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.








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