A beautiful campus by the sea

20 04 2021

A peek into the beautiful BNP Paribas Asia-Pacific Campus. Established in 2014, the campus occupies two beautifully restored former barrack blocks of the former (Royal Engineers) Kitchener Barracks in Changi. The two blocks, currently Block 34 and 35 and formerly B an C Blocks, were among the first to be built in the Changi Cantonment that was developed from the end of the 1920s into the late 1930s and provide an excellent example of how such buildings could be restored and repurposed in the light of the recently announced Ideas Competition for Changi Point and old Changi Hospital (see also: Ideas sought to repurpose Old Changi Hospital, enhance surrounding Changi Point area).

The former B-Block, together with the former H-Block (now Block 24, which in 1947 was repurposed as RAF Hospital, Changi), were in fact the first barrack blocks to constructed in Changi and were completed by 1930. The cantonment also included barracks for the Royal Artillery at Roberts Barracks — now within Changi Air Base (West) and for the infantry at Selarang Barracks, as well as smaller camps for various Indian Army units.

In the 1920s, Britain had moved to establish a large naval base in Sembawang to defend its Far East interests in the face of rising Japanese ambition. The setting up of the cantonment followed this decision and was carried out to install, maintain, man and secure coastal artillery being placed around the eastern mouth of the Tebrau or Johor Strait to protect the naval base against naval attack.

The cantonment, which sustained some damage in the lead up to the Fall of Singapore but remain largely intact, was evacuated on 12 February 1942. Singapore fell on 15 February 1942 and with Japanese forces overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of surrendering Allied troops in Singapore, they found a solution to accommodating some of these troops in the emptied barracks in Changi. On 17 February 1942, close to 50,000 British and Australian Prisoners-of-War (POWs) were marched to Changi and placed in the various camps. The troops forming the last line of defence in Singapore, the Singapore Fortress Southern Area troops, which included some volunteer units, were allocated Kitchener Barracks. The Australians were kept separately in Selarang. POW hospitals, which were set up in former field hospitals in Roberts and Selarang, were consolidated at Roberts Barracks — this is where the Changi Murals were painted.

The POWs would initially have little contact with their captors, who got them to wire themselves into the various camps. Discipline was maintained by the officers among the POWs, who also took it upon themselves to keep the morale up. Sports, theatrical performances and even university classes were organised — there were several professional sportsmen amongst the ranks and also lecturers from Raffles College who were with the volunteer units and in Kitchener Barracks, the Southern Area College operated. With the Fortress troops — who were not involved in the retreat down Malaya — being amongst the fittest of the POWs, the men of the camp at Kitchener were among the first to be picked for the Japanese organised work teams, many of which would be sent to provide labour in places like the Thai-Burma ‘Death’ Railway. The numbers in Kitchener dwindled to the point that it could be closed as a POW camp in May 1943, followed by Roberts in September 1943. In May 1944, the POWs, which included those who had survived the Death Railway, were concentrated at Changi Prison, which had previously been used as a civilian internment camp (the civilians were moved to Sime Road Camp).

The two camps would then be occupied by Japanese units involved in the construction of the Japanese airstrip at Changi (operational at the end of 1944), around which the Royal Air Force would establish RAF Air Station Changi (RAF Changi) in 1946. The blocks of the former Kitchener Barracks were then used by the RAF, with RAF Hospital Changi being established in 1947. Among the renumbered blocks, Block 35, housed HQ Far East Air Force (FEAF) Command. The various roads within the former Kitchener Barracks were renamed after RAF Air Stations. Following the British pull-out in October 1971, the barrack buildings (except for Block 24 and 37), were used by the Singapore Armed Forces as Commando Camp. Of the various barrack developments, only the former Kitchener remains largely intact today.