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Former Royal Air Force (RAF) Seletar

History
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ABOUT

Located by the northeast coast of Singapore island, the former RAF Seletar was a Royal Air Force station between 1928 and 1971. The conservation area consist of 2 military buildings of the tropical Art-Deco style and 32 houses of the ‘Black and White’ as well as Early Modern styles.

THE HISTORY

Plans to establish an airfield, flying boat base and naval base in Singapore were drawn up by the RAF in 1921[1]. In 1923, the Straits Settlements government gave the British government a site for a RAF station at Seletar. The 600 acre site, acquired from Singapore United Rubber Plantations Limited, included 100 acres of mangrove swamp and 500 acres of uneven land planted with coconut and rubber trees.

Planning was undertaken by Principal Works and Building Officer C. E. Woods whose first task was to prepare a landing site for flying boats, followed by a similar facility for land planes. The site had to be reclaimed and cleared by thousands of labourers, including Samsui women whom the British called ‘Concrete Lizzies’. It was the largest RAF station in the Far East; the scale of construction was unprecedented in Malaya then and was considered so successful that it was used as the model for other stations in Malaya. RAF Seletar began operations in 1928 and was officially opened on 1 January 1930.

Said Sir Cecil Clementi, Governor of the Straits Settlement at the opening of the base: ‘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.’

As headquarters of the Far East Command, it was one of the most important RAF stations in the Far East that guarded vital trade and transport routes. It also served a dual function as Singapore’s first civil airport before the completion of Kallang Airport in 1937. As such, the station hosted many aviation luminaries including Kingsford-Smith and Amy Johnson, famous aviators who stopped over in Singapore on their record breaking flights. Interestingly, the base also hosted the noted British playwright Noel Coward and comic actor Charlie Chaplin.

After the withdrawal of British forces from Singapore in 1971, the eastern side of the station was handed over to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) for military use. The western side was used for civil aviation and became accessible to the public again.

In 2006, part of the former RAF Seletar was slated for redevelopment into the Seletar Aerospace Park to house aerospace industries and drive economic growth in the sector.


[1] Shorrick Neville, Lion in the sky : the story of Seletar and the Royal Air Force in Singapore (Kuala Lumpur, Federal Publications, 1968)

THE BUILDING

In addition to what was considered the finest landing ground in the Far East, the most modern flying infrastructure, commodious offices and living quarters complete with recreational facilities were built for the various ranks of the RAF hierarchy and their families. These buildings and facilities were laid out in landscape that combined functionality with an appreciation of the need to create a pleasant landscape for the residential quarters. As such, the residential areas were treated in a picturesque manner with reference to English landscapes. Perhaps in order to minimise homesickness, the roads were all named after key streets of London, the capital of the British Empire.

The buildings range from timber-framed bungalows, to large reinforced concrete barracks buildings. The Station Headquaters, originally a stilted hut located by the water’s edge, was rebuilt in reinforced concrete in 1931.

With economy, efficiency and functionality in mind, the buildings were designed with pared-down detailing. Key features throughout include the use of verandahs, balconies, generous eaves, louvered fenestrations, vents and ‘breathing’ screen walls as a response to the humid tropical climate.

Bungalows

The 32 conservation bungalows clustered around The Oval were built to house RAF personnel and their families. 23 of these bungalows in timber and brick are of the ‘Black and White’ style while the other 9 double storey bungalows in reinforced concrete construction are of the Early Modern style built after WW2. In particular, the 3 ‘Black and White’ bungalows from before WW2 along Park Lane were built for senior RAF personnel and are the station’s largest. They are also the only buildings in the area that are raised up on piers above the ground.

The bungalows are well integrated into the landscape. The area’s spaciousness is further enhanced by a generally asymmetrical arrangement of the buildings along the roads and the way they are arranged also help to create unique spaces such as at The Oval and help to create pleasing settings and vistas in an environment that one might have expected a more utilitarian approach to building.

Block 179

Block 179 was the Station Headquarters and one of the earliest permanent buildings at Royal Air Force (RAF) Seletar; replacing a stilted hut that was located by the water’s edge. During World War II, the building was the target of air raids and suffered extensive damage. It was occupied by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service for the period of the Japanese Occupation. In 1971 when the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) took over the building from the British; it functioned as the Camp Commandant’s Office.

The 2-storey building is a fine example of the tropical Art Deco style favoured by the British military in the years leading up to World War II. Designed with economy, efficiency and functionality in mind, the pared-down detailing and simplicity of expression reflect the ethos of building for the military.

Fronting a small oval lawn and featuring a pediment with a ‘1931’ date plaque, the relatively small building is at once stately yet restrained. Other features of the building include the diagonal cross pattern on its perforated parapets and the restrained moulded motif at the top of every column. Interestingly, the building has an accessible flat roof that runs around a central pitched roof.

Today, Block 179 continues be a landmark for RAF and SAF veterans and visitors who associate it closely with the area’s military history.

Block 450

Block 450 is a 3-storey barracks building comprising a main block measuring approximately 90 meters lengthwise with 2 service blocks attached. It was one of several substantially large buildings of the same design in the area, used as accommodation for military personnel.

Like the former Station Headquarters, this building was designed in the tropical Art Deco style that was favoured by the British military. The use of traditional timber windows and doors with the then relatively new medium of reinforced concrete demonstrates a combination of traditional and modern design approaches.

As a response to the humid tropical climate, the building has long and continuous covered verandahs complemented by inner facades featuring timber-louvred windows, doors and pre-cast concrete vents to promote cross-ventilation. Other features of the building include moulded Art Deco style motifs at the top of every column which help to adorn this otherwise simple yet functional building.

THE LEGACY

Collectively, the 34 conserved buildings help to contribute to the continued sense of history and identity in Seletar. They form a meaningful core to represent an important era in Singapore’s military history even as the surrounding area continues to evolve to meet the strategic needs of the aerospace industry.
Gazetted on 6 June 2014. 

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