History under the RAF

June 23, 2006

seletar in history

points from the book Lion In The Sky: the story of Seletar and the Royal Air Force by Neville Shorrick

In the beginning, before the jungle was cleared to make an airbase, it was inhabited by natives called the Kon Seletar. Very primitive hunters and fishers, they were removed from Singapore by the late Maharaja Abu Bakar of Johore.

Although the airplane was invented in 1903, it was slow in coming to Singapore. It was only in 1921 when the British cabinet decided to establish an up-to-date naval base here that they also decided to make an air field. The site of 600 acres was originally covered by mostly rubber plantation. It was even more ulu in those days, reachable only via snake-ridden dirt tracks and boat. Even when the Brits started to lay main roads, these were regularly sabotaged by land crabs who dug holes in them. Memorably, a huge cobra was found one night wrapped around the leg of a visiting supervisor as he slept, and its mate among the papers in the chief engineer’s office.

Work started on the site in 1923. The creation of the airplane landing ground required enormous amounts of felling and cutting. More than 1 million tons of earth were shifted, on a scale unprecedented in Malaya.

This book claims that Jalan Kayu was named after Mr C.E. Woods, the Principal Works and Buildings Officer for the RAF Far East.

In 1929, the airbase was also opened to non-military aircraft. In the early days of the airplane, round-the-world flights were the most exciting thing. British pilots set out to fly from Britain to Australia in record time, stopping through Britain’s colonies along the way. This was dangerous– some went missing and were never found– but they were daring, and they were often welcomed by cheering crowds. Singapore became a regular stopover on these flights. The first visitors to Seletar were four supermarine flying boats (airplanes that landed on the water). Other notable round-the-world flights that stopped over included Smithy (Charles Kingfeld Smith), and a lady pilot Amy Johnson.

Other uses of the airbase included air mail (Java Air Service, 1930) and cargo. In 1936, 2095 passengers and 52,657 lb of mail passed through Seletar.

Said Sir Cecil Clementi, governor of the Straits Settlements from 1930-1931, “Looking into the future, I expect to see Singapore become one of the largest and most important airports in the world. It is on the direct route to Australia and is bound to develop as a nodal point for air services in the course of time.”

But after Kallang was built in 1937, Seletar became military-use only again. However, many locals were employed in the base as well, as civilian workers.

1942- World War II. When news of the war arrived at the officers’ mess in the base, the men arose and drank a solemn toast to Britain’s impending victory. But they had not reckoned on the power of 27 small but potent Japanese fighter planes, who bombed the airfield every day without fail, in perfect formation, on their way back from bombing the rest of Singapore. Like clockwork, it was every morning at 9.50 at every afternoon at 3pm, and once at night. In true British spirit, even this was an occasion for a drink. Recalls an NCO with the 205 squadron: “Seletar in my memory will always be the Sergeants’ Mess during a night air raid. The sirens would go — the old Far East types would make for the air raid shelters — the ex Med/UK types would collect all the beer from evacuated tables and have a thoroughly enjoyable night!”

The British countered the Japanese with their Vildebeestes and Catalinas, but they were losing and by the end of January there was an exodus of British aircraft. All except the valiant Volunteer Air Force, who flew tiny unarmed and vulnerable light aircraft (Moths and Cadets) on daily reconnaisance patrols out of Seletar. The bombed airbase was full of craters, and airmen and civilian workers alike slowly left.

It is believed that the Japanese took over an empty and desolate aerodrome at noon on February 14th, 1942, a day before the eventual surrender of Singapore.

During the Japanese occupation, the same civilian workers came back to their jobs under the Japanese. Apparently they were treated better than the rest of Singapore (that is, there was no shooting or beheading) but still, life was hard. Japanese sailors lived in the barrack blocks and married quarters (the houses on the airbase) and their local girl friends lived in small attap bashas. There was also a brothel about 15 minutes walk from the gates, with girls specially brought in from Japan. All in all, there were about 2000 Japanese in 1943, many living in tents on the base.

After the war, the local civilians cleared up the neglected base, cutting the wild and snake-infested grass. The RAF came back in but things were tense. The war-weary airmen still had to live in tented camps, and there was a communist-inspired 48 hour strike.

After the war the airbase’s role was to house anti-pirate patrol squadrons. The planes also took part in the Malayan war, noting the boat movements of communist forces, bombing targets in Malaya.

In other news, a bear lived on the base, the pet of an Australian prisoner-of-war. In peacetime, the sportsfield, pool and two cinemas became fully utilised. There was a theatre, which was destroyed by fire in 1963.

In 1965 Singapore became independent. In 1966 the base was handed back to the Singapore armed forces.


Straits Times story #3

June 19, 2006

landscape designer Teo Keng Seng's lush garden

Seletar Airbase residents hope to keep its rustic charm
Suggestions include alternative access routes, efficient use of open spaces and buildings

Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, June 12, 2006
THE old Seletar Airbase will be turned into an aerospace hub in nine years, but residents like Mr Harpreet S. Nehal are hoping for a say in how this tranquil sanctuary can greet the future without losing its charm.

Suggestions include building an access for vehicles entering and leaving the future hub separate from the one residents and golfers now use, as well as a more efficient use of existing open spaces and unoccupied buildings.

Driving The Straits Times around Seletar recently, the Singaporean director of law firm Drew & Napier pointed out where he and some 15 fellow residents think a separate entrance would be ideal:

It is near Seletar Dam, on the west side of the airbase and close to Seletar Airport, where new facilities for aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul are expected to come up cheek-by-jowl with the existing 30 or so aerospace companies.

A separate access will keep heavy vehicles clear of the 305 black-and-white, colonial rented houses on the east side, an area which could also be used for non-industrial purposes such as the proposed regional aviation training campus.

Mr Nehal, who has lived in Seletar for three years, also identified empty plots of land, abandoned hangars and unoccupied Defence Ministry buildings that could make way for the hub.

Aviation offices could be moved from single-storey buildings to new two- or three-storey ones to maximise space, he suggested.

During the tour, he also pointed out empty bungalows that could become wine bars and alfresco dining places, to create a buzz like that at the popular but hard-to-find Sunset Grill and Pub, where patrons savour buffalo wings as the sun sets over the air strip.

‘You can still preserve the character and ambience of this place without turning it into another Tuas,’ said Mr Nehal, 40.

The $60 million masterplan of the Economic Development Board and JTC Corporation will be finalised at the end of the year.

What is now known is that the new Seletar Aerospace Park will cover 140ha – the size of more than 100 football fields – and that the authorities will look into retaining the charm, greenery and heritage of the former Royal Air Force base.

Golfers worry about the future of the Seletar Base Golf Club’s nine-hole public course, which borders Seletar Airport.

They think it will be a pity to close it down because the trees there are all mature, and playing there is affordable – at between $30 and $40 to play on its greens, and even less for members at $130 or less a year.

Businessman Danny Leow, 50, who visits the course six days a week, hopes some parts of it can stay and be adapted for a smaller course.

For now, the airbase remains a green haven of open fields and narrow streets with quaint names like Hyde Park Gate, Oxford Street and Piccadilly.

It is also home to four flying schools and clubs, the Singapore Armed Forces’ School of Logistics and a military camp for combat engineers.

It is also a nature sanctuary. The Nature Society’s conservation committee chairman Ho Hua Chew says grey herons are known to nest in the casuarina trees in the military compound.

The only other nesting site for these birds is at the Tanah Merah Golf Course, he said, adding that a count and survey of the bird population ought to be done for Seletar.

Residents also testify to the ‘zoo’ in their neighbourhood – they have kingfishers, monitor lizards, spitting cobras and paradise tree snakes for company.

This closeness to nature was what Madam Chandra Shanmugam, 37, and her property manager husband Ravi Chandran wanted for their children, aged five and two.

They gave up their four-room HDB flat in Serangoon North to become tenants in their semi-detached house in Seletar two years ago, and pay $1,500 a month in rent.

She said: ‘We didn’t want the children to be cooped up all day. We wanted the open space for them to roam around and climb trees.’

Residents also revel in the sense of community. Doors are kept open. Home owners put in side gates in their fences so neighbours can walk right through.

Whether all this will come to an end when the residents’ leases expire on Dec 31, 2008, remains to be seen. They hope development will be gradual, and that they will not be asked to leave, only to have the land stand empty for years.

Mr Nehal, whose neighbours include Dutch, Germans, Filipinos, Americans, French, Malaysians as well as Singaporeans, said: ‘One cannot manufacture bohemia. It exists in Seletar and should be left to thrive.’

straits times story #2

June 19, 2006

Seletar makeover to turn it into key aerospace hub; S’pore gears up to meet growth in sector and cater to firms crying out for space
Karamjit Kaur , Aviation Correspondent
Straits Times, May 11, 2006 Thursday

THE sleepy surroundings of Seletar Airport will get a multi-million-dollar makeover as Singapore races to become the region’s hub for aerospace activities like aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul.

The new Seletar Aerospace Park will open in several phases and when complete in nine years, will cover 140ha or the size of more than 100 football fields.

By 2018, it is expected to create 10,000 new jobs and contribute $3.3 billion annually to the economy. The expansion will cost about $60 million, excluding the cost of upgrading the airport.

Singapore’s aerospace industry, with its approximately 100 companies and more than 15,000 workers, posted a record $5.2 billion in output – value of products generated – last year, up from $4.4 billion in 2004.

The decision to upgrade Seletar Airport and the surrounding area, which is home to about 30 aerospace companies, follows requests in the last few years for expansion and better facilities. The 77-year-old airport is managed by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and located within Seletar Camp, a former military air base.

At a press conference yesterday Economic Development Board managing director Ko Kheng Hwa stressed that the decision ‘signifies the government’s strong commitment to grow this industry’.

He said: ‘We are prepared to put in the resources and the infrastructure. Now we need to send this signal far and wide because companies all over the world are looking at where to put their next facility.’ They have plenty of choices, observers said. Senai Airport in Johor has ambitious plans and Dubai is pumping in billions to develop its aerospace industry.

Singapore has a quarter of the Asia-Pacific market for aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul and can use its edge to capture even more opportunities, particularly in research and development, Mr Ko said.

Asia is expected to double its fleet of aircraft by 2015 and strong demand is also expected for facilities to train pilots, engineers and other aviation professionals. The Seletar complex will include a regional aviation training campus, Mr Ko said. Other details will be ready later this year.

The airport’s runway will likely be lengthened and its avionics systems upgraded to allow bigger aircraft to land and take off, said JTC Corporation chief executive officer Chong Lit Cheong. JTC is responsible for building the park’s infrastructure.

It will not ‘bring bulldozers in and flatten the land’, Mr Chong said, adding that the team will consider how to retain the charm and heritage of the area, with its black and white colonial bungalows, old trees and open fields. Something to think about is whether the old, abandoned guard post at the entrance of Seletar Camp should be preserved, he said.

Seletar tenants, including Australian-based maintenance, repair and overhaul firm Hawker Pacific, are glad the government has decided to improve the facilities. The company’s senior vice-president for Asia, Mr Rene Frandsen, said: ‘Singapore is an excellent location for us to conduct the business that we are in and we prefer basing a significant amount of our new investments in Singapore.’

Tenants are also relieved. The government had considered moving them to a site near Changi Airport but decided against it. Mr Ko said: ‘The primary consideration is that there is not enough land to meet the needs of the various competing users at Changi for us to fully capitalise on the growth that we expect in this industry in the next 10 to 15 years.’

the story begins

June 19, 2006

Seletar bursting at the seams, say firms; If expansion decision is not made soon, they may shift overseas
Karamjit Kaur , Aviation Correspondent
The Straits Times, March 6, 2006

SINGAPORE’S aerospace industry is booming and companies located around Seletar Airport are desperate to expand facilities that are bursting at the seams.

But for more than two years, repeated requests for expansion have been rejected, they say, because the Government has not decided whether Seletar should be developed for the aerospace industry.
Seletar – Singapore’s first airport and a former military airbase and which opened in 1929 – mostly houses aircraft maintenance and repair companies, flight training schools, private chartered flight operators, and medical evacuation services.

Insiders warned that if a decision is not announced soon, Singapore could end up the loser.

It is believed that Senai Airport in Johor, which is controlled by Malaysian tycoon Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary, has offered some of the companies based at Seletar free land if they relocate for the long term.

The Straits Times understands that another option being considered is moving the Seletar companies to a new location near Changi Airport’s Runway 3, currently used mostly by the military.

Asked if there were plans to upgrade Seletar Airport and the land around it where about 30 companies are located, the Economic Development Board’s director for logistics and transport, Mr Manohar Khiatani, said: ‘We are studying all options to ensure that there is sufficient land for aerospace industry growth.’

Many of the Seletar companies prefer to remain in Singapore.

Among these are Australian-based Hawker Pacific, which opened its aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul facility at Seletar Airport in 1973.

‘From a strategic point of view, Singapore is the place to be,’ said the company’s senior vice-president, Mr Rene Frandsen. ‘It has the right hub status, the right image and is economically well-driven.

‘With the upcoming integrated resorts, we also foresee an increase in corporate and private jet activities.’

But his company here, which maintains Dassault Falcon and Raytheon-manufactured corporate and business aircraft, needs to be upgraded, Mr Frandsen said, adding that with enough facilities, Hawker Pacific could double its business.

‘We are prepared to invest $10 million to $15 million in a new facility, but we need a clear indication from the Government on its plans for Seletar,’ he said.

‘As much as we would like to stay here, if we cannot expand, we will have to consider moving our regional headquarters to, for example, Malaysia, or another neighbouring country.’

Hawker Pacific, which has two hangars in Manila and offices in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Beijing, is prepared to move to a new location near Changi Airport if necessary, he said.

Jet Aviation, an authorised service centre for Bombardier, Cessna, Gulfstream and Boeing business jets, has seen its business double in the last 12 months, said general manager Thomas Ruedisuehli.

The company’s hangar at Seletar can handle up to eight business jets at a time and it has been operating at capacity for the last two years. ‘There is more activity in the region, the general economy has improved, and we get more private jets coming in for maintenance and other works.’

Singapore’s aerospace industry, with its approximately 100 companies, posted a record $5.2 billion in output last year, up from $4.4 billion in 2004.

Apart from Seletar Airport, companies are also located at Paya Lebar Airport, Loyang and Changi. p> ST Aerospace, which accounted for almost a quarter of the industry’s output last year, is also keen to expand operations at Seletar because there is little room for growth at the other locations, said its president Tay Kok Khiang.

‘Even the hangars we just built are well-utilised,’ he said. ‘The point is, we are full and our customer base requires us to support them with more capacity.’


June 19, 2006

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