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Home > Back Issues (Journal) > Journal V25 N4 (Oct - Dec 1999) > A History of Tanglin Barracks : The Early Years

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A 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 story.

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 practices.

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 areas.

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 Tanglin."

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 and vegetation.

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, suggesting that:

"... some twenty thousand pounds will still require to be spent [to renovate the Barracks]..."(15 October,1863).

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 year.

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 Lascars.

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 ...

Botanical Gardens
3 1/2
Barracks, Officers' Mess
3 1/4
Barracks, Canteen

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 Headquarters

And where once food was prepared in the Hospital Kitchen, food for thought is now served in the Medical Services Library.

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 story.

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.


1. Straits Settlements Blue Books, 1819-1857.

2. Turnbull, C M, A History of Singapore, 1819-1975, Hong Kong, 1975.

3. Buckley, C., An Anectodal History of Old Times in Singapore, Vol.1 & Vol.II, Singapore, 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.

6. Reith, G M, 1907 Handbook to Singapore, Singapore 1892; reprinted Singapore 1985.

7. Nineteen Century Prints of Singapore, National Museum Publication, Singapore 1987.

8. Falconer, J, A Vision of the Past, Singapore,1987.

9. Edwards, N and Keys, P, Singapore: A Guide to the Buildings, Streets, Places, Singapore, 1988.

10. Our Heritage: Tanglin Barracks, New Nation, 20 October 1971.

11. Singapore Then and Now

12. A History of Fort Canning

13. The Land Transport of Singapore, Archives and Oral History Department, Singapore 1984

Last updated: 18-Jul-2005






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