Sunset over the strait

27 08 2013

The setting sun over Johor Bahru, seen across the Tebrau Strait or Straits of Johor from Woodlands at 7.04 pm on 25 Aug 2013.

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Rooms with more than a view

28 07 2013

Tucked away on a hill some 38 metres above street level is a disused building that has gained a reputation for all the wrong reasons. Better known to most for what it has most recently been used for – the View Road Hospital, it has an uncertain beginning and was in the last days of the Naval Base, a barracks to house Asians in service with the Naval Base Police.

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The Naval Base Police, established at the completion of the Naval Base in 1938/39, was disbanded when the British forces pulled out in 1971. It counted in its ranks a large contingent of Sikh policemen, and later Pakistanis and Malays. A Sikh temple, the Gurdwara Sabha Naval Police has been closely associated with the force and from the time the barracks was established at View Road in 1960 until 1971-72, that was located right next to the barracks. The temple merged with another temple the Gurdwara Sahib Guru Khalsa Sabha Sembawang (Sembawang Sikh Temple) with the disbandment of the Naval Base Police in 1971. The Sembawang Sikh Temple in turn merged with the Gudwara Sahib Jalan Kayu as the Gurdwara Sahib Yishun and is now located at Yishun.

The former View Road Hospital’s building goes a little further back. It would seem that it may have been completed in late 1941 (a 1944 map of the Naval Base – based on information developed prior to the outbreak of war – has it identified as the uncompleted “Rimau Offices”). A photograph dated 21 July 1941 from the National Archives UK shows in the very early stages of construction. Also an updated map of the Naval Base printed in 1945 shows the building completed.

A July 1941 photograph showing Rimau Offices and Accommodation in the early stages of construction (National Archives UK via National Archives of Singapore online).

From a 1968 edition of the map of the Naval Base, we see that it was the Naval Base Police Asian Quarters with the words “Old Maritime HQ” in parenthesis – indicating that it was built for either the RAF or the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy for use it as a command centre for maritime air operations (hence the observation tower found on the building and also the “bomb-proof office” next to it). It would have only been around 1960, possibly the late 1950s, that the building was converted into a much needed barracks for Asian Naval Police personnel, many of whom had taken to renting accommodation outside the base due to shortage of quarters.

1944 War Office drawn Naval Base Map based on pre-war information.

Aug 1945 Naval Base Map showing building in place.

Following the pullout of the British forces, the building was converted for use as an secondary hospital to supplement the overcrowded Woodbridge Hospital, providing rehabilitation for recovering mental patients, particularly those with chronic schizophrenia. The first batch of 34 patients were moved into the 250 bed hopsital in September 1975. The rehabilitation  programme included providing skills training to the patients to allow the patients to return to society. A large group of about 100 would in fact be permitted to work outside the hospital, which was already running a laundry, a nursery and a cafe, in the day. The hospital was shut in 2001. The building has seen use as the View Road Lodge – a foreign workers’ dormitory – which was in use until a few years back. The building today lies unoccupied.

View Road Lodge in January 2011.

As the View Road Lodge in January 2011.





A view down the Strait

8 07 2013

The view northwestwards down the Straits of Johor from Kampong Wak Hassan is one which would have once looked across to the part of the strait where the huge naval base which was completed in 1938 by the British. The base which stretched from what is Sembawang Park today all the way along the strait to what today is the west end of Woodlands Waterfront close to the Causeway, was opened up in 1971, allowing public access to what was a restricted area.

A view down the Strait

The view down the Strait at 6.52 am this morning.

The area is one I have had many interactions with since the 1970s. The jetty seen in the photograph, is one I spent many nights at fishing for crabs as was another jetty at the west end of the former base – the then already derelict Ruthenia Oiling Jetty which has since been demolished. The 1970s were interesting times for the area, with the opening up of it allowing some parts of the area to be exploited for non-military use. One use of a small part of the area one was perhaps one we in modern Singapore have largely forgotten, a reminder of a period of South-East Asian history when times were less certain. This particular use will be one of the subjects of an exploration by two popular television personalities for an episode on the Woodlands area of a Chinese TV series, Secrets in the Hood, to be televised on Channel U on 3 September 2013. Do look out for it and other interesting hidden secrets from neighbourhoods across the heartlands of Singapore in the series which will air from 6 August to 13 September 2013 in the 9 to 10 pm slot.

A popular TV personality will be exploring the area in an episode of a Chinese television series which will be aired on 3 September on Channel U.

A popular TV personality will be exploring the area in an episode of a Chinese television series which will be aired on 3 September on Channel U.





The sun sets on the first half of 2013

4 07 2013

Colours after the sunset, 7.16 pm, 30 June 2013, taken from the former Royal Malaysian Navy jetty at Woodlands Waterfront looking across towards Johor Bahru.

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Last post standing

16 07 2012

Standing somewhat forgotten and hidden under the roots of a tree is a marker of what used to be the perimeter of what had once been described as the largest naval base east of the Suez – the Royal Navy base at Sembawang that extended for some six and a half kilometres as the crow flies from Woodlands (close to the Causeway) to Sembawang (where Sembawang Park is today). The marker, a gate post belonging to the former Rotherham Gate, the northernmost gate into the former base, is the last remnant of several entrances into the huge naval facility that had once been the pride of the British Empire and a significant source of employment for residents of Singapore.

Rotherham Gate in the 1960s (source: Derek Tait).

The gate located at the western edge of the Naval Base and one of the main entrances into the base (the others being Sembawang Gate and Canberra Gate to the east and the southeast) was renamed as the Rotherham Gate in 1945 in commemoration of the role of the Commander of the RN Destroyer HMS Rotherham in the acceptance of the surrender of men from the Japanese Imperial Navy at the Naval Base in September 1945. Along with the other gates, the gate was manned by security personnel deployed by the Royal Navy stationed at the guard-houses that had once stood by the entrances, right until the end of October 1971 when British Forces formally withdrew from Singapore. Remnants of some of the gates in the form of gate posts and guard posts had in fact stood for some time after including that of the Rotherham Gate. Based on an account by a former resident of the base, Mr Kamal Abu Serah, the guard-house that had stood inside the gate had actually housed a provision shop after the opening up of the Naval Base in 1971.

The area where the Rotherham Gate once stood. The last post standing is now gripped tightly by a tree which has taken root on the post.

Hidden behind the roots of a tree and parasitic plants which have also taken root on the tree is the last post standing … close examination reveals a rectangular concrete column beneath the tree’s roots.

The gate post today, serves as a marker of the western end of what is the recent redeveloped Woodlands Waterfront , an area that for a long while had been left behind by the pace of redevelopment that has swept through much of the rest of Singapore. The area had after the opening up of the Naval Base, long been a haunt for anglers and was in fact one of the places that I frequented in the 1970s for fishing and to catch crabs. A derelict jetty which was missing most of its deck planks had been one of two jetties that my father sometimes took me to. The jetty, the old Ruthenia Oiling jetty (which my father had referred to as the Naval Base jetty) has since been demolished. It was one of several jetties that jutted out of the coastline in the area, the only one that was accessible to the public in the 1970s and became quite a popular spot for crab fishing before it was demolished. The other jetties were the Customs Jetty, the Shell Jetty (Woodlands Jetty), and the large L-shaped jetty that was used by the Royal Malaysian Navy – the Tentera Laut Diraja Malaysia (TLDM).

Parts of a 1968 map showing the location of the Rotherham Gate, the perimeter fencing and the position of the four jetties in the area (source: Ms Nora Abdul Rahman).

The TLDM had maintained not just a large jetty in the area – Woodlands had in fact hosted the main base of the TLDM, KD Malaya, up until 1979, the base having first been established in 1949 with the setting up of the Malayan Naval Forces (MNF). The TLDM continued to operate KD Malaya as a training facility even after the shift of the main naval base to Lumut up until December 1997 together with the jetty. The jetty has since been incorporated as part of the Woodlands Waterfront redevelopment and is now opened to the public. Both the jetty and the former TLDM barracks, which can be seen along Admiralty Road West, remain as a reminder of the Malaysian navy’s long-standing presence in what was an independent Singapore.

Part of the former TLDM jetty, now opened to the public, seen at dusk.

The view across the straits to Malaysia … Malaysia operated a Naval Base across the straits in Singapore up until 1997.

In between the Shell Jetty and the former TLDM Jetty is where a river, Sungei Cina, spills into the sea. Sungei Cina, for most part, still has its natural banks. The vegetation that one finds along its banks is probably representative of the vegetation which would have been found along much of the swampy shoreline that had existed before extensive reclamation work during part of the ten years it took to construct the base in between 1928 to 1938 – construction which saw substantial parts of the coastal swampland filled with earth – some of which came from excavation work around where the Naval Dockyard was being constructed to the east of the Naval Base. A large part of the land on which the Naval Base had been built was that which had acquired by the Straits Settlements from belonged to the Bukit Sembawang rubber estate and given to the Royal Navy for its use. The huge excavations around the area of the Naval Dockyard was not just to provide a dockyard that since 1968 has been used by Sembawang Shipyard, it also provided the largest naval graving (dry) dock in the world when it was opened in February 1938 – the King George VI dock (known also as ‘KG6’) which is still one of the largest dry docks in South East Asia.

A swamp once extended along the shoreline of what is now the well manicured Woodlands Waterfront – a waterfront that even before its redevelopment has attracted many anglers to the area. The Senoko Power Station and the Shell Jetty can be seen at the far end of the shoreline.

Vegetation along the banks of Sungei Cina is probably representative of the vegetation found along the coastline before the Naval Base was constructed.

Speaking of the graving dock, it has been reported that a ‘keramat tree’ was said to have been responsible for a delay in its completion, as a consequence, the completion of Naval Base. The ‘keramat tree’ had been a lone tree standing (after the rubber trees around it had already been cleared) on a hill which needed to be leveled to allow the graving dock to be constructed. The coolies assigned to cut the tree, which was thought to have stood where the top of the graving dock now is, could not be persuaded to do so, believing the tree to be occupied by evil spirits. An anonymous letter was said to have mysteriously appeared carrying a warning that if a certain sum of money was not paid to allow gifts to be offered to appease the spirits, three heads of the firm involved would die. The warning wasn’t heeded and the tree eventually blown up and an increase in malaria cases followed which was put down to the act. That wasn’t all, as was predicted, three untimely deaths did follow – that of an agent for the contractors, the managing director and a sub-agent.

A photograph of KG6 with the Queen Mary docked in it in August 1940 (source: Australian War Memorial – ‘Copyright expired – public domain’). The construction of the dock had been delayed by the refusal of coolies to remove what was referred to as the ‘keramat tree’.

The tree that has taken root on the last gate post does perhaps serve to remind us of the tree that had had resisted the base’s construction. It does however serve, more importantly, to remind us of more than that, preserving within the tight grasp of it roots a memory of the wider area’s association with a huge and strategic naval facility. The facility was one that, large enough to accommodate half of the British Empire’s fleet, provided jobs to one in ten in Singapore accounting for one-fifth of its GDP at the time and one that should not be forgotten.