Discovering Seletar: Seletar Aerospace Park

By Press ’21

This is Part One of our coverage on Press’ learning journey to Seletar Aerospace Park. The tour was conducted by Xperience DMC. Part Two focuses on the visit to WingsOverAsia and you can access it here.

Think of Seletar and what comes to mind is probably its links to aviation—or perhaps you didn’t even know where Seletar was. 

Rest assured that we were no different, not till the Press ’21 batch excursion to Seletar (and yes, we managed to go on a Safe Management Measure–approved excursion before the current Covid-19 measures were in place)!

From aviation to nature, we uncovered the many facets of this lesser-known neighbourhood in Singapore with our tour guides, Mr Jeremy Koh and Mr Andrew Ong, who indeed proved most helpful on our great journey. 

History of Aviation in Seletar

Our first stop was … a deserted bus stop located along Regent Street? Surely this couldn’t be the start of our tour? Instantly, all our hopes of enjoying the tour in a lofty, air-conditioned facility were dashed. Well, don’t let appearances fool you—this seemingly mundane site once served as the Royal Air Force (RAF) Seletar airbase from the 1920s to the early 1970s. Now, it is home to Seletar Camp G, a Singapore military base. This site featured a cairn, a memorial created with materials from an old RAF building at Seletar and dedicated to members of the RAF who managed the then RAF Station Seletar Singapore. 

Seletar Camp - Military Base in Seletar
The RAF Station Seletar cairn.

Seletar, of course, has strong links to aviation—from its historic past to its current importance to our aerospace industry. However, we would come to find out that Seletar’s significance to aviation in Singapore is truly so much more than what meets the eye. 

Before delving into the lesser-known stories of Seletar, we dropped by the old Seletar airport, whose last flight took off as recently as 2018: a fun fact we were astonished to learn. Judging from its decrepit appearance, it was apparent to us that its replacement, the new airport that opened that same year, was indeed timely. 

The facade of the old Seletar Airport. (Photo courtesy of Mr Patrick Wong)

In the middle of the airport grounds were a handful of luggage vehicles that looked like (and were indeed) from another time, which was yet another testament of Seletar’s progress from the old to the new. 

These luggage vehicles were used to transport luggage in the old Seletar Airport. (Photo courtesy of Mr Patrick Wong)

Seletar’s historical significance in aviation history goes beyond the old Seletar Airport. For instance, did you know that Amelia Earhart used Seletar as a checkpoint for her 1937 round-the-world flight attempt? Evidently, Seletar’s roots in aviation go way back, not least due to its airports and booming aerospace industry.   

The former Seletar Airport used to be a British military base housing the RAF from 1928 to 1971. It has been a nexus between both our colonial histories, as it was also the target of carpet bombing after the Japanese started their ground invasion of Singapore. Though it has officially been taken over by the Singapore Armed Forces after the British withdrawal, it continues to remain a distinct presence in Seletar. The guardhouse, which acts as the entrance of the former RAF Seletar airbase, still stands firm and unyielding. Having survived the long years under colonial rule, it is truly a cornerstone of the old Airbase.

The former guardhouse of RAF Seletar. (Photo courtesy of Xperience DMC)

As the tour guide brought us just by the front of the guardhouse, we felt the reassuring weight of the air around us, containing the stories that we are all so familiar with, and yet so far removed from. Nonetheless, the history of the place still remains alive till today—the personal quarters that used to belong to British soldiers and personnel have now been repurposed and refurbished as homes of fellow Singaporeans. 

And yet, Seletar’s rich history doesn’t concern merely the aviation industry. It wasn’t long before we hit the road again to bear witness to the other scintillating stories of Seletar. 

Colonial Relics

Our first hint of the importance of Singapore’s colonial history to Seletar was a disused goose-necked lamp post, which still stands to this day. With the passage of time, this relic from Singapore’s British colonial past has faded into obscurity. Yet, the juxtaposition between past and present is discernible as such an artefact exists side-by-side with modern edifices like the very bus stop we alighted at. 

Of course, the remnants of British imperialism were not limited to this one lamppost. Located away from the hubbub of Singapore’s city centre, the black and white houses hidden on the outskirts of Singapore were a sight to behold.

These houses used to be the homes of wealthy British families, namely government officials, court judges, or plantation owners, and were built during the pre-war period. Although modelled after Tudorbethan style buildings, they also followed the architectural convention of the Malay model, elevating the house above ground, seamlessly integrated with the easy elegance of English architecture with notes of our distinctive local style, while helpfully providing ventilation on particularly hot days.

A conserved black & white bungalow at Seletar. (Photo courtesy of Xperience DMC)

While ostensibly simple, there is much more than meets the eye to these houses: the whitewashed walls reflect heat off the building and reduce absorption of solar radiation, the black timber beams prevent infestations of wood-boring insects, and the steeped roofs, open-concept layout, verandas, and large overhangs aid in controlling heavy rainfall and maintain a cool temperature.

Lamentably, after the Japanese Occupation, many of these houses were either abandoned or destroyed to make way for urban redevelopment, attributable to the urgent demand for land in Singapore. The number of black-and-white houses has dwindled to a mere 500, scattered throughout Dempsey Road, Alexandra Park, and yes, Seletar. Many have been repurposed into galleries, restaurants, and even venues open for rent, palimpsests of their former glamour and glory. Of course, given the pandemic we find ourselves living through, what we observed was that quite a few houses have fallen into disuse—we can only hope that this is temporary.

Hampstead Wetlands Park

After the comfortably air-conditioned minibus tour of the aforementioned black and white houses, we dragged ourselves into the sweltering afternoon heat to explore the Hampstead Wetlands Park. The park is best visited in the pre-dawn or evening times, as per the input of our helpful tour guide. 

Nestled amidst the buzz and bustle of Seletar Aerospace Park, the undisturbed landscape of Hampstead Wetlands Park provides a much-needed respite from the marks of civilisation immediately surrounding it. Absent were the shiny, sleek metal wings of aircraft—instead, we found ourselves within the largely unfamiliar territory of Mother Nature, with her feisty, feathered birds flying all around us. The place is well-known amongst birdwatchers for being an optimal location to take a snapshot of local wildlife. NParks and Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) have helpfully put in place the necessary infrastructure for bird-watching, most notably a beautiful boardwalk overlooking the wonderful wetlands. 

Surrounding us was a vast mass of foliage, with tree roots below our feet and a luxuriant canopy of rain trees above us. We were lucky enough to catch a sight of an owl up on a tree, a hummingbird perched on a shrub in the lake, a kingfisher among the lily pads, and even a lonely duck by the riverbank. 

We also had the distinct honour of spotting a majestic egret perched atop a tall tree in the middle of the wetlands, gracefully balanced on one foot.

The egret. (Photo courtesy of Mr Patrick Wong)

Ironically, the most interesting bird sightings weren’t even at the wetlands park itself. We scuttled over to the rain tree situated a walking distance from the park, beckoned by the call of our tour guide. 

“Can you find the bird?” our tour guide challenged. It was no easy feat—the bird was seemingly camouflaged into the foliage. Ultimately, we found it resting comfortably on one of the tree’s numerous branches. The buffy fish owl dons brown feathers which conceal it within its surroundings. This assists it in advancing towards its prey undetected. 

A buffy fish owl. (Photo courtesy of Mr Patrick Wong)

Much to our surprise, we saw not just one, but an entire family of oriental-pied hornbills! The tour guide noted that this particular family of hornbills has been living in the area for quite a while, and he had seen them on multiple visits to the park. 

Two oriental-pied hornbills. (Upper left and bottom right)

All in all, the Hampstead Wetlands Park offers a much-needed oasis of nature in the artificial environment that immediately surrounds it. Local flora and fauna do have a place in modern-day society after all!

By the time the learning journey had come to an end, we were all notably more tired than we had been at the start—but in a good way. The experiences were certainly one-of-a-kind, and our minds were filled with sights and sounds almost foreign to us in a backdrop of skyscrapers and office buildings. And as we boarded the bus back to the world we know, we could say one thing was for certain: it had been a journey worth experiencing. 

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