Report on the Far East Tour 2004
by Charles White
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In 1949, I was a schoolboy when my father was first stationed at Seletar, and after returning to UK in 1951 we were back again in 1954 for another three years. So my formative years were spent in Singapore and I and my family have many fond memories of that time.
It was always a wish to return someday, and as a result I made a late decision to join the RAF Seletar Association 2004 Tour.
We assembled at Heathrow on the Sunday afternoon of March 14 and I was soon making new friends. I was astonished to meet another serviceman’s son who was also at Seletar School in 1950. I can't say we recognised each other - after all we were both 8 year olds at the time – but it was a defining moment.
Departure was delayed two hours, but otherwise the flight was uneventful and I soon glimpsed my first sight of Singapore for nearly 50 years.
Kuan Joo met us at Changi airport and it was immediately obvious that we could expect a great time due to his infectious enthusiasm and boundless energy.
The next three days were a kaleidoscope of new, old and changed images.
Installed in a coach with Kuan Joo as host, we visited old haunts or places that were new to us. These included (not necessarily in order)
- The Botanical Gardens
- Changi village
- Johore Battery (to see one of the big defence guns)
- Singapore Air Force Museum at Paya Lebar
- Pongol Point
- Biodiversity Museum at the University
- Surrender Hill
- Sembawang Navel Base
- Bukit Timah Racecourse (now a shopping mall)
- Haw Par Villa
- Malay Village
- Little India
- China Town
- Sentosa Island (was Pulau Blakang Mati)
- Jurong BirdPark
- The Kranji Memorial
We also passed the old Tengah RAF base and visited the Changi Museum and Chapel - a very moving experience.
We were not allowed to visit Changi Prison – a pity as it is due for demolition in 2004 – although a corner is earmarked for heritage purposes. [Editor's Note: The prison had not been demolished by 2006 and the latest plan seems to be to keep it in use.]
A slightly longer stop was made at the Tiger Brewery; where all of those that had been before immediately decamped to the bar for ‘free’ Tigers, the rest of us embarking on the very interesting brewery tour before joining the bar ‘shower’ for our own ‘free’ samples – no restriction on quantity either!
However, we all spent lots of money on Tiger souvenirs and ‘T’ shirts in the Brewery Shop. And so to the Keppel Club for an excellent meal in splendid surroundings.
For many of us, the tour highlight was the return to Seletar and seeing the old guardroom that first time sent a shiver down many a spine.
There is now a motorway between the village of Jalan Kayu and Seletar Guardroom and there is little about the village that you would recognise from 40 or 50 years ago.
However, the old Guardroom is now unused, the new version is further down Piccadilly - close by the now derelict Astra Cinema. The married quarters, airfield and golf course are now open to public access but, Seletar Camp - as it is now known - being under Singapore Army control, is basically a closed area (although no problem to the likes of our Association). With special permission obtained by Kuan Joo, we roamed the camp and visited places special to those in the group. A visit to the swimming pool area brought a tear to many an eye due to its dereliction and use as a reservoir; some of us picked a small piece of the edging to the children’s pool as a memento of happier times.
We finished at "Tiger Time" with a sumptuous meal in the Officers Mess (the old yacht club).
Saturday afternoon saw us return to Seletar for a tour of the married quarters, where everyone got to see their old home, followed by a superb barbeque at Sue Amy’s bungalow in Hyde Park Gate.
Unfortunately, I was forced to leave early to catch the night train to KL where I spent Sunday at the F1 Malaysian GP (well wouldn't any enthusiast seize the opportunity?).
One evening, ten of us, including four ladies in high heels and evening dress, went with Kuan Joo to Sammys’s - a restaurant in the Civil Servants Club - for a curry.
We got off the bus and immediately turned into what appeared to be a field. It was dark and the path was rutted and uneven. We crossed a muddy ditch and things slithered across our path; then it began to rain.
We climbed out onto a road where we braved the traffic before the smell of curry hurried us to our destination. All the while, the irrepressible Kuan Joo was laughing like a drain as he explained that we seemed to have exited the bus one stop too soon! (On his instructions one might add!)
Well, everyone took it in good part and the curry, washed down with Tiger, was certainly worth the effort.
Most of the second week was free for each of us to do our own thing and I used the MRT (subway train) card, supplied by Kuan Joo, to great effect as I visited the Chinatown Heritage Centre (a must visit for those interested in Singapore History) – almost the first thing you see in Pagoda Street is a sign directing you to McDonalds!), the Singapore History Museum the Asian Museum and the Lian Shan Monastery.
I also went on a bumboat trip down the Singapore River, made the cable car trip to Sentosa Island, gazed in awe at the Singapore skyline from the height of the Suntec tower and downed a Singapore Sling in Raffles’ Long Bar.
A visit to the Battle Box at Fort Canning was another essential, where you can watch an enactment of the final day before the fall of Singapore in 1942.
During those free days we often met at breakfast in the excellent Carlton Hotel and compared notes. What one person saw one day was often visited by others on subsequent days! On a personal level, I was also able to meet several members of the Chinese family that befriended us 50 years ago and with whom my family has been in touch in all of that time.
The group went on a day trip to Malacca on the Tuesday in the second week and spent a couple of hours sight-seeing in the city. It was very hot and high points of the journey included the meal at a seafood restaurant in Johore (don’t ask about the furry animals in the rafters watching us eat!) and Kuan Joo’s Karaoke session on the bus home.
Also - don’t ask Kuan Joo about the spirit allowance a Singaporean can import back into his home country! (We could really have helped out here by drinking it all when it was on offer!)
On our last night we went for a group bash at Movenpick, in the Suntec City Mall, and even after all the group activities, there remained enough in the kitty to pay for this. What value!
Well, as I sit here - back in the UK - with all the memories washing over me, I don’t think it is trite to say that it was the nostalgic journey of a lifetime and very very good value for money – all in excellent company. All those who served in Singapore in the good ole days should make this pilgrimage at least once, and it should top your list of things to do by the time you reach 80.
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