Remembering Lee Kuan Yew, the Founding Father of Singapore (1923-2015)

On 23 March 2015, Singapore fell into a grieving state as Lee Kuan Yew, widely regarded as the country’s founding father, passed away at the age of 91 at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH). The former prime minister had been battling an infection due to severe pneumonia, and was warded in the intensive care unit since early February. He left behind two sons (current Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Hsien Yang) and a daughter (Lee Wei Ling).

lee kuan yew youngThe Beginnings

Lee Kuan Yew was born in 1923 in a Hakka Chinese family living at Kampong Java Road. His great-grandfather had arrived at Singapore in the late 19th century from the Dapu county of Guangdong, China. After completing his primary education, Lee Kuan Yew attended Raffles Institution and Raffles College (present-day National University of Singapore), where he became the top student in Singapore and Malaya.

After the Second World War, Lee Kuan Yew went to study law at England’s prestigious University of Cambridge, graduating with double First Class Honours. It was also at London where he met and married Kwa Geok Choo (1920-2010). In 1949, Lee Kuan Yew returned to Singapore with his wife, working as a lawyer and a legal advisor to trade and students’ unions.

lee kuan yew met wife 1950s

Entering Politics

It was in the fifties when Lee Kuan Yew began involved in politics. In 1954, Lee Kuan Yew, together with Toh Chin Chye, Goh Keng Swee, Devan Nair, S. Rajaratnam and Abdul Samad Ismail, founded the People’s Action Party (PAP) with a mission to seek Singapore’s independence from Britain through merger with the Federation of Malaya. Together with his comrades, mostly made up of lawyers, journalists and trade unionists, Lee Kuan Yew aimed to establish a corruption-free and democratic government in-charge of a multi-racial society that would be harmonious and fair.

lee kuan yew touring tanjong pagar 1960s

In its early days of formation, English-speaking Lee Kuan Yew and his PAP had to work closely with the pro-communist members in order to gain support of the local Chinese, most of which could only communicate in Mandarin and dialects. Lim Chin Siong (1933-1996), the leader of the pro-communist faction, was influential in helping PAP to gain mass support. The cooperation, however, ended in 1961 due to different political ideas. Lim Chin Siong would leave PAP to lead the opposition party Barisan Socialis (Socialist Front).

lee kuan yew and his supporters 1960s

In 1959, after three rounds of Constitutional Talks with London, Singapore was granted internal self-governance. PAP would win most of the seats in the general election held that year to become Singapore’s ruling party, with Lee Kuan Yew becoming the Prime Minister of the self-government. He would become the Prime Minister of the State of Singapore when PAP won another general election after the merger with Malaysia in 1963.

lee kuan yew tears 1965The merger, however, was short-lived. Between PAP and the Malaysian leaders, there was an ideological divide over the nature of the Malaysian society. PAP wanted to build a fair and just multi-racial society – a Malaysian Malaysia, but the Malaysian leaders insisted special privileges be given to the Malay majority.

The uncompromisable differences meant that Singapore had to exit the federation, and on 9 August 1965, Lee Kuan Yew tearfully announced on television Singapore’s separation from Malaysia: “You see, the whole of my adult life, I have believed in merger and the unity of these two territories. You know that we, as a people are connected by geography, economics, by ties of kinship

Singapore’s Independence

Lee Kuan Yew believed Singapore, a nation with limited natural resources, would require strong diplomatic relationship with other countries in order to survive. Shortly after independence, Singapore joined the United Nations (UN) and became a member of the Commonwealth. In August 1967, Singapore, together with Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, formed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with the objectives to promote economic development, social progress and regional stability against the influx of communism.

lee kuan yew and suhartoThe Singapore-Indonesia ties, however, had been deeply soured due to the execution of the two Indonesian saboteurs who were involved in the MacDonald House bombing during the Konfrontasi (1963-1966). After a brief discussion with former Singapore’s Ambassador to Indonesia Lee Khoon Choy (born 1924), Lee Kuan Yew, on his official visit to Indonesia in 1973, decided to pay respect at the Jakarta Kalibata Heroes Cemetery by sprinkling flowers onto the graves of the two Indonesian marines. The move clearly won the hearts of many Indonesians who held strong Javanese beliefs in souls and clear conscience.

Many Indonesian newspapers carried headlines describing Lee Kuan Yew as a magnanimous person. This helped to break the ice between the leaders of Singapore and Indonesia. Trust between the two countries were gradually restored, and for the next two decades, Singapore and Indonesia enjoyed a peaceful and beneficial bilateral ties. Lee Kuan Yew also maintained a close friendship with Suharto, the President of Indonesia between 1967 and 1998, until the latter died in 2008.

lee kuan yews speech at us senate 1985

Beyond Southeast Asia, Singapore was also actively establishing diplomatic relations with the major countries in the world. Bilateral ties with The United States and Japan were established shortly after the country’s independence.

lee kuan yew met deng xiao ping 1980Lee Kuan Yew also placed importance on good Sino-Singapore relations. He first visited China in 1976. Until 2011, Lee Kuan Yew had made a total of 33 official trips to China, and was one of the few in the world who had met all five Chinese leaders in Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping.

National Interests

Lee Kuan Yew had demanded efficiency and capability in his government. In the sixties and seventies, his team of Goh Keng Swee (1918-2010), Toh Chin Chye (1921-2012), Lim Kim San (1916-2006), Othman Wok (born 1924), Ong Pang Boon (born 1929), S Rajaratnam (1915-2006), Hon Sui Sen (1916-1983) and Dr Albert Winsemius (1910-1996, Singapore’s Chief Economic Advisor between 1961 and 1984) was able to successfully tackle the urgent issues Singapore was facing, such as inadequate housing, national defense and economic struggles. Lee Kuan Yew himself also placed great emphasis on the ground, regularly visiting villagers living on both mainland Singapore and the outlying islands, to understand their concerns.

lee kuan yew speaking at hunyeang community centre tampines 1963

lee kuan yew touring radin mas 1964

Over the years, Lee Kuan Yew had built up a no-nonsensical reputation although some viewed him as a tough leader ruling with an iron fist. He made it clear many times that he would not allow any events to affect the country’s stability and undermine national interests.

This was demonstrated in late 1980, when a strike by the Singapore Airlines Pilots Association’s (SIApa) expatriate pilots threatened to escalate into a crisis. The month-long strike for higher pays and better benefits had already disrupted many international flights. With the 1980 General Election around the corner, Lee Kuan Yew stepped in and confronted the pilots with an uncompromising stand. He demanded, in one of his rally speeches, that the pilots end their strike: “I will, by every means at my disposal, teach you, and get the people of Singapore help me teach you, a lesson you won’t forget. And I’m prepared to start all over again. Or stop it!

The pilots eventually backed down. SIApa was de-registered a year later, and 15 leaders that incited the strike were charged and convicted. Even after he retired as the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew would intervene again, this time as the Senior Minister, when a group of SIA pilots threatened to strike over disputed pay-raise in 2004.

A Garden City

Tourism had a difficult start in post-independent Singapore as it did not have many attractions. Lee Kuan Yew believed that Singapore could be different from other developing countries in a practical way. In 1963, Lee Kuan Yew planted his first tree. He kept his tree-planting tradition every year, and it later evolved into an islandwide campaign. Today, there are 2 million trees planted around Singapore, meeting Lee Kuan Yew’s original vision of Singapore being a well-known Garden City.

lee kuan yew in parliament

The cleaning up of the Singapore River was also one of Lee Kuan Yew’s proposals of a clean and green Singapore. Before the seventies, the Singapore River had a notorious reputation of being an extremely dirty and polluted waterway at the country’s commercial district. In 1977, Lee Kuan Yew issued a challenge to his Environment ministry: “It should be a way of life to keep the water clean. To keep every stream, culvert and rivulet, free from pollution.” “The Ministry of Environment should make it a target: In 10 years let us have fishing in the Singapore River and Kallang River. It can be done.

The enormous task was given to Lee Ek Tieng (born 1934), the former chairman of the Public Utilities Board and then Environment Ministry Permanent Secretary, and his team. It took 10 years for the Singapore River and Kallang Basin to be successfully cleared of pollutants. By the mid-eighties, the river and its banks were no longer filled with garbage, bumboats, squatters and stench.

lee kuan yew played chess with sons

Bilingualism

A language genius, Lee Kuan Yew was proficient in English and Malay, and understood Latin and Japanese. He once addressed the Malaysian parliament in perfect Bahasa Melayu that surprised many Malaysian leaders.

In his thirties, Lee Kuan Yew also learnt and mastered Mandarin and Hokkien in order to reach out to the masses in Singapore, much of it were made up of Chinese Singaporeans. After 1970s, he, however, stopped using Hokkien in his public speeches because he wanted Mandarin to become the common language of the Chinese Singaporeans. The Speak Mandarin Campaign that his government promoted aggressively in the eighties eventually led to the demise of Chinese dialects in Singapore.

lee kuan yew through the yearsCreating a bilingual society was what Lee Kuan Yew had in mind. While retaining one’s mother tongue, Lee Kuan Yew believed English should be the common language among different races in Singapore. This would give the country an advantage in the international arena. Thus, in the eighties, schools with Malay-, Chinese- and Tamil-medium classes were gradually phased out and replaced by English as the compulsory first language.

Lasting Legacy

In his political career, Lee Kuan Yew admitted making several bad judgements such as the shutting down of Nanyang University, population control and the Graduate Mothers’ Scheme launched in the eighties. His government’s tight control of the media and suppression of political dissent also drew criticism.

However, his achievements and contributions to Singapore far exceeded his political blemishes. For that, Lee Kuan Yew would be fondly remembered as the great man behind Singapore’s success and prosperity today. His unquestionable legacy as the founding father of modern Singapore will live on for many generations to come. For the city-state which will be celebrating its Golden Jubilee in the coming August, it is a monumental loss.

lee kuan yew 1923-2015

I have no regrets. I have spent my life, so much on it, building up this country. There’s nothing more that I need to do. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life.” – Lee Kuan Yew, 2014

Published: 23 March 2015

Posted in General | 12 Comments

Goodbye, Old Yishun Bus Interchange

On 13 March 2015, the residents of Yishun bid farewell to the bus interchange they were so familiar with. The departure of the last bus meant that it was time to say goodbye to the Yishun Bus Interchange that had served the town well in the past 28 years. The premises will be demolished in near future to make way for the new Integrated Transport Hub (ITH) at Northpoint City, which will be made up of North Park Residences, an air-conditioned bus interchange and a shopping underpass that links to the Yishun MRT Station.

old yishun bus interchange

In 1977, the Singapore government launched the Yishun New Town project, reserving some 920 hectares of land between Admiralty and Sembawang Roads for residential and industrial development. By the early eighties, there was a sizable population living at Yishun New Town; many of the residents originated from the nearby villages such as Nee Soon, Chye Kay and Mandai.

construction of yishun bus interchange 1980s

A large bus interchange became essential to meet the demands of an increasing population in Yishun. Before the construction of the old Yishun Bus Interchange in the mid-eighties, the Yishun residents had to be contended with the two bus terminals located at the Yishun Central and Yishun Avenue 5. Slow and irregular bus services made commuting between new towns and the city area tedious and inconvenient. The small terminals also faced difficulties in coping with the rising number of commuters, and basic amenities such as coin-changing machines were absent.

The Housing Development Board (HDB) was thus given the task to build a permanent facility to provide bus services at Yishun. In August 1985, tenders were issued and awarded to contractors for the construction of the new bus interchange.

yishun new town 1988

In just two years, the Yishun Bus Interchange was completed and ready for operation. Officially opened on 23 August 1987, it was the ninth bus interchange built in Singapore after Bukit Merah, Clementi, Woodlands, Ang Mo Kio, Hougang, Bedok, Jurong East and Toa Payoh. Four more bus interchanges at Bukit Batok, Tampines, Serangoon and Bishan were added by the early nineties.

old yishun bus interchange2

old yishun bus interchange3

old yishun bus interchange4

Costing a total of $2 million in construction, the new bus interchange, painted with an eye-catching purple appearance, consisted of 36 bus parking berths, 24 boarding/alighting bays and a staff office. Shortly after its opening, HDB handed the management of the new bus interchange to the Trans Island Bus Services (TIBS) for a token of $1.

The Trans Island Bus Services was established in 1982 to provide competition to the Singapore Bus Services (SBS), which was formed earlier in 1973 after the merger of the three largest private bus companies in Amalgamated Bus Company (ABC), Associated Bus Services (ABS) and United Bus Company (UBC). Running its own fleet of yellow-and-orange buses, TIBS was given the exclusive right to operate in the northern part of Singapore such as Woodlands, Yishun and Sembawang. Its services were later extended to Bukit Panjang, Jalan Kayu and Punggol.

old yishun bus interchange5

old yishun bus interchange6

In 2001, TIBS merged and became a subsidiary of the SMRT Corporation, which took over the management of the bus interchanges at Woodlands and Yishun. TIBS officially walked into history three years later when its fleet of buses were painted red and renamed under the SMRT brand.

old yishun bus interchange7

The early bus services by TIBS were mostly the 800-series. New bus services were later added constantly to provide wider convenience to the commuters in getting to other towns and housing districts. A daily one-way service No 825, for example, was introduced in 1988 to ferry commuters between the Yishun Bus Interchange and Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6 at a frequency of 10 minutes from 6am to 830pm. The bus fares for the One-Man-Operation (OMO) service ranged between 40c and 60c for adults and 25c for children.

old yishun bus interchange8

old yishun bus interchange9

The new Yishun Integrated Transport Hub is expected to be ready by 2019. A temporary bus interchange, located on the opposite side of Yishun Central 1, has been made available for the commuters’ ease of convenience for the next four years. Upon its completion, the Yishun ITH will be the tenth integrated transport hub in Singapore. The other nine ITHs are located at Ang Mo Kio, Bedok, Boon Lay, Bukit Panjang, Clementi, Joo Koon, Serangoon, Sengkang and Toa Payoh.

old yishun bus interchange10

old yishun bus interchange11

old yishun bus interchange12

Published: 16 March 2015

Posted in General | 3 Comments

The “King” of Bedok, Villa Haji Kahar and the Bedok Rest House

Longtime residents of Bedok may have heard of a grand residence that was once owned by the “king” of Bedok.

It was the Villa Haji Kahar, located at Jalan Haji Salam, off Upper East Coast Road. The grand private residence was named after its first owner Haji Kahar Abdul Ghani (1863-1940), also known as Haji Kahar Palembang due to his birth place in Indonesia.

The “King” of Bedok and his Villa Haji Kahar

Haji Kahar arrived at Singapore at an age of around 20. He took up many odd jobs before starting a barter trading business at North Bridge Road, establishing a trade relationship with his brother at Palembang. It took Haji Kahar 20 years before he had amassed enough wealth to venture into property, coconut and nutmeg plantations, and other businesses.

Haji Kahar even became the first Malay to clinch a distribution license to sell HMV-label albums in his other shop at Muscat Street. In the expansion of his business, Haji Kahar sent his son Haji Mohamed to Jakarta to establish a “triangular” trade between Singapore, Palembang and Jakarta.

villa haji kahar at jalan haji salam

In the 1900s, Haji Kahar bought 30 acres of land at Bedok from a Chinese nutmeg plantation owner. The parcel of land, completed with small houses and fruit orchards, cost him about $7,000. Earning a generous $1,000 per month collected from the leasing of his properties, a 50-year-old Haji Kahar decided to dedicate more of his time in the religious study. He would later become active as a Qur’anic teacher at Masjid Al-Taqua at Jalan Bilal, a short distance away from his grand Bedok residence.

At the peak of his business, Haji Kahar was known as the “Raja” (“King” in Malay) of Bedok. He was one of the largest landowners in the vicinity, and had two horse-drawn carriage to ferry him between Bedok and the city. He would later spend $1,190 to replace his carriage with Ford cars.

villa haji kahar at jalan haji salam 2005

Despite being extremely wealthy, Haji Kahar was a humble and low-profiled person. The rich entrepreneurs, in the early 20th century, tend to own large parcels of lands and have roads named after them. Haji Kahar, however, refused to accept the renaming of Jalan Haji Salam to Jalan Haji Kahar due to the respect he had of the eldest and most respected villager at Kampong Bedok.

Haji Kahar had a total of 16 children; three with his wife at Palembang, and 13 with his Singapore wife. The decision to build the grand Villa Haji Kahar was motivated by his wishes to bring the family close together. Haji Kahar died in September 1940 at an age of 78, after three years of illness.

villa haji kahar at jalan haji salam 2014

villa haji kahar at jalan haji salam2 2014

After his death, his family did not stay in Villa Haji Kahar for long. In 1942, the Japanese forced the family to sell the estate for $22,000. When the Japanese surrendered three years later, the family’s fortune vanished overnight as the Japanese currency became worthless.

Today, Villa Haji Kahar still stands proudly at Jalan Haji Salam, hidden among the new semi-detached houses. The villa was likely to have changed hands many times after it was sold by Haji Kahar’s family in the 1940s. Compared to Singapore’s other grand private residences built in the early part of the 20th century, Villa Haji Kahar’s history is relatively less well-known.

There is also a well-maintained kampong-styled house beside the villa.

bedok avenue kampong house

bedok avenue kampong house2

bedok avenue kampong house3

Bedok Corner and the Land Reclamation

The Bedok Corner, referring to the sharp bend between Bedok Road and Upper East Coast Road, has been a favourite hangout for the older generations of Singaporeans and also perhaps the British military veterans who had once stationed in Singapore in the fifties and sixties. Many still have fond memories of the place, where the iconic Bedok Rest House was located.

bedok rest house 1960s

However, subsequent land reclamation projects would alter the appearance and scenic views of Bedok Corner. In 1963, a small-scaled land reclamation project was carried out by the government at the 14km East Coast Road to add 19 hectare of land.

A much larger project called the East Coast Reclamation Scheme was launched in April 1966. This massive land reclamation project, undertaken by the Housing Development Board (HDB), would take almost 20 years and a total cost of $613 million to complete. More than 1,525 hectare of land and 1km of coastline were added, using sand, soil, gravels and rocks taken from the hills at Siglap and Tampines.

east coast reclamation 1966

Wyman’s Haven, Long Beach and the Bedok Rest House

The massive land reclamation saw the decline of a popular Chinese restaurant called Wyman’s Haven, located near the junction of Jalan Haji Salam and the Upper East Coast Road. The restaurant was said to have opened in the 1930s and its business flourished after the Second World War, especially in the late fifties. Housed in a large seafront bungalow, the patrons of the restaurant enjoyed a splendid view of the coastline. But the beautiful seaside scenery was gone by the late sixties due to the land reclamation, and this led to the eventual closure of Wyman’s Haven.

bedok rest house long beach seafood 1992

bedok rest house long beach seafood2 1992

The Long Beach Seafood Restaurant, on the other hand, survived the effects of the land reclamation. It was established in 1946, serving seafood cuisine popular to both the British military personnel and the locals. Housed at the Bedok Rest House, both the building and restaurant became one of East Coast’s most famous landmarks, well-remembered by many for the sandy beach, icycold beer, chilli crab and tea dances.

Although the seaside scenery and vibrant shoreline were altered by the late sixties, Long Beach and its large variety of seafood dishes remained popular with the locals. Its business at the Bedok Corner lasted more than 40 years, before it had to be shut down in the early nineties due to the redevelopment plans in the vicinity. In 1993, the Bedok Rest House and its Long Beach restaurant were demolished, making way for the development of a private residential district called Eastwood Park. The terrace houses of Eastwood Park were completed by 1998.

demolition of bedok rest house 1993

Kampong Bedok Laut and the Mosques

Bedok Corner used to have two kampong mosques called Masjid Al-Taqua and Masjid Bedok Laut. Masjid Al-Taqua still exists today but Masjid Bedok Laut was demolished along with Kampong Bedok Laut in the early nineties. Kampong mosques are a rarity in present-day Singapore. Unlike modern mosques which integrate large gleaming Indo-Saracenic-styled domes into their roof designs, kampong mosques were much simpler, often capping only a small dome over a pitched zinc roof.

map of bedok  corner 1981

Located at Jalan Bilal, Masjid Al-Taqua had a long history, and was the mosque where Haji Fahar taught his Qur’anic studies in the 1930s. In 1984, the villagers in the vicinity were dismayed when they heard their place of worship, which could accommodate a congregation of 700, would be demolished. It turned out to be a misunderstanding as the government was acquiring the lands around Jalan Bilal but leaving Masjid Al-Taqua intact. After confirming with the Land Office that the mosque would stay on, the mosque trustee approved a $120,000 project to repair the aging building.

masjid al-taqua at jalan bilal 1980s

masjid bedok laut at bedok road2 1980s

Masjid Bedok Laut, on the other hand, did not survive the redevelopment. It was demolished along with the Bedok Rest House and Kampong Bedok Laut. Today, the vicinity is occupied by the private residences of Eastwood Park.

There was also a Muslim cemetery which served as the burial ground for the Muslim residents living at the kampongs around Jalan Bilal, Jalan Haji Salam, Jalan Greja and Jalan Langgar Bedok. It was located near the 14km mark of Upper East Coast Road, beside a Chinese Teochew cemetery named Hwa San Teng (or Wah Suah Teng).

The Bedok Muslim cemetery had about 4,000 graves; its last burial was done in the mid-seventies. Both cemeteries were later exhumed. Their sites were eventually redeveloped into Kew Green Condominium in the late nineties. Hwa San Road, the dirt road that led to the cemeteries, was expunged during the redevelopment.

kampong bedok laut 1980s

Kampong Bedok Laut, whose name means Bedok Sea Village, was mainly made up of Malay families; many of them worked as fishermen for generations. Leaving for the sea in early mornings, the fishermen would return by noon with their catches, and laid them along the shoreline to sell to other villagers. The land reclamation project between the sixties and eighties, however, took away the livelihood of many fishermen, who had to switch to hawking of food, drinks and cigarettes. When the kampong was demolished, many of the street hawkers were relocated to the Bedok Corner Hawker Centre.

The face of Bedok Corner has been changing constantly in the past 50 years. In the next decade, it will receive yet another makeover with the opening of Downtown Line’s Sungei Bedok MRT Station.

Published: 02 March 2015

Posted in Historic | 3 Comments

Then and Now, The Public Holidays of Singapore

There are some public feedback recently about reinstating Thaipusam as a public holiday. Why was Thaipusam removed as a public holiday in the first place? Here’s look at the changes in Singapore’s public holidays in the past few decades.

The public holidays for the Chinese, Malay and Indians in Singapore, since the 19th century, were the Chinese New Year, Hari Raya Puasa and Thaipusam. In the 1920s, both the local Muslim and Hindu communities petitioned to the British colonial government to add Hari Raya Haji and Deepavali to the list of annual holidays in Singapore. The Legislative Council eventually approved the amendment to the Holiday Ordnance after years of discussions. Hari Raya Haji was declared as a holiday in 1928, whereas Deepavali was added to the holiday list a year later.

Singapore’s Public Holidays during the British Colonial Era

During the British colonial times, there were a total of 16 public holidays, excluding the bank holidays, in Singapore. In 1950, there were calls to add the Sikh, Buddhist and Muslim festivals of Vaisahki (also known as the Punjabi New Year), Vesak and the Birthday of Prophet Mohamed to the annual public holidays’ list, but it was rejected by the Legislative Council. The colony’s 16 public holidays in 1953 were:

singapore public holidays 1953

Some of the holidays were common to those that were celebrated in the United Kingdom, such as the Bank holidays, Queen’s Birthday and Whit Monday.

The Bank holidays were first proposed by British politician and banker Sir John Lubbock in 1871 as designated holidays with pay. During the Bank holidays, the banks and other businesses would be closed, but the government offices would remain opened. The Queen’s Birthday, on the other hand, was not the monarch’s actual birthday and was usually marked in the late May or early June to coincide with the better weather for celebration in the United Kingdom.

queen's birthday parade at padang 1955

Singapore’s Public Holidays during Self-Government

3 June 1959 was marked as Singapore’s National Day when Singapore officially gained full self-government from the British. The Queen’s Birthday was removed, but the bank holidays, although not official public holidays, were retained. The 1961 public holidays of Singapore were fixed as:

singapore public holidays 1961

Singapore’s Public Holidays during the Merger

When Singapore became part of Malaysia between 6 September 1963 and 9 August 1965, the declared public holidays for the state (in 1965) were:

singapore public holidays 1965

As a state, there were 4 official public holidays for Singapore, and an additional 11 federal holidays.

In 1965, the Chinese New Year coincided with Hari Raya Puasa. This double celebration of festivals for the Chinese and Malay would be repeated in 1996, 1997 and 1998. But in the mid-1960s, especially after two major racial riots in 1964 that rocked Singapore, it was a rare opportunity for the society to come together in celebrating both festivals and emphasizing the importance of peace and harmony among various communities.

hari raya puasa eve at geylang serai 1961

firecrackers during chinese new year 1968

Singapore’s Public Holidays after Independence

After independence, Singapore’s list of public holidays underwent another change. The Birthday of Yang di-Pertuan Agong was no longer valid and the Malaysia Day was replaced by Singapore’s own National Day on 9 August. This time, the National Day represented the full independence of Singapore rather than self-government.

The Parliament of Singapore also passed the Holidays Bill in December 1966 to officially abolish the bank holidays. In the following year, Singapore’s public holidays, totalled 16, were chosen as:

singapore public holidays 1967

Thaipusam Removed as Public Holiday

Thaipusam, the Hindu festival where many men carried kavadi and walked for long distances from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple at Serangoon Road to Tank Road’s Sri Thandayuthapani Temple, had been celebrated in Singapore since the late 19th century.

There were some controversies about the festival, however. In 1957, the Veeramma Kaliamman Temple’s trustee G.M.K. Sabai called for the abolition of Thaipusam as a public holiday. His call was supported by several influential Hindu leaders, who argued that “Thaipusam was a sectional festival important only to the devotees of Lord Subramania, most of whom were Chettiars.” They suggested that the holiday could be replaced by Puthandu, the Tamil New Year, which usually fell in mid-April.

thaipusam 1960s

In 1968, the Parliament of Singapore passed the Holidays (Amendment) Bill, which sought to reduce the number of annual public holidays in Singapore in order to improve productivity. It was a time of uncertainty, as the new-born nation of Singapore faced probable economy upheavals and high unemployment rates that followed the withdrawal of the British armed forces. After discussions with various religious communities, the religious festivals that continued to be accompanied with public holidays were Hari Raya Haji, Hari Raya Puasa, Deepavali, Good Friday, Christmas Day and Vesak Day. The holidays of Thaipusam and the Birthday of Prophet Mohamed were removed.

For years, the local Hindus petitioned for the reinstatement of their religious holiday. In 1970, the University of Singapore’s Indian Cultural Society sent a delegation to the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Social Affairs to explore the possibility of reinstating Thaipusam as a public holiday, but without success.

singapore public holidays 1973

Since its first recession in 1985, Singapore had experienced and survived several global economic crises. Today, it ranks among the highest in the Global Competitiveness Index and GDP (gross domestic product) per capita in the world. The times of uncertainty that Singapore once faced as a new nation no longer existed, and the targetted economic progress and high productivity had been achieved. After almost half a century, perhaps it is time to reinstate Thaipusam as one of Singapore’s official public holidays.

Published: 21 February 2015

Posted in Cultural, Historic | 1 Comment

The Forgotten Diamond of Taman Jurong

The four blocks at Yung Kuang Road (Block 63-66) used to be the pride of Taman Jurong. Not only that, at 21 storeys, they were the tallest flats at Jurong when they were completed in the 1970s, the unique diamond shape formed by the four blocks (when viewed from the top) also gained them an iconic landmark status in the vicinity due to their easily recognisable appearance.

A New Industrial & Residential Estate

In 1960, the Singapore government acquired around 2,440 acres of land in Choa Chu Kang, Tuas and Peng Kang to be used as part of the planned 5,000-acre Jurong new town and industrial estates. The $45-million project was spearheaded by Goh Keng Swee, Hon Sui Sen and Dr Albert Winsemius to develop the swampy area into Singapore’s first industrial district, completed with different sectors in shipbuilding, steel milling, cement and textile manufacturing.

chartered industries of singapore 1960s

national steel and iron mill 1960s

The Economic Development Board (EDB) was set up to carry out the development plans, although its role was passed to the new Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) later in 1968. To encourage the workers in the industrial estates to stay near their workplaces, Taman Jurong was established in 1964 as a residential site for the rapidly increasing population. A network of roads and public amenities in flats, markets, schools and playgrounds were built.

The early residential blocks at Taman Jurong, constructed in the sixties, were mostly kept below five storeys in their heights. Jurong Town Primary School, one of the earliest primary schools at Taman Jurong, was officially opened in March 1968 at Taman Jurong 4 (later renamed as Hu Ching Road) by Ho Kah Leong, the Member of Parliament for Jurong. The school would merge with Yung An Primary School and Merlimau Primary School to form Lakeside Primary School in January 2003.

construction of 1-room flats at taman jurong 1963

To attract the workers to move and stay at Taman Jurong, recreational facilities were also added in the late sixties. In 1967, picnic grounds, a boathouse and an artificial lake adjoining Jurong River were built. Regular events were held at the boathouse, with TV and radio artistes invited for performances and refreshments provided.

Renaming of the Roads

When they were first built, the roads at Taman Jurong were simply given numerical names, such as Taman Jurong 1, 2, 3, 4, up to Taman Jurong 12 (There was no Taman Jurong 11). To suggest “industrialisation” and “progress” in the new industrial estates, and also a bright future for the residents living in their new homes at Taman Jurong, the Street Naming Committee decided, in 1970, to give the roads new names:

  • Jalan Peng Kang to Corporation Road
  • Taman Jurong 1 to Corporation Drive
  • Taman Jurong 2 to Yuan Ching (园景, means “scenery of gardens”) Road
  • Taman Jurong 3 to Yung Ping (永平, “eternal peace”) Road
  • Taman Jurong 4 to Hu Ching (湖景, “scenery of lakes”) Road
  • Taman Jurong 5 to Yung Kuang (永光, “eternal bright”) Road
  • Taman Jurong 6 to Tao Ching (岛景, “scenery of islands”) Road
  • Taman Jurong 7 to Yung Sheng (永升, “eternal rise”) Road
  • Taman Jurong 8 to Ho Ching (河景, “scenery of rivers”) Road
  • Taman Jurong 9 to Yung An (永安, “eternal serene”) Road
  • Taman Jurong 10 to Shan Ching (山景, “scenery of hills”) Road
  • Taman Jurong 12 to Tah Ching (塔景, “scenery of pagodas”) Road

Due to the residential development, Shan Ching Road was later expunged and Kang Ching (岗, “scenery of ridges”) Road was added.

The “Industrialised” Road Names

The naming of the new roads at the industrial estates beside Taman Jurong came from a different aspect. The names suggested the “industrialisation” and “progress”, and the constant striving for economic success by the new nation in Singapore.

jurong industrial estate roads 1972

The roads were also named using the four official languages of Singapore in order to also reflect a multiracial and multilingual society. For example, (Jalan) Tukang and (Jalan) Jentera, referring to “craftsman” and “mill” in Malay respectively, were named.

Neythal Road was formerly home to the Singapore Textile Industrial Limited, one of the largest factories in early Jurong. To reflect on the new textile industry, the road was actually named as Nesavu Road, in which nesavu refers to “weaving” in Tamil. However, due to its difficult pronunciation, it was later renamed as Neythal Road. Neythal means “to weave as clothes” in Tamil.

jurong industrial estate development 1960s

The roads at present-day Soon Lee, Wan Lee, Kwong Min and Fan Yoong were all given auspicious names, as they literally mean “successfully” (顺利), “lucrative”, (万利), “promising” (光明) and “prosperity” (繁荣).

Jurong or Peng Kang?

The Jurong Industrial Estate was in fact developed within the Peng Kang (平港) vicinity, which was roughly situated between West Coast and Tuas. The vicinity of old Jurong, where Jurong West is today, was actually located north of Peng Kang. Jalan Peng Kang, later renamed as Corporation Road, was the main road leading to Peng Kang. Today, the name Peng Kang is a stranger to most Singaporeans, and has largely vanished into history with the exception of Peng Kang Hill at Pasir Laba.

jurong industial estate 1960s

Demolition of Old JTC Flats

When EDB was given the task to develop Taman Jurong between 1962 and 1968, it oversaw the construction of a total of 4,465 housing units and 150 shops. When JTC took over the responsibility in 1968, another 5,021 housing units and 40 shops were built. By the end of 1975, the residential district of Taman Jurong, bounded by Corporation Road, Yung Ho Road and Yuan Ching Road, was considered officially completed.

taman jurong 1970s

Out of the total 9,486 housing units, 2,104 were 1-room units, 1,522 were 2-room, 818 were 4-room and only 2 were 5-room. The 3-room units were the most common housing size; there was a total of 4,810 3-room units.

In 1982, the Housing Development Board (HDB) took over the management of JTC flats. By then, the aging low-storey EDB and JTC flats were mostly used as rental units to the lower-income population, and the frequent blackouts and disruptions in water supplies caused great inconvenience to the residents.

taman jurong 1990s

In the mid-eighties, Singapore was hit by its first post-independence recession. HDB nevertheless put up a renewal plan to replace the old EDB and JTC flats with new high-rise 4-room and 5-room flats. At the same time, new units at both Jurong East and West were built and made available for the residents. The demolition of the old flats would be carried out in six phases, and more than 100 blocks were pulled down, with the first batch at Corporation Road, Yung Ho Road and Yung Loh Road affected.

yung kuang road jtc flats 2012

Only a few blocks of JTC flats at Taman Jurong still survive today; the most recent to be bulldozed were the H-shaped flats at Yung Kuang Road in 2013.

The Diamond Icon

The four 21-storey blocks at the junction of Corporation Road and Yung Kuang Road, forming an unique diamond shape, were an eye-catching landmark at old Taman Jurong. Constructed at a cost of $4 million, it stood out in the early seventies, as most of the flats at the vicinity were low-storey blocks. The diamond-shaped flats easily became Taman Jurong’s centre of focus in both residential and commercial activities.

taman jurong diamond flats

taman jurong diamond flats2

taman jurong diamond flats3

Fondly known as the diamond blocks or “ji sap ek lau” (twenty-one storey in Hokkien), the four flats were previously under the demolition plan, but are now used as rental flats for the foreign workers and lower-income families. Most of the shops at the first levels had closed. The NTUC Fairprice, however, is still going strong today. Officially opened in May 1983 by the former Minister for Communications Ong Teng Cheong, it is one of the oldest NTUC Fairprice outlets in Singapore.

An unique feature about the older Taman Jurong flats was that, unlike the new HDB flats elsewhere, void decks were uncommon. Most of the former EDB and JTC flats, due to their low-storey designs, had their first levels occupied either by housing units or shops.

taman jurong diamond flats4

Taman Jurong also had its private hospital. Named Jurong Hospital, it was located at the junction of Corporation Drive and Yung Kuang Road and was the only private hospital in the western part of Singapore since 1970. With an initial 24 beds, and later increased to 46 in the mid-eighties, it served the factory workers and residents at Jurong. Today, it is known as West Point Hospital.

Published: 28 January 2015

Posted in General, Historic | 8 Comments

The Clock is Ticking on Singapore’s Last Village

kampong lorong buangkok 2015

The Last Kampong on Mainland Singapore

Lorong Buangkok was originally a swampy area. In 1956, a traditional Chinese medicine seller named Sng Teow Koon bought a piece of land at Lorong Buangkok and rented it to several Chinese and Malay families, which gradually formed a kampong over the years.

The closely-knitted kampong went through the racial riots of the sixties. Both the Chinese and Malay residents agreed to look after one another during the turbulent periods and keep the village unaffected by the external chaos. When the peaceful time returned, the village was actively engaged in gotong royong, helping each other in the construction and repairs of houses.

kampong lorong buangkok2 2015

Today, the piece of land that Kampong Lorong Buangkok is standing on, about the size of three football fields, is owned by Sng Mui Hong, the daughter of Sng Teow Koon. Around 28 families are still living in this rustic village, paying tokens as monthly rentals to the landlord. There is also a kampong head, who takes care of the surau, daily prayers and other Muslim affairs within the village.

kampong lorong buangkok3 2015

kampong lorong buangkok4 2015

Flood-Prone Area

Lorong Buangkok has been a low-lying area that is prone to flooding during thunderstorms. So much so that Kampong Lorong Buangkok was once also known as Kampong Selak Kain, which means “lifting up one’s sarong” in Malay, as the residents had to lift up their sarongs to their knee levels in order to walk through the waters during the flooding.

In 1976, the kampong was hit hard by a downpour that lasted three hours. Some 40 Malay families were affected and had their Hari Raya preparation ruined as their beds, furniture and curtains were soiled by the flood water that covered the entire lorong.

kampong lorong buangkok flooded 1976

History of Lorong Buangkok

Lorong Buangkok used to be part of the Punggol constituency, represented by Ng Kah Ting who served as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Punggol for 28 years between 1963 and 1991.

In 1978, after several requests, the government approved a $770,000 project to metal 15 muddy trails at Lorong Buangkok and Cheng Lim Farmways. The upgrading took almost three years. By the early eighties, the residents of Punggol and Lorong Buangkok finally had new tarmac roads flanked by brightly-lit street lamps.

chinese attap house at lorong buangkok 1980s

chicken farm at lorong buangkok 1980s

The Cheng Lim Farmways was a network of roads between farms and plantations at the southern part of old Punggol (where Sengkang’s Anchorvale neighbourhood is today), linked by a small trail named Lorong Buangkok Kechil (kechil means “little” in Malay). Lorong Buangkok had its network of farmways too; there were Buangkok North Farmways 1 to 4 and Buangkok South Farmways 1 to 4.

On the eastern side of Lorong Buangkok were the Seletar East Farmways, which had been redeveloped into the Fernvale neighbourhood of Sengkang. To cross over to either side, the residents and farmers of Lorong Buangkok, Cheng Lim and Seletar East made use of a simple bridge that spanned across Sungei Tongkang, an extension of the main Sungei Punggol.

Sungei Tongkang – From Stream to Canal

For years, the sluggish and narrow Sungei Tongkang was the main cause of the numerous flooding at Kampong Lorong Buangkok. The stream tend to overflow during downpours. In 1979, the Ministry of Environment’s Drainage Division decided to widen and deepen Sungei Tongkang, and convert it into a canal at a cost of around $1.8 million. Works were also carried out at the upper and lower parts of the river to ensure the water flowed smoothly.

Despite the upgrading, the kampong still suffered from occasional floods. It was especially hit hard by one as recent as 2004.

sungei tongkang canal 1979

sungei tongkang canal 2015

All the farmways above-mentioned were expunged by the early nineties, with their vegetable, chicken and pig farms demolished. The clusters of villages scattered around Lorong Buangkok, Cheng Lim and Seletar were also gone, making way for the development of the Punggol and Sengkang New Towns in the late nineties.

The housing estates of Fernvale, Anchorvale and Buangkok Crescent were up and running between 2002 and 2004, surrounding Kampong Lorong Buangkok, the last village standing in the vicinity. A jogging track and park connector were constructed in the late 2000s along the canal that was previously Sungei Tongkang.

lorong buangkok development 2009-2014

Development and Possible Demolition?

By the mid-2014, the vast forested area beside the kampong was bulldozed, confining the Kampong Lorong Buangkok to its remaining strip of vegetation sandwiched between the canal and the cleared land. The new parcel of land is likely to be reserved for an extension of the existing Buangkok Crescent housing estate.

lorong buangkok development 2015

lorong buangkok development2 2015

As for the kampong, it is not sure how much longer it will be able to hang on. After withstanding the test of time for the past 60 years, the clock, for now, seems to be ticking fast on Kampong Lorong Buangkok’s eventual demolition as development is inching ever closer to the last village of Singapore.

Updated: 13 January 2015

Posted in Exotic, General | 11 Comments

Farewell to the Former Queenstown Driving Test Centre

Over the years, the old Queenstown has seen its former buildings torn down one by one. Like the Forfar House (1959-1995), Queenstown/Queensway Cinema (1977-1999, demolished in 2013), Commonwealth Avenue Hawker Centre (1969-2011) and many others, the latest building to go is the former Queenstown Driving Test Centre, located between Commonwealth Avenue and Dundee Road. Its 10,500-square-meter site, roughly the size of two football fields, is to be redeveloped with new condominiums.

former queenstown driving centre

Singapore’s Second Driving Test Centre

Built in 1968 at a cost of $285,000, the Queenstown Driving Test Centre was Singapore’s second driving test centre after the one at Maxwell Road. Design with a state-of-the-art concept, the driving centre allowed 14 driving instructors to conduct as many as 300 tests in driving proficiency and Highway Code in a day. This was able to take some pressure off the Maxwell Road Driving Test Centre, which was facing increasing traffic congestion along Maxwell Road by the sixties.

former queenstown driving centre2

former queenstown driving centre8

In early 1969, the Queenstown Driving Test Centre was officially opened by Yong Nyuk Lin, the former Minister for Communications. An interesting trivia about the former driving centre was its driving test method. For the theory portion, the candidate would have to “drive” a miniature toy car on a model designed with traffic lights, pedestrian crossings and road markings. The tester would then ask the candidate questions in order to check his or her responses to different traffic conditions.

l-plated cars along commonwealth avenue 1970s

Beside conducting driving tests, the Queenstown Driving Centre in the early seventies also functioned as a centre for renewal of road taxes and driving licenses for all classes of vehicles. In 1973, the Public Service Vehicles Training School was held at the driving centre, providing refresher courses for bus drivers and conductors on traffic rules, road courtesy, and responsibility, conduct and attitude towards passengers.

former queenstown driving centre3

In January 1974, the Registry of Vehicles passed a new ruling, stating that learner-drivers and motorcyclists must pass their Highway Code before they could be granted provisional licenses. This caused a surge in the number of applicants. The Queenstown Driving Test Centre, by 1976, was facing the same issue as what the Maxwell Road Driving Centre faced in the sixties. As the number of candidates applying for provisional driving licenses increased, the waiting period for its driving tests was stretched to five to six months, compared to the three months’ waiting period at Maxwell Road Driving Centre.

former queenstown driving centre4

former queenstown driving centre5

Due to the increasing demands, two additional levels were added to the Queenstown Driving Centre in 1975. The upgrading project was undertaken by the Public Works Department (PWD), allowing the floor space of the building to increase from 431 to 1,295 square meters. The ground level was converted into a waiting area, a collection centre and offices for the chief tester and cashier, while the second floor was mostly made up of classrooms.

Other Driving Test Centres

In May 1977, in order to decentralise testing centres in Singapore, a driving centre was established at Jurong, the first of such driving centres to be set up in an outlying area. The new driving centre rented its premises from the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) and hired experienced testers from the Maxwell Road and Queenstown driving centres. Learner drivers took their tests conducted around Jalan Ahmad Ibrahim, Jalan Boon Lay, Boon Lay Way and Yuan Ching Road.

A year later, two more driving centres were opened as part of the Registry of Vehicles’ decentralisation plan; the Kampong Ubi Driving Test Centre was set up at Block 26 Eunos Crescent, and the other driving centre was located at Block 7 Toa Payoh Lorong 8.

kampong ubi driving centre 1986

In September 1985, the Singapore Safety Driving Centre was opened at Ang Mo Kio Street 62. The new driving centre came with a modern driving test circuit and facilities that simulated realistic road conditions for the learner drivers. Another similar driving centre was built at Bukit Batok in 1989 at a cost of $9 million.

Conversion into a Police Centre

In 1995, after 28 years of services, the former Queenstown Driving Test Centre was shut down. Its premises were occupied by the Queenstown Neighbourhood Police Centre between 1997 and 2005. Although the building was later leased to private colleges until 2011, many of its rooms still retained the signature Dacron blue colour of the Singapore Police Force.

former queenstown driving centre6

former queenstown driving centre7

Like the Queenstown Driving Test Centre, the Maxwell Road Driving Test Centre was taken over by the Traffic Police in 1978, with its Accident Branch relocated from the Sepoy Lines.

Published: 26 December 2014

Posted in Historic | 5 Comments