Singapore Trivia: The Tree of One Tree Hill

At the prime district of Orchard lies a road with an interesting name – One Tree Hill.


Located off Grange Road, the 500m-long road is home to rows of private residences and condominiums today. But in the 19th century, it was a vast rubber plantation owned by Guthrie & Company. One of Singapore’s early leading trading houses, Guthrie & Company was established in 1821 by Alexandre Guthrie (undetermined-1865), a Scotsman who was granted a license by the British East India Company to trade in the region.

Besides trading of British manufacture goods, Alexandre Guthrie was also engaged in commodities and services such as insurance and shipping. Through his investments in gambier, clove, nutmeg and pepper, he owned several properties and plantations at the Orchard and Tanjong Pagar vicinity.


At Alexandre Guthrie’s Orchard rubber plantation, there was a particularly tall tree that obviously stood out among the rubber trees (A mature rubber tree can grow to 30m tall). The tall tree was said to be one of the remaining jungle trees that had survived in the suburbs of Singapore. It was also due to this tall tree that the area was named One Tree Hill.

In the early 20th century, one Tree Hill was home to several British military leaders, including General Theodore Stephenson (1856-1928), who had arrived at Singapore in 1910 to take over the command of the troops in the Straits Settlements, and Major Frederick Lumsden (1872-1918), a General Staff officer.


There was a Teochew kampong nearby as well, but by the 1930s, the vicinity had seen many modern houses, furnished with water, gas and electricity supplies, built. In 1963, a double-storey semi-detached bungalow at One Tree Hill would cost $44,000.

New 16-storey apartments were built at One Tree Hill in 1973, where thirty 1,500 square feet units were reserved for the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) staff at about $65,000 each. The units, intended as a benefit to encourage home ownership among PSA employees, had three bedrooms, one living room, a kitchen, two toilets and a garden terrace. There were also built-in cupboards and high quality sanitary fittings; a carpark lot was even allocated for each flat.

The better perks offered by the One Tree Hill apartments meant that they would be much more expensive than the similar PSA flats at Sporttiswoode Park, which were priced between $23,000 and $26,000 in the early seventies.


Besides One Tree Hill, Singapore also has a One Tree Island – Pulau Satumu – where the Raffles Lighthouse is located. Sa refers to satu (one in Malay) and tumu was the Malay name of the large mangrove tree on the island.

Published: 16 January 2017

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Tales of Kampongs at Old Upper Thomson Road

In the sixties and seventies, the long meandering Old Upper Thomson Road was well-known as a racing circuit for the popular Singapore Grand Prix. A lesser known fact is that it was also home to some long forgotten villages, some of which had been there since the 1910s.

map-of-hainan-village-at-old-upper-thomson-road-1975The village was situated at Jalan Belang, off Old Upper Thomson Road. The short road began as a track and was later upgraded to an asphalt road. By the early nineties, Jalan Belang was expunged after the village was demolished. Remnants of the road could still be observed today.

The name Belang means stripes in Malay, which refers to the wild tigers that once roamed on this island. There were reports of a man killed by a tiger at Thomson Road in 1890, while the last wild tiger went extinct in Singapore when it was shot at Choa Chu Kang Village in 1930.

Jalan Belang was also linked to Lorong Pelita (pelita means light in Malay), another minor road off Old Upper Thomson Road 9 milestone, where they shared a common exit to the main Upper Thomson Road. Like Jalan Belang, Lorong Pelita also became defunct by the early nineties.

Upper Thomson Road, originally known as the New Upper Thomson Road, was constructed in the mid-fifties. After its completion, it served as the major route between Nee Soon and the downtown area.



In the 19th century, there were large plots of gambier plantations at Upper Thomson, owned by famous Teochew businessman Seah Eu Chin (1805-1883). Between the 1920s and 1940s, the dense Upper Thomson forest became part of a rubber plantation, according to the pre-war Survey Production Centre (Southeast Asia), but it was abandoned during the Second World War. By the fifties, the vicinity had been largely reclaimed by nature, although some parts of it were used for sundry cultivation.

When the Hainanese village settled at Jalan Belang, the vegetation was cleared for residential houses, rambutan plantations, small factories, warehouses and several fish ponds that were used for breeding turquoise discus and other freshwater fish.


In 1971, a group of Public Utilities Board (PUB) workers, while clearing the vegetation to lay a water pipe inside the forest at Old Upper Thomson Road 8 milestone, discovered nine century-old graves. The blurred Chinese inscriptions on the tombstones showed that they were put up in the middle of the 19th century, and were owned by the Ong, Tan, Lee and Soh families. This suggested that several Chinese villages might have already been established at Upper Thomson since the 19th century.


There were around 500 residents from 80 families living at Lorong Pelita in the mid-seventies. The kampong, largely made up of pig and poultry farmers, had existed at the old Upper Thomson vicinity since the early 20th century. The village huts were scattered along Lorong Pelita and, for many years, it was extremely inconvenient for the residents to make their way to the main Upper Thomson Road. On the other hand, postmen and the PUB meter readers also found it difficult to locate the villagers’ houses.

In 1976, the Lorong Pelita village was in the news when its residents stopped a bulldozer from demolishing a laterite track that linked the village to Upper Thomson Road. The land where the track ran through had been purchased by a private owner, but the villagers needed the track to access to the main road.


Today, the remnants of the Hainan village at Jalan Belang could still be found. They are mostly the ruins of concrete walls and structures, and have been hidden and consumed by nature for several decades. But the abandoned structures may see the light soon, as they will be part of a new nature trail. The 50-hectare Thomson Nature Park will be developed in 2017 and is expected to be completed by next year.






Published: 08 January 2017

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Those Years When We Played Arcade Games Together

After 18 years of operation at Bugis Junction, the Virtualand will be closing their flagship outlet in January 2017. It is hardly surprising, as the popularity of arcades has been gradually declining since the early 2000s, challenged by the rise of LAN gaming centres as well as advanced home video game consoles such as PlayStation and Xbox. By the 2010s, the local arcade industry, already tied down by high rentals and maintenance costs, took another hit by the rapid emergence of mobile games on smartphones and tablets.


The nineties was perhaps the golden era of local arcade game centres. Various names such as Wywy WonderSpace, Astropolis, Jackie Fun World, Uncle Ringo, Genie Funland, Country Fun World, Super Fun World, Paco Fun World, Circus Circus, E-Zone, Fun Plus, The Wonderful World of Whimsy and Magic Land could probably ring a bell to those who had frequently hung out at the arcade centres during the nineties and early 2000s.

At their peak, arcade game centres could almost be found all over Singapore, from the suburban Ang Mo Kio’s Big Mac Centre, Bedok’s Princess and Empress Cinema buildings and Parkway Parade to the downtown’s shopping malls of Funan, Parklane and Lucky Plaza. Marina South, with its popular arcade, bowling alley and steamboat restaurants, was also another favourite haunt for the youngsters.


Ban on Arcade Games

Do you know that video game arcades were once banned in Singapore? In the early eighties, many parents expressed concern that the games had bad influences to young children and teenagers, who could easily be addicted to the gaming. In some extreme cases, students were found playing truant in schools or caught stealing money to play at the video game arcades.

In mid-1983, there were about 64 video game amusement centres in Singapore. By the end of August, the Ministry of Culture decided to impose a nationwide ban on video game arcades, despite repeated appeals from the arcade operators to Suppiah Dhanabalan (born 1937), then-Minister of Culture, and Devan Nair (1923-2005), former President of Singapore.


In the end, all the arcade operators were ordered to wind up their businesses. They had to sell off their game machines, totaled more than 1,200 sets, at huge losses to either the private clubhouses or overseas.

Private clubhouses, such as the Singapore Armed Forces Reservists’ Association (SAFRA) and Automobile Association of Singapore (AAS) Recreation Club, were allowed to continue offering video games to their members, provided they enforced checks regularly.

beating-the-video-arcade-ban-1984The ban did little to dissuade the game enthusiasts, who flocked to the computer shops at Funan Centre, Peninsula Shopping Centre and Far East Plaza and rented their terminals, originally used for word-processing and programming, to play games such as “Computer Ambush” or “World War III” at a rate of $1 to $2 per hour.

While the teenagers and young adults were unhappy with the ban of video amusement arcades, the home video game manufacturers were delighted to see their sales shot up. The local home video game market had enjoyed a booming year in 1981, importing some $21 million worth of video and handheld electronic games into Singapore. But an economic slowdown and competitions from amusement centres and home computers saw its decline in the following years until the ban of video game arcades was imposed.

While home video games such as Pacman, Space Invaders and Donkey Kong were popular, the consoles, however, did not come cheap. An Atari 2600 would cost $285 in 1983, while the ColecoVision was priced at $380. Both were considered luxurious items that were almost out of reach for an average Singaporean family in the early eighties.


Old School Arcade Games

The video game arcades made a comeback in the nineties. Hundreds of amusement centre outlets mushroomed all over Singapore in a matter of years. The old fashioned pinball machines and basketball arcades were quickly obsoleted, replaced by the more popular racing, fighting, shooting and sport video games.

Daytona USA (first launched in 1994), with its high resolution realistic gameplay, manual gears’ switching, and four racing views, was perhaps the most popular racing arcade game in Singapore in the nineties. The larger arcade outlets even offered the multi-playing competition for up to eight different players. Other popular racing arcade games that were launched in the nineties and early 2000s were the Manx TT Super Bike (1996) and Initial D Arcade Stage (2002).


The nineties also saw the rise of popular fighting arcade games. Street Fighter II (1991), Mortal Kombat (1992), Virtua Fighter (1993), King of Fighters (1994) and Marvel Super Heroes (1995) were all the rage, although some had expressed concern in the games’ excessive display of violence.

It did not help that arcade centres in the nineties were often the favourite hanging out venues for teenage gangs. Fights often broke out over humiliating losses in the video games, arguments or staring incidents, giving some of the arcade centre outlets a bad reputation.



Virtua Striker (1994) was another popular arcade game that came with impressive computer graphics and smooth controls, allowing two players to select different national football teams and challenge each other. There were also special codes for the player to unlock FC Sega, a hidden tribute team that consisted of the game’s developing staff. The game series lasted four versions over 12 years. In the series, Virtua Striker 2 (1997) was perhaps the most popular among its fans.



Other popular old school arcade games included Metal Slug, Wrestlefest, Virtua Cop, Macross Plus, Streets of Rage and the alien- or zombie-shooting games.

The game machines typically accepted 20c (later raised to 50c) coins for each gameplay. By the late nineties, almost all the major arcade centre operators had issued their own tokens, with their names embossed onto the customised coins. Newer game consoles in the early 2000s accepted cards topped up with game credits; some also came with redemption tickets or gaming coupons to allow players to exchange for prizes and gifts.

Arcade video games saw some mini revival in the 2000s, when revolutionary dancing games such as Para Para Paradise Mix or Dance Dance Revolution became the hottest and trendiest attraction at any arcade centres.



From the vanished Wywy WonderSpace and Paco Fun World to the recent Arcadia (closed in 2014), Virtualand and Time Zone, the local video game arcade centres have gone through their ups and downs. Only time will tell if they can ever make a comeback again.

Editor’s Note: I used to hang out at arcade centres during my schooling days, spending much of my allowances on Virtua Striker 2 and King of Fighters 97. Those were the days. How many of those old school arcade games do you remember? And which were your favourite ones?

Published: 28 December 2016

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Vroom Vroom… Looking Back at the Old Singapore Grand Prix

The Formula One Singapore Grand Prix has been in the headlines lately. There is a possibility that Singapore will end the race after 2017, after statistics show that its most recent ticket sales and attendance are declining. The three-day weekend race, held at the Marina Bay Street Circuit every September since 2008, is the world’s only full night race so far.

The Early Days of Racing

The Formula One Singapore Grand Prix is not Singapore’s first motorcar race. The first Singapore Grand Prix was held 55 years ago, in 1961, at the Thomson Road Circuit. It was then organised, by the Singapore Motor Club (SMC) and sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, in an event named “Visit Singapore – The Orient Year”. The sport event was part of a campaign in promoting and boosting Singapore’s tourism sector in the sixties.

The Singapore racers, however, had an even earlier start. In 1948, a group of local motor sports enthusiasts founded the Singapore Motor Club, and organised races at South Buona Vista, Lim Chu Kang and Farrer Road. Some early local racers, such as Lim Peng Han and Osman Abbas, also competed at the Johore Grand Prix, a 3.7km long circuit running through the Johor Bahru town, in the early fifties. The Johore Grand Prix, first held in 1940 and ended in 1969, was one of the oldest races in Malaya.



Then came 1957, when an one-day race was organised by the Forces Motoring Club at the Royal Air Force (RAF) Changi’s 3.2km-long circuit. The 5-lap motorcar and 10-lap motorcycle races attracted 106 participants and almost 100,000 spectators. In the motorcar racing event, the winner Chan Lye Choon and his Aston Martin DB3S sprinted well ahead of the other contestants.

The 1957 race attracted much interest and fanfare but it turned out to be an one-off event. The Forces Motoring Club and Singapore Motor Club wanted other suitable sites for regular racing competitions, and the Sembawang circuit at the Old Upper Thomson Road, belonged to the War Department during that time, was one of the favourite choices. But the authorities would approve the circuit to be used only for motorcycle races, as it was deemed too tight and dangerous for motorcar racing.


Hence, the initial plan of a Singapore Grand Prix in the early sixties was to use a road circuit looping via Thomson Road, Whitley Road, Dunearn Road and Adam Road. But this would affect thousands of residents living in the vicinity. The Sembawang Circuit remained as the best choice, but it would have to be expanded to include the New Upper Thomson Road. Certain stretches of the roads that were narrow and bumpy would also have to be resurfaced and improved by the authorities.

Singapore’s First Grand Prix

Finally, the first Singapore Grand Prix was held over a weekend in mid-September 1961, promising entertainment and excitement for the spectators, both local and foreign. The Grand Prix kicked off on Saturday – the first day was more of an amateur and leisure contest, with motorcycles, vintage cars and saloons taking part in various races.


The main attraction came on Sunday, when two competitive races – one for the motorcycles and the other for motorcars – were hosted. Among the participating racing cars were established brands like Volvo, Lotus, Lola, Saab and Cooper, driven by famous Singaporean and Malayan racers such as Rodney Seow, Chan Lye Choon, Peter Cowling, Saw Kim Thiat and Yong Nam Kee.

Via the Old Upper Thomson Road and Upper Thomson Road, the competing drivers had to race in the 4.8km-long Sembawang Circuit that had several challenging bends with interesting nicknames such as Circus Hairpin, The Snakes, Long Loop and the Devil’s Bend.

The famous but dangerous Devil’s Bend, located near the entrance to the Upper Peirce Reservoir, was the most challenging of all. Shaped like the letter V, the chicane tested the skills and reactions of the qualified 30 racers, who had to complete 60 laps and a distance of approximately 286.5km, and the capabilities of their vehicles.


The first Singapore Grand Prix was a major success. Tickets, priced at nine ringgits for grandstand seats and one ringgit for general stands, were snapped up fast. Almost 20,000 spectators turned up for the first day’s races. On the second day, a 100,000-strong crowd packed along the sides of the roads to watch the speeding cars and motorbikes. Due to Grand Prix’s enormous success, Singapore’s tourism sector in 1961 posted a record revenue and number of tourists.

The Singapore Grand Prix gained global prominence and recognition in the subsequent years. The motorcycle racing event was listed in the international racing calendar since 1963, followed by the motorcar race three years later (although it was not considered a world championship).



By the early seventies, the races were telecast, with live commentary, across Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Over the years, the competitions of Singapore Grand Prix had improved to higher standards with professional racers from Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Britain, The United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand participating together with the Singaporeans and Malaysians.

The old Singapore Grand Prix lasted 13 years between 1961 and 1973. In between, it was renamed as Malaysian Grand Prix from 1962 to 1965, when Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia as a state. After independence, the racing event was named once again as Singapore Grand Prix.


End of the Races

In 1973, Singapore officially ended the Singapore Grand Prix. After the 13th annual race, the Singapore Sports Council (SSC) informed the Singapore Motor Sports Club, the event’s organiser, of the sudden decision. Safety concern was the main reason given, since there were several high profile fatal accidents occurred in the races over the years. As many as seven racers had died between 1963 and 1973. Many fans, however, believed it was a move by the authorities to discourage illegal motor racing.


After the ban of the Singapore Grand Prix, most of the local racers went over to Malaysia to train and compete. In 1974, star rider Gerry Looi led a team of Singaporean motorcycle racers to compete in the Selangor Grand Prix at the Batu Tiga Circuit.

Meanwhile, there were calls from the public to revive the popular races. The Singapore Motor Sports Club actively looked for sponsorship to build a complete circuit at Mandai, but the plan was called off due to the potential high construction cost of $5 million. Other alternatives were proposed, such as making use of a driver training circuit at Sembawang or a runway at Changi Airbase, but they were all rejected by the authorities. The Singapore Grand Prix did not make a comeback in Singapore until 35 years later.


List of Winners of Singapore Grand Prix (Motorcars)

1961 (1st Singapore Grand Prix) – Ian Barnwell, Britain (Aston Martin DB3S)
1962 (1st Malaysian Grand Prix) – Yong Nam Kee, Singapore (Jaguar E-Type)
1963 (2nd Malaysian Grand Prix) – Albert Poon, Hong Kong (Lotus 23)
1964 (3rd Malaysian Grand Prix) – race cancelled after 5 laps due to downpours
1965 (4th Malaysian Grand Prix) – Albert Poon, Hong Kong (Lotus 23)
1966 (1st Singapore Grand Prix) – Lee Han Seng, Singapore (Lotus 22)
1967 (2nd Singapore Grand Prix) – Rodney Seow, Singapore (Merlyn F2)
1968 (3rd Singapore Grand Prix) – Garrie Cooper, Australia (Elfin-Ford)
1969 (4th Singapore Grand Prix) – Graeme Lawrence, New Zealand (McLaren-Cosworth F2)
1970 (5th Singapore Grand Prix) – Graeme Lawrence, New Zealand (Ferrari V5)
1971 (6th Singapore Grand Prix) – Graeme Lawrence, New Zealand (Brabham BT30)
1972 (7th Singapore Grand Prix) – Max Stewart, Australia (Mildren)
1973 (8th Singapore Grand Prix) – Vern Schuppan, Australia (March 722)



List of Winners of Singapore Grand Prix (Motorcycles)

1961 – (1st Singapore Grand Prix) Chris Proffit-White, Singapore (Honda 4)
1962 – (1st Malaysian Grand Prix) Teisuke Tanaka, Japan (Honda)
1963 – (2nd Malaysian Grand Prix) Chris Conn, Britain (Norton Manx)
1964 – (3rd Malaysian Grand Prix) Akiyasu Motohashi, Japan (Yamaha)
1965 – (4th Malaysian Grand Prix) Akiyasu Motohashi, Japan (Yamaha)
1966 – (1st Singapore Grand Prix) Mitsuo Ito, Japan (Suzuki)
1967 – (2nd Singapore Grand Prix) Akiyasu Motohashi, Japan (Yamaha)
1968 – (3rd Singapore Grand Prix) Akiyasu Motohashi, Japan (Yamaha)
1969 – (4th Singapore Grand Prix) Tham Bing Kwan, Malaysia (Norton)
1970 – (5th Singapore Grand Prix) Ou Teck Wing, Malaysia (Yamaha)
1971 – (6th Singapore Grand Prix) Geoff Perry, New Zealand (Suzuki)
1972 – (7th Singapore Grand Prix) Geoff Perry, New Zealand (Suzuki TR 500)
1973 – (8th Singapore Grand Prix) Bill Molloy, New Zealand (Kawasaki)

Today, the Old Upper Thomson Road is a quiet winding road, where people use it mainly for jogging and cycling. Half a century ago, this was the venue that hosted one of Singapore’s most popular annual events.




Published: 26 November 2016

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Flashback 30 Years Ago… Singapore in 1986

30 years have passed in the blink of an eye. Do you still remember the major events happened in Singapore in 1986?

Singapore’s First Recession

In early 1986, Singapore was still recovering from its first ever post-independence recession, which began in the second quarter of 1985. For 20 years, Singapore had emerged as a frontrunner among the developing countries, enjoying substantial Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growths averaging about 10% a year.


Towards the end of 1984, however, a combination of global and domestic factors led to a downturn. First, the developed countries, especially the United States, were experiencing a slowdown in their economies. Next, demands for Singapore’s exports and services had declined, and increasing operating costs made the country less competitive.

Singapore’s growth rate plunged to -3.5% in the third quarter of 1985, while unemployment rate jumped to 4.1%. Companies going bankrupt and mass retrenchments of workers hit the headlines. Residential and commercial projects by private developers also hit the slump, recording only 1,089 projects and an estimated total construction cost of only $1.6 billion, the lowest in seven years.


An Economic Committee was quickly appointed to review and analyse the economic downturn and propose policies to restructure the economy. The committee, headed by Lee Hsien Loong, then Minister of State for Defence and Trade and Industry, suggested implementing wage flexibility in the labour market, making changes to the Central Provident Fund (CPF), handing out rebates on various taxes and privatising certain state-owned companies. Also, to counter the decline in the construction sector, many public projects were pushed forward, resulted in the most number of approved government projects since 1980.


What happened next?

By mid-1986, Singapore’s economy showed signs of rapid recovery, posting a 1.2% growth in the second quarter and 3.8% in the third quarter. The country’s budget also improved from a $1.25-billion deficit in 1985 to a $500-million deficit in 1986. Overall, Singapore posted a modest 1.8% GDP growth in 1986. The recovery was confirmed when a year later, its economic growth jumped to more than 8%.

The 1985 recession, however, remained as the only time Singapore’s economy contracted while the global economy was still growing.

After-Effects of Pan-El Crisis

The stock market was still in a chaotic mess, due to the spectacular collapse of Pan-Electric Industries Limited which was suspended from listing two months earlier on 19 November 1985.

singapore-stock-exchange-trading-1980sBy end of November 1985, it almost spelt the death of the company as it went into receivership. Thousands of small shareholders had their investments and savings wiped out. Rumours of “white knights” rescuing the company gave hopes to the shareholders, but all optimisms were dashed in February 1986 when the liquidation proceedings of Pan-Electric commenced.

The Pan-El crisis resulted in a 3-day closure of the Singapore and Kuala Lumpur stock exchanges in early December 1985. It was the first and only time the Singapore Stock Exchange was forced to shut down due to a trading emergency.

The effect was catastrophic and widespread. In the following weeks, share prices across the market plunged and investors’ confidence badly shaken. Singapore’s reputation as a leading financial centre was tarnished.

What happened next?

A series of new regulations and stringent checks were enforced to the local stockbroking industry and stock market to curb speculations and manipulation in shares. Listed companies were also required to be more transparent in their financial reports.

Tan Koon Swan (born 1940), the president of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and major shareholder of Pan-El, was arrested for criminal breach of trust and was subsequently sentenced to two years’ imprisonment by the Singapore High Court. The MCA Youth protested aggressively against Tan Koon Swan’s arrest and sentence, calling for a boycott of Singapore goods and services.

Hotel New World Tragedy

In the late morning of 15 March 1986, the sudden news of the Hotel New World collapse shocked Singapore. Singaporeans were horrified by the tragedy, which remains as one of the country’s worst disasters after the Second World War.


Located at the junction of Serangoon and Owen Roads, Hotel New World, formerly known as New Serangoon Hotel, was housed in a six-storey building called Lian Yak Building. The sudden collapse of the hotel, occurred in less than a minute, was later investigated to be due to the building’s inadequate structural integrity and an overloaded roof with water tank and air-conditioning system installations. The negligence in the maintenance of the building also played a part. Weeks before the disaster struck, many cracks had been observed in the walls and floors.


A search and rescue operation was immediately planned and carried out. A temporary command centre was set up in a shophouse opposite the disaster site, and more than 500 personnel from the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), Singapore Fire Service, Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and Singapore Police Force (SPF) were activated. Foreign experts from Britain and Japan – they were in Singapore for the construction of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) tunnels – were also roped in. A total of 17 survivors were rescued from the rubble in the operation, but the death toll numbered 33.

The Hotel New World tragedy traumatised the whole nation, but it also brought all Singaporeans together. Many private organisations loaned their mechanical cutting equipment and lifting cranes to assist the SCDF, while the public actively raised funds and rendered help in all possible ways. Leaders of different political parties came together to rally the rescue teams and assist the victims’ families.



What happened next?

The government assumed a more active role in the regulation of the building industry in Singapore. The Ministry of National Development’s (MND) Development and Building Control Division was assigned to conduct regular structural and maintenance checks on buildings, and all building plans and drawings were more stringently checked and approved.

In addition, the Singapore Fire Service was integrated with the SCDF to improve the organisation’s efficiency and response in rescue missions.

Babies Not Enough

In 1986, the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of Singapore fell to 1.42, the lowest level in the eighties. The “Stop At Two” population policy, began as early as 1972, was showing its impact by the late seventies when the TFR slipped to 1.82, well below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman.

What happened next?

have-three-or-more-if-you-can-afford-it-1987The Singapore government in 1986 switched from anti-natalist schemes to pro-natalist policies. Incentives such as childcare subsidies, tax rebates, allocation priorities in Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats were implemented.

In March the following year, a new slogan “Have Three Or More, If You Can Afford It” was launched by Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. But Singapore’s TFR would continue to decline constantly throughout the three decades.

Conservation Master Plan

In December 1986, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), for the first time, included six historical districts in its Conservation Master Plan. Kampong Glam, Little India, Chinatown, Emerald Hill, Singapore River and the Civil District from Empress Place to Fort Canning Park were identified as part of the URA’s plan to preserve the city’s history, architecture, colour and character.


Prior to this, Singapore had been undergoing massive urban renewal programs and conservation efforts were only limited to single building or landmarks. The Conservation Master Plan, in total, covered almost 1 square kilometre of site or 4 percent of the city core.

What Else Happened in 1986?

12 January – The Singapore Bus Services (SBS) introduced a new air-conditioned bus service, numbered 3, plying daily from Bedok to Chinatown. Aircon buses were getting popular among the commuters, after the first SBS aircon bus, numbered 168, debuted in April 1985.

use-nets-instead-of-cash-198618 January – The Network for Electronic Transfers (NETS) was officially launched, as Singapore aimed to move towards a cashless society. The electronic payment service enabled more than 1 million users to make transactions through the NETS terminals at restaurants, shopping malls, petrol stations and government departments.

17 February – Armed with an axe, a gang of three men committed a robbery of a goldsmith shop at Chander Road. After robbing a Beauty World Centre goldsmith shop in June, two of the robbers were caught by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

15 March – The Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF) first full-scale civilian vehicle mobilisation exercise, named Civil Resource Mobilisation, was carried out at the carparks of the Chinese and Japanese Gardens in Jurong. More than 170 pickups, lorries, buses and trailers were notified, registered and tested in the three-hour exercise. The owners were compensated for their time and use of their vehicles.

14 May – Two 12-year-old Owen Primary School students, Toh Hong Huat and Keh Chin Ann, mysteriously disappeared without a trace while on their way to school. Many theories were put forward but the case remained unsolved.

missing-boys-owen-primary-1986After investigations, the police deduced the boys were unlikely to have run away from homes as they were both well looked after by their families. It was not kidnap either, since the families had never received any ransom demands. There were also no known cases of illegal trades then, and illegal traders would have taken more than two boys. In addition, the police did not think it was a murder or drowning case as the bodies of the two boys were not found.

19 May – The new $7-million Toto computerised system made its debut, replacing the old laborious method in which betting agents had to manually stamp the betting slips with agency numbers, seal numbers and control stamps.

20 May – The closed National Theatre, deemed unsafe in its structural integrity, began its demolition.


25 June – Minister of State for Defence and Trade and Industry Lee Hsien Loong engaged with vocational, secondary and pre-university students in a talk named Conversations With The Young – The Economic Recession. In the talk, shown on TV later, were discussions on the effects of the recession, job prospects, expectations and the hope of a Swiss standard of living by 1999.

26 June – Armed with a knife, a jobless man robbed a DBS Finance’s branch at North Bridge Road. He robbed the finance company again in the following week, and got away with a total of $27,500. He was subsequently arrested by the police.

27-29 June – Pulau Brani was opened to the public for the first time in many years as the Republic of Navy (RSN) held an open house at the island’s naval base, demonstrating sea cruises and mock target shootings.


02 July – Singaporeans were shocked when two separate robbery-cum-murder cases occurred on the same day. A 83-year-old man was robbed and killed in a restaurant at Joo Chiat Road, while a pregnant woman was found strangled in her Tampines flat. Her cash and jewellery, worth about $1,500, were missing.

06 July – A 38-year-old kopitiam (coffeeshop) stallholder was slashed to death by 10 men armed with knives and parangs (machetes) in a heated argument at a carpark at Mattar Road.

01 August – The Newspaper and Printing Presses (Amendment) Bill was passed in the parliament to curb the sale and distribution of foreign publications containing news that were deemed to have interfered in Singapore’s politics and internal affairs, destabilised the society or damaged the country’s image.

01 September – Singapore’s first town councils were established in Ang Mo Kio to reduce the role of HDB and involved in greater participation of residents in the policy-making and decision-making. With the success of the pilot project, the Town Council Act was passed in the parliament two years later.

05 September – The Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (ASME) was formed, with approval by the government, to protect the interests of the small- and medium-sized companies in Singapore, as well as to allow them to have a common channel in knowledge and experience sharing.

27 October – The Legal Profession (Amendment) Bill was passed by the parliament to enforce the regulation and disciplinary processes of legal practitioners by the Law Society.

18 November – Israeli President Chaim Herzog paid an official 3-day visit to Singapore, the first visit by an Israeli head of state. His visit was met with protests by the Malaysian, Indonesian and Bruneian governments.

20 November 1986 – Pope John Paul II arrived, becoming the first Catholic pope, as well as the first Vatican’s head of state, to visit Singapore. A special welcoming ceremony was held at the National Stadium, where the pope delivered a sermon, prayers and speeches to almost 80,000 Catholics.


03 December – The Singapore Informatics exhibition was opened at the World Trade Centre.

21 December – The Faber House at Orchard Road, housing the Israeli embassy and Canadian high commission, was cordoned off by the police after an explosion went off at the back of its building. It was the second time the Faber house was bombed. The first incident occurred a year earlier on 17 March 1985, when an explosion in a nearby drain shattered the building’s windows and damaged its walls. It was a sign of early terrorism in Singapore.

A Pictorial Gallery of Singapore 1986











Published: 20 November 2016

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Remembering Ong Teng Cheong (1936-2002), the People’s President

Ong Teng Cheong (1936-2002) was Singapore’s first elected President. He was also the nation’s fifth President, holding office between 1993 and 1999. In his political career that spanned over 25 years, Ong Teng Cheong had also served as a Member of Parliament (MP), Minister for Communications, Minister for Labour and Deputy Prime Minister.

Fluent in English, Mandarin and Hokkien, Ong Teng Cheong was born in 1936 to a middle class family. The second of five children in the Ong family, he attended The Chinese High School after the Second World War, graduating as their top student in the mid-fifties. After obtaining an architecture degree in Australia, Ong Teng Cheong began his career as an architect in a local firm, before leaving for England to pursue a master’s degree in civil design.


Upon his return to Singapore in 1967, Ong Teng Cheong was hired by the Ministry of National Development (MND) where he led a team in planning the development of Singapore’s central region. In the early seventies, Ong Teng Cheong briefly left the civil sector to continue his architectural practice, and would return a few years later to take up office in the government.


In the 1972 General Election, Ong Teng Cheong contested as a People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate at the Kim Keat constituency. In his debut, he was elected as a MP, after a convincing 74% victory against his opponents. He would then serve as the MP for Kim Keat, and later Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency (GRC), for the next two decades.

In 1975, Ong Teng Cheong was appointed as the Minister of State for Communications. One of his contributions was his firm support and push for the development of a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) in Singapore. It was a debate that the parliament had for many years, before coming to a decision in 1982 to embark on the massive MRT project. Between 1977 and 1983, Ong Teng Cheong also served a number of other posts, including the acting Minister for Culture and Minister for Labour.


After 1983, Ong Teng Cheong started his decade-long tenure with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). As the secretary-general of NTUC, he paid particular attention to the lower income workers and their benefits, especially during the recession in 1985. He also straightened out the differences between the government and unions, which had become increasingly strained.

An organised strike by workers over unfair treatment by their company Hydril in 1986 was sanctioned by Ong Teng Cheong. Six workers from the American company, which specialised in oil-field equipment, were dismissed over allegations of being anti-unions. It was the first strike in Singapore since the late seventies. Ong Teng Cheong did not inform the Cabinet beforehand, drawing a strong reaction from the Trade and Industry Ministry. The 61-employee strike proceeded and lasted for two days. Eventually the management of Hydril gave in, reinstating one worker and compensating the other five over unfair dismissal.


In 1993, Ong Teng Cheong, after resigning from his positions in NTUC, Cabinet and PAP, contested in Singapore’s first ever presidential election. He became the nation’s first elected president with a 58.7% victory over his opponent Chua Kim Yeow. Earlier in 1991, the Constitution has been amended to empower a directly-elected President the veto in the use of past reserves and appointment of key officials in the public service. Hence, one of the major roles of an elected Singapore’s President is the safeguarding of the national reserves.

Ong Teng Cheong in 1996 requested from the Accountant-General an inventory of the physical assets owned by the government, such as lands, buildings, roads, reservoirs and others, so that he could understand what the reserves consisted of. The President later revealed in a press conference that he was informed it would take 56 man-years to produce the complete valuation of all physical assets. The Ministry of Finance clarified that it was a misunderstanding, as 56 man-years referred to the amount of work to be done, and not of the time it would take to do (eg it could mean 56 men working for a year, or 28 men working for two years).


In addition, Ong Teng Cheong also expressed his disappointment in the government’s definition of the Net Investment Income (NII) as current or past reserves, the sale of the Post Office Savings Bank (POSB), a government statutory board with reserves under the President’s safeguarding, to the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS), and the withholding of information by civil servants in the ministries.

Through the media, the differences between the President and the government were put into the spotlight, attracting mixed reactions from the public. This prompted then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Finance Minister Dr Richard Hu Tsu Tau to make their clarifications and statements in the parliament in August 1999.



Ong Teng Cheong was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1992. In July 1999, Ong Teng Cheong announced he would not contest in the upcoming presidential election due to his health and also to take care of his sick wife Ling Siew May. They had knew each other since their secondary school days, and were married in 1963. Ling Siew May passed away on 30 July 1999 due to colon cancer. A motion was moved in the parliament in early August 1999, expressing sympathies to Ong Teng Cheong and his family.

On 08 February 2002, Ong Teng Cheong succumbed to his long battle with lymphoma. He passed away, at age 66, at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH), leaving behind two sons. He was accorded a state-assisted funeral, with Singapore flags lowered at half-mast at the government buildings. This, however, gave rise to speculations from the public on why Singapore’s first elected President was not accorded a state funeral like his predecessors.

Ong Teng Cheong, according to his last wishes, was cremated and his ashes placed, together with those of the commoners, at the Mandai Columbarium. Till this day, he remained well-remembered by many Singaporeans as the People’s President of Singapore.

Some people still ask whether my long previous association (with the PAP) will stop me from acting independently. The answer is no. My loyalty is first and foremost, to the people of Singapore. It has always been so, and will always remain so” – Ong Teng Cheong, August 1993


Published: 20 November 2016

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The Last Fish Farm at Seletar West Farmway 4 Closes


In 2012, a new road named Seletar West Road was constructed as a quick access to the Seletar Aerospace Park, cutting through a network of farm roads and splitting Seletar West Farmway 4 and 6.

Four years later, the rightmost parts of Seletar West Farmway 4 and 6, which were home to the former Jalan Kayu Rural Centre (also known as the Seletar Flats), have been redeveloped as part of the expansion plan of Fernvale housing estate. At their opposite side, it looks like development and urbanisation, too, will soon be entering into this quiet rustic area.


The forgotten fish farm, located at the western end of Seletar West Farmway 4, will be closing on 15 November 2016. It is the only fish farm left at Seletar West Farmway 4; its neighbour, the Summer Koi Farm, has already shifted to Lorong Chencharu, off Sembawang Road, in 2012. For the time being, the other fish farms in the vicinity are concentrated at Seletar West Farmway 1, 2 and 3.

The Seletar West Farmway 4 fish farm is managed by three brothers of the Bai family, who have spent most of their life rearing and breeding ornamental fish such as guppies, rams, angel fish and cichlids. The brothers, in their 60s now, had set up their first fish farm at Sembawang almost forty years ago, before relocating to Tampines, Pasir Ris and Seletar West.


The bucolic nature of the fish farm is a reminder of Singapore’s olden days, when large parcels of farms once occupied much of the island’s northern regions such as Sembawang, Punggol and Kangkar. The Seletar West Farmways remained relatively undisturbed until the early 2000s, when the expansion of Sengkang New Town, and later the establishment of the aerospace park, saw development inching towards them. It is only a matter of time before this vicinity becomes urbanised.

Elsewhere, the fish farms at Pasir Ris Farmway and the vegetable and poultry farms at Lim Chu Kang will also be affected in the next couple of years. Their lands are expected to make way for the development of light industries and Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF) training grounds by 2017 and 2019 respectively.







Published: 14 November 2016

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A Little History along the Kallang River

The Kallang River is Singapore’s longest river, starting from the Lower Peirce Reservoir, via Ang Mo Kio, Bishan, Toa Payoh and Geylang Bahru, and ending at the Kallang Basin. The name Kallang had appeared as early as 1835, in a map drawn by George Dromgold Coleman (1795-1844), an Irish architect, planner and surveyor of early Singapore.



Kallang as a place name was derived from one of Singapore’s earliest settlers orang kallang. Originated from Java, Indonesia, the orang kallang were skillful boat dwellers and had already made their home at the swamps of Sungei Kallang when Sir Stamford Raffles arrived at the island. In 1824, the orang kallang were resettled by the Temenggong of Johor to the Pulai River after Singapore was ceded to the British.

Huge mangrove swamps had existed on both sides of the Kallang River. The swampy areas on its southeastern bank was filled up in the 1930s for the construction of the Kallang Airport, while its northwestern side was reclaimed in the sixties, when the Kallang Basin was designated as an upcoming industrial estate.


In 1964, millions of tons of earth were transported from Toa Payoh to dump into the Kallang Basin. The Kallang River was straightened, and roads widened. About 388 acres of new land were made available by 1968, largely reserved for the setting up of light and medium industries and low-cost flats.

Named Kallang Basin Industrial Estate, the new industrial estate, when completed, was Singapore’s second largest after the Jurong Industrial Estate. Some of its early tenants included the Blue Box Factory, Singapore’s first toy factory (opened in 1968), Texas Instruments (1969) and General Electric (1970). In addition, some 15,000 housing units were built to accommodate the workers and those who were affected by the urban renewal projects.


In 1971, the Kallang Basin Industrial Estate was further expanded. Kampong Soopoo, a squatter colony in the vicinity, was demolished for the development of new light industries. More than 100 families from Kampong Soopoo were compensated and resettled at the Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats at Toa Payoh. The old shophouses along Kallang Road were torn down too, replaced by two seven-storey flatted factories used for the manufacture of garments, electronics and printing materials.

Many prominent landmarks, past and present, have existed at Kallang. Some of the most iconic ones were the Kallang Gasworks (1862-1998), Kallang Airport Building (1937-Present), National Stadium (1973-2007), Merdeka Bridge (1956-Present) and Sri Manmatha Karuneshvarar Temple (1888-Present).


Kallang Gasworks (1862-1998)

For over a century, the huge bluish cylindrical Kallang Gasworks was Kallang’s most iconic landmark. It was built in 1862 by the Singapore Gas Company to supply piped gases for the street lighting. The Gasworks had originally four tanks: The first two were built in 1862 but they were demolished in 1957; the third and fourth were both added in the early 20th century.


The Kallang Gasworks had produced and supplied gas continuously for more than a century except during the Second World War. Also known as huay sia, or “fire city” in Hokkien, many locals would avoid the Kallang area due to the stench of gas as well as fears of an exploding Gasworks.

By the 1950s, more piped gas was used for cooking and heating than its supply for the street lamps. The last gas-supplied street lamps officially walked into history in 1956, replaced by the electricity-powered street lighting.

kallang gasworks 1993

Kallang Gasworks in 1958 commissioned three state-of-the-art production plants and switched its feedstock from coal to fuel oil. It became the first gasworks in Southeast Asia to use fuel oil as its raw material. In 1966, it changed its feedstock again, this time to the cleaner and more efficient naphtha.


By 1997, all primary gas production in Singapore had been shifted to the new $240-million Senoko Gasworks. The 137-year-old Kallang Gasworks was retired a year later; its operations were ceased, with most of its plants, equipment and structures dismantled.



As a tribute to Kallang Gasworks’ contributions to Singapore’s economic development, the supporting pillars and girders of its Gasholder No. 3 (above), the gasworks’ oldest remaining structure, were preserved and refurbished. They were later installed at the Kallang Riverside Park.

Today, the Gasholder No. 3 structure and the Spirit of Kallang sculpture (below), created by Lim Leong Seng using the leftover materials from Kallang Gasworks, pay a special homage to the former iconic landmark of Kallang.


Kallang Airport Building (1937-Present)

Singapore’s first civil airport, Kallang Airport was opened in 1937 after six years of construction. Built on reclaimed lands, it had operated for almost two decades, earning the distinctive honour of being the British Empire’s finest airport during its early years. In 1955, the opening of Paya Labar Airport spelt the end of Kallang Airport as the former took over Singapore’s main operations in civil aviation.


Kallang Airport was made up of a main terminal building with a control tower, side blocks, hangars and a runway. The main Kallang Airport Building was designed in early modernist British architectural style, with its interiors decorated with Art Deco features. Its main runway was originally grassy. During the Second World War, after occupying the airport, the Japanese extended the runway and converted it into a concrete one.

The British regained Kallang Airport after the war, but it was not until 1949 before the airport was again used by civil airplanes. The aviation industry had developed quickly in the 1950s. With larger planes and more congested air traffic, it was increasingly clear that Kallang Airport was unable to cope. It was eventually closed after 1955 when Paya Lebar Airport became operational.


With its closure, the airport building was occupied briefly by the Singapore Youth Sports Council, while the rest of its vacated premises was converted into Kallang Park. Between 1960 and 2009, the former Kallang Airport Building was used to house the People’s Association (PA) headquarters, Public Works Department (PWD) and Central Manpower Base (CMB).


Although briefly used in the eighties as a drag racing track and temporary carpark, the airport runway was left largely abandoned. The former Kallang Airport Building, on the other hand, was preserved and extensively restored in the mid-nineties. Awarded the conservation status by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in December 2008, it has been utilised as a hosting venue for art exhibitions and other events in recent years.

Kallang Park (1959-Present)

After the closure of Kallang Airport, much of its premises, other than the main terminal building, was left vacated for several years. In the late fifties, Ong Eng Guan (1925-2008), then Minister for National Development, proposed “Project Lung” – a redevelopment project to convert the former airport premises into public parks and children’s playgrounds.

In early 1959, the Singapore Constitution Exposition was successfully held at the disused runway of Kallang Airport. Later that year, in October 1959, Kallang Park was officially opened. The new park, with facilities for both the elderly and young, was a unique one, as it was built through the joint efforts of the state government and the volunteering locals.

kallang park fountain 1960s

The volunteering response was overwhelming – more than 13,000 people offered their help, turning up at the site with pickaxes and shovels to join the Cabinet members, Parliamentary secretaries, Assemblymen and other government staff in clearing rubble, planting trees and even building ponds and concert stages.

Kallang Park’s most iconic feature was perhaps its futuristic-looking fountain, gifted by the Singapore Chinese Chambers of Commerce. The park was extremely popular in the sixties, hosting many interesting events such as kart racing, road safety games, fish exhibitions and agriculture show.


In the late sixties, Kallang Park evolved to include racing tracks and tennis courts. But its biggest attraction was the Wonderland Amusement Park, opened in July 1969 to coincide with the celebrations of 150th year anniversary of Singapore. The setting up of the amusement park cost more than $3 million. When completed, it offered fun and excitement to the public with its roller coaster, Ferris wheel, gyrating “teacups”, miniature trains, kiddy fun rides, battery operated cars and other games.

Many more facilities were later added to Kallang Park. By the mid-seventies, it had a bowling centre, ice skating rink, theatre, nightclub, the grand National Stadium and a floating restaurant named Oasis.

National Stadium (1973-2007)

After Singapore’s independence, the idea of building a national stadium and good sport facilities were mooted by the government, as this would generate the people’s interest in sports as well as create a decent venue for the hosting of local and international events, which in turn would boost the national pride.


In 1966, the piling for the foundation of the new stadium began. The National Stadium was officially opened in July 1973, and would go on to become one of Singaporeans’ most familiar landmarks. Two months after its opening, the National Stadium held its first major event – the 7th Southeast Asian Games.

Local football fans would likely have the fondest memories of the 55,000-capacity National Stadium – it was regularly packed to the brim during the Malaysia Cup matches between the seventies and the nineties. Thousands of fans backed and cheered the Singapore team, creating a famous phenomenon called the Kallang Roar.


In 2005, the government announced that the aging stadium would make way for a new integrated world class sports hub. An official closing ceremony for the popular stadium was held in June 2007, although its life would be extended for another couple of years due to the delays in the new sports hub project. The National Stadium was eventually demolished in late 2010.

Merdeka Bridge (1956-Present)

In the 1950s, Kallang Road was constantly bothered by traffic jams, especially during the peak hours. To relieve the traffic bottleneck, the Public Works Department (PWD) decided to build a bridge across the Kallang Basin to link Kallang to Beach Road. Costing $6 million in construction, the dual-carriageway concrete bridge was then the longest bridge in Malaya, spanning about 609 metres.


PWD’s superintendent engineer R.J. Hollis-Bee was assigned to be the main designer of Merdeka Bridge. The construction of the bridge began in early 1955, and it took more than 18 months for its completion due to various difficulties in steel supplies, deep muddy swamps and illegal squatters at the basin areas.


In June 1956, Francis Thomas, then Minister for Communications and Works, officially named it Merdeka Bridge. Merdeka means “independence” or “freedom” in Malay, hence the local Chinese used to refer it as dok lee kio, or “independence bridge”. After the opening of Merdeka Bridge by Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock in August 1956, Nicoll Highway became the main link between the city area and the eastern side of Singapore.

merdeka bridge 1960s

The two stone Merdeka Lions were once inseparable features of Merdeka Bridge, each standing at the foot of the tall stone structure erected at both ends of the bridge. But when the Nicoll Highway was widened in 1966, the stone lions were shifted to a site near the entrance of Kallang Park. They would be moved again, in the nineties, to Pasir Laba Camp, before settling at the Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute (SAFTI) Military Institute.

Sri Manmatha Karuneshvarar Temple (1888-Present)

Also popularly known as the Kallang Gasworks Hindu Temple, Sri Manmatha Karuneshvarar Temple started as a simple religious establishment in early 1888, dedicated to the worship of Hindu god Shiva and catered for the Hindu community working at the gasworks.


Designed in a traditional style of a typical South Indian temple, the building of Sri Manmatha Karuneshvarar Temple has an elaborate entrance filled with sculptured figures. There are also many sculptures of cows – a sacred animal in Hinduism – on the yellow temple walls that were previously painted in red and white strips.



The temple’s main central shrine, also known as Mandapam, was built in 1900. In 1909, the colonial government awarded it with a 99-year lease.

During the mid-1930s, early 1950s, 1974 and mid-1990s, the temple underwent extensive renovations and upgrading. In June 2014, the Sri Manmatha Karuneshvarar Temple was added to the conservation list by the URA. It is currently one of the two remaining landmarks in the vicinity – the other is the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee Temple at Sims Drive – that has its history dated back to the 19th century.


Published: 01 November 2016

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Bras Basah Complex, Singapore’s City of Books


Completed in 1980 under the urban renewal plan, the Bras Basah Complex has been a familiar place to many Singaporeans for the past three decades. Over the years, the commercial-cum-residential complex has become Singapore’s well-known City of Books, an unofficial yet representative name just like the Beach Road’s Army Market, the Arcade where moneychangers ply their trades, or the famous Sungei Thieves Market with their second hand goods.

The Bras Basah Complex is made up of two 25-storey blocks, where the first to fifth floor are catered for commercial purposes and the sixth to 25th level as residential units. The flats are part of an early public housing plan at the downtown area developed by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) in the seventies and eighties, which also include the flats at Selegie Road (Selegie House, built in 1974), Rochor Road (Rochor Centre, 1977), Waterloo Street (Waterloo Centre, 1978) and Queen Street (Cheng Yan Court, 1984).



The origin of the Bras Basah name is disputed. It might be derived from beras basah, which means “wet rice” in Malay. In the early days, boats carrying sacks of rice would unload and dry them along the banks of Sungei Brass Bassa (now Stamford Canal), and the rice would often get wet by the rising tides.

Another saying was that the name came from Sungai Beras Basah, which was originally Parit Singapura, the moat of the ancient fortress city of Kingdom of Singapura. When the kingdom fell in 1398 due to a Majapahit invasion, the last king Parameswara (or Iskandar Shah) fled to Muar, leaving his fortress city in ruins. Beras Basah can be referred as abandoned or discarded items, and Parit Singapura came to be known as Sungai Beras Basah, or abandoned river.


The sale and balloting of the Bras Basah Complex flats were carried out when the buildings were completed in 1980. Under the Home Ownership for the People Scheme, interested Singapore citizens were invited to have a tour of the blocks and residential units before the balloting was officiated by then-Minister for Labour Ong Pang Boon.

The Home Ownership for the People Scheme was launched by the HDB in 1964 to enable low income Singaporeans to buy and own their flats at affordable prices. This would also give the citizens a tangible asset and a stake in the nation building, and foster a sense of identity to the country.


Before the construction of the Bras Basah Complex, the old streets of North Bridge Road, Victoria Street and Bras Basah Road had been traditional venues for book stores, second-hand bookshops and stationery shops. Dozens of such shops were often housed side by side in old shophouses competitively. To the students of the sixties and seventies, it was the go-to place to get the necessary school textbooks and study guides to Shakespeare, poetry and science.

The bookshops at Bras Basah Road probably had its best days in the sixties, when there were strong demands of textbooks from regional countries such as Indonesia and Brunei. The most popular textbooks were those of English literature, history and science. Although the demands from overseas had considerably waned by the seventies, the bookstores continued to have their businesses boosted by the local market.



By the end of July 1982, however, the last of the many bookshops at Bras Basah Road – Educational Book Emporium, S.S. Mubaruk and Brothers and Student’s Books Associates – had to shut down, following the previous lot in their relocation to the new Bras Basah Complex or other available space at North Bridge Road. The old Bras Basah Road shophouses were later demolished.

When the Bras Basah Complex was built, it was designed and designated to be a book centre. The early batches of tenants were contractually obliged to sell books. The early tenants – many of them were the book merchants and bookshop owners from North Bridge Road and Bras Basah Road – formed the Bras Basah Complex Merchant’s Association (BBCMA) in the eighties to work together, protect interest and settle common problems at the newly-built complex.


In mid-1986, the Business Enterprise Committee announced that the HDB had decided to allow the tenants at the complex to change their trades, although most of the tenants, represented by the BBCMA, would prefer at least 80% of the shop space at Bras Basah Complex to be reserved for bookshops. This would uphold the clean and wholesome image of the complex as a “city of books”. Some of the shops, however, later switched to selling of watches, leisure goods and others.


One of Singapore’s oldest bookstores, Shanghai Book Company (上海书局), was previously housed at the Bras Basah Complex between the eighties and late 2000s. Established in 1925 in a High Street double-storey shophouse, it was one of the “big four” pre-war Chinese bookshops in Singapore, which included The Commercial Press (established in 1915), Chung Hwa Book Company (1923) and The World Book Company.

Shanghai Book Company was set up by Chen Yoh Shoo and Wang Shuyang, who came to Singapore after the May Fourth Movement in China. They were also the founders of Hou Chio Public School (後觉公学), a local Chinese school at North Bridge Road that was banned after only three years of operation.


Having survived the Great Depression in the 1930s and the Japanese Occupation, Shanghai Book Company’s heydays came in the fifties and sixties, where it enjoyed brisk business selling large number of books in Chinese, English, Malay and Tamil.

The famous bookshop was patronised by many local Chinese students, even as it shifted from High Street to North Bridge Road and Victoria Street before settling at the Bras Basah Complex. But a shrinking market and declining interest in Chinese books in the eighties changed its fortune. To revive the public interest, Shanghai Book Company initiated a series of exhibitions and book fairs, such as the Bilingual Book Fair in 1983 and an exhibition of Chinese bookmarks in 1985.


But its final chapter eventually arrived in the late 2000s, when Shanghai Book Company was embroiled in internal disputes between its local and China shareholders. Also mired in deep debts, the 83-year-old bookshop had to cease its operation by mid-2009, spelling the end of one of Singapore’s oldest Chinese bookshops.

In February 2016, Bras Basah Complex lost yet another of its long-time tenant in Kaiming Enterprises, when the 77-year-old stationery shop closed due to dwindling business and a retiring owner. Established in 1939, Kaiming Enterprises had supplied stationery to the local and Malaysian markets in the past decades.


In the eighties and nineties, numerous exhibitions, art galleries and cultural performances were held at the atrium of the Bras Basah Complex. In 1989, the HDB upgraded the atrium with a $80,000 fiberglass roof to shelter it from disruptive weather. This was due to the sudden rains that sometimes affected the cultural events such as Chinese painting exhibitions or instrumental performances.

Another event that drew the crowds to the Bras Basah Complex in the eighties was the popular xinyao (Singapore Chinese folk songs) concerts and competitions. Local xinyao singers with their new releases of songs and cassette albums often attracted hundreds of fans, largely made up of students and young adults, that filled up the entire atrium. With the decline of xinyao in the nineties and 2000s, the complex had not witnessed such spectacular scene until 2014, when a two-hour xinyao reunion performance had almost 1,000 fans turned up.


Standing for more than three decades, the Bras Basah Complex has seen some tremendous changes in its surroundings and neighbours, even as it has stayed largely unchanged.

Victoria Street was widened and changed in the eighties from a one-way to a dual-carriageway road. The Empress Hotel was demolished, and the minor roads of Lorong Sidin and Holloway Lane were expunged. The site is now occupied by the new National Library building. On the other side of the Bras Basah Complex, the Odeon Theatre and Bethesda Church were long gone, replaced by the Odeon Towers and Carlton Hotel today.




Published: 23 October 2016

Updated: 28 October 2021

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Bird Singing, a Favourite Pastime of the Past

Bird singing competitions, bird singing corners, bird singing clubs. True enough, bird singing was and is still a favourite hobby among many Singaporeans. The fascinating hobby seemed to have kicked off in Malaysia and Singapore in the late fifties. The bird singing contest held in Singapore in 1960 was a success, stimulating great interest among bird enthusiasts and attracting headlines from the local newspapers.


Locally, the favourite birds kept as songsters are the merbok (zebra dove), white-rumped shama, merbak jambul (red-whiskered bulbul), mata puteh (oriental white eye) and China thrush (Chinese hwamei). The merbok, in particular, is well known for their pleasant and soft cooing calls. Previously more commonly known as perkututs, the bird is dark brown in colour and resembles a small pigeon, and was once commonly found at the sandy parts of Singapore’s countryside. The white-rumped shama, on the other hand, was featured on the Singapore fifty dollar note of the bird series.


In the sixties, there were many bird shops at Rochore Road. Birds like merobok would cost a few dollars each, but the prized ones could easily fetch up to $3,000. Several local bird singing interest groups were formed, with the Kelab Burong Singapore (Singapore Bird Club) being one of the most prominent ones. It regularly organised annual bird singing competitions, especially in the late sixties and early seventies, at venues such as Jalan Besar Stadium, Gay World Stadium and the South Buona Vista Training Institute.

When the Jurong Bird Park opened in 1971, it also held bird singing contests to boost its visitorship. In its first ever contest, held at the tram terminal of the park, a total of 287 participants competed, making the contest a considerable success.


When the government ramped up new public housings at Ang Mo Kio, Bedok, Tampines and Clementi in the seventies and eighties, the hobby and contests in bird singing started to move into the heartlands.

Many bird singing corners were set up at the flats’ void decks, open fields or the parks within the housing estates, where there were customised poles and railings used for hanging rows of bird cages currently. It proved to be popular among the residents, who, beside showcasing their chirping birds, could also engaged in chit chatting, exchanging of views and tips, making friends, or simply engrossing in their prized feathered pets’ melodies in the common space.





Community centres, People’s Association and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Reservists’ Association were the most regular organisers of local bird singing contests. In the eighties, such competitions easily saw hundreds of bird lovers taking part, and Members of Parliament (MPs) were often invited as guests of honour. Monetary prizes and trophies were awarded for the most outstanding birds.

Judges were invited to give marks to each bird’s performance, and sometimes it took hours for them to assess hundreds of birds. To pick a champion was no easy task. There were several criteria to determine a winner; its general appearance, the number of scales on its feet, the health of its plumage, and – the most important factor of all – its singing ability, which included the length of each call, the tonal quality, the volume and the purity in the sound of the calls.



In 1983 and 1984, the National Bird Singing competition, organised by Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) and the People’s Association, were held at the open space next to the Mandarin Hotel and Ngee Ann Building respectively. The contest attracted more than 850 entries, some of which even came from neighbouring countries such as Indonesia and Thailand. Computers were used for the first time to aid the judges in their assessment. Thousands visited the events, which resembled a carnival that consisted of talks, sale of bird cages and bird seed, and even a bird show of colourful parrots from the Jurong Bird Park.

Perhaps the most famous bird singing corner in Singapore was the one at Tiong Bahru Block 53. The bird singing corner, dubbed as “Singapore’s most famous Sunday bird singing concert“, was located beside a kopitiam named Wah Heng, a favourite meeting place for bird enthusiasts between the early seventies till its closure in the nineties. The popular spot was said to have started off in the mid-fifties as a gathering venue for a small group of bird lovers. Over the years, the group grew bigger as others joined in.


In the mid-eighties, during the Sundays, the number of bird lovers outside the coffeeshop could be as high as 300, made up of mostly men, old and young, and among them were contractors, businessmen, technicians and retirees. Some of the bird lovers even came all the way from Ang Mo Kio and Jurong.


Hundreds of bird cages could be seen suspended from a metal trellis. It was put up by the kopitiam owner Teah Lam Kuan, who saw his business grew tremendously in the eighties. Such was the high popularity of the Tiong Bahru bird singing corner that it was promoted by STPB as a tourist attraction, and was regularly featured in foreign newspapers and magazines.

The news spread fast and many curious tourists and foreigners could be seen visiting the place and snapping photos of the crowds and bird cages. Renowned American flautist Herbie Mann (1930-2003) paid a visit to the Tiong Bahru bird singing corner in 1984 to perform “against” the songbirds, while Dutch journalist Guus van Bladel joined the folks at the Tiong Bahru kopitiam to write about the interesting hobby for his Dutch newspapers.


During the 1986 Christmas Day, KLM, the Dutch airlines, even organised a bird-singing competition at the bird singing corner, sponsoring many flight tickets as top prizes. It also paid for the hooks and number tags used for the hanging of the bird cages at the corner.

The Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) flat of Block 53 was later converted into a hotel, while the bird singing corner was renovated in 1997 by the Tanjong Pagar-West Coast Town Council in a $60,000 upgrading project. In 2008, a bird singing competition was held at the newly reopened Tiong Bahru bird corner, but the hype and buzz seen in the older days could no longer be duplicated.

Bird singing hobby is still very much alive in Singapore today, although its most spectacular moments were arguably between the seventies and nineties.


Published: 29 September 2016

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