Standing somewhat forgotten and hidden under the roots of a tree is a marker of what used to be the perimeter of what had once been described as the largest naval base east of the Suez – the Royal Navy base at Sembawang that extended for some six and a half kilometres as the crow flies from Woodlands (close to the Causeway) to Sembawang (where Sembawang Park is today). The marker, a gate post belonging to the former Rotherham Gate, the northernmost gate into the former base, is the last remnant of several entrances into the huge naval facility that had once been the pride of the British Empire and a significant source of employment for residents of Singapore.
The gate located at the western edge of the Naval Base and one of the main entrances into the base (the others being Sembawang Gate and Canberra Gate to the east and the southeast) was renamed as the Rotherham Gate in 1945 in commemoration of the role of the Commander of the RN Destroyer HMS Rotherham in the acceptance of the surrender of men from the Japanese Imperial Navy at the Naval Base in September 1945. Along with the other gates, the gate was manned by security personnel deployed by the Royal Navy stationed at the guard-houses that had once stood by the entrances, right until the end of October 1971 when British Forces formally withdrew from Singapore. Remnants of some of the gates in the form of gate posts and guard posts had in fact stood for some time after including that of the Rotherham Gate. Based on an account by a former resident of the base, Mr Kamal Abu Serah, the guard-house that had stood inside the gate had actually housed a provision shop after the opening up of the Naval Base in 1971.
The gate post today, serves as a marker of the western end of what is the recent redeveloped Woodlands Waterfront , an area that for a long while had been left behind by the pace of redevelopment that has swept through much of the rest of Singapore. The area had after the opening up of the Naval Base, long been a haunt for anglers and was in fact one of the places that I frequented in the 1970s for fishing and to catch crabs. A derelict jetty which was missing most of its deck planks had been one of two jetties that my father sometimes took me to. The jetty, the old Ruthenia Oiling jetty (which my father had referred to as the Naval Base jetty) has since been demolished. It was one of several jetties that jutted out of the coastline in the area, the only one that was accessible to the public in the 1970s and became quite a popular spot for crab fishing before it was demolished. The other jetties were the Customs Jetty, the Shell Jetty (Woodlands Jetty), and the large L-shaped jetty that was used by the Royal Malaysian Navy – the Tentera Laut Diraja Malaysia (TLDM).
The TLDM had maintained not just a large jetty in the area – Woodlands had in fact hosted the main base of the TLDM, KD Malaya, up until 1979, the base having first been established in 1949 with the setting up of the Malayan Naval Forces (MNF). The TLDM continued to operate KD Malaya as a training facility even after the shift of the main naval base to Lumut up until December 1997 together with the jetty. The jetty has since been incorporated as part of the Woodlands Waterfront redevelopment and is now opened to the public. Both the jetty and the former TLDM barracks, which can be seen along Admiralty Road West, remain as a reminder of the Malaysian navy’s long-standing presence in what was an independent Singapore.
In between the Shell Jetty and the former TLDM Jetty is where a river, Sungei Cina, spills into the sea. Sungei Cina, for most part, still has its natural banks. The vegetation that one finds along its banks is probably representative of the vegetation which would have been found along much of the swampy shoreline that had existed before extensive reclamation work during part of the ten years it took to construct the base in between 1928 to 1938 – construction which saw substantial parts of the coastal swampland filled with earth – some of which came from excavation work around where the Naval Dockyard was being constructed to the east of the Naval Base. A large part of the land on which the Naval Base had been built was that which had acquired by the Straits Settlements from belonged to the Bukit Sembawang rubber estate and given to the Royal Navy for its use. The huge excavations around the area of the Naval Dockyard was not just to provide a dockyard that since 1968 has been used by Sembawang Shipyard, it also provided the largest naval graving (dry) dock in the world when it was opened in February 1938 – the King George VI dock (known also as ‘KG6’) which is still one of the largest dry docks in South East Asia.
Speaking of the graving dock, it has been reported that a ‘keramat tree’ was said to have been responsible for a delay in its completion, as a consequence, the completion of Naval Base. The ‘keramat tree’ had been a lone tree standing (after the rubber trees around it had already been cleared) on a hill which needed to be leveled to allow the graving dock to be constructed. The coolies assigned to cut the tree, which was thought to have stood where the top of the graving dock now is, could not be persuaded to do so, believing the tree to be occupied by evil spirits. An anonymous letter was said to have mysteriously appeared carrying a warning that if a certain sum of money was not paid to allow gifts to be offered to appease the spirits, three heads of the firm involved would die. The warning wasn’t heeded and the tree eventually blown up and an increase in malaria cases followed which was put down to the act. That wasn’t all, as was predicted, three untimely deaths did follow – that of an agent for the contractors, the managing director and a sub-agent.
The tree that has taken root on the last gate post does perhaps serve to remind us of the tree that had had resisted the base’s construction. It does however serve, more importantly, to remind us of more than that, preserving within the tight grasp of it roots a memory of the wider area’s association with a huge and strategic naval facility. The facility was one that, large enough to accommodate half of the British Empire’s fleet, provided jobs to one in ten in Singapore accounting for one-fifth of its GDP at the time and one that should not be forgotten.