Sembawang Naval Base
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The Sembawang Naval Base was built by the British government during the 1920s and 1930s. Opened in 1938, the base was meant to be a significant part of the British empire’s strategic defences against external threats in the Far East, particularly from Japan. The base was occupied by Japanese forces during World War II but reverted to British control in 1945. With the withdrawal of British forces in the late 1960s, the base was converted in 1968 into a government-linked commercial shipyard known as Sembawang Shipyard. It is now known as Sembcorp Marine Ltd and forms part of public-listed group Sembcorp Industries.
Building the naval base
In 1923, the Governor of the Straits Settlements gifted the British government with more than a thousand acres of land in the Sembawang area, overlooking the Strait of Johor, to build a naval base. Although this unilateral decision was controversial, it was later endorsed by the Legislative and Executive Councils in Singapore. Part of the gift was acquired from Bukit Sembawang Rubber Estate Ltd. in exchange for compensation. Although plans for the base were approved in 1923 by the Conservative British government, the subsequent Labour government halted the building of the base.
Construction on the site started in 1928. One of the main contractors was Sir John Jackson’s Ltd. The undertaking was a massive one and included the building of a dry dock, an armament depot, a wharf and a parallel floating dock together with workshops and storehouses. Before building works could begin, however, reclamation works were necessary as part of the land was a mangrove swamp. Part of Sungai Sembawang also had to be diverted to Sungai Senoko. This land was excavated using steam navvies, drag line excavators and train ferries.
Despite the urgency of the naval base development due to Japan’s aggression in East Asia, there were several delays in construction due to factors such as heavy rainfall. Another delay was caused by the British refusal to accede to local superstition to appease the spirits of a Malay shrine located at a tree known as the “keramat tree”, on the site of the planned King George VI dock. A bout of malaria then broke out among workers and caused the deaths of two senior British officials.
Construction of the base was initially expected to take about seven years but it was only completed in 1938. The initial construction costs were estimated at £28 million but this later ballooned to £60 million. Construction was hastened when Japan rejected the Naval Arms Limitation Treaty in 1935. On 14 February 1938, the project was successfully completed and 11,000 people attended the official opening of the docks.
Japanese Occupation 1942-1945
The Sembawang Naval Base and its neighbouring Royal Air Force (RAF) base were important parts of the military strategy to defend British colonies in the Far East. The naval base was designed to protect Singapore from a “back door” attack from sea, with a potential threat from Japan in mind. The infrastructure at the naval base was among the most modern in the world. It boasted the King George VI Graving Dock, the largest dry dock in the world, and was defended by 15-inch naval guns. Winston Churchill famously referred to the Singapore base as the “Gibraltar of the East”, and many military experts were confident that the base was impregnable. This created an illusion of safety that proved to be false.
Despite the concentration of firepower and military units at Sembawang, British military forces were eventually defeated by Japanese forces that unexpectedly swept down overland from the Malay Peninsula instead of attacking by sea as expected. There were also too few troops on the island to mount an effective defence. The British could not afford to maintain a second navy in the East while its main navy was protecting Britain against the Germans. Just before the British surrendered to the Japanese on 15 February 1942, HMS Kedah led the last organised evacuation convoy out of Singapore through the Sembawang Naval Base. Retreating British troops attempted to demolish parts of the naval base such as the electricity generating plant so that the Japanese could not use the facilities. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, the naval base reverted back to British control.
Withdrawal of British forces
After Singapore’s merger with Malaya and subsequent independence, the British reduced and gradually withdrew their military presence in the region. On 1 December 1968, the British Admiralty handed over the naval base to the Singapore government for a token sum of $1. This was three years ahead of schedule. The RAF continued to maintain a small base in Sembawang that helped to repair, refuel and resupply ships from other Commonwealth countries, thus providing services at commercial rates. This was part of the Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA) signed in the 1970s. The last British warship, HMS Mermaid, left Singapore in September 1975, thus drawing British naval engagement in Singapore to a close, although the British Navy continued to hold periodic joint exercises here.
Naval base today
In June 1968, the Singapore government converted the naval base into a government-linked commercial enterprise known as Sembawang Shipyard. The first chairman of the shipyard was Hon Sui Sen. The process of commercialising the shipyard took many years. The Singapore government appointed international shipyard Swan Hunter as Sembawang’s managing agent in the early years. Although Swan Hunter did not provide financial support, it seconded experienced managers to run Sembawang, for instance Cyril Neville Watson, who became group chief executive of Sembawang Group and a board member of the Economic Development Board. The Swan Hunter Management Agency Agreement proved beneficial for Sembawang as it could tap on Swan Hunter’s huge network of ships and technical expertise. By 1978, the workforce and management of Sembawang Holdings were largely local.
Today, Sembawang Shipyard is known as Sembcorp Marine Ltd., the marine services arm of Sembcorp Industries. The shipyard now has five docks with adjacent engineering and fabrication facilities. The dry dock is still among the deepest in Southeast Asia.
1923 : Plans to build a naval base in Singapore are approved by the Conservative British government.
1928 : Construction of the naval base begins.
1938 : Completion of naval base.
1942 : Singapore falls to the Japanese. The naval base is partially destroyed by British troops so that the Japanese Imperial Army are unable to utilise the infrastructure.
1945 : The Japanese surrender to Allied Forces and the British regain control of Singapore and military facilities like the naval base.
1968 : Sembawang Naval Base is handed over to the Singapore government, which converts part of the base into Sembawang Shipyard.
1975 : Final withdrawal of the British navy from Singapore.
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.