“Little Thailand” No More… Rejuvenation of Golden Mile Complex

In the late sixties, the Singapore government launched several urban renewal projects at the city and downtown areas. The land between Beach Road and Nicoll Highway, dubbed as the Golden Mile, was one of the options for development. By 1973, a new uniquely-shaped building Woh Hup Complex – better known as Golden Mile Complex – was completed at the site.

The $18-million Woh Hup Complex was often lauded as an architectural wonder – its stepped terraces, designed to increase ventilation and natural light within the building, created a distinctive image of a sloping façade from far and made it a prominent landmark along Beach Road.

The design and development of the complex was mostly carried out by homegrown companies. Singapura Developments, one of Singapore’s major private developers, was awarded with the project, who then hired local architect firm Design Partnership (DP Architects today) and contractor Woh Hup to design and construct the building.

Woh Hup Complex was opened on 28 January 1972, ahead of its completion, by YK Hwang, the managing director of the Industrial and Commercial Bank. At the time of its completion, it was one of the first large-scale mixed developments in Singapore. The 16-storey building was an integration of commercial, recreational and residential uses, where the top seven floors were occupied by residential units, fourth to ninth storeys by offices, and the first to third levels made up of shops that collectively formed the Golden Mile Shopping Centre. These strata-titled retail shops and offices were marketed by the developer in 1971 to attract interested buyers.

In 1974, the 24-storey Golden Mile Tower was opened beside Woh Hup Complex. Its Golden Theatre was once Singapore’s largest cinema with 1,500 seating capacity. The two neighbours shared an underpass that linked the buildings together. Woh Hup Complex became more popularly known as Golden Mile Complex.

The shops at Golden Mile Complex in the seventies and eighties sold a wide range of products, ranging from electrical appliances, cameras and watches to videotapes, jewellery and gym equipment. There were also technical training centres offering courses. One specialised shop, one of the only three in Singapore, offered sporting firearms including airguns, rifles, pistols and revolvers.

This “selling everything under one roof” concept reflected a change in the locals’ shopping habit. Singaporeans could now drive to the complexes, buy all they need in those buildings, and drive away without having to go to another part of the city area.

Travel agencies had also moved into Golden Mile Complex; it was a common sight to see Malaysia-bound coaches lining up outside the complex, which in the seventies and eighties also functioned as the unofficial terminal for buses plying the Singapore-Hat Yai (Thailand) route. It would take as much as 18 hours for the buses to travel between the two countries. Thai vendors often brought in newspapers, magazines and other Thai goods to sell at Golden Mile Complex.

Golden Mile Complex’s residential units were also in hot demand as they commanded a  great sea view. A typical two-roomed unit at the complex would fetch about $73,000 in 1979.

Golden Mile Complex’s affiliation with Thai cuisine and culture probably began in 1983 when First Thai Siam Snack House, the first and possibly only snack bar in Singapore that offered Thai food, opened at the ground level of the complex. At the same period, the travel agencies at Golden Mile Complex also heavily advertised holiday destinations and affordable air tickets to Bangkok, Pattaya and Hua Hin.

With more and more Thai stalls and shops popped up, food critics praised the dining and shopping experience at Golden Mile Complex as like being at Thailand’s famous bustling Pratunam. By the mid-eighties, Golden Mile Complex was nicknamed the “Little Thailand” or “Little Bangkok”, popularly known for its authentic and reasonably-priced Thai cuisine. It also became a gathering enclave for the Thai residents and workers in Singapore, who felt at home with their familiar Thai music, food and merchandise at the complex. In 1987, there were about 20,000 Thai workers in Singapore, which increased to 50,000 by the mid-nineties.

In the 2000s and 2010s, mookata, a Thai barbeque steamboat, had rapidly garnered a following in Singapore. Golden Mile Complex, over the years, had numerous popular mookata restaurants and eateries occupying the first and second floor of the building.

Golden Mile Complex was plagued by maintenance issues in the eighties, to the extent that 32 angry tenants and proprietors came together in 1983 to submit a petition to the building’s facility management to complain about the frequent water supply disruptions, lift breakdowns, peeling wall paints and defective corridor lights. In 1984, the shopowners and residents had to endure heat and stuffiness for several months after the building’s air-conditioning system broke down.

The toilets at Golden Mile Complex were rated in 1988 as one of the dirtiest and most poorly-maintained toilets in Singapore. In 1991, a fire damaged the building’s generator room, causing a massive power outage for days.

Another issue was the illegal immigrants working and staying at Golden Mile Complex. The immigration officers collaborated with the police to carry out multiple raids at the complex over the years, with one of the largest operations launched in 1989. 370 suspected illegal Thai immigrants were apprehended, where 160 were charged for overstaying, having no documents or having forged work permits. As many as 10,000 illegal Thai workers were sent home under the amended Immigration Act that came into effect on 31 March 1989.

In 1990, a rumour spread like wildfire at the Thai workers’ dormitories and their hangout spots at Golden Mile Complex. In just 10 weeks, 10 young and healthy Thai workers were found to have died in their sleep. It was likely due to the inhaling of the emitted toxic fumes when the workers cooked glutinous rice in PVC pipes.

But many Thais believed it was due to an evil female spirit that took the victims’ life. Some would paint their fingernails and even apply make-ups before going to sleep, so that the ghost would mistaken them as women. A deeper look at these unfortunate incidents revealed the poor and harsh living conditions of these workers. Many had to squeeze into small bunks and resorted to unconventional ways of cooking in order to save money.

By the mid-nineties, the image of Golden Mile Complex swiftly deteriorated in the eye of the public. Rowdy drunkards, frequent brawls, sleazy nightclubs and high-profile stabbing and murder cases were some of the negative impressions portrayed by the place. The complex was also poorly maintained with dirty toilets and stained corridors. Some of the residents patched their balconies with unsightly zinc sheets and wooden boards.

From an architectural marvel in its early days, Golden Mile Complex had become, to some people, an eyesore and was even labelled as a vertical slum by Dr Ivan Png, the Member of Parliament between 2005 and 2006. There were even suggestions to demolish the complex.

After the 2000s, the owners of Golden Mile Complex tried several times to sell the property via en-bloc deals, but without successes. In 2021, Golden Mile Complex was officially gazetted as a conserved building. A year later, with 80% of the strata-titled shop and unit owners agreeing to the deal, the complex was acquired for $700 million by a consortium made up of Far East Organization, Perennial Holdings Private Limited and Sino Land.

The new owners are allowed to rejuvenate the building with incentives offered by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), such as adding a tower of floor area not more than one-third of the existing building and a renewal in its 99-year lease.

Golden Mile Complex shall present its new clean image in a few years’ time. But “Little Thailand”, and all its accompanying memories, good or bad, were gone forever.

Published: 26 May 2023

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The Last Days of Kampong Lorong Fatimah

It was 1989. The Malay coastal village of Kampong Lorong Fatimah was a pale shadow of its former bustling days because by August that year, most of the 40 to 50 remaining families had moved out and resettled at the Housing and Development Board (HDB) at Woodlands, Yishun and other nearby estates. The peaceful rural atmosphere, abundance marine life and sound of lapping waves at the doorsteps of these residents gradually became memories as they got used to a different living style in the high rise flats.

In September 1989, about 1,500 Kampong Lorong Fatimah residents gathered for a final time to bid farewell to their beloved village. A sea carnival was organised by the village committee, with bonding activities such as a sampan tug-of-war. But the biggest event was the jong race which attracted 50 enthusiasts from all over Singapore to compete.

Jong is a traditional small wooden sailing boat, and jong racing is a popular pastime among the Malays, particularly those living at the coastal areas of Siglap, Pasir Panjang and the Southern Islands. A seasonal sport depending on favourable winds, jong racing has been associated with the sea-faring life of the coastal Malays since hundreds of years ago.

In a jong race, the participants usually compete in two races, called “sampai dulu” and “mengganakan gol“, where the winner is the first jong to dash across the finishing line and steer home between two long posts (15m to 18m apart) respectively.

Several local photographers and painters also made their way to the village to capture the last images of Kampong Lorong Fatimah, one of the few remaining villages in Singapore as the country progressed into the nineties.

There were generally two types of houses at Kampong Lorong Fatimah. The better, or atas ones were built on higher grounds and had ready access to water supply and amenities. Some were Malacca-style designed with verandah and stone steps. The others were lower dwellings, or bawah, that stood in the waters on wooden stilts. They were also more likely to be affected by the occasional floods.

A typical kampong house, with a living room, bedrooms, kitchen and prayer room, would cost between $2,000 to $3,000 in the sixties. The space around the houses could be used to plant coconut and rambutan trees and keep poultry.

Lorong Fatimah, a short access road off Woodlands Road, led to the village. At the rear of Kampong Lorong Fatimah were railway tracks that ran between Tanjong Pagar and Woodlands. The residents were used to the sight and sounds of trains plying between Malaysia and Singapore. But unfortunately there were tragedies over the years, when children and elderly got knocked down and killed by the passing trains.

For the tenants who rented houses at Kampong Lorong Fatimah, there was a difference too, in the rental costs. Those houses near the railway tracks were standing on lands owned by the Malayan Railway Administration (MRA); their rental prices were about $10 per month. About 50 out of the 70 houses in the village were within the MRA boundary. The rest were on Singapore’s lands, and their rentals were at a lower $12 to $16 a year rate.

Further down the coast was another village called Kampong Mandai Kechil, located next to the small river of Sungei Mandai Kechil. In the sixties, there were five major villages at the Woodlands area. Other than Kampong Lorong Fatimah and Kampong Mandai Kechil, there were also the Marsiling Village, Kampong Sungei Cina and Kampong Kranji.

Each of these villages had its own surau (prayer room), but the Muslim residents lacked a proper mosque for their religious needs. They decided to form a committee to raise funds and seek a suitable site. It was not until the seventies when the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS), also known as the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, collaborated with the Housing and Development Board (HDB) to build a mosque at the junction of Woodlands Road and Admiralty Road.

The new mosque named Masjid An-Nur was completed and officially opened on 20 April 1980. Known as the Blue Mosque of Singapore, it cost $2.1 million in construction and was the pride of the Muslim community at Woodlands, who waited almost 20 years for it. Many Muslim travellers and tourists from Malaysia also visited the mosque, often their first stop in Singapore, for prayers.

Electrical supply came to Kampong Lorong Fatimah in 1958 when the Singapore Rural Board and City Council shortlisted the village as one of the seven villages in Singapore to receive electrification. Like many other villages, Kampong Lorong Fatimah was also chosen as a venue for free movie shows organised by the Ministry of Culture in the sixties as a recreational benefit for the residents. Telecommunication services were inadequate though; the village had only one public phone booth even in the eighties.

The development of Kranji and Senoko industrial estates in the seventies and eighties ensured there were plenty of jobs available for the Woodlands residents, including those from Kampong Lorong Fatimah. Over the years, numerous residents left the village, while a few families moved in. It was still a close-knit community; the residents mingled together during a wedding or kenduri (religious feast). The peace and harmony of the village was maintained by its penghulu (village head). This lasted until the village’s final days in the late eighties.

Kampong Lorong Fatimah was unique in a sense that it was the only village in Singapore with its entrance guarded by an immigration officer due to its close proximity to the customs. The residents often stayed together with their Malaysian relatives here. At the immigration post, the Singaporeans would show their identity cards to enter the village, whereas the Malaysians just needed to flash their passports.

It was not exactly known when Kampong Lorong Fatimah first started. It might began just after the war, and gradually grew in size over the years. The village was named after Fatimah binte Haji Haron (1893-undetermined), a Malay women’s activist who advocated education for Malay women. She established the first branch of a Malay girls’ school called Sekolah Menysal (“School of Disappointments”) at Arab Street in 1945, where Malay women from 15 to 60 years old could enrol. In 1948, Fatimah binte Haron was appointed as a Justice of Peace, along with 17 other prominent women, by the colonial government for her contributions to the society.

Fatimah binte Haron was married to Tengku Kadir, a member of the Kampong Glam royal family. She also served as the secretary, and later president, of the Ladies Section of the Malay Union in Singapore. For Kampong Lorong Fatimah, she also helped them built a surau and other improvements to the village.

Years after the village was vacated and demolished, some residents still returned to the site to reminisce the good old days. The area, acquired by the government, underwent land reclamation works in the early nineties followed by the construction of a new checkpoint complex and roads. The new Woodlands CIQ (customs, immigration and quarantine) Complex, also known as Woodlands Checkpoint, was eventually opened on 18 July 1999. By then, Kampong Lorong Fatimah had walked into history for nearly a decade.

Published: 26 April 2023

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A Vanishing “Countryside” of Horse Stables and Lush Greenery

This used to be a go-to place for horse riding and coffee drinking. Tucked at the end of Fairways Drive, off Eng Neo Avenue, the horse stables and rustic surroundings resemble a quiet countryside unlike other parts of Singapore.

But the decades of peace and tranquility ended in 2023 when the area was earmarked for the redevelopment and tunneling works of the new Cross Island Line, Singapore’s eighth Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) line. A new Turf City MRT Station will be built under the former racetracks during the Phase II of the project and is expected to be completed by 2032.

The history of horse-racing in Singapore went all the way back to the mid-20th century, when the Singapore Turf Club was founded in 1842 at Farrer Park. The first race was organised in the following year.

Singapore Turf Club went on to acquire the Bukit Timah Rubber Estate in 1927 and built Singapore’s second racecourse in 1933, which became commonly known as the Bukit Timah Turf Club.

In 1941, due to the impending war, the British military took over the turf club’s premises and converted the grandstand and adjacent buildings into a convalescent hospital. The stables and syces’ quarters were used to store military transport. Obstacles were placed on the racetracks to prevent the Japanese planes from landing.

During the Japanese Occupation, the turf club’s premises was taken over by the Japanese to be used as a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp. The finest horses were confiscated and shipped to Japan, whereas the lawns were planted with banana, papaya, tapioca and other vegetables.

When the British returned after the war, they found the racecourse and buildings in shambles and filled with damaged military vehicles and equipment. It would take several years to repair Singapore Turf Club before it could return to its pre-war glory days.

In 1948, a British horse owner and trainer Jack Spencer, who had been living in Malaya since 1923, decided to lease some 30 acres of land at Bukit Timah Road to start his private club. At first, the club had only 10 members, but by the Christmas of 1950, it had expanded to 59 members.

In the early fifties, the club, officially named Bukit Timah Saddle Club, had possessed 22 horses and 13 ponies. It also assembled its own team of blacksmith, mandor and 30 syces to take care of the horses. A training centre was also established to train talented young boys into apprentice jockeys. The club’s horses, many of them old retired racehorses from the Singapore Turf Club, became training horses for the new and amateur riders.

Many local movies had loaned horses from the Bukit Timah Saddle Club, which also provided basic riding lessons to the actors and actresses.

After its establishment, Bukit Timah Saddle Club actively participated in gymkhana events at other parts of Malaya. In 1951, it sent nine horses to Penang, competing with other jockeys from Ipoh and Taiping in a number of equestrian events. In Singapore, the club frequently collaborated with the Singapore Polo Club to organise local gymkhanas consisted of walking races, high jumps and obstacle courses.

By 1953, Bukit Timah Saddle Club’s members had grown to 152; most of them were British, expatriates and wealthy locals. It would cost the members an annual fee of $25, with additional $5 for each hour of riding.

In 1975, Bukit Timah Saddle Club, Singapore Polo Club, Singapore Civil Service Recreation and Sports Council and the Singapore branch of the Pony Club jointly organised the first ever international Horse Trial, where Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines and Hong Kong were invited to send their junior riders to take part in this equestrian competition of skills and courage.

Equestrianism was added to the 12th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in 1983. Hosted in Singapore, it was the first time there was an equestrian competition event in the SEA Games, delighting the equestrian fans. However, squash, cycling, rugby, softball and gymnastics were omitted from this major biennial and regional sporting event, upsetting many of their associations and societies.

The Singapore team won four gold and one bronze medals in the equestrian competitions at the 1983 SEA Games.

Bukit Timah Saddle Club in 1988 fell into an internal strife when the club was divided into two camps, one by the locals and the other by the expatriate members, over accusations of double standard practises in the reallocation of stables and resources.

Some members were threatened to have their horses put down and stables closed. This was because by the late eighties, the club had only 82 stables to serve 250 members, resulting in extremely tight space and a long waiting list.

Singapore Turf Club was dissolved in 1988, replaced by the new Bukit Turf Club under the management and regulation of the Singapore Tote Board (Bukit Turf Club changed its name back to the original Singapore Turf Club in 1994).

Bukit Turf Club opened the Green Fairways (Champions Public Golf Course today), the first public nine-hole golf course in Singapore, in November 1990. It was located just beside the Bukit Timah Saddle Club. A minor road was built off Eng New Avenue as a direct access to Green Fairways. It was called Fairways Drive, named after the new golf course.

With the new road, it also became easier for the public to access Bukit Timah Saddle Club. Bukit Turf Club went on to open Greendale Riding School, Singapore’s first public riding school, in January 1991.

The new riding school was meant to promote affordable horse-riding interest among the ordinary folks, hence it offered zero annual membership fees and only charged hourly riding fees. During its peak, it had 300 members. But Greendale Riding School could only manage to last for a few years before it was closed in 1997 due to a lack of qualified riding instructors.

Since the eighties, there were proposals to shift the Singapore Turf Club to other areas – some had suggested Tuas – in order to free up the prime lands at Bukit Timah, as well as to improve the heavy traffic conditions along Dunearn and Bukit Timah Roads.

Singapore Turf Club was eventually relocated in 1999 to a new $500-million racecourse at Kranji. Even though its Bukit Timah site was designated for future residential use in the government’s 1998 Master Plan, the area remained untouched for years and has since evolved to become a place known for second-hand car dealerships and seafood restaurants.

On the other hand, Bukit Timah Saddle Club stayed on for another 24 years after the relocation of the Singapore Turf Club. The retired race horses continued to be re-trained for activities such as show jumping and dressage. The club also became an approved riding and examination centre for the British Horse Society (BHS) in the 2010s.

In end-February 2023, at the time of the closure of its old premises, Bukit Timah Saddle Club had as many as 78 horses. They were all transported to their new facilities at Kranji.

The popularity of this rustic area was also partly due to the Riders Café, which was established in 2007 and housed in one of Bukit Timah Saddle Club’s buildings in front of the stables. The little restaurant was especially crowded during the weekends, where its patrons could enjoy their brunch and coffee in a relaxed lush “countryside” environment. With Bukit Timah Saddle Club’s shift to Kranji, Riders Café decided to cease its business after 16 years.

Similarly affected by the coming redevelopment works is a cluster of old single-storey buildings. It is likely that most of the buildings – 19 of them – will be torn down in the near future. These were the former staff quarters of the Singapore Turf Club. They were built in the fifties to accommodate the turf club’s apprentice jockeys, syces, workers and their families.

The interiors of the buildings were made up of bedrooms and kitchens. The bathrooms and toilets were housed in an external octagonal-shaped building, built to serve the sanitary needs of the residents. During its peak, there were more than 100 residents living in this cluster of quarters. The community even had its own religious places of worship such as a small surau and shrine.

The staff quarters had been abandoned since the relocation of the Singapore Turf Club. The loop around the buildings, which is linked to Fairways Drive, is called Harmony Lane. It still has its old street signage standing at the entrance, but the road is no longer listed in official maps.

Published: 21 March 2023

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The Past of Pasir Laba… Countryside Road, WW2 Fort and Army Camp

Even today, Pasir Laba is an unfamiliar name to many Singaporeans because it lies within a restricted area at the westernmost side of Singapore.

In a 1911 map of Singapore, this area was known as Bajau instead. The name Pasir Laba was then mentioned in the 1915 annual report of the Forest Administration of the Straits Settlements, describing the forested hills adjoining Pasir Laba and the mangrove along the north bank of Sungei Tengah to Tuas. Sometimes known as Pasir Lebar, which means wide sands (on the other hand, Paya Lebar means wide swamp), it referred to the area about 8 miles (12.8km) from Tuas Village which was situated at the end of Jurong Road.

There was also a short river named Sungei Pasir Laba, but had since been absorbed as part of Poyan Reservoir of the Western Water Catchment today. A small tip between Poyan Reservoir and Tengah was called Tanjong Pasir Laba. The public used to be able to drive along the long and winding Pasir Laba Road, off the 16½ milestone of Jurong Road, to the scenic beach of Tanjong Pasir Laba. Due to their secluded nature, both Sungei Pasir Laba and Tanjong Pasir Laba were also the locations for many smuggling cases in the past.

Coastal Defence

Pasir Laba Battery was a pair of artillery batteries, with a 6-inch gun each, built by the British in the 1930s to defend the western coast of Singapore and Johor. The other prominent ones were at Changi, Labrador and Blakang Mati (Sentosa today). Pasir Laba Battery was built into the small hill at Tanjong Pasir Laba. At its highest point, it was about 60m tall from the sea level, and had a clear view of the western Johor Straits.

During the live-firing practise days, a large white flag would be flown 24 hours prior to the shooting. One hour before the practise, a red flag would be hoisted, warning the shipping vessels to keep clear of the waters near the batteries.

During the Second World War, the north side of Pasir Laba was one of the areas first attacked by the Japanese troops during their invasion of Singapore. The enemy used artillery and dive-bombing planes to bombard the Pasir Laba area. Pasir Laba Battery retaliated, but only fired 40 rounds due to the Malayan Command’s order to conserve ammunition in preparation for a full siege by the Japanese.

The Australian Battalions and Malay Regiment were deployed to defend the northwestern sector of Singapore. Pasir Laba Battery was hit several times by the morning of 9 February 1942, and lost its defensive capability. The 5th and 18th divisions of the Japanese army landed at Pasir Laba and Lim Chu Kang, leading to decision of the Allied troops to destroy the guns and ammunition stores to prevent them falling into the enemy’s hands.

Searchlight Stations

After the war, the Pasir Laba Battery and its fortifications, gunpits and bunkers were abandoned and left in ruins. But in the early fifties, the remnants were converted into a searchlight station.

Eight similar searchlight stations were installed along the coasts and islands of Singapore to tackle the rampant issue of smugglers and suppliers for the communists. The stations at Pasir Laba and Tanjong Karang were fitted with two searchlights, while others at Pulau Ubin, Seletar and Kampong Bahru had one searchlight each.

Military personnel, and later police constables, were stationed at the searchlights with transmitter-receiver sets connecting to the police headquarters at Pearl’s Hill. During the curfew hours, after 6:30pm everyday, if any vessels were spotted, the duty personnel would immediately notify the police headquarters who would then dispatch the nearest patrol boats to carry out the checks. The Pasir Laba station came under the newly-created Rural West Police Division.

The fortifications and bunkers of the former Pasir Laba Battery were eventually demolished in the nineties.

Communist Hideout

In 1954, 29-year-old Wong Fook Kwong was re-arrested at a well-camouflaged tent hidden at Pasir Laba. The police, under Operation Eagle, also rounded up 21 men and three women and busted six communist hideouts.

Nicknamed tit fung (“iron spearhead” in Hokkien), Wong Fook Kwong was a notorious leader of the Malayan Communist Party’s strong arm squad in Singapore. 16 months earlier, in March 1953, he had escaped from a Singapore General Hospital lock-up ward under the nose of three guards in a rainy night. The police had since put up a $2,000 reward for his recapture.

Pasir Laba in the late fifties came under the Jurong-Bukit Panjang district. During the elections, residents living at the Pasir Laba villages would go to Joo Koon Chinese School, at Jurong Road 18 milestone, to vote.

Live-Firing Area

In the early sixties, Pasir Laba was used as the training site for the Singapore’s military forces. During the merger with Malaysia, there were agreements between Singapore and the Federation government on the handing over and taking over of several British military sites, including Fort Canning, Sembawang Naval Base, Tanglin Camp, Pasir Laba and Blakang Mati.

After independence, Pasir Laba was officially taken over by the Singapore government, and designated as a protected live-firing area for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). Pasir Laba Camp was built in 1966. In its early days, the camp had mostly single-storey wooden barracks with zinc roofs.

To ensure the safety of the residents of the nearby villages, policemen were dispatched to notify and warn the villagers not to venture into the restricted area.

But a tragedy still occurred in July 1968 when several Kampong Bereh villagers were killed and injured after wandering into Pasir Laba to pick fruits. After landing on Sungei Telok beach by a sampan, the group went into the forest where there were abundant wild durian and rambutan trees. A live-firing practise was taking place during that time, and the explosives killed four villagers and injured nine.

SAFTI

The Singapore Armed Force Training Institute (SAFTI) started from a humble beginning. It was first temporarily housed at the old Jurong Primary School, before moving to Pasir Laba Camp in May 1966 and officially opened by the Defence Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee (1918-2010).

A year later, in July 1967, SAFTI produced the first batch of officers, who would go on to command and lead two new battalions – the third and fourth – of the Singapore Infantry Regiment. In June 1968, SAFTI received its Colours, bearing the insignia of the sword and torch.

To the early batches of the cadets, the rigorous trainings at Pasir Laba Camp were extremely tough. Food was probably another bad memories. So much so that the cadets gave creative nicknames to the food, such as SAFTI chicken (infamously known as inedible fowl meat), SAFTI fish (affectionally labelled Moby Dick), SAFTI rice vermicelli (barbed wire) and the milk tea (longkang zhwee, or drain water in Hokkien).

SAFTI and Pasir Laba Camp also hosted a number of visits and tours for foreign officials and defence personnel from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Thailand between the late sixties and early seventies.

Mishaps

In 1970, an army officer, Second Lieutenant Tay Seow Kai, was unfortunately killed when a recruit fumbled during a hand grenade drill at the SAFTI firing range. Two soldiers were also injured during the mishap. Tay Seow Kai was buried at Choa Chu Kang Christian Cemetery with military honours.

There were also other accidents occurred at Pasir Laba Camp that resulted in the deaths of national servicemen (NSFs). One of the most fatal ones happened in January 1971 when a petrol-transporting three-tonner truck sped down a slope along Pasir Laba Road and overturned, killing three NSFs and injuring another 15 soldiers, including an army captain.

Following the accident, the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) set up a Committee of Inquiry team and implemented several changes and rules, including more stringent requirements for new drivers and only experienced drivers would be allowed at certain higher risk areas within Pasir Laba Camp. In addition, a road engineer was seconded from the Public Works Department (PWD) to carry out a comprehensive survey of all the roads in the camp. Some narrow and steep parts of Pasir Laba Road were adjusted and aligned to provide a safer environment for the drivers.

There was another tragic misadventure in November 1978, when a family of three was killed by an explosion in a junkyard at Lim Chu Kang Road. A 32-year-old man had either bought or picked up a stray blind shell of a Carl Gustaf, a 84-mm anti-tank explosive, at the Pasir Laba live-firing area. While chiseling the shell, it exploded and killed the man, his wife and son.

In the eighties, many people still ventured into the Pasir Laba training area to pluck fruits and fish, even though multiple warning signages had been planted along the boundary. In 1984, Mindef made another effort by arranging a helicopter tour for the press and Members of Parliament (MPs) whose constituencies were located near the live-firing ranges, so that they could educate their residents of the dangers of venturing into these areas, which included Pasir Laba and the Southern Islands (Pulau Senang, Pulau Pawai, Pulau Sudong, Pulau Salu and Pulau Biola).

Despite repeated warnings, in October 1984, three separate fishing groups were spotted within the Pasir Laba training area, resulting in the delay of a live mortar firing exercise. As many as 12 men were arrested. Another group of 12, including three girls, was caught for trespassing at Pasir Laba in 1985.

On 28 December 1987, a 19-year-old officer cadet was fatally shot by a fellow cadet during a night live-firing exercise at Pasir Laba. In the tactical move, Wong Chieu Wai ran down a hill to ignite an explosive, but he could not make it back in time, when his fellow cadet started shooting at the “enemy” on the hill after the explosion.

In 1996, another officer cadet Tan Sek Hong died after he was accidentally shot by a General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) at the preparation ground of the live-firing area. His fellow cadet had loaded live rounds into the GPMG without permission and meddled with it, setting off the fatal shot.

On 4 April 1997, at the Pasir Laba live-firing range, an unexploded light anti-tank round was picked up – a breach of standard procedure – from the training area. Near the firing bay, the round exploded, killing one NSF and injuring another five seriously. The fatal mishap prompted Mindef to suspend training exercises for three days and review all of its safety procedures.

Bilateral Ties

In 1985, a Malaysian army regular, the first ever, completed the intensive nine-month officer cadet course at Pasir Laba Camp. The move to admit a Malaysian soldier in the course indicated the growing relationship between SAF and the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF).

On 28 April 1987, the relationship between Singapore and Malaysia, however, became tensional, when a group of four NSFs unintentionally ventured into Johor’s Sungei Melayu. They were part of a sentry chain set up at Pasir Laba training area to keep civilians out. On the day of the incident, the NSFs were ordered to patrol the Singapore’s coastline in two boats towards Tuas. One of the boats went in the wrong direction towards Johor, while the second boat chased after it.

Malaysia alleged the SAF had intruded their territorial waters and jammed their military radio, and made an official protest to the Singapore government. Singapore eventually apologised in July 1987 after concluding its investigation. The four NSFs were trialed and punished with 30 to 40 days at the detention barracks.

Both countries improved their bilateral ties when SAF and MAF conducted a joint live-firing exercise codenamed Semangat Bersatu (“Unity in Spirit” in English) at Pasir Laba in 1989. It was the first joint exercise involving Singapore and Malaysia’s troops in almost 20 years, since Bersatu Padu was conducted in Malaysia in 1970.

An explosion occurred off a Johor fishing village on 28 July 1991. In the same day, there was a mortar live-firing by the 22nd Singapore Artillery Battalion at Pasir Laba. After investigation, SAF assured Malaysia that all of its mortar bombs exploded within the live-firing area and none had strayed out of the targeted range.

Landmarks

Like other army camps, Pasir Laba Camp often participated in gorong royong for the benefits of the nearby villages and residents in the seventies and eighties. For instance, in 1971, 100 NSFs of Pasir Laba Camp helped to repair the deteriorated Track 46, near the 16 milestone of Jurong Road. Another 200 were involved in the desilting of Sungei Pang Sua (removal of sediments from the river).

By the nineties, most of the small villages and squatter settlements around Pasir Laba had disappeared.

With the construction of the Tengeh, Poyan, Murai and Sarimbun reservoirs, Pasir Laba training area was reduced from 28km2 to 21km2 in the mid-eighties. This area remained designated for live-firing exercises, while the rest of its vicinity, about 60km2 was gazetted as a manoeuvring area.

One iconic landmark of Pasir Laba training area is a small rocky hill named Peng Kang Hill, a nightmare for many batches of NSFs who would remember it as an infantry training ground for soldiers to charge up the hill (cheong sua in Hokkien). Other lesser-known hills are the FOFO Hill (FOFO stands for Fighting On Fortified Objectives, a military term used in urban warfare), Good Morning Hill and Elephant Hill.

Peng Kang was originally referred to the large area of land between Jurong and Tuas, but the name had gradually faded into history. Besides Peng Kang Hill, there are only a few places today still carrying the name and preserving its legacy, including Peng Kang Avenue (inside SAFTI Military Institute) and the up-and-coming Peng Kang Hill MRT Station.

Pasir Laba Camp

Pasir Laba Camp formerly housed the Officer Cadet School (OCS), School of Infantry Specialists (SISPEC) and other military schools and units. In 1980, with the new HQ Infantry established, the camp’s name was changed to Pasir Laba Complex.

It was renamed again, this time to SAFTI, in 1986. But a year later, the government announced that SAFTI would be shifted to an adjacent 50-hectare (0.5km2) plot of land along Upper Jurong Road. The construction lasted about three years from 1988 to 1991.

In July 1995, SAFTI hosted its last commissioning parade at Pasir Laba Camp. It was then officially relocated to the new premises named SAFTI Military Institute (SAFTI MI). After the split, Pasir Laba Camp reverted to its original name. Since then, Pasir Laba Camp and SAFTI became separated only by the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE). The two camps continue to be connected via the iconic cable-stayed SAFTI Bridge, completed in 1995, that spans across the PIE.

In the late nineties, many aging amenities and facilities of Pasir Laba Camp were given an extensive upgrade. Some of the old four-storey buildings that were used as trainees’ bunks were demolished.

Pasir Laba Camp, throughout its history, has been the home for numerous past and present army units and training schools, including the School of Infantry Weapons, HQ Infantry, Basic Combat Training Centre, Infantry Training Institute, School of Military Medicine, Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), SAF Military Intelligence Institute, Army Fitness Centre and others. It also houses an ammunition depot and indoor firing range.

Today, the old Pasir Laba Road signage still stands at the entrance of Pasir Laba Camp.

Published: 26 February 2023

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Memories of the Jurong Bird Park

The good old Jurong Bird Park had officially closed and walked into history on 3 January 2023. It was opened exactly 52 years ago, on 3 January 1971, after two years of construction that cost a total of $5 million.

A bird park in Singapore was the brainchild of Dr Goh Keng Swee (1918-2010), as he brought up the idea in 1968 during his tenure as the Finance Minister after visiting aviaries at Rio de Janeiro and Bangkok. He envisioned such a place of attraction would be beneficial to both Singaporeans and overseas visitors as Singapore was rapidly developing its industries and tourism in the seventies.

In 1968, a 20.2-hectare (0.2 km2) of site at Jurong Hill (or Bukit Peropok) was surveyed and selected for the new bird park, where it was designed by British aviculturist and ornithologist John James Yealland (1904-1983) and aviary architect John Toovey from the London Zoological Gardens. The construction project was undertaken by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC).

Jurong Bird Park would consist of large aviaries that resembled the natural habitats for the various types of birds. Nurseries, breeding rooms and quarantine stations would also be part of the bird park. A tram service would ferry visitors between the aviaries and amenities.

In 1969, before its completion, Jurong Bird Park already had 500 birds of mixed varieties consigned from local donors, London Zoo and National Zoological Park of Washington. Other governments also generously gifted native birds to the Jurong Bird Park. For example, in 1970, the New Zealand government’s wildlife division delivered four pairs of New Zealand birds – brightly-coloured pukekos, paradise ducks, yellow-crowned parakeets and black swans – to the park.

Taiwan’s trade representation office also sent 410 colourful and beautiful Taiwanese birds to Singapore, including budgerigars, Gouldian finches, Formosan blue magpies and Mikado pheasants. In early 1970, the Thai government contributed white breasted waterhens, purple gallinules, little egrets, night herons, Nicobar pigeons, zebra doves, grey-headed parakeets, spotted neck doves and emerald doves.

In September 1969, a rare cassowary, two stocks and a pair of peacocks were stolen from the still-developing bird park. They were later recovered by the police at a Choa Chu Kang farm after tipped off by a bird shop assistant who was offered $800 to buy the birds. The thieves were later caught and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.

The opening of Jurong Bird Park was initially set in the early 1970, but was postponed to 29 June 1970. Some of its areas, such as footpaths, tea kiosks and rain sheds, were still not ready and required more time for improvements. Finally, after almost a year of delay, the bird park was officially opened on 3 January 1971 by Dr Goh Keng Swee. It was one of Asia’s largest bird parks, with almost 7,000 birds of 350 species. Other than birds, Jurong Bird Park also kept crocodiles and a pair of imported deer.

The entrance fees for Jurong Bird Park was $1.50 for adults and 75c for children. It would cost another 40c (20c for children) and $1 (50c for children) for the tram services and visit at the Falls Aviary respectively.

Jurong Bird Park’s debut day saw the attendance of some 1000 visitors, including 300 children. The park’s workers were almost overwhelmed when more than 12,000 people decided to spend their rest day at Jurong Bird Park in the first Sunday after its opening. Just 19 months later, in August 1972, Jurong Bird Park welcomed its first millionth visitor. On average, the popular bird park entertained 800,000 visitors annually.

Despite good reviews of Jurong Bird Park in its early days, it did also receive some criticisms. Its opening hour at 10am was deemed late for families during the weekends (the bird park’s management explained that there were routine feeding and maintenance periods every morning). Some visitors complained about mosquitoes breeding from the still waters at several spots. Others were uncomfortable that the pair of deer looked “miserable” in their tiny enclosure.

On the other hand, poor visitor behaviours were also reported, with some visitors chasing after the birds with sticks and others throwing stones into the crocodile pool. Jurong Bird Park warned that those caught mistreating the birds or damaging the park’s properties would be prosecuted.

In 1971, a scheme of “Friends of the Birds” was launched to allow individuals and companies to “adopt” the birds in order to support and contribute to the maintenance fund of Jurong Bird Park. It was a common practise in other countries’ zoos and bird parks.

On 23 February 1971, the President of Singapore Benjamin Sheares (1907-1981) visited the bird park as part of his familiarisation tour of the developing Jurong Industrial Estate. In May 1971, Nepal’s King Mahendra and Queen Ratna Devi became the first foreign royal dignitaries to visit Jurong Bird Park. Queen Elizabeth II and Duke of Edinburgh Prince Philip toured the bird park in February 1972 during their three-day state visit to Singapore.

One of the most iconic features of Jurong Bird Park was its 30m-tall man-made waterfall that plunged over a natural cliff of Jurong Hill. It was part of the Jurong Falls Aviary (later renamed Waterfall Aviary) where it housed more than 600 free roaming birds (increased to 1,800 birds by the 2010s). Waterfall Aviary was the world’s largest walk-in aviary, and the waterfall, the tallest man-made waterfall, remained a popular photo-taking spot among the visitors throughout the park’s history.

Another memorable feature was the bird park’s trackless tram cars that ferried visitors around the park for its various types of aviaries. The early trams were manufactured in a Jurong factory.

The Jurong Bird Park used to be one of the go-to venues for primary school excursion trips in the eighties and nineties. Other popular options were the Singapore Zoo, Sentosa, Van Kleef Aquarium and Haw Par Villa. The community centres and old folks’ homes also organised regular trips to the Jurong Bird Park.

In the mid-eighties, Jurong Bird Park underwent a major renovation and upgrading works that spanned over seven years and cost $7 million. Covered walkways, automated ticket machines and an air-conditioned theatre were built. New bird exhibits and arenas were also added to showcase different and rare species of birds from other parts of the world. In 1988, the Breeding and Research Centre was established.

Entering the nineties, a new 2,000-seat amphitheatre was installed at Jurong Bird Park. More aviaries and exhibits were opened. The Waterfall Aviary was given a massive $6-million upgrading works between 1990 and 1994.

In 1992, a 1.7km monorail system named Panorail, the second such system after Sentosa Monorail, was built at Jurong Bird Park. The fully-airconditioned Panorail ran a loop within the park, serving three stations – The Main, Lory and Waterfall Stations. Its operations ceased in 2012, and the mode of ferrying at the bird park was reverted to trams.

Jurong Bird Park received its last major upgrade in 2006 with a $10-million revamp that included the setup of Asia’s first bird avian hospital. The government announced in 2014 that the bird park would be relocated to Mandai in 2023 as part of the Mandai Wildlife Reserve together with the Singapore Zoo, Night Safari and River Wonders (formerly River Safari). The new bird park will be called Bird Paradise.

Big John, a sulphur-crested cockatoo, is one of Jurong Bird Park’s oldest residents. Estimated to be of a ripe old age of late 50s, it has been with the bird park since its opening in 1971. Big John will also be relocated to Bird Paradise to enjoy its retirement days there.

The day finally came as Jurong Bird Park was shuttered for the final time on 3 January 2023, leaving behind fond memories for countless local and foreign visitors. For many Singaporeans, Jurong Bird Park was part of their growing up journeys and memories, made up of excursion trips with friends, dates with loved ones and family outings with the kids.

Published: 17 January 2023

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Singapore Trivia – Time Adjustment for Singapore in 1982

Singapore’s 1982 New Year was a little special, as it arrived earlier at 11:30pm on 31 December 1981.

To meet the correct time, Singapore’s government bodies, organisations, companies and people had to adjust their clocks and watches by 30 minutes earlier. The move was to synchronise with the time adjustment in Malaysia, which had their time advanced by half an hour on 1 January 1982. With the synchronisation, both countries’ time were fixed at UTC+08:00 (UTC refers to the Coordinated Universal Time).

Singapore had gone through many time adjustments in history. Until 31 Dec 1900, the British Malayan Mean Time was the standard time in Peninsula Malaya and Singapore. The time was set at GMT+06:46:46, which means the time at both Kuala Lumpur and Singapore then was 6 hours, 46 minutes and 46 seconds ahead of the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

GMT was the international standard of civil time between 1884 and 1972. Although GMT and UTC share the same current time, GMT is a time zone, whereas UTC, officially adopted since 1963, is a time standard that serves as the basis for civil time and time zones in the world.

The Singapore Mean Time was adopted between 1 January 1901 and 31 May 1905. It was adjusted to GMT+06:55:25 for the convenience of the railway, telegraph and postal services and schedules, which were becoming increasingly important by the turn of the 20th century. The Singapore Mean Time was referenced as Singapore was the Straits Settlements’ administrative centre back then.

The previous British Malaya Mean Time and Singapore Mean Time were awkward and confusing due to the minutes and seconds. On 1 June 1905, the Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States switched to the 105th meridian time zone (meridian 105° east of Greenwich), where the time in Malaya and Singapore became a standardised GMT+07:00.

In 1920, the Legislative Council proposed a bill to incorporate daylight saving time like the United Kingdoms, in order to allow staff and workers more leisure time after work. The bill, recommending a forward adjustment of 30 minutes, did not manage to pass, but it was brought up for debate again in 1932. This time, a 20-minute forward adjustment was accepted and the bill, termed as the daylight saving time Ordnance, was passed. The time in British Malaya was adjusted to GMT+07:20 with effect from 1 January 1933.

The daylight saving time was eventually extended from 20 minutes to 30 minutes and the ordnance was amended on 1 September 1941 to adjust the time to GMT+07:30. This change, however, lasted only a couple of months as Japan invaded and annexed Malaya and Singapore between late 1941 and early 1942. During the Japanese Occupation, Singapore had to follow the Tokyo Standard Time, which was GMT+09:00. It was one and a half hour forward as compared to the previous time.

After the war, the time was reverted to GMT+07:30 as the Malaya Standard Time (or Malaysia Standard Time after 1963). This continued for almost four decades, before Malaysia decided to adjust the time in 1981. This was because Malaysia and Singapore had been stuck “in between” the standard time zones, resulting in both places not reflected in the time zone settings of the increasingly important digital technologies such as computers and watches.

In December 1981, the delegation led by Malaysia Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad visited and met Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to discuss on various bilateral matters, one of which was the coordinated time adjustment. The Malaysian parliament had passed the Malaysian Standard Time Bill 1981 in December to give Peninsula Malaysia and East Malaysia one standard time.

Singapore agreed to synchronise the time with Malaysia as it would improve the close ties between the two nations and benefitted the convenience for the businessmen, workers and travellers on both sides. There was no major impact observed for the local sectors in aviation, shipping, finance, commodity, stock trading and others.

Published: 31 December 2022

Updated: 5 January 2023

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The Mosque of Paradise and Street of Worship at Old Choa Chu Kang Road

Al-Firdaus Mosque is located at Jalan Ibadat, a short road off present-day Old Choa Chu Kang Road which, in the past, was between Choa Chu Kang Road 13th and 14th milestone.

Jalan Ibadat is “street of worship” in Malay. The road was constructed in the late sixties for the mosque, which, funded by generous public donations, was officially opened in 1968 by Haji Ya’acob bin Mohamed (1925-1989), the then-Minister of State and an advocator of Malay interests, language and education in Singapore. Many Muslim residents from the nearby kampongs were invited to witness the opening ceremony.

In 1983, the mosque’s management held its inauguration ceremony together with a sports event at Tech Whye to raise funds for its $30,000 renovation project. Sidek Saniff, the Parliamentary Secretary to Trade and Industry and Social Affairs was invited as the guest of honour. Other fund raising means were also carried out by the mosque, such as a donation drive by students on Hari Raya Puasa in the previous year.

The mosque has largely retained its humble appearance throughout the decades. Its surroundings, on the other hand, underwent gradual changes. The mosque’s neighbour Tengah Air Base was transferred from the Royal Air Force (RAF) to the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) in the early seventies. The eighties and nineties saw the demise of Choa Chu Kang Road’s many villages, such as Bulim Village, Lam San Village, Keat Hong Village, Kampong Tengah and Kampong Cutforth.

Rural roads branching off Choa Chu Kang Road were also expunged by the mid-nineties. Jalan Dulang, Jalan Sendok, Jalan Parut, Jalan Bungar, Jalan Ara, Jalan Buey and Jalan Mandar were some of the roads that had walked into history, leaving only a few behind today, such as Jalan Piring, Jalan Tapisan and Jalan Lekar.

One side of Choa Chu Kang Road was allocated for local horticultural and aquacultural production and trades, where aquarium farms, plant nurseries and animal sanctuaries were set up in the areas between Jalan Lekar and Sungei Tengah Road. The opposite was reserved for installations by the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) and Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), where the Army Logistics Base (opened in 2002), Keat Hong Camp (2005) and Home Team Academy (2006) were built.

Choa Chu Kang Road itself was split into two in the mid-nineties due to the extension of  the Kranji Expressway (KJE). The early phase of KJE ended at Choa Chu Kang Road (present-day Exit 5 near Jalan Lam Sam). The expressway was then extended southwestward to link up with the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE), dividing Choa Chu Kang Road into two sections. The road’s western section was renamed Old Choa Chu Kang Road in the 2000s, whereas its eastern section retained the original name of Choa Chu Kang Road.

As for Masjid Al-Firdaus, it launched another charity drive in the nineties for a $100,000 upgrading project. Volunteers sold fried chicken rice and charity cakes to raise the funds. In 1997, the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS) issued invitations to interested parties to take part of an open tender for the mosque’s upgrading works. After the renovations were completed in 1999, Masjid Al-Firdaus was able to accommodate as many as 200 people for prayers, classes and other religious purposes.

In 2000, Masjid Al-Firdaus was among the 33 organisations and companies in Singapore to participate in the Skills Upgrading Program, by actively playing the role as an Islamic institution in promoting culture and pursuing knowledge in life.

Other than the mosque, one can still find traces of nostalgia along Old Choa Chu Kang Road today, such as the old street signages and an original vintage bus stop dated back to the seventies. The former Lam Soon Community Centre building was recently demolished in 2021 to make way for the new Animal Quarantine Centre.

Published: 27 December 2022

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Landmarks of Yesteryears – Amber Mansions

Before the Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station came into existence in the area between Orchard and Penang Roads in 1987, this was the site of the Amber Mansions, one of the prominent landmarks of the Orchard vicinity.

Designed by Swan & Maclaren architectural firm and built in 1922 (or 1928 according to some sources), Amber Mansions was one of Singapore’s first shopping centres. It was named after its owner Joseph Aaron Elias’ (1881-1949) family’s clan name. Joseph Elias was a well-known local Jewish businessman who also had Elias Road and Amber Road named after him and his family.

Besides the shops, Amber Mansions also comprised walk-up residential apartments and office units, hence it was also considered to be the first block of flats at Orchard Road, and one of Singapore’s earliest flats along with Crescent Flats (built in 1909 at Meyer Road), St Nicholas Flats (at River Valley Road) and Meyer’s Flats (at North Bridge Road). For comparison, the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) was established in 1927 and only began building low-cost public flats in the 1930s.

Amber Mansions after its opening brightened up a section of Orchard Road; a remarkable moment considering much of the undeveloped Orchard Road remained in darkness when night fell. A 1923 newspaper article reported that Amber Mansions’ ground-floor tenants Sime Darby and Malayan Motors, with their flashy lightings throughout the night, added considerably to the brightness of the verandah footways and public roads outside the building.

Amber Mansions, before the Second World War, was well-known for its exquisite boutiques that showcased the latest fashion trends and provided high-end shopping experiences to the elite class in Singapore. European women were lured to Amber Mansions’ popular Maison Martin in the 1930s to get their facial and hair treatments and manicures done.

Other than the luxurious shops, Amber Mansions was also home for many expatriate families, whose men went to work in the city area by carriages or rickshaws, and the women played tennis at the Ladies Lawn at Dhoby Ghaut, where Indian dhobies did their laundry.

At three storeys tall, Amber Mansions’ front façade attractively followed the curve of Penang Road, with its ground level shops facing the road and architects and lawyers’ suites occupying the upper floors.

Prominent local architect Lee Kip Lin (1925-2011) once described its elegant architectural style as possibly one of the best-designed post-World War I buildings in Singapore.

The glory days of Amber Mansions never quite recovered after the Second World War. Instead of the uptown stores and boutiques, it began to offer office spaces to the small and medium businesses, such as the Straits Photo Studio which operated there from 1945 to 1955. Others were the likes of travel agencies, course providers and interior design firms.

Non-commercial organisations, such as the Singapore Employers Federation and Singapore Society of Accountants, also set up their offices and conference rooms at Amber Mansions in the sixties and seventies. The British Council, which started their operations in Singapore in 1947, moved their office from Raffles Museum and St Andrew’s School to Amber Mansions in 1968, where they stayed for several years before shifting to Cathay Building in 1972.

Amber Mansions was the hosting venue for galleries too, such as the Swan Tea House and Swan Art Gallery opened in 1971.

Other well-known tenants of the Amber Mansions included the Celestial Room, a popular place in the sixties and seventies among the youngsters who would turn up in their bell-bottoms and miniskirts for Sunday tea dances with off-beat cha-cha.

The iconic old English-flavour Fosters Café and Restaurant, with their signature steaks, mushroom pies and pork sausages cooked by Hainanese chefs, had been operating at Amber Mansions for 20 years since their opening on 1 April 1963.

The restaurant’s founder Stanley Foster, was the buddy of Chiam Heng Luan, who set up the popular Berkeley Restaurant at the Tudor-style Sloane Court Hotel at Balmoral Road. Both men had served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the fifties – one as a sergeant-major and the other a Hainanese seaman-bartender – and became the best of friends.

Fosters Café and Restaurant continued their fare at the nearby Specialists’ Shopping Centre after Amber Mansions was torn down.

Situated just opposite of the MacDonald House, Amber Mansions was also affected by the shocking terrorist act that killed three victims on 10 March 1965. A week later, an anonymous person claimed to have planted a bomb at Amber Mansions. The police quickly cordoned off the building and its surrounding areas, but fortunately it turned out to be a hoax.

Amber Mansions was owned by the Singapore Building Corporation in the seventies. To develop Orchard Road into a popular shopping belt and also to construct Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit’s (MRT) North-South Line (NSL) tunnels, the government began to acquire more than 20 acres (82,000 square metres) of lands at the Orchard area. Other than the Singapore Building Corporation, the major land and property owners affected were Wearne Brothers, Shaw Foundation and the Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) group.

In December 1978, Amber Mansions was acquired by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). It had to make way for the building of Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station. Amber Mansions’ last tenants – Harrows Department Store, University Bookstore, Singer, Benjamin boutique and a number of families – were notified to move out by March 1983. The vacant building was eventually demolished in 1984.

Sri Sivan Temple, Amber Mansions’ immediate neighbour, was also affected by the MRT project. First built in 1821 next to the Jewish Cemetery, it was one of Singapore’s oldest places of worship. Its Orchard Road temple was established in 1850, and had existed there for more than a century. After the acquisition, Sri Sivan Temple was relocated in 1983 to a temporary temple at Serangoon Road for about a decade, before it moved to its present-day site at Geylang East Avenue 2 in 1993.

Published: 29 November 2022

Updated: 12 December 2022

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Farewell to Old Tanglin Halt

A total of 31 blocks – Block 24 to 32, 33 to 38, 40 to 45, 55 to 56, 58 to 60 and 62 to 66 – at Tanglin Halt Road and Commonwealth Drive was placed under the Selective En-Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) in 2014. This is the largest SERS program till date, as Housing and Development Board’s (HDB) aims to rejuvenate the aging housing estate that is already more than half a century old.

Almost eight years after the SERS announcement, Tanglin Halt’s mass shifting has finally happened, affecting as many as 3,480 flats, 200 hawker stalls, shops and eateries.

By September 2022, majority of the residents have vacated their flats; many of them have moved to the new flats at the nearby locations, such as Margaret Drive, Dawson Road and Strathmore Avenue. Likewise, the former shopowners and hawkers continue their trades elsewhere. Some chose to retire after spending decades of efforts in their businesses.

One of Queenstown’s five neighbourhoods, Tanglin Halt was built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in 1962. Queenstown – its name commemorated Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation – was Singapore’s first satellite town developed back in the early fifties. Its first two neighbourhoods were Princess Estate and Duchess Estate.

The first flats at Tanglin Halt were the low-rise flats (Block 57, 61 and 67 to 73) built by SIT. After its establishment in 1960, HDB embarked on the construction of low-cost high-rise flats in the vicinity. There were 47 blocks of HDB flats and nine SIT flats upon the completion of the new housing estate.

While some of the Tanglin Halt flats were sold (Block 50 to 54 had their 99-year leases began in 1964) upon their completion, most of the Tanglin Halt flats started off as rental units. One particular block, Block 35, was used temporarily as a dormitory for HDB workers.

In the late sixties, in order to extend home ownership to as many people as possible, HDB conducted comprehensive surveys to find out the demand, especially among the sitting tenants to see if they were willing or capable of purchasing the flats they were occupying.

The survey results showed that there were strong demands. Hence, between the late sixties and early seventies, the HDB started converting the blocks from rental units to leasehold residential flats (according to HDB Map Services, most of the old Tanglin Halt flats began their 99-year leases in 1969, 1970, 1971 and 1973. Only a couple started as late as 1983).

In 1968, the Tanglin Halt flats were sold at about $4,900 (for two-room units) and $6,200 (three-room units) each.

In the mid-nineties, HDB introduced housing schemes to assist the lower income families to own their flats. For those with household incomes of not more than $1,000, HDB purchased the flats from the open market and resold to them. For example, several three-room flats at Tanglin Halt, after acquired by HDB in the $80,000 to $100,000 range, were resold to those families for $30,000 to $40,000. About 4,000 families benefited from such housing schemes.

In 2003, Block 50 to 54, 57, 61 and 67 to 73 were selected for SERS. At the same time, the sites of Tanglin Technical School and Tanglin Primary School were redeveloped to build the current Commonwealth View (Block 88 to 91), the designated Build-To-Order (BTO) replacement flats for the former residents of Block 50 to 54.

On the other hand, the 50-year-old blocks of 50 to 54 were torn down and replaced with new BTO flats, also numbered 50 to 54, completed in 2015. The low-rise SIT flats of Block 57, 61 and 67 to 73 are conserved to reflect SIT’s role and contributions to Singapore’s public housing history.

In 2008, another batch (Block 74 to 80), built in 1962 and were fondly nicknamed 10-storey flats (chup lau chu in Hokkien), came under SERS. All seven blocks were torn down by 2016. Its site is currently left vacant.

The Tanglin Halt Food Centre was closed on 31 July 2022, and its role as the provider of affordable local food in the vicinity is now taken over by the new Margaret Drive Hawker Centre, opened on 1 August at the revamped former Block 38 Commonwealth Avenue Wet Market building.

Most of the residents, shopowners and hawkers have shifted out of Tanglin Halt by September 2022, leaving behind their empty flats, fond memories and the unbreakable bonds with the home they called for many years.

A few former residents still come back to Tanglin Halt occasionally to gather and chit chat about the good old days. But even that may not be possible soon, as the old housing estate will likely be demolished next year. A new Tanglin Halt will rise again in a few years’ time.

A brief timeline of Tanglin Halt housing estate:

1962

Tanglin Halt was built as one of Queenstown’s five housing estates

1964

Tanglin Halt Industrial Estate was developed

1969-1973

Most Tanglin Halt blocks were converted from rental flats to leasehold residential flats with 99-year leases

1979

Upgrading works were carried by HDB out to install additional lifts for the flats

1985

Upgrading works were carried out by HDB to install aluminum flashings at the flats’ kitchen windows to keep the rain out

1992

Part of Tanglin Halt Industrial Park vacated for demolition/redevelopment

1993

Upgrading works for the park next to Block 50

1996

Upgrading works were carried out by HDB (at Block 24 to 32) to extend the flats’ bedrooms and add a toilet, after 88.5% of the residents voted for the upgrading program in 1993

1997

Clusters of flats at Tanglin Halt were named Tanglin Grove, Tanglin Halt Green and Commonwealth Green

2001

Tanglin Halt flats were repainted with fresh coats of vibrant colours

2003

Block 50 to 54 (old) were selected for SERS
Block 57, 61, 67 to 73 were conserved
Upgrading works for Block 55 to 56, 58 to 60, 62 to 66

2008

Block 74 to 80 were selected for SERS
Block 50 to 54 (old) were demolished
New Block 88 to 91 were completed

2014

Block 24 to 32, 33 to 38, 40 to 45, 55 to 56, 58 to 60, 62 to 66 were selected for SERS

2015

Block 50 to 54 (new) were completed

2017

Block 74 to 80 were demolished

2018

Partial closure of Tanglin Halt Close

2022

Majority of the flats at Block 24 to 32, 33 to 38, 40 to 45, 55 to 56, 58 to 60, 62 to 66 were vacated

Published: 24 October 2022

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The WWII Stories of Changi Chapel, Cross and Murals

The Changi Chapel and Museum is one of the war museums in Singapore, telling stories of the harsh and difficult days of the prisoners-of-war (POWs) during the Japanese Occupation.

When Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942, tens of thousands of British and Australian troops were held at the internment camp at Changi. It also detained, beside the military personnel, the Eurasians and civilians related to the British. Many POWs were later sent to Japanese-occupied territories at Thailand, Manchuria and Taiwan for hard labour, and only some managed to survive and return. It was estimated that throughout the occupation, as many as 90,000 passed through the Changi internment camp.

Changi Chapel

The Changi Chapel is modelled after the St George’s Chapel, one of the small churches built by the POWs during their internment at Changi. It was started by Reverend Eric Cordingly (1911-1976), who was an army chaplain deployed to Singapore in early 1942. Just a few days after his arrival, the British surrendered Singapore to the Japanese.

Eric Cordingly was interned as a POW together with other British and Australian soldiers until the end of war in 1945. The poor living conditions, malnutrition and ill treatment by the Japanese guards saw many POWs perished in the internment camp. Accordingly to Eric Cordingly’s burial returns book, he buried more than 600 comrades during his times as a POW. He officiated as many as five to six burials a week in the month of May in 1942.

Despite the inhumane treatment, the Japanese did not really restrict the POWs’ religious activities in the camp. Hence, Eric Cordingly and the other POWs decided to establish a chapel. According to the archives, there were four versions of the St George’s Church built during the war. The first was housed at a former mosque used by the Indian soldiers of the British Army, who gave Eric Cordingly permission to use it. He would conducted the church’s first service on 22 February 1942.

When the POWs were sent by the Japanese to work on the notorious Thai-Burma’s Death Railway, they also built a similar small chapel – the second St George’s Church – at Kanchanaburi. Those who had survived and returned to Singapore, built two more St George’s Churches at Changi Gaol. For all three versions of St George’s Church, the POWs painstakingly savaged all the scrap materials they could find to build the chapels and their altars and furniture.

Throughout the war, the various St George’s Chapels provided comfort and relief to the POWs, giving them the will and hope to live on.

Changi Cross

After the first St George ‘s Chapel was established, Eric Cordingly designed a cross and asked his fellow POWs to make it for the chapel’s altar. One of the POWs, Staff Sergeant Harry Stogden, was able to construct the cross at the prison workshop using a brass howitzer shell case. Another POW Tim Hemmings used an old umbrella stem to engrave their regiments’ badges on the cross. It became known as the Changi Cross. By the sides of the cross was a pair of pewter candlesticks. After the war, Eric Cordingly brought the cross back to Cheltenham.

The idea of a Changi Chapel museum began in 1953 at the Changi Prison, where one of its hospital wards was converted into a chapel. But as the visits to the chapel grew, it caused inconvenience to the prison’s operations.

Hence, in 1988, Singapore decided to build a replica chapel next to the Changi Prison, where a small museum was also set up. The Changi Chapel and Museum served as the site of remembrance for the visitors and former POWs to commemorate the history and significance of the St George’s Church during the Second World War.

In the late 1990s, due to the expansion of the Changi Prison, the replica chapel was relocated to its current location along Upper Changi Road North. On 15 February 2001, 59 years after the Fall of Singapore, the Changi Chapel and Museum was officially opened.

On the altar of the replica chapel displays the original Changi Cross, which was loaned by the Cordingly family since 1992.

During the Japanese Occupation, other than St George’s Church, the POWs and civilian internees at Changi also set up several other places of worship, such as the St Luke’s Chapel, Our Lady of Christians Roman Catholic Chapel, St Paul’s Church and the Synagogue of Ohel Jacob. Only St Luke’s Chapel and Our Lady of Christians Roman Catholic Chapel survived till this day.

Our Lady of Christians Roman Catholic Chapel was built by Australian POWs in 1944. After the war, the church was dismantled and shipped to Australia. In 1988, the original building was reassembled at the Royal Military College in Duntroon to serve as the poignant memorial to the 35,000 former Australian POWs.

Changi Murals

St Luke’s Chapel was housed at the former Roberts Barrack’s (present-day Changi Air Base West) Block 151. It was where former POW Stanley Warren (1917-1992) painted his famous Changi Murals. Between 1942 and 1943, a very sick Stanley Warren, inspired by his pastor, comrades as well as his faith, carried out and completed the Christian-theme works.

With scarce resources available, Stanley Warren managed to paint a total of five wall murals. He eventually survived the war and returned to England. Roberts Barracks was returned to the British artillery who then transferred it to the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1947. One popular version of the story on how the murals were “rediscovered” was that one of the servicemen, in the fifties, found the murals hidden under the distemper paint applied by the Japanese. Under much persuasion by the RAF, Stanley Warren returned to Singapore in 1963 to help restore the murals. He would return to Singapore two more times, in 1982 and 1988, for the restoration works at the former chapel which had became a part of the Changi Air Base premises.

As the location of the original Changi Murals is restricted to public access, the Changi Chapel and Museum showcases the replicas of Stanley Warren’s murals for visitors to appreciate his priceless works of significant historical values. (Refer to Heritage Tour around Colonial Changi for the original Changi Murals)

Changi Gaol

Built in 1936, the former Changi Gaol was designed to accommodate up to 600 prisoners. When Singapore fell in 1942, the Japanese used it to detain the civilians and families of the British and Australian troops. 3,248 internees were packed into the prison for more than two years. Out of these internees, 2,598 were men, 408 were women and the rest were children.

The filth and misery inside the gaol was indescribable. It was infested with bed bugs and cockroaches, and the latrine buckets and garbage tins were used for cooking and the distribution of food. Hunger, diseases, tortures and deaths became daily affairs at Changi Gaol.

The Changi Chapel and Museum displays an original prison door of Changi Gaol. It was part of a prison cell meant for a single occupant. Such doors had eye-level and knee-level spyholes for the guards to observe the prisoners. During the war, four internees, sometimes up to eight, were crammed into the cell. There were no beddings, so the internees typically slept on the bare concretes inside the cells.

The Japanese guards would use a muster gong to gather the internees for parades and headcounts. This roll call was known as tenko in Japanese, and was instituted in November 1942 at the Changi internment camp. By 1944, as many as 10,000 internees were packed into Changi Gaol, almost 16 times its intended capacity.

The Changi Chapel and Museum opens from Tuesdays to Sundays between 9:30am and 5:30pm, closing every Monday except Public Holidays.

Published: 2 October 2022

Updated: 6 October 2022

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