History of Tanglin Barracks : The Early Years
by MAJ (DR) Low Wye Mun
It is when I found occasion to work late
into the night that I first heard the voices.
First there would be noises. Movement
of feet and metal-studded footwear, creaking wooden floorboards.
And then the voices would start, cries of the sick and tormented
reverberating through the emptiness of the building. Empty
indeed, for no one else remained in the office by this time
of the night. Only the voices, and the haunted.
I paid little attention to them initially,
but as time passed and following the decision of MINDEF to
vacate the Tanglin site to move to new and modern premises,
the voices became more frequent, more insistent. As if aggravated
by the new buildings starting to assume shape and form, and
the intensifying preparations for movement away from Tanglin,
the voices rose in like intensity.
It was becoming increasingly discomforting
to work with all the interruptions; and just when I'd decided
to shift my work home, a peculiar thing happened: the voices
softened. Oh, they continued, certainly, but their character
had changed to that of muted suffering, of mournful plea.
And that was when I understood: these
were the cries of The Forgotten.
They were appealing for the dignity of
recollection, of remembrance, and perhaps even of reminiscence.
They were pleading for their story to be told before, with
the passing of more time in the headlong pursuit of the future,
they, buried in the past, were heard no more. And as their
chosen scribe (whom I assumed I was, having heard no similar
hauntings amongst my peers), I felt compelled to relate their
In so doing we might all be reminded
of our beginnings in this tropical island, our military heritage
notwithstanding. And as we harken to our past, perhaps the
voices will be subdued if not stilled.
The history of the Tanglin Barracks is very
much a part of the history of Singapore.
Four years after founding his "emporium
and the pride of the East", Raffles returned to Singapore
in what was intended as a brief and last visit. Encouraged
by the activity and industry that greeted him, Raffles soon
re-asserted his personal authority over the island. He revised
the layout of the town and made changes to the distribution
of land among the various groups that made up Singapore's
population at that time.
Thus was the city's commercial centre firmly
established on the western side of the Singapore River. To
the west of this was Chinatown, home to those of Chinese descent.
Pieces of land were also allocated to the various races for
the purposes of conducting their business and trade. For many
of the Chinese, the Teochews in particular, this meant agricultural
It was in fact primarily the Teochews who
became dissatisfied with the amount of land allocated to them.
Defying the difficulties, risks, and uncertainty of the island's
jungle-shrouded interior, the pioneering Chinese expanded
away from the settlement at the river's mouth and cleared
land to plant pepper, gambier, and nutmeg crops in sprawling
One such area, known as "Tanglin"
from the Chinese words meaning "east hill peaks",
was the site of extensive nutmeg-growing. Europeans such as
Cluny, Claymore, and Tyresall, soon realised the profits to
be gained from such crop cultivation. By providing the overall
management of these crop-cultivated areas as well as capital
for the Chinese workers, they built up plantations which soon
extended up to the Bukit Timah environs. In order to service
these plantations and their owners' villas, roads were built
from the main town. By the mid 1800s, the flourishing nutmeg
and pepper plantations were very much in evidence, that of
William H. Willan being more fortunate than most, being linked
by Orchard Road and Tanglin Road.
This fortune, however, was not to last.
In 1857, the nutmeg plantations of Singapore were devastated
by a blight. Amongst other developments, it led to a downswing
in the economy of the island. This was to prove fortuitous
for the military planners of the island. This was to prove
fortuitous for the military planners of the island.
Concern over Singapore's defence needs had
been repeatedly voiced by military officers assigned to the
island. But even the best efforts of engineer officers like
Lake (1827) and Best (1843) to lay out the defence requirements,
including plans for fortifications in and around the island,
were met with complacency. Only the outbreak of the Crimean
War in 1854 succeeded in convincing the India-based government
of the island's vulnerability.
In response to requests made to Calcutta
by the Singapore Governor, Edmund Blundell, approval was given
in 1857 for the purchase of two pieces of land:
"... the smaller piece being situated
to the northwest of the town and cantonment of Singapore and
in the immediate proximity of the main roads leading into
the interior, for establishing a military post and eventually
a fortified site..."
The 210-acre site in Tanglin, comprising
the majority of Willan's nutmeg plantation, was bought at
a modest sum of 5,500 rupees, with the intention of providing
housing for military troops on the island. Little did the
original planners envisage that this would form the seat of
Singapore's Defence Ministry some 100 years later.
In 1858, Collyer was despatched to Singapore
to plan the defence network for the island, also referred
to as "Fortress Singapore." Then a Captain in the
Madras Engineers, he rose to become Chief Engineer of the
Straits Settlements, holding the rank of Colonel. Amongst
his projects, which included Fort Canning, Collyer was resposible
for the "erection of the attap barracks for European
It was only in 1860, though, that the Tanglin
site was actually purchased. In Despatch Number 894, the Resident
Counsillor of Singapore was instructed:
"... to take the necessary steps
for securing the piece of ground at Tanglin..."(dated
6 March 1860)
In subsequent correspondence, the first
mention of "barracks" was made in conjunction with
this piece of land (Official Memo 152 dated 28 March 1860).
And so it was that the construction of Tanglin
Barracks commenced in 1860.
It is likely that Indian convicts were used
to carry out the construction of the barracks, this labour
force having been responsible for the building of Fort Canning,
Government House (the present Istana), and the paupers' hospital
of Tan Tock Seng.
The original buildings were large, airy
structures with wooden floor boards raised on piles some four
feet above the level of the surrounding ground. An open verandah
ran outside all four walls of each building, while an extensive
roof constructed of attap covered the entire building structure
with several feet of overhang. Numerous windows and doorways
opened onto the building from all sides. This style of construction
was in line with the general design of houses built by the
local inhabitants. It afforded the user as much respite from
the tropical elements as possible while providing maximal
opportunity for "through" ventilation.
The individual buildings were linked by
dirt tracks that had to becleared through the low-lying scrub
A year after construction work started,
it was recorded that:
"... the attap barracks at Tanglin
were so far advanced as to be capable of affording ample accommodation
for a European regiment ...".
But at a cost of £30,000, as declared in
Singapore's official returns of 1860-61, the Barracks were
met with some degree of doubt by the locals. With the Calcutta
government's persistent inertia over the matter, no firm commitment
to station European troops in Singapore had yet been made.
A local petition challenged the wisdom of the "large
and costly barrack accommodation" while the local press
voiced their uncertainty by adding that:
"...they [the Barracks] will likely
remain empty and deteriorate rapidly in consequence...".
This proved to be the case.
The gradual decay of the buildings in particular
the attap roofs, prompted a report in the Singapore Free Press,
"... some twenty thousand pounds
will still require to be spent [to renovate the Barracks]..."(15
In fact, Tanglin Barracks laid unused except
for the odd festive occasions like the "horticultural
fete and Fancy Fair" held to raise funds for the Botanical
Gardens in 1864 and 1866. And only with Singapore's break
from India in 1867, and the subsequent transfer of the Straits
Settlements to the Colonial Office in London, was the Barracks
saved from an early ignominious demise.
Plans to station a European regiment in
Singapore were developed, the accommodation of the troops
at Tanglin Barracks being central to their deployment on the
island. Renovation works were carried out, including the re-attaping
of the roofs, and in anticipation of future needs, a hospital
was built and declared fully operational by the end of the
The Barracks were occupied the following
year with the first full-strength infantry requirement being
the 80th Foot Staffordshire Volunteers.
By 1870, Tanglin Barracks was well-established
as a self-contained encampment. Officers' bungalows and messing
facilities occupied the end of the camp closest to Orchard
Road while at the distant end of the camp were sited the housing
facilities of the rest of the regiment. In between the two
housing areas was the parade ground and the garrison church,
while up on the hill behind these was the camp's hospital.
It is possible that this was the location at which the senior
army medical officer in 1872 appraised Singapore town as "...
a nursery for disease ...", alluding to the diseases
endemic at the time, such as malaria, tuberculosis, dysentery,
and enteric fevers. This preventive medicine message of the
day referred to the lack of adequate water supply and sanitation
in the town which affected, to a lesser degree, the Barracks.
Behind the hospital was a recessed area
of land where an 800- yard shooting range was set up. In an
effort to quell the level of drunkedness amongst his troops,
the Commanding Officer of the regiment in 1869, Major C H
Malan, had the jungle area in front of the soldiers' barracks
cleared for the purposes of providing a cricket ground. The
troops levelled the area, turfed it with grass, and set up
the cricket pitch and practice facilities. The higher ground
surrounding the cricket pitch and immediately in front of
the soldiers' barracks were perfect positions to observe the
match in progress.
In the search for precise details of the
layout of Tanglin Barracks, we are indebted to the camp engineer,
who in 1893, submitted a proposal for a new scheme to supply
water to camp facilities. Accompanying his proposal was an
excellent plan of the camp which, preserved by the National
Archives, is the best available reference to the original
Barracks that exists in public domain today. At the same time,
the Barracks was home to 26 officers and 661 men of the sole
infantry battalion officially recorded in Singapore. They
complemented two artillery batteries, one company of Royal
Engineers, and a few Sikh soldiers drawn from the China Gun
By the turn of the century, the Barracks
commanded sufficient stature to warrant detailed mention in
G M Reith's 1902 Handbook of Singapore. Readers of this revised
edition of the 1892 Handbook discovered that:
"The Infantry Barracks in the Tanglin
district are about three miles to the north-west of the town,
and stand on an elevation between Mount Echo and the Botanical
Gardens. The situation is airy and healthy; the ground enclosed
is nearly one square mile in extent, and within the enclosure
are the Officers' Bungalows and Men's Quarters, Shops, Magazine,
the Parade ground, rifle range (800 yards), and a large amount
of open space for recreation and exercise."
The Handbook goes on to list the
Barracks under "The Social Life of Singapore ...",
"... the Garrison Golf Club (Tanglin Barracks)...",
which we can presume to be a development of the sloping ground
in front of the Officers' Mess Those who might be interested
in playing a round here were advised that the jinrikisha*
fares were to be found under the "Table of Distances
(in miles)" which were:
From Raffles Place to ...
|Barracks, Officers' Mess
The First Class jinrikisha fair was
35 cents at the time.
It was in these surroundings that the famous
English poet, Rudyard Kipling, stayed during his tour of India,
China, and Japan in 1898. It is believed that he wrote two
poems while staying at the Barracks and that these subsequently
became known as the "Barrack Room Ballads".
If he had returned a decade later, Kipling
would have felt very much at home in the Barracks as little
had changed since the late 1800s. The attap roofs were replaced
with hardier tiles, and the original garrison church was re-built
in a new site closer to the Officers' Mess in 1910 under the
direction of Captain William Stanbury of the Royal Engineers.
But little else changed for another 20 years when a new generation
of British military presence was felt in the Far East.
With the official approval of plans to fortify
Singapore anew, the Barracks at Tanglin was the scene of much
new construction. Some of the original buildings, the Officers'
Mess being one, were torn down and new concrete structures
erected on the old sites. To the credit of the architects
of that busy period in 1934-6, attempts were made to design
buildings which on the one hand provided maximum utility for
the needs of the day, while blending in with existing ones
on the other. Thus, gone were the airy verandahs to create
more interior space, but well-preserved were the square support
columns (albeit lacking the slimness and decorative fluting
of the original columns) and the French-tiled roofs.
While these buildings have a history all
of their own, suffice to say that the tale of the original
Tanglin Barracks has now been told.
Its history has been recorded, history which
in this case has found itself repeated as the modern Ministry
of Defence in Singapore prepares to move from its home of
the past 20 years. Buildings raised for purposes dictated
by the 19th century needs of the island's defence forces find
similar use today.
The generous buildings that once housed the
soldiers of the first infantry regiments and through whose
airy interiors passed generations of military men now find
parallels in the defence departments that process and plan
the soldiers of today's military: The Medical Classification
Centre, Officers' Personnel Centre, Naval Training Department,
SAF Careers Centre, even the Quartermasters' Store; through
their compact offices and on their historical premises does
walk the Singapore Armed Forces of today.
And while the Ministerial block bears little
resemblance in appearance or function to the Officers' Mess
of old, the original kitchen location and one dining area
still survives. And in the front of the imposing building
overlooking the golf course, beneath the protective gaze of
the two artillery guns retired to their decorative role, are
to be found four small headstones. These mark the graves of
the four Regimental mascot dogs of the resident Infantry units
during the 19 th century.
The Stables which once housed the other four-legged
members of the regiment now provide a resting space for the
four-wheeled transport of the present, at the car park outside
MINDEF's rear gate. And the soldierly physical endeavours
in the original camp Gymnasium are now the site of equally
energetic pursuits in the SAF Child Development Centre.
Where the Regiment's Commanding Officer
once pondered the affairs of his men, today's Personnel Affairs
Department finds sanctuary. And not too far from this, the
National Archives could not have chosen a more apt building
for one of its Record Centres than the Tanglin Barracks Store.
The most graphic example of history repeating
itself is, however, reserved for the Medical Services.
For where at one time in history soldiers
were examined, diagnosed, and given medical treatment in the
Tanglin Barracks hospital, the Physical Performance Centre
today manages the injuries of the SAF's troops in training.
And where once the hospital's medical orderlies tended to
the running of hospital wards, an administrative branch oversees
the smooth regulation of the present-day Medical Services
And where once food was prepared in the
Hospital Kitchen, food for thought is now served in the Medical
Even the original "Dead House",
where the bodies of deceased soldiers were kept prior to despatch
and burial, finds a medical use today. But I doubt if the
SAF's Psychiatric Branch would want its patients to be made
aware of this little-known historical fact!
And so you see, I do know where the
voices came from. I hope that this account will put them to
rest, at peace with the recognition accorded them, and stilled
by the new generation of voices who have heard their haunting
Lest we forget...
Editor's note: This essay was written in
1988 before MINDEF's move to Gombak Complex, and should be
read with this consideration of time in mind.
The author would like to acknowledge with
thanks the assistance given by the National Archives, National
Museum, and National Library in researching this, and for
permission to reproduce some of the illustrations.
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1902; reprinted Kuala Lumpur, 1965.
4. Moore, D and J, The
First 150 Years of Singapore, Singapore, 1969.
5. Makepeace, N, 100 Years
of Singapore, Vol.1 and Vol. II, London 1921.
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Barracks, New Nation, 20 October 1971.
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