16 May 2015

A Slice of Old Seletar

"For a long time, the Orang Seletar had lived a nomadic live in the mangrove swamps on the river banks found on both sides of the Johor Straits. One group lived on Pulau Belungkor, an island off the coast of Tanjung Surat, located at the mouth of the Johor River. This group would move over to the Seletar area of Singapore during October and November to avoid the strong wind that blew during those months. Until the 1920s, it was very easy to find Orang Seletar on Seletar Island and the neighbouring mangroves in the straits between Singapore and Johor." - Tribal Communities in the Malay World. Historical, Cultural and Social Perspectives. Geoffrey Benjamin and Cynthia Chou. Publication Year: 2002.

A keen sense of nostalgia overcame me as I drove through the familiar streets of what was once known as Seletar West Camp. If you had spent part of your national service here, names like Old Birdcage Walk, St Martin Lane and Piccadilly would definitely ring a bell.

I was one of the wide-eyed soldiers who was posted to Seletar Camp before the turn of the century and I still remember reporting to the ramshackle cantonment along Jalan Minyak known as the Supply and Transport Training School or ‘STTS’ as it was widely known.

Former trainees and permstaff would remember the old single storey buildings that looked suspiciously prone to giving way in a heavy thunderstorm, the fleet of cantankerous Fiat 3 tonners and the tarmac driveway which doubled up as a parade square for those dreadful defaulters’ parades. They would also recall the scenes of Encik Krishnan’s pet Jack Russell terrier running around the evergreen lawns and the booming voice of Warrant Vennu, which struck fear into even the most intrepid soldier. And of course, who could forget the piping hot prata at Jalan Kayu?

Block 450, a former barracks for both the RAF and SAF in Seletar East Camp.
Once home to the largest British Royal Air Force (RAF) base in the Far East, Seletar Camp is home to several colonial buildings, many of which were taken over by the Singapore Armed Forces when they moved into the premises in 1971.

It was home to the Malayan Air Training Corps' Jalan Kayu School, where the corps would conduct their training and annual camps in the 1950s and 1960s. There was also a cycling grand prix which was held on the camp's cycling circuit in the late 1950s and an auto club known as the RAF Seletar Auto Club.

Today, the actual military camp takes up only a small area within Seletar, with several dump trucks plying the swanky Seletar Aerospace Way, which didn't exist until recently, ferrying materials for a new road network that will serve the $60 billion Seletar Aerospace Park. The 320 hectare park is developed by JTC Corporation and it is presently moving into its final project phase, which will entirely completed by 2018.

Construction work going on around the former West Camp area.
One peculiar thing about the camp would be how military life always intertwined with that of the civilians who lived and worked there; while the camp was mostly occupied by the SAF, there were close to 400 black and white bungalows – originally built to house officers from Britain's Royal Air Force – within the camp which were rented out to the public at a (hefty) fee of six thousand dollars a month, according to one resident. Since the start of the aerospace Park project in 2006, this number has been reduced to 130 with the remaining residential colonial bungalows all located outside the aerospace park zone.

'Singapore' sticker commonly found on food aid packages given out in disaster relief missions.
In 1923, the British government acquired the 600 acre site from Singapore United Rubber Plantations Limited before they turned it into what would be the largest RAF station in the Far East. It is hard to imagine that the landscape of Seletar was once that of mangrove swamps and undulating with rows of coconut and rubber trees. The site was then cleared over the next five years by thousands of labourers including the ‘Concrete Lizzies’, a term coined by the British to describe the resolute Samsui women of Singapore.

The RAF began operations in Seletar in 1928 and the area also served as Singapore’s first civil airport before the completion of Kallang Airport in 1937.


Apart from STTS, Seletar was also home to a few other SAF units like the School of Logistics (SOL), 18th Singapore Air Defence Artillery (SADA), the Seletar East Ammo Dump (SEAD) and the 35th and 39th battalion as well as HQ ARMCEG of the Singapore Combat Engineers (SCE). Following the deracination of the rest, the Combat Engineers seem to have taken over what’s left of Seletar East Camp while the Aerospace Park takes up the most of the former West Camp.

With the receding camp boundary pushed back past Saint Martin Lane, a handful of former military buildings now lie outside military jurisdiction like the retrolicious Blk 398 Canteen, former Camp Commandant Office (CCO), Block 179, which was the Station Headquarters of the RAF, as well as Block 450, a 3-storey barracks used as accommodation for military personnel from both the RAF and later, the SAF. The latter two were gazetted to be conserved by the URA in June 2014 together with 32 asymmetrical black and white bungalows clustered around The Oval off nearby Hyde Park Gate.

Measuring about 90 metres lengthwise, Blk 450 was one of several significantly large buildings bearing the same Art Deco design with 2 service blocks attached on either side in Seletar. The building was one of the first few that were constructed with reinforced concrete and its long covered verandahs are a common feature of tropical colonial buildings, a measure to countervail the sweltering heat.

Based on the remnants of the standing orders plastered along the columns of the verandahs, the barracks were home most recently to soldiers from HQ ARMCEG (Army Combat Engineers Group), which had since shifted further north into Seletar East Camp. One of my friends, who spent time as a Bridging Pioneer Commander trainee here, tells me that it was one of the most punishing days of his NS life.

Boot scraper built by the British.
The barracks were laid out in a rather standard format with offices (called company lines in the SAF) on the first floor while the bunks were located on the second and third floor. The old timber doors and window louvre frames were still largely intact and used up until the time the building was vacated, though some of them had fallen victim to termites.

I was fascinated by the perfect symmetry of the pre-cast concrete vents above the rooms. The British did always struggle with our immense heat and humidity and the design of the vents allowed the hot rising air to escape, especially important during a time where there were no air conditioners.

Another interesting thing would be the floors of this building - The rooms and long verandah were screeded with concrete but the stairs were decorated with beautiful mosaic pieces. While it wasn't hard to notice these, I'm sure that the former residents wouldn't have stopped to appreciate these details, especially so when they had to rush down to 'fall in' with their superiors breathing down their necks.

We found two rooms with had heavy steels within the same building; one was located on the ground floor while the other was situated on the second level of one of the service blocks. These heavily fortified rooms are normally used for the company armskote, where rifles and other weapons are stored. Singaporean sons would definitely remember those long loathsome nights cleaning their weapons outside their respective armskotes after coming back from night range, especially so if they had a 'neow' (difficult / calculative) armskote specialist!

While the room on the ground floor had an intruder alarm, the one on the second floor had none. Hence, it is very likely that the armskote was located in the room on the ground floor, while the fortified room in the service block could have been used to store other (costly) operational essential equipment such as optical and signals equipment.

The bunks were empty and quite similar to what we found in other military quarters such as the Command House at Fairy Point (also known to many as the Old Commando Barracks).However, I'm quite certain that these old walls have seen many a soldier getting punished after an unsatisfactory 'area cleaning' or 'stand by bed' inspection.

As with other army camps, there is an abundance of stories from Seletar depicting encounters of the third kind. Reservists would always wonder why certain old blocks had wooden lumbers nailed into their doors and windows, with some forming the shape of the letter X. While I suppose that was done to simply prevent unwanted access, I'm certain that it has given much fuel for discussion of supernatural theories amongst groups of bored NS Men attending their annual in-camp training.   

Before Seletar West Link was built, it was only possible to enter the back of Seletar West Camp from Seletar Club Road, a small, unlit road which ran outside the fence of the camp. This road will be familiar to those living in Yishun as the nearby Yishun Dam comes alive after nightfall with droves of modified street cars and their blinking lights and loud music. Motorists who elected to use that road to enter the camp after dark reported sightings of an old cyclist; they would see the back of the man riding on his bicycle as they approached him while driving towards the camp. While passing him, they will notice that he had no face!   

I also heard through the grapevine that there were several sightings around the Rolls-Royce facility when it was newly constructed within the aerospace park; the management had trouble hiring security to work there as people kept seeing and hearing things taunting them from the fenceline and CCTV feed. Mind you, this was before the aerospace park became more occupied like today.

Sightings of white figures, lights appearing in unoccupied areas and hearing dogs howling in the distance were also ubiquitous amongst army boys serving their NS in Seletar Camp, although the civilian residents would beg to differ.

If you were a former soldier or resident of Seletar, I'm sure you'd have more stories or information to share. We'd love to hear them! Please post a comment below or reach us at sgurbex@gmail.com.

You can find more photos of my Seletar exploration in my Flickr album.

Translation: "When you are a human, try being in love.
You'll conquer the world. I LOVE YOU".

Article & Photos copyright of Aaron Chan

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