Moving images of the Syonan Jinja at MacRitchie Reservoir

2 03 2017

A rare clip with scenes taken at a ceremony at the Syonan Jinja (from 1:23 to 3:30 in the clip), a shrine built during the Japanese Occupation with POW labour. The shrine was to have been a most beautiful of shrines with pebbled streams, stone lanterns, a stone stepped paths and torii gates and set in a 1,000-acre park with public recreational and sporting facilities. Pebbles, intended for the water filter beds at Bukit Timah, were diverted for its use. A new city was also to have been built around it. The grand plans were cut short with Japan’s defeat in the war and the shrine was destroyed before the British returned for fear of its desecration. More on the shrine can be found at this post: Lost places – the shrine across the Divine Bridge.

A worship ceremony involving Japanese troops at the opening of the Syonan Jinja in 1943 (source: http://www.himoji.jp/himoji/database/db04/images_db_ori/2200.jpg).

The opening of the Syonan Jinja in 1943 (source: http://www.himoji.jp/himoji/database/db04/images_db_ori/2200.jpg).

The clip apparently shows a ceremony taking place at the Syonan Jinja on 15 February 1943, the first anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, that involved children seen who had returned from civilian camps they were sent to in New Dehli in India when the war in the Far East broke out.





1972, when the Concorde first flew over Singapore

28 02 2017

Singapore had a brief love affair with the Concorde. Arguably the only supersonic passenger aircraft to be successfully deployed, a London to Singapore was operated by its National airline, Singapore Airlines, in partnership with British Airways for a few years at the end of the 1970s. The aircraft’s first flight over Singapore however, goes back to 1972, a year that was especially memorable for several events.  I came across a wonderful photograph of that first flight some years back, one that in freezing the Concorde over a Singapore that in 1972 was at the cusp of its own reach for the skies, captured the lofty aspirations of the aircraft’s developers and of the city seen below it

An amazing view of Concorde 002 over the old city. The city 45 years ago, was seeing several of its first generation skyscrapers coming up. Some of the iconic buildings seen in this photograph include the former MSA (later SIA) Building, former Robina House, and a partially completed 3rd Ocean Building (now replaced by the Ocean Financial Centre) (photo souce: online at http://www.concordesst.com/).

The photo of Concorde 002 over the old city centre of Singapore during its month-long demonstration tour of the Far East in June 1972 (online at http://www.concordesst.com/).

1972 was the year I was in Primary 2. I was seven, going on eight, ten months older than the newly independent Singapore, and at an age when any machine that sped were about the coolest things on earth. I was also finding out that going to school in the afternoon was quite a chore. Unlike the morning session I was in the previous year, there was little time for distractions and TV. School days were just about tolerable only because of the football time it could provide before classes started each day and unlike the previous school year, great excitement seemed to come only away from school, and the highlight of the year would be one that I would have to skip, “ponteng” in the language used among my classmates, school for.

A friendly game between two great  primary school football rivals - St. John's Island School and St. Michael's School in the 1970s. 

Football was very much part of the culture at St. Michael’s School, the primary school I attended.

The buzz the Concorde created, even before it came to Singapore in June of the year, left a deep impression with the boys I kept company with and the paper planes we made featured folded-down noses that resembling the Concorde’s droop nose – even if it made they seemed less able to fly. I was fortunate to also see the real McCoy making a descent at Paya Lebar Airport, one that was much more graceful than any of the imitations I made. I have to thank an uncle who was keen enough to brave the crowds that had gathered at the airport’s waving gallery for that opportunity. The event was a significant one and took place in a year that was especially significant for civil aviation in Singapore with the split of Malaysia-Singapore Airlines or MSA, jointly operated by the two countries taking place in the background. The split would see the formation of Mercury Singapore Airlines on 24 January to fly Singapore’s flag. The intention had been to ride on the established MSA name, which was not too well received on the Malaysian side, prompting the renaming of the new MSA to Singapore Airlines (SIA) on 30 June 1972, a point from which the airline has never looked back.

What might have been.

What might have been.

The building that housed MSA and later SIA is prominent in the 1972 photograph, the MSA Building. Completed in 1968, the rather iconic MSA and later SIA Building was one built at the dawn of the city’s age of the skyscraper. The building was a pioneer in many other ways and an early adopter of the pre-fab construction technique. A second building in the photograph that also contributed to frenzy was the third Ocean Building, then under construction. The Ocean was to be the home of another company that was very much a part of Singapore’s civil aviation journey: the Straits Steamship Company. It was during the time of the already demolished Ocean Building that preceded the third that the company set up Malayan Airways in 1937. The airlines, which would only take off in 1947, became Malaysian Airways in 1963, and then MSA in 1965. The company, a household name in shipping, is now longer connected with sea or air transport in its current incarnation as Keppel Land. Other buildings marking the dawn of the new age seen in the photograph include the uncompleted Robina House and Shing Kwang House, and also a DBS Building in the early stages of erection.

The fast growing city, seen at ground level in 1972 (Jean-Claude Latombe, online at http://ai.stanford.edu/~latombe/)

The fast growing city, seen at ground level in 1972 (Jean-Claude Latombe, online at http://ai.stanford.edu/~latombe/)

The new Ocean Building in July 1974 (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

The completed third Ocean Building (left), seen in July 1974 (photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

It was several months prior to the the Concorde’s flight and just four weeks into school, that I would find myself skipping classes for what was to be the highlight of the year and of my childhood: the visit of the Queen, Elizabeth II of England, Price Phillip, and Princess Anne, to the 3-room Toa Payoh flat I had called home. As its was in the case of several other visiting dignitaries, Her Majesty’s programme included a visit to the rooftop viewing gallery of the Housing and Development Board’s first purpose-built “VIP block”. The gallery was where a view of the incredible success Singapore had in housing the masses could be taken in and a visit to a flat often completed such a visit and living in one strategically placed on the top floor of the VIP block had its advantages. Besides the Royal family, who were also taken to a rental flat on the second floor of Block 54 just behind the VIP block, Singapore’s first Yang di-Pertuan Negara and last colonial Governor, Sir William Goode, also dropped by in 1972. The flat also saw the visits of two other dignitaries. One was John Gorton, Prime Minister of Australia in 1968 and the other, Singapore’s second president, Benjamin Henry Sheares, and Mrs Sheares in 1971.

The kitchen during the Queen's visit.

The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne, in the kitchen of my flat on 18 February 1972.

The Queen at the Viewing Gallery on the roof of Block 53 Toa Payoh

The Queen at the Viewing Gallery on the roof of Block 53 Toa Payoh on 18 February 1972.

One thing being in the afternoon session developed was the taste I acquired for epok-epok, fried curry puffs that are usually potato filled. Sold by a man who came around on a bicycle at dismissal time, the pastries that he vended – out of a tin carried on the bicycle – were ones to die for. They were made especially tasty the vendor’s special chilli-sauce  “injected” in with a spout tipped bottle and well worth going hungry at recess time, to have the 10 cents the purchase required, for. Being in the afternoon session, also meant that the rides home from school on the minibus SCB 388, were often in the heavy traffic. The slow crawl, often accompanied by the deep vocals of Elvis Presley playing in the bus’ cartridge player, permitted an observation of the progress that was being made in building Toa Payoh up. Much was going on in 1972 with the SEAP games Singapore was to host in 1973 just around the corner. Toa Payoh’s town centre, also the games village, was fast taking shape.

A view over the area in the early 1970s when Toa Payoh New Town was taking shape. The school can be seen in the lower left of the photo with Times Building then occupying the other part of the former quarry site.

A view over Toa Payoh around 1972.

Toa Payoh’s evolving landscape stood in stark contrast to its surroundings. To its south, across the Whampoa River, was Balestier – where suburbia might have ended before Toa Pyaoh’s rise. That still held its mix of old villas, shophouses, and a sprinkling of religious sites. The view north on the other hand was one of the grave scattered landscape of Peck San Teng, today’s Bishan, as would possibly have been the view west, if not for the green wall of sparsely developed elevations. On one of the hills, stood Toa Payoh Hospital, in surroundings quite conducive to rest and recovery. Potong Pasir to Toa Payoh’s east had still a feel of the country. Spread across what were the low lying plains that straddled one of Singapore’s main drainage channels, the Kallang River, the area was notorious for the huge floods that heavy rains would bring. When the area wasn’t submerged, it was one of green vegetable plots and the zinc topped structures of dwellings and livestock pens.

The grave dominated landscape north of Toa Payoh - with a view towards Toa Payoh (online at https://i1.wp.com/news.asiaone.com/sites/default/files/styles/w641/public/original_images/Nov2014/sgtowns_26.jpg)

The grave dominated landscape north of Toa Payoh – with a view towards Toa Payoh (SPH photo, online at http://news.asiaone.com/).

Potong Pasir (and Braddell Road) during the big flood of 1978.

Potong Pasir (and Braddell Road) during the big flood of 1978 (PUB photo).

Another main drainage channel, the Singapore River, was a point of focus for the tourism drive of 1972, during which two white statues came up. Representations perhaps of the past and the future, the first to come up was of a figure from its colonial past. The statue of Raffles, placed at a site near Empress Place at which Singapore’s founder was thought to have first came ashore, was unveiled in February. The second, was the rather peculiar looking Merlion and a symbol perhaps of new Singapore’s confused identity. This was unveiled at the river’s mouth in September. A strangest of would be National symbols and with little connection to Singapore except for its head of a lion, the animal Singapore or Singapura was named after, the creature was made up in a 1964 tourism board initiated effort. Despite its more recent origins, the statue has come to be one that tourists and locals alike celebrate and that perhaps has set the tone for how Singapore as a destination is being sold.

The View from the Esplanade towards the open sea at the mouth of the Singapore River in 1976. The Merlion in the background, is seen at its original location at the mouth of the river.

The Merlion at its original position at the mouth of the Singapore River (seen here in 1976).

An icon of a developing and newly independent Singapore, the Merlion, stares at the icons of the new Singapore across a body of water that played an important role in Singapore's development.

The Merlion at its position today, staring at the icons of the new Singapore.

1972 was a year that has also to be remembered for the wrong reasons. Externally, events such as the tragic massacre of Israeli Olympians in Munich, brought much shock and horror as did the happenings closer to home in Indochina. There were also reasons for fear and caution in Singapore. Water, or the shortage of it was very much at the top of the concerns here with the extended dry spell having continued from the previous year. There were also many reasons to fear for one’s safety with the frequent reports of murders, kidnappings and shootouts, beginning with the shooting to death of an armed robber, Yeo Cheng Khoon, just a week into the year.

The darkest of the year’s headlines would however be of a tragedy that seemed unimaginable – especially coming just as the season of hope and joy was to descend. On 21 November, a huge fire swept through Robinson’s Department Store at Raffles Place in which nine lives were lost. The devastating fire also deprived the famous store of its landmark Raffles Place home and prompted its move to Orchard Road.  This perhaps also spelled the beginning of the end for Singapore’s most famous square. In a matter of one and a half decades, the charm and elegance that had long marked it, would completely be lost.

Christmas Decorations from a Simpler Time - Robinson's at Raffles Place, 1966

Robinson’s at Raffles Place, 1966.

The burnt shell of Robinson's(SPH photo online at http://www.tnp.sg/)

The burnt shell of Robinson’s (SPH photo online at http://www.tnp.sg/)

Another tragic incident was the 17 September shooting of the 22-year-old Miss Chan Chee Chan at Queensway. While the shooting took place around midday, it was only late in the day that medical staff attending to  Miss Chan realised that she had been shot. A .22 calibre rifle bullet, lodged in her heart, was only discovered after an x-ray and by that time it was too late to save her.

Just as the year had started, shootouts would be bring 1972 to a close in which four of Singapore’s most wanted men were killed. At the top of the list was Lim Ban Lim. Armed and dangerous and wanted in connection with the killing of a policeman, a series of armed robberies on both sides of the Causeway, Lim was ambushed by the police at Margaret Drive on 24 November and shot dead. Over a nine-year period, Lim and his accomplices got away with a total of S$2.5 million. An accomplice, Chua Ah Kau escaped the ambush. He would however take his own life following a shootout just three weeks later on 17 December. Having taken two police bullets in the confrontation near the National Theatre, Chua turned the gun on himself.

The case that had Singapore on tenterhooks due to the one and a half month trail of violence and terror left by the pair of gunmen involved, would play itself out just the evening before the gunfight involving Chua. It was one that I remember quite well from the manner in which the episode was brought to a close in the dark and seemingly sinister grounds of the old Aljunied al-Islamiah cemetery at Jalan Kubor. The trigger-happy pair, Abdul Wahab Hassan and his brother Mustapha, crime spree included gun running, armed robbery, gunfights with the police, hostage taking and daring escapes from custody (Abdul Wahab’s from Changi Prison and Mustapha’s from Outram Hospital). Cornered at the cemetery on 16 December and with the police closing in, Abdul Wahab shot and killed his already injured brother and then turned the gun on himself.

A view from the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery across to the Kampong Glam conservation area.

The Aljunied Al-Islamiah Cemetery off Jalan Kubor and Victoria Street, where two gunmen met their deaths in 1972.

Besides the deaths of the four, quite a few more armed and dangerous men were also shot and injured as a result of confrontations with the police. A 23 December 1972 report in the New Nation put the apparent rise in shootouts to the training the police had received to “shoot from the hip, FBI style”. The spate of crimes involving the use of firearms would prompt the enactment of the Arms Offences Act in 1973, which stipulates a mandatory death penalty for crimes that see the use of or the attempt to use a firearm to cause injury.

The tough measures may possibly have had their impact. The use firearms in crimes is now much less common. This has also brought about an increased the sense of safety in Singapore, as compared to 1972. Many who grew up in that age will remember being warned repeatedly of the dangers on the streets, particularly of being kidnapped. The same warnings are of course just as relevant today, but the threat was one that could be felt. Many stories of children disappearing off the streets were in circulation and that heightened the sense of fear. While many could be put down to rumour, there was at least one case of a child being abducted from a fairground, that I knew to be true. There were also many reports of actual kidnappings in the news, including one very high profile case in 1972 that saw the abduction of a wealthy Indonesian businessman. The businessman was released only after a ransom was paid.


Singapore in 1972:






11 July 2017, the day the Thieves of Sungei Road will be executed

14 02 2017

The once bustling flea market, known to me as “Robinson Petang” – Afternoon Robinson’s or simply as Sungei Road in my younger days, will soon be more of a distant memory. Come the 11th of July this year, the too little that is still left, will disappear and never again return when the free-hawking zone that today’s traders are operating in gets shut down (10 July will be its last day).

Thieves Market today, a pale shadow of Robinson Petang in its heyday.

Thieves Market today, a pale shadow of Robinson Petang in its heyday.

An aerial view of a part of Singapore that is in the midst of huge changes. The market is seen in the lower part of the photo.

An aerial view of a part of Singapore that is in the midst of huge changes. The market is seen in the lower part of the photo.

Resembling a shanty town with its makeshift shacks and temporary stalls mixed into shophouse lined streets in its heyday, Robinson Petang had a reputation that spread far and wide – one reputation it also had was the “aroma” that the nearby Rochor Canal gave to the area.  Also known as “Thieves Market”, for a variety of very obvious reasons, it was the place to go to get one’s hands on any pre-loved item imaginable. Many of the goods on offer, which also included unused items, were otherwise rarely found. One of the things I remember my parents’ heading there regularly for at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, was huge glass bottles – which my mum decorated with mosaic and macramé for use as flower vases. There were then lots of other items on offer: antiques (or junk – depending on how one looked at them), electrical goods, surplus army items, and old clothes sold by weight and even new ones that in today’s world are diverted to factory outlet stores. Fake goods were also sold and a joke often shared among friends was that a prized item had been acquired from Sungei Road – thereby suggesting that it wasn’t the real MaCoy. The bazaar, traces its history to the antique trade, which developed its presence in the area in the 1930s, with secondhand goods traders only moving in after the war.

The flea market in its heyday (source: National Archives of Singapore Online).

The flea market in its heyday (source: National Archives of Singapore Online).

The Thieves Market of today bears little resemblance to that Sungei Road. Resettlement and the area’s redevelopment since the 1970s, spelt the end for many of the trades around the area. Many of the area’s hawkers were moved in the 1970s and 1980s, including an exercise in August 1982 intended to put an end to the bazaar for good, following which a handful of 31 licensed rag-and-bone traders were left to ply the remnants of the trade. The bazaar, now centred  on Larut Road and Pitt Street, was designated a free-hawking zone (the only one in Singapore) in the year 2000, opened to traders who were Singapore Citizens or Permanent Residents and sees some 145 to 200 vendors operating on the busier days.

Sungei Road in 1978.

Sungei Road in 1978 (source: National Archives of Singapore Online).

Sungei Road in the late 1980s (source: National Archives of Singapore Online).

Sungei Road in the late 1980s (source: National Archives of Singapore Online).

Sungei Road in the 1980s (source: Mike Fong on 'On a Little Street in Singapore').

Sungei Road in the 1980s (source: Mike Fong on ‘On a Little Street in Singapore’).

A five-foot-way barber in the area - such trades were moved in the 1970s and 1980s (source: Mike Fong on 'On a Little Street in Singapore').

A five-foot-way barber in the area – such trades were moved in the 1970s and 1980s (source: Mike Fong on ‘On a Little Street in Singapore’).

In 2012, the Association for the Recycling of the Second Hand Goods, representing the traders, was informed of the decision to close the free-hawking zone. Despite appeals and attempts by the association to propose alternative sites, a decision was taken by the authorities to only allow flea markets to operated on a non-permanent basis – such as at street bazaars and trade fairs. Reasons given for the decision include the dis-amenities the market creates such as the obstruction and risk mosquito breeding in places traders use for storage. Assistance, including an offer made for the allocation of stalls in a nearby centre, will  be provided to 21 traders who hold a permit as well as to other traders affected.

Letter of appeal submitted by the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods in 2015.

Letter of appeal submitted by the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods in 2015 (source: the Association’s Facebook Page).

The is still a variety of goods on offer.

The is still a variety of goods on offer.

Watch parts are commonly sold.

Watch parts are commonly sold.

It appears that preliminary work for the area’s eventual redevelopment – which based on Master Plan 2014 is reserved for a residential development “with commercial at first storey” with a plot ration of 4.9 – will take place soon after the closure. This work may see the disappearance of a few of the area’s streets including Pitt Street and Larut Road (another road in the area, Pasar Lane, has already disappeared) and with the MRT station that is opening this year, will give the place a completely different complexion and erase a long held memory of the old Robinson Petang, for good.

Plans for future redevelopment (Master Plan 2014). The market is in the area circled.

Plans for future redevelopment (Master Plan 2014). The market is in the area circled.

Larut Road in the 1980s (source: Mike Fong on 'On a Little Street in Singapore').

Larut Road in the 1980s (source: Mike Fong on ‘On a Little Street in Singapore’).

The market today is centred on a shophouse cleared Larut Road and Pitt Street.

The market today is centred on a shophouse cleared Larut Road and Pitt Street. The new MRT station is seen on the top right of the photograph.

More on the market, including photographs and also video documentation carried out by the National Heritage Board, can be found at: https://roots.sg/learn/resources/virtual-tours/sungei-road-flea-market.





The last days of Empire

6 02 2017

On the afternoon of Chinese New Year’s day, 75 years ago in 1942, Singapore fell to the Japan. It was to bring three and a half years of hardship on Singaporeans and a shift in power that would bring about the end of the once mighty British Empire. The capitulation of the Empire’s “impregnable fortress” had come swiftly, in a manner nobody might have expected. Just two months had elapsed since the Japanese Imperial Army launched its invasion of Malaya, and in a matter of one week since making landfall on Singapore’s northwest coast, the jewel in the crown was firmly in the hands of Japan.

On the ground, the poorly equipped, ill-trained and demoralised troops defending Malaya and the island were no match for the experienced, efficient and motivated fighting force Japan had committed to the task. With their back to the walls in Singapore, the defenders – British, Australian and Indian troops and members of the Malay Regiment, plus those of volunteer units such as the Chinese organised Dalforce, fought gallantly but there was little that could be done to stem a tide that had already turned against them.

In the less threatening environment we live in today, it is probably difficult to appreciate what these desperate defenders would have been put through. While it will of course not be possible to fully appreciate that, we can attempt to have some sense of it through the testimonies captured of those who have fought – what the National University of Singapore’s Southeast Asian Student’s Society hopes to do in putting together “The Last Days of Empire: Japanese Advance along Bukit Timah Road, 1942”. The guided tour, is one of 12 to look out for this February and March (see also: The ruins on Sentosa and a rare chance to visit), as part of the National Heritage Board’s (NHB) commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore.

The trail starts at the University Cultural Centre (UCC). The UCC stands where the assault on the strategic Pasir Panjang Ridge commenced on 13th February 1942. A vicious battle would be fought over the ridge over two days, which culminated in the Malay Regiment’s last stand on Bukit Chandu and the taking of the British Military Hospital, Alexandra Hospital today, at which a massacre occurred.

Dr. Effendy at the foot of Bukit Timah Hill.

Dr. Effendy at the foot of Bukit Timah Hill.

From the UCC, the trail backtracks the Japanese advance north along Clementi Road – then Reformatory Road, a main thoroughfare that links with Bukit Timah Road and thereby connects north and south of the island. Stops along the way include the site at Dover Road at which the Rimau Commandos were executed. The rather strange spot at which the 10 of brave commandos lost their lives – just a couple of months before Japan was to surrender, was selected by the Japanese apparently for the view to honour the bravery of the men, who were said to have gone to their deaths laughing (see: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19600228-1.2.63). Operation Rimau, mounted by a total of 23 British and Australian commandos and intended as a sequel to the highly successful Operation Jaywick, was aborted with 11 commandos being captured alive.

Marker for the Rimau Commando execution site at Dover Road.

Marker for the Rimau Commando execution site at Dover Road.

Participants are also brought to the sites near the Buona Vista Battery, where a couple of monster 15 inch guns were mounted. More on these guns can be found at Peter Stubbs’ FortSiloso.com. It is though that remnants of the emplacement for No.1 Gun, tunnels serving the guns as well as an underground Battery Plotting Room for the battery are still intact – below what had previously been Mowbray Camp. Some remnants of No. 2 Gun are also thought to exist in the area of Pine Grove, which was also where a POW Cemetery, the Ulu Pandan Cemetery existed until 1975.

A view down Ulu Pandan Road, to the areas on both sides of the road where the 15" guns of the Buona Vista Battery were mounted.

A view down Ulu Pandan Road, to the areas on both sides of the road where the 15″ guns of the Buona Vista Battery were mounted.

Dr Effendy speaking on the Buona Vista Battery.

Dr Effendy speaking on the Buona Vista Battery.

The former Mowbray Camp - remains of No. 1 Gun emplacement, tunnels and a battery plotting room are thought to still exist.

The former Mowbray Camp – remains of No. 1 Gun emplacement, tunnels and a battery plotting room are thought to still exist.

Other sites that will be visited are the area close to Bukit Timah Village, where participants hear of the use of bamboo tyres by Japanese troops on bicycles; the foot of Bukit Timah Hill where the little known contributions of Dalforce is spoken about; and the POW built stairs that once led to the Syonan Chureito – a memorial to the fallen. The memorial, which contained the ashes of 10,000 Japanese who perished in the Pacific war, also included a small memorial for allied soldiers. Some of the local population will be mobilised during special occasions, such as the New Year, to attend ceremonies at the memorial (see also : my entry on Syonan Jinja). The Syonan Chureito was destroyed by the Japanese prior to their surrender for fear of its desecration and the remains of the Japanese war dead moved to the Japanese Cemetery at Chuan Hoe Avenue.

POW built steps leading up to the Syonan Chureito at Bukit Batok as seen during the Occupation.

POW built steps leading up to the Syonan Chureito at Bukit Batok as seen during the Occupation.

Dr. Effendy and students at the steps of the Syonan Chureito.

Dr. Effendy and students at the steps of the Syonan Chureito.

The tour will end off with a guided tour at the Old Ford Factory’s newly revamped Syonan Gallery. The old Ford Factory was where the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese Imperial Army took place on 15 February 1942. The tour will be led by Dr Mohamed Effendy and at the Old Ford Factory, by Syonan Gallery docents. More information on the tour and other tours can be found at:

A view towards the area where Bukit Timah Village was.

A view towards the area where Bukit Timah Village was.





The ruins on Sentosa and a rare chance to visit

3 02 2017

Sentosa, or the island of peace and tranquility and now also of posh homes, fancy boats and overpriced hotels, was once the rather sinister sounding Pulau Blakang Mati – the island of death at the back. No one seems quite sure of the origins of the name, although there have been several suggestions including one that is tied to the legend that Pulau Tekukor to Blakang Mati’s south had once seen duels to the death pitting Bugis warriors against ones from the Malay world.

Ruins on Mount Serapong.

It was in putting up a deference to violent confrontation that was to be Blakang Mati’s purpose for a large part of British rule. Strategically positioned, it served not only as a natural breakwater for the new harbour. Endowed with high points, it was only a matter of time before guns to protect the harbour from seaward attack were positioned on the island. The idea was in fact already mooted by William Farquhar, Singapore’s first resident, as early as 1820 – a year after the British arrived.

The first military installations would however only come up in the late 1800s. Undeterred by outbreaks of malaria and “Blakang Mati fever”, fortifications requiring extensive use of concrete – then newly introduced to Singapore, were constructed at the end of the 1870s on Mount Serapong – Blakang Mati’s highest point. It would only be in 1885 that work started on the installation of coastal artillery on Serapong. Two 8 inch guns were installed with supporting infrastructure such as casemates built into the terrain, which contained magazines, accommodation and other working spaces.

By 1912/13, the guns at Serapong Battery would be upgraded to 9.2 inch calibre guns and a separate Spur Battery, also equipped with a 9.2 inch gun added. These guns would be decommissioned in the later half of the 1930s when 9.2 inch guns at Fort Connaught were installed. Two 6 inch guns would however be placed on the spur (renamed Serapong Battery) after a review in 1936 and this was operational up to the final days before the fall of Singapore. Both guns were spiked and destroyed, No. 2 on 14th and and No. 1 on 15th February 1942.

With the development of Sentosa today, it may perhaps be surprising that extensive remnants of the installations scattered over Mount Serapong – just a stone’s throw away from the luxury developments at Sentosa Cove – can still be found today. The remnants include a underground magazine built for the 9.2 inch spur battery that was converted for use for Serapong Battery’s 6 inch No. 1 Gun, the battery’s gun emplacements, as well as several other support structures built in the 1930s for the battery. What may be more surprising are casemates, thought to have been built around 1885 can be found along with mountings for the 9.2 inch guns and best of all, a bunker 20 metres under the casemates that served as the Blakang Mati Command Centre. The bunker, with several chambers is in a damaged condition and has a vertical escape shaft at the top of which is a hatch.

The National Heritage Board, through a series of guided tours to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, offers an excellent opportunity to learn more about and see these remnants. One tour, Fort Serapong @ Fort Siloso, for which 3 sessions on the 25 February, 4 and 11 March (from 9.30 am to 12 noon) will be held. Places are limited. More  on the tours and other programmes can be found below.

For more on the guns at Serapong, on Sentosa and also across Singapore, do visit Peter Stubbs excellent FortSiloso.com site.


Photographs of the ruins on Mount Serapong

On the spur, the Gun No. 1 Gun duty personnel rooms and gunners’ shelter.

On the spur, the Gun No. 1 Gun duty personnel rooms and gunners’ shelter.

The collapsed structure of the 6 inch Gun No. 1 emplacement on the spur.

The collapsed structure of the 6 inch Gun No. 1 emplacement on the spur.

The underground 6-inch Gun No. 1 magazine on the spur, converted from that for the 9.2 inch spur battery.

The underground 6-inch Gun No. 1 magazine on the spur, converted from that for the 9.2 inch spur battery.

Inside the Other Ranks shelter in the magazine.

Inside the Other Ranks shelter in the magazine.

In the 'courtyard' of the magazine.

In the ‘courtyard’ of the magazine.

Inside the magazine.

Inside the magazine.

The 1936 kitchen complex.

The 1936 kitchen complex.

More of the kitchen complex.

More of the kitchen complex.

Another view.

Another view.

The 1936 bathroom.

The 1936 bathroom.

Fort Connaught's Battery Command Post (BCP), positioned on the highest point.

Fort Connaught’s Battery Command Post (BCP), positioned on the highest point.

Another view.

Another view.

9.2 inch gun mounting studs.

9.2 inch gun mounting studs.

A close-up.

A close-up.

The 9.2 inch shell hoist.

The 9.2 inch shell hoist.

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Nature reclaiming the space.

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Stairs at the casemate.

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Space inside the casemate.

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Part of the casemate.

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Inside a casemate space.

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Another collapsed structure.

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A underground reservoir.

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Magazine inside the casemate.

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Another view.

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The Blakang Mati Command Centre.

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Another view.

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The view up the escape shaft.

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The hatch at the end of the escape shaft.



Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore

This 15 February will mark 75 years since the Fall of Singapore, an event that brought about 3½ years of occupation by the Japanese and a period of immense hardship.  The National Heritage Board is commemorating the anniversary with  “Battle for Singapore – Years under the Sun Empire: Tales of Resilience” that will see guided tours, talks and activities organised by various Museum Roundtable museums from 16 February to 12 March.

There would be 12 different tours with a total of 49 tour runs to look out for. These will cover 11 World War II related sites and structures, including some rarely opened places such as the former Fort Serapong and the former Command House. There is an opportunity to also hear accounts of battle and survival and learn about the contributions and courage of the local population to the effort to defend Singapore.

Also to look forward to is the re-opening of the Former Ford Factory, which has been closed for a year-long revamp. This will reopen to the public on 16 February 2017 and see a new exhibition gallery with never-been-seen-before archival materials, There is also an interactive component offering a more immersive account of the days of war and suffering. Special exhibitions and programmes are also being put up by the Army Museum, Battlebox, the Singapore Discovery Centre. the Eurasian Heritage Centre, and Reflections at Bukit Chandu. More information is available at  www.museums.com.sg. Sign-ups for the Battle for Singapore 2017 programmes can be made at this link: https://www.eventbrite.sg/o/national-heritage-board-9384989257 (available from 6 February 2017 at 10.00am onwards). Slots are limited and will be allocated on a first-come first-served basis.






Revisiting Tekong

13 01 2017

I revisited my first journey to Pulau Tekong last Friday. It is a journey that many a Singaporean son makes at the start of National Service, one that I made some three decades ago, when the island was already cleared of its previous inhabitants and made the home of Singapore’s largest Basic Military Training (BMT) complex. 31 years and three months since, it was time for my son to make his own journey. This first journey, is often accompanied by a a reluctance and a mix of emotions brought about by the fear of the relative unknown, the loss of two years of one’s prime and of life as one had known. While boys these days may be much better prepared for this and with family members now allowed to make part of the journey, it does not in anyway lessen the dread that comes with it.

My son’s journey began at noon, with a bus ride from Pasir Ris Bus Interchange. By contrast, my had begun in the militaristic setting of Dempsey Road where the Central Manpower Base (CMPB) was then based. That involved a trudge up the incline of the road that I was already very familiar with from the many occasions I needed to visit CMPB since I turned 12 to obtain an exit permit necessary to leave the country, and to have my passport extended. At the top, the induction into military life would be swift – civilian identification needed first to be surrendered and in no time I found myself lifting my right hand to take the Oath of Allegiance. Goodbyes – for those who family members had gathered – were quickly waved as enlistees were being rushed up a 3-tonner Bedford truck for what was to be a long and uncomfortable ride.

The first stop, Keat Hong Camp, was where enlistees was kitted up and given their first taste of the then infamously bad army food. We were then back on the 3-tonner  for the road trip across the island that ended on the beach at Changi. There we would wait for the Ramp Powered Lighter (RPL) for the final part of the trip and it would only be late in the afternoon that we found ourselves being marched in the then still rustic settings to what would serve as home for much of the three months to come – the Infantry Training Depot’s (ITD) rather sinister looking Camp 1.

The island has much less of a rustic feel these days – at least at the landing point at which enlistees and their family members find themselves after a much more comfortable ride from Changi on a civilian operated catamaran ferry. From the new and sheltered jetty at Tekong, the immense Ladang Camp complex comes into sight. It is where the bulk of the enlistees will be based at during their stint in BMT- some would however find themselves based inland at a second camp complex at Rocky Hill. This transformation came as quite a surprise to me, even if I may have had glimpses of the island from the air and from the boat when I visited Beting Bronok and Pengerang in more recent times .

With there no longer being a need to make the long detour to the Keat Hong with kits now being issued on the island, the journey is also a lot more efficient. In a matter of four hours from boarding the bus at Pasir Ris, family members would have been briefed on what their sons, grandsons or brothers would go through, get a glimpse of how they would sleep, be told about when to expect them home, witness the taking of the Oath, have a taste of the much improved and now catered army food with the enlistees and also wave their goodbyes.


In photographs

The journey now begins at Pasir Ris Bus Interchange.

The journey now begins at Pasir Ris Bus Interchange.

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No longer does it involve a long and uncomfortable ride on a 3-tonner. Enlistees (and accompanying family members) are now transported in air-conditioned comfort directly to the SAF Ferry Terminal at Changi Beach.

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The wait to board the ferry is also sheltered. Back then, the wait (and ride across) would have involved standing exposed to the elements.

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The jetty. Tides are no longer a consideration. Previously boarding would have been up the ramp of a beached RPL that was only able to land at the higher tides. This consideration resulted in several shortened weekends – when unfavourable tide times could translate into having to head back to camp on a Sunday morning.

Civilian operated catamaran ferries are used these days where previously Ramp Powered Lighters - which could only beach at high tide - were used.

Civilian operated catamaran ferries are used these days.

Boarding the ferry,

Boarding the ferry,

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The first view of Tekong is no longer over the bulwark of the sun baked deck of the RPL but from the air-conditioned passenger cabin of the catamaran ferry.

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A first view through a ferry porthole.

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Arriving at Tekong.

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The well sheltered jetty at Tekong.

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The view of Ladang Camp from the jetty – almost paradise?

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The welcome at the end of the jetty.

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An briefing on Basic Military Training, aimed at providing assurance to family members.

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Family members are taken on a bus tour, whilst enlistees are being in-processed.

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A view of the Parade Square at Ladang Campfrom the bus.

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A tour of a show bunk. Bed frames are a lot sturdier and mattresses much thicker (we had 2 inch mattresses supported – if you can call it that – by soft bed springs, or the little that was left of the springs).

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Bunks are also a lot more airy.

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Enlistees rejoining family members for a meal after taking the oath.

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Queuing at the cookhouse.

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Falling in.

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Ke-kanan pusing – a first march and a last look.






Losing its fizz: the third milestone without the former National Aerated Water plant

11 12 2016

It seems that time may finally be called on the former National Aerated Water Company’s bottling plant at 1177 Upper Serangoon Road. Long a landmark at the 3rd Milestone, it sits on a valuable freehold site that has just been sold for quite a tidy sum to a Malaysian developer according to on a report in yesterday’s Straits Times. One of a handful of structures left along a stretch of the Kallang River that recall the river and the area’s rich industrial past.

An icon at the 3rd Milestone.

An icon at the 3rd Milestone (Nov 2016).

Those of my vintage will remember the plant with fondness. Built with hints of an Art Deco influence, it will not only be for its unique and “un-industrial” appearance in the context of the industrial buildings of a more recent age, but also for its production of Kickapoo Joy Juice and Sinalco. Kickapoo in its signature green bottle and inspired by the comic strip Li’l Abner – which had a lengthy run in the local newspapers, was an especially popular choice. Sinalco, of German origin,  might have been less so, but had its fans. A third drink that would be introduced by the plant in the 1970s, Royal Crown or RC Cola, had much less of an impact.

A view through the fence to a reminder of the past.

A view through the fence to a reminder of the past (April 2012).

While one could quite easily miss noticing the row of shophouses just up the road with its stone working shops that catered to the demand for headstones and religious statues from Bidadari cemetery just a mile down the road and an oddly located shop hawking Czechoslovakian Petrof pianos; the factory and another iconic structure nearby, the Serangoon Fire Station, would have caught the attention of most who passed through. The rather notorious Woodsville junction or previously roundabout just down the road, where chaos reigned with its confluence of six major roads, brought traffic to a slow enough crawl, allowing for more than just a cursory glance at the plant.

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Locked gates (Nov 2016).

naw-petaling-jaya-2012The factory added its presence in 1954, the same year the National Aerated Water Company had marked its 25th anniversary. The investment, amounting to some S$500,000, gave the company an output to 48,000 bottles a day – more than twice what its previous plant at Hamilton Road could manage (see New $500,000 soft drinks factory opens in Oct, The Straits Times, 23 July 1954). The motivation for the new plant was the exclusive rights the company had won in 1952 to bottle and distribute Sinalco in the region.  Sales of the company’s products grew at a phenomenal rate, increasing 30% year-on-year through the new facility’s first decade. A second plant would built in 1964. Located in Petaling Jaya near the “Rothmans Roundabout”, it catered to the growing demand up north.

A peek inside.

A peek inside (Apr 2012).

Things began however to head south at the end of the 1970s. The death knell for the plant would be sounded in the 1990s when the Kickapoo licensor, Monarch Beverage, cancelled the agreement it had with the company. The company would also face a suit for copyright infringement, which it lost  (see : Infopedia page on the National Aerated Water Company) and the plant ceased production at the end of the 1990s. The site was left abandoned with a clutter of crates and empty bottles at its front yard for what seemed the longest of times.

The front yard cleared of its clutter.

The front yard cleared of its clutter (Apr 2012).

That the buildings are still around has very much to do with the fact that the sale and redevelopment of the site had been prevented by a long standing tussle over shares one of its shareholders, the late Ching Kwong Kuen (see: Ching Chew Weng Paul v Ching Pui Sim and Others [2009] SGHC 277) had placed in trust with one of his brothers and a niece. The Chings, whose roots were in steel work and ship repair business with Kwong Soon Engineering, interests in the bottling company began in 1953. Connected with Kwong Soon Engineering are two other industrial buildings with a non-industrial appearance including a 1933 Art Deco style foundry where it started. Both buildings are still around and found  at Cavan Road, which is just next to Hamilton Road where National Aerated’s first plant had been located.

Kwong Soon Engineering's two buildings at Cavan Road, including its former foundry on the left.

Kwong Soon Engineering’s two buildings at Cavan Road, including its former foundry on the left.

Kwong Soon Engineering, some might remember, made the news in January 1996 when the RV Calypso, the famous mine-sweeper turned research vessel used by the legendary oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, sank at its yard in Tuas. The vessel was hit by a barge that had broken free of its moorings and left under 4.8 metres of water with only part of its superstructure and mast exposed.

Another look at the former foundry.

Another look at the former foundry.

With the privately held site long marked for residential development (with a plot area of 2.8), there seems little chance of anything being kept even if there are renewed calls being made for its conservation.  It will certainly be a shame to lose an icon that has long been part of the area’s identity and representative of a past being too rapidly forgotten to just another towering apartment block the area seems to already have much too much of.

The third milestone is being colonised by towering apartment blocks.

The third milestone is being colonised by towering apartment blocks (Nov 2016).


More photographs:

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