The much-advertised English drama Mata.Mata has finally made its debut on Channel 5 last night.
Mata refers to eye in Malay, but mata-mata generally means policeman (or watchman), where a patrolling policeman of the olden days was the “one on all eyes”. The local Chinese “borrowed” the word and instead used the shortened version to refer to police. “mata chu“, for example, refers to the police station. Like the word “kopitiam“, it is an unique mixture of Chinese dialects and Malay that is not found anywhere else except Singapore and Malaysia.
The Early Police Force (1819-1826)
Established in 1819, the history of the local police force was as old as the modern Singapore itself. Running on a monthly budget of 300 Indian rupees, Singapore’s first Police Chief, Francis James Bernard (son-in-law of Singapore’s first Resident William Farquhar), had 11 staffs under his command: a sergeant, eight constables, a jail warden and a Malay administrator.
The First Police Station
The first police station, however, only came into existence four years later. Francis James Bernard built his residence at the southern bank of the Singapore River in 1823, which double functioned as the Police Office with a basement room for prisoners. In the same year, anti-arms laws were passed to forbid all residents on the island to carry weapons, with the exception of the Johor Sultan’s guards.
Straits Settlements Police (1826-1946)
When the British merged Singapore with Penang and Malacca to form the Straits Settlements in 1826, the police force in Singapore became part of the Straits Settlements Police Force until its disbandment in 1946.
Different Police Departments
As the settlement progressed and population grew, more police departments had to be established for different specialised roles. The Marine Police was one of the earliest to be formed. With two sampans, a 15-men force (a sub-Inspector, two corporals and 12 constables) and headquarters at the Cavanagh Bridge Police Station, it was set up in 1824 to combat against piracy near the Singapore harbour.
The increasing number of secret societies also prompted the police to establish the Detective Branch in 1886, which was later renamed as the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in 1903. The Police Coast Guards was formed in 1916, followed by the Traffic Police two years later to control and regulate the traffic.
In dealing with seditious activities, the police set up the Criminal Intelligence Department in 1925. The same year also saw the formation of the first Police Force Band. By 1925, the construction of a Police Training School was completed at Thomson Road. The Communications Branch was set up in 1936, while the first batch of Auxiliary Police was recruited in 1939.
Singapore’s Early Riots
One of Singapore’s earliest riots occurred in 1854 when two leading Chinese secret societies clashed. Started from a quarrel over a bag of rice, it quickly escalated into widespread riots between the Hokkien-dominated Ghee Hock against Ghee Hin, backed by the Teochews. As many as 5,000 men fought on the streets for eight days, resulting in the death of 400 Chinese, dozens of shops looted and some small villages destroyed.
Without proper trainings, the small police force were inefficient and incapable of dealing with the unexpected conflicts. Many local residents had to be recruited as special constables to work with the military troops, who were brought in from the British navy ships for the peace-keeping.
Rise of Colonial Police Stations
The late 1920s and early 1930s were important periods in the history of the local police force. The British colonial government decided to invest huge amount of money in the construction of police stations and training barracks in many parts of Singapore in a battle against the Chinese secret societies and triads.
New stations, depots and staff quarters were erected at Thomson Road, Maxwell Road, Beach Road, Havelock Road, Tanjong Pagar, Bukit Panjang, Sepoy Lines, Kandang Kerbau, Joo Chiat and Woodlands. Two of the most prominent projects belonged to the new Hill Street Police Station and the extension of the Central Police Station.
Central Police Station, South Bridge Road
The history of the Central Police Station dated back to 1867, the same year Singapore was established as a British crown colony. It was strategically located at South Bridge Road to function as a police base against the secret societies that had plagued Chinatown for decades. By the late 1920s, the British government decided to splash $144,000 on a new Central Police Station.
The main administrative office of the original police station was retained; new three-storey blocks, made of reinforced concrete and equipped with armoury, detention cells and recreational rooms, were constructed. The architectural design of the new buildings was similar to the Central Police Station in Hong Kong.
The Central Police Station was occupied by the Japaneses military during the Second World War, with several of its detention cells used as torture chambers. By the late seventies, it was decided that the aging building had to be torn down to make way for the widening of Upper Pickering Street. Upon its demolition in 1978, its police staffs were relocated to the former CID Headquarters at Eu Tong Sen Street.
Hill Street Police Station
A massive $494,000 was pumped into the construction of Hill Street Police Station at the junction of Hill Street and River Valley Road. When it was completed in 1934, the six-storey Neo-Classical building was the largest police barracks in British Malaya.
Designed by J.F. MacNair and mostly made of reinforced concrete, the large building consisted of a police station, staff quarters, parade ground and even playgrounds for the children of the European police officers.
Like the Central Police Station, the Hill Street Police Station was taken by the Japanese during the Second World War. It was rumoured that the Kempeitai used the offices as interrogation and torture rooms for the anti-Japanese personnel.
The former Hill Street Police Station was gazetted as a national monument in 1998, and became an iconic landmark with its new colourful appearance. Today, the premises are used as the headquarters of several government ministries and bodies such as the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) and Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY).
Lower and Upper Barracks, Pearl’s Hill
Completed in 1934, the Lower and Upper Barracks at Pearl’s Hill were first used to house the Sikh Sepoys, one of the Straits Settlements Police’s early contingents. The married Sepoys were accommodated at the Upper Barracks, while the unmarried ones stayed at the Lower Barracks along Eu Tong Sen Street.
The first Sepoys were among the first Indians to arrive at Singapore with Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, and were mainly stationed as infantry troops at Tanglin, Fort Canning and Pulau Brani. Known for their bravery, they were later recruited by the police. Many later settled down to form the Sikh community in Singapore today.
The Police Radio Division, with its emergency hotline ‘999’, was established at the Lower Barracks in 1948. The top floor of the building was converted in a 24-hour radio-linked operation room to attend to any emergencies. By the mid-1950s, the division was able to operate with 13 radio networks and a fleet of 60 patrol cars. Due to its strategic location at Eu Tong Sen Street, the police could easily dispatch their radio cars to islandwide operations. One tragic event that shocked the Police Radio Division was the collapse of Hotel New World in 1986, when hundreds of panic calls swarmed the communication centre that particular morning.
After Singapore’s independence in 1965, the Ministry of Interior and Defence (the predecessor of the Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Home Affairs) moved into the Lower Barracks, sharing the buildings with the Police Radio Division. In the seventies and eighties, several police departments such as the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Police Licensing Division, Anti-Vice Unit and the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) were also relocated at the Lower Barracks. The premises were eventually left vacant after 1996.
The Upper Barracks, on the other hand, was a grand three-storey Neo-Classical building that stands on the slopes of Pearl’s Hill and watches over Chinatown. It was also occupied by the Ministry of Interior and Defence in 1965 before being converted into the Police Operational Headquarters. By 2001, all the police divisions from the Lower and Upper Barracks were relocated to the new Police Cantonment Complex.
The wall of its entrance still bears the crest of the Straits Settlements Police. Both the Lower and Upper Barracks were gazetted for conservation in 2008.
Beach Road Police Station
The former Beach Road Police Station was another police station built in the early 1930s to closely monitor the crimes in the city. It stood on reclaimed lands near the famous Alhambra and Marlborough Cinemas, where the seaside was just a few steps away behind the station. During the Japanese Occupation, the building was used as a holding area of the local Chinese, Indians and Jews before they were sent to Changi Prison by the Japanese.
Since the early seventies, the Beach Road Police Station was occupied by the Geylang Police Division and, later, the Central Police Divisional HQ. By the late eighties, it was apparent that its location was not suitable to look after the needs of the new and upcoming housing estates. The police station was eventually decommissioned in 2001, and given the status of a historic site two years later. Today, its premises serve as the campus of Raffles Design Institute.
Traffic Police Station, Maxwell Road
Constructed by the British in 1928, the grand building at Maxwell Road served as the headquarters of the Traffic Police Branch for nearly 70 years. The police station also functioned as a venue for the driving tests in the early days. In 1999, the Traffic Police Department moved to its new office at Kampong Ubi, and the building was left vacated.
It was not until 2005 before the 100,000 square feet site was converted into a Red Dot Traffic design centre and museum. Given a fresh coat of red paint, the easily recognisable landmark of Maxwell Road was presented with the conservation status by the URA in 2007.
Detective Headquarters, Robinson Road
Perhaps the most interesting police station built in the 1930s was the Detective Headquarters at Robinson Road. Nicknamed the “hush hush” house, the three-storey building was specially designed in such a way that any preparations or consultations of police operations would be invisible to prying eyes. Hidden behind bricked walls, inspectors on missions could rapidly leave the station undetected. This helped to halt the collaboration and leakage of confidential information by the corrupted policemen.
Dubbed as Singapore’s “Scotland Yard”, the Detective Headquarters set up different departments to study criminal statistics, photography, fingerprints and analysis of bullets and cartridges. Officers specialised in different Chinese dialects were recruited to combat crimes committed by the Chinese secret societies. The information collected were used to monitor illegal activities such as commercial crimes, prostitution and gambling.
Regarded as the father of the police force in Singapore, Thomas Dunman (1814-1887) was the first Commissioner of Police between 1856 and 1871. The riots in 1854 came as one of the early tests for Dunman, who was then a Superintendent. The small police force could not cope with the widespread clashes, and military troops had to be called in. To avoid repeating the same mistake, Dunman carried out training of his police force, improving its efficiency and discipline. By also maintaining good relationships with various communities, Dunman was able to gain first-hand information of the incidents in the city. Under his leadership, there was soon a significant decline in the crime rate. To honour his contributions, Dunman Road was named after him.
Famous for his campaigns against gambling and communism, René Henry de Solminihac Onraet (1887-1952) was the Inspector-General of the Straits Settlement Police between 1935 and 1939. Proficient in Hokkien and Malay, Onraet worked as an undercover in Chinatown and successfully busted the operations of many gambling dens. In 1922, after his promotion to superintendent, Onraet was tasked to monitor political threats, especially those coming from the communist organisations. He retired in 1946 and returned to Hampshire, where he died six years later at an age of 67. Onraet Road was named as a tribute to him.
With the Special Branch and Detective Branch well-established, the Crown Colony, by the late 1930s, boasted having one of the best police forces in the British Empire. However, all these were undone when the Japanese forces invaded and captured Singapore in February 1942. The Straits Settlements Police Force came under the control of the Japanese and all vessels owned by the Marine Police were confiscated.
After returning to the Malay peninsula at the end of the Second World War, the British decided to form a Malayan Union under an unifying administration. This led to the Straits Settlements being dissolved in April 1946. Penang and Malacca joined the Malay states to form the Malayan Union, while Singapore remained as a separate Crown Colony of the British. With the Straits Settlements no longer in existence, the Straits Settlement Police Force was disbanded.
Singapore Police Force (1946-1959)
The chaotic Singapore society was in urgent need to be stabilised after the Japanese Occupation. The Volunteer Special Constabulary (VSC) was established in October 1945 to help the police enforced law and order in the streets that were seeing the return of gangsterism and secret societies. To make things worse, Singapore was facing the infiltration of communist elements and rising racial tensions.
The strength of the local police force was dealt with a blow after its Sikh contingent was decimated in the Second World War. To make up for the losses, the Singapore police founded the first batch of Gurkha contingent in April 1949. It proved to be a crucial move as the disciplined and loyal Gurkhas maintained their neutral stand during the racial riots.
The First Policewomen
In 1937, Shanghai deployed its first ever batch of 33 Chinese policewomen to fight crime and perversion. The surprising news had many wondered when would Singapore have its first women police. When interviewed, the Singapore Police clarified that there were no plans of recruiting women, claiming that they were not required in the country.
This discrimination lasted until March 1949, when women were allowed for enrolment for the first time. After months of training, 10 female trainees were selected and became Singapore’s first policewomen when they signed on in January 1950. One of the trainees, Mary Quintal, went on to become the first female Assistant Superintendent of Police in 1961.
New Threats to Society
The 1950s was arguably the toughest period faced by the police force, as they had to deal with a series of social unrest in the Maria Hertogh Riots (1950), the Hock Lee Bus Riots (1955) and the Chinese Middle School Riots (1956). After the Maria Hertogh Riots, the first Riot Squad was formed in 1952. It would later become the Police Task Force well known for their distinctive ang chia (red riot control vehicles).
The basic police force in the early fifties was made up of only 3,000 constables and detectives, 2,700 of them Malay and 300 Chinese. To increase its efficiency, the police force went through a thorough restructuring in 1952. The strength of its Gurkha contingent was also doubled to deal with the increasing number of riots. At the end of the 1950s, the police force had strengthened to 4,000. More than half were Malays, with the remaining made up of Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, Gurkhas, Ceylonese, Eurasians and Europeans.
First Police Week
The first Police Week was organised in 1958 to foster good public-police relationship. The public could visit the 12 police stations every evenings during the one-week event. More than 370,000 men, women and children, about one quarter of Singapore’s population, turned up to read the posters, listen to talks and visit the detention cells, guided by the officers and constables themselves.
The second Police Week, however, was held 13 years later in 1971.
Polis Negara Singapura (1959-1965)
Joining the Federation
As Singapore marched towards its self-governance, the police force also received a new name. The Singapore Police was renamed as Polis Negara Singapura in December 1959, represented by a new coat-of-arms with a crescent moon and five stars.
In 1961, a Police Force Amendment Bill was debated and passed in the Legislative Assembly, unifying all police units to be placed under the command of the Commissioner of Police. The Bill also approved the replacement of small individual police forces, stationed at strategic locations such as the airport, Singapore Harbour Board and the Shell Company, by the auxiliary police.
The Polis Negara Singapura was officially integrated into the Royal Malaysian Police Force in September 1963, after Singapore’s decision to merge with the newly-established Federation of Malaysia. At the ceremony held at the Pearl’s Hill headquarters, its dark blue flag was lowered, replaced by the Royal Malaysian Police Force’s navy blue flag.
Song Kok Hoo (1906-undetermined) was the first Chinese to act as the Commissioner of Police, taking charge of the police force temporarily for two months in 1959. His appointment was taken into consideration to prepare Malayans for the top police posts after the eventual departures of the senior British officers. A 20-year-old Song Kok Hoo first joined as a probationary police officer in 1926, before rising to be the most senior Asian police officer in the force by the late fifties.
In 1963, John Le Cain (1912-1993) became the first Asian to be appointed as the Commissioner of Police. Born in Thailand, Le Cain arrived at Singapore at age 2, and joined the Straits Settlement Police Force in 1939. A well-known Eurasian, Le Cain faced many major social issues during his tenure, such as the Indonesian Konfrontasi, racial riots and Singapore’s independence. He retired in 1967 after an illustrious 29-year career with the police force.
20 years serving in the police force and rising to the rank of assistant superintendent, Wilfred Skinner (1936-2003) was perhaps better remembered for his sporting talents as a double international for Singapore. One of the best goalkeepers produced by Singapore in the fifties and sixties, he made his debut at age 18 and dominated the posts for the national football team for as long as 15 years. In addition, Skinner was also the half-back and captain of the hockey national team in the early sixties.
In the fifties and sixties, the police force was mainly concentrated at the city and downtown areas. Hence, police assistance was limited in the rural regions.
A constable was usually assigned to look after several kampong, and it would be a familiar sight to see him patrolling around on his bicycle. Most villagers would welcome the constable as he offered advice and helped to settle minor disputes.
As population grew and kampong flourished, several police posts were erected at convenient locations in the suburban areas, such as Ama Keng, Bedok, Kampong Bahru and Kandang Kerbau. Some of the former police stations had unique names that are seldom heard today. The Wayang Satu Police Station was located at the junction of Bukit Timah Road and Stevens Road, whereas the Rumah Miskin Police Station, standing along Serangoon Road, was later converted into a halfway (rehabilitation and counseling) house for former drug addicts.
Singapore Police Force (1965-Present)
From Khaki to Blue
The local policemen first donned regular uniforms in 1856. Although the designs had gone through several changes, the colour and material used largely remained the same. By 1959, there were proposals to overhaul the design of the police uniforms to present the image of a new self-government of Singapore. The grey flannel shirt, khaki shorts and black beret were viewed as colonial products left behind by the British, and had be changed immediately. The songkok was suggested to replace the beret.
However, the makeover plan did not materialise and it would take almost another decade before the policemen were able to don their new uniforms.
The year 1969 was a significant year for Singapore and its police force. It was the 150th anniversary of the founding of modern Singapore. The Singapore Police Force, already 6000-strong by then, received a brand new design in their uniforms. A stark contrast as compared to the former colonial ones, the new dacron blue uniforms, completed with long-sleeved shirts, trousers and peak caps, would play an important role in helping the policemen maintain a professional look. The material used for the new uniforms was also well suited in a tropical climate.
The Singapore Police Force also revolutionised the ranking system. In 1972, the ranks of Lance Corporal, Corporal and Staff Sergeant were abolished. However, the move led to a lack of morale and motivation among the junior police officers. After much considerations, the ranks were reinstated four years later (but the rank of Lance Corporal, however, was again removed in 2002).
Demolition of Old Police Stations
After Singapore’s independence, the country was facing several issues such as overcrowding in the city and poor living conditions of the people. There was also a severe lack of infrastructure. In 1967, the Urban Renewal Department (URD) was set up to redevelop the central part of Singapore, and it was obvious that many of the former aging colonial police stations had to go.
The Orchard Road Police Station, standing at the busy junction of Orchard Road and Patterson Road, was high up on the demolition list. Constructed before the 1880s, it was one of the oldest buildings in the Orchard vicinity. The police station and its staff quarters, built in 1922, were eventually torn down in 1967.
In the next decade, several other colonial police stations also faced the same fate. The Havelock Road Police Station was demolished in 1969, followed by the Tanjong Pagar Police Station in 1972. The Central Police Station, one of the biggest police stations built during the British era, was also torn down in 1978 due to the widening of Upper Pickering Street.
The Hill Street Police Station, Beach Road Police Station and Pearl’s Hill’s Lower and Upper Barracks were the only colonial police stations located in the city area that had escaped the fate of demolition.
Some of those police stations located in suburban areas were also fortunate to stay on. After its closure, the premises of the former Paya Lebar Police Station were used as the headquarters of the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) and, later, the school campus of several foreign educational institutions. The former Joo Chiat Police Station, built in 1928, has been converted into a hotel and restaurant, and will likely be conserved in the coming years.
The Neighbourhood Police Posts
As new housing estates were developed in the seventies, new police stations were built within the residential areas to bring the Singapore Police Force closer to the community.
In 1983, the Neighbourhood Police Post (NPP) system was implemented in many new towns. Modeled after the Kōban system in Japan, the objective of NPP was to promote community policing. Each small police post was set up to look after its designated neighbourhood, provide assistance and interact with the residents on a regular basis. The NPP system proved to be a success, as it helped to bring down the crime rate and was well-received by the public.
However, the NPP system put a strain on the police force’s limited resources and manpower. After a review in 1997, the Singapore Police Force decided to pool the resources together to form the Neighbourhood Police Centre (NPC) to cover the eastern, western, north-eastern and central regions of Singapore. The Queenstown Neighbourhood Police Centre became the first NPC to be established. Today, there is a total of 35 NPCs in Singapore.
Published: 10 August 2013
Updated: 29 August 2013