A part of Singapore that has seen a transformation in recent times is Seletar. The area was once occupied by the Royal Air Force (RAF) Seletar station or RAF Seletar, which at its establishment in 1928, held the distinction of being its largest station in the Far East. Vacated by the British during the 1971 pullout of forces, the former air base was used by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) as Seletar Camp, home to several units including ones that I was most familiar with from my involvement professionally in floating military bridges, such as the Combat Engineers.
The charm the area long had a reputation for and its laid back appeal provided by the generously spaced clusters of old world military buildings and dwellings, retained even during the days of the SAF military camp, is now fast being lost. The transformation it is now seeing, involves not just an expansion of its now civilian airport, Seletar Airport, but also the development of a 320 ha. industrial Seletar Aerospace Park. These developments has left its scars on Seletar, a Seletar but for a few reminders of the old world, is one now hard to recognise.
One part of the former RAF station that serves to remind us of the old military installation is the iconic entrance complex with its gate and guardhouse – although a two-storey building that somehow provided the camp’s entrance with some of its past flavour has since been lost. It is beyond the gate house, past what some may feel is Singapore’s equally famous Piccadilly Circus, down the Piccadilly – the road to the East Camp; even if it deceives at its start in evoking a sense of the old world, that the visitor is confronted by the changing face of Seletar.
It was down the same Piccadilly, at least what it had been before the recently introduced confusion of roads, that a group of servicemen past and present, gathered to celebrate the past as well as a survivor of the past, a barrack building, that if not for it, might have made the celebration’s venue – now dominated by new roads and newly turfed spaces, not such an obvious choice.
The barrack building, Block 450, more affectionately referred to as “Alpha”, was at the heart of the area that was not only the birthplace of the servicemen’s unit, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) 160 Squadron in 1970, but also that of the RSAF’s air defence set-up. Its heritage, that of the RAF air station, and 160 Squadron, Singapore’s first and longest serving air defence unit, celebrated with a heritage storyboard for which the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the 160 Anti-Aircraft (AA) Alumni and 160 Squadron came together to produce.
The launch of the heritage storyboard, by Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, was the highlight of the gathering. It provided an opportunity not just to learn about the unit and its role in the air defence of Singapore – something Minister Chan emphasised in his speech by saying how, put less crudely, our young now have a greater chance of being hit by droppings from airborne beings of an avian kind than ones with more destructive potential; but also to have a more intimate look at the barrack building through the Heritage Walk @ 450 Seletar staged by the 160 AA Alumni.
Typical of barrack blocks built during the Far East military build-up in the 1920s and 1930s, blocks such as Alpha – of which there were at least ten in RAF Seletar, provided shelter not just for the Anti-Aircraft gunners of 160 Squadron – who moved out in 2002, but also to numerous men in the service of His (and later Her) Majesty’s Government. Built in 1930, Block 450 is the only one in Seletar to have survived, having been gazetted for conservation as part of the 2014 Master Plan together with Block 179 – the former Station Headquarters, along with 32 bungalows in the former air base.
Architecturally similar to many other barrack blocks put up in the era – I had the experience of it from my reservist days in Sembawang Camp (the former HMS Terror) before it was renewed, the block is an example of the tropical military architecture of the age. Those were times forgotten when it was desirable to maximise comfort levels of the buildings’s occupants, without an over-dependence on high levels of energy consumption. Measures typically employed to provide maximum ventilation and shade is seen in the wide verandahs and in the provision of ample openings, is a very noticeable feature of Block 450. Some of this is also described in the URA’s Conservation Portal:
Like the former Station Headquarters, this building was designed in the tropical Art Deco style that was favoured by the British military. The use of traditional timber windows and doors with the then relatively new medium of reinforced concrete demonstrates a combination of traditional and modern design approaches.
As a response to the humid tropical climate, the building has long and continuous covered verandahs complemented by inner facades featuring timber-louvred windows, doors and pre-cast concrete vents to promote cross-ventilation. Other features of the building include moulded Art Deco style motifs at the top of every column which help to adorn this otherwise simple yet functional building.
Abandoned by its one-time companions, which I am told in the days of 160 Squadron would have included a parade square in its shadow, as well as building housing the squadron headquaters, the ops room and also hangars where the guns were stored across the Piccadilly, Block 450 now stands alone, out of place against the now vastly altered surroundings. It may be a shame that we are are unable to hold on to spaces such as Seletar with its rich history and its unique and now hard to find charm, but we have to be thankful for the conservation of buildings such as Block 450. While it will not come anywhere close to reminding us of the beautiful space Seletar once was, we will at least have several reminders that tell us of a history that will otherwise be forgotten.
Further information on Block 450 and conservation within the former RAF Seletar:
- URA Conservation Portal
- ST Article: ‘Sensitive not sweeping change in Seletar please’ (21 Feb 2014)
- ST Article: Black and whites at old Seletar airbase to get new lease of life (11 Feb 2014)