by Faizah Zakaria
Seletar Camp was formerly the site of the largest British Royal Air Force (RAF) base in the Far East. Plans for the camp were drafted as early as 1921, with the increasing need to build an airfield and flying boat base in Singapore.1 It soon became operational in 1928.2 During World War II, the airbase came under the control of the Japanese army, but reverted to British control from 1946 until the withdrawal of British forces from Singapore in 1971.3 Thereafter, the eastern end of the camp was handed over to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and functioned as a military facility with restricted access, while the western side was used by commercial aircraft and accessible to the public.4 The personal quarters of former RAF personnel were leased out as civilian residences and became highly sought after. In 2006, a portion of the camp was redeveloped as part of the Seletar Aerospace Park project led by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC). The aerospace park is expected to be completed in 2018.5
In the 1920s, air defence became increasingly important in Singapore. There was a pressing need for an air force as the Anglo-Japanese Treaty that had protected British naval interests in the region since 1902 was terminated in 1923.6 Consequently, plans were made for an airbase that would become a crucial component of British defences in the Far East. A site in the Seletar area – in the northern part of Singapore – was selected. “Seletar” refers to the aboriginal coastal dwellers known as the Orang Laut who had originally lived among the mangrove creeks of the Johor Straits. The site was chosen because it was located east of a proposed naval site, and a considerable distance away from the exposed southern coast of Singapore. Through this, the British tried to organise the routing of planes carrying small air mail more efficiently. This would help Singapore established stronger and closer contacts with the rest of the world.7 The site was surveyed in November 1925.8
The airbase was designed by British planner C. E. Wood. He oversaw most of the construction, which began in 1927. Part of the construction work was undertaken by Samsui women whom the British called “Concrete Lizzies”.9 The earliest buildings were made of wood. Concrete materials were introduced only after the swamps in the area were filled during the 1920s. Wood’s greatest achievement was transforming the jungle and swamp land in Seletar into a functional landing strip for airplanes. It has been suggested by some historical sources, although none of them have been confirmed, that Jalan Kayu, the road that leads to the airbase, was named after its principle building officer, Wood.10 The term kayu in Malay means “wood” which could indicate the attempts to honour Wood. However, there have also been alternative accounts that have suggested that the road was so named because stacks of firewood were often found by the roadside.11
The RAF airbase at Seletar became operational in 1928 under Group-Captain H. M. Cave-Brown-Cave. It received the first RAF “flying boats”, as aircraft were then known, in February 1928. In 1930, the air base officially became an RAF station.12 The RAF station at Seletar was an important landing site as it was strategically located along the England-Australia air route. Commercial traffic also utilised its facilities until a civil airport was built in Kallang in the 1930s. With Seletar being a major airfield, celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin and royal visitors had passed through it.13
In the 1920s and ’30s, black-and-white residential bungalows were built within Seletar Camp for RAF personnel and their families.14 With fond memories of the former British airbase, the RAF Seletar Association, based in Britain, was formed in 1997 to reunite former RAF personnel who had worked in Seletar Camp. Since 2000, the association has organised trips to Singapore to revisit the place.15
Japanese Occupation and aftermath
During World War II, the RAF in Southeast Asia lacked aircraft and men because higher priority was placed on defending Britain and the Middle East. The RAF in Singapore was unable to provide adequate air cover for the army and navy. By 1942, there were only eight Hurricane aircraft left in Singapore.16
After the British surrendered on 15 February 1942, the Japanese took over Seletar airbase and renamed it Seretar Hikojo. As the airbase had sustained serious damage, Japanese aircraft had to operate from Sembawang for almost a month until repairs were completed.17
During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–45), RAF personnel at the airbase were reportedly coerced into working for the Japanese. Some wartime atrocities that allegedly took place at the camp included the drowning of a group of Australian nurses who were serving at the army hospital near the airport. According to local myth, a samurai sword was found buried in the camp grounds in the 1950s.18
The British resumed control of Seletar airbase after the war. By then, the airbase was no longer the largest in Singapore. A new airfield constructed by British and Indian prisoners-of-war for the Japanese army in Changi was converted into the largest and most modern RAF airbase in Southeast Asia. Seletar, nonetheless, remained important as an aircraft base and a major equipment repair depot.19
Under the Singapore Armed Forces
After the British withdrawal from Singapore which began in 1969, the eastern part of Seletar Camp was taken over by the SAF. Public access to the area was restricted. The western part of the camp was used by commercial aircraft. The commercial and residential areas of the camp were accessible to the public.20
The colonial black-and-white bungalows that had previously served as living quarters for RAF personnel were leased out as civilian residences. One of the residential villas previously occupied by an RAF commander was converted into a well-known club called The Kingfisher Club.21
Notwithstanding these changes, Seletar Camp was considered the most well-preserved RAF base in Singapore. Until 2005, little change was made to the area. English road names such as Piccadilly Circus and Maida Vale were retained, and the more than 200 colonial-style bungalows were preserved. Having largely escaped high-rise redevelopment, the area had the relaxed pace of a sleepy village where many residents had lived for over two decades.22
Seletar Aerospace Park
With the Loyang and Changi North aerospace centres becoming increasingly congested, plans to redevelop the Seletar area for Singapore’s aerospace needs were announced in 2006.23
Work on the project began in 2007 and is expected to complete by 2018. Helmed by JTC, the proposed Seletar Aerospace Park project is being carried out on some 140 ha of land at an estimated cost of S$60 million. When completed, the park will serve as a key centre for aerospace activities such as the maintenance, repair and overhaul of aircraft engines. The project is expected to create 10,000 jobs and contribute S$3.3 billion annually to the economy.24
Some of the proposed changes to the area include lengthening the existing runway at Seletar Airport and building a new airport control tower. To make way for these changes, some parts of Seletar Camp were demolished or shut down, including the Seletar Base Golf Course, one of the few golf courses open to the public. The members-only Seletar Country Club, on the other hand, remains open. One hundred and seventy-four out of the 378 colonial black-and-white bungalows were demolished to make way for redevelopment.25
The tenants of some bungalows not affected by the redevelopment also chose to move out when their landlord, the Singapore Land Authority, decided to increase the rent. Some remaining residents wished to have a say in the redevelopment, and had made suggestions such as creating separate access for vehicles entering and leaving the future aerospace hub.26 Despite redevelopment, some 200 bungalows and buildings will be conserved for the preservation of Seletar’s heritage.27 Today, some of these bungalows house offices, schools, restaurants, spas and other recreational facilities.28
While the economic downturn in 2009 had affected the Seletar Aerospace Park project, measures taken by the JTC, such as extending expired leases to companies occupying the site, helped to put the project back on track when the economy recovered. JTC also tied up with large aviation companies, such as Rolls Royce and ST Aerospace, to build factories and kick-start the aerospace park. The first phase of development was completed in November 2010.29
Faizah bte Zakaria
1. Taylor, D. (2002). Seletar: Crowning glory: The history of the RAF in Singapore. West Sussex: Woodfield Pub., p. 18. (Call no.: RSING 358.40095957 TAY); Urban Redevelopment Authority. (2016, July 28). Former Royal Air Force (RAF) Seletar. Retrieved 2017, July 17 from Urban Redevelopment Authority website: https://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/conservation/conservation-xml?id=FRAFS#
2. Singapore’s air base. (1928, February 17). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Prenderghast, G. (2015). Britain and the wars in Vietnam: The supply of troops, arms and intelligence, 1945–1975. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, p. 142. (Call no.: RSEA 959.704140941 PRE-[WAR])
4. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (2016, July 28). Former Royal Air Force (RAF) Seletar. Retrieved 2017, July 17 from Urban Redevelopment Authority website: https://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/conservation/conservation-xml?id=FRAFS
5. Sreenivasan, V. (2007, June 27). Seletar Aerospace Park a big draw months before upgrading begins. The Business Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Nish, A. (1972). Alliance in decline: A study in Anglo-Japanese relations, 1908–23. London: Athlone Press, p. 1. (Call no.: R 327.42052 NIS)
7. Liu, G. (1999). Singapore: A pictorial history, 1819–2000. Singapore: National Heritage Board, p. 172. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 LIU-[HIS])
8. Taylor, D. (2002). Seletar: Crowning glory: The history of the RAF in Singapore. West Sussex: Woodfield Pub., p. 18. (Call no.: RSING 358.40095957 TAY)
9. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (2016, July 28). Former Royal Air Force (RAF) Seletar. Retrieved 2017, July 17 from Urban Redevelopment Authority website: https://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/conservation/conservation-xml?id=FRAFS#
10.Humphreys, N. (2007). Complete notes from Singapore: The omnibus edition. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, pp. 169–170. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 HUM-[HIS])
11. Man who built air base leaves Malaya. (1934, May 25). The Straits Times, p. 13; R.A.F. now have Kayu Road. (1937, December 10). The Straits Times, p. 19; Tan, S. E. (2004, May 2). Base camp. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Flying boats at Seletar. (1928, February 29). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Taylor, D. (2002). Seletar: Crowning glory: The history of the RAF in Singapore. West Sussex: Woodfield Pub., pp. 31, 34. (Call no.: RSING 358.40095957 TAY)
13. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (2016, July 28). Former Royal Air Force (RAF) Seletar. Retrieved 2017, July 17 from Urban Redevelopment Authority website: https://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/conservation/conservation-xml?id=FRAFS
14. National Heritage Board. (2017, March 15). Black and white houses in Singapore. Retrieved 2017, July 17 from Roots website: http://roots.sg/learn/stories/black-and-white-houses-in-singapore/story
15. Ang, Y. (2009, March 31). 38 Britons back for Seletar visit. The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Tan. B. (2016). Seletar Camp. Army News, 242, 24–25, p. 24. Retrieved 2017, July 17 from MINDEF Singapore website: https://www.mindef.gov.sg/content/dam/imindef_media_library/graphics/army/army_news/download_our_issues/pdf/2016/armynews_issue242.pdf
17. Tan. B. (2016). Seletar Camp. Army News, 242, 24–25, p. 24. Retrieved 2017, July 17 from MINDEF Singapore website: https://www.mindef.gov.sg/content/dam/imindef_media_library/graphics/army/army_news/download_our_issues/pdf/2016/armynews_issue242.pdf
18. Tan, S. E. (2004, May 2). Base camp. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. British PoWs have built biggest S.E.A.C. airbase. (1946, March 17). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Zaccheus, M. (2014, February 21). Sensitive, not sweeping, change for Seletar please. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Taylor, D. (2002). Seletar: Crowning glory: The history of the RAF in Singapore. West Sussex: Woodfield Pub., pp.176–177. (Call no.: RSING 358.40095957 TAY)
21. Lim, C. (2005, September 2). Idyllic sanctuary. The New Paper, p. 42. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Yong, S. C. (2005, October 10). Tuck in at a secret garden. Today, p. 48. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Tan, T. (2007, June 19). Plans for $60m Seletar Aerospace Park on course. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Kaur, K., & Sim, R. (2011, September 22). The A to Z of Seletar Aerospace Park. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Goh, G. Q. (2007, July 17). Part of colonial past facing demolition. The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2017, July 17 from Pressreader website: http://www.pressreader.com/new-zealand/the-new-zealand-herald/20070717/282106337235013; Farah Elias, Syafiqah Omar & Sundaraj, J. (2011, July 30). Life in black & white. The Straits Times, p. 2; Kaur, K., & Sim, R. (2011, September 22). The A to Z of Seletar Aerospace Park. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Kaur, K., & Sim, R. (2011, September 22). The A to Z of Seletar Aerospace Park. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Tan, V., & Lin, Y. (2007, June 27). Seletar’s new (old) face. Today, p. 3; Kaur, K. (2014, February 11). Black and whites at old Seletar airbase to get new lease of life. The Straits Times, pp. 2–3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Kaur, K. (2014, February 11).Black and whites at old Seletar airbase to get new lease of life. The Straits Times, pp. 2–3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Shankari, U. (2010, November 23). Flying start for Seletar Aerospace Park. The Business Times, p. 34. Singapore. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from 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.