from the wartime era that the incident is remembered. The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre is where several exhibits and photographs are displayed which provide information on the incident, as well as how the camp had been transformed over the years.

The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

Pieces of the old barrack buildings on display in the former Officers' Mess.

Pieces of the old barrack buildings on display in the former Officers’ Mess.

Among the exhibits in the heritage room are old photographs taken by the POWs, a sand model of the barrack grounds and buildings which came up between 1936 to 1938, as it looked in September 1942. There are also exhibits relating to the camps occupants subsequent to the British withdrawal which was completed in 1971. The camp after the withdrawal was first used by the 42nd Singapore Armoured Regiment (42 SAR) before HQ 9th Division moved into it in 1984. It was during the HQ 9th Division’s occupancy that the camp underwent a redevelopment which took place from July 1986 to December 1989 which transformed the camp it into the state it is in today.

An exhibit - a card used by a POW to count the days of captivity.

An exhibit – a card used by a POW to count the days of captivity.

An exhibit from more recent times at the heritage centre.

An exhibit from more recent times at the heritage centre.

A photograph of a parade in the infamous square at the heritage centre.

A photograph of a parade in the infamous square at the heritage centre.

A view of the parade square today.

A view of the parade square today.

One more recent relic from the camp before its redevelopment is a bell which belong to a Garrison Church built in 1961. The church was built as a replacement for what had been a makeshift wartime chapel, the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier, which was, as was St. Luke’s where the Changi Murals were painted, a place which offered solace and hope to many POWs in extremely trying times.

The Garrison Church bell.

The Garrison Church bell.

The bell, now supported by a structure – said to resemble a 30 foot bell tower which originally held it up, can be found across the road from the parade square. The bell was transferred to Sungei Gedong Camp by 42 SAR before being returned to Selarang by HQ Armour in July 1999. It is close to the bell, where a mark of the new occupants of the camp, a Division Landmark which features a soldier next to a snarling panther (a now very recognisable symbol of the 9th Division) erected in 1991, is found standing at a corner of the new square. It stands watch over the square perhaps such that the dark shadows and ghosts of the old square do not come back to haunt us.

A sketch of the makeshift St. Francis Xavier Chapel.

A sketch of the makeshift St. Francis Xavier Chapel.

The division landmark.

The division landmark.

While there was a little disappointment I felt on not seeing the old square, I was certainly glad to have been able to see what’s become of it and also pay a visit to the heritage centre. This has certainly provided me with the opportunity to learn more about the camp, its history, and gain greater insights into events I might have otherwise have thought very little about for which I am very grateful to the MINDEF NS Policy Department who organised the visit.  It is in reflecting on events such as the Selarang Barracks Incident that I am reminded of why it is important for us in a world we have grown almost too comfortable in, to do all that is necessary to prevent the situations such as the one our forefathers and their defenders found ourselves in barely two generations ago.

Another photograph of the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier from the Selarang Camp Repository.

Another photograph of the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier from the Selarang Camp Repository.





50 years ago on 16 September 1963

16 09 2013

50 years ago on 16 September 1963, Singapore together with the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, became a part of Malaysia. For Singapore, it was a union which lasted less than two years – with Singapore separating from Malaysia on 9 August 1965. The date, is celebrated as Hari Malaysia or Malaysia Day by our northern neighbours.

(Photo: National Archives online catalogue http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/)

(Photo: National Archives online catalogue http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/)

Straits Times News articles on 16 September 1963:

The Straits Times front page

It’s here (Tengku Abdul Rahman’s Malaysia Day Message)





The ‘Tombs of Malayan Princes’

16 07 2013

Lying somewhat obscurely and hidden at Jalan Kubor off Victoria Street is the Old Malay Cemetery. The cemetery, which is across Jalan Kubor from the Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah Cemetery, another old Muslim cemetery better know perhaps for an incident in 1972 involving two gunmen, is the oldest Malay burial ground in Singapore on record. Quite prominently identified on maps dating from the 1820s and 1830s, it is shown on J. B. Tassin’s Map (Map of The Town and Environs, Singapore) of 1836,  as the ‘Tombs of Malayan Princes’.

IMG_1525b

The burial grounds are described in a heritage trail guide put together by the National Heritage Board (NHB) on Kampong Glam:

MALAY BURIAL GROUNDS AT JALAN KUBOR

In the early maps of Singapore, these burial grounds were marked as “Mohamedan cemetery” and “Tombs of Malayan Princes”. According to 19th century reports, there were three distinct burial plots here – a 5 1/3 acre Malay cemetery, the 3-acre Sultan’s family burial grounds located within the Malay cemetery and a cemetery for Indian Muslims. In 1875, the municipality closed down the Malay cemetery but agreed to the Sultan’s request that his family could continue to use the royal burial grounds. The sultan’s burial grounds were walled in and the graves were situated in elevated plots. It was noted in the early 20th century that non-Muslims were not allowed to enter them.

An extract of Tassin's map of 1836 showing the location of the "Tombs of the Malayan Princes".

An extract of Tassin’s map of 1836 showing the location of the ‘Tombs of the Malayan Princes’.

More information on the cemetery also came to light during a recent talk by A/Prof Imran bin Tajudeen of the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Department of Architecture. A synopsis written for the talk also provides some insight into the area and the cemetery:

Several old settlements existed in Singapore besides the Temenggong’s estuarine settlement at Singapore River before Raffles’ arrival in 1819. Among these, Kampung Gelam and the Rochor and Kallang River banks were also sites of historic graveyards related to old settlements of Singapura both before and during colonial rule. The Jalan Kubor cemetery is the only sizable cemetery grounds still largely undisturbed. It belongs with Kampung Gelam history but has been excluded from the “Kampong Glam Conservation District” boundary, and is important for several reasons. It forms part of the old royal port town that was developed when Tengku Long of Riau was installed as Sultan Hussein in Singapore, and is aligned along the royal axis of the town. It is also the final resting place of several traders of diverse ethnicity from the old port towns of our region – neighbouring Riau, Palembang, and Pontianak, as well as Banjarmasin and the Javanese and Bugis ports further afield. Some of these individuals are buried in family enclosures, mausolea, or clusters. Conversely, there are also hundreds of graves of unnamed individuals from Kampung Gelam and surrounding areas. The tombstone forms and epigraphy reflect this immense socio-cultural diversity, and were carved in Kampung Gelam by Javanese and Chinese stone carvers, except for a number of special cases. Several large trees of great age are also found in this lush ‘pocket park’.





The Chinese Church – another National Monument in need

24 05 2013

The Bras Basah Road area is one blessed with several monuments which date back to the 1800s. It was at the heart of an area where four of these monuments were erected largely through the efforts of the early French Catholic missionaries. Built to serve the needs of the growing Catholic community in Singapore, as well as to provide education for those in need, the monuments were not built to be functional but also were expressions of the love and dedication that they had been built with. While two of the four, the buildings of the former St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI) and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ), have since been converted for uses other than what they had been attended for, the other two, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd and the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, are still used as they had been meant to be.

The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Queen Street.

The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Queen Street.

The two are also ones which are also badly in need of repair and restoration. The plight of the Cathedral, Singapore’s oldest Catholic church building,  is of course a more dire one. Its structure, ravaged by both time and nearby construction activity, shows obvious signs of damage. Repairs which are due to commence sometime this year will cost the Cathedral  some S$40 million, of which it has raised only a quarter of. The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, the  second oldest Catholic church building, while less in need of repair, does still need to raise some S$10 million to have, among other work, its roof and termite infested wooden structures repaired.

An appeal for funds at the church's entrance.

An appeal for funds at the church’s entrance.

The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, built from 1869 to 1870, its steeple once featuring prominently in the area’s skyline alongside that of the Cathedral’s and the Chapel of CHIJ, and the dome of SJI, is one of several beautiful examples of the tropical adapted Neo-Gothic religious architecture the French Missionaries gave to Singapore (other examples include the CHIJ Chapel and Nativity Church). Built to house the growing Chinese and Tamil speaking Catholic community by a certain Fr. Pierre Paris (whose remains are buried in the church), the church also features some beautiful wrought iron work as well as stained glass panels (which are said to have been made by French artisans).

Ironwork at the church's entrance.

Ironwork at the church’s entrance.

A view towards the sanctuary behind which five long stained panels can be be seen.

A view towards the sanctuary behind which five long stained panels can be be seen.

A close-up of the five panels of stained glass.

A close-up of the five panels of stained glass.

A close-up of the central panel.

A close-up of the central panel.

A stained glass rose window.

A stained glass rose window.

The church is also one I have had many interactions with through the days of my youth. My parents who often referred to it as “Chinese Church” did on occasion take me there for mass and it was in this church as well as the Cathedral where I, as a schoolboy in SJI, would attend masses organised by the school – the school’s chapel was too small to accommodate the school’s population of Catholics. The church is also one I often associate with Catholic High School – the school having been housed at buildings within the church’s compound (now 222 Queen Street) and across the road (now SAM at 8Q).

A view through the grills of  the building which once housed Catholic High School.

A view through the grilles of the building which once housed Catholic High School.

The grills of the stairwell - the building is now used as an arts centre.

The grilles of the stairwell – the building is now used as an arts centre.

That it was commonly referred to as the “Chinese Church” stems from it having housed the Chinese Mission which saw to the needs of the various dialect speaking groups including the large number of Teochew speakers who remained with the church after the other communities moved out. The other communities included the Hakka and Cantonese speaking congregation who would in 1910 move to the Church of the Sacred Heart in Tank Road, and the small Hokkien Catholic community who moved to the Church of St. Teresa in 1929. Interestingly, the church also housed the the Tamil speaking community as Fr. Paris who built the church, also administered to that community having had a command of the Tamil language. The Tamil community was the first to move when the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes completed in 1888 was built to house them.

Fr. Paris' remains are buried in the church.

Fr. Paris’ remains are buried in the church.

In silent prayer.

In silent prayer.

There are several interesting facts about the church. One is that it once housed a pipe organ built by the renowned 19th Century French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1877 which unfortunately fell into disrepair and was removed in the 1960s. Another is that the boundary wall is thought to have been paid for by Napoleon III based on a 1914 report attributed to the then Bishop of Malacca (the diocese of which included Singapore), Monseigneur  Emile Barillon who served as Bishop of Malacca from 1904 to 1933.  The building as we see it today is also one that has been enlarged – the transept, sacristy and sanctuary were added in 1891-92. More on the building and the history of the church can be found at:

The boundary wall seen on Waterloo Street today - the original wall was said to have been paid for by Napoleon III of France.

The boundary wall seen on Waterloo Street today – the original wall was said to have been paid for by Napoleon III of France.

A look down the nave - the nave had originally had three sections, separated by huge hardwood columns which were removed in the 1890s.

A look down the nave – the nave had originally had three sections, separated by huge hardwood columns which were removed in the 1890s.

The choir loft at the end of the nave.

The choir loft at the end of the nave.

A wooden door at the transept entrance.

A wooden door at the transept entrance.

A view across the transept - the transept was added in 1891-92.

A view across the transept – the transept was added in 1891-92.

Another view down the nave.

Another view down the nave.

The tropical adapted neo-gothic design features windows which allow both light and ventilation into the church.

The tropical adapted neo-gothic design features windows which allow both light and ventilation into the church.

The statue of St. Peter at the entrance.

A statue of St. Peter at the entrance.

And one of St. Paul.

And one of St. Paul.





Monoscapes: Dawn on the strait

18 04 2013

7.20 am on the last day of March 2013, a man is seen casting a net, dwarfed by the silhouettes of towering structures of the approaching new world. The casting of the net, was an economic activity on the strait which was common in times past. Economic activities of the modern world have in the last four decades or so, made their appearance on the strait, and have made the activities of the old world less relevant.

IMG_0200

The Straits of Johor where this photograph was taken, also known as the Tebrau Strait or Selat Tebrau, was once the domain of a group of sea dwellers, a nomadic people referred to as the Orang Laut (which translates to “Sea People”) or Sea Gypsies. The sub-group of the Orang Laut,  referred to as the Orang Seletar or in their own language, Kon Seletar, moved around on boats which also served as homes through mangroves which once dominated both sides of the strait, living off the waters. The boats they lived on were about 20 feet long with a stove at one end and their dwellings at the other end under an awning of sorts.

The suggestions are that the group, who had already established themselves in the area well before Raffles landed in 1819 – it was reported that there were an estimated 200 Orang Seletar living on some 30 boats in Singapore when Raffles landed, took its name from the Sungei Seletar or Seletar River – which once spilled into the strait (it has since been dammed at its mouth).

Another suggestion is that the group had in fact given their name to the river. Seletar is also a name that the northern coastal area of Singapore which included what is Sembawang today (Sembawang Road was originally called Seletar Road) became known as. Seletar Island which is close to the mouth of Sungei Simpang, had in fact hosted a community of Orang Seletar up to 1967 or so.

One of the last to settle on land, the Orang Seletar have today largely assimilated into the larger Malay society and a greater number of them now live on the Johor side of the strait. In Singapore, there were several individuals from the community who intermarried and settled in Kampong Tanjong Irau. The kampong was also known to be the home of some Orang Kallang, another Orang Laut group who were originally from the mouth of the Kallang River who had initially been displaced from places such as Kampong Kallang Rokok on the Kallang River, moving first to the Seletar area. The construction of the airbase at Seletar meant they had to move again and some chose to move westwards to Tanjong Irau.





Rediscovering the Pearl of Chinatown

21 02 2013

Stumbling across an old world nestled in the new brings great delight to me. It in a little pocket of space, not so distant from the rush and rumble of the streets of the urban world, where I did rediscover one, Pearl’s Terrace, set at the foot of the south facing slope of Pearl’s Hill.

A world seemingly far from the rush and rumble of the busy streets of nearby Chinatown.

A world seemingly far from the rush and rumble of the busy streets of nearby Chinatown.

Pearl’s Hill Terrace is a place one might have been reluctant to visit in times not so long ago. It was where the men in blue had ruled – where not just the home of the Police Force’s Headquarters as well as some important divisions of the force were located, but a place where police officers had called home.

Just a stone's throw away from the rush and rumble of Chinatown is a world that awaits rediscovery.

Just a stone’s throw away from the rush and rumble of Chinatown is a world that awaits rediscovery.

Towering over the slope today, one sees a long slab block of apartments, seemingly an isolated block of public housing that lay forgotten. Built by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) for, it is one of several physical reminders of a world that had existed in the days before we last saw the snake (the last Chinese Year of the Snake, 2001). That block today, 201 Pearl’s Hill Terrace, has seen new life breathed into it. Not longer are its mix of 1 and 2 bedroom apartments rented to the junior police officers it was built in the late 1960s to house, it has since 2006 been turned into a hostel. Its 336 units are now offered to white-collared workers and students for rent.

View of Chinatown 1973 showing the newly completed People's Park Complex. Beside and behind it the slab block of flats that served as the Police Quarters for junior officers, as well as the Upper and Lower Barracks, can be seen.

View of Chinatown 1973 showing the newly completed People’s Park Complex. Beside and behind it the slab block of flats that served as the Police Quarters for junior officers, as well as the Upper and Lower Barracks, can be seen.

The former Police Quarters at 201 Pearl's Hill Terrace.

The former Police Quarters at 201 Pearl’s Hill Terrace.

It isn’t so much in that block where the charms of the old and perhaps where the reminders of the previous world can be discovered, but in the two lower but grander looking large edifices it overlooks. One, the Upper Barracks, set on a terrace immediately below the block of flats is 195 Pearl’s Hill Terrace. The other is a slightly taller building, the Lower Barracks which is at street level facing Eu Tong Sen Street. As their names suggest, both had also served as policemen’s quarters. Completed in 1934, and built in a simplified Neo-Classical style typical of public buildings of the era, the Public Works Department erected the two to house the Sikh Contingent of the then Straits Settlements Police (SSP).

Windows from the past to the present.

The Upper Barracks provides a look through windows from the past to the present.

The Upper Barracks now looks a little run down and is perhaps is accorded with a little less dignity than it deserves having been, since 2007, turned into offices spaces for lease. It is however where many ghosts not just of its past, but also of Singapore’s colonial past await discovery. Built to house married policemen, it is laid out in a bright and airy way – reminiscent perhaps of the Old Hill Street Police Station, with its six spacious courtyards, open corridors, and generous ventilation openings – giving a sense of light and space within the confines of its stern looking exterior.

The Upper Barracks as seen today.

The Upper Barracks as seen today.

Wandering around the Upper Barracks certainly takes one back to a time when air-conditioned public building was a rarity with its generously provided ventilation openings and open corridors.

Wandering around the Upper Barracks certainly takes one back to a time when air-conditioned public building was a rarity with its generously provided ventilation openings and open corridors.

With the disbanding of the SSP soon after the war, the two barracks were turned over to other civic uses. More recently serving as the Police Headquarters, the Upper Barracks had in the time since also served to house the Ministry of Interior and Defence, from Singapore’s independence to 1970, when the Ministry was split into the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The MHA continued to be housed at the Upper Barracks until 1977 when it moved to Phoenix Park.

Courtyards were a common feature of buildings of the good old days.

Courtyards were a common feature of buildings of the good old days – the pull up bars left behind provides a reminder of the building’s past.

The Lower Barracks, to which there is currently no access to, is one which most would be familiar with being at street level. Built for unmarried policemen, the barracks housed several divisions of the law enforcement agencies under the MHA, the most recent being the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Other units it served as a home to include the Police ‘A’ Division, the Registry of Societies, the Anti-Vice Unit, and the Central Narcotics Bureau. Both the Upper and Lower Barracks were vacated in 2001 when the new Police Cantonment Complex opened. The Lower Barracks is at the present being refurbished for use as a students’ hostel which is opening this year.

The Lower Barracks around the time of it opening in 1934 (source: http://www.hometeam.sg/cmsmedia/).

The Lower Barracks around the time of it opening in 1934 (source: Singapore Police Force at http://www.hometeam.sg/cmsmedia/).

The Lower Barracks.

The Lower Barracks.

While the Upper and Lower Barracks have been put to what does seem like less than dignified uses, both have in fact been given conservation status. More on this and as well as an architectural description of the buildings can be found at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Conservation of Built Heritage website, excerpts of which follow:

Upper Barracks

“The 3-storey Upper Barracks was built at a higher level on the hill, facing towards the Singapore River. At almost 160 metres in length, it is one of the longest pre-war civic buildings in existence. The combination of its impressive length and elevated position gives it a commanding presence overlooking the Chinatown area. The overall design treatment is more geometrical, with the details of the building articulated to greater emphasize the length of the thirty-one bays of the building. The building also has its ends emphasised through the protrusion of the building bays, while the central entrance is made prominent with the use of pairs of pilasters, in contrast with the single pilasters elsewhere. The features combine to give an overall appearance of palatial grandeur”.

The Upper Barracks from a Singapore Land Authority tender document  in 2007 (source: http://www.sla.gov.sg/doc/new/AnnexB-5Feb2007.jpg).

The Upper Barracks from a Singapore Land Authority tender document in 2007 (source: http://www.sla.gov.sg/doc/new/AnnexB-5Feb2007.jpg).

Lower Barracks

“The 5-storey Lower Barracks are on street level. Set back from Eu Tong Sen Street with a generous plaza, it creates an impressive contrast to the prevalent two and three storey shophouses of Chinatown across the road. The building follows the Classical tradition of having the three parts of the building clearly articulated. The first storey gives a sense of firmness of appearance by having rusticated horizontal bands in the plaster-work. The top of the building is completed with a deep overhanging entablature with a strongly articulated geometric linear cornice line. The centre of the building is given greater emphasis through a shallow triangular pediment, surmounted by flag-poles”.

Branches on an exterior wall of the Lower Barracks. It is a reminder of a time when less was concealed and perhaps of the building's history serving several  branches of law enforcement agencies over the years.

Branches on an exterior wall of the Lower Barracks. It is a reminder of a time when less was concealed and perhaps of the building’s history serving several branches of law enforcement agencies over the years.

Besides the two barracks, there is also a smaller reminder of the old world close by that deserves to also be looked at, a two-storey villa which based on information at the URA Conservation of Built Heritage site, is though to have been built in the 1920s. Currently housing a education centre, the building at 18 Pearl’s Hill Terrace is also thought to have been built as accommodation for a higher ranking officer of the Police Force (or perhaps a high ranking prison warder – the terrace is known to have been where quarters of warders at the nearby Outram Prison (located where the former Outram Park flats were) were located. Most recently housing the Scene of Crime Unit, it has also housed a CID Training Centre and also from 1978 to 1988, the Syariah Court.

18 Pearl's Hill Terrace today.

18 Pearl’s Hill Terrace today.

There is more of the old world to be found just up the hill close to where the somewhat iconic and very distinctive Pearl’s Bank Apartments stands. The block erected in 1976, a subject matter all on itself, stands next to the crest of the hill where a Victorian era service reservoir is located. It is around it where a green oasis in the midst of the city can be found offering an escape which can be hard to find in the overcrowded streets below it. That, together with the four buildings which have found a new lease of life, is where a reminder of world that we have forgotten to appreciate does seem to exist – for the time being at least. While we do know that three of the buildings are being conserved, it may not be very long before the urban world stakes a claim on it.

A linkway from Pearl's Hill Terrace to the Lower Barracks.

A linkway from Pearl’s Hill Terrace to the Lower Barracks.

The area was part of a wider area which had been the subject of a URA planning exercise in the early 2000s. While in the plans developed then the area would still very much be a green space, developments planned for the area around – particularly at neighbouring York Hill across the Central Expressway (CTE) project that some 5,500 new homes will be built, together with landscaped deck across the CTE to link the two hills. While it is good to see that there are plans to open the wonderful green space up to the wider community, it does also mean that we may be seeing the last of a quiet and insulated space where the remnants of a charming and old world can still be found.

A jungle of letter boxes at 201 Pearl's Hill Terrace.

A jungle of letter boxes at 201 Pearl’s Hill Terrace.

Information on Pearl’s Hill and Pearl’s Terrace:

Previous planning considerations for the area:

Patterns of an old world.

Patterns of an old world.





The largest dock east of the Suez in the midst of a world that is to change

25 12 2012

Tucked in the far north of the island of Singapore is a huge 86 hectare shipyard which seems far out of place. Its location is far from the large concentration of shipyards and related industries which has grown in the far west of Singapore. The shipyard, Sembawang Shipyard, today stands as a physical reminder of a legacy left by the former colonial masters of Singapore. The British operated the yard as a Naval Dockyard which was an important component of a huge naval base which had stretched some six and a half kilometres along the northern coast from Woodlands (close to where the Causeway is) to Sembawang (the eastern boundary ran along the northern end of Sembawang Road from its junction with Canberra Road to where Sembawang Park is today).

An aerial view of the Naval Dockyard in 1962 (Image: Horatio J. Kookaburra on Flickr). The former Stores Basin can be seen on the lower left of the photo and the King George VI dock can be seen close to the top right. Three floating docks are today tied up along a finger pier constructed off the 850 metre northwall. The northwall is seen running along the lower edge of the photo.

An aerial view of the Naval Dockyard in 1962 (Image: Horatio J. Kookaburra on Flickr). The former Stores Basin can be seen on the lower left of the photo and the King George VI dock can be seen close to the top right. Three floating docks are today tied up along a finger pier constructed off the 850 metre northwall. The northwall is seen running along the lower edge of the photo.

The dockyard and the base was for a long time, an important source of employment in Singapore. A report in 1961 put the local workforce of the dockyard at 10,700, with the base accounting for as much as 20% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Singapore. What this did mean was that when the accelerated pullout of the British forces was announced in 1968, there were huge concerns, not only from a security viewpoint, but also on unemployment. As part of the arrangements made in the lead-up to the pullout, the dockyard was transferred to the Singapore government for a token $1 in 1968. Sembawang Shipyard Pte. Ltd. was established on 19th of June that year and a British commercial shipyard, Swan Hunter roped in to manage the transition of the yard to a commercial one.

The Dockyard's gates seen in the 1960s (source: www.singas.co.uk).

The Dockyard’s gates seen in the 1960s (source: http://www.singas.co.uk). The Naval Dockyard had been a major source of employment in Singapore. The local workforce in 1961 numbered some 10,700.

A key component of the transition was in training the local workforce, not just on the ground but also management staff to eventually take-over the running of the yard. Besides Swan Hunter, the British Ministry of Defence also seconded some 150 Naval Officers and civilians in the first year to ensure that the transition from a naval dockyard to a commercial one, over the three years it was to take the pullout to be completed, would go smoothly. The arrival of the first commercial ship came in March 1969 and by the time the year had ended, Sembawang Shipyard had docked some 66 merchant vessels and was well on its way to becoming a leading ship repair yard. The success of the shipyard was one of Singapore’s early success stories and by 1978, the tenth anniversary of the yard, a mainly local management team was in place to run the yard. The yard also introduced a highly successful apprenticeship programme in 1972 – from which many of the skilled labour and second generation supervisory staff were to come from and was key in not just raising skills levels, but also in improving productivity of the local workforce necessary to become competitive in the ship repair market.

The view of the northern area of the shipyard from the jetty at Beaulieu House. The three floating docks can be seen on either side of a finger pier off the northwall: KFD Dock on the outside on the extreme right; President Dock on the inside (with the ship on which the funnel is seen); and Republic Dock to the left of President Dock.

The view of the northern area of the shipyard from the jetty at Beaulieu House. The three floating docks can be seen on either side of a finger pier off the northwall: KFD Dock on the outside on the extreme right; President Dock on the inside (with the ship on which the funnel is seen); and Republic Dock to the left of President Dock.

The yard as we see today, has seen a huge expansion in its capacity with the addition of many facilities since it inherited the already well equipped dockyard in 1968. In addition to the King George VI graving dock (referred to affectionately as ‘KG6′), which when it was completed in 1938 was described as the largest graving dock east of the Suez (and the largest naval graving dock in the world – more on it can be found in a previous post on the Naval Base), the yard now has a huge 400,000 DWT capacity graving dock – Premier Dock built next to KG6, as well as three large floating docks. Premier Dock was an early addition to the yard, having been completed in 1975 at a cost of $50 million and opened by the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Plans for the huge dock which measures some 384 metres in length and is 64 metres wide, built to meet a demand for the repair of huge Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCC) which were being constructed, were drawn up as early as in 1968, although the go-ahead was only given in 1972. The 150,000 DWT President Floating Dock which was one of the largest floating docks in Asia at the time was added in 1981.

A photograph of KG6 with the Queen Mary docked in it in August 1940 (source: Australian War Memorial  - 'Copyright expired - public domain').

A photograph of KG6 with the Queen Mary docked in it in August 1940 (source: Australian War Memorial – ‘Copyright expired – public domain’).

The sheer size of yard can probably only be fully appreciated attempting to walk from its entrance at Admiralty Road West to the far end of it located just west of the former Stores Basin of the Naval Base (now used by the US Navy as a logistics base) – an end which is visible from the old jetty at Beaulieu House. It does take a good half an hour to 45 minutes to do just that – an effort that I regularly had to make to get to Berths 8 and 9 of the yard during the six long months I spent undergoing training at the yard in 1983/1984 (so much so that many of us ended up bringing our own bicycles to reduce the effort). That six months is probably one that was for me best forgotten – the slump in demand for ship repair then meant many hours spent squatting in a designated area when there was no work assigned to the work gangs we were attached to. Tea-time was always a time to look forward to then – it provided that much needed break in monotony. As trainees, one of the tasks assigned was to head to kiosks located at strategic locations along the wharf sides to buy pre-packed packets of tea and coffee as well as snacks for the rest of the gang.

HMS Bulwark off the northwall of the Naval Base in the 1960s - the northwall is where the far end of the shipyard is today.

HMS Bulwark off the northwall of the Naval Base in the 1960s – the northwall is where the far end of the shipyard is today (source: http://www.acig.org/artman/publish/article_203.shtml).

The yard, besides being the location of a historically significant graving dock, is also where a conserved building in the form of the former Sembawang Fire Station can be found in. While it does look like the yard is a long time fixture in the area and so the future of this historical part of Sembawang is quite safe, we do know that the winds of change is right now sweeping across large parts of the area close by. The expansion of Yishun town and Sembawang town will bring high-rise developments that will do much to alter a unique character and charm that has been associated with the area since the days of the Naval Base. The area to the east of the yard is itself undergoing a tremendous change. A renewal programme will see the park feel a lot less like the quiet corner many like me had found an escape in, and more like any other overly manicured seaside spot in Singapore. That does I suppose does complement the private development just to its east. That development will see a shoreline where idyllic seaside kampungs could once be enjoyed and a shoreline I have continued to find an escape in, become a place in which that charm will no longer be found.

What will be one of the last escapes from the overly manicured world we now find ourselves in.

The shoreline along the former Kampong Wak Hassan is one of the last escapes from the overly manicured world we now find ourselves in we will soon lose.





A tour of Singapore’s food history in 8 hours

11 08 2011

Produced by Sitting In Pictures, Foodage is a series of eight 1 hour episodes shown on Okto at 10pm on Thursdays, which made its debut on 4 August 2011. Foodage traces Singapore’s food history in the years since independence through collective personal memories, home movies and photos, recapturing our lifestyle and food trends over the years.

Catch Ukelele Man, Dick Yip, better known as "Uncle Dicko" amongst his fans and readers of his blog The Wise Old Owl, as he entertains with his ukelele in Episode 2 of Foodage.

The second episode of Foodage, “Food to Roam”, will be on the air this evening (Thursday 11 August). A synopsis of the episode provided on its Facebook Page:

In the 60s, hawkers roamed the kampongs and the streets of urban Singapore. The children who grew up in this foodscape share their memories – the roving calls of these hawkers were music to their ears, and fed their seemingly insatiable appetites. Their memories – both pungent and poignant – are set against a turbulent backdrop of merger and independence, lawlessness and unemployment and the Big Fire. The food on offer in this episode includes, Indian rojak, wanton mee, kaya bread, mee siam and tuckshop tidbits. The Singaporeans sharing their stories, include Jerome Lim, Peter Chan, Shaik Kadir, Yeo Hong Eng, Andy Lim, Toh Paik Choo, James Seah, Lum Chun See, Aziza Ali, Dick Yip, Ong Yew Ghee, Ivy Lim-Singh, Geraldene Lowe-Ismail…. watch out for The Foodage sweet spot moment when the strains of the “lang tin ting” man of the 50s gives way to the “ukelele” man of the noughties.


Do follow Foodage on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/foodage

See also:

Andy Lim: Sounds n Music Of Food Hawkers

Lam Chun See: Foodage Episode 2 (Okto Channel, Thursday 11 Aug, 10 pm)






The sun sets over the rail corridor

21 07 2011

The 17th of July was a day when the railway corridor would have been seen in its original state for the very last time. The corridor, having been one of the few places in Singapore where time has stood still – little has changed over the eight decades since the railway deviation of 1932, would after the 17th see an alteration to it that will erase much of the memory of the railway, barely two weeks after the cessation of rail services through Singapore and into Tanjong Pagar. It was a railway that had served to remind us in Singapore of our historical links with the states of the Malayan Peninsula – the land on which the railway ran through having been transferred to the Malayan Railway through a 1918 Ordinance, a reminder that has endured well into the fifth decade of our independence.

The 17th of July offered most in Singapore a last chance to walk the tracks ... removal work started the following day with only a short 3km stretch of the tracks opened to the public unitl the end of July.

It was in the pale light of the moon that my last encounter with the railway tracks in the Bukit Timah Station area began.

The corridor is one that I have had many memories of, having had many encounters with it from the numerous train journeys that I made through Tanjong Pagar, as well as some from encounters that I had from my younger days watching from the backseat of my father’s car and also those that I had in clothed in the camouflage green of the army during my National Service. There are many parts of it that are special in some way or another to me, having always associated them with that railway we will no longer see, and the last day on which I could be reminded of this warranted a last glance at it, one that got me up well before the break of dawn, so that I could see it as how I would always want to remember it.

A scene that would soon only be a memory - the rail corridor on the 17th of July 2011.

It was at a short but very pretty stretch of the corridor that I decided to have a last glance at – a stretch that starts at the now empty and silent building that once served as Bukit Timah Station and continues south for another two kilometres or so. It was one that is marked by some of the most abundant greenery one can find along the corridor which even from the vantage of the train, is always a joy to glance at. Arriving in the darkness of the early morning, it was only the glow of the light of the waning but almost full moon that guided me towards the station which is now encircled by a green fence which I could barely make out. I was greeted by a menacing red light that shone from the end of the building, one that came from the security camera that even in the dark seemed out-of-place on the quaint structure that been the last place along the line where an old fashioned practice of exchanging a key token took place. The crisp morning air and the peace and calm that had eluded the corridor over the two weeks that followed the cessation of railway operations was just what I had woken up for and I quickly continued on my way down towards the concrete road bridge over the railway at Holland Road.

First light on the 17th along the corridor near Holland Green.

It wasn’t long before first light transformed the scene before me into a scene that I desired, one that through the lifting mist, revealed a picture of calm and serenity that often eludes us as we interact with our urban world. It is a world that I have developed a fondness for and one in which I could frolic with the colourful butterflies and dragonflies to the songs of joy that the numerous bird that inhabit the area entertain us with. It was a brief but joyous last glance – it wasn’t too long before the calm with which the morning started descended into the frenzy of that the crowds that the closing of the railway had brought. That did not matter to me as I had that last glance of the corridor just as I had wanted to remember it, with that air of serenity that I have known it for, leaving it with that and the view of the warm glow of the silent tracks bathed in the golden light of the rising sun etched forever in my memory.

First signs of the crowd that the closing of the railway brought.

A last chance to see the corridor as it might have been for 79 years.

For some, it was a last chance to get that 'planking' shot.

Signs of what lay ahead ... the secondary forest being cleared in the Clementi woodland area to provide access for removal works on the railway tracks in the area.

Weapons of rail destruction being put in place.

The scene at the truss bridge over Bukit Timah Road as I left ...

Despite coming away with how I had wanted to remember the rail corridor, I did take another look at another area of it that evening. It was at a that stretch that is just north of the level crossing at Kranji, one that would in the days that have passed us by, would have led to a village on stilts that extended beyond the shoreline, one of the last on our northern shores. The village, Kampong Lorong Fatimah, now lies partly buried under the new CIQ complex today, and had stood by the side of the old immigration complex. Today, all that is left of it beyond the CIQ complex is a barren and somewhat desolate looking piece of land, one that feels cut-off from the rest of Singapore. The stretch is where the last 2 kilometres of the line runs before it reaches Woodlands Train Checkpoint, an area that is restricted and one where it would not be possible to venture into. And it is there where the all train journeys now end – a cold and imposing place that doesn’t resemble a station in any way.

What's become of the last level crossing to be used in Singapore - the scene at Kranji Level Crossing with road widening works already underway.

Another view of the former level crossing, concrete blocks occupy the spot where the yellow signal hut once stood.

An outhouse - the last remnant of the crossing left standing.

Walking through the area, it would not be hard to notice what is left of the huge mangrove swamp that once dominated the area – evidence of which lies beyond a girder bridge (the northernmost railway bridge in Singapore and one of three that would be removed) that crosses Sungei Mandai Besar some 700 metres north of the level crossing. The corridor here for the first kilometre or so is rather narrow with a green patches and cylindrical tanks to the east of it and an muddy slope that rises to what looks like an industrial area to the west. It is through the area here that I pass what was a semaphore signal pole – the northernmost one, before coming to the bridge.

The scene just north of the crossing.

The northernmost semaphore signal for the crossing in Singapore.

The last trolley on the tracks?

The northernmost railway bridge - the girder bridge over Sungei Mandai Besar. The bridge is one of three along the line that will be removed.

Sungei Mandai Besar.

It is about 200 metres beyond the bridge that the corridor starts to fan out to accommodate a loop line which looked as if it had been in a state of disuse with sleepers and rails missing from it. To the east of this widened area, tall trees and a grassland line the corridor and to the west, line of dense trees and shrubs partailly obscures part of the mangrove that had once stretched down to the Sungei Kadut. It is just north of this that the relatively short trek comes to an abrupt end. On the approach to Woodlands Train Checkpoint, sandbags over what had been the main line and a huge red warning sign serving as a reminder of what lay ahead. It is at the approach to the checkpoint that two signs serve as barriers to entry. It is beyond this that one can see a newly installed buffer at the end of the main line, and it is in seeing this that the realisation that that now is the end of a line, not just for the railway that ran through Singapore, but also for that grand old station which now lies cut-off from the railway that was meant to elevate it to a status beyond all the stations of the Far East. With the physical link now severed, that promise would now never be fulfilled, and all that is left is a building that has lost its sould and now stands in solitude, looking somewhat forlorn.

200 metres north of the bridge, the corridor widens to accommodate a loop line.

Evidence of the mangrove that once dominated the area right down to Sungei Kadut.

The northernmost stretch of the corridor.

Walking the bicycle over the wide strecth just short of Woodlands checkpoint.

Dismantling work that was already in evidence.

Sandbags on what was the main line and a warning posted ...

The end of the line- Woodlands Train Checkpoint lies beyond the signs.

It was at this point that I turned back, walking quietly into the glow that the setting sun had cast on the railway corridor. It is at Kranji that the setting sun and the skies above seemed to have conspire to provide a fitting and brilliant show over the place where there had once been an equally colourful crossing with its yellow hut and old fashioned gate. It was in the golden glow of the sunset that I spotted a fmailiar face, one of a fellow traveller on that tearful final journey out of Tanjong Pagar on the morning of the last day of train operations through Singapore, Mr Toh. Mr Toh is one who has been travelling on the trains out of and back into Tanjong Pagar since he was one, was on his final nostalgia motivated journey that final day just as I was, and was at Kranji to complete a final leg of his own exploration of the entire length of the tracks through Singapore. We exchanged our goodbyes, at the same time saying one last goodbye to the railway, as night fell on the last level crossing that was used in Singapore, and on the railway corridor as we had known it for one last time.

A track back into the colours of the setting sun.

A final look south towards Kranji Road.

The view of the setting of the sun over the railway at Kranji Road.

Night falls over the railway corridor as we knew it for one last time.


Posts on the Railway through Singapore and on the proposal on the Green Corridor:

I have also put together a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station which can be found through this page: “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Do also take a look at the proposal by the Nature Society (Singapore) to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, at the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page. My own series of posts on the Green Corridor are at: “Support the Green Corridor“.






Faces of the Railway: the railway men of the North

11 06 2011

In addition to the Station Master, Encik Atan, there are several other members of the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) staff along the KTM railway line that passes through Singapore that play a big part in keeping the line as well as road users passing over the railway level crossings safe and sound – the men that just as tirelessly as Encik Atan mans Bukit Timah Station, man the five level crossings, out of a small naturally ventilated wooden hut in what has to be some of the loneliest spots in northern Singapore. These men often man the huts alone, and get to work as soon as they are alerted to the passing of the train through a previous station or crossing, and can be seen then scrambling around with their signal flags, changing signals, closing the gates and opening them after the trains have passed. Two such men are two Encik Roslans, one who mans the northernmost crossing at at Kranji Road, and the other who maintains the barriers, as well an Encik Azman who mans the crossing at Sungei Kadut Avenue, whom I had the pleasure of meeting on my walks around the area.

Encik Roslan of the Kranji Level Crossing at work.

Encik Roslan, who is too shy to want to be photographed in his hut. He revealed that the KTM flats in Spooner Road have been vacated as the staff have all already moved into quarters in Johor Bahru. Encik Roslan will be transferred to Kluang come the 1st of July.

The signal hut at Sungei Kadut Avenue.

Encik Roslan and Encik Azman who man the Sungei Kadut Level Crossing, standing outside the hut.

Encik Roslan at the Sungei Kadut Level Crossing - understand he maintains the barriers to the crossings.

Encik Azman of the Sungei Kadut Level Crossing.

A young assistant whose name escaped me at Sungei Kadut.





Faces of the Railway: the last Station Master at Bukit Timah

9 06 2011

Working tirelessly through the day to keep the stretch of the Malayan Railway passing from Woodlands through to Tanjong Pagar safe is a quiet and unassuming gentleman by the name of Encik Atan. For Encik Atan, who will pass into history as the last Station Master of Bukit Timah Railway Station, the last station along the Malayan Railway, now Keretapi Tanah Melayu or KTM, that still uses the old fashioned key token system to hand authority over to trains using the single track, his daily shift starts with the first train that passes through before the break of day, and ends with the passing of the last train for the day well into the night. He does this practically every day, making his way from the KTM flats in Spooner Road in Kampong Bahru in the darkness of the early morning, and making his way back in the darkness of the late night, taking a break only on his off days when a relief is sent from Johor Bahru.

Encik Atan at his desk.

I guess it doesn’t help that the trains are often delayed with a significant part of the railway in the peninsula running on a single track as well. Trains often for another to pass and seldom run on time, and delays of an hour on average are quite common. This often means that Encik Atan’s day often stretches beyond the scheduled passing of the last northbound train for the day just before 11 pm and getting off pass midnight is often the case. If you do pass by the way of Bukit Timah Railway Station as we enter the last three weeks of its operations, do say a quick hello and shake the hand of a man who deserves a pat on his back for his tireless efforts in keeping us safe.

Encik Atan at the signalling table.

Rain or shine ... the passing of the trains through what is the halfway point on the Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands stretch, keeps Encik Atan busy.

The Station Master in action - this time scurrying off on a bicycle to pass the key token to the driver of a south bound train.

Encik Atan seen running off on another occasion to hand the key token over to a southbound train over the railway bridge at Bukit Timah.

Taking shelter from the rain that resulted in rising waters just over 200 metres from the station on the 5th of June.

Speaking to curious visitors to the station.

Strangers on a Train:

Strangers on a Train is an attempt to celebrate the passing of an era by a gathering on what is scheduled to be the last train that pulls into Tanjong Pagar Railway Station on 30th June 2011. If you are interested to join us, we are on Train 15 Ekspres Sinaran Timur (most of are in Coach 2 and are getting on that at Segamat). Do note that tickets for the Express services, which can be purchased up to 30 days in advance, to and from Singapore this June are fast selling, with trains for most weekends already quite full, and can be obtained at the station (advance bookings open from 8.30 am daily) or online at the KTMB website. If you would like to join us and have you tickets, you may drop an email to Notabilia or me with the subject line “Strangers on a Train”.


Further information of interest:

Information related to the station and its architecture can be found on a previous post: “A final look at Tanjong Pagar Station“. In addition to that, I have also put together a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station which can be found through this page: “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Do also take a look at the proposal by the Nature Society (Singapore) to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, at the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page. My own series of posts on the Green Corridor are at: “Support the Green Corridor“.






Order out of the chaos on Hill Street

8 06 2011

The Preservations of Monuments Board (PMB) would be conducting a series of 20 Mounmental Walking Tours of Singapore’s National Monuments in the civic and cultural district during the weekends commencing Saturday 11th June up until the end of July, with an intended aim of bringing history to the whole family. I had the opportunity to have a special preview of the upcoming tours yesterday morning as part of a group yesterday made up of members of the mainstream which was led by Volunteer Guide Ms Jill Wong, during which we were given not just an insight into two of the monuments covered, but also into the background and history of the public institutions that the two monuments were built to house.

The PMB is organising Monumental Walking Tours starting 11th June 2011.

At the starting point of the brief tour, now a pavement outside Funan Centre, which is directly opposite the first of the two monuments we were to cover, the Central Fire Station, we were transported by our guide Jill into a very different Singapore. It was a Singapore of the early years where large gangs of Chinamen with darkened faces had, in the darkness of night, created mischief on the first streets or a new and fast growing colony, taking advantage perhaps of the lack of order that the Singapore of today has come to be known for. It was a Singapore that struggled to cope with the pressures of sudden urbanisation, as the colony grew around the first paved street, High Street, just a stone’s throw away from where we stood, listening to Jill. Indeed, it was a Singapore or “Sin-Galore” as it was known then where chaos had reigned, and one in desperate need for the public institutions that the monuments we were to learn about that morning (the other being the former Hill Street Police Station and now MICA Building), were built to house – hence the name of the tour “Order out of Chaos” from which I borrowed the title of this post.

The Central Fire Station, completed in 1909, features a 110 feet high watchtower which also served as a hose-drying tower.

One of the public institutions that was certainly sorely needed on the congested streets was a fire brigade, which the Central Fire Station was later built to serve. It was only some fifty years after the founding of modern Singapore that the first brigade was formed – a volunteer fire brigade in 1869, developing into a professional outfit close to two decades later. Even with the establishment of a professional force of fire-fighters, the fire brigade was still ill-equipped and ill-prepared to deal with many situations that arose, a fact highlighted by a news article in the 24th September 1890 edition Straits Times (excerpts of which can be found below) relating to a fire on Hock Lam Street – which had once met Hill Street at right angles at the very spot on the pavement on which we stood, which Jill read from. The article makes for interesting reading and in it we are told of a crowd that had gathered to witness a fire that had broken out at a house at No. 8 Hock Lam Street, which, “had the pleasure of watching a fire work its own way without let or hindrance”. What comes out from the article is that it took an hour before water could be doused on the fire, having been delayed partly by the inability of the fire-fighters to locate hydrants on a street just across from where they were based.

Volunteer Guide Ms Jill Wong describing the construction of the Central Fire Station.

The construction of the red and white fire station which was completed in 1909, a National Monument gazetted in December 1998 and the most recognisable in Singapore, represented a change in fortunes of the fire brigade, having being prompted by the arrival of the first professionally trained Superintendent of the Fire Brigade, Montague William Pett from England in 1905. The construction also prompted a modernisation of the brigade’s equipment with motorised fire engines being introduced, which is evident in the various size of exit doors of the station. The station, with its distinctive red and white brick façade, a style often described as “blood and bandages”, also features a 110 feet high watch tower, which when was the tallest structure in the city when it was built, providing a vantage from which a 24 hour watch could then be kept over the city. It also served as a hose drying tower – a feature in many fire stations. The station was later expanded, with a new wing added as well as quarters expanded on land purchased at the corner of Hill Street and Coleman Street from the Chinese Girls’ School which moved to Emerald Hill in the 1920s.

A feature of the pavement outside the Central Fire Station that was explained is that there is no kerb where it meets the road allowing it to be flushed for the passage of emergency vehicles coming out of the station.

The second (and last) stop in the short introductory tour was the former Hill Street Police Station, a six storey Neo-Classical styled building designed by PWD Chief Architect Frank Dorrington Ward completed in 1934, which was also gazetted as a National Monument at the same time as the Central Fire Station. Where the fire station is still used in a function that the building was built for, the Hill Street Police Station is now used by the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA). The building, when built, was an imposing structure which was described as the “Police Skyscraper” and was in fact the largest structure in Malaya. The building featured two open courtyards (now enclosed by a glass roof) and numerous windows (that one can’t help but notice) that opened to the outside as well as into the courtyards, giving the rooms in the building a airy and bright feel – a feature of Frank Dorrington Ward designed municipal buildings. The structure besides serving a function as a police station, also provided housing to policemen and their families with accommodation for up to a thousand people.

Another, an imposing structure that, at the time of its completion, was the largest man made structure in Malaya.

The once largest structure in Malaya, despite being dwarfed by the modern buildings that have come up in the area, is still pretty imposing.

The once open-air courtyard of the former Hill Street Police Station is now encased by a glass roof.

The construction of the building, built at a cost of $494,000, had in the case of the fire station, heralded a change of fortunes for the force, which started as a police force of 12 men in 1820 who weren’t, we were told, too well paid – a combined monthly salary of some $300 was put together by William Farquhar raised through licensing fee for the sale of opium and liquor. The force had apparently attracted the likes of desperate men, stranded sailors for one, seeking a means to obtain money for a passage home, and was poorly equipped unitl the 1930s when improved funding allowed the force was expanded to some 2000 and modern equipment to be introduced. Our attention was also drawn to a series of wall mounted information panels at the second smaller courtyard which provided some of the history of the building as well as provided insights into how life in the separate quarters for the families of the rank and file and the senior policemen was. All in all it was certainly an hour well spent, allowing me to discover more of the monuments in question and some of the conditions that existed when they were built as well as learning a little more on the history of Singapore. Information on the series of Monumental Walking Tours that the PMB has organised can be found below, as well as on the PMB’s website.

A feature of Frank Dorrington Ward designed buildings is the light and airy feel in interiors ventilated and brightened by generous windows which even in the less colourful days of the building, never goes unnoticed.

The Neo-Classical style is commonly seen in municipal buildings in Singapore and has features such as symmetry, the use of columns and pediments such as is seen over the main entrance of the former Hill Street Police Station.



PMB Media Release:

LEARN ABOUT HISTORY THE MONUMENTAL WAY
Monumental Walking Tours and My Monumental Playground offer fun for the whole family

7 June 2011 – History comes alive for the whole family as the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) launches 20 new Monumental Walking Tours of Singapore’s National Monuments in the civic and cultural district and My Monumental Playground at the Esplanade Park Memorials.

Monumental Walking Tours
Presented with distinct storylines and unique perspectives, Monumental Walking Tours cast our National Monuments in a new light, weaving in stories of Singapore’s diverse immigrant communities. The 20 tours, conducted in English, will be introduced each weekend from 11 June to end July. Along with two existing tours, these will form PMB’s stable of Monumental Walking Tours which will be offered weekly for the rest of the year. Leading the tours are PMB’s adult Volunteer Guides and student Monument Ambassadors who have a strong background and interest in heritage. For the month of June, the Monumental Walking Tours will be available at a special rate of $5 per adult and will feature colonial buildings such as The Arts House and Peranakan Museum.

My Monumental Playground
Specially planned for the little ones, My Monumental Playground will reveal little-known facts about the Esplanade Memorials through storytelling sessions, silent precision drill performances, a treasure hunt and more. Held on 11 and 12 June, this event is part of Children’s Season 2011. Through these exciting events, PMB hopes to develop greater public interest and appreciation for Singapore’s 64 National Monuments. More information on the upcoming events can be found Annexes, and members of the public can refer to www.pmb.sg.

PMB Monumental Walking Tour and My Monumental Playground Programmes:

Administrative Information

Monumental Walking Tour Programme 11th – 12th June 2011

Monumental Walking Tour Programme 18th – 26th June 2011

Monumental Walking Tour Programme to be released in July 2011

My Monumental Playground



Excerpts from the article “Fire on Hocklam Street” from the 24th September 1890 edition of the Straits Times:

“About 9.30 p.m. a fire began in a house No. 8 Hocklam Street, and a crowd immediately commenced to gather and found that they had the pleasure of watching a fire work its own way without let or hindrance. Very soon Chief Inspector Jennings arrived, and pending the arrival of the fire engines did all he could, i.e. watched the crowd. At 10 o’clock the fire had obtained complete possession of the house, and the flames lapped round the casements, and mounted high into the air illuminating the whole town”.

The article goes on to describe how the crowd had admired the uniform of the superintendent as he watched on horseback as the fire made its progress, with water arriving only an hour after the fire by which time No. 8 and 9 were “completely gutted” and added that the “organisation did not know where the nearest hydrants were situated” in spite of the “barracks of the Fire Brigade” being “in the same street as, and exactly opposite to, the burnt houses”.






Amidst the rising tide, a tearful farewell to Romance

6 06 2011

Sunday the 5th of June 2011 will probably be remembered for what has been described as the worst flooding in 25 years in Singapore, triggered by two bouts of intense rainfall, one at mid morning which had some 65 mm of rain fall in a half an hour period. It was a morning that I found myself up at the break of day, greeted not by the bright Sunday I had hoped for, but by the greyness of the rain washed morning. The intensity of the early morning downpour and the resulting rising waters of the Bukit Timah Canal, wasn’t of course what this post is all about, but an event that, I would certainly have remembered the 5th of June 2011 for – the final departure of the luxury Eastern and Oriental Express train service from Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

The 5th of June marked the last departure of the E&O Express Trains from Tanjong Pagar, bringing an end to the era of Romance in railway travel from Singapore.

The last E&O Express to depart from Tanjong Pagar sits at the platform.

The significance of that to me is one that perhaps outweighs that of what would be the departure of the last train on the evening of the 30th of June, and brings to an end, the end of Romance in rail travel to and from Singapore that had come with the opening of a station that along with the stations along the Malayan Railway at Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh, possibly best represents the age when the Romance of rail travel was at its peak. The Eastern and Oriental Express, doesn’t of course, go as far back to those days having been introduced to Tanjong Pagar in 1993, but it does take one back to those days in attempting to recreate the luxury and romance that is associated with the glory days of the railway.

The E&O Express route from Singapore to Bangkok was introduced in 1993.

A farewell to Tanjong Pagar and a farewell to Romance.

The last E&O Express Train to depart sits in the rain that brought rising waters in many parts of Singapore.

A window to the luxury and romance of the E&O Express.

A final walk down the platform ...

A steward looks forlornly at the rain washed platform at Tanjong Pagar for one last goodbye.

Carriages seen at the platform.

A farewell ... to tears from the heavens.

With the departure of the train at approximately 11.30 am from Tanjong Pagar and its subsequent 15 minute passage to Bukit Timah Station and another 15 minute passage to Woodlands, northbound E&O Express passengers would have for the last time, be given the treat of a passage through a Singapore that is representative of the Singapore when Tanjong Pagar Railway station was built in 1932, a softer and gentler Singapore that after the 1st of July, may disappear as the northbound E&O Express did on that stormy morning. Perhaps it was fitting that it was not to the smile of the sunshine that I had hoped for, but to the tears from the Heavens that the E&O train made this final push up north … tears perhaps for an end to of the Romance of the railway through Singapore.

The last E&O service to depart Tanjong Pagar reaches the halfway point in a final northbound journey through the railway corridor in Singapore, Bukit Timah Station.

Handing back the authority for the south section of the Singapore track to the Station Master, Encik Atan for one last time.

The E&O Express slows to a halt at Bukit Timah at approximately 11.45am, as it waits for a southbound train to pass.

Looking north at Bukit Timah one last time.

The carriages of the E&O sits in the rain, as waters rise in the Bukit Timah Canal just 250 metres away.

The rain washed platform at Bukit Timah.

Handing the authority for one last time for the 15 minute northern passage through Singapore.

Off we go for one last northbound look at the Bukit Timah corridor.

Shunting back one last time onto the main track.

And through the truss bridge for that last northern passage through Singapore.

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Strangers on a Train:

Strangers on a Train is an attempt to celebrate the passing of an era by a gathering on what is scheduled to be the last train that pulls into Tanjong Pagar Railway Station on 30th June 2011. If you are interested to join us, we are on Train 15 Ekspres Sinaran Timur (most of are in Coach 2 and are getting on that at Segamat). Do note that tickets for the Express services, which can be purchased up to 30 days in advance, to and from Singapore this June are fast selling, with trains for most weekends already quite full, and can be obtained at the station (advance bookings open from 8.30 am daily) or online at the KTMB website. If you would like to join us and have you tickets, you may drop an email to Notabilia or me with the subject line “Strangers on a Train”.


Further information of interest:

Information related to the station and its architecture can be found on a previous post: “A final look at Tanjong Pagar Station“. In addition to that, I have also put together a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station which can be found through this page: “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Do also take a look at the proposal by the Nature Society (Singapore) to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, at the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page. My own series of posts on the Green Corridor are at: “Support the Green Corridor“.






The last level crossing in Singapore

19 05 2011

Minutes before arriving at Woodlands on the 30th of June, the last of the Malayan Railway trains to cut across our island would have passed what would be the last operational level crossing in Singapore. It is probably appropriate that the crossing, one of two gated crossings left (the other being at Gombak Drive), is the last that will see a train pass through, being close to the terminal point of the original Singapore-Kranji Railway which commenced operations in 1903. The original line had featured numerous level crossings, particularly in the busy city centre and in planning the Railway Deviation of 1932, a stated objective had been the elimination of the level crossings in the city which proved not just to be costly to maintain, but also contributed to significant congestion on the city roads as well as being dangerous. What we are left with today are five operational manned level crossings, three of which are closed by a barrier rather than a gate. The crossings are at Gombak Drive, Choa Chu Kang Road (the widest), Stagmont Ring Road, Sungei Kadut Avenue and Kranji Road.

A train crossing Kranji Road. The Kranji level crossing would be the last one to operate on the 30th of June 2011.

The Singapore-Kranji Railway started operations on New Year’s day of 1903 after some two years and eight months of construction with the opening of the line from Bukit Timah to the original terminal at Tank Road. The departure of the first train from Tank Road Station is described by the 2nd January 1903 edition of the Straits Times: “Yesterday morning at 6 o’clock sharp, the first train drew up at the platform awaiting those daring spirits who had decided to test the line, in an initial run as far as Bukit Timah. There were two or three Europeans and a similar number of Chinese babas as passengers … A few minutes after 6 o’clock, one of the few railway officials present waved his hand to the driver as a signal to start, the passengers scrambled in, the engine tootled once or twice, and then slowly steamed out of the station passing a large notice board which proclaimed in English, Malay and Tamil that the station was ‘Singapore’. Thus the first public run on the Singapore-Kranji Railway has commenced”. Based on the same article, the published fares for the passage were 56 cents on 1st Class, 35 cents on 2nd, and 21 cents on 3rd. The full line was completed some four months later with the opening of the final section from Bukit Timah to Kranji on the 10th of April 1903. The Straits Times on the 11th of April 1903 describes the passage of the first “through train”: “the first through train left ‘Singapore’ station at Tank Road punctually at 7 o’clock yesterday morning for ‘Woodlands’, at the Johore end of Singapore, a little run of fifteen miles. The train consisted of seven carriages and was well filled with a very cosmopolitan lot of passengers”. The article also interestingly describes the scene along the line from Bukit Timah onwards towards Woodlands: “the line runs through some of the prettiest country in the island and the lover of tropical scenery will be delighted with the trip”. The return fare was reported to be $1.80 and the passage across the Straits of Johor on a steam driven ferry cost 10 cents.

The original Singapore-Kranji railway had run to the 'Singapore' Station at Tank Road. Operations started on New Year's Day 1903 to Bukit Timah and was extended to Kranji on 10 April 1903 when the rest of the line was completed.

That was some 108 years ago, when the railway made its first tentative journeys across the island. And now, after a little more than a century, the last will leave, not tentatively, but possibly in a determined manner, no longer wanted by a country it has served so well, but where land has become too valuable to allow the old railway to weave its way through it. And so, in the cover of the night, perhaps not silently, but with a large groan, the railway will take its leave with the last train as it passes the last crossing to be swallowed up by the CIQ complex where the trains will after the last on the 30th of June, terminate at. No longer will we as train passengers see that scenery that was in 1903 described as “the prettiest country in the island”, a scenery that still, despite the appearance of civilisation, is still one of the prettiest in the country, and no longer will I get to see what has held my fascination of the railway since my earliest encounters with it in Singapore – a train crossing a road.

When the Kranji level crossing sees the back of the last train on the 30th of June 2011, we would be minutes from saying goodbye to 108 years of the railway passing through Singapore.

A Vanishing Scene: The Kranji Level Crossing


To read my series of posts on Journeys through Tanjong Pagar, please click on this link.


Party on the last train:

If anyone is keen to join Clarissa Tan, Notabilia, and myself on the last train into Singapore (not the last train which will be the northbound train from Tanjong Pagar), do indicate your interest by leaving a comment at Notabilia’s post on the subject.






Don’t miss the last train!

18 05 2011

The last day of June this year will bring to a close a long chapter in our history, one that will break a link we have had with the Malayan Railway, now operated by Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM), that went back some 108 years. The railway’s beginings can be traced back to the Singapore-Kranji Railway which started service in 1903 providing a link from the north down to the terminal station in Tank Road. A ferry service was introduced which provided rail passengers with a link to the Johor Railway across the Straits of Johor which was replaced by the rail link across the Causeway when that was built. It was a railway deviation in 1932 that diverted the railway to its current terminal at Tanjong Pagar, cutting a path through from Bukit Timah deviating from its original route over towards Ulu Pandan, Buona Vista, Tanglin Halt, towards the new grand terminal built to provide Singapore with a station that was befitting of its economic importance. Beside the grand old station, it was this deviation that possibly provided us with the many structures that give the areas through which the railway passes through a unique flavour as well as helping preserving parts of old Singapore: the two distinctive black truss bridges across Bukit Timah Road; the girder bridges across at the road entrance to Bukit Timah Hill and at the entrance to Hillview Avenue; the quaint old station at Bukit Timah and the wonderful green corridor that has been maintained along much of the railway land.

The last train will pass reach Woodlands Checkpoint at approximately 23:00 on 30th June 2011 and that will end 108 years of trains of the Malayan Railway chugging through Singapore.

And so, on the 30th of June, the locomotive that drags the 22:30 Senandung Malam through its half an hour passage across the island from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands would be the last to do so, pulling its way past what would have been familiar sights in the darkness of the night, breaking the silence one last time of what it would leave as a long and lonely corridor. With its scheduled arrival at Woodlands Train Checkpoint at 23:00, the familiar sights and sounds: the sights of the rushing flash of silver tinged with blue, white, yellow and red across the truss and girder bridges, roads (at the five level operational crossings) and through the many places that as children we would have watched the train pass by; and the sounds of the rattle of the diesels and blaring horns, would be but a memory. With that, that old world feel that one somehow associates with the train would be also be a thing of the past, as operations commence from Woodlands on the 1st of July, leaving passengers and well-wishers with little or no opportunity to experience that send-off or welcome or an arrival at a grand station that a journey by train somehow deserves.

A journey to or from Tanjong Pagar is a unique experience not to be missed.

Getting on the train from Tanjong Pagar would I guess be the best way to have that experience, but even if you don’t intend to do that, there are many ways to have a last experience of the last of the trains through Singapore. One of the best ways to do it is to watch the passing and waiting of the trains at the old Bukit Timah Station, accessible via a path on each side of the black railway bridge near King Albert Park. It is at this quaint old station that we can observe that old fashioned practice of the handing over of the key-token – the last place along the KTM Railway line that this is still practiced to ensure that there is only one train on the single track that is still in use. If you do go to the station at Bukit Timah, do remember that the station and the grounds around it are still very much the property of KTM, and that although for most part the Station Master is quite tolerant of curious visitors, it would be good to ensure that you do not impede the station’s operations as well as compromise your own safety. And, if you do intend to take a few photographs, or do video recordings, please remember to also seek the permission of the Station Master. To catch a glimpse of the trains and the handing over of the key token, the best time would be to do so in the mornings as trains would be most frequent then. The schedule of trains passing at Bukit Timah Station is: 04:45, 06:09, 06:45, 07:30, 08:15, 10:45, 13:15; 16:26, 18:11, 18:15, 19:10, 20:55, 21:47, and 22:45 (do note that KTM trains do not alway run on schedule). The last trains would be the ones on the 30th of June this year, so do make it a point to catch them, before they are gone, as many wonderful experiences on our island are now gone, forever.

It is also worth paying a visit to quaint old Bukit Timah Station to catch the passing trains as well as witness the old fashioned practice of the handing over of the key token - the only remaining place along the KTM line that this is still done.

The Key Token.

A key token for the northern section being handed over by an incoming southbound train.

Carriages of a south bound train waiting for a north bound train to pass at Bukit Timah Station.

The Station Master scurrying off on a bicycle to pass the key token to the driver of a south bound train.

A reflection no more after the 30th of June - the station at Bukit Timah being reflected off a passing train.

Silence will greet Bukit Timah Station after 79 years of hearing the frequent sounds of engines and whistles.


KTM timetable

Note: Times shaded in green are those at the start points, and those in red at the end points. There are two lines, the North South Line and the East Line which run out of and into Tanjong Pagar until 30th June 2011.

North-South Line Timetable (click to enlarge).

East Line Timetable (click to enlarge).


To read my series of posts on Journeys through Tanjong Pagar, please click on this link.


Party on the last train:

If anyone is keen to join Clarissa Tan, Notabilia, and myself on the last train into Singapore (not the last train which will be the northbound train from Tanjong Pagar), do indicate your interest by leaving a comment at Notabilia’s post on the subject.

In the Lianhe Zaobao on Sunday 29 May 2011

网上召集搭未班火车回家

约两周前,网上已有人开 始召集在6月30日到马来西亚一同搭回返丹戎巴葛火车站的最后一班火车,为火车站来个 “欢送会”。据召集人之一林坚源了解,当天晚上10时抵新的班车应孩会是火车战停用前最最后一班在这里停 的火车靠的火车。

“虽然丹戎巴葛火车站的最后一班车据说是当天晚上10时半由柔佛州苏丹亲自开往马来西亚的班车, 但是我们新加坡人来说,搭乘南向火车回家更具意义。”






A walk on the wild side

15 05 2011

I took a walk into a world where there might not have been one, where gold, crimson and blue tinged fairies dance a flight of joy, a joy that’s echoed in the singing of songs of joy that eludes ears made weary by the cacophony of the grey world we have found ourselves in. It is a world that seeks to be found in the midst of the cold grey world we find around us, a world that we may soon lose with the lost of the reasons for its being. The world I speak of is none other than the Green Corridor that has existed solely because of the railway which has allowed a green and seemingly distant world to exist next to the concrete world that we have created in our island.

A world that seeks to be discovered - but how much longer will it be there for us?

The walk on the wild side passed through some two kilometres of plush greenery which now probably exists only because of the railway that runs through the area.

The walk that I took was with a group of some 30 people, led by the Nature Society of Singapore and the National Library Board (NLB) to a stretch that I had previously only seen from the perspective of a passenger on the train. It was a short but interesting walk that started at the foot of a railway bridge across Dunearn and Bukit Timah that takes me back to my childhood days – the black truss bridge that I have since my early days looking out for it from the back seat of my father’s Austin 1100, associated with the area. Led by our expert guide, Ms Margie Hall, we were taken not just on a history trip through the slightly more than two kilometre route to the road bridge over the railway at Old Holland Road (close to its junction with Ulu Pandan/Holland Roads), but on a nature trail, as names of birds some of which as Singaporeans we have forgotten about, rattled off Ms Hall’s tongue.

The railway bridge, our starting point, was one that I have identified with the area since my early days spent looking out for it from the back seat of my father's Austin 1100.

One of the features of the walk from a historical perspective was of course the station at Bukit Timah, built to serve the great railway deviation of 1932 which turned the line in that direction and onto Tanjong Pagar. These days, the station serves more as a point where the exchange of the key token, made necessary by the single track is made, a practice I have observed many times from my many encounters with the train.

Bukit Timah Station now serves as a point for the exchange of the key token. In the days gone by, the station was where racehorses coming in to race at the Turf Club were offloaded as well.

A waiting train at Bukit Timah Station.

It was beyond the station that my journey of discovery started. Looking into the distance the width of the clearing through which the line ran looked very much wider than most of the other areas I was familiar with. This was understandable from the perspective of the station itself where alternate tracks for waiting trains to shunt onto were necessary. The width was of course explained by the fact that a line had branched off at the station – the old Jurong Line which was constructed in a project initiated by the Economic Development Board (EDB) to supplement the development of Jurong Industrial Estate. The line ran in parallel for a short distance before turning west into a tunnel under Clementi Road – what is now an area with dense vegetation that is featured in Liao Jiekai’s award winning movie Red Dragonflies which is currently on a limited run at Filmgarde Iluma. The stretch is already popular with cyclists and joggers who in using the stretch of the Green Corridor, shows that there is already a lush stretch of greenery that is ready made – with the authorities having to spend very little money to develop compared to the millions spent on the park connector network. Ms Hall also shared her visions for the area, saying that the tracks should be kept along with the station in its original condition – the station, which has also been listed as one with conservation status (meaning that only its façade needs to be conserved). Ms Hall felt that conserving the station without keeping it in the original condition would not serve the purpose of conserving it – something that I certainly agree with. Some of the thoughts she had included running a replica railway over a short length of tracks to and from the station to allow future generations to have an appreciation for the trains which had served us for over a century.

The stretch of the Green Corridor is already popular with joggers ...

... and cyclists ... proving that is already a long "park connector" that is ready for use.

The clearing through which the portion of the corridor south of Bukit Timah Station runs is wider than most other parts of the rail corridor.

Ms. Hall felt that the tracks should be kept in place for our future generations to appreciate.

The area where the Jurong Line would have turned off into the tunnel is marked by piles of wooden railway sleepers and is one where we stopped and were able to take in the diversity of birds and insects in their songs and dances of joy in and around the lush greenery before us. It was at this point where Ms Hall was in her element, being able to identify birds from the sounds that rose above the others in the background, identifying that of an Iora and a Tailorbird upon hearing their calls. Ms Hall also pointed out Long-Tailed Parakeets high in the trees as well as a pair of Scaly-Breasted Munias foraging in the grass. From this point the corridor is marked with a narrow path through which we passed through single file. The sight of the bridge over Old Holland Road which marked the end of the trail brought with it what was perhaps an ominous gathering of dark clouds … dark clouds that seem to hover over the future of a wonderful gift of nature that Singaporeans seemed to have passed over.

It wasn't just red dragonflies that were able to discover ...

... but also saffron coloured ones ...

... and turquoise coloured ones as well.

A parakeet perched high at the top of a tree - one of the many birds we encountered.

Morning Glory.

A cassava or tapioca leaf.

Proceeding single file on towards Old Holland Road.

For the Green Corridor, the first of July this year sees not only sees the end of its use by the railway, but its continued existence would be under threat. The indications are that there are already plans to redevelop some of the areas which would be reclaimed by Singapore. During the budget debate in Parliament in March this year, the then Foreign Minister George Yeo was quoted as saying that “the development of areas along the railway line, including Silat Estate and the expansion of the One-North business park in Buona Vista, will start after July 1″ (see the Straits Times report dated 4 March 2011). It has also come to my attention that a tender was called for the “removal and storage of railway including ancillary structures from Woodlands Train Checkpoint to Tanjong Pagar Railway Station” which closed recently with work scheduled to commence on 1 July 2011. It does look that proposals to retain the green corridor made by the NSS has largely been overlooked by the authorities involved, and the authorities are pressing ahead with the redevelopment of a rich natural resource and a part of our green heritage. It is a shame if this does happen, as not only will we see the last of the passing locomotives and carriages that weaved their way slowly across the island for over a century, but also the last bits of a part of Singapore that the railway has given to Singapore. It only through my recent wanderings that I have become so well acquainted with some portions of it and have began to have a appreciation for what the corridor is worth to us. There are some wonderful ideas that advocates of the Green Corridor have for preserving the corridor – some were in fact presented and discussed right after the walk which was part of a programme that included a forum. This I would touch on in another post. What I hope for is that whoever is involved in the plans for the redevelopment of the area pauses to consider some of these proposals more seriously and to also consider we and more importantly our future generations, would be losing should the Green Corridor be taken over by the concrete jungle that so much of Singapore has now become.

Arched brickwork of a culvert supporting the railway tracks near Old Holland Road.

The little things that matter - the rich biodiversity that the railway corridor supports would be lost to the concrete jungle should plans to redevelop the corridor be executed.

From one bridge to the next ... the bridge at Old Holland Road under which the railway corridor passes through.





The last train from Tanjong Pagar

14 05 2011

On the 30th of June, we will see the last day of operation at the grand old station at Tanjong Pagar. The station, grand not in terms of scale, but in the magnificent style in which it was built, has served Singapore as the southern terminal station for close to eight decades, having been completed in 1932 to provide a city fast growing in economic importance with a station befitting of its status, and being part of a deviation of the railway which had prior to that, run through the Bukit Timah corridor before terminating at Tank Road. With the return of the railway land which has been held on a lease by the successors of the Malayan Railway, Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) and the shift of the southern terminal on the 1st of July, the age of rail travel across Singapore, which has lasted a little over a century, would draw to a close.

Operations at the grand building which has served as the southern terminal of the Malayan Railway since 1932 will cease on 1st July 2011.

In what form the station, which has recently received status as a National Monument, will be conserved following the handover we do not know, but whatever does happen, it would only serve as a reminder of the once working station which had for many years been an oasis of the laid back old world feeling that is missing from the modern Singapore that we have gotten used to. Gone will be the whistles and the drone of the diesel engines, the coming and going of passengers, the popular food outlets and what has become an institution at the railway station, the Habib Book Store and Money Changer. Gone will also be the opportunity to soak up the feel of the mood around the station, and lazily sip away at a cup of tea seated at the station end of the arrival platform.

A vanishing scene at Tanjong Pagar: Habib Book Store and Money Changer.

Another vanishing scene at Tanjong Pagar: The coming and going of passengers.

No more opportunity to lazily sip a cup of tea on the arrival platform come the 1st of July.

All good things must come to an end, as the saying goes, and come to an end will be an era and to mark this end, a last train would be be leaving Tanjong Pagar on the 30th of June. This train would be special as it would be driven by none other than HRH Sultan Ibrahim Ismail of Johor. More information on how to get on this train I understand would be available from KTM’s headquarters and tickets I understand would cost somehwere in the order of $300. For me, I would choose to instead to be on the last train in … and be the last passenger to alight … that just to bring not just an era but also a chapter in Malaysia’s and Singapore’s history to a close … as a memory of a railway that I will certainly miss in the years to come …

The last train out will be one that would have a special driver ...

The Sultan of Johor will drive the last train out of Tanjong Pagar on 30th June 2011 (photo source: http://www.thestar.com.my).

I would rather be that last passenger to alight at Tanjong Pagar.


To read my series of posts on Journeys through Tanjong Pagar, please click on this link.


If anyone is keen to join Clarissa Tan, Notabilia, and myself on the last train into Singapore (not the last train which will be the northbound train from Tanjong Pagar), do indicate your interest by leaving a comment at Notabilia’s post on the subject.

In the Lianhe Zaobao on Sunday 29 May 2011

网上召集搭未班火车回家

约两周前,网上已有人开 始召集在6月30日到马来西亚一同搭回返丹戎巴葛火车站的最后一班火车,为火车站来个 “欢送会”。据召集人之一林坚源了解,当天晚上10时抵新的班车应孩会是火车战停用前最最后一班在这里停 的火车靠的火车。

“虽然丹戎巴葛火车站的最后一班车据说是当天晚上10时半由柔佛州苏丹亲自开往马来西亚的班车, 但是我们新加坡人来说,搭乘南向火车回家更具意义。”


Update 14 June 2011 (New Straits Times)

Tickets snapped up for KTMB’s final Tanjong Pagar service

2011/06/14
By Atiqa Hazellah
news@nst.com.my

KUALA LUMPUR: More than 170 people will be on the last train out of Tanjong Pagar station in Singapore on June 30, but chances are, they will not be rushing to get aboard before the green flag signifying the start of the journey is waved.
Almost all of the 172 tickets for the final journey were snapped up after they went on sale at noon yesterday, pointing to the possibility that many wanted to be a part of the historic occasion.

Just five hours after the ticket counters opened for business, the second class sleeping coach tickets were sold out, while the first and second class coaches had only two and 56 tickets left, respectively.

The Ekspres Senandung Sutera locomotive will depart at 10pm from the Tanjong Pagar station, breaking the silence of the darkness of the night for one last time. The express train service ends at the Kuala Lumpur Sentral station.

Keretapi Tanah Melayu Bhd corporate communications executive Kelvin Khew said a sending-off celebration would be organised to commemorate the historic occasion. “The celebration will start at 11pm with many activities lined up, (including) selling the train’s memorabilia.” Besides that, said Khew, an exhibition would be held at the Tanjong Pagar station from June 26 to 29, in collaboration with Tourism Malaysia.

The Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, will drive a special train from Tanjong Pagar and stop at the Woodlands Immigration checkpoint, then continue to Johor Baru Sentral after getting a licence last year.

Meanwhile, a page has been set up by several people on social networking site Facebook.

Called “The Last Train Into Tanjong Pagar”, it has already accumulated 357 fans since it was created earlier this month.

Most of them expressed their sadness over the closure of the Tanjong Pagar station.

On July 1, the curtains will come down on the Tanjong Pagar and Bukit Timah stations in Singapore as KTMB terminates its rail services in the republic south of the Woodlands train checkpoint.

The Tanjong Pagar and Bukit Timah stations have been providing rail services for Malaysians and Singaporeans since 1932 and 1915, respectively. The Tanjong Pagar site and other KTMB land parcels in the island republic will be jointly developed by MS Pte Ltd, a company with a 60 per cent stake held by Khazanah Nasional Bhd and 40 per cent by Temasek Holdings Ltd.

This was agreed upon during a series of bilateral meetings which also involved Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his Singapore counterpart, Lee Hsien Loong, last year.

Read more: Tickets snapped up for KTMB’s final Tanjong Pagar service http://www.nst.com.my/nst/articles/TicketssnappedupforKTMB__8217_sfinalTanjongPagarservice/Article#ixzz1PF2AiKGG






Reflections on the morning after

9 05 2011

Many had thought, or at least hoped that Singapore’s General Elections held on the 7th of May 2011 would be a watershed for politics in Singapore. With the dust now settling after what must have been one of the most exciting campaigns for a long time, the scorecard of 81 to 6 does make it look as if nothing much has changed, with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) holding an overwhelming majority, and the opposition left to contend with an ineffective representation in Parliament. We do have to look a little further than the headlines on the front page though, to realise that the elections is indeed a watershed for Singapore in many ways.

81-6 read the front page of the Straits Times on the morning after, but what should really have been on the front pages of the news was the erosion of support for the ruling party.

Besides the PAP which retained its hold on power, the other party that perhaps had a victory of sorts was the opposition Workers’ Party, adding five more seats from winning in a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) beyond the Single Member Constituency (SMC) that they previously held in Hougang. In that we also saw a big shift in the positions of the opposition parties, with the Workers’ Party (WP) increasing their share of the votes and giving a good a good account of themselves; while veteran politician Chiam See Tong’s decision in his twilight years to contest in a GRC and have his wife Lina stand in Potong Pasir, a seat he has held for some 27 years, saw him and his Singapore People’s Party (SPP) lose their previously held seat by the narrowest of margins. There is no doubt that all that is significant and does show that there is a huge shift in the political landscape, with the WP showing that it is a force in politics, and with the PAP losing a GRC the first time since their introduction in 1988, but also a senior member of the Cabinet, Foreign Minister George Yeo. The GRCs, which account for the majority of constituencies in Singapore’s electoral map, is a grouping of three or more constituencies in which its MPs are voted in as a group, the purpose of which is to ensure adequate representation of minorities with at least one member of the group being from an ethnic minority group. The system has been much criticised by opponents on the grounds that it serves as a huge barrier to what were previously fragmented opposition parties who had difficulty in putting together a large enough group of candidates to contest in the GRCs.

Despite strong support on the ground for Mr Chiam and his wife Lina Chiam, his gamble to stand in a GRC leaving Mrs Chiam to contest in Potong Pasir, saw the Chiam's long association with the ward end. Mrs Chiam lost by the thinnest of margins of less than 1% of the valid votes.

One of the important statistics related to the outcome of the elections would be the 6% fall in the ruling party’s share of votes to some 60.14%. The party had up until 1981, enjoyed 13 years of absolute control of Parliament, and had long had strong support from the population. Of late, voter disaffection and the increased awareness of a hitherto apathetic electorate, plus a desire to have greater representation for alternative views in Parliament has seen support eroded from over 75% of the popular vote at its highs to a historical low of close to 60% this election. While this and the huge majority it has in Parliament does indicate that there is still popular support for the party which has ruled Singapore since its independence, the fact that support is being eroded so much so that now 4 out of every 10 Singaporean voters have voted against the ruling party, signifies a worrying trend for the party.

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam of the Workers

The lead up to the General Elections saw the largest crowds attending the Workers' Party's rallies. Despite the rain and the muddy conditions on the ground - the crowd that gathered on the penultimate day of campaigning at Ubi Avenue 2 resulted in traffic jams in the area.

This time around, the social media provided a powerful platform for an airing of the opinions of the disaffected, where previously there was none. It was in fact with the social media that the rules of engagement had changed. This was recognised by all parties as a means to reach out to a new generation of social media savvy voters, with a fifth of the electorate below the age of 30. Where in previous elections, the airing of opinions did not go beyond exchanges within one’s circles of friends and relatives, and perhaps on the backseat of a taxi, the social media was able to extend the reach much further to many who shared similar views. This in a sense provided a previously apathetic electorate with a platform for a political awakening and in a collective desire by like minded people to perhaps challenge the status quo. One factor that may have played a part in the small but noticeable swing of votes may have been the platform not being understood well enough by certain quarters of the ruling establishment.

A Worker's Party election campaign banner seen outside Parliament House on Election Day. Many Singaporeans want to see an wider representation in Parliament.

Whatever it was, the election was a watershed for me. I am one who believes that all voices should be heard and that the task of running the country I was born in shouldn’t be left to one group of people who belong to a single party, no matter how well qualified they may appear. I do not dispute that the ruling party which has ruled Singapore since independence has done an excellent job in transforming Singapore into an economic success that many at the point of independence would not have imagined, as well as in addressing the needs of a population that has steadily risen from some 1.9 million during independence to just over 5 million at the end of last year. I don’t think for a moment that I, or for that matter many other like minded voters who cast a vote for change, are being ungrateful, or have forgotten what the previously leadership has done as some would like to think. There is certainly no doubt in my mind that as of today, there is no party that is better positioned to manage a nation that has been so well managed. What I did was, to cast a vote for a future which will include a voice for what has long been a voiceless minority; for a system that has the capacity to address the genuine concerns of the many on the ground who have fallen by the wayside; and for some sensibility to return to the leadership of a country that has become so consumed by their success that they have forgotten what the party had stood for all those years back, It is only by having an alternative voice in Parliament that can engage the ruling party as equals, not just for now, but for time to come that this can ensure that this happens. I am proud to say that I am one of the four out of every ten that said yes to this, and while this on a National level hasn’t translated to more than a handful of alternative voices in our next Parliament, it has seen what I hope is a new dawn – a “shift” as Prime Minister Lee put it in politics that I hope will also transform those in the ruling party to recognise what the people of Singapore are asking for. The signs so far are positive and as PM Lee himself has indicated in his post victory speech: “We hear all your voices” and that it was a “time for healing and for acceptance of the people’s decision, not just for the PAP but for all Singaporeans”. I was there to celebrate the victory of the WP team of Aljunied, and when the official announcement was made that the WP had been successful in winning Aljunied GRC, I found a cause to celebrate, as I did with that by-election victory in Anson all those years back. It did take 30 years to arrive where we are, but with what is recognised as a new political climate in Singapore, what I hope comes out of this is the start of a shift towards a more open and inclusive political system, one that Singapore as a first world country should ultimately have.

Sunset on Election Day brought bright colours - perhaps signifying the optimisation many had for a mature democracy in Singapore.

A historical moment? The celebration at Hougang Stadium in the wee hours of 8 May:

A large crowd of Workers' Party faithful gathered at Hougang Stadium streaming in from as early as 5pm on Election Day in anticipation of the election results.

The crowd holding a poster of the WP candidates for Aljunied GRC.

Mr Yaw Shin Leong, WP's candidate for Hougang SMC who won with a margin of close to 30%, after his victory speech.

Lawyer Chen Show Mao - part of WP's team in Aljunied waving to the crowd.

A supporter trying to get a good view of the winning team's departure from Hougang Stadium - certainly not one who sat on the fence.

With 6 MPs now in Parliament, will the WP hammer away at the PAP's overwhelming majority in the future?





A Russian swallow and a Singaporean cypher officer

29 04 2011

The Cold War was a period that now seems a distant past. It wasn’t that long ago that it actually ended, its end coming with the demise of the fast crumbling Soviet bloc at the start of the 1990s. Having grown up during a period during which the Vietnam War was very much in evidence, as well having witnessed as a wide eyed boy, the exciting phase of the space race during which the first lunar landing was made, I was never short of seeing the Cold War being played out in one way or another. Of of the many ways in which the Cold War had been expressed, the one that probably caught a young boy’s attention most was the tales of espionage that we never seemed to be short of: of both the fictional variety in the guise of Secret Agent 007 and later living the tales out through the novels of John le Carré; and of real-life drama that never failed to catch the attention of the boys around me.

One of the real life dramas that caught my attention when I was in my teenage years was one that involved a Bulgarian dissident, playwright Georgi Markov, who whilst in exile in London, was killed in a James Bond like fashion. Markov had been working in London with the BBC, and while waiting for a bus on the Waterloo Bridge near the BBC’s offices during rush hour, felt a stinging pain in his thigh. He had apparently been stabbed by an umbrella, which was modified to fire a pinhead sized pellet which contained ricin, a poison. He had thought nothing of the incident, and continued on his way home. He died three days later. The umbrella had reported been carried by a Bulgarian agent, and was developed by the KGB, an acronym synonymous with Soviet espionage, which referred to the Komitet Gosudarsvenoy Bezopanosti, the Committee for State Security, which acted as the Soviet secret service.

There were many other lurid espionage related tales – one well known one that preceded my arrival into the world that was still a hot topic was the one dubbed as the Profumo affair, which was made into a movie Scandal in 1989. That incident involved a typical setting associated with a spy thriller of society girls, politicians in high places, sex, and deceit. This involved a certain John Profumo, an up and coming politician in the Conservative set up, and the Secretary of State for War. His affair with Christine Keeler who was the reputed mistress of an suspected Soviet spy and subsequent denial in the House of Commons about the affair, not only brought him down, but was perhaps instrumental in Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s resignation.

In Singapore, we weren’t far from similar incidents ourselves. One such incident that came to light in 1980, involved a cypher officer with our Embassy in Moscow. The cypher officer, who had been posted to Moscow in May 1978, was contacted by a certain Luba Lubov Maluba, about a year into his posting, claiming to be a friend of a previous Singaporean occupant of the apartment in which the cypher officer, his wife and young daughter resided. Maluba turned out to be a “swallow”, a term used to describe female agents trained by the Soviets to seduce susceptible foreign men to obtain information from them, and the cypher officer fell prey. He was subsequently blackmailed and passed on transcripts of decoded messages and later settings for the cypher machine. The cypher officer was only found out when he was arrested for trying to smuggle religious icons out of the Soviet Union into Finland and recalled to Singapore, where he confessed to the CID. More of the tale can be found in the online Straits Times archives. The cypher officer was charged and jailed for a total of 10 years.





A visit to the lighthouse on Singapore’s One Tree Island

12 04 2011

An hour by boat from Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal, lies Pulau Satumu, which by virtue of being the southernmost island of Singapore, is the southernmost point in Singapore. The island, which is some 14 km south of the nearest point on the main island of Singapore is also home to a lighthouse, Raffles Lighthouse, one of four offshore lighthouses operated by the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA), the others being on Sultan Shoal, Pedra Branca and Pulau Pisang which is on Malaysian territory. Being very much one who has always taken an interest in all things nautical, I have always been drawn to lighthouses … my very first encounters with one being the one that had shone its beacon from the top of the Fullerton Building that I loved watching on the many strolls with my parents down Collyer Quay, and when the opportunity arose to catch a boat to Raffles Lighthouse, I certainly wasn’t going to give it a miss.

Pulau Satumu or "One Tree Island", the southernmost island of Singapore, is home to Raffles Lighthouse.

The visit to the lighthouse, part of a learning journey organised by the MPA in conjunction with Singapore Maritime Week was a rare opportunity. Lighthouses are protected places in Singapore and access to the islands that the lighthouses of the form that most of us have an impression of is restricted, and I certainly did not need a second asking. So, on an overcast and rather muggy day, I found myself sitting in a launch at Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal with a large group of students, as I keenly anticipated the start of a journey that would take me to the first ever operating lighthouse that I would have ever visited in Singapore, to the gentle rolling of the launch to the undulations on the surface of the sea.

Lighthouses currently operated by the MPA, as seen on a nautical chart at Raffles Lighthouse.

The ride which took a little more than an hour, provided me with an excellent opportunity to have a look at the massive changes to the waters around the south west of Singapore. What greets the eye immediately upon leaving the ferry terminal is the reclamation taking place off Pasir Panjang, part of the effort to expand the container terminals that the area now hosts. Moving off along with the launch we were in, was a double ended ramped single deck vehicle ferry with a load of construction vehicles, a sign of the frenzy of activity that is now surely taking place offshore. The Semakau landfill (perhaps more appropriately “seafill”), which has joined Pulau Semakau with Pulau Seking (a.k.a. Pulau Sakeng), is clearly visible from the start, the long building that serves as a receiving station is instantly recognisable. The first island we actually pass along the way is Pulau Bukom on which the Shell Refinery has long been a feature, and moving southeast we soon see Pulau Jong, a tiny rocky island which is topped by green vegetation, before going past Pulau Sebarok which houses petroleum products receiving and discharging facilities as is evident by the many tanks and berthing spaces on the island. It was in going around Pulau Sebarok that we catch the first sight of Raffles Lighthouse in the grey of the overcast sky … just as I had envisaged it – well, almost … there are certainly more than a single tree that one might have expected knowing the origin of the name of the island that the lighthouse was built on. Pulau Satumu, based on information found on Wikipedia, “means one tree island — sa refers to satu (one) and tumu is the Malay name for the large mangrove tree, Bruguiera confugata”.

On the launch to Pulau Satumu.

Pulau Jong.

The receiving station at Pulau Semakau, looking beyond Pulau Jong.

Pulau Sebarok.

Enroute to Raffles Lighthouse.

The stern and exposed propeller of an unladen tanker - probably undergoing sea trials ....

Raffles Lighthouse on Pulau Satumu as seen on the approach to the jetty.

Raffles Lighthouse as seen on land.

Once on land, whilst waiting to be taken up to the lighthouse, MPA was kind enough to provide the participants of the tour with lunch, and it was over lunch that I had a chat with a member of MPA’s staff. One of the interesting things he did mention was that there were holiday facilities for staff at Sultan Shoal, as well as there being rooms within the lighthouse that were reserved just to allow Ministers to take a holiday on the island. One thing we could do before going up was to have a walk around what certainly seemed like one of the few idyllic places left in Singapore, that is until the silence was punctured by the roar of jets flying above – the island being in close proximity to the live firing range used by the Airforce at the cluster of islands that lay to the west of Pulau Satumu: Pulau Senang, Pulau Pawai, and Pulau Sudong. Still, the island does exudes a charm that has been lost from the coastal areas of Singapore with a little beach and coconut grove leading to the southernmost point of Singapore.

A bench at Raffles Lighthouse.

An idyllic scene from Pulau Satumu.

The beach leading to the southernmost point of Singapore.

Pulau Senang.

It was soon time to ascend the flight of steps up to the top of the lighthouse – 107 steps we were told, 86 built into the lighthouse and a further 17 on the iron stairway up to the top – hard work even for the fit. Standing some 72 feet high, the lighthouse, the second oldest operated by Singapore (the oldest being Horsburg Lighthouse built in 1851), was built in 1855, on what was then referred to as Coney Islet, and looks none the worse for wear in spite of its age. A little bit of its history can be found in the infopedia stub on the lighthouse. At the top we were greeted by one of the two lighthouse keepers on duty Mr. Mani. The lighthouse keepers work on a rotating 12 hours shift for 10 days, returning to the mainland for 10 off days, and are involved in the upkeep of equipment and in the event that the beacon fails – would require to operate the emergency beacon run off batteries. It is quite a quiet and lonely life for ten days … something that is probably hard to imagine in the fast pace world that we live in today. Lighthouses, which have always been important aids to navigation, has with the advent of GPS and electronic navigation means, been rendered somewhat obsolete. However, these are still around and serve an improtant function as a backup in event that electronic means onboard ship fail.

The stairway to the top ...

A window at the bottom of the lighthouse.

A pressurised vapour kerosene mantle burner system that was employed at the turn of the 20th Century at a landing just before the top.

Up the last flight of stairs.

The beacon at the top of the lighthouse.

A radar reflector.

Mr Mani, one of the two lighthouse keepers on duty showing us around at the top.

All too soon, it was time to leave, the launch taking a different route that took us to Marina South, with a stop off Marina South to watch a demo by MPA’s fire-fighting vessel Api-Api, throwing a spray of sea water with its two monitors. Soon back on dry land, we were to be greeted by a different spray altogether – one of a shower that was threatening to come down on us the whole day … fortunately we had made our trip to Raffles Lighthouse and back, with pleasant memories of a rare foray to an otherwise off-limits southernmost part of Singapore.








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