Deporting the port

15 10 2019

Change often seems the only constant in Singapore. Its relentless pace has altered its face, so much so that many in my generation feel that home is foreign place. Nothing seems sacred, places that we have grown accustomed to and build ties with can disappear in the blink in an eye.


Vanishing scenes at Tanjong Pagar.

One change Singapore is in the midst of, the redevelopment of the Greater Southern Waterfront. This, while positive in the longer term, has the impact of removing places that are not only familiar, but are also markers of significance to Singapore’s past. The port, which the city has long been associated with, and the reason for uch of the development along the southern shores, is being moved in two stages to the far west. The closure of Tanjong Pagar Terminal, the cradle of Singapore’s shipping container revolution, has already been effected. Cleared of most of its container handling paraphernalia, the terminal seems to have been put to use for handling Ro-Ro cargo.


The container terminal has been stripped of it container handling paraphernalia and is being temporarily put to use as Ro-Ro cargo reception facility.

Tanjong Pagar – a promontory on which the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company, formed in 1864, would establish wharfs and graving docks. The company initially constructed a wharf of 229 metres in length in 1866, capable of berthing 4 ships of “ordinary size”, a graving dock, Victoria Dock would also be built in 1868. The opening of the Suez Canal late in 1869, brought with it increased steamship traffic and more wharfage was added. Albert Dock was also built in 1879.

Victoria Dock 1890s

A G. R. Lambert print of Victoria Dock in the 1890s. A ship in Albert Dock can also be seen in the background.

By 1885, the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company would acquire the Borneo Company. This gave the company access to 2 kilometres of wharves. The 1899 acquisition of the (older) New Harbour Dock Company at New (now Keppel) Harbour, formerly the Patent Slip and Dock Company, which built No. 1 and No. 2 Docks at New Harbour, made it a monopoly. In 1905, the company was expropriated and the Tanjong Pagar Dock Board, the predecessor to the Singapore Harbour Board and PSA, took over.

Borneo Wharf

Borneo Wharf, which Tanjong Pagar Dock Company acquired from the Borneo Company in 1885. The extended Tanjong Pagar promontory can be seen in the background.

Keppel Shipyard would assumed control of the PSA repair facilities, when the former was formed in 1968. Centred at Keppel Harbour, it continued using the historic Victoria and Albert docks until they were filled in during the 1983 PSA expansion of  Tanjong Pagar Container Terminal during. Keppel Island (the near shore Pulau Hantu) came into Keppel Shipyard’s hands in exchange.

The container terminal goes back to 1972. Its first berths, at Tanjong Pagar’s East Lagoon, came into use on 23 June 1972, when the M.V. Nihon – the first container vessel to call here came alongside. This was an especially significant event, which launched the Port of Singapore’s journey into a mode of cargo transport that now dominates sea trade.

Now that Tanjong Pagar has been emptied of the containers, its container cranes and the container ships that have become synonymous with the name, the area hasn’t looked the same. The container terminal at Keppel are also being cleared, with Brani to follow. The container terminals built at great expense at Pasir Panjang, now operational, will also eventually be cleared. A huge southern extension created out of the sea southwards from Singapore’s western reaches, the Tuas South reclamation, will house the Tuas Mega Port. This will gradually be put into service from 2021, and by 2040 will be where port operations will be concentrated. The extension will also be the future home of the ship-repair and ship-building industry.

Parting glances:

Juxtapositions (2014).


A mega-container vessel, the APL Mexico City coming into port (2014) – the increased sizes of container vessels require larger and deeper berths, prompting the need to develop newer terminals.


Another view of a Tanjong Pagar still in operation (2014)

More views of the since deported port:

In 2012.

In 2012.

Keppel Terminal in 2018.

Keppel Terminal in 2018.

Keppel Terminal in 2018.



DreamWorks School Holiday Adventures

8 09 2015

ArtScience Museum’s Dreamworks Animation: The Exhibition closes at the end of September (27 September), and this September school holiday season does perhaps give a last chance to bring the kids for a thoroughly enjoyable and immersive experience. Just for the holidays, the exhibition will feature a School Holiday Adventures programme that will allow the young ones to participate in activities such as feeding the dragon, using giant chopsticks Kung Fu Panda style, watch a movie or two and have one’s face painted. The school holiday programme will run from 4 to 13 September and more information can be found at the ArtScience Museum’s website.

DreamWorks Animation: The Exhibition offers an immersive experience - especially for the young ones.

DreamWorks Animation: The Exhibition offers an immersive experience – especially for the young ones.



Some of the School Holiday Adventures on offer:

Games Station 2: Kung Fu Panda Speedy Sticks.

Games Station 2: Kung Fu Panda Speedy Sticks.

Station 2: Station 3: Shrek Hi-Striker.

Station 2: Station 3: Shrek Hi-Striker.

Four stars from the games stations will get your hands on that prized Gingy.

Four stars from the games stations will get your hands on that prized Gingy.


The launch of Independence

4 07 2015

I found myself back at a place from my past, not so much to take a look back as I often am inclined to do, but to look at what is to come – the beginnings of a new generation of naval patrol vessels, the first of which was being launched yesterday at Singapore Technologies Marine (ST Marine). Developments in the design of naval ships have in the last two decades given naval craft such as patrol vessels fanciful looks and names. In keeping with this fashion, the new class of vessels that will replace the Patrol Vessels (PV) of the generation past that I had a hand in designing at the start of my career as Naval Architect, will be known not simply as a PV, by a fancy sounding Littoral Mission Vessel or LMV- reflective perhaps also of how the role of a near shore maritime security vessel has evolved in the interim.

The uncompleted RSS Independence LMV at her launch and christening.

The uncompleted RSS Independence LMV at her launch and christening.

The RSS Independence, the first of the new class of eight LMVs, is being built as a replacement to the eleven surviving PVs. The aptly named Independence, launched in the year Singapore celebrates 50 years of nationhood by Mrs Ivy Ng – the wife of Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen, is being constructed based on a Saab Kockums AB basic design. Featuring a steel hull and a carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) superstructure to reduce topside weight, she will be fitted out with a suite of state-of-the-art sensors and weapon systems intended to provide her with a superior response and surveillance capabilities than the PVs to better meet the navy’s needs in patrolling the littoral zone. In comparison to the PVs, the LMVs will also see a greater integration of her naval and platform operations, and in her maintenance and logistic support systems.

The unfinished Integrated Command Centre with the Engineering and Navigation consoles.

The unfinished Integrated Command Centre with the Engineering and Navigation consoles.

LTC Chew Chun Chau, who heads the LMV Project team, giving a presentation of the LMV's Weapon fit out.

LTC Chew Chun Chau, who heads the LMV Project team, giving a presentation of the LMV’s Weapon fit out.

A snapshot of the LMV's Surveillance capabilities.

A snapshot of the LMV’s Surveillance capabilities.

One of the key features of the Independence class LMVs will be her Integrated Command Centre (ICC). The ICC sees, unusually for a naval vessel, the co-location of the Navigation, Command and Control, and Engineering centers. Housed on the upper level of the the superstructure, the co-location is a move-away from traditional thinking as the three centres, the Bridge, the Combat Information Centre or CIC, and the Machinery Control Room or MCR would be kept in separate compartments to reduce the vulnerabilities that come with co-location.

A full-scale mock-up of the ICC at the shipyard.

A full-scale mock-up of the ICC at the shipyard.

The Independence’s ICC will offer a 360 degree panoramic view, again something that is unusual for the crew manning the CIC and MCR on conventional naval craft. Along with the housing of the various functions in one command centre, this will provide for better operational effectiveness and make the LMVs better suited to fulfill their roles in the provision of maritime security in the littoral zone.

ME 5 Tang Chee Meng explaining the concept of the ICC.

ME 5 Tang Chee Meng explaining the concept of the ICC.

A peek inside the mock-up of the ICC.

A peek inside the mock-up of the ICC.

Much thought has been put into the design of the ICC. The conceptualisation of this started as far back as 2011. Cognitive task analysis and scenario based experiments were carried out over a two-year period before implementation could be done, first in a specially set up simulation room. The room, which I had the opportunity to have a peek at prior to the launch, allows modelling and simulation of the LMVs command and control systems to be carried out, allowing the crew to be  trained prior installation and integration of the actual systems on the LMVs.

A simulation of the ICC.

A simulation of the ICC.

Simulation of a successful hit on a hostile sampan sized craft.

Simulation of a successful hit on a hostile sampan sized craft.

A simulation of a LMV escort operation was also carried out during that visit. This provided an appreciation of the difficulty faced by the crew in the identification of threats in the congested nearshore zone as well demonstrated how well the LMVs,  are equipped to deal with such threats.

Touch screen interfaces will be employed on the operating consoles of the ICC.

Touch screen interfaces will be employed on the operating consoles of the ICC.

A key feature of the LMVs is the network-centric integrated communication and network system. This will facilitate  the communication and sharing of information on board and at the same time integrate it with the Singapore Armed Force’s larger IKC2 network, allowing real-time information sharing across the assets that are deployed. Communication with shore-side centres is also key to the logistics and engineering support concept that is being introduced to the LMVs. A remote health monitoring system will monitor the LMVs combat and platform systems’ from the shore and help in identifying pre-emptive maintenance needs.

A simulation of the view from the command cluster in the ICC.

The view from the command cluster in the ICC’s simulation room.

Although much larger than the PVs, the LMVs will carry a baseline complement of 23, expandable to a maximum of 61. The reduction in manning is being achieved through the use of advanced sense-making and decision support systems, increased levels of automation, and improvement in operational methods through design and equipment selection. An Integrated Platform Management System will be used to better manage situations such as engineering defects and to help with fire-fighting and damage control management.

The navigation console in the ICC.

The navigation console in the ICC.

One area in which manpower needs will see a significant improvement in the launch and recovery of the platform’s Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIBs). Used for interception and boarding operations, the LMVs RHIBs are deployed via a stern ramp. A specially designed system of rollers fitted at an inclined well at the stern and on the ramp will allow the boats to be launched and recovered with a minimum of manpower. The traditional method of launch and recovery involves davits or cranes, which would have required much more manpower.

A stern-launched RHIB.

A stern-launched RHIB.

Outwardly, the LMVs will look very different from the PVs. A feature that will certainly stand out will the LMVs enclosed mast. The design of the enclosed and stacked mast provides a means not only to locate the LMVs sensors more optimally, it will also enable access to the sensors for maintenance, without the LMVs having to go into the shipyard.

A data sheet showing how the LMV, which will feature a stacked mast, will look like completed.

A data sheet showing how the LMV, which will feature a stacked mast, will look like completed.

Another feature of the LMVs that will differentiate them from the PVs, is a helideck. Designed to land and secure a medium lift helicopter, the deck is also where two hatches can be seen, through which modular and containerised mission based systems can be loaded into a mission bay below. This allows flexibility in configuring the LMVs for different operational roles. For example, a medical mission modules can be loaded for a one-off operation when the LMVs are tasked to carry out missions involving humanitarian, disaster relief or search and rescue operations,

The mission bay below the helideck.

The mission bay below the helideck.

The LMVs, assembled from 19 hull construction blocks, one of which is the CFRP superstructure, will be delivered to the RSN in early 2016 – approximately in six months time, after which the ICIT – the Installation, Checkout, Integration and Testing phase will take place before the Independence is expected to be commissioned in 2017. The class is scheduled to be fully operational in 2020. More information on the LMVs can be found at the Littoral Mission Vessel.

Dr. Ng Eng Hen, who recalled the previous RSN ship he and his wife launched in Karlskrona - when blankets were given out to the guests. The RSS Independence was launched by Mrs Ivy Ng.

Dr. Ng Eng Hen, who recalled the previous RSN ship he and his wife launched in Karlskrona – when blankets were given out to the guests. The RSS Independence was launched by Mrs Ivy Ng.


The sun sets on the last working remnants of the Naval Base

27 04 2013

6.55 pm, 26 April 2013. The sun sets over an area which was once part of the huge British Naval base in the north of Singapore . The base which stretched some six and a half kilometres from where Sembawang Park is today across to the area close to the Causeway, was vacated in 1971. A commercial shiprepair yard, Sembawang Shipyard, was established in 1968, taking over the facilities of the former Naval Dockyard for a token sum of S$1. The yard, the north wall and finger pier of which is seen in the photograph, and the former Stores Basin – now used as a US Navy logistics facility and cargo berth, are the last working parts of the former base still with us. Based on the Land Use Plan recently released to support the somewhat unpopular Population White Paper, the yard will move its operations to the west of Singapore to free the land it now occupies for future development – a move which will erase a significant part of the memory of the  role the area played in Singapore’s economic development


The King that lost its glory

23 04 2013

Seen from the top of Mount Faber is what once was a glorious King. The former King’s Dock, the pride and glory of the Singapore Harbour Board and the “largest dock east of the Suez” when it was completed a century ago, now lies abandoned, somewhat forgotten and never to be drained again; a cruise ship, the Superstar Virgo, making an assisted turn in front of it, seems to be facing it and mocking it.


The dock, named King’s Dock (it had previously been referred to as “Admiralty Dock”), at its opening at 4.30 pm on 26 August 1913, by Sir Arthur Young the then Governor of Singapore, was undoubtedly a giant in its time. At its opening, there had only been one graving dock in the world that was larger – the Gladstone Dock in Liverpool. Over the four and the half years that it took to construct the dock, some 92,500 cubic metres of concrete weighing some 203,000 tonnes had been used. Some 21,300 tonnes of cement had also been used – it was said that if all the barrels of cement were laid out in a line, it would have stretched some 51 miles. In the Far East, the closest dock then in size to King’s Dock which measured 272 metres long by 30.5 metres wide and had a maximum flooded depth at its sill of 25.6 metres, was  the Admiralty Dock in Hong Kong. That measured 240 metres by 27 metres and was slightly deeper with 25.8 metres of water at its sill. The dock was indeed an amazing feat of engineering – at its completion, its 101.4 million litres of water could be discharged in just two hours by two huge steam engine driven pumps at a rate of 85,000 litres a minute.


The dock came under the PSA when it was formed in 1963, following which shiprepair activities at Keppel Harbour came under the control of the then newly formed  Keppel Shipyard in 1968. The yard operated the dock up until 1996 when it moved to Tuas. The areas around the former shipyard have since undergone redevelopment as a luxury waterfront residential community and marina (see also: A sun rise on another strange horizon), and the plot around the former King’s Dock will be one of the last to be redeveloped as Corals at Keppel Bay, a 367 unit waterfront condominium project which will be developed by Keppel Land and designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. The project is expected to be launched in May 2013.

King's Dock at the time of its completion in 1913.

King’s Dock at the time of its completion in 1913.

A sun rise on another strange horizon

23 03 2013

Another strange horizon where the sun has risen on is one to the west of the city, and one which includes the island of Sentosa, once a military garrison named Pulau Blakang Mati and now a playground on which one of Singapore’s two integrated resorts has been built. It is across from the western end of the island – close to the area where the western rock of the “Dragon’s Teeth Gate” or “Batu Berlayer” at Tanjong Berlayer which together with another rocky outcrop, marked the ancient entrance to the harbour, that we now see the rising of the sun against silhouettes which are of another strange and unfamiliar world.

Another strange horizon that the sun rises on is at the historic Keppel Harbour.

Another strange horizon that the sun rises on is at the historic Keppel Harbour. 6.51 am 22 March 2013.

Dominating the view across the horizon, are the six distinctive towers of the recently completed residential development “Reflections at Keppel Bay”, seemingly bowing to welcome the new day. That is the last of the developments to be completed on a 32 hectare site that was originally what may have been seen as a dirty and grimy shiprepair yard, Keppel Shipyard. The yard, besides being Singapore’s most established repair yard, boasted of having the oldest graving (dry) docks in Singapore, inheriting the docks from Port of Singapore Authority when its shiprepair operations were privatised in 1968.

Keppel Shipyard post 1983. Pulau Keppel in the foreground was developed after the land on which Victoria and Albert Docks to the east were taken over for an expansion of the Tanjong Pagar Container Terminal.

Keppel Shipyard post 1983. Pulau Keppel in the foreground was developed after the land on which Victoria and Albert Docks to the east were taken over for an expansion of the Tanjong Pagar Container Terminal (photo on the Keppel Offshore and Marine website).

At the point that the yard vacated the area , which was in 1996 to move to Tuas allowing the land on which it stood to be redeveloped, four graving docks remained. This included Singapore’s very first graving dock, Dock No. 1. This was built by a British mariner, Captain William Cloughton, on land purchased in 1855 from the Temenggong of Singapore at what had been called  Pantai Chermin or “Mirror Beach”. Completed in 1859, it was Cloughton’s second attempt at constructing a dock there. The dock came under the Patent Slip and Dock Company when that was formed in 1861. A second dock company, the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company, added a second dock close by at Tanjong Pagar in 1868, Victoria Dock. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 also saw demand for ship repair increase. Patent build their second dock, Dock No. 2 in 1870. Tanjong Pagar followed with Albert Dock in 1879. Both Albert and Victoria Docks were filled in at the end of 1983, when the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) took them over to allow an expansion of the container terminal at Tanjong Pagar.

Map of Singapore Harbour in the 1950s showing the Detached Mole, Inner Roads and Outer Roads.

Map of Singapore Harbour in the 1950s. The location of the Victoria and Albert Docks as well as Docks No. 1, No. 2 and King’s Dock can be seen in relation to the coastline.

The two rival dock companies were to merge in 1881. Patent, which had been renamed New Harbour Dock Company, came under the control of Tanjong Pagar. This private entity was expropriated by the colonial authorities in 1905, passing control of the docks to the Tanjong Pagar Dock Board. The Singapore Harbour Board took over the operations of the shipping related activities along the waterfront in 1913, launching King’s Dock, in the same year. At 272 metres in length, it was reportedly the largest graving dock east of Suez and the second largest graving dock in the world at the time of its build. A last graving dock was to be added in 1956 – the Queen’s Dock. The PSA took over from the Harbour Board in 1963, before control of the shiprepair docks were transferred to Keppel Shipyard in 1968.

Kings Dock at the time of its completion in 1913.

Kings Dock at the time of its completion in 1913.

The development of Reflections at Keppel Bay, on the plot of land west of Queen’s Dock, was preceded by other developments in the area vacated by Keppel Shipyard. On Keppel Island (or Pulau Keppel), a marina, the Marina at Keppel Bay was completed in 2008. The island is linked to the mainland by Keppel Bay Bridge, completed in 2007.  Pulau Keppel, which was previously known as Pulau Hantu (one of two Pulau Hantu or “Ghost Islands” in our southern islands group), was itself a more recent development. An extension to the shipyard was built on it in 1983 when Victoria and Albert Docks were transferred to the PSA for redevelopment. It was renamed Pulau Keppel at the same time. Another development in the area is another residential one, the Carribbean at Keppel Bay. This was completed in 2004 and occupies the area around the oldest docks, No. 1 and No. 2. The four rather historic docks, have been retained in some form, and are now water channels within the developments.

Singapore Harbour Board Map, c. 1920s.

Singapore Harbour Board Map, c. 1920s.

For the area, the year 1983 is one that will probably be remembered less for the development of the former Pulau Hantu or the loss of the historically significant Victoria and Albert Docks, but for the tragic events of the evening of the 29th of January.  On the evening of the fateful day, a drillship, the Eniwetok, leaving Keppel Shipyard, drifted into the Sentosa cable car system. Its drilling derrick became entangled in a cable causing two cabins to fall into the sea killing seven people. Another four were left dangling precariously with some 13 terrified passengers trapped inside. A daring but successful rescue attempt directed by our present Prime Minister, then Colonel Lee Hsien Loong, was mounted involving the use of two helicopters operating in high winds from which rescue personnel were winched down to the cabins to pull the 13 to safety, one-by-one.

It is no longer cranes, workshops, keel blocks and large ships around the dock that we see today (a photograph of a graving dock at the former Keppel Shipyard posted on the Captain’s Voyage Forum).

Waking up to a Keppel Harbour today in which there is little to remind us of the world that once was. With the docks now disguised to blend into the new world that has been built around them, we will soon forget what they were and the contribution they made to the development of the port on which much of Singapore’s early success was built. The four docks (as well as the two to the east) were also very much the stepping stones over which the shiprepair industry, an important source of jobs in the post independent economy of Singapore, was built. It is a fate that will probably befall the place where another leading pioneer shiprepair company, Sembawang Shipyard, now operates at. That yard, together with its historic docks built to support the huge British Naval Base, was the subject of a recent Land Use Plan released to support the much talked about Population White Paper. It is mentioned in the plan that “new waterfront land along the Sembawang Coastline being freed up once existing shipyard facilities are phased out” to provide land for new business activities and it may not be far away before we would have yet another strange horizon for the sun to rise up to.

A final frontier

13 02 2013

One of the few places in present day Singapore that I am able to find myself at home in is the Sembawang area along the northern coast. It is an area which has in the last two and a half decades, as with much (if not all) of Singapore, undergone a huge transformation and also one that is still being transformed. Despite the transformation – Sembawang now plays host to a new public housing estate, it is still a place in which a Singapore we have forgotten about can still be found – at least for the time being.

An intermediate egret in flight.

An intermediate egret in flight over the canalised Sembawang River – the Sembawang area was one known in the past to be rich in bird life.

Sembawang is one of the last places left in which much of the past remains to be discovered. A past which perhaps with the planned future developments in the area, some for which preparations are already being made, is one which may soon be well forgotten. Best remembered for hosting a huge British naval base which was completed in 1938, Sembawang Shipyard which inherited the former Naval Dockyard in 1968 serves to remind us of that, as does the former Stores Basin, now used as a naval logistics base. It is however in several of the smaller reminders in which the past charms of the area can found in. These include the cluster of colonial bungalows (“black and white houses”) and in what is today Sembawang Park. Sembawang Park and perhaps the coastline east of it is where some of the old world does seem to have been left behind including what may be one of the last stretches of natural beaches in Singapore, the old jetty (sometimes referred to as the “Beaulieu”, prounounced “bew-lee” jetty, or “Mata” jetty), Beaulieu House, and a seawall which once belonged to Kampong Wak Hassan.


Sunrise along the northern coast – an undeveloped part of the beach east of Sembawang Park, and an area which despite the kampongs being cleared from it, retains much of a charm which is missing from the overly manicured and cluttered urban spaces in Singapore.

Besides traces that is associated with the former naval base, reminders do also exist of the area’s lesser known natural past. The area (as had much of the coastline around it) played host to a swamp. Much had already been cleared when the naval base was built with the course of two rivers around which the marshy ground formed altered. There were, however, remnants of the marshland that remained around an area of what is today the Sembawang River up to the 1980s when it was drained for the development of Sembawang New Town. This lay about a kilometre west of what was then Chong Pang Village, just north of the Ulu Sembawang area (an area of farms and freshwater ponds around where Gambas Avenue is today). It was known then to have been a fertile feeding ground for marsh birds, attracting herons, egrets, sandpipers and storks to it. While the swamps have all since vanished – HDB blocks of flats have risen where the wetlands had once thrived, the is today a canalised Sembawang/Senoko River which on the evidence of what we do see today, does see a return of some of the previously rich bird life. Besides the marsh birds, the area today also sees many other birds. These include common birds such as the yellow-vented bulbulblack naped oriolepied fantailashy tailorbirdgreen pigeon, starling, Asian koel, several types of kingfishermunia and sunbird. There have also been some less common sightings in the area including the Sunda woodpeckerbrown hawk owlmilky stork, and what is perhaps an escapee, a white-rumped shama.

A yellow-vented bulbul in a Simpoh Air bush along the banks of the river.

A yellow-vented bulbul in a Simpoh Air bush along the banks of the river.

A white-throated kingfisher.

A white-throated kingfisher in flight over the canalised river.

Sembawang is toady, a world in which the charm of a forgotten old world missing from most of the redeveloped spaces on the island, can still be found. It is a world which has thus far, managed to remain free from the crowds and clutter which now seems to dominate almost all of the urban world we now find around us. The area is one which had for a long while boasted of welcome pockets of greenery and un-manicured beauty. But all that I fear, is soon going to change. Sembawang Park for one is already in the midst of a “renewal” which I feel will see it lose the character and charm which attracted me there since the days of my childhood as it becomes just another well manicured park cluttered with paraphernalia which Singapore really has too many of.

A once beautiful area that is now being cleared for possibly what is the beginnings of the HDB's new Simpang estate.

A place where the sun would shine on an uncluttered space …

As I look around me, I also see huge tracts of land which were once held much beauty behind hoardings and in the midst of being cleared. That I understand is part of the effort to provide new homes. What that also means is that the crowds the area has hitherto been spared from would soon descend on it, attracted not just by the homes, but the inevitable as it now seems – a huge redevelopment effort which has been outlined in the recently released Land Use Plan intended to supplement the somewhat controversial Population White Paper. That speaks of “new waterfront land along the Sembawang Coastline being freed up once existing shipyard facilities are phased out” with the aim “of providing land for new business activities”. With that it will not just be the character and charm of the area that will be lost, but what it does also mean is that it will see the breaking of what may be the last links it has with its past.

Another part of the same area seen on a misty morning on 28 August 2012.

… and a space where once there were trees.

Inevitable as it may seem, that future  is one that I hope, perhaps for selfish reasons, is one that will never come. Development which has broken many of our links to our past as well as the more recent wave of immigration has without a doubt provided great economic benefit to us living in Singapore. For many of us however, it has also come at a huge cost, a cost which has also seen us lose the soul of who we are as a people. The country is today, one where I find it a struggle to feel at home in. Much of what once was familiar and a source of joy and comfort is no longer with us, creating in us that sense of longing for what has been lost, as well as a sense of loss … a feeling which perhaps can best be described by the Welsh word Hiraeth or  the Portuguese word Saudade

The final frontier?

Now perhaps the final frontier?

One of the positive things that did come out of the land use plan is that it makes mention of some of the more immediate future developments to provide public housing at Bidadari, Tengah and Tampines North. What that does mean is that for the time being at least, the large parcel of land reserved for the future Simpang New Town, an area by the northern coast part of which was once a land of idyllic coastal villages and prawn farming ponds will be left undeveloped. What that also means is that while the area will certainly become more crowded over time, it will for a while, be spared from an even bigger   one, remaining as a final frontier where not just the birds, but also free spirits such as myself can still find space to roam free.

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:

The Dockyard’s gates seen in the 1960s (source: 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:

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.

The curious ridge of sand which runs from Katong to Kallang Bay

25 11 2012

Taking a walk by the waterfront by the Singapore Indoor Stadium these days, it would be hard to imagine a time not so long ago when looking across to Tanjong Rhu, a very different scene would have greeted one’s eyes. Where million dollar condominium units housed in cream coloured blocks now dominate the view across, the scene a quarter of a century ago would have been one of wooden boats, wooden jetties, slipways and drab looking structures running along a body of water the surface of which would have been littered not just by rubbish that had found its way into the three rivers that flowed into the basin, but also by carcasses of dead animals that floated down from the many farms that has once been located upstream.

Tanjong Rhu (left), seen across the Kallang Basin today.

Tanjong Rhu translates from Malay into the Cape of Casuarina (Trees). Once described as a “curious ridge of sand which runs across from Katong to Kallang Bay”, its tip, known as “Sandy Point” has had a long association with the boat building and repair trade, having been an area designated for the trade by Sir Stamford Raffles as far back as 1822, with Captain Flint being the first to set a company to do that in the same year. By the 1850s, the trade was already well established around Sandy Point and the trade continued to thrive in the area even after the first graving dock was constructed in New Harbour (Keppel Harbour) in 1859. Over the years, among the business that found their way to Sandy Point were the well established names such as British boatbuilder John I. Thornycroft which set up in 1926 and United Engineers – which had a longer history. Thornycroft became Vosper Thornycroft in 1967 following the 1966 merger of the parent company with Vosper Limited in the UK. Vosper Thornycroft’s Singapore operations in turn merged with United Engineer’s in 1967. The yard unfortunately got into financial difficulties due to the mid 1980s recession and went into voluntary liquidation in early 1986.

The end of Tanjong Rhu was home to several shipyards including Vosper Thornycroft (seen here), the parent company of which is an established builder of Naval craft in the UK and Singapore Slipway (which became Keppel Singmarine), established as far back as 1887.

A slipway of a boatyard on the Geylang River

A well established organisation involved in shipbuilding still around that can trace its history to Sandy Point is the newbulding arm of Keppel Corporation, Keppel Singmarine. The subsidiary of what is now Keppel Offshore and Marine is a merger of Singmarine and Singapore Slipway. It was Singapore Slipway that had been established at Sandy Point in 1887 when a group of merchants bought William Heard and partner Campbell Heard and Co’s slipway which was set up earlier in the decade and formed the Slipway and Engineering Company. Keppel Singmarine’s yard operated at Tanjong Rhu until the early 1990s.

A boat littered Kallang Basin in 1973 at the time of the completion of the National Stadium (Singapore Sports Council Photo). Land reclamation along the Nicoll Highway promenade can be clearly seen.

Besides the shipyards, another area of Tanjong Rhu a short distance away from its tip that wasn’t very pretty was at the area known as Kampong Arang. That had been an area that was dominated by wooden jetties, used by charcoal traders to offload charcoal from tongkangs (wooden lighters) coming in from Indonesia and Thailand. The charcoal trade was established in the area in 1954 when charcoal traders were uprooted from the waterfront along the reclaimed land south of Beach Road to allow for the construction of Merdeka Bridge and the Nicoll Highway. The once thriving charcoal trade operated at Tanjong Rhu up until January 1987 when the trade was already in decline. At its height in the late 1950s, as many as 300 tongkangs plied between the two countries and Tanjong Rhu, falling to 60 by the time the 1970s had arrived when demand fell as many households had by then already switched to using gas and electric stoves. The traders were relocated to Lorong Halus (only 15 of the 40 that operated at Tanjong Rhu continued at Lorong Halus with demand mainly from the reexport of charcoal than from the local market) in early 1987 at the tail end of the decade long Kallang Basin cleanup efforts.

Another view of Kallang Basin and Tanjong Rhu today.

Beyond the cleanup efforts, the face of Tanjong Rhu has also been altered by the land reclamation south of the cape which has increased its land mass. The land reclamation, started in the early 1970s, was originally intended to allow for the construction of the East Coast Parkway and was further expanded to give the area now referred to as Marina East – at the tip of which the Marina Barrage now closes the channel between it and Marina South which has turned Marina Bay and the Kallang Basin into a huge reserve of a much needed resource, fresh water. The shifting out of the trades from the area were complete by the time the mid 1990s had arrived and allowed much of the northern waterfront area of Tanjong Rhu to be developed into a residential area and the basin into a recreational area that it is today.

[see also: Where slipways once lined the muddy banks of the Geylang River: Jalan Benaan Kapal]

Sembawang beyond the slumber

29 03 2011

Highlights of a heritage tour of Sembawang, “Sembawang Beyond the Slumber”, with a focus on the Sembawang that I was familiar with in the 1970s. This was conducted through the Sembawang Public Library on 27 March 2011. The two and a half hour tour included a visit to the last kampung mosque in Singapore, as well as to several other points of interest in Sembawang:

The Sembawang of the 1970s was a place that I spent many a happy moment at. Back then, it was a place that, as with many of the coastal areas of Singapore, had the air of a sleepy part of Singapore where one could escape from the hustle and bustle of the urban world that I had in brought up in. The Mata Jetty at the end of Sembawang Road had then been the focal point of many of the seemingly long journeys to the northern most area of Singapore, dominated then (as it is now) by the huge shipyard around which life seemed in those northern part, to revolve around.

The destination that first brought me in contact with the post Naval Base Sembawang of the 1970s, the Mata Jetty.

The shipyard was to many who lived in the area, a source of sustenance, having provided a living to many who settled in the area since it started life as the repair dockyard of the largest Naval Base east of the Suez (said to have enough berthing space to take in the entire Royal Navy fleet at that time) over the 1920s culminating in the opening of the dockyard’s graving dock in 1938. Opened by the then Governor of Singapore, Sir Shenton Thomas on 14 February 1938, the King George VI dock (fondly referred to as KG6), was then the largest ever naval graving dock, one which is still very much in use today. The establishment of the dockyard had been a godsend, coming at the time when a slump in rubber prices meant that many who worked in the area which had depended very much on the rubber plantations introduced by Lim Nee Soon would have had an uncertain future. The dockyard attracted many from far and wide and was responsible for the establishment of the largest community of Malayalees in Singapore in the north. The announcement of the pullout of the British forces in 1968 had cast a shadow of doubt on the future for many who worked there as well as in many of the military bases around the island, coming at a time when a newly independent Singapore was struggling to find its feet, with the bases combined contributing to 20% of Singapore’s GNP. The establishment of a commercial shipyard on the site of the dockyard (the dockyard was transferred to the Singapore government for a token fee of $1) on 19 June 1968, had however, secured the future for many.

The shipyard which was established on the site of the former naval dockyard brought much life to the areas around Sembawang in the 1970s.

The Dockyard’s gates seen in the 1960s (source:

By the time I started frequenting the jetty, the British had disappeared, and the ANZUK forces installed in place. By the time 1974 arrived, it was only the New Zealand Force SEA that was left with the withdrawal of the Australian Forces, and their presence didn’t go unnoticed in the area – with “The Strip” – a row of shop houses at Sembawang Village which contained several watering holes including the popular Nelson Bar being a popular hangout. Sembawang Village , established outside the Naval Base’s Sembawang Gate on Admiralty Road had several “makan stalls” including a row of Indian stalls that was popular for Mee Goreng as well as having hosted a bicycle shop that perhaps supplied the families of the many British, Australian and New Zealand military personnel that passed through the area, Cheap John’s which is still in the area – further down Sembawang Road close to Sembawang Shopping Centre.

Sembawang Village grew on the outside of the Sembawang Gate of the former Naval Base, catering to many who lived on the base (Courtesy of Mr Derek Tait).

“The Strip” around Sembawang Village, provided watering holes for the many foreign servicemen in the area, which included the popular Nelson Bar.

“The Strip” seen in the 1970s (Source: ANZ Military Brats of Singapore).

Sembawang Village was also where Cheap John’s – a popular bicycle shop started some 40 years ago, was located. The shop is still around, currently located further south along Sembawang Road close to Sembawang Shopping Centre (Source: ANZ Military Brats of Singapore).

Cheap John’s at its current location is still very much a source of bicycles for Sembawang residents.

Despite the presence of the foreign military personnel, it was probably the workers of the shipyard that were responsible for perhaps rousing Sembawang from its slumber in the 1970s, bringing much colour and life not just to the villages that provided housing to many of them, but also to the streets around. One of the sights that greeted the early morning scene along the narrow Canberra Road that wove its way past the old Canberra Gate (another of the former gates of the Naval Base), of which one concrete pillar remained close to a bus stop that always looked busy with the comings and goings of the many schoolchildren who attended the few schools along the road, and the extended Chong Pang Village which grew to the west of Canberra Road all the way to the marshy land on the banks of the Sungei Sembawang, was that of the convoy of bicycles, their riders in the colourful overalls marked with the seahorses that Sembawang Shipyard had adopted as its logo.

Canberra Gate along Canberra Road in 1968 – near the junction with Sembawang Road. (Courtesy of Mr Derek Tait)

A scene reminiscent of the Sembawang of the 1970s and 1980s – the stream of bicycles along a part of Canberra Road that has remained relatively unchanged.

Along Canberra Road across from the area where Sembawang Mart is today, the sight of a Hindu temple set in a clearing would greet the traveller. That was what was the original Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple built in the 1960s around an altar to Lord Murugan set up by a dockyard worker. It was at this temple where a annual festival which provided the area with much colour, Panguni Uthiram, involving a procession of a chariot and a kavadi procession, was first celebrated in the area in 1967, a tradition which continues till today, with the temple having moved to a new location in Yishun Industrial Park A in the 1990s.

The old Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple off Canberra Road (source:

The area still plays host to the annual Panguni Uthiram festival, which now takes a different route. The festival was first celebrated at the old temple in 1967.

There were several other houses of worship which rose up prominently along some of the main roads of the area as well: the distinctive St. Andrew’s Church, built in 1963 to serve British Military personnel in the area along Admiralty Road close to what had been Sembawang Gate, which is still around; Masjid Naval Base which was close to the junction of Delhi Road and Canberra Road (since demolished); and the Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea (now in Yishun) at the corner where Canberra Road branched off from Sembawang Road. One that was in an obscure location – nestled in the wooded coastal kampung area to the east of what is today Sembawang Park, in the Malay Settlement, Kampong Tengah, established by the British to house Malay dockyard workers, the Masjid Petempatan Melayu, built from the 1960s right up to the 1970s when the bulk of it was completed, is also still around in a setting very much unchanged (except that the kampung around it has since deserted it), having been granted an extended lease of life on a temporary basis. What the future holds for the mosque, dubbed the “Last Kampung Mosque in Singapore”, no one really knows, as Mdm. Zaleha of the mosque’s management committee laments … Today, the mosque comes alive during the school holidays, with camps run by the mosque for Muslim schoolchildren being a popular activity. One of the participants of the walk thought that it would be a nice idea to set up a holiday campsite in the area for schoolchildren of other religions as well.

Masjid Petempatan Melayu Sembawang – the last kampung mosque in a kampung setting.

Mdm. Zaleha of the Mosque’s Management Committee speaking to two of the participants.

Around the St. Andrew’s Church is the area dominated by the stately residences of the military personnel, many of which were built in the 1920s and 1930s as the Naval Base came up, both to the north of Admiralty Road all the way to the coast, and to the south towards Canberra Road. Many of the houses, referred to as “Black and White” houses for the way in which they are painted, are still there today, housing military personnel from the US Navy’s Logistics Base which now occupies part of what was the Stores Basin of the Naval Base just west of Sembawang Park. The former Stores Basin is also occupied in part by the Sembawang Wharves, run by the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA), established in the 1970s when it was vacated by the British. Sembawang Wharves had since been associated with timber, rubber and container imports, as well as being at one time one of the entry point for cars imported to Singapore.

St. Andrew’s Church, built in 1963 for the British Military personnel and their families.

Sembawang has a generous distribution of “Black and White” houses built in the 1920s and 1930s to house military personnel and their families.

The Stores Basin seen in 1962 (source: Part of it is used as a US Navy Logistics Base and the rest is part of PSA’s northern gateway, Sembawang Wharves.

In the cluster of Black and White houses south of the park, along Gibraltar Crescent, there is an interesting find – an entrance to a bunker engulfed by a Banyan Tree that has grown over it – a scene similar to that which greets a visitor at the ruins of the Ta Prohm temple complex in Siem Reap. Bunkers were commonly found nestled amongst the houses – most have been covered over now, including one at Gibraltar Crescent of which the only evidence left is a grass mound, as is one that used to greet the eye behind Beaulieu House.

The entrance of a WWII bunker engulfed by a Banyan tree along Gibraltar Crescent.

Another view of the bunker’s entrance.

Speaking of Beaulieu House, it is one of a few buildings in the area with conservation status, having been granted that in 2005. Built as a seaside home of a wealthy plantation owner in the early 1900s, it was acquired by the British military as the Naval Base was being built, serving as a home for the engineers and later for senior naval officers and it is mentioned that from 1940 to 1942, an Admiral Geoffrey Layton, the Commander-in-Chief for Britain’s China station stayed at the house and the house was occupied by Senior Fleet Officers after the war. The URA’s write-up on the house mentions that the name was derived from a certain Admiral Beaulieu, a Chief of Staff of the Royal Navy, but makes no mention of whether he stayed there.

Beaulieu House started life as a seaside home of a wealthy plantation owner, before being taken over by the British as the Naval Base was being constructed in the 1920s. Beaulieu House was included URA’s conservation list in 2005.

Beaulieu House, overlooks what was referred to in the 1970s as the Mata Jetty, being located at the end of Mata Road, which took one past two Muslim graves at a bend under a tree close to the fence line of the former Stores Basin. The jetty brings with it many memories of the smell of rotting fish used as bait in square bamboo framed crab traps weighed down by lead weights wrapped at each of its four ends of the frame, tied to the jetty with nylon or raffia twine. What comes back as well to me are the burnt planks and the railing-less sides and end off which a car was driven off at high speed in 1975. The waters around the jetty were great for harvesting shrimps with butterfly nets while wading in the eel and puffer fish infested waters. The shrimps eyes stood out when a light was shone in the water and that enabled one with a quick hand to scoop them out with the net. These often ended up over an open fire which we often built on the beach – the smell of fresh seafood over the fire and the crackling sounds that accompanied them as they cooked are still fresh in my memory.

Beaulieu House overlooks the Mata Jetty which was built in the 1940s and is today a popular jetty for fishing and crabbing.

Other buildings in the area which have some form of conservation status include Old Admiralty House which has been gazetted as a National Monument in 2002, and the former Sembawang Fire Station which was given conservation status in 2007, both of which we did not visit due to physical limitations. Old Admiralty House on Old Nelson Road (just across Canberra Road from Sembawang MRT Station), a two-storey brick bungalow housed the Commodore, Malaya and Officer in Charge of His Majesty’s Naval Establishments in Singapore.Constructed in 1939, iIt was later used as was the official residence of the Commander-in-Chief, Far East Station from 1958 up until 1971, when it was named Admiralty House. The URA also provides some information on the former Sembawang Fire Station (which is now within the grounds of Sembawang Shipyard): “built in the 1930s, this two-storey concrete building is designed in a simplified Art Deco-Modern style and has an elegantly proportioned fire-hose tower. The building is a local landmark for both the Sembawang area and the Shipyard”.

Admiralty House, built to house the Commodore Superintendent of the Dockyard and later used to house the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Far East Station was gazetted a National Monument in 2002.

Another building with conservation status is the former Sembawang Fire Station built in the 1930s with its distinctive fire hose tower. The building is within the premises of Sembawang Shipyard.

The last stop was perhaps the highlight for many, a visit to the site of the hot springs that has long been associated with the area. The hot springs, dubbed “Sembawang Hot Springs” was for much of my younger days, associated with the Seletaris bottling plant that came up in 1967 under a subsidiary of soft drink giant Fraser and Neave (F&N), Semangat Ayer Limited. The existence of the spring, based on a heritage guide published by the HDB and the National Heritage Board, had been known as far back as 1908 (which a book written by Song Ong Siang, “One Hundred Years of the Chinese in Singapore” puts as 1909), when a Municipal ranger called W. A. B. Goodall discovered it. The land owner, a certain Mr Seah Eng Keong proceeded to start bottling the water under the brand “Zombun” soon after, after he had established that it was safe to drink, establishing the Singapore Natural Mineral Hot Springs Company. F&N bought the company over in 1921 and bottled the water right up to the war under several brands which included “Zom”, “Salitaris”, “Singa Water” and “Vichy Water” until the Japanese Occupation, during which the Japanese built thermal baths in the area. This was destroyed during an allied bombing raid on Singapore in November 1942 which interrupted the flow of the spring water to the surface and on advise of a geologist after the war, F&N left the spring until flow was naturally restored in the 1960s. When Semangat Ayer’s bottling plant was established in 1967, there had actually been plans to build a spa in the area – but that never took off, and bottling continued until the 1980s, when the land on which the spring was on was acquired by the Government to build an airbase. That would have sounded the death knell for the hot spring and if not for an outcry from the local community, we might have seen the last of the only hot springs on mainland Singapore. A corridor was built in 2002 within the perimeter of the airbase along Gambas Avenue leading to a concrete base with standpipes which channel the spring water to taps, allowing the public use of the hot spring which is thought to have curative properties for several ailments. As several of the participants were to find out, the water which reported flows out at 65 degrees Celcius, does, based on its acrid smell, have some Sulphur content which is said to be useful for the treatment of skin problems.

Sembawang Hot Springs was the source of Seletaris – a brand of mineral water bottled by F&N’s subsidiary, Semangat Ayer Limited up to the 1980s (source:

The visit to the hot springs brought back memories of another part of Sembawang that I was fond of, one that was accessible through a road Jalan Ulu Sembawang that lay at the back of what is now the Seletaris Condominium complex, developed by F&N on the site of part of what had been the Seletaris Bottling plant. A little stub of the road is still left, but no more than that. The road had once provided access to a vast area of farmland and fishing ponds – rising up onto a crest of a hilly area that overlooked what had seemed like rolling plains of vegetable farms. My father had in the 1970s and 1980s been fond of driving along the road just for that view … one that I remember as being one of the most picturesque in Singapore. The road lead to the Lorong Gambas and Mandai area which many who did National Service in the 1970s and 1980s would remember for the training areas they contained. Like much of what was around Sembawang, that is now lost, as is the large Chong Pang village that dominated much of the are south of the Naval Base which was demolished in 1989 after residents moved out in 1986 or so. Much of the area now occupied by the new Sembawang HDB estate. The plot of land where the heart of Chong Pang was, the roundabout near which the Sultan Theatre stood and where some of the best food in Singapore could be found, still lies empty, with plans to build a sports complex over the area. While that has gone, there are still many reminders that remain – particularly the areas on which the Black and White houses are located, the jetty and of course the old kampung mosque. There are also some reminders of the traditions that existed, the stream (albeit a smaller one) of bicycles heading down Canberra Road being one … and there is the most colourful one of all – the procession of kavadis that still make its way down once a year … on a different route, but one that reminds us of what Sembawang is all about, beyond that apparent slumber.

The Ulu Sembawang area was very scenic with its rolling slopes of vegetable farms (source:

The area was also home to several fishing ponds (source:

A milestone in Singapore’s shipbuilding history: the launch of the RSS Fearless in 1995

24 02 2010

This eighteenth of February marks the fifteenth anniversary of a milestone in Singapore’s naval shipbuilding history: the launch of the Fearless Class Patrol Vessels. The 55 metre waterjet propelled vessels were launched by the wife of the then Deputy Prime Minister, Mrs Lee Hsien Loong, better known to us as Madam Ho Ching in 1995 at the Singapore Technologies Shipbuilding and Engineering (STSE) shipyard (now known as ST Marine) in Benoi Road. The then state-of-the-art vessels represented a breakthrough in Singapore’s naval ship design and shipbuilding – these were the first missile equipped combat vessels that were designed and constructed indigenously. I suppose there isn’t much fanfare these days about the Patrol Vessels, possibly because they have been somewhat overshadowed by the acquisition of the larger and more heavily armed Stealth Frigates, and perhaps they have intentionally been forgotten so as not to remind us of the tragic events surrounding the third vessel in the class – the RSS Courageous.

Cover of the ST Marine Brochure for the Patrol Vessel.

The Fearless class vessels, which are still in operation, and are equipped with a naval gun and surface-to-air missiles, and feature a locally designed round bilge hull form fitted with a twin engine propulsion system, were one of the first naval combat craft to feature waterjet propulsion, providing the vessel with excellent manoeuvrability. A total of twelve units were built by STSE, the first six of which were equipped with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities being fitted with torpedoes and a hull-mounted sonar [Fearless (Pennant No. 94), Brave (95), Courageous (96), Gallant (97), Resilience (98) and Unity (99)]. The remaining six vessels in the class were not fitted out with ASW capabilities [Resilience (82), Unity (83), Sovereignty (84), Justice (85), Freedom (86) and Independence (87)].

RSS Fearless off Horsburgh Lighthouse/Pedra Branca in 2003, during search and rescue operations following the collision of RSS Courageous (Source:

Sunday Times report dated 19 Feb 1995 on the launching of the RSS Fearless.

The champagne bottle that did not break …

Traditionally, the naming (or christening) of a ship is done by breaking a bottle of champagne, and in the case of Naval tradition, the naming usually is carried out during the launching of the ship (when the ship is launched or lowered into the water for the very first time). This can be a spectacular event, as in the case of where the ship is side launched. In the case of RSS Fearless, the launching was only carried out ceremonially by lowering the vessel slowly in a syncrolift (a lift that lifts and lowers ships in and out of water), and the momentous event was to be remembered not for this, but for the fact that the champagne bottle refused to be broken. It finally yielded after several attempts, but as superstition would have it, it is bad luck if the champagne bottle does not break the first time. Perhaps this held true for the superstitious as the RSS Fearless was the lead ship of its class, and the third ship in the class, the RSS Courageous was meet with an accident which resulted in a tragic loss of lives.

Mdm. Ho Ching lets fly with the Champagne bottle ... but it doesn't break!

A second attempt at breaking the bottle - that failed too! The bottle finally broke after several repeated attempts.

Collision of RSS Courageous with ANL Indonesia on 3 January 2003

The RSS Courageous was involved in a collision with a container ship the ANL Indonesia off Pedra Branca on 3 January 2003. The collision sheared-off the stern section of the Courageous, and of the 44 crew onboard, eight were injured and another four, servicewomen resting in the aft section which was sheared-off, lost their lives. Two officers in command of the vessel at the time of the collision were subsequently found negligent, as their decision to steer the vessel to port and across the bow of the ANL Indonesia contravened Regulation 14 of the navigation rules of the road, the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea (COLREGS).

Chart showing location of collision and the path taken by RSS Courageous (Source: Wikipedia).

The sheared-off stern section of the RSS Courageous being lifted off the seabed onto a barge on 14 Jan 2003 (Source:

That the vessel was able to remain afloat despite the loss of buoyancy of the sheared-off stern section and the breach in the watertight integrity of several other compartments (albeit with the quick action taken by the crew and supporting Police Coastguard officers in damage control) is a testament to the survivability of the vessel.

Where slipways once lined the muddy banks of the Geylang River: Jalan Benaan Kapal

25 01 2010

My first taste of what life was in a shipyard – an eight week stint in 1982, part of a training programme I underwent, provided me with a first hand view of what the Geylang River and Kallang Basin was like then, one that I would not otherwise have had. The shipyard I was attached to was located at Jalan Benaan Kapal, near the area where the Kallang Indoor Stadium is today. The road had been named in Malay after the activities it was built to serve – Benaan or how it is spelt today, Binaan, the word for building or construction, and Kapal, meaning ship. Looking at the areas around Jalan Banaan Kapal today, it is hard to imagine that it was once had been a hub of activity, with a thriving cluster of family owned shipbuilding and shiprepair businesses. It was Singapore’s first purpose built marine industrial estate, set up based on the recommendation of a UN led industrial survey mission, put in place to identify areas of industrialisation had a potential to develop in what was a newly independent Singapore in the 1960s. With this, the area close to where the Geylang River empties into the Kallang Basin, including a 180 metre stretch of swamp, was developed into a marine industrial estate.

Once a swamp, the site of Singapore's first marine industrial estate, which was a mess of activity, now looking spick and span following a massive clean up effort.

The area where shipyards once would have lined the river side of Jalan Benaan Kapal on the right.

Jalan Benaan Kapal as seen today, close to the junction with Stadium Road, which would have led to the area where the shipyards once were located.

A building once used as workshops housing businesses supporting the marine industry.

Evidence of the industrial past of the area.

What greets the eye today is empty land, some disused workshop buildings and condominiums on either side of the river: Jalan Benaan Kapal on the Kallang side and Kampong Arang Road on the Tanjong Rhu side, where muddy banks laid with slipways, on which boats and small ships such as tugs could be up-slipped and repaired, and the clutter of rusting barges, ships and boats afloat once dominated the scene.

How the Geylang River looked - a slipway of a boatyard on the Geylang River.

Once a industrial area where the rank stench of a river carrying all kinds of flotsam and waste in its dark murky waters would greet each breath, is now a quiet scene of luxury condominiums and a sleepy, much cleaner and better smelling river.

A quiet scene of empty land and condominiums where once slipways, rusting barges and a mess of ships would have dominated the scene in what was Singapore's first marine industrial estate.

The trip to Jalan Benaan Kapal every morning back then would involve a bus ride on service 133 from my home in Ang Mo Kio to a bus stop in Kallang, close to where the Kallang MRT station is located today. Next would be the long half an hour trek to the shipyard that I would have to make. The trek would take me past the former Kallang Airport, which was then used as the People’s Association complex, and across the Nicoll Highway. Continuing, I would have to walk by the area in between the National Stadium and the Practice Track, past the area to the west of the Mountbatten Pitches, what is now an empty plot of land which was the Wonderland Amusement Park – in which I had my first  experiences of  roller coasters. This would now be where the large open car park by the Kallang Theatre and the Kallang Leisure Park is today. This would be where the end of Jalan Benaan Kapal was, at its junction with Stadium Road, where a cluster of small factory buildings would greet the eye and the end where most of the shipyards were located.

The former Kallang Airport, which was used as the People's Association HQ - a landmark that would have marked the start of the long trek from the bus stop I would alight at to Jalan Benaan Kapal.

Where the junction of Jalan Benaan Kapal and Stadium Road had been: now a bend in the road near the Kallang Indoor Stadium.

A row of what would have been workshops left behind along the stretch of Jalan Benaan Kapal where the shipyards once were.

Once in the shipyard, I would get into my blue overalls, and when it was time, make my way to the slipways of the yard. The view we got of the river from the vantage of the slipways – the clutter of ships and boats afloat in the river alongside rusting barges, was a sight to behold. But what I would most remember the Geyland River for was the smell that greeted me at the slipway! Each breath meant having to inhale the rank stench, a stench carried by the dark murky waters mixed with the smell of rotting seaweed and marine organisms  which had  been scraped off the bottoms of the boats and ships, that lay on the mud below, accompanied by the day’s collection of rotting carcasses, wood, rubber tires, plastic bags stained with oil, and whatever else the river carried from the numerous villages (many without sanitation), godowns, factories, and farms upstream.  Looking at and and taking a breath by the river as it was back then, it would have been hard to imagine that the river would one day be a source of clean water: the Kallang Basin, together with the adjoining man-made Marina Bay, is now a part of the downtown Marina Reservoir, created with the construction of the Marina Barrage, which has also cut the Kallang, Geylang and Singapore rivers off from the sea. Another thing that I would well remember was seeing an explosion as it happened, as I was peering from the forecastle deck of a ship across the river towards a barge afloat on the other side. I remember very vividly how at the very moment I had looked across, I could see the deck of the barge buckling upwards and the thunderous noise that accompanied a burst of debris that flew some ten metres up into the air that followed.

Sources of pollution along the waterways (Source: PUB)

The river today is a much prettier and cleaner sight, smelling a lot less than it used to: the result of a ten year effort undertaken to clean up Singapore’s rivers, and perhaps a much safer place to be on: the effort also meant the phasing  out of boat and shipyard activities in the area. These have been replaced by luxury condominiums on the Tanjong Rhu side, and empty plots of land along the Kallang side. Vehicles now run across the area of the river where ships and boats once cluttered it – both over it and under it: the construction of the Tanjong Rhu Bridge now links Tanjong Rhu with Kallang and a tunnel under the river, part of the newly constructed Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway (KPE). The construction of the bridge has also meant that Jalan Benaan Kapal has been cut into two: the section east of the bridge is now dominated by indoor sport facilities housed in the former industrial buildings, and the section west has been left with a row of former workshops, cut-off from its other half, and lying somewhat obscure and  forgotten. Forgotten as well, are the ship and boat yards and the workshops, which had possibly provided a vital contribution to the growth of a fledgling economy of a nation that many felt had little chance of surviving.

The Tanjong Rhu Bridge now links the Kallang area with Tanjong Rhu, allowing vehicular traffic over the area of the Geylang River where shipyards once featured.

What used to be a slipway lined river bank along Jalan Benaan Kapal now features an empty plot of land. There is evidence of the KPE tunnel which runs under the river in the form of a structure housing the tunnel's vents.

The road leading up to the Tanjong Rhu Bridge now cuts Jalan Benaan Kapal into two sections.

The section east of the bridge leads to industrial buildings which are now used for sports and recreation.

Futsal at The Cage on Jalan Benaan Kapal.

The west section of Jalan Benaan Kapal end abruptly where it once led to the junction with Stadium Road.

A former workshop where a different kind of weights would have been lifted by A-Frames and chain blocks ... now used by the Singapore Weightlifting Federation.

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My first taste of what life was in a shipyard – an eight week stint in 1982, part of a training programme I underwent, probably provided me with a first hand view of what the Geylang River and Kallang Basin was like back then, one that I would not otherwise have had.

The shipyard I was attached to was located at Jalan Benaan Kapal, close to the area where the Kallang Indoor Stadium is today. The road’s name being derived from the activities that went on along the road, from the Malay words for building or construction, Binaan and ship, Kapal. Looking at Jalan Banaan Kapal today, it is hard to imagine that it was once had been alive, with a thriving cluster of family owned shipbuilding and shiprepair businesses, in what was Singapore’s first marine industrial estate. This had been set up based on the recommendation of a UN Industrial Survey Mission to help in developing Singapore’s industrialisation potential following its independence, in what was a swamp area close to where the Geylang River empties into the Kallang Basin.

What we see today as empty land and condominiums at the area on either side of the river, Jalan Benaan Kapal on the Kallang side and Kampong Arang Road on the Tanjong Rhu side, were muddy banks laid with slipways, on which boats and small ships such as tugs could be up-slipped and repaired.

Forgotten with time: Chong Pang Village

17 01 2010

With the help of an old map, and some sketchy memories of the village at which we would stop over at to get our supplies for the fishing and crabbing trips we used to make to the jetty at Sembawang end, as well as some old photos of the area courtesy of Mr Derek Tait, author of “Memories of Singapore and Malaya” who spent some of his childhood years in Singapore in the 1960s, and some from the National Archives, I was able to get a better impression of what Chong Pang was like in the 1970 and early 1980s. Taking a walk around the area, I could perhaps retrace some of the steps I had taken down the streets of Chong Pang, as I must have done in the early 1980s with Paul, an apprentice with Sembawang Shipyard, whom I had befriended during a six month stint I had with Sembawang Shipyard. Paul had come over from Kulai in Southern Johor, as many of the shipyard workers once did, and rented a windowless room in a wooden shack, which he once showed me. The wooden shacks of Chong Pang, as well as of Canberra Road, housed the thousands of Malayalees and Malaysians who worked at the shipyard. In the mornings and evenings, Canberra Road would be filled with streams of these shipyard workers dressed in the light blue coveralls of the shipyard, cycling to and from the shipyard.

Chong Pang Village erased: An open field slated for the development of a sports complex where the once bustling village used to stand, while a new public housing estate Sembawang rises in the background.

Today, the area where Chong Pang once stood bears very little evidence of the bustling village that once occupied the area. Most of the roads associated with the village have disappeared: the main part of the village centered around Chong Pang Road and the roundabout where the Sultan Theatre stood and around which some sumptuous hawker fare could be found in the evenings, is now a clear plot of land, that is, based on plans for the area, to be used for the construction of a sports and recreation complex. The roads on the other side of the road, where I remember there was a market of sorts, have similarly disappeared, a “Land for Sale” sign sticking out prominently where wooden shop houses once stood.

Map of Chong Pang Village c.1978

Chong Pang Village as it used to be: Looking up Chong Pang Road towards the area where the roundabout with the Sultan Theatre was located.(Source: National Archives of Singapore).

The spot where the junction of Chong Pang Road with Sembawang Road once was, as it is  today.

A view of the junction of Chong Pang Road with Sembawang Road in 1968 taken northwards towards Canberra Road (Courtesy of Mr Derek Tait)

A view of the junction of Chong Pang Road with Sembawang Road southwards. (Source: National Archives of Singapore)

There is maybe some evidence of Kedondong Road – what appears to be remnants of a paved road peeps out from the grass where the road once joined Sembawang Road. Further north, what used to be a fork in the road, the right branch being the continuation of Sembawang Road, the left, Canberra Road – which led to the Naval Base and was later the road leading to the shipyard which inherited the former naval dockyard after the pullout of the British forces. The gate that stood on Canberra Road still stood for sometime after as evidence of the former Naval Base. Canberra Road has since been widened, bearing little resemblance to the Canberra Road of old. A Catholic church, Our Lady Star of the Sea, which has since relocated to the Yishun, used to stand at the corner, near the start of Canberra Road.

Evidence of where a village road once stood: What’s left of Kedondong Road?

Village Scene in 1985 (Source: National Archives of Singapore)

Village Scene in 1985 (Source: National Archives of Singapore)

Row of Shops (Source: National Archives of Singapore)

Wooden Shacks that housed the many shipyard workers who lived in the area (Source: National Archives of Singapore)

Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea – a photo taken in 1992 (Source:

Where the Star of the Sea once rose: the site of the old Catholic Church, Our Lady Star of the Sea

The Junction of Sembawang Road, Sembawang Avenue (new) and Canberra Road today, looking at Canberra Road. A hawker centre built in the 1970s used to stand in the area on the right of the bus. Canberra Gate used to stand a little further up Canberra Road.

Canberra Gate along Canberra Road in 1968 – near the junction with Sembawang Road. (Courtesy of Mr Derek Tait)

Where the market area once was … now a plot of land for sale

Jalan Sendudok, one of the few roads still left

Area around the market along Sembawang Road.

Area around the market along Sembawang Road (posted in the Old Sembawang Naval Base Nostalgic Lane Facebook group).

The only part of the area that is maybe still recognisable is just south of where the village was: the Jalan Tampang and Jalan Legundi area, where the rows of shop houses still stand. The row along Jalan Legundi used to house the Cola Restaurant, a popular place for steaks, which later became Jack’s Cola Restaurant.

View of the row of shophouses along Jalan Legundi, from Jalan Tampang in 1968 (Courtesy of Mr Derek Tait). The Cola Restaurant in the corner later became the Jack’s Cola Restaurant. At the other end of this row is the coffee shop which serves the popular Chye Lye Fish Head Curry. What stands on the field now is the hawker centre which once was the Yishun Village Seafood Restaurant.

A more recent landmark in the area, what used to be a rather run down looking Sembawang Shopping Centre, on the opposite side of Sembawang Road from JalanLegundi, was put up in the mid 1980s and was a popular destination for shoppers looking a bargain on music CDs. The shopping centre has since been rebuilt, and the chain that was build on the back of the sales of music CDs has closed, a victim of online music downloads. North of the area, a new public housing estate, Sembawang stands where the swamps around the Sungei Sembawang once stood. There is an area which is named Chong Pang in Singapore, left perhaps as a reminder of the old village, some 3 miles south of the village, bustling it is with a market popular with people living in the area, but nothing like how the old village was.

Map of the Chong Pang Village area, 1968 (extract of a 1968 HM Naval Base Map).More: