Parting Glances: Khalsa Crescent, home turned prison

24 05 2022

Once home to a huge naval base that stretched from the Causeway to Sembawang Road, Singapore’s rather sleepy northern coast seems set for a huge transformation. Work to build a much-anticipated rail transit system link to Johor Bahru is already underway and the signs are that the ground is already being prepared for a role as key component of the future Woodlands Regional Centre. The demolition of much of the former KD Malaya complex is now already complete, and all that is left of the longtime landmark, sited in an area close to Woodlands North MRT Station is gone, save for the conserved administration building. One set of structures that may likely disappear is the former quarters at Khalsa Crescent, which many of us would only know as Khalsa Crescent Prison.

The former Khalsa Crescent Prison, which has a much storied past. Block 6 (Prison Block F) was used as accommodation for policemen and featured a recreational space below where lectures and police parties during Sikh religious festivals were held. The space also functioned as a games room.
The watchtowers of the former prison are what draws notice to the complex.

Built in 1950 on the site of the Torpedo Depot “coolie lines”, Khalsa Crescent (Asian) quarters provided Asian members of the naval base workforce and their families, with a roof over their heads. Among those who were housed on the site were members of the Naval Base Police Force and the Naval Base Fire Service, for whom the set of quarters was affectionately known as “Torpedo”, having been know initially as “Torpedo Depot Lines”. When built, the quarters comprised seven two-storey blocks cont laid out with some 170 rooms that could accommodate up to 180 families. Among the blocks were ones housing bachelors with common spaces such as rest and mess rooms and recreational spaces found on the ground floors. Flag Officer (Malaya), Rear Admiral Clifford Caslon, who opened the estate on 10 January 1950, described the construction of new housing units as evidence that interest to the welfare and comfort of the base’s civilian staff was being shown by the Admiralty.

The newly built accommodation blocks in 1950, with Blocks 1 and 2 (far end) on the left, and Blocks 3 (far end) and 4 on the right.
The scene today.

During its first years, the quarters accommodated a fair number of Sikhs families, who men served in the Naval Base Police Force. As a result of this, a gurdwara was established in the eastern section of the ground floor of Block 5. Due to this association with the Sikh members of the force, the road through the estate was named “Khalsa”, which means “pure” in Punjabi. Khalsa, which also describes the guiding principle of the Sikh religion community, is often used as a reference to the Sikh community. The gurdwara moved to View Road (Rimau), where an Asian Naval Base Police Barracks was established, together with the Sikh policemen and their families in 1959. Some naval base policemen continued to stay in Khalsa Crescent while there were others who also relocated to Cochrane Crescent at about the same time. In the 1960s, a surau for Muslim policemen and their families was established at Block 5.

The section of Block 5 where I am told the gurdwara was.

The British military pullout, which took place at the end of October 1971, also saw to the eventual disbandment of the various services associated with the naval base and while the quarters continued in their use as accommodation units, the winds of change would eventually blow through the estate. In late 1974, some three years after the pullout, several of the accommodation blocks at Khalsa Crescent were converted for use as a remand centre and the forerunner of the Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) — the DRC system was apparently formalised in 1977, although the term was already in use – as part of a broader scheme to segregate drug inmates (also according to the number of times they were hauled in). But while this may have been the intention, one of the centre’s first uses was for the detention of illegal immigrants, more specifically a group of 56 who had fled South Vietnam as the situation deteriorated in the lead up to the Fall of Saigon in April 1975. The group of 56, with 18 women and 10 children among them, arrived on a stolen military plane on 3 April 1975. Having come without the necessary visas, they were detained as illegal immigrants and were held at Khalsa Crescent where they spent 3 weeks, after which they were sent on to Guam.

A view of the former prison.

This drug rehabilitation scheme saw further changes to it and by 1995, drug addicts would first be sent to Sembawang DRC, where they would be observed and further processing was carried out. They would then be placed based on their previous records. Khalsa Crescent DRC was where third time offenders were sent to. Khalsa Crescent’s capacity was increased from 500 to 1050 during a renovation exercise that was carried out in anticipation of this new arrangement. In June 2005, Khalsa Crescent DRC became simply Khalsa Crescent Prison.

Members of the Khalsa Crescent Sikh Community.

The modernisation and expansion of the Changi Prison complex in 2009, saw to the move of some 5000 inmates from prisons like Khalsa Crescent Prison, which was described as the “largest transfer of prisoners in local history”. What that also meant was that older facilities such as Khalsa Crescent Prison were made redundant and surplus to requirements. Decommissioned, the former prison lay hidden behind its tall green security fence — that is until 21 May 2022 when former residents of the one-time Asian quarters were allowed to take a short but sweet walk back in time in anticipation of the complex’s eventual demolition.

Memories of Khalsa Crescent.

Vietnamese Refugees in Singapore
Following the incident involving the 56 refugees arriving by plane, the opium treatment centre at St John’s Island was temporarily set aside for refugees. Addicts under treatment on the island displaced by the arrangements were then moved to Khalsa Crescent Remand Centre, where the 56 had been held. The island refugee camp would be closed in October 1975 and subsequent to that, Singapore took a strong stand against refugees who began to leave the former South Vietnam by boat. A policy of restocking refugee boats before towing the boats back out to sea was initially put in place. It would only be in 1978 at a time when the refugee crisis reached its peak that Singapore permitted refugees to land on the condition that a guarantee was made of resettlement in a third country within three months by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR was also allowed to set up and run a refugee camp at Hawkins Road, not far from Khalsa Crescent.


The evolution of the area through maps and aerials

Maps of the Torpedo Depot area showing the former coolie lines in 1945 and the blocks of the Asian quarters in 1968.
Plans of the site before and after the quarters were built.
Aerial views of the site during the time of the coolie lines and after the barracks were built (Maps from National Archives of Singapore)
What the crystal ball that is the URA Master Plan says that the Khalsa Crescent will be – a future residential development.

A walk around the former prison

The caged passageway built for the prison along the former Block 5, which became the prison’s Admin Block.
An Interview Room in the Admin Block.
A passageway between the Admin Block and the Workshop section of the prison.
A view towards the former RMN Sports Grounds, where the Rail Transit System link from Woodlands North to Bukit Chagar in Johor Bahru is being built.
Inside Workshop 2, one of two prison workshops that were added during the prison days.
Inside a second workshop.
Staircase at Block 7, which was apparently a bachelors’ block.
Block 7, which had bachelors’ accommodation on the top. A Sikh cook prepared meals for the bachelors according to one former resident.
The Kitchen at Block 7.
Potential weapons have to be kept safe.
The Housing Unit – the roof was added to allow the space between the former accommodation and service blocks to be usable.

Inside a “Housing Unit”


More views of the former prison



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2 responses

25 05 2022
Lisa

Interesting.. love all the pictures.. how do we participate in this tour?

25 05 2022
Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer

It wasn’t so much a tour, but a memory collection exercise organised by various agencies. Unfortunately, there are no public visits to the site.

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