The Beginning of Changi
Major A.S. Edwards F.R.I.C.S.
The conviction for a strong naval and military base at Singapore began to emerge in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, at the same time as the new interest and belief in Empire symbolised by the proclamation of Queen Victoria as Empress of India.
This new interest and belief was probably a reaction to the external threat posed by the growth and aggressiveness of great powers all over the world, although the main threat appeared to be Germany, whose ambitions were mounting dangerously. Colonial expansion by France also came into conflict with British interests. Russia and the U.S.A. were also expanding and, in the Far East, Japan was becoming a serious competitor in trade. It was an era of powerful empires, heavily armed and ambitious and aggressively seeking economic self-sufficiency.
The final decision and funding to build the Singapore base did not materialise until the end of the first quarter or the twentieth century. Many historical events occurred to defer the final decision; the Anglo-Boer War during this period; friction between France and Britain, until resolved by the Entente-Cordiale of 1908; the ever increasing aggressive power of Germany, culminating in the First World War of 1914-1918. Britain’s eyes were therefore firmly fixed on the threat from her European neighbours, but not without some qualms about the Far East. Japan had clearly illustrated the strength and efficiency of her naval arm by the destruction of a Russian Fleet by a Japanese Fleet, at Port Arthur, early in this century. As an interim measure a moderately sized naval base was constructed at Simonstown in South Africa, following the Anglo-Boer War, and proved valuable in the defence of the British Empire in both World Wars. In 1926-27 a Military Commission went to Singapore and selected sites for defences, and the first Engineering staff started to arrive in 1927.
Singapore is approximately the same size as the Isle of Wight and of similar configuration – the Johore Strait on the North side is like the Solent. The Singapore defences against the Japanese Fleet were to be on the North to North-East coast, comprising sixteen inch batteries on the coast of the mainland and on Pulau Tekong and Pulau Ubin, which were islands within the Straits of Johore. In addition there were six inch guns for military defences. Further up the Johore Straits, but not far away, was the R.A.F. base of Seletar which was initially formed by Group Captain Cave-Brown-Cave who took a flight of flying boats from England to Singapore – one of the historic flights of the R.A.F. – and also started the early work on Changi.
The Naval base, the largest of all the establishments, was a few miles further West of Seletar towards the Johore Causeway. An interesting feature about the base was the huge floating dock which started off the Naval Base. The history of that dock is that it had been the main floating dock of the German Navy, and was part of the reparations made to Great Britain after the First World War. From 1919 until 1927 the dock was laying rusting off Sheerness, a hulk – then it suddenly became of importance to Great Britain when it was decided to form the Naval Base at Singapore; and therefore, it was re-commissioned and painted up. There was no firm in England which was capable of towing it to Singapore, therefore this was done by Dutch tugs. It took five months from the Medway to the Johore Straits, in which time it was twice lost in the Indian Ocean for a fortnight on both occasions. The floating dock parted company from the tugs in storms and was floating about in the Indian Ocean. It was eventually recovered and continued on it’s way to Singapore. We were very fortunate in that we had such a magnificent present from the Germans with which to start off the Singapore Base.
So there were the three Establishments for the defence of Singapore, the Naval Base, the R.A.F. at Seletar and the guns at Changi and on the outlying islands. The military side of the defence section of the work in Changi was concentrated on the North-East coast of the mainland of Singapore, which was rather like the North-East corner of the Isle of Wight, i.e. Bembridge – then Ventnor would be where Singapore Town was.
Modern Singapore had been developed as a huge port, and the old defences of Singapore Harbour were the islands of Pulau Brani and Blakang Mati, now known as Sentosa. (Blakang Mati was one of the islands that the Japanese used as a military P.O.W. camp, in which many thousands of prisoners died, and of course they also used Changi).
Regarding the construction of the Singapore Base, the North-East corner of the island would appear to be the most unsuitable as it was covered with mangrove swamps, forest and indigenous vegetation; containing the wildlife of Singapore, which included the pythons of up to twenty-five feet in length, and that is no exaggeration. In addition there was a beautiful seaboard of golden sands.
When the Singapore Engineering Staff arrived in 1927, what they had to face was the clearing of the swamps and forestry before the construction of a cantonment for the military personnel and the defence services could commence. There was a road roughly terminating at the Changi Police Station which was virtually at the end of the East Coast Road. As the road right through the cantonment was only a little track through the forest the first task for the Engineering Staff was to upgrade this track to a proper surfaced road, and this was done up to Fairy Point.
From Fairy Point there was a network of roads leading down through the forests to other areas of the plan. One bonus from the site was that there were virtually all of the natural materials required for construction except for bricks and tiles, although bricks were not be used as the norm was the build using concrete and concrete blocks. There was a large area of granite upon the site, and this was converted into a quarry and used for the construction of the defences of the cantonment and also for the roads. There was also an enormous amount of laterite rock on-site, a red rock which powdered to something like an en-tout-cas surface, which was suitable for surfacing the roads.
The next task, after procuring the materials and constructing the main roads, was the clearing of the jungle for the minor roads, the buildings and for the defence works. Also there was the question of anti-malarial measures, which were of the most importance. The mangrove swamps had to be drained and filled and the anti-malarial drains laid all down the slopes of the hills and high ground, this was one of the first tasks. It is important to record that during the whole of the construction, up to the time when the base went on to “Care and Maintenance”, there was not one recorded case of malaria at Changi, due entirely to the measures taken, but plenty of denghue fever and other odd illnesses. After these measures were implemented there was a rigorous daily task by coolies clearing leaves which could be full of rain water, it rained a lot there, and anywhere where water collected.
The cantonment buildings were started and grew apace with the defences, which were being constructed at almost the same time. The first building to be completed was the Chief Engineer’s residence, at Fairy Point. Colonel Malan was the Chief Engineer on the site, and Colonel Shepherd was the C.R.E. In addition to being an engineer Colonel Malan was also an artist, there was no tree cut down in the forest unless it bore his personal mark, he saw to it that there was no unnecessary cutting down of trees, if he could save a tree he did. He came home one evening and set up his easel, to paint a group of trees which he had especially marked, to complete his painting, only to discover that the trees no longer existed. A Clerk of Works had had them felled. As can be imagined “THERE WAS HELL TO PAY”!
The base grew rapidly, the first barrack block was completed also the first block of married quarters and “N” block, this was in 1928-29. A lot more road work was completed, in addition “Z” block was built and two further blocks of married quarters, on the bend of the road which curved around the rising ground which lead to “Z” block and the Battery. It was on the hill where the famous enormous Changi tree stood, whose roots were strangely contorted and grew above ground. It was renowned even before the cantonment was started and was referred to as the “Changi Tree”.
The administrative staff was steadily built up between 1927-28 and they were all selected specialists. The W.O’s and N.C.O’s were also all chosen for the specialist knowledge and expertise.
In addition to the work on the roads and the anti-malarial requirements, sport was considered to be of importance, but it was a long time before the mangrove swamp could be filled in and the Padang constructed for the general purpose of sports in the area. Meanwhile the tennis courts had been constructed by Indian coolies on the Indian principle of ant-hill and cow dung, surfaced with laterite.
The Padang is a story in itself. It was a lovely spot by Fairy Point and by the famous “hotel” built on piles over the sea in the native style of wood and having a coconut palm (attap) roof, and once occupied by Chinese ladies of “light and easy virtue”. There was considerable trouble with the Padang, it had been filled in by the labour force and month after month it could not be played on because every morning, without fail, the land crabs would come up through the layer of mangrove swamp and deposit their mud and filth on the surface. Approximately every metre would be spotted with this foul waste and nobody knew how to remove it. In the end expert advice was sought which advised that the only way to solve the problem would be by the use of poison, cyanide, and a half hundredweight keg was ordered. A sapper regularly went into Singapore City, with a coolie, to pick up the ice and families goods from the Singapore Cold Storage Co. The next time he went he was asked to pick up the cyanide, which he did. Unfortunately on the way back it disappeared!
No-one knew where it had gone. The sapper and coolie were questioned by the Adjutant to no avail; no-one could understand what had happened to it. This situation continued for nearly a fortnight, everywhere being searched, all of the way back to Singapore City, before it was discovered behind the doors of a temporary garage. Evidently the truck had stopped at this garage to load some more items during which the drum of cyanide had been off-loaded and placed behind the open doors of the garage. These doors were never closed so the lethal container was overlooked when the truck left, only to be rediscovered ten days later. That was just about the time when Colonel Malan was about to report to the Governor of Singapore that he had mislaid a large quantity of cyanide. Enough, in fact, to poison most of Malaya. The cyanide was duly put down the land crabs’ holes and they just disappeared, never to be seen again, and the Padang was played upon every day from then onwards.
The question of the method of construction of Changi Cantonment was that the main policy was by military personnel. In addition the building work and the construction of the fortifications were largely done by Chinese contractors under contract. Additionally a lot of work, such as the cutting down of the forest, the anti-malarial reclamation work, quarry work and a lot of the base work for the roads, which was performed by gang labour. For that purpose a direct labour force of Tamils, about 2000, was employed. They were split up into types of military companies, and an ordinary sapper would be put in charge of a company of coolies, as a general director, giving instructions as necessary. There was an overseer, usually an Indian, for each company of coolies, and he was directed by the sapper. The whole control of these 2000 plus coolies was in the hands of a mandour, Mr. Ayah, who was the principal overseer, directly appointed by the Indian Commissioner for Malaya. All Indians, especially those on temporary entry permits for this work, were looked after very carefully by the Indian Government.
In addition to Changi the staff had administrative responsibility for the islands in the Straits of Johore, which were all part of the defences. In these islands there was still a native population of a few fishermen, and their families, with their Malay huts. There was no intention on these islands to do other than build the gun emplacements, but a lot of preparatory work had to be done. The guns had to be sited on a high point so it had to be possible to get up there to place it, and again routes had to be cut through the forest, and light gauge railways were put in place to get the materials up the slopes to the potential gun sites on the hills. These railways were put in on Pulau Tekong and Pulau Ubin.
The Royal Engineers had their own “Navy” which consisted of a beautiful motor launch named the “Ubique”, with Malay crews. They were given Naval hats and were dressed in white trousers, and when they came alongside the pier presented their boathooks the same as the Navy, and always saluted whenever someone came aboard or went ashore. It was their own little Navy.
The Cantonment was very concerned to get its own supply of water, so they tried sinking wells in a number of locations, but the water was always brackish and unsuitable for consumption. The Chinese used to get a chicken, cut it’s throat, and spread the blood around the well, then throw the chicken into the well to appease the devils. The only water supply to the blocks and quarters was for washing purposes and could not be drunk.
Considering that everybody out there, from the lowly sapper to Colonel, was military personnel, and used to the parade grounds of Chatham and Aldershot in heavy boots, life in Changi was not free and easy, but wives and families of Officers and N.C.O’s were brought out from Britain after the first year’s work on the base, when the danger from malaria had been controlled, the swamps filled in and the forest areas thinned out, but not without qualms by Colonel Malan. He was well aware that Service pay at that time was meagre; that Singapore City was sixteen miles away, with no public transport system available to get there, and little or no military funds available to assist in the entertainment or welfare of the families. In the event his fears did not materialise. Although the climate was enervating and food and water problematic, the beauty of the natural environment compensated for this and eventually with the good swimming facilities and many other sports available, few if any felt other than a sense of achievement and pleasure in their few years spent at Changi, on the construction of the base defences. They felt like, and indeed were, pioneers.
In the Royal Engineer Journal of June 1938, Colonel Malan in his article “Singapore – The Founding of the New Defences” quotes a national newspaper of 1937 which had described the project as “The greatest enterprise of its kind ever undertaken by any country”.