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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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.