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.


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.


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.


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

  1. William R. says:

    Very interesting read. I have visited the road once, but could not enter the military area. Its intriguing to have read more about its past. I think i will head down again sometime.

    • Now the Pasir Laba Road is already shortened, the southern part is called Wrexham Road and the western part of Pasir Laba Road is also considered Wrexham Drive.

      Wrexham Drive is from the Tuas Checkpoint and ITTC site.

  2. Narinderpal Singh Bhalla says:

    Brought back fond memories of my training in Areas A, B, C, D, and E between 1965 and 1976.

  3. Former SAFTI married quarters, nicknamed SAFTI Hilton, along Upper Jurong Road (near the Pasir Laba Flyover, Exit 40 of PIE).

    Made up of 3 blocks (Block 517, 521 and 525) that were once the tallest in the area.

    Were abandoned for a period of time but were recently converted into a foreign worker dormitory called Jurong Apartments.

  4. Jin wong says:

    Yes.brought back great memories of my national service days at SAFTI.(1969-1972).
    My best time was then where we made true sincere friends as we moved from one course to the others…basic SBMT, section leader course SISL and officer cadet course (then known as OCT, now as OCS.)
    Today young men going through NS will probably wont get to have the same comaradieship and experience of NS of those days….

  5. Narinderpal Singh says:

    Well said, Jin Wong. During that time there was an urgency to develop the number of soldiers trained for combat. The intense pressure of the training and the cooperative spirit between the trainees led to life long friensdships being forged. Just look at the number of ‘ Lau Pengs ‘ that gather as comrades at every opportunity after all these decades.

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