Old Sembawang Fire Station

The old Sembawang Fire Station is located at 80 Admiralty Road West, within the grounds of the former Sembawang Naval Base. Built in 1941, the fire station previously served the naval base. When British military forces withdrew from Singapore in 1971, the naval dockyard was handed over to Singapore-owned company Sembawang Shipyard while the fire station came under the Singapore Central Fire Brigade. Subsequent restructuring of the Singapore Fire Service saw the Sembawang fire service move to a new location in Yishun in 2005. The old Sembawang Fire Station building was given conservation status in 2007.

In 1919, Britain began forming plans for a new Far Eastern fleet that could rival the growing naval power of Japan and the United States in the Pacific. Singapore was chosen as the site of a new naval base, a logical choice due to its prominence as a commercial port, colonial links to Britain, and strategic geographic position. To be located at the northernmost part of the island facing the Johore Strait, the plans for the naval base included the construction of a graving dock, a floating dock, 6,000 feet of wharves, and complementary facilities such as accommodation for staff and repair and maintenance facilities. As a self-contained facility, the naval base would also have its own police station and fire-fighting station. Once completed, the facility would be the largest Royal Navy base in Southeast Asia. Construction began in 1923 but encountered many obstacles such as changes in government in Britain, political opposition, and financial constraints. On 14 February 1938, Governor of the Straits Settlements Sir Shenton Thomas finally opened the King George VI graving dock.

The naval base fire brigade was housed in a two-storey building located near the entrance of the naval base. Built around 1941, the fire station building has a distinctive Art Deco design characterised by bold outlines and geometric forms that were popular in the 1920s and 1930s. It also features a fire-hose tower. Staffed by British personnel, the fire brigade served the naval base as well as the surrounding area, operating in tandem with civilian fire stations to service the Sembawang, Woodlands and Mandai areas.

Japanese Occupation 1942-1945
In December 1941, Japanese bombing raids damaged parts of the naval base, although there is no evidence that the fire station building was directly affected at this time. When the British realised that Johore would fall to the Japanese, the dockyard was closed on 30 January 1942. Following the British surrender of Singapore to the Japanese on 15 February 1942, the naval base was occupied by the Japanese Navy, which undertook repairs to bring the dockyard back into operation. The naval base and its facilities were subsequently used to service and repair Japanese navy ships during the occupation period.

The Allied forces began conducting air raids on Japanese-held locations in 1944. An air raid by United States bombers on 1 February 1945 caused serious damage to most of the dockyard buildings, but such destructive raids were halted shortly after as the Allied forces were keen to recapture the naval base intact. The Japanese officially surrendered the naval base to British naval forces on 6 September 1945. A report on the condition of the naval base facilities in September 1945 listed the fire-fighting services of the naval base as being fully effective.

British withdrawal from Singapore
In January 1968, the British government announced its intention to withdraw its military forces from the Far East and close the naval base by the end of 1971. In a ceremony held on 9 December 1968, British Minister for Defence (Administration) G. W. Reynolds officially handed over the naval base to Singapore Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam. Although valued at an estimated £12 million, the naval base was sold to the Singapore government for the token sum of $1. The base was taken over by a new Singapore-owned company, Sembawang Shipyard, which began offering commercial ship repair services and expanding the facilities. 

The fire station was handed over to the Singapore Central Fire Brigade on 1 October 1971. Apart from the station building, four fire engines, a fire boat and other modern equipment were also handed over. However, the 100 employees who had served the fire brigade under the British were not retained by the Singapore Central Fire Brigade due to differing pay scales and age. Plans were made to recruit 35 to 40 new employees to serve the station, as it was to become a sub-station catering to the Sembawang area.

Restructuring of fire service
In 1982, the Southeast Asian and Pacific Fire Safety Conference was held in Singapore. The director of the Singapore Fire Service, Arthur Lim Beng Lock, presented a paper on the Standard of Fire Cover outlining plans to reorganise the Singapore Fire Service. These long-term plans included the building of eight additional fire stations and the re-location of three existing ones in order to make the force more efficient and to better serve all parts of Singapore.

In line with these plans, the Sembawang fire service was re-located to a new site in Yishun. The 3rd Civil Defence Division headquarters and Yishun Fire Station were officially opened on 15 November 2005 by Senior Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee. A heritage gallery on the old Sembawang Fire Station can now be found within Yishun Fire Station. As a mark of its beginnings, the Yishun Fire Station emblem still depicts a ship and a ring-shaped lifebuoy.

The former Sembawang Fire Station building was given conservation status by the Urban Redevelopment Authority on 18 April 2007, in recognition of its links to the historic Sembawang Naval Base and Sembawang Shipyard.

Joanna HS Tan and Cherylyn Tok

A giant step forward for S’pore. (1968, December 10). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved February 25, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Brigade takes in 90 firemen to fill. (1971, October 11). The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved May 5, 2011 from NewspaperSG.

Campbell, W. (1968, July 9).
The naval base after 1971. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved February 22, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Cheong, Y. S. (1968, December 9).
Britain hands over. The Straits Times, p. 4.  Retrieved May 5, 2011 from NewspaperSG.

Chew, M. (1998). Of hearts & minds: The story of Sembawang shipyard. Singapore: Sembawang Shipyard Pte Ltd.

Diamond plan to put firemen into action faster. (1980, February 1). The Straits Times, p. 21. Retrieved November 19, 2010, from NewspaperSG.

Lai, Y. K. (1982, April 22).
Proposal to build new fire centre and academy. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved November 19, 2010, from NewspaperSG.

Ministry of Home Affairs (2002- 2011). The official opening of the 3rd Civil Defence (CD) division headquarters and Yishun fire station - speech by Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee, Senior Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs, 15 November 2005. Retrieved January 19, 2011, from http://www.mha.gov.sg/news_details.aspx?nid=NTY0-P%2Bpm5smCmd0%3D

Naval base firemen to go when S'pore takes over station. (1971, September 4). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved May 5, 2011 from NewspaperSG.

Sembawang Shipyard takes over. (1968, December 2). The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved February 25, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Singapore Civil Defence Force. (2007). Yishun Fire Station. Retrieved May 5, 2011 from

S’pore to take over base fire brigade. (1971, September 2). The Straits Times, p. 21. Retrieved November 19, 2010, from NewspaperSG.

Three new fire stations by 2003. (1999, May 15). The Straits Times, p. 49. Retrieved February 22, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Urban Redevelopment Authority (2010). Former Sembawang fire station. Retrieved January 19, 2011, from http://www.ura.gov.sg/conservation/SembawangFireStation.htm

The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain fro our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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Fire stations--Singapore
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