Singapore Tour 2009
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Alec Wilson's Tour Diary
Mid March saw thirty-eight members of the Association once again gathering at that ancient conglomeration of buildings known as Heathrow Airport.
Although Singapore Airlines are now housed in a new Terminal Three extension, designed to handle their Airbus A380, the place is still crowded to overflowing.
The A380 Super Jumbo was found to be not a lot different from any other large airliner on the inside, but there is more legroom and the seatback video screens are twice the size of those on the 747. Oh! and you can go down, or up, a spiral staircase between decks, and it apparently flies faster and higher. From the outside, who knows! You don’t see the outside either when boarding or disembarking, but you know it’s large when you look down at the tarmac from the upper deck.
It may fly faster, but arrival at Changi was still twelve hours thirty minutes after take-off. Changi also has a dedicated Terminal Three for this aircraft, but this only serves to remind you just how crowded Heathrow really is. You could disembark three A380s at Changi and the place would still seem deserted.
Then came that relaxing drive into the city, the trees, bushes and flowers everywhere, reminding you that this airport really came into being in the 70s, rather than the 40s of Heathrow.
Of course, Kuan Joo was outside customs to greet us, and to take charge. He really had done us proud this time, for this turned out to be a tour of firsts.
After a free day to allow us to catch up a bit, and a morning visit to the Singapore Development Centre - very impressive 3-D models of Singapore City as it is now, and proposed future developments - came the first of the firsts. After around eight years of trying, Kuan Joo had finally been successful in getting us onto the airbase at Tengah. Not very far on mind, and no photographs, even of the impressive Skyhawk gate guardian. Even so, previous visits had seen us progress no further than a drive-by outside the maingate, under the watchful eyes of (occasionally twitchy-looking) armed security personnel. Now, after a full security check at HQ Field Defence Squadron (located just through the gate, in the old RAF SHQ), they took us around the domestic quarter in our coach, past what used to be the McGregor Club (circa 1960s), currently Base HQ.
As opposed to Seletar’s London streets, Tengah’s roads are named after aircraft: Spitfire, Hurricane, Sunderland, Halifax, Lancaster etc, but unlike Seletar’s unnamed blocks (other than an alphabetical letter), Tengah’s are named after VC holders: Learoyd, Scarf, Ward, Cheshire and Gibson. Scarf block, now the Tengah Inn, is named after Tengah-based Sdn Ldr A S K Scarf, who was posthumously awarded his VC for an operation during the Japanese invasion. The Sgts Mess is now the Specialists’ Mess, the Malcolm Club building still stands (now renamed Malcolm Canteen) but the Astra is long gone. Then it was back to their Heritage Centre in Base HQ, where photography was allowed. We even gathered outside for a group photo, the CO agreeing to join us until his mobile called him away at the crucial minute. And that was it, very welcome for all that. Then it was off to Kranji War Cemetery to pay our respects and in the evening came the first of our group dinners, this one at the Pariss International restaurant. (Not a misspelling, that, at least not by me!)
Next day came the second of our firsts; a visit to Sembawang shipyard. This had been arranged by Chris Puxley, who used to visit when serving in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Most found it an interesting enough place, although rain spoilt it a little. But what I would really loved to have seen was the monument to the Prince of Wales and Repulse. Only dedicated in 2008, this was located in a separate, locked compound, so we were not able to get close.
The afternoon was spent out in the Changi area: Block 151, Beach, Creek, and village for lunch. The Museum followed later, then, after a trip on the Singapore Flyer (their version of the London Eye, only bigger, of course!), we had another group dinner, this time under the stars on Marina South Pier. This development replaces the functions of Clifford Pier, which is now half a mile to the north and land-locked! The Marina development now sits on the area that used to be the Outer Roads shipping anchorage. One has to remember that, via reclamation, the land mass of Singapore Island has increased by around 20% over the years.
Another free day brought us to Thursday, and our Seletar visit, courtesy of new Commandant, John Gabriel. But first we toured West Camp, and the Singapore Youth Flying Club. As for the rest, well the Golf Clubhouse and course has disappeared, the Officers’ Mess has been demolished, and most of the ex Married Quarters are now inaccessible; fenced off before demolition (most) or awaiting refurbishment (some). There is also lots of construction going on but at present, mainly new roads. Big changes are scheduled, even the runway is to be extended, at the inland end.
There are big changes on East Camp too, we were to discover, once John escorted us around. 9X site has already been bulldozed, apart from two bunkers down by the swimming pool, which are next for the chop. This was the first time I had been able to see inside this area (being ex 205/209Sqn I did boat guard rather than 9X - the better option by far!), so I was quite excited when John told me I could photograph what was left - this was a very restricted area during the RAF presence, everything disappearing in the undergrowth since then, hence the lack of 9X photos in our archives - so I leapt at the chance; literally.
Between myself and the bunkers, chain-mesh fence apart, was a minor monsoon drain. "I can jump that", I told myself thinking like a 20 year old. "No you can’t", my body replied. Of course, my 73 year old body was right. I did actually clear it, though not very elegantly, more like a cowboy being shot out of the saddle. Still, I picked myself up and, pride apart, all was well. OK, there was the small matter of a broken camera and possible cracked rib, too! Luckily, most of the group were already at the swimming pool, so missed the spectacle. And as my possible rib injury was not yet apparent, I borrowed a camera and completed the job. That incident doesn’t count as another first by the way - monsoon drains and I having come into conflict a few times in the past - but the fact that the pool gate was open, did. We were able to wander freely round the area, which didn’t actually make it look any better. It is still an overgrown, water storage area. Some were able to prise up a few of the decorative tiles though.
Dinner that evening was the usual visit to the ex Seletar Yacht club, now the "Lighthouse", Officers’ Mess. And it was here we heard the sad news that, as part of upcoming development, this Mess (which has only recently seen major refurbishment), along with almost all of East Camp - blocks, hangars, SHQ, messes etc, are likely to disappear over the next two years. Possibly even the slipway as well. As for those London street names, who knows. Maybe it will be a case of "Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Maida Vale".
As Sue Amy has moved out of her Seletar quarter at 10 Hyde Park Gate, the Saturday barbecue followed her over the causeway to her new residence in Johore. Apart from having to pass through Immigration and customs, in both directions, this worked out rather well. A better setting too, and a lot of other ex-Seletar people made the same move, all now living in the same street.
Week two saw us visiting such as Haw Par Villa, Labrador Park gun site, Jurong Bird Park and Asia Pacific Breweries for dinner and drinks in the Tiger Pub - cheapest beer in Singapore!
There were also visits to Mt Faber; Bukits Chandu and Batok - WWII battle sites, the Tiger Experience at Vivo City, and Marina Bay waterfront. Group dinners were held at Normanton Park - Kuan Joo’s place of residence - and Sammy’s curry house - a repeat visit, although first time was at own expense.
During most of the above we were pursued by a reporter from the Straits Times, and she appeared to fill quite a few notebooks during her talks with us. This resulted in an article appearing in the paper during our second week - another first.
After which it was time for one group to head back for the UK and another for Penang, where, courtesy of the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, we had managed to get permission to visit the RMAF Base at Butterworth, yet another first.
It was almost sixty years since I’d been based here so there was almost nothing I recognised, except the building that had been our Sqn (110) HQ, now unused, still looking lonely and forlorn on a piece of grass overlooking to the runway, as it always had. Other buildings had sprung up all around, but none too close. It was as if it were warning them off, like Clint Eastwood in the film Gran Torino - "Get off my lawn".
All in all another good tour. Did someone mention something about a repeat in 2011?
Tour Photo Gallery
Alec Wilson's Tour Diary