100 Years of the Causeway

The Causeway is finally reopened after almost two years of closure. Despite decades of congestion woes, trafficking issues or an occasional tool used in political bickering, the Causeway remains an important link between Singapore and Malaysia.

The Land Connection

Mid-1910s – Goods and passengers between Malaya and Singapore were originally transported across the Johore Strait using ferry services, but by the mid-1910s, it was clear that the ferries could not cope with the increasing traffic volumes. Each ferry could carry only six goods wagons at one time. By 1917, there were 54,000 wagons to be ferried compared to only 11,500 in 1911.

1917 – The colonial government studied the feasibility of a stone causeway between Woodlands and Johor. A bridge was initially considered, but the foundation sites were deemed unsuitable due to the large varying depths of water – from 14m to 21m – during the low tides. Then-director of Federated Malay States (FMS) Public Works Eyre Kenny proposed a stone causeway, which was later accepted. The contract was subsequently awarded to an engineering firm called Topham, Jones and Railton.

24 April 1920 – Sir Laurence Guillemard (1862-1951), the Governor of the Straits Settlements, paid an official visit to Johor to attend the laying ceremony of the foundation stone for the new causeway. The construction had actually already started in late 1919, and was scheduled to complete in five years.

1920-1924 – As much as 1.15 million cubic metres of granite extracted from the Bukit Timah and Pulau Ubin quarries were transported and deposited into the strait between Woodlands and Johor. Site surveys were also carried out for the railway networks between Singapore and Malaya to be linked via the new causeway.

17 September 1923 – The causeway’s railway for goods transportation was opened for operations, although the causeway was still only partially completed.

1 October 1923 – The causeway’s railway for passengers was opened for operations. It was the first time in history that a direct link was established between the Malay peninsula and Singapore island. Since then, passengers could travel via the FMS Railways from Singapore to Johor, Negri Sembilan, Selangor, Perak, Kedah and Perlis before joining up with the Royal Siamese State Railway at Padang Besar.

October 1923 – The construction of the causeway, named Johore Causeway (The English spelling is Johore whereas Johor is the Malay spelling), was completed. It was 18m wide with a motorcar roadway and two railway tracks. At the centre of the causeway, there was also a lock channel and lifting bridge for small vessels to pass through.

Measuring 1,056m long and 14m deep during the low tides, the eventual cost of Johore Causeway was 17 million Straits dollars, borne jointly by the governments of the FMS, the Straits Settlements and the Johor State. The official opening ceremony of the new causeway was originally scheduled on 5 October 1923 but had to be postponed due to the illness of Sir Laurence Guillemard.

28 June 1924 – The Johore Causeway was officially opened. The distinguished guests-of-honour included the Governor, the Sultans of the FMS, King of Siam, Chief Justice and many other Malay royalties as well as colonial government officials.

1926 – The pipelines along the Causeway were completed. As much as 38 million litres of water could be piped daily to Singapore’s Pearl Hill Reservoir from the Gunung Pulai waterworks.

The World War

1940 – Additional lighting was installed at the Customs Examination shed area. The lighting system for the Causeway was inadequate as only one half was lighted at a time; its alternate side was switched on and off on a weekly basis.

31 January 1942 – The British set off explosions at the Causeway in an attempt to delay the Japanese’s advance into Singapore. The Causeway’s lock channel and lifting bridge were destroyed by the explosives. After the Fall of Singapore, the Causeway was repaired by the Japanese but the lock channel and lifting bridge were not replaced.

1950 – New 60-inch steel waterpipes were laid along the Causeway by the Municipal Commission due to Singapore’s increasing needs for water. It added an extra of 7.5 million litres of water supply from Johor.

6 March 1956 – Members of the Singapore Motor Club and reporters waited eagerly at the Singapore side of the Causeway to welcome the six-men Oxford-Cambridge team arriving in two dust-covered Land Rovers. They became the first ever to complete the overland trip from London to Singapore, which took about six months.

9 November 1958 – The Causeway was temporarily closed to ease the traffic due to the first state visit of Johor by Yang di-Pertuan Agong and his Consort.

February 1959 – The Causeway was heavily jammed during the 1959 Chinese New Year period, with as many as 2,500 cars passing through every hour. Thousands of firecrackers were confiscated by the Customs.

The New Border

1 February 1967 – Hundreds of lorries piled up at the Causeway as they waited for hours for their goods to be cleared by the Customs. It was the first day of the imposition of a new two percent surtax on imported goods.

2 July 1967 – Immigration barrier was established at Singapore’s side, as both countries began their issuing of the restricted passports. Malaysia set up their checkpoints in September 1967. The usage of the Singapore Restricted Passports would last 32 years until the end of 1999.

18 February 1968 – Johor carried out an exercise to inoculate against cholera for 35,000 people at the Malaysia side of the Causeway, after a report of cholera case at Lavender Street. It took the motorists more than two hours to cross the Causeway.

3 June 1969 – Stricter checks and controls were stepped up at both sides of the Causeway due to the racial riots erupted at Kuala Lumpur on 13 May 1969 and its possible spillovers into Singapore.

11 April 1971 – Bus service 170 was launched as a cross-border service between Queen Street Terminal and Johor Bahru. The bus service was managed by the United Bus Company (UBC) Ltd, but was later transferred to the newly-merged Singapore Bus Services (SBS) in 1973.

15 August 1971 – Malaysia implemented a new immigration control system at the Causeway, where all foreigners entering Malaysia were required to fill embarkation and disembarkation cards. The pink immigration cards were for Singaporeans while the white ones were for general foreign visitors.

9 January 1972 – “Operation Snip Snip” was carried out at the Singapore side of the Causeway. Long-haired Singaporeans had their passports seized and were told to collect them back at the Immigration Headquarters at Empress Place after their haircuts. Non-citizens could get a quick haircut at a temporary barber stall 50m away from the checkpoint. Otherwise, they would not be allowed to enter Singapore and had to turn back.

1972 – Singapore and Malaysia pondered the building of a second causeway.

1 November 1973 – Malaysians driving into Singapore in their private cars were required to obtain vehicle entry permits. It was to restrain the growth of private car population in Singapore. Goods and public service vehicles were exempted from the new rule.

1974-1976 – A study in 1972 found that the average daily traffic volume at the Causeway was about 18,000. In view of increasing traffic demands, the Public Works Department (PWD) was tasked to improve the Causeway. The project included new link bridges, slip roads and the widening of the Causeway from three to six lanes (both ways) at a cost of $9 million.

17 October 1976 – A five-hour power failure threw the Causeway and checkpoints into darkness and chaos as the immigration officers scrambled to get candles and torches to continue their work. It caused a huge jam on the Causeway and delayed clearance for the travellers. Electricity was restored by the Public Utilities Board (PUB) at 10pm.

The Computerisation

1977 – A new $13.8-million Woodlands Immigration Checkpoint was built to manage the increasing traffic flow between Singapore and Malaysia. Officially opened by Home Affairs and Education Minister Chua Sian Chin, it was equipped with new computerised systems which meant Malaysian cars entering Singapore were no longer required to carry their car registration books. A new Exit Control Scheme was also implemented in the following year, on 3 January 1978, to prevent visitors from illegal overstaying.

June 1981 – Replacing the manual checking of blacklisted travellers, the new computers had greatly improved the efficiency for the Woodlands Immigration Checkpoint. Previously, the officers could only detect an average of 35 suspects a month. With the help of the computers, the detection rate increased to 470 blacklisted personnel among the daily 30,000 to 40,000 travellers across the Causeway.

1984 – Singapore’s Traffic Police cramped down on illegal parking of vehicles along the Causeway.

December 1984 – A $210,000 set of concealed cameras and close-circuit television (CCTV) was installed at the Woodlands checkpoint to battle increasing crimes. Covering the bus passenger lanes, waterpipes and jetty areas, the new system was able to detect suspicious personnel trying to sneak past the border checks.

1985 – A special lane on the Causeway was allocated, between 6am and 8am, for lorries carrying perishable goods from Malaysia to Singapore. There were 50 to 60 such lorries plying the route everyday.

November 1985 – The new Bukit Timah Expressway (BKE), absorbing some of the northbound traffic towards the Causeway, eased the congestion issues at Upper Bukit Timah Road and Woodlands Road. It also acted as a link between the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE) and the Causeway.

1986-1990 – Kampong Lorong Fatimah, situated at the Malayan Railway Administration lands beside the Causeway, was gradually fading away as many of its residents had moved to the Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats at Woodlands.

Made up of both Singaporeans and Malaysians, it was the only village in Singapore guarded by an immigration outpost, where the residents had to show their identity cards (for Singaporeans) or passports (for Malaysians) upon entering and exiting the village. In late 1989, the village eventually had to make way for the new Woodlands immigration complex extension.

18 November 1986 – Held in 1986 and participated by 57 nations, the First Earth Run was a global relay event advocating world peace. However, at the Causeway, Malaysian demonstrators blocked the passage to protest against Israeli President Chaim Herzog’s visit to Singapore.

To avoid the crowds, Malaysia’s last relay runner Lynda Seow had to be driven onto the Causeway in a police van with the Peace Torch. She then ran the last stretch with the torch before passing it to the Singapore team of runners who relayed the torch to the National Stadium.

6 February 1987 – Indonesian President Suharto was welcomed by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at the Causeway when the former drove to Singapore after his official visit at Johor.

July 1988 – Daily commuters across the Causeway had increased to 80,000. Expansion works were added to the Woodlands immigration complex, including additional immigration booths, new bus lanes and more Customs facilities. The $10-million project was completed in 1991.

8 April 1989 – A new half-tank rule added to the Customs (Amendment) Bill was passed in the Parliament. A maximum fine of $500 would be imposed on any Singapore-registered cars leaving the country with less than half-tank of petrol. The new rule was implemented on 17 April, with a grace period of two months. Cars not meeting the requirements were allowed to turn back instead of being fined during the grace period.

August 1990 – The “express card” scheme aided the quick clearance of frequent travellers to Singapore at the checkpoints.

17 October 1990 – The Causeway was closed for more than five hours after ammonia gas had leaked from a lorry’s portable tank.

4 February 1991 – The half-tank rule was revised to three-quarter tank. A one-month grace period was given to Singapore cars travelling to Malaysia.

August 1991 – A six-month study was conducted on the feasibility of a light rail transit system across the Causeway between Singapore and Johor.

1993 – Malaysia was interested in the proposed extension of Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system to Johor Bahru. However, the plans were not materialised.

1993 – The average number of commuters crossing the Causeway had risen to 190,000 per day.

3 May 1994 – A new 12-lane clearance complex was opened for Malaysian motorcyclists entering Singapore, greatly speeding up the clearance process and reducing the congestion during peak hours.

July 1995 – For traffic safety reasons, Singapore cars entering Malaysia were required to be fitted with a third brake light.

The Political Bickering

1996 – Malaysia called for the demolition of the Causeway to be replaced by a bridge, which would be named the Southern International Gateway. The Singapore-Malaysia ties became frosty in the following few years.

13 December 1996 – Singapore and Malaysia reached accord on how and when to clean up the Straits of Johor. Flotsam and floating debris tended to accumulate along the Causeway.

2 January 1998 – The Malaysia-Singapore Second Link, or Tuas Second Link, was officially opened, becoming the second vehicular link between the two countries.

1999 – Malaysia and Singapore blamed each other for the traffic congestion woes at the Causeway.

18 July 1999 – Costing more than $400 million, the new Woodlands Checkpoint was opened, replacing the old one. It was more spacious and equipped with better facilities that would enhance border security.

31 December 1999 – The blue Singapore Restricted Passport, used for travels to West Malaysia since 1967, was phased out. The red Singapore Passport became the only valid document for overseas travels by Singaporeans from 1 January 2000 onwards.

September 2001 – The Causeway was one of the issues listed in a deal between Singapore and Malaysia, which also included the issues of water supply, air space, railway land and CPF withdrawals for Malaysians.

2002-2006 – Malaysia announced that it would unilaterally proceed to build the new bridge. Inter-governmental talks resumed and ended without agreement several times over the years.

February 2002 – Both Singapore and Malaysia increased the toll charges for vehicles using the Causeway and Second Link. At Singapore side, the increase ranged from 10 cents for taxis to $2.50 for big lorries.

March 2003 – Security at the Woodlands Checkpoint was stepped up due to the looming Iraq war and potential terrorist threat. Cars were ordered to open all their storage compartments for inspection, whereas motorcyclists even had their helmets and pockets checked. The increased security measures led to large traffic congestions at the Causeway, with car queues almost 1km long.

May 2003 – There were disputes again when Malaysia accused Singapore of breaching the Asean agreement when the latter blocked the entry of a probable severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) case at the Woodlands Checkpoint.

September 2004 – SBS launched two more bus services to Johor. Bus service 160 would start from Jurong East Interchange, ply through Bukit Batok, Choa Chu Kang, Kranji and Woodlands before crossing the Causeway to Kotaraya, near Johor Bahru’s City Square. Bus service 950’s route was between Woodlands Regional Interchange and Kotaraya.

September 2005 – The Singapore side of the Causeway built a road divider to segregate motorbikes and cars, due to the increasing number of motorcyclists violating lane discipline, jumping queues and obstructing traffic.

February-March 2008 – The escape of Mas Selamat Kastari led to tightened border checks at the Woodlands Checkpoint. It was the worst Causeway jam for trucks since the mid-nineties.

December 2008 – To further ease the congestion woes, the old Woodlands Checkpoint, closed since 1999, was reopened to cater for clearance for motorbikes and trucks. At Malaysia side, a new RM$1.3-billion 76-lane Johor Bahru Checkpoint was opened.

May 2009 – A third bridge linking eastern Johor and Singapore was proposed. The widening of the Causeway was also considered. The plan did not materialise in the end.

November 2009 – Lorry operators and businesses welcomed the decision by Johor’s Tanjung Puteri Customs Complex to open 24 hours.

The Covid-19 Pandemic

18 March 2020 – The Causeway was shut down as Malaysia implemented its Movement Control Order (MCO) in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Only food supplies and other necessity goods were allowed to go through the Causeway.

29 November 2021 – A daily limit of almost 3,000 passengers were allowed to pass through the Causeway between the two countries under the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme.

1 April 2022 – The Causeway was fully reopened again, after almost two years of closure and restrictions. It was the longest period of inaccessibility for the Causeway since the Second World War.

Published: 19 April 2022

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Demolition of Old Boys’ Brigade Headquarters

The old Boys’ Brigade Headquarters at Ganges Avenue is currently undergoing demolition. Located at the junction of Zion Road and the Singapore River, the premises had been The Boys’ Brigade’s base for 36 years.

The history of The Boys Brigade went back to 1883, when it was founded by William Alexandra Smith (1854-1914) at Scotland’s Aberdeen as an organisation for instilling discipline, ethics and Christian values to teenage boys and nurturing them into responsible men. It was also the world’s first uniformed group for the youths.

As part of the global movement, The Boys’ Brigade in Singapore was established on 12 January 1930 by James Milner Fraser (1905-1978), an architect and town planner who arrived at Singapore to work for the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT). James Fraser, who was a member of the 23rd Aberdeen Company of The Boys’ Brigade back home, set up the Singapore branch as a promise to his ex-captain. At the Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church, the 1st Singapore Company was therefore created with an initial membership of 40.

The Boys’ Brigade (originally called The Singapore Battalion) steadily grew in Singapore; it had 200 members by 1936. James Fraser was the captain until 1940, and would also become the Battalion President in 1936, a position he held for 20 years till 1956. As for The Boys’ Brigade, a series of new Battalions and Companies were formed throughout its history.

During the Second World War, The Boys’ Brigade activities had to be halted with its documents, flags and drums hidden in the Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church’s storerooms. James Fraser was caught and became a prisoner-of-war (POW), and was forced to work at the construction of the notorious Burma Railway (also known as the Death Railway). He survived and returned to Singapore after the war to revive The Boys’ Brigade together with Chua Siak Phuang, whom he passed the captaincy earlier in 1940.

James Fraser went on to serve as the President of Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and the Chairman of Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in the fifties. At SIT, he supervised the construction of more than 10,000 units of public flats and shops, and made several important publications such as the SIT annual reports and the studies of town planning and housing issues in Singapore. James Fraser later returned to Scotland and died there in 1978.

In 1968, The Singapore Battalion was officially renamed The Boys’ Brigade. In 1971, it had the distinguished honour to have Benjamin Henry Sheares (1907-1981), the second President of the Republic of Singapore, as its patron. The patronage of the Singapore President to The Boys’ Brigade continues till this day.

In November 1985, The Boys’ Brigade Headquarters and Training Centre was shifted from Armenian Street to Ganges Avenue, where it took over the former premises of Havelock Primary School. The Boys’ Brigade stayed here for almost four decades.

Havelock Primary School (formerly called Havelock School) was established in 1952. It was one of the many new primary schools built in Singapore in the fifties to accommodate 15,000 students born during the post-war baby boom. Delta East School and Delta West School used to be the neighbouring primary schools with Havelock Primary School. Their old school compounds were demolished in the mid-2010s.

One of The Boys’ Brigade’s major events at the new headquarters was its convention during the 1986 National Day weekend, where officers from The Boys’ Brigades in Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia were invited to participate in the brigade etiquette and religious discussions and also to observe Singapore’s National Day celebrations. Other events held at the headquarters included regular training courses, passing out parades and fund-raising campaigns for the needy.

In September 2021, The Boys’ Brigade departed its old Ganges Avenue headquarters and moved to its temporary office at Sembawang Road’s Boys’ Brigade and Girls’ Brigade Campsite. It will eventually shift to its new Kwong Avenue headquarters at the MacPherson Estate when the premises are completed.

As for the old Boys’ Brigade Headquarters, its demolition project started in February 2022, and is expected to be completed by April 2022. The buildings, occupied by Havelock Primary School (1952-1984) and The Boys Brigade (1985-2021), will officially walk into the history books after 70 years of existence.

Published: 12 March 2022

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1942 Singapore’s Darkest Moment at Former Ford Factory

Eighty years ago, on this date of 15 February 1942, the former Ford Factory witnessed the darkest chapter in Singapore’s history, when the British unconditionally surrendered to the Japanese, marking the start of Singapore’s three-and-a-half years under the Japanese Occupation.

Built in 1941, the former Ford Factory was American automobile manufacturing giant Ford Motor Company’s first full assembly car factory in Malaya as well as Southeast Asia. But by the time it was completed, the war had came to Peninsula Malaya. Although Henry Ford (1863-1947), founder of the Ford Motor Company, declined to manufacture engines for Britain at his Michigan plant, he permitted his affiliated Ford factories at Canada, South Africa, India, New Zealand and Malaya to produce military vehicles for British’s war efforts.

The first Ford car, Model N, was imported to Malaya as early as 1909. Keen in the potentially massive market in the British’s colonies, Ford Canada established a subsidiary called Ford Malaya in 1926 to focus on the marketing and sales of automobiles in Southeast Asia, where American and British cars were competing for market shares.

In Singapore, the Ford Malaya office was set up at the Dunlop House at Robinson Road. Over at Tanjong Pagar’s Enggor Street, a garage was converted into a small Ford factory for secondary assembly processes such as fitting of the wheels for Model T, one of the company’s first mass produced cars. The factory stayed for three years before it was moved to a larger warehouse at Prince Edwards Road where it engaged in the assembly of semi-knocked down vehicles. Throughout the 1930s, Ford was one of the dominant car brands in Malaya.

By the late 1930s, even with the possibility of widespread war in Southeast Asia, Ford decided to build a full assembly plant in Singapore to meet the increasing demand. In October 1941, the Art Deco-styled Ford Factory at 8½ milestone of Upper Bukit Timah Road was completed. However, barely two months after the commence of its operations, the factory was taken over by the Royal Air Force (RAF) in December 1941 to assemble fighter planes.

By then, Singapore had already came under days of air raids by the Japanese planes. The bombings lasted two months from the beginning of December 1941 to the end of January 1942, resulting in hundreds of civilian casualties. The fighter planes assembled at the Ford Factory did not even have the chance to be used against the Japanese, and were instead hastily moved out of Singapore to prevent them from falling into the enemy’s hands.

The war eventually reached Singapore when the Japanese troops quietly crossed the Johor Strait and landed near Sarimbun beach on 8 February 1942. Intensive battles at several strategic locations followed, but the British was unable to defend Singapore and kept retreating to the city area.

Singapore fell barely a week later. Ford Factory was seized to be used as the Japanese Imperial Army’s temporary headquarters. On the evening of 15 February 1942, the factory’s boardroom became a historic venue in history. It was here where Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival (1887-1966), General Officer Commanding (Malaya), formally surrendered Singapore to the Japanese invaders led by Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita (1885-1946), Commanding General, 25th Army.

Japan’s annexation of Malaya and Singapore, started from 8 December 1941, took less than 100 days. The fall of Singapore, then considered the impregnable British stronghold in Southeast Asia, was largely due to inadequate war preparations, half-hearted support from Britain and defensive vulnerabilities. The commanders’ poor decisions, coupled with the troops’ low morale and insufficient supplies, also played a part.

The speed and manner in which Malaya and Singapore were defeated brought an end to the British’s prestige and reputation in the region.

Shortly after the British’s surrender, Singapore and Malaya were renamed Syonan and Malai. Under the brutal Japanese rule, the people of Malaya and Singapore suffered from constant fear and hunger. Tens of thousands were tortured and killed.

The Ford Factory, during the occupation, was handed over to Japanese automobile manufacturer Nissan for the assembly of military trucks and other vehicles used for Japan’s war efforts in the region.

After the war, the returning British regained control of Ford Factory, returning it to its owner Ford Malaya a year later. Ford Factory resumed automobile production in April 1947, and began exporting its vehicles to the Southeast Asian and South Asian markets.

Ford Factory would operate for 23 more years until 1980, when the company moved out of Singapore. By the time it shut down its assembly lines, it had produced almost 150,000 vehicles in total.

In 1997, the front building of the former factory, where the historic event took place, was returned to the state, whereas the rest of the compound was redeveloped into a private condominium. The building was then restored by the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) in 2005. On 15 February 2006, it was officially gazetted as one of Singapore’s national monuments called former Ford Factory.

On 15 February 2017, a permanent Second World War exhibition was curated and launched by NAS at Former Ford Factory. Initially called Syonan Gallery (Syonan Gallery: War and its Legacies, An Exhibition at Former Ford Factory in full), the exhibition prompted a public outcry over its name which many thought might be misinterpreted as glorifying the Japanese Occupation. After much considerations, the authorities decided to rename it as Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies.

Published: 15 February 2022

Updated: 17 February 2022

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Changes of Dakota 3 – Guillemard Camp Walks into History

Guillemard Camp was built in 1969 by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), two years after the establishment of National Service (NS). It was therefore one of the oldest SAF camps, excluding those pre-war British barracks which SAF took over in the early seventies.

Guillemard Camp was named after Guillemard Road, which in turn was named after Sir Laurence Nunns Guillemard (1862-1951), the 18th Governor of the Straits Settlements between 1920 and 1927.

Guillemard Camp was home to the 1st Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment (1 SIR) for more than three decades from 1969 to 2003. 1 SIR was formed in 1957 as Singapore’s first infantry battalion. With the first batch of 237 enlistees, the unit was established as Singapore was vying for self governance from the British. 1 SIR was initially housed at Ulu Pandan Camp in 1959.

During the merger with Malaysia between 1963 and 1965, 1 SIR was renamed 1st Battalion, Malaysian Infantry Regiment (1 MIR) under the command of the 4th Malaysian Infantry Brigade. It was deployed in the midst of the 1964 racial riots and also during the Konfrontasi Period, where the men were sent to patrol and defend Johor and Sabah from the Indonesian saboteurs.

When Singapore gained independence in 1965, 1 MIR was reverted to 1 SIR, and came under the newly formed SAF in 1967. A year later, it was transformed into SAF’s first full-time NS battalion and shifted from Ulu Pandan Camp to Taman Jurong Camp. In 1969, it moved to the new Guillemard Camp where it stayed for 34 years until its eventual relocation to Mandai Hill Camp in 2003.

Some significant milestones of 1 SIR include its introduction of a new set of Regimental Colours (1982), unveiling of its new Leopard emblem (1986) and participating in the search and rescue effort for the Hotel New World disaster (1986).

The first event for the national servicemen of Guillemard Camp was their participation of the SAF Day parade on 1 July 1969. Along with units from other SAF camps and also the Singapore Police Force, more than 1,200 soldiers and policemen displayed the “fighting fitness” of the armed forces in front of a 7,000-strong crowd at the Jalan Besar Stadium. This was followed by an open house at Guillemard Camp on 2 July 1969.

In the following year, in 1970, Guillemard Camp was chosen as one of the venues for the SAF Day celebrations and parades. The SAF slogan that year was “Forces for Unity”, emphasising how SAF reflected the multi-racial character of Singapore.

Due to its close proximity to the flats and schools, camp tours were often organised at Guillemard Camp in the seventies and eighties for the public to understand more about army life. The nearby residents had also gotten used to the training noises and military trucks coming out from the camp.

Guillemard Camp also made contributions to the community by helping out in gotong royong (communal work) activities. For example, in 1969, its national servicemen, along with several companies of troops from other camps, were activated in the Operation Clean-Up to clear the large amount of debris left behind by floods or choked in the drains.

In the seventies, Guillemard Camp was regularly used for passing-out parades for the Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO) and National Cadet Corps (NCC).

One of the most memorable events for the soldiers of Guillemard Camp occurred in 1975, when SAF was leading an operation to control the influx of Vietnamese refugees entering Singapore. Many refugees had to be placed at several temporary locations in Singapore before they were sent to other countries such as the United States and Australia. About 100 orphans were temporarily housed at Guillemard Camp. Before their departures, the officers and men of the camp threw a party filled with sweets and songs for the delighted children.

Another unforgettable incident was in 1984, when the scouts from 1 SIR were activated and dispatched from Guillemard Camp at midnight to find and rescue lost hikers at the Seletar Reservoir. As many as 37 hikers, some of them kids, were lost and stranded inside the thick forest. It took almost one-and-a-half hour for the Bravo company’s scouts to locate them.

By the nineties, there were plans to redevelop the site of Guillemard Camp for residential purposes. After 1 SIR moved out in 2003, the camp premises was left vacant for a period of time.

In 2010, it was leased to the Bengali Association of Singapore for their Durga Puja festival event, where former Singapore President S.R. Nathan was invited as the guest-of-honour. As recent as 2020, the camp was converted into a Community Recovery Facility for foreign workers recovering from Covid-19.

Finally, in 2021, an open tender was issued for the demolition of Guillemard Camp. The demolition project is expected to commence by the end of January 2022 and complete by August.

The Dakota Crescent area has seen tremendous changes in recent years. The buildings of two former neighbourhood schools Broadrick Secondary School and Maju Secondary School (built in 1968) were torn down in 2016. Then in 2020, the old Dakota Crescent Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) flats (built in 1958) made way for development of new public housing.

With Guillemard Camp expected to be gone soon, the Old Airport Road Food Centre (built in 1972) will be one of the remaining older buildings in the vicinity.

Also read:

Changes of Dakota – Demolition of Former Broadrick and Maju Secondary Schools (2016)

Changes of Dakota 2 – Bidding Farewell to Dakota Crescent Flats (2020)

Published: 28 January 2022

Updated: 30 January 2022

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Cool but Obsolete… Gadgets and Apps of the 1990s and 2000s

The recent news of BlackBerry ending the support for its signature devices brings back memories to many who have previously owned the phones.

One of BlackBerry’s iconic series was BlackBerry Bold, first launched in 2008. Designed with a leather back cover, chrome curves and sleek appearance, BlackBerry Bold was the stylish and premium product that everyone, especially the professional workers, desired, even when the Apple iPhones were beginning to take the world by storm.

The BlackBerry phones came with three distinctive features –  BBM, its instant messaging service, a centre trackball for easy device navigation and the small physical qwerty keyboard, an innovative design in an era when most phones were still using 12 basic buttons for keying of numbers and letters.

Technology has since advanced so rapidly that applications and gadgets of the nineties and 2000s seem awfully outdated now. Other than Blackberry Bold, here are 16 more iconic gadgets, software and apps of the nineties and 2000s that we were once familiar with.

The list is not in any order:

1. Motorola Bravo Pager (1986-2012)

There used to be a local humour phrase of “hello, siang kar pager?” (hello, who paged me?). Pagers were first developed in the fifties but only became widely used in the eighties. Its popularity last for almost two decades until the mobile phones took over as the main telecommunication means.

Motorola had been the leader in the development and manufacturing pagers. Its line of pagers included some iconic models, such as the Dimension IV pager in 1977 and Bravo numeric pager in 1986, which became the world’s best selling pager. By the mid-nineties, the new Motorola Tango alphanumeric pager allowed users to receive text messages and emails, and reply with a standard response.

It was a common sight in Singapore in the nineties to see people with pagers clipped by the side of their pants, and they would make return calls at the coin phones when their little black boxes beeped. Creative teenagers soon began to use pagers to relay their messages using numeric codes and shorthand, such as 07734 (an upside down “Hello”), 1-177155-400 (“I miss you”) and 6000-843 (“Good bye”).

As Short Message Service (SMS) in mobile phones became popular, pagers were gradually deemed redundant. Into the 2000s, pagers were still used by doctors, military personnel and those whose jobs required standby or on-call duties. But by April 2012, pagers finally could no longer work as Sunpage, Singapore’s last paging service provider, decided to end the service.

2. CallZone and Zonephone (1991-1998)

The Singapore Telecom conducted a technical trial for its new CallZone service in 1991, using public base stations to connect to second generation cordless phones (CT2), dubbed as the Zonephones. In January 1992, the CallZone service made its debut and more than 2,500 Zonephones were quickly snapped up at $398 each.

The success prompted Singapore Telecom to install and provide a further 300 CallZone areas for its customers, increasing the total number of CallZone areas to 3,000 by the end of 1992. Zonephones, which could only be used for outgoing calls, provided a convenient way for pager users to return calls without having to reach for any public or coin phones.

But soon, the CallZone service ran into issues. The network would jam if there were too many users using their Zonephones at the same area. New cellular phones introduced in the market were also better as they could take both incoming and outgoing calls.

By 1996, the CallZone subscription rate was declining fast and Singapore Telecom began to lose money maintaining the large number of CallZones. The service as well as Zonephones eventually walked into the history in October 1998, barely seven years after their launch.

3. Nokia 8250 (2001-late 2000s)

There were hundreds of Nokia mobile phone models, and many were iconic designs, including the Nokia 8110, commonly known as the banana phone, in the late nineties.

The Nokia 8250 was another iconic one, and was arguably one of the best selling Nokia phone models in Singapore in the early 2000s. A variant of the Nokia 8210 introduced in 1999, the Nokia 8250, nicknamed the butterfly due to the shape of its centre buttons, sported a sleek and light candy bar design, and came with a cool blue backlight, customisable ringtones and screensavers.

Nokia dominated the mobile phone market for more than a decade between the nineties and 2000s. The rise of smartphones knocked out the majority of its shares in the market and its mobile phone business was eventually acquired by Microsoft in 2014.

4. 3½-Inch Floppy Disk (1982-early 2000s)

Universal Serial Bus (USB) was developed in 1996, and the first USB flash drive was invented in 1999. Singapore’s Trek 2000 International was reportedly the first company to commercialise and sell USB flash drives in the market. With relatively larger and faster storage capability, as well as easier to carry around, USB flash drives grew in popularity around the world, marking the eventual death of floppy disks.

By the early 2000s, the 3½-Inch Floppy Disks were limited as emergency boot media and for small data transfers. Many brands of personal computers began to phase out the floppy drives after 2003. But its legacy somehow lives on with the “save” button, resembling the floppy disk, used in Microsoft Office and other software.

5. Zip Disk (1994-early 2000s)

Introduced in 1994, Zip Disk became popular as a portable storage means due to its relatively higher storage capacity compared to the floppy disks. It had 100MB (later versions were 250MB and 750MB) which were useful as data files were getting larger. A Zip Drive, internal or external, connected to the computers was required to read or write the Zip Disks.

Like the floppy disks, Zip Disks fell out of flavour by the early 2000s as CDs (compact discs), USB flash drives and portable hard disk drives (HDD) with higher and faster storage capabilities started to dominate in the market.

6. Modem and Dial-up Connection (1990s-mid-2000s)

Next we move into the internet. Back in the nineties, to access the internet, one required the dial-up connection using a phone line and an analog modem. It would usually take 30 seconds to connect – with that familiar, sometimes irritating, connecting sound – and it would get disconnected whenever a phone call came in or someone needed to use the phone. Its data transfer rate of up to 56 Kbps is unimaginable in today’s context.

Dial-up connection in Singapore was later replaced by the Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) with faster data transmission in the 2000s, before the high speed fibre broadband becomes the main mode for internet access today.

7. mIRC/ICQ/MSN Messenger (mid-1990s-2000s)

Instant messaging platforms were a rage back then, with many users in the nineties and early 2000s spending hours on the computers chatting with one another.

mIRC was an IRC (Internet Relay Chat) client developed for Windows in 1995. It became one of the most popular IRC clients with almost 40 million downloads. Users were able to communicate, chat and share files via IRC channels, which enjoyed its golden period from the mid-nineties to the early 2000s. After 2003, IRC, facing competition from other new types of instant messaging, saw steady decline in usage.

ICQ (name derived from “I seek you”) joined the instant messaging domain in 1996, and reached its peak in 2001 with more than 100 million users worldwide. It was one of the most popular instant messengers but its popularity gradually declined after the early 2000s and did not quite recover after that.

Microsoft’s MSN Messenger entered the scene in 1999. It soon attracted a large following in the 2000s with new features such as games, nudging of friends’ chat windows and large customised or animated emoticons. Later known as Windows Live Messenger, it released a final version in 2012 and quietly departed a year later, with the communication function in Windows replaced by Skype.

Other instant messengers included AIM (AOL Instant Messenger – launched in 1997 and ended in 2017), Yahoo! Messenger (1998-2013) and Google Talk (2005-2013).

Both IRC and ICQ continue to function as software program and app for computers and mobile phones today, but their best days were long over as the instant messaging world is currently dominated by Whatsapp, Telegram, WeChat and Facebook Messenger.

8. Netscape (1994-2008)

Netscape was one of the early widely used internet browsers, with the first Netscape Navigator launched in 1994. Netscape Navigator 3 absolutely dominated the market with 90% share in the mid-nineties, before the rise of Windows 95’s Internet Explorer (IE).

The later versions of Netscape were Netscape Communicator, Netscape 6, Netscape 7 and Netscape Browser, but they would lose out in the so-called Browser War (1995-2001), a period when new internet browsers such as Firefox, Opera, Safari as well as IE fought for market shares. Netscape eventually met its death in March 2008.

By 2017, Google Chrome was the dominant internet browser with 60% market share. IE also faded away, and was replaced by Microsoft Edge in 2020.

9. Hotmail (1996-2011)

One of the first webmail services on the internet, Hotmail was created in 1996 and, just a year later, acquired by Microsoft for $400 million. By 1999, it was the world’s largest email service provider with more than 30 million active users. Hotmail was also favoured as the first email account for many users who had just gotten on board the internet.

After 15 years, Hotmail was phased out in 2011, with Microsoft relaunching its email service as Outlook.com.

10. Minesweeper (1992-2011) & Solitaire (1990-2011)

Classic Windows puzzle games Minesweeper and Solitaire were a good means in providing short entertainment breaks from work. The games were fun and simple, yet not so addictive for users to get hooked for hours. Some claimed the games were created to help Windows users to practise how to perform the click, drag and drop functions with the mouse.

Minesweeper was first released in 1990, and became popular after its bundle installation with Windows 3.1 after 1992. It lasted until the early 2010s and no longer came with the new Microsoft operating systems after Windows 7, although it is still available for download in the Microsoft Store.

Solitaire, on the other hand, was developed in 1988 and first released as part of Windows 3.0 in 1990. Like Minesweeper, Solitaire did not come with Windows 8 and subsequent versions of the Windows operating systems, but remains available at Microsoft Store.

New games such as FreeCell and Pinball were later added, but Minesweeper and Solitaire were the iconic games of the early Windows operating systems.

11. Napster (1999-2001)

Pioneering peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing software Napster took the storm when it was launched in 1999, allowing users to share songs typically in MP3 format. MP3 was an audio file format that has a reasonably good file size-to-audio quality ratio. It was, back then, a period when MP3 players started to get popular.

Soon, many other P2P file-sharing software also emerged. The copyright issue for songs became a hot topic as the music industry was greatly impacted. In 2001, Napster was forced to shut down after a series of copyright infringement lawsuits and the founding company got eventually bankrupted a year later.

12. Sony Discman (mid-1990s to early 2000s)

The world’s first commercially available CD player was sold by Sony in 1982. Two years later, the Japanese company also produced the first portable CD player. Vinyl discs and cassettes were still dominant in the music industry in the eighties, but CDs had higher audio quality in digital formats.

The early Sony Discman, Sony D-5 (D-50 in foreign markets) did not have any buffering mechanism, which means songs would skip when there were impacts or vibrations to the player. Hence, CD players were not that popular until the anti-skip technology came out in the nineties.

In 1995, the ESP (electronic skip/shock protection) technology was developed. Able to store up to 10 seconds of music in the memory, it allowed smooth, uninterrupted music playback even when the player was bumped. Sony Discman thus became a hit.

In 1997, Sony rebranded their Discman to CD Walkman. By 1998, Sony had sold more than 50 million Discman globally.

13. Creative Zen Micro (mid-2000s)

If the Walkman (cassette player) and Discman (CD player) were the representative portable music players of the eighties and nineties, then the 2000s belonged to the MP3 players.

Apple’s iPod was iconic but Creative Technology’s Zen series of MP3 players were also popular and familiar gadgets to many Singaporeans. The locally bred company developed its first Zen player in 2004, participating in the so-called “MP3 player war” with Apple, Sony, Rio and others in the mid-2000s.

Zen Micro, arguably the most recognisable model in the Zen series, was introduced in November 2014 with a display screen and touch-sensitive vertical strip for easy navigation of the songs stored in the player.

Subsequent models included Zen Neeon, Zen Nano and Zen X-Fi but by 2007, Apple had moved ahead with the launch of their first generation iPhone. MP3 players’ popularity gradually declined by the late 2000s.

14. Friendster (2003-2015)

Before Facebook, there was Friendster, one of the earliest truly popular social networking websites. It was launched in 2003, and rapidly grew in the number of registered users, who could add friends, share photos and videos as well as make comments or chats. By 2008, Friendster had more than 100 million users.

But the rise of Facebook impacted Friendster and its popularity started to fade away. In 2011, Friendster switched from a social networking site to a gaming site. It lasted for four years after which its site and services were completely shut down in 2015.

15. Pioneer LD Player (1980s-late 1990s)

The Video Home System (VHS) tapes and Video Cassette Recorders (VCR) had been the most commonly used media for home videos since their industrial standardization (for the videotapes) and release (VCRs) in 1976. Then came the Digital Video Disc (DVD), with higher quality video formats, in 1995 that spelt the eventual death of VHS tapes in 2016.

Between the VHS tapes and DVDs, there was one more, almost forgotten, video media called the LaserDisc (LD). It was not fully digital and required the use of analog video signals, but nevertheless produced better video qualities than the videotapes.

First released in 1978, LD players, with Pioneer as the prominent brand, gained popularity in Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore in the nineties yet never did capture the US and European markets. The popularity of LD eroded away by the late nineties, replaced by the likes of DVDs and Blu-ray discs (BD).

Home movies and television drama series are now available through digital streaming services such as Netflix and Disney+. Digital streaming services have overtaken the sales of films in DVDs and Blu-rays for the first time since 2017.

16. Teletext (1983-2013)

The Teletext was first developed by the British in the seventies. In 1983, the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) launched Teletext, the first such service in Asia, as televisions became a staple home appliance in many households (although one required a Teletext TV set to access Teletext).

Initially called SBCtext with 100 pages each on Channel 5 and Channel 8, it provided news flashes, stock prices, weather forecasts, football matches’ scores, lottery (4D and Toto) results and many other daily and updated text-based information.

However, as internet became popular and widely used by the 2000s, information was easily accessible via the computers and phones. Teletext gradually became underutilised and eventually walked into history on 30 September 2013.

What other old iconic gadgets, software and apps that you have previously used?

Published: 18 January 2022

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Army Camp, Lifestyle Enclave, Visual Arts Hub… Gillman Barracks’ Journey in the Past Decades

Today, Gillman Barracks is largely known as a visual arts hub located at a small quiet area off Alexandra Road. But it used to be a much bigger British military camp in the past.

Completed in the mid-1930s in a former area made up of forest and swamps, Gillman Barracks covered 118 acres (0.48km2) of land between Alexandra Road and Depot Road. Built on the high grounds at the west side of Mount Faber-Telok Blangah ridge, Gillman Barracks were strategically situated at Singapore’s southern part. It first housed the Middlesex Regiment and later the Loyal Regiment; both regiments were Singapore’s first two infantry battalions.

A network of roads were laid to link between various parts of the camp. These roads were Depot Road, Lock Road, Malan Road, Nek Road, Preston Road, Anzac Road, Railway Hill and Friendly Hill. Off limits to public access, the roads were under the charge of the War Department until the sixties.

Nek Road, Anzac Road, Railway Hill and Friendly Hill had since been expunged and no longer exist today.

The new camp was named after General Sir Webb Gillman (1870-1933), the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the East Command between 1931 and 1933. A distinguished artillery officer, Webb Gillman, on behalf of the British Army, visited Singapore for three months in 1927 to assess the colony’s defence requirements.

Gillman Barracks had office buildings, officers’ and sergeants’ messes, married staff quarters, swimming pool, recreation grounds, ordnance depots, warehouses and even service reservoirs. Sports events were regularly held at the camps’ facilities, such as football, rugby, swimming, boxing, hockey and cricket competitions.

In the late 1930s, the British decided to build a military hospital near Gillman Barracks to support the medical needs of the camp and other British military installations in the region. The 356-bedder British Military Hospital (present-day Alexandra Hospital) was completed in 1940.

During the Second World War, the Alexandra Road area came under attack by the Japanese. A fierce battle broke out between the barracks’ infantry regiment and the invaders for three days before the Fall of Singapore. The hospital’s staff and patients, reportedly 200 of them, were brutally massacred on 14 February 1942. The British officially surrendered to the Japanese a day later.

After the war, the British regained control of the barracks and hospital. Certain parts of Gillman Barracks were revamped with the wooden and nissen huts replaced by permanent concrete and brick buildings.

In 1948, Gillman Barracks became home for the British Royal Engineers. It lasted for more than two decades until the British army’s withdrawal from Singapore in the early seventies.

In 1950, a traffic roundabout between Alexandra Road and Ayer Rajah Road was renamed Gillman Circus after the nearby barracks. It was originally called Alexandra Circus but the Municipal Commissioners decided to rename it to ease the confusions of drivers, as there were two more roundabouts along Alexandra Road.

Gillman Barracks received its guest-of-honour when Duke of Edinburgh Prince Philip (1921-2021) visited Singapore in 1959. After tours of Tengah Air Base and Blakang Mati Barracks, Prince Philip flew to Gillman Barracks in a helicopter to attend a parade and lunch with the British, Malay and Gurkha officers.

Gillman Barracks, like other British camps in Singapore, was handed over to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) on 21 August 1971. A handover-takeover ceremony took place between the British Royal Engineers and the SAF Combat Engineers, where a one Singapore dollar symbolic token was used to mark the successful transfer.

On 10 October 1971, the SAF conducted its first parade at Gillman Barracks for the commissioning of 27 engineer officer cadets.

Interestingly, the one Singapore dollar token ceremony was also held when Gillman Barracks was handed over to the SAF Transport 13 years later. The Combat Engineers were relocating to their new camp at Jurong, whereas the transport battalion needed a temporary home. Hence, the transfer ceremony with the token tradition happened on 1 October 1984 upon the insistence by the engineers.

In 1985, the staff of nearby Gloucester Barracks shifted their workplaces to Gillman Barracks after Gloucester Barracks was taken over by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) for the development of the Singapore Science Park.

The British Military Hospital was transferred on 11 September 1971 to Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH), also for a symbolic token of one Singapore dollar. It was renamed Alexandra Road General Hospital and was reopened four days later, on 15 September 1971, as a civilian general hospital.

Gillman Barracks’ popular swimming pool and other sports facilities were made available to the public after the government took over them in August 1971.

The camp’s Base Ordnance Depot, along Depot Road, had been supplying the British army for decades. After the transfer of the barracks, the site of the depot was re-designated as a light industrial district.

Some of the storage facilities at the former ordnance depot were temporarily occupied by the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) before JTC moved in to build a series of flatted factories next to the retained former Gillman Barracks buildings and warehouses. Depot Lane Industrial Estate, initially known as Telok Blanglah Industrial Estate, was built by the mid-seventies.

The industrial estate became home to a number of small factories manufacturing the likes of furniture, spice, souvenirs and other products. There was even a mushroom cultivating factory at Depot Lane in the eighties. Hewlett-Packard (HP) also set up a factory at Depot Road in 1975, where it assembled HP-35, the first Singapore-made pocket calculator.

Today, several of the former Gillman Barracks storage facilities along Depot Road still exist and are currently leased out to be used as warehouses, offices and workshops. A couple of them still bear the 1936 inscription on their façades, indicating the year of their construction.

In the late seventies, public housings were developed in the area as HDB flats popped up at Depot Road (built in 1976) and the new Telok Blangah estate (1978). Markets, hawker centres and other public amenities were added.

With the exception of two old blocks (Block 113 and 114), the Depot Road flats, under the en-bloc scheme in the 2000s, were demolished and replaced by newer flats.

In the early eighties, Railway Hill, a former part of Gillman Barracks, made way for the development of Gillman Estate, later known as Gillman Heights. Under the Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDC) Phase III program, ten blocks with 607 five-room flats were constructed in 1984 and sold to the public.

In 1996, Gillman Heights and Pine Grove became the first HUDC estates to be privatised. Gillman Heights was collectively sold in 2009 for $548 million, and in its place stands The Interlace today.

At the eastern side of Gillman Barracks, some changes were also happening by the late eighties. The Telok Blangah Hill Park had been developed, and at the end of Depot Road was the new $12-million Central Manpower Base (CMPB), which was relocated from Tanglin Barracks in March 1989.

By the early nineties, the SAF decided to leave Gillman Barracks and return the premises to the government as state lands. The area was renamed Gillman Village in 1996 as a new lifestyle enclave filled with restaurants, cafes and pubs with a colonial and rustic setting. However, comparing to another similar concept at Dempsey Road’s Tanglin Barracks (Tanglin Village), Gillman Village did not really take off in popularity.

In 2010, Gillman Village had its name changed back to Gillman Barracks after the government planned to develop the place into a visual arts hub. A $10 million revamp saw Gillman Barracks officially launched in 2012 to become a focal point for showcasing and discussion of international and Southeast Asia arts. Homegrown galleries, cafes and restaurants were set up to attract both local and foreign art lovers and collectors.

Gillman Barracks encountered some setbacks at the beginning of its new life when several galleries closed down in the mid-2010s. But it managed to hold on and now looks forward to strengthen its visual arts hub status in the next decade, as it approaches its 100 years of existence.

Chronological Events of Gillman Barracks’ site:

1935 – Gillman Barracks was built
1936 – Ordnance depot and warehouses were added along Depot Road
1935-1942 – Gillman Barracks housed the Middlesex Regiment and Loyal Regiment
1940 – British Military Hospital was built to support Gillman Barracks
1942 – Fierce battle near Gillman Barracks between the infantry regiment and Japanese

1945 – The returning British regained control of Gillman Barracks
1948 – British Royal Engineers housed at Gillman Barracks
1959 – Prince Philip visited Gillman Barracks
1971 – Gillman Barracks handed over to the SAF for one Singapore dollar
1975 – Former ordnance depot redeveloped as part of Depot Lane Industrial Estate
1976 – Former part of Gillman Barracks (Depot Road) redeveloped as HDB estate
1982 – Former part of Gillman Barracks (Railway Hill) redeveloped as Gillman Heights

1984 – SAF Combat Engineers handed over Gillman Barracks to SAF Transport
1985 – Gloucester Barracks staff relocated to Gillman Barracks
1993 – SAF departed Gillman Barracks
1996 – Gillman Barracks was renamed Gillman Village as a lifestyle enclave
2010 – Gillman Village was renamed Gillman Barracks
2012 – Gillman Barracks launched as new visual arts hub
2013 – The Interlace condominium completed at former Gillman Heights

Published: 28 December 2021

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Have a Break, Have a Kacang Puteh

When was the last time you had kacang puteh?

It used to be one of the favourite snacks for movie-goers, dating couples at the theme parks and football fans watching an exciting match. Nowadays, there are not many kacang puteh (“white nuts or beans” in Malay; other spelling variations are kacang putih and kachang puteh) vendors left in Singapore.

There is one just outside the Peace Centre though, where the humble mobile stall is manned by a husband-and-wife team since the early 2010s. They offer a wide variety of titbits to choose from – from the usual peanuts – roasted, sugared or salted – to chickpeas (kacang kuda), green peas, cashews, corns, tapioca and even murukku. The customer can choose one type of snack or mix several together. The vendor will then scoop and wrap the titbits with a piece of white paper into a conical shape that makes it easy for the customer to carry and eat. The wrapping medium in the past used to be newspapers or pages torn from old school exercise books, but they are no longer used due to hygiene concerns.

Each cone of kacang puteh is priced between $1 and $1.50, depending on the type of snacks. Back in the sixties and seventies, one could help himself with a kacang puteh treat at anything between 5c and 10c. For example, in 1977, kacang puteh typically cost 10c each. By comparison, a copy of the Sunday Times was 30c and a packet of nasi lemak cost 50c. The price of kacang puteh rose to 30c to 40c by the late eighties.

Kacang puteh vendors of the past mostly came from Tanjore, South India (present-day Thanjavur district). The daily work of a kacang puteh vendor typically started at 5am, when he would use sand to fry the peanuts to bring out the natural flavour of the nuts. This usually took three hours. Firewood used for the cooking would enhance the peanut flavour but the usage of gas became more common by the eighties. When ready, the vendor would make his way to his designated spot outside the cinema to sell his kacang puteh.

Many old kacang puteh vendors dreamt of making enough and returning to their home towns. Some made it, most did not and eventually settled in Singapore. Several, after paying for the rental, accommodation and remittance back home, could barely survive and had to take on second jobs such as the night watchman.

As time changed and the society evolved, kacang puteh vendors also faced different types of challenges. First, the supermarkets all around Singapore offer similar titbits and snacks available in bulks and at lower prices. Also, movie goers’ taste have switched to the likes of popcorns and hotdogs. Moreover, the movie industry entered a slump in the nineties, leading to the closure of many old cinemas.

Food hygiene practices and food safety standards for street hawkers also became more stringent. In 1974, the Ministry of the Environment carried out islandwide checks and inspection, resulting in 180 hawkers, including dozens of kacang puteh sellers, being warned or fined for contaminated food or operating without licenses. A parliamentary session in 1985 debated the public health issue and how the relocation of street hawkers had affected the kacang puteh and rojak sellers.

In 1975, the Ministry of Education disallowed school tuckshops from selling unwholesome food such as prickled and unripe fruits, but kacang puteh, popular among the students, managed to avoid the ban as the food was typically cooked, dry and had low possibility of deterioration.

If you happen to pass by Peace Centre next time, do show your support to this fading trade. You can at the same time relive some of those good old memories with a tasty cone of kacang puteh.

Published: 1 December 2021

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Kay Poh Road… A Busybody Road?

Kay Poh Road is neither a busy road, nor a busybody road. It is a relatively significant minor road currently home to half a dozen condominiums. Located off River Valley Road, it, however, has a history dated back to the early 20th century.

In 1903, the Municipal Commission approved Wee Kay Poh’s request to construct two new roads between Irwell Bank Road and Jervois Road. The new roads would be named Kay Poh Road, after the requester himself, and Seow Kee Road respectively. Seow Kee Road was renamed Shanghai Road in 1915, and both roads live on till this day.

Kay Poh (The Pioneer)

Wee Kay Poh (黄继宝, 1871-undetermined) was a prominent Chinese businessman who graduated at Raffles Institution and served apprenticeship at Messrs. A. L. Johnston & Co. When he was 20 years old, he married Khoo Liang Neoh, daughter of Chinese merchant Khoo Boon Seng, whose influence and network might have helped Wee Kay Poh in starting his own business.

By 1896, the 25-year-old Wee Kay Poh had risen to become the managing partner of trading firm Chop Poh Hin Chan. In the 1900s, he advanced his career further, being appointed as the managing partner of the Singapore Opium and Liquors Farm.

Wee Kay Poh was also into properties and landownership. In 1900, he purchased a 500-acre parcel of land at Bukit Timah Road for $77,000, and acquired another land at Race Course Road for $4,900 three years later. Overall, Wee Kay Poh had owned properties at Tanjong Katong, River Valley Road, Waterloo Street and Change Alley. At 6 Kay Poh Road, he built himself a grand residence which might be where the current condominium The Montana is standing.

Wee Kay Poh’s close relationship with the colonial government also saw him invited to the King’s birthday ball every year as one of the distinguished guests. He had donated generously on several occasions, such as the erection of Queen Victoria’s memorial and the Indian famine relief fund.

Kay Poh (The Road)

At Kay Poh Road, several buildings were built along it by the 1910s; In 1917, a Kay Poh Road’s building and freehold land of about 15,000 square feet (or 1,400 square metres) were sold for $2,300.

In 1952, a mysterious murder case occurred at a house at Kay Poh Road. A 34-year-old newspaper vendor and school teacher Ho Ah Beng was shot three times in his head and stomach. There were more than 30 occupants in the house, but none witnessed the crime and murderer. The case was apparently unsolved.

In 1976, the Internal Security Department (ISD) raided a Kay Poh Road apartment and seized many illegal items such as home-made grenades and denotators, communist pamphlets, checklists and documents as well as photographs of communist terrorists’ training at the Thai-Malaysian border. The apartment had been rented and used by the factions of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) to regroup in Singapore for their new phase of subversion and terrorism.

One landmark at Kay Poh Road is the Kay Poh Road Baptist Church. The Cantonese-speaking church was established at Sophia Road in 1949, before moving to Tras Street two years later. As its members grew, the church decided to purchase a site at Kay Poh Road in 1961 where it stays till today.

Kay Poh (The Busybody)

A misnomer of Kay Poh Road is its inaccurate association with kaypoh (“busybody” in Hokkien), a word popular in Singapore and Malaysia in describing those who are nosy, like to gossip about others, or spread malicious rumours, behind one’s back.

But even kaypoh has a wrong origination. It is unknown when the mistake first occurred, but its inaccurate Chinese translation of 鸡婆 (literally “chicken woman”) has since been widely and commonly used. The pronunciation of chicken in Singapore Hokkien is kuay instead of kay. Hence, the actual correct translation of kaypoh should be 牙婆 (literally “tooth woman”).

Kaypoh, in ancient China, was one of the 三姑六婆, which means, in Chinese, nine types of women who were involved in disreputable or immoral professions, or dodgy trades (two types refer to nuns and priestesses who did not really belong to the dishonourable types but were under social discrimination then).

The kaypoh‘s job was to help wealthy men or powerful officials get their concubines, mistresses or courtesans, either through coaxes, threats or by force. This was a role widely despised by the society, and while it was eventually phased out, the word kaypoh managed to live on, with its meaning evolved from a female human trafficker to a busybody or gossipmonger.

Published: 23 November 2021

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Singapore’s Heritage Tree Series – Purple Millettia

A handsome 35m-tall tree called Purple Millettia stands along the popular Swan Lake at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. A member of the Legume family (Fabaceae), its scientific name is Callerya atropurpurea and is commonly found in Peninsular Malaysia. Its origin in Singapore, though, was once disputed.

Singapore-based English botanist and the Botanic Gardens’ first Director Henry Nicholas Ridley (1855-1956) suggested, in his 1900 Singapore’s flora, that the tree was not native. But the Singapore Herbarium stated that a specimen was collected by James Samuel Goodenough along Sungei Jurong in 1893, where the swampy area was once surrounded by primary forest. So it was unlikely anyone would have planted the tree there in the first place. James Goodenough had worked for the Botanic Gardens, collecting some 800 plant specimens in Singapore in the 1890s.

In 1889, at the west side of Swan Lake, a small plot named Lawn F was designated to plant a taxonomic group called the legumes, which included trees, shrubs and climbers of the leguminous species. This species, nevertheless, are also found at many other parts of the Gardens.

The Purple Millettia at Swan Lake is more than a century old. It was observed recently that this tree has pneumatophore roots – roots that are specialised for breathing in swampy areas. Lawn F was supposedly a swamp before its development after 1866; hence whether this Purple Millettia was originally a native wild specimen or was planted here becomes a mystery.

Evergreen throughout the entire year, the Purple Millettia trees have dome-like crowns with glossy dark green leaves and reddish purple flowers. Their brown pods are hard and thick, each containing one to two seeds.

The Purple Millettia of Swan Lake has been dedicated to the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) in 2014. The Heritage Tree Dedication Award recognises organisations and individuals who contributes to the greening of Singapore or donates at least $500,000 to the Garden City Fund.

Published: 26 October 2021

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Whampoa’s Majestic Long Curved HDB Block

At about 312m long, Block 34 of Whampoa West is one of the longest HDB flats in Singapore, stretching from one end along Serangoon Road to the other end near Bendemeer Road. The 12-storey block, consists of about 500 units, was completed in the early seventies and had its 99-year lease starting on 1 January 1972.

Its location was formerly home to one of the most famous mansions in Singapore in the 19th and early 20th century. Known as Whampoa House, it was a spectacular private residence built in 1840 by Hoo Ah Kay (1816-1880), a prominent and respected Chinese businessman, Legislative Council member and Consul in Singapore for China, Russia and Japan.

Hoo Ah Kay later became well-known as Whampoa, the name of his birthplace in China, and the present-day Whampoa Road, Sungei Whampoa and housing estate are named after him and his famous grand house.

Known for his generosity, Hoo Ah Kay regularly invited guests with warm hospitality to his Whampoa House for gatherings, parties and dinners. The beautiful Whampoa Gardens, fondly known as nam san fa un (南生花园 in Cantonese, named after Hoo Ah Kay’s shop), and mini zoo were also opened to the public during the Lunar New Year.

After Hoo Ah Kay’s death, Whampoa House was sold to another wealthy Chinese merchant Seah Liang Seah (1850-1925), who renamed it Bendemeer House. Bendemeer Road was named after the house, in honour of Seah Liang Seah’s contributions to the community. In the early 20th century, Chinese revolutionist Dr Sun Yat-Sen had lived in the house for a period of time during his exile from China.

After the Second World War, Bendemeer House was used to temporarily accommodate military personnel. It fell into disrepair by the sixties.

In the sixties, Singapore’s State and City Planning Office was studying several concepts to cope with an expected four million population by the turn of the century. The Ring Plan, circling the Central Catchment Area, was eventually crafted, with a series of suitable sites, including Whampoa, selected for public housing projects.

In 1964, the dilapidated house and its 30-acre site were acquired by the Singapore government for $3.8 million. After more than 120 years in existence, Bendemeer House was torn down to make way for the new housing and industrial projects, as part of the greater Kallang Basin’s development.

With the clearance of the site completed, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) proceeded to build a total of 13 flats – numbered 22 to 34. Public amenities such as a hawker centre, market, community centre and children’s playground were also added within the new housing estate.

Interestingly, Block 34 is the only one that carries the address of Whampoa West, whereas the rest of the blocks have Boon Keng Road (for Block 22) and Bendemeer Road (Block 23-33) as their addresses.

Besides Whampoa West, there are also Whampoa East, Whampoa North (expunged in 2010s) and Whampoa South. The four single-way roads were constructed in the late sixties and early seventies to link between the parallel Serangoon Road and Bendemeer Road. Whampoa East and Whampoa West are located on each side of Sungei Whampoa, whereas Whampoa North and Whampoa South run along Sungei Kallang further down the Serangoon and Bendemeer roads.

Due to its massive size and length, Block 34’s first level is a bustling place, made up of dozens of shops, from hairdressing salons, mini marts and hardware shops to popular chicken rice and Teochew cuisine restaurants. In recent years, the block is injected with new vitality as pubs and cafes moved in to form an interesting mix of old traditional businesses and new shops.

Six lift lobbies, labelled A to F, serve the block. The corridors are unblocked at the lift lobbies which means that one can walk the entire 300m stretch from one end to the other. The residents living at the highest levels can enjoy panoramic views of the Serangoon-Boon Keng area and Sungei Whampoa.

The current blue appearance of the block was painted in the early 2010s. Prior to that, it was entirely white in colour.

There are numerous curved HDB blocks in Singapore, such as Block 158/159 Hougang Street 11, Block 22 Sin Ming Road, Block 310 Jurong East Street 32, Block 157 Toa Payoh Lorong 1, Block 209 Jurong East Street 21 and Block 92 Zion Road (demolished in 2014), but none matches the length of Whampoa West’s Block 34.

The former Block 79 of Toa Payoh Central, torn down in the early 2000s, came close with a length of almost 300m.

New developments have been going on around the area in recent years. The modern Whampoa Park Connector is running along Sungei Whampoa. The old flats at the adjacent Boon Keng Road have been bulldozed and replaced by new 40-storey HDB’s Design, Build and Sell Scheme (DBSS) flats. At the opposite Towner Road and St. George’s Road, new HDB flats are also popping up. But Block 34 Whampoa West remains the iconic landmark of the vicinity.

Published: 15 October 2021

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