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Seletar Camp was formerly the site of the largest British Royal Air Force (RAF) base in the Far East. Built in the 1920s, it became operational in 1928. It came under the control of Japanese troops during World War II but reverted to British control from 1946 until the withdrawal of British forces from Singapore in 1971. The eastern side of the camp was handed over to the Singapore Armed Forces and functioned as a military facility with restricted access, while the western side was used by commercial aircraft and open to the public. Former RAF personnel quarters were leased out for civilian residential use and became highly sought after. Beginning in 2006, part of the camp came under redevelopment as part of the Seletar Aerospace Park project led by Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) and is expected to be completed in 2018.
During the 1920s, air travel and air defence became increasingly important in Singapore. The need for an air force presence was pressing as the Anglo-Japanese Treaty that had protected British naval interests in the region was terminated in 1923. Plans began forming for an airbase that would become a crucial part of British defences in the Far East. A site in the Seletar area in the north of the island was selected because it was east of a proposed naval site and a considerable distance away from the exposed southern coast of the island. “Seletar” refers to the aboriginal coastal dwellers that had originally lived among the mangrove creeks of the Johore Straits. The proposed site was surveyed in November 1925.
The airbase was largely designed by British planner C. E. Wood. He oversaw most of the work, which began in 1927. Part of it was undertaken by female workers whom the British called “Concrete Lizzies”. The earliest buildings were made of wood, and concrete constructions were introduced only after the swamps in the area were filled during the 1920s. Wood’s greatest achievement was transforming the jungle and swamps of Seletar into a functional landing strip for airplanes. Some historical sources suggest that his massive contribution was recognised when in 1937, the Singapore Rural Board allowed the RAF to change the name of the road leading from Air Base Road to the camp to “Jalan Kayu”, where “kayu” is Malay for “wood”. Alternative accounts suggest that Jalan Kayu was so named because stacks of firewood were often found by the roadside.
The airbase became operational in 1928 under Group-Captain H. M. Cave-Brown-Cave, receiving the first RAF “flying boats”, as aircraft were known, in February 1928. It officially became an RAF station in 1930. Strategically located along the England-Australia air route, Seletar was an important landing site. Commercial traffic utilised facilities at RAF Seletar until a civil aerodrome was built in Kallang in the 1930s. Since Seletar was a major airport, celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin and royal visitors from other states passed through Seletar.
Residential bungalows within Seletar Camp were first built in the 1920s to house RAF personnel. Former RAF servicemen still have fond memories of the place and some retired servicemen make an annual trip back to Seletar Camp. The RAF Seletar Association was formed in 1997 to reunite Britons and Singaporeans who worked in Seletar Camp, and had 920 members as of 2009.
Japanese Occupation and aftermath
During World War II, the RAF in Southeast Asia was in desperate straits, lacking aircraft and men because the defence of Britain and the Middle East took priority. 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. After the British surrender to the Japanese in February 1942, the Japanese Navy took over the camp and renamed it Seretar Hikojo. However, because the airbase had sustained serious damage, Japanese aircraft had to operate from Sembawang for almost a month until repairs could be completed.
Workers at the airbase were reportedly coerced into coming back to work for the Japanese. Some wartime atrocities that allegedly took place in the camp area include the drowning of a group of Australian nurses who were serving at the army hospital near the airport. A samurai sword was supposedly found buried in campgrounds in the 1950s. After the war, the British took over the airbase but it was no longer the largest on the island. British and Indian prisoners-of-war had built a new airfield for the Japanese Army in Changi that was converted into the largest and most modern RAF airbase in Southeast Asia, but Seletar remained important as a flying boat base and a major equipment repair depot.
Under the Singapore Armed Forces
After the British withdrawal from Singapore beginning in 1969, the eastern part of the camp was taken over by the Singapore Armed Forces, which maintained restricted public access. The commercial and residential parts of Seletar Camp were open to the public. The western part of the camp was used by commercial aircraft. Bungalows that were previously quarters for RAF personnel were leased out for residential use. One of the residential villas previously owned by an RAF commander was converted into a well-known club called The Kingfisher Club.
Despite these changes, Seletar Camp was considered the most well preserved RAF base in Singapore. The area had not changed much since the British withdrawal and had retained English road names such as Piccadilly Circus and Maida Vale, and more than 200 colonial-style bungalows. The area had largely escaped high-rise redevelopment and had retained the relaxed pace of a sleepy village where residents all knew each other, with many living there for more than two decades.
Seletar Aerospace Park
With space becoming limited at the Loyang and Changi North aerospace centres, the Singapore government looked towards developing Seletar for its aerospace needs. In 2006, plans for the redevelopment of the Seletar area were announced. The proposed Seletar Aerospace Park project is helmed by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC). Costing an estimated $60 million, the project is expected to develop about 140 hectares of land as an important centre for aerospace activities such as maintenance, repair and overhaul of aircraft engines. The project is expected to create 10,000 jobs and contribute $3.3 billion a year to the economy.
Work on the project began in 2007 and is expected to be completed by 2018. Some of the proposed changes to the area include lengthening the existing runway at Seletar Airport and building a new airport control tower. To facilitate these changes, some parts of Seletar Camp were demolished or shut down. Among them was the Seletar Base Golf Course, one of the few golf courses that were open to the public. The members-only Seletar Country Club has remained open. About 178 of the colonial black-and-white bungalows leased out to residents will also be demolished once the leases end. Some tenants whose bungalows were not affected by redevelopment plans chose to leave Seletar Camp when the landlord, the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), decided to raise rents. Some of the remaining residents wished to have a say in the redevelopment and made suggestions such as creating separate access for vehicles entering and leaving the future aerospace hub.
Although the 2009 economic downturn slowed down the project, measures taken by the JTC, such as extending expired leases to companies occupying the site, helped to put the project back on track once the economy recovered. JTC also tied up with large aviation companies such as Rolls Royce and ST Aerospace to build factories and kickstart the aerospace park. The first phase of redevelopment was completed in November 2010.
Faizah bte Zakaria
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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.