Saturday, December 21, 2013


It is rare to find a book, and a literally heavy tome at that, that is written and published by a residents' association. "Down the Seletar River - Discovering a hidden treasure of Singapore", is just one of them. It is a coffee table book in the sense that almost every one of its 284 pages contains at least a picture. Many pages are pictures. And each page is somewhat glossy and thick, which is necessary to bring out the vibrant colours of the photographs that fill the book. And did I say that it weighs a ton? So it has to stay on the table. You probably can't take it along with you as you could an Economics textbook. Yes, it is that big. But juicy in the extreme, and I am not referring to the fruit trees that littered the landscape of rural Seletar.

This book contains a wealth of information about that part of Singapore called Seletar. It is not exactly a kampong tucked away in an obscure part of the island of Singapore. No, it is a place that is known to many British, Australian and New Zealanders who served in the their respective armed forces right up to the nd of the 1960s. And it is not too far away from the former British Naval Base, where I grew up. In that sense, Seletar is a close cousin. Whereas the Naval Base was where the ships were, Seletar was where the airplanes were. As the book points out, "the Naval Base at Sembawang and the British Royal Air Force (RAF) base in Seletar...were to serve as the frontline of British defences in the East.". Since then, Seletar Airbase has been home to the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), and civilian planes fly out of Seletar Airport.

Since the British finally left Singapore in the early 1970s, Seletar has been re-developed gradually. Today, it is difficult to pinpoint a particular place that is Seletar. Rather it is now south of Yishun - a satellite heartland, encompassed by Seletar Hills, Jalan Kayu, Seletar Airbase, Yio Chu Kang and Lorong Buangkok.

Given the wide expanse of land that it used to occupy, the history of the area is rich and varied - all of which are documented in this book. The book recounts the development of the land into rubber plantations in the early 1900s. Before the decade of the 1910s was over, the Bukit Sembawang Rubber Company, which owned and developed rubber plantations, including those in the Seletar area, had become the largest rubber plantation company in Singapore. Pioneers such as Lim Boon Keng, Lim Nee Soon, Tan Chay Yan, Tan Kah Kee and Song Ong Siang all made their fortune in plantations. From the late 1940s onwards, Bukit Sembawang Rubber Company began to build houses in Seletar. This set off the real estate boom in the 1950s and 1960s in that area, initially catering to the families of the British soldiers, but gradually taken up by wealthier locals. While many of these early single and double storey semi-detach houses remain today, newer houses with improved roads and amenities have followed. The book also dwells into the rich flora and fauna that dots the Seletar landscape and highlights the origin of landmark schools, roads and foods that were to make Seletar a destination.

The book contains a wide selection of reminisces of its residents. This is not surprising as it is put together by the residents of the area. These help to put live into the narrative and showcase a part of the development of Singapore as a community of peoples. I enjoyed reading the book, and the great selection of photos that accompanies the narrative has made this a must-have book on the coffee table.

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