Singapore Navy - Sembawang
The Sembawang Naval Base was built by the British government during the 1920s and 30s. Opened in 1938, the base was meant to play a significant role in the British Empire’s strategic defences against external threats in the Far East, particularly from Japan. The base was occupied by Japanese forces during World War II but reverted to British control in 1945 when Japan surrendered. With the withdrawal of British forces in the late 1960s, the base was converted in 1968 into a government-linked commercial shipyard known as Sembawang Shipyard Pte Ltd. It is now known as Sembcorp Marine Ltd and forms part of the public-listed group, Sembcorp Industries.
The land at Sembawang was decided as the site of the naval base in 1922 due to its strategic location and suitability compared with other sites.1 In 1923, The Singapore Free Press announced that more than a thousand acres of land in the Sembawang area was gifted to the government to build a naval base. Although this unilateral decision was controversial, it was later endorsed by the Legislative and Executive Councils in Singapore. Part of the gift was acquired from Bukit Sembawang Rubber Estate Ltd. in exchange for compensation. Although plans for the base were approved in 1923 by the Conservative British government, the subsequent Labour government halted the building of the base.
Construction on the site started in 1928, with Sir John Jackson’s Ltd clinching the project with the lowest bid of £4 million. The undertaking was a massive one and included the building of a dry dock, a naval stores basin and a north wharf that runs parallel with the floating dock. Before construction could begin, however, reclamation works were necessary, as part of the land was a mangrove swamp. Part of Sungei Sembawang also had to be diverted to Sungei Senoko by constructing an artificial river. This land was excavated using steam navvies and drag line excavators.
There were several delays in construction due to factors such as heavy rainfall and the presence of wild animals such as land crabs and crocodiles. Another delay was caused by “the case of the keramat tree” when the British refused to accede to local superstition to appease the spirits residing in a tree known as the “keramat tree”, on the site of the planned King George VI dock. The contractors were believed to have received an anonymous letter that predicted “a calamity” and death of three senior staff if the tree was removed without performing local customary ceremonies that could pacify the spirits. Shortly after, a bout of malaria broke out among the workers, and three senior British officials also died on separate occasions, fulfilling the prophecy. The matter was “resolved” after the Chinese workmen raised funds among themselves to pay for the rites to appease the “spirits”.
Construction of the naval base was expected to take about seven years but it was completed only in 1938. Construction costs were initially estimated at £4 million when Sir John Jackson’s Ltd won the bid for the project, but evolving circumstances resulted in a change to the initial plans that led to a total expenditure of approximately £28 million. On 14 February 1938, the project was successfully completed and 11,000 people attended the official opening of the naval base.
The Sembawang Naval Base was built to accommodate the Royal Navy in Eastern waters and designed to protect Singapore from a “back door” attack from sea, with a potential threat from Japan in mind. It is comparable to the best naval bases in the world, and boasted of the King George VI Graving Dock, one of the largest naval docks that could fit the biggest ship in the world. Singapore was referred to as the “Gibraltar of the East” by Winston Churchill, then prime minister of the United Kingdom, and he, together with the rest of Britain, was certain that the naval base was vital in making Singapore impregnable.
The illusion of Singapore as an invincible fortress was proven false when the Japanese army invaded Singapore in 1942. Even though the possibility of an attack overland from the Malay Peninsula was forewarned by a few officials, the warnings were overshadowed by the worsening situation in Europe. Military power at the northern coastline was inadequate to defend Singapore against the Japanese. Churchill mentioned in his memoirs that he was surprised when he realised belatedly that there were “no permanent fortifications covering the landward side of the naval base and the city”. There were also too few troops on the island to mount an effective defence.
The British could not afford to maintain a second navy in the East while its main navy was protecting Britain against the Germans. The dockyard was closed on 30 January 1942 when the British realised the impending arrival of the Japanese. Just before the British surrendered to the Japanese on 15 February 1942, HMS Kedah led the last organised evacuation convoy out of Singapore through the Sembawang Naval Base. Retreating British troops attempted to demolish parts of the naval base, such as the electricity generating plant, to prevent the Japanese from using the facilities. Following the Japanese surrender in September 1945, the naval base reverted to British control and works to repair the dockyard commenced. The restoration of the dockyard was completed by the end of 1951 with no traces of war damage.
After Singapore’s merger with Malaya in 1963 and subsequent independence in 1965, the British reduced and gradually withdrew their military presence in the region. Britain was still recovering from World War II, which had weighed down on the country’s finances. On 16 January 1968, the British government announced that all British forces in the Far East would be withdrawn and all military bases outside Europe and the Mediterranean would be closed by the end of 1971. On 1 December 1968, the British Admiralty handed over the naval base to the Singapore government for a token sum of $1, three years ahead of schedule.13 The last British warship, HMS Mermaid, left Sembawang Naval Base in September 1975, thus closing a chapter on British naval engagement in Singapore.
In June 1968, the Singapore government converted the naval base into a government-linked commercial enterprise known as Sembawang Shipyard Pte Ltd, which began operations in December that same year. The first chairman of the shipyard was Hon Sui Sen.15 Swan Hunter Group Limited of Britain was appointed managing agent in the early years, with Rig Ibson as the first managing director. Ibson, who had many years of experience and expertise working in the marine industry, was tasked to develop the naval base into a commercial ship-repair shipyard. The Swan Hunter management agency agreement proved beneficial to Sembawang Shipyard as it could tap on the agent’s huge network of ships and technical expertise.
Sembawang Shipyard is known as Sembcorp Marine Ltd, the marine services arm of Sembcorp Industries. The company operates shipyards across the globe, including Indonesia, India, Brazil and the United Kingdom.
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