History Misunderstood: Changi Point

5 04 2021

Set in scenic surroundings in Singapore’s rustic north-eastern corner, the area we refer to as Changi Point, is one in which I have found great joy in. It is an area of much beauty with much of its natural geographical features intact and wears a charm that is little changed from the time I first interacted with it more than half a century ago. Over the years, I have also discovered that the area is one with quite a history; a history that is even recorded in maps of a 17th century battle off Changi. Also as fascinating is Changi Point and its more recent past, one that goes back to the early decades of Singapore as a British East India Company trading port.

Changi today – with a view towards Pulau Ubin

Remote and inhospitable and with its surroundings dominated by mangrove and terrestrial forests in British Singapore’s earliest years, Changi Point’s charm must have already been in evidence then; so much so that several adventurous souls amongst the gentry recognised its potential as a spot for a retreat.  Among the first to see this was Mr Gottlieb, who put up Fairy Point bungalow on what could be thought of as the prime of prime locations on the seaward side of an elevation he christened Fairy Point Hill.

Fairy Point – the site of Mr Gottlieb’s Bungalow

In addition to Mr Gottlieb’s place of escape, the government had also had a bungalow built. Besides serving as a stay-over location for officers sent to the remote area for surveys, its use was extended for leisure purposes.  By the mid-1840s, Changi Bungalow – as it had come to be known, had gained the reputation of being a “fashionable resort for picnic parties”. Constructed of wood, the bungalow had to be rebuilt several times over the years with its last iteration being demolished in 1965. The expansive grounds of the bungalow is an area that until today, has been in the hands of Singapore’s successive governments and amongst the structures now found on it is the 1950 built Changi Cottage, as well as several other holiday facilities.

Changi Cottage

One holiday home from Changi’s past that is still standing is a bungalow that belonged to Mr Ezekiel S Manasseh, who is often confused with Sir Manasseh Meyer. A founder of Goodwood Park Hotel, Mr E S Manasseh is better known for his mansion in Tanglin, Eden Hall, which is the British High Commissioner’s residence today. Mr Manasseh also maintained a holiday home in Changi Point. Located on the left bank of Changi Creek, he often extended its use to newlyweds for their honeymoon early in the 1900s. The bungalow stands today as the CSC Clubhouse.

Muslim graves at the foot of Batu Puteh Hill – a reminder perhaps of Kampong Batu Puteh.

Around this time (the early 1900s), a Japanese owned hotel also made an appearance along the beach just east of Fairy Point in the area of a Malay kampung named Kampong Batu Puteh.  The wooden hotel, which was perched on stilts that extended across the foreshore, was rumoured to have offered more than a getaway and was rumoured to have been a place of ill repute. Whatever the hotel may have offered, time would soon be called on it with events on the world’s stage setting a new course for Changi Point.

While the Great War of 1914 to 1918 did not affect Singapore directly, its impact was and would be felt in many ways, not least through the fluctuations in the price of rubber through the war. There was also that episode of the insurrection that began at Alexandra Barracks during Chinese New Year in 1915 that was founded partly on a rumour being spread among the Sepoy Muslim mutineers  that they were being sent to Mesopotamia to fight fellow Muslims. Among Britain’s allies who responded to calls for help were some 190 Japanese resident volunteers, and another force of 142 from two Japanese naval ships.

Memorial to the victims of the 1915 Mutiny at Victoria Concert Hall

The Imperial Japanese Navy had been on the rise for a number of decades. Having acquired knowhow to build its own naval hardware as well as in naval tactics from Britain and France, by the time the war started, the Japanese navy was in a good position to support its allies in the Entente. Japan actions in the naval arena would also however lay its ambitions bare, especially in regard to German held territory in China. The sense of discomfort in Britain grew in the post-war period with Japan having the third largest navy in the world after the United States and Britain. By 1921, a decision had been taken by Britain to protect its Far East interests through the construction of a huge naval base in Singapore.

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: http://www.acig.org/artman/publish/article_203.shtml).

A consequence of building the naval base in Singapore, and having it sited in Seletar – as the Sembawang area was also known as, was in the placement of coastal artillery around Changi to defend the base against naval attack. Changi, located at the eastern entrance to the Tebrau or Johor Strait, was hence, strategically sited at the entrance to the naval base. With the need to install, man, maintain and protect the guns, Changi was also developed as a military cantonment.

An extract from a 1935 map showing positions or intended positions of Defence Electric Lights at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Johor (including those at Pengerang) and their coverage (National Archives of Singapore online).

The first section of the cantonment was built at Changi Point. Work progressed in in a stop-start manner, first from 1927 to 1930 and again from 1933 to 1935, due to the evolving political situation in Britain.  Being the first barracks on site and located in a prime location, this section became the home of Royal Engineers’ units as Kitchener Barracks. There would also be barracks constructed for the Royal Artillery at Roberts Barracks and for infantry units at Selarang Barracks. In addition to these, a few other camps were also established for the rank and file among the British Indian Army troops protecting the area.

Selarang Barracks Officers’ Mess

The huge investment in the base and in facilities at Changi and elsewhere across the island did little in terms of doing what it was meant to do and on 15 February 1942, the “impregnable fortress” that Singapore had been touted as, fell into the hands of Japanese forces – a mere two months after Japan launched its invasion of Malaya. Except for the feint assault on Pulau Ubin on the eve of the Imperial Japanese Army’s 8 February 1942 invasion of Singapore, and the firing of Changi’s huge coastal guns against advancing Japanese troops, Changi would see little in terms of military action in the lead up to this inglorious fall. Contrary to popular belief, the guns were used with at least one of the monster guns of the Johore Battery firing about eighty rounds before its rifling started to protrude. Although the guns were fired, they did little to stop the advance. The armour piercing rounds that they were supplied with in anticipation of a naval assault, were ineffective against ground forces. On 12 February 1942, with Japanese forces made rapid progress coming down the down and west, the order was given to units defending Changi to pull back to Singapore’s urban centre. The cantonment and its lightly damaged buildings were left empty, and Changi’s guns destroyed. It would be some days later, on 17 February 1942, that Changi would come into the spotlight.

The spiked No 2 Gun, one of three 15″ guns of the Johore Battery.

The Fall of Singapore left the Japanese invasion forces with quite a big headache. With tens of thousands of surrendering British and Australian led personnel from units that made the retreat down Malaya and troops defending Singapore, they were overwhelmed. There was the need to accommodate, secure and maintain the discipline among the Prisoners of War (POWs) and a solution provided by Changi and its abandoned cantonment. On 17 February 1942, some 50,000 prisoners-of-war or POWs, were made to march to Changi to occupy its various barracks and camps.

Barrack Hill in Kitchener Barracks – part of the POW camp for Southern Area forces from Feb 1942 to May 1943.

The former Kitchener Barracks was used to accommodate members of the Southern Area forces with some 15,000  Australian POWs occupying Selarang.  The POW hospital was also to be centralised in Roberts Barracks on 26 February 1942, one of two sites – the other being Selarang – at which hospitals were established prior to the Fall of Singapore and immediately after the POWs were moved to Changi.  It would be in the chapel at Roberts Hospital that the famous Changi Murals would be painted. The murals still exist today. Found in Block 151 in Changi Air Base West, they are quite unfortunately out of bounds to members of the public. In the early part of camp life, there had apparently been minimal contact with their captors, with prisoners being tasked with wiring themselves into the various barrack areas as well as taking care of their own discipline.

Block 151. Now in Changi Air Base West, this was one of the Roberts Barracks blocks that served as the POW Hospital from February 1942 until September 1943.

Life as a POW in Changi, and in Kitchener Barracks was tough for many reasons and not least through the lack of food and nutrition as well as the diseases that the POWs were exposed to due to conditions in captivity. Still, many found the strength to go on through the activities that were organised. Sports became a means to provide distractions to the routine of life as a POW – at least in the first year of captivity. Among the ranks were several professional sportsmen, including Johnny Sherwood, a footballer who played in the war time FA Cup final.  The sports fields and facilities that the barracks in Changi had been provided with proved useful with cricket and football matches being played on them. Theatrical performances were also organised and college level courses. In Kitchener, classes of the Southern Area College were taught by academics, some of whom were from Raffles College. Several were members of volunteer units which had been placed under the Fortress Singapore command.

The Changi Padang – it was used for sporting activities during the first year of POW captivity.

In the many comparisons that were made by POWs at Changi, there is a consistent theme of how life may have been hard, but was in fact “heaven” compared to what many were to face elsewhere. Throughout the initial period of captivity starting in April 1942, work teams were organised and sent to various of Singapore to work on building and construction projects. Teams would also be sent to the Thai-Burma Railway, which the Japanese were constructing to provide a supply line to support their push into Burma and towards the Indian subcontinent. Often described as the “Death Railway” it was where the POWs really suffered, being put to hard labour. Besides an extreme lack of nutrition, POWs also suffered from deliberating diseases, with many succumbing to them.  

River Kwai, Kanchanaburi in Thailand in Dec 1984, the area was where many POWs were sent from Singapore to work on the Death Railway .

Kitchener Barracks, being where the bulk of the troops defending Singapore were being held – as opposed to troops that had made the retreat down Malaya – had the healthiest POWs and hence, was where many of the members of the first working teams were drawn from. By May 1943, POW numbers had dwindled to the point that Kitchener Barracks was closed as a POW camp and in September 1943, Roberts was similarly closed, with the POWs and the POW Hospital being concentrated at Selarang Barracks. Both Kitchener and Roberts Barracks were taken over by Imperial Japanese Army units who were involved in the construction of an airstrip at Changi. This started with POW labour in September 1943 and by the end of 1944, the airstrip was operational.

While all this was happening, returning POWs from the Death Railway were placed at Selarang Camp and also at Sime Road Camp. A change in POW administration would however see the POWs concentrated in Changi Prison and its grounds from May 1944. Civilian internees, who were being held at Changi Prison from February 1942 to May 1944 were moved to Sime Road to make way for the POWs.

The main Changi Prison gate – one of the structures of the prison that has been kept. The prison was a site of civilian internment from Feb 1942 until May 1944, following which POWs were moved in.

One of the myths that have been spread about Changi and the POW experience is that of the hospital in Kitchener Barracks being a place of torture by the Kempeitai. There is however no basis for this myth. Not only was there no functioning hospital in Kitchener Barracks during the period of captivity, there are certainly not reports or accounts that exist. Instances of torture by the Kempeitai did however take place in the wake of Operation Jaywick, which involved a commando raid on Japanese shipping in Singapore harbour. During what has been termed as the “Double-Tenth Incident”, civilian internees at Changi Prison were suspected of aiding the commandos through radio transmissions. Several were interrogated and executed in exercise that would involve the arrest and subsequent torture of Elizabeth Choy at the YMCA in Orchard Road.

Changi would find a new purpose after the war. The Royal Air Force (RAF) found the airstrip that the Japanese had added particularly useful in landing transport aircraft bringing in much needed supplies. This would lead to the strengthening and subsequent use of the runway for the RAF’s heavy aircraft and the setting up of RAF Changi, an air station that would become the RAF’s principal air station in the Far East. The former Kitchener Barracks, would become the headquarters of the Far East Air Force (FEAF) command, with Barrack Hill, renamed FEAF Hill. The roads in the area, were also renamed after RAF air stations.

A view from FEAF Hill

To support the new air station, more accommodation was also added across the area, starting with several single floor bungalows. A number of semi-detached accommodation would also be added. Many of these buildings can still be found. In addition to this, a hospital was set up for the RAF on FEAF Hill. This initially involved the former sick quarters on top of the hill (renamed Block 37) and the former H-Block – a three-storey barrack block of Kitchener Barracks which was turned into a ward block 24. Separated by a flight of 91 steps, transfer pf patients between the two blocks required an ambulance. The construction of a third block – the six storey Block 161 (with four usable floors) – with lifts and walkways to connect the two older blocks in 1962, helped ease that burden.    

Blocks 161 and 24 of the former Changi Hospital.

Following the pull-out of British Forces in 1971, the former barracks were put to use in several ways with the barrack blocks along Hendon Road accommodating Singapore’s Commando Unit and several of the accommodation units being turned into holiday facilities for civil servants. Sports and recreation clubs, such as the Changi Swimming Club, the Beach Club and the Sailing Club were also established using existing facilities left by the RAF. One outcome of the development of the air base, is the idea of developing Changi also for civil aviation. There were in fact plans announced in 1948 to develop a world class airport in Changi . That did not quite happen, but the idead came up once more in the 1970s leading to the development of Changi Airport.

One of the post WW2 semi-detached additions, seen in September 1987. These served as married quarters during the RAF days and were converted for use as government holiday chalets in the 1970s.

Today, much of the area of the former Kitchener Barracks and the RAF camp is still intact. Many of the sites and structures completed from 1928 to 1935, including barrack blocks and residences are still standing. Some, such as have gain prominence having been used by Raintr33 Hotel and Changi Hospital. There are also some still in use, such as BNP Paribas APAC Training Centre, Coastal Settlement, and the recreational spaces such as the former Officers’ Club – now the Beach Club and the Yacht Club – now Changi Sailing Club. There are also the oldest structures – the officers’ residences at Batu Puteh Hill and Fairy Point Hill, including one, that sits on the site of Mr Gottlieb’s demolished bungalow. The collection of barrack structures of the former Kitchener Barracks, are perhaps the last, almost complete set of structures from the interwar militarisation of Singapore that is still around, structures which tell a story of Changi’s development, of war, and of how through a series of twists and turns, it became a key aviation staging ground for the RAF and then for Singapore.





No longer the land that Fairy Tales are made of …

9 11 2010

Wandering around parts of the area to the west of Changi Village today, what greets you is the host of holiday facilities, housed in terraced, semi-detached and detached units that had once be given to use as the living quarters of senior servicemen with the British forces stationed in the area. It was back in the days when my very first impressions of Changi Village were formed, that I had first become acquainted with the area, which had lay well protected behind a fence and guarded by alert policemen who played sentry at the main entry point which was a gate just up Netheravon Road from where the village was. Those were the days when what marked Changi Village were the two rows of zinc roofed shop houses which had provided the area with not just a distinct flavour but a feel that made the village a place to escape to. The area up Netheravon Road had a somewhat different feel to the village, being laid out in the fashion of the other British bases found on the island, with much less clutter and wide expansive spaces. Set on the rolling landscape that extended westwards towards the coastline and Fairy Point were the houses that had been the quarters of servicemen, left vacant by that time, as well as several large holiday villas placed at prime locations overlooking the sea. There were also the military facilities for which the area had been guarded including the now infamous former Changi Hospital which had for a time been used as a military hospital as well as several military facilities.

A gate had stood on Netheravon Road at the entrance to what had been a protected area where the likes of the then Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, took his holidays.

By that time, many of the villas by the sea had been turned over for use by the most senior officers of the civil service for holidays, at a time when taking local holidays by the sea was seen as as a fashionable as a holiday in New York, Paris or Tokyo would be seen today. Some of the regular users of the bungalows in the area included members of the Cabinet, including the then Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his family, who often took their holidays in a section that was further protected by another fence not far from where the Changi Sailing Club is today.

The fenced area seen was a protected area within the entire protected Changi Point area where members of the Cabinet would take their holidays.

Another view of the same fenced area along Netheravon Road.

Access to the area at that time would only have been possible by surrendering one’s identity card at the old style Police Post which was at the junction of Jalan Bekukong and Upper Changi Road … my parents would do that on each of the few occasions that we ventured into the area – as guests of one of their friends who were putting up at one of the bungalows there. My earliest impression of this was going to one which was at Fairy Point, at a large two storey bungalow, for a birthday party for one of the children of my parents’ friends, of which I have only vague memories of. What I do remember very well was the name of the area “Fairy Point” and with that, I had somehow associated the area with its large villas by the sea, one where I could imagine fairy tales being made of.

The area where the Police Post had been stood to the right of this ....

It was in the later part of the 1970s, at a time when Changi Village had already been cleared of the wooden shop houses and had been given the facelift that has made it what it is today, that I would frequent the land of fairy tales regularly. With the massive land reclamation project along much of the southern shores that started in the early 1970s, my parents and many other civil servants were deprived of the use of the wonderful holiday bungalows along the idyllic Tanah Merah and Mata Ikan coast that lay to the south east of Changi Beach, and many of the former quarters within what had been the protected Changi Point area were opened up for use by junior civil servants as holiday chalets, and my parents became regular users of the holiday units there. By that time, access to the area was also then opened to everyone, and we were free to come and go as we pleased, making it much easier to move around. The units that I first took a holiday in in the area is in a row of terraced houses fronting Netheravon Road, at its junction with Sealand Road, which still stands today. I remember that very well for the large airy rooms and the narrow staircase which led up from the entrance area that the door opened to. The units were furnished modestly – the living spaces had the old style rattan furniture with heavy foam cushions, and bed rooms had simple bed frames with mattresses lined with white bed linen. What was always nice to have was the well equipped kitchen which allowed us to self-cater, and my mother would often make her way to the new market at Changi Village to purchase what had seemed to be the freshest fruits of the sea one could then find in Singapore.

The terraced row of holiday units that I first stayed in at the junction of Netheravon Road and Sealand Road.

There were several other units that I had also holidayed at that are still there … one that I regularly found myself at were the semi-detached units which now appear to have been rented out off Sealand Road, which had a nice airy living room and rooms upstairs. Another was the single storey detached unit, Chalet L, off Sealand Road, which I would well remember for being the last unit in the area that I had taken a holiday with my parents at, as well as for being where I, with a few of my platoon mates, had our Run-Out-Date (ROD) party at the end of our fulltime National Service in 1987. It was around 1988 that I last took a holiday there … and following that, I guess life caught up with me and I haven’t really had the chance to walk around to the area since then until very recently … Taking a walk around, I found that much of it does still look the same, with the holiday units looking a lot more well maintained than they did before, being now run by a private entity on behalf of the Govenrment, and most of what had been there is still there. There are also some newer buildings and facilities around as well as additional fences which has somehow made the area seem more cluttered and seem less like that wonderful place I had many memories of … no longer the land perhaps that fairy tales are made of.

I was a regular visitor to the semi-detached units off Sealand Road - which now seems to have been leased out.

Another view of the semi-detached unit.

How the semi-detached unit had looked like in 1987 ... I have some more older photographs of the unit which I have not had the opportunity to scan ....

The inside of Chalet L in 1987.

Chalet L today.

The barbecue pit at Chalet L in 1986.

The barbecue pit today.