Changi, best known for the internationally famous airport Singaporeans are proud of. Or, to some, that delicious nasi lemak at the hawker centre of Changi Village. But Changi is much more than that. More than a dozen buildings and landmarks with significant heritage can still be found in this vicinity with a rich vibrant past.
Development of Changi
Changi was originally well-known for its coconut and sago plantations in the 19th century. Its actual development only began in the 1920s after the Army Council in London approved a proposal to convert Changi into a defensive fortress of Singapore. In summary, a colonial Changi could be divided in three phrases: Artillery Base (1927-1942), Japanese Occupation (1942-1945) and Royal Air Force (RAF) Changi (1946-1971).
In 1927, prominent British general Webb Gillman (1870-1933), who had Gillman Barracks named after him, surveyed the Changi area. It was a land of swamps and forests, with three hilly areas later known as Fairy Point Hill, Battery Hill and Temple/Changi Hills. The only accessible route from the city was an unpaved track that ended at the rural police station at the old Changi Village.
Buildings were few at Changi in the 1920s. Other than the attap houses at Changi Village, there was a Chinese temple at Temple Hill (hence its name), a Public Works Department (PWD) government building, a grand bungalow owned by wealthy Jewish businessman Sir Manasseh Meyer (1843-1930) and a Japanese hotel by the sea that housed prostitutes. The wooden hotel by the sea was later bought by the British to serve as a temporary Officers’ Mess for the Royal Engineer team.
Soon, the Chinese coolies and Indian labourers were roped to clear the forests and fill the swamps. The development took three years, with the workers constantly battling against bees, mosquitoes, snakes, heat and the thunderstorms. In 1928, the Royal Engineers, assisted by the Federated Malay States Railway, began to construct a network of railway lines, known as the Changi Railway. The pier was also built in 1928 for loading and unloading of construction materials, largely granite from Pulau Ubin.
The early permanent roads built in Changi were the New Road, Quarry Road and Artillery Road, all of which reflected the historic significance of the early development of Changi. After the war, they were renamed as Netheravon Road, Cranwell Road and Martlesham Road respectively, after other RAF stations in the United Kingdom.
The construction of Changi was suddenly put to a halt in 1930 when Britain was hit by the Great Depression. However, with Japan’s ambitions in the east began surfacing in the early 1930s, the British resumed the work on the Changi defense. By the mid-1930s, the basic military facilities at Changi were ready. The Royal Engineers moved into the Kitchener Barracks, whereas the Robert Barracks were reserved for the Royal Artillery. Selarang Barracks became home for the Gordon Highlanders, the infantry battalion from Scotland. The Anti-Aircraft Regiment later arrived to live at the India Barracks located on the east side of Changi Road.
Sport facilities, cinemas, clubhouses and schools were also built for the welfare and the benefits for the military personnel and their families. By 1941, the development of Changi as a self-contained base was completed. It took 15 years for Changi to transform from a swampy land of forest to a modern military base.
Second World War
On 7th February 1942, the Japanese captured Pulau Ubin but did not attempt to land at Changi. The monster 15-inch guns installed by the British bombarded Johore with little effect. It was a tactical ruse deployed by the Japanese, as they instead advanced from the western side of Singapore. With the invaders rapidly closed in to the city areas, the British had to withdraw the troops at Changi to defend the city.
With the fall of Singapore, Changi was turned into a gigantic prison camp. More than 50,000 Allied prisoners-of-war (POWs) were marched to Changi by late Febuary 1942. Batches of POWs were soon dispatched to the borders of Thailand and Burma for the construction of the infamous Burma Railway, also known as the “Death Railway”. It would represent a death sentence for those who were sent there, as many of them did not survive to return.
A New Air Base
When Changi was occupied by the invading forces after the British surrendered Singapore in February 1942, the Japanese forced thousands of POWs to build an airstrip. It took more than year before the new runway was ready for the first aircraft to take off in late 1944. After the war, the airstrip was not destroyed by the returning British forces. Instead they capitalised on it and handed the airfield over to its Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1946. This permanently changed the face of Changi, as it evolved from an artillery base to an air base.
The withdrawal of British military presence from Singapore began in 1968. The Seletar Air Base was taken over by the Singapore government a year later. But the British was keen to hold on to RAF Changi until 1971.
The final closure arrived on the 15th of December 1971, when the treaties were signed for a complete handover to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). The history of colonial Changi finally came to an end.
The Selarang Barracks was renamed as Selarang Camp, whereas the Roberts and India Barracks became part of Changi Camp (now Changi Air Base). Majority of the former Kitchener Barracks was placed under the management of the Singapore Land Authority (SLA).
Changi & Trees
Changi was likely to be named after the trees that were abundant in the vicinity in the 19th century. The disputes, however, arose from the species of the trees in which the name originated from. The legendary Changi Tree, or sindora wallichii, was a gigantic 76m-tall tree that became an obvious landmark at Changi and had to be blown off by the British with explosives in order to avoid being used by the Japanese as a map marker.
Another species was the timber tree named Chengal, or neobalanocarpus helmii, suggested by Henry Nicholas Ridley (1855-1956), an English botanist who served as the first director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, to be the actual origin of the name Changi. Chengal, however, was abundant in Peninsula Malaysia but not in Singapore. The third possibility was Chengal Pasir, or hopea sangal, but most of the Chengal trees were cleared during the construction of the military base.
The last Chengal Pasir tree in Singapore, standing at Halton Road and estimated to be more than 150 years old, was tragically chopped off without approval by a property company in 2002.
Selarang Barracks Incident
In the mid-1930s, the British decided to reinforce Changi Garrison with the construction of a military camp at Loyang. It was named Selarang Barracks upon its completion in 1938 and was mainly used to house the infantry troops from Scotland. The camp, like others, fell into the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army when Singapore surrendered in 1942.
While the nearby Changi Prison was used to detain the British civilians, the Japanese used the Selarang and Roberts Barracks to imprison the Australian, Dutch and some of the British POWs. In early September 1942, four POWs were recaptured when they attempted to escape from the Changi Prison. In a bid to prevent such cases from occurring again, the Japanese wanted the POWs at Selarang Barracks to sign a “no escape” pledge, but was rejected by majority of the Allied forces’ POWs.
As they had not signed the Geneva Convention, the Japanese had no qualms punishing and torturing the POWs. Under the orders of Lieutenant General Shimpei Fukuye, some 17,000 POWs were forced to gather at the parade square of the 800-capacity barracks. For four days, the POWs had to endure without sanitation and limited water supply. This was later known as the notorious “Selarang Barracks Incident” (other names include “Selarang Square Squeeze” or “Changi Incident”). At the same time, the four captured escapees were dragged to Changi Beach for execution.
The situation at Selarang Barracks’ parade square worsened by each day. The lack of food and water failed to break the POWs’ resistance, but the poor hygienic conditions caused diseases to spread, resulting in rising fatality. To prevent more losses of his men, senior Allied officer Colonel E. B. Holmes persuaded the POWs to sign the “no escape” pledge using false names. The rest of the POWs were eventually allowed to return to their respective barracks.
Selarang Barracks came under the British’s control again at the end of the Second World War. It was later used as a base by the Australian Army units from the ANZUK forces, before taken over by the SAF upon the withdrawal of the British military presence in 1971. The 42nd Battalion Singapore Armoured Regiment was housed at Selarang Camp until its retirement in 1984. In the same year, the 9th Singapore Division/Infantry made the camp their new home after six years at Tanglin’s Loewen Road Camp.
Demolition of the aging colonial buildings began in 1987. Due to the growing demands and expansion of the unit, the premises of the camp underwent an extensive $50-million redevelopment in 1991, adding new cookhouse, canteen, training centre and other facilities. The new Selarang Camp also welcomed the 9th Direct Support Maintenance Battalion (9 DSMB) as part of its family in the early nineties.
Most of the colonial buildings in Selarang Camp, including the three blocks at the parade square, were torn down in the 1987 redevelopment project. The only sole survivor is the double-storey block currently used by the 9 Div/Infantry as their headquarters, Officers’ Mess and heritage centre. For more than 70 years, it stands as testimony to Selarang’s colonial-to-modern transformation.
The building was briefly used as a hospital by the Australian troops between 1942 and 1945, when Selarang Barracks became a POW camp. The stone signage hanged on the main entrance bears the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom and the initials “G.R.” (stands for George Rex) which refers to King George VI (1895-1952).
The other remnant of Selarang Camp’s colourful colonial past is the Garrison Church Bell. The bell was originally mounted on a 30-foot tall structure as part of the Garrison Church, which was built in 1961 as a replacement for the St. Xavier Chapel. The former chapel had held a significant place in many British veterans’ hearts as it served as a place of solace by many POWs during the Japanese Occupation.
The Garrison Church, however, was demolished in 1987 along with other colonial buildings at Selarang Camp as part of the camp’s redevelopment plans. The bell was then shifted to Sungei Gedong Camp, before it finally returned to its original site in July 1999. It is now mounted on a smaller structure that resembled the original design.
The 9th Singapore Division underwent a transformation in January 1995. Joined by the Singapore Infantry Regiment, it became a full army unit supported by both active soldiers and the national servicemen. A new symbolic sculpture was created to commemorate the successful merger. The panther represents the 9th Singapore Division whereas the soldier with his M16 and bayonet is synonymous with the camp’s infantry history.
Today, the parade square that had witnessed the horrific incident still exists but the surrounding buildings have been changed to the modern types. Over the years, many British veterans have paid their visits to the camp. To some, the memories and the emotional scars inflicted by the war years still linger after several decades.
The original Changi Murals are located at the three-storey Block 151 of Roberts Barracks, off Martlesham Road. There were once many similar blocks along the road, such as Block 126, 128, 131 and 144, which were utilised as stand-in operation theatre and sick bays for dysentery patients during the war. Most of them were torn down by the early 2000s, with only Block 151 and its murals preserved by Mindef. The building, however, is off-limit to the public except during special visits.
In the seventies and eighties, Block 151 was occupied by the SAF Boys’ School. The school was established by then Defence Minister, Dr Goh Keng Swee, in 1975 to take in 14- to 17-year-old teenagers, providing them with facilities in studying and training, and, later, the opportunity in joining the SAF as regular specialists and non-commissioned officers.
The school, however, was closed in 1984 due to the lack of premature school leavers. The intake had dropped to 140 from an average of 500 in its final two years. In the same year, a new recruitment concept, known as the SAF Education Centre, was launched. Its Learn-As-You-Earn (LAYE) Scheme provided studies, Basic Military Training and life-coping skills to promising young men who had chosen a regular combat specialist career. The education centre would last until December 2002.
Stanley Warren (1917-1992) was the artist of the famous Changi Murals. He was originally an painter before being posted to Malaya as a bombardier of the 15th Field Regiment Royal Artillery during the Second World War. When Singapore surrendered, Stanley Warren was imprisoned as a POW at Bukit Timah before being moved to Changi in a critically ill state.
Block 151 was used as a hospital and chapel for the POWs during that period, and despite being very sick, a religious Stanley Warren started his Christian-themed mural works, motivated by the encouragements from the chapel pastor and his imprisoned comrades, who risked their life in searching for the coloured materials used for the paintings.
The work on the first mural “The Nativity” started in October 1942, and was finished in time for Christmas that year. In the following seven months, a weak yet determined Stanley Warren continued another four pieces of art (“Ascension“, “Crucifixion“, “Last Supper” and “St. Luke in Prison“). By May 1943, the last mural “St. Luke in Prison” was completed.
The murals played an important role during the Second World War, as they gave hope to the Allied POWs, including Stanley Warren himself, through prayers and worships. The Japanese, however, soon discovered the wall murals and attempted to conceal them with layers of distemper. One mural was partially destroyed when a doorway to a larger office was built. Stanley Warren was subsequently transferred to Woodlands Hospital until the end of war.
Stanley Warren returned to England after the war, believing that his works were destroyed by the Allied bombings. He continued his life as an art teacher at a school. In 1958, the murals were rediscovered by the RAF servicemen, and the investigations and search for the original artist were carried out. It took more than a year before Stanley Warren was finally identified.
Plagued by the terrible memories of the war, Stanley Warren initially refused to come to Singapore. After much persuasion by the RAF, Stanley Warren eventually agreed to return for the restoration of the murals.
He made three trips back to Singapore in December 1963, July 1982 and May 1988 for the restoration works. The work in 1982 was an extensive one. The officers and men from the SAF Boys’ School, which was occupying Robert Barracks during that period, was roped in to provide help to Stanley Warren.
Scaffolding were set up for the restoration works at the top portions of the walls. A bed was also placed inside the room for Stanley Warren to rest during breaks.
The fifth mural “St. Luke in Prison” was never restored as Stanley Warren lost his original sketch and could not remember the details. The original drawing was later discovered in 1985, owned by Stanley Warren’s former prison mate Wally Hammond, but by 1988, a 71-year-old Stanley Warren could only complete the restoration of the fourth mural. It was his third and last trip to Singapore.
When asked about his feelings and experiences about the war, Stanley Warren replied: “There is no problem that cannot be solved without war… I hope that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) would never have to find themselves firing the first shot in anger. War is never good.” In February 1992, Stanley Warren passed away in his home in England at an age of 75.
Old Command HQ
The grand double-storey Neo-Classical-styled building standing at the top of Fairy Point Hill was constructed in 1935 as part of the Changi air and naval defence in the north-eastern front of Singapore. Housing the Royal Engineers, it overlooked the Kitchener Barracks built in the late 1920s around the Fairy Point area. In the sixties, the building was converted into an Officers’ Mess for the RAF personnel.
After the withdrawal of the British in 1971, the building was briefly utilised as a venue of retreats and seminars by private companies and organisations. It was later taken back by the SAF to be their command headquarters. Now popularly known as the old Command HQ or former Commando Barracks, the dominant building was give the conservation status in 2002. The premises is now part of a hotel development at Fairy Point.
They were once the residences of the senior British officers. Others were used as club houses. Built in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the group of colonial bungalows along Andover, Catterick and Luchars Roads formed part of the Kitchener Barracks meant for the Royal Engineers. Like Selarang and Roberts Barracks, Kitchener Barracks were captured by the Japanese as POW camp during the war.
The refurbished bungalows at Fairy Point now belong to the resort group Aloha Changi, and are available for rentals as venues of wedding, family parties or company retreats. The group also owns some of the other colonial bungalows scattered around Biggin Hill, Cranwell, Netheravon and Halton Roads.
Installed in 1938 as part of the coastal defence of Singapore, the Johore Battery was once deemed formidable with its three huge 15-inch naval guns supported by a network of ammunition storage tunnels. The battery got its name from Johor Sultan’s £400,000 monetary gift to the British to install the guns.
The three “Monster Guns” were placed in a straight line facing the southeastern direction along the coast. The coast has since been reclaimed and extended, forming the runways of Changi Airport today. Two of the big guns had firing arcs of 270°, and could be turned in the opposite directions, whereas the third one could only fire out to the sea. All three, however, were proved ineffective during the war.
The Johore Battery was also supported by four smaller 6-inch guns installed at Changi Battery, Beting Kusah Battery, Changi Outer (Palm) A.T.M.B. Battery and Changi Inner (School) A.T.M.B. Battery. All the guns were controlled by the Changi Fire Command located at the top of Changi Hill. Ammunition was delivered from the pier at Fairy Point by the railway, but the tracks were heavily damaged during the beginning of the war.
When Singapore fell, the three 15-inch guns were destroyed by the British to prevent them falling into the hands of the Japanese. Despite their return after the war, Johore Battery was never rebuilt. The emplacement remains of the second gun were removed when the RAF airfield was further developed in 1948. The third gun remnants were demolished during the massive land reclamations in 1975 catered for the development of Changi International Airport.
The ammunition storage tunnels of the first gun remained sealed until their rediscovery in 1991 by the personnel from the Singapore Prisons Department (now Singapore Prison Service). A replica of Johore Battery was built in 2002 at the original site of the first gun.
Changi Prison (Former)
The last of the four prisons to be built by the British, the Changi Prison was completed and operationalised in 1936 as a maximum-security civilian prison. When it fell into the Japanese’s hands during the Second World War, the prison acted as the headquarters of the notorious Kempeitai. It was also used to house 3,000 British civilians living in Singapore, five times the 600-capacity of the prison.
Several chapels were built by the POWs during the occupation. In 1988, a replica of the Old Changi Prison Chapel and Museum was commissioned by the Singapore government to remember those who had suffered and died during the darkest period in the country’s history. It was later replaced by the Changi Museum in 2001.
In 2004, the old Changi Prison was demolished and replaced by a new state-of-the-art prison facility. Its iconic entrance gateway, formerly known as the Gaol Gates, was retained and reinstalled at the new Changi Prison.
Changi Hospital (Old)
The British built the Royal Air Force (RAF) Hospital in 1935 with the primary objective to serve the Royal Engineers, Royal Artillery and the Gordon Highlanders stationed at the Kitchener, Robert and Selarang Barracks respectively.
In the next 60 years, the hospital experienced several ups and downs. After being occupied by the Japanese as a prison camp, it was returned to the British at the end of the war, and was later converted into an ANZUK hospital in 1971 to serve the Australia, New Zealand and United Kingdom military personnel.
The Singapore government took over the hospital in 1975, and renamed it as the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Hospital. A year later, it became known as Changi Hospital after its merger with the nearby Changi Chalet Hospital. Its operations lasted until 1997 after which the hospital was vacated till today. It would later become the infamous Old Changi Hospital which many Singaporeans are familiar of due to its fair share of supernatural stories.
The British built their administrative buildings at Hendon Road between 1930 and 1936. The blocks of 35, 36 and 42, in particular, played important roles in the colonial history of Changi.
The 35- and 36-numbered blocks functioned as the Far East Air Force Headquarters after the war, housing both the RAF Malaya and Singapore. RAF Changi became the central focus of military operations, especially during the Malayan Emergency years, when its squadrons were heavily involved in the anti-communist operations. Meanwhile, Block 42 served as the post-war headquarters of the Royal Engineers, which had largely contributed to the development of Changi in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Hendon cluster consists of about nine colonial buildings, all of which have been left empty since the late 1990s. Their current owner SLA has put up a number of the buildings for lease and redevelopment into hotels, spa boutiques, restaurants and sports facilities.
Biggin Hill Blocks
The twin blocks of 52 and 53 at Biggin Hill were built as early as 1928, serving as the quarters for the married soldiers. Other blocks, intended for the unmarried military personnel, were completed at a much later time, in around mid-1930s.
Biggin Hill held a significant place in the hearts of some war veterans as it was the site of the “Changi University”, a makeshift university founded in 1942 by a group of scholars from Raffles College and other institutions. They provided seven faculties of courses to some 2,000 prisoners-of-war undergraduates locked in Changi. Using books and materials from other libraries, the lectures were conducted for a short six months before the university was forcefully shut down by the Japanese. After its closure, the majority of the lecturers and students were sent to Siam (now Thailand) for forced labour. Many of them died and did not return.
The blocks are currently being used as part of a nursing home called Orange Valley.
Civil Service Club
One of the oldest buildings at Changi, the club bungalow was built in the early 20th century by wealthy Jewish businessman Sir Manasseh Meyer (1843-1930), who contributed much of his wealth to the society, especially the Jewish community in Singapore. His Changi bungalow was purchased by the British in 1933 to be served as a school for the families of the military personnel stationed in the vicinity.
During the Japanese Occupation, the building, like many others in Changi, was used to house some of the POWs. After the war, it became a transit hotel for the RAF pilots, before being converted into a clubhouse today. The Civil Service Club is currently undergoing an intensive renovation.
The Art Deco-styled single-storey building called The Turnhouse was built by the British in 1934, possibly for recreational purposes. The road leading to it was called Turnhouse Road, named after the building itself. Since 2007, it has been leased to Ponggol Choon Seng, a famous seafood restaurant best remembered for its extremely popular outlet at the old Punggol Jetty in the eighties.
Manston Road Blocks
The three similar triple-storey blocks of 79, 80 and 81 were built in 1938 around the out-of-bound Manston Road. Consisted of infant school, junior school and a publication centre, the area was well designated for the families of the RAF personnel in the sixties.
The blocks are now used by the Singapore Technologies (ST) Logistics and 708 Squadron.
Changi Air Base Medical Centre (Former)
Located at a gentle slope beside Digby Road, the three single-storey blocks numbered 137, 137A and 137B were built in 1941, as indicated on the facade of the main block. The premises used to serve as the Roberts Barracks’ dental centre and station sick quarters during the sixties.
Little information was known about the functionality of the buildings between the early seventies, after the withdrawal of the British forces, and the mid-nineties, but the premises was reused and officially reopened as the Changi Air Base Medical Centre in June 1996. This last until the 2000s when it was vacated and abandoned.
The forgotten buildings rapidly fell into disrepair after a couple of years, gradually being taken over by nature as the overgrown greenery creeps their way onto the pavements and corridors. Leftover medical items, fallen trays and dilapidated furniture could still be found inside the rooms.
Today, Digby Road appears quiet and serene, constantly lying under the shadows cast by the thick canopies of the trees on both flanks of the streets. The trees, no matter how tall they grow, can no longer match the height of the legendary Changi Tree that once stood proudly nearby.
Changi Village Road
First existed as a long unmetalled muddy track in the early 20th century, the road was the only accessible path between the city and the old Changi Village. It was later named Changi Road when the vicinity was being developed into a military base in the 1930s. The road was over 8km long, spanning between present-day Expo and the new Changi Village. Changi Road was renamed as Changi Village Road in the eighties, and a portion of it was absorbed into Changi Air Base in the early 2000s and became restricted to public access.
The old Changi Road 14th milestone is now the junction of Changi Village Road and Loyang Avenue, where the Sree Ramar Temple stands.
Sree Ramar Temple
Sree Ramar Temple started as a small shrine under a tree in its present site. Ram Naidu, a personnel from the British Indian Army, managed to secure the land from the British in 1946 to build a permanent temple called Raman Temple. It was dedicated to Hindu deity Rama, and the temple became popular with the Indian workers of RAF. Facing the east and overlooking the sea, it was believed that the temple acted as the guardian of the village. Almost forced to relocate in the 1980s, the temple managed to secure its premises through the appeals by its devotees. Today, it becomes a part of Changi’s rich heritage.
Heritage Tour Map
Some of the colonial buildings left behind the British in the Changi vicinity were demolished in the past years. Most are left intact, although many have been vacated and abandoned for many years. In recent years, there are many development plans drawn for this vicinity. While it may look beneficial to turn the buildings into commercial entities such as hotels or boutiques, it is also important to seek a balance between redevelopment and preservation.
(Editor’s Note: Appreciation to Mindef for the heritage tour around Selarang Camp and Changi Air Base West organised on 14 September 2013)
Published: 20 September 2013
Updated: 6 September 2021