Old Sembawang Fire Station

Singapore Infopedia


The old Sembawang Fire Station was located at Admiralty Road West, within the grounds of the former Sembawang Naval Base.1 Built in the 1930s, the fire station served the naval base and its surrounding area. When British military forces withdrew from Singapore in 1971, the naval dockyard was handed over to Singapore-owned company Sembawang Shipyard, while the fire station came under the Singapore Fire Brigade. In 2005, the Sembawang Fire Station was relocated to Yishun. The old Sembawang Fire Station building was accorded conservation status in 2007.

In 1919, Britain started formulating plans for a new Far Eastern fleet that could rival the growing naval power of Japan and the United States in the Pacific. Consequently, Singapore was chosen as the site of a new naval base. It was a logical choice due to Singapore’s prominence as a commercial port, as well as her colonial links to Britain and strategic geographical position.2

The naval base was to be located in the northernmost part of the island facing the Johore Strait. The plans included the construction of a graving dock, a floating dock, 6,000 ft of wharves, as well as complementary facilities such as repair and maintenance facilities and accommodation for staff.3

As a self-contained facility, the naval base would also operate its own police station and fire-fighting service.4 Once completed, the facility would be the largest base of the Royal Navy in Southeast Asia.5

Construction of the naval base was first approved in 1923, but encountered many obstacles such as changes in government in Britain, political opposition and financial constraints.6 On 14 February 1938, the King George VI Graving Dock was officially opened by Shenton Thomas (Sir), then governor of the Straits Settlements.7

The fire brigade was housed in a two-storey building near the entrance of the naval base. Built in the 1930s, the fire station building has a simplified art deco-modern design, and it features a fire-hose tower.8 Staffed by personnel hired by the British, the fire brigade served the naval base as well as the surrounding area.9

Japanese Occupation (1942–1945)
In December 1941 and January 1942, Japanese bombing raids damaged parts of the naval base. The dockyard was then closed on 30 January 1942 when the British realised that Johore would fall to the Japanese.10

The naval base was occupied by the Japanese navy after the British surrendered Singapore on 15 February 1942. The Japanese then undertook repairs to bring the dockyard back into operation, following which the naval base and its facilities were used to service and repair Japanese navy ships.11

From 1944, Allied forces began conducting air raids on Japanese-held locations. An air raid by United States bombers on 1 February 1945 caused serious damage to most of the Sembawang dockyard buildings. However, such destructive raids were halted shortly thereafter, as the Allied forces wanted to recapture the naval base intact.12

The Japanese officially surrendered the naval base to British naval forces on 6 September 1945. A report on the condition of the naval base facilities in September 1945 listed its fire-fighting service as being fully effective.13

British withdrawal from Singapore
In January 1968, the British government announced its decision to withdraw its military forces from the Far East, and close all military bases outside of Europe and Mediterranean by end 1971.14 In a ceremony held on 8 December 1968, then British Minister for Defence (Administration) G. W. Reynolds officially handed over the naval base to then Singapore Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam.15 Although valued at an estimated £12 million, the naval base was sold to the Singapore government for a token sum of S$1.16 The base was taken over by a newly established Singapore-owned company, Sembawang Shipyard, which offered commercial ship repair services and expanded the capacity of the base.17

The fire station was handed over to the Singapore Fire Brigade on 1 October 1971.18 Apart from the station building, four fire engines, a fire boat and other modern equipment were also handed over. All the employees – about 100 of them – who had served the fire service under the British were not retained by the Singapore Fire Brigade due to differing pay scales and age. Instead, plans were made to recruit 35 to 40 new employees to serve the station, which was to cater to the Sembawang area.19

Restructuring of fire service
In 1982, then director of the Singapore Fire Service (formerly known as Singapore Fire Brigade) Arthur Lim Beng Lock presented a paper on the standard of fire cover at the Southeast Asian and Pacific Fire Safety Conference held in Singapore. The paper outlined the long-term plans for the Singapore Fire Service. These included the building of eight additional fire stations and the re-location of three existing ones, so as to reduce the response time to any fire call in Singapore.20

In line with these plans, the Sembawang Fire Station was re-located to a new site in Yishun.21 On 15 November 2005, the 3rd Civil Defence Division headquarters and Yishun Fire Station were officially opened by then Senior Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee.22

A landmark in the Sembawang area, the former Sembawang Fire Station building was accorded conservation status by the Urban Redevelopment Authority on 18 April 2007.23


Joanna HS Tan & Cherylyn Tok

1. “Former Sembawang Fire Station,” Urban Redevelopment Authority, 28 July 2016; David Miller, “Tanker Fire in Sembawang Kills 6 Workers,” Straits Times, 13 July 1992, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Melanie Chew, Of Hearts & Minds: The Story of Sembawang Shipyard (Singapore: Sembawang Shipyard, 1998), 26, 28. (Call no. RSING 623.83 CHE)
3. Chew, Of Hearts & Minds, 26, 28–31.
4. “World Interest Turns to Singapore Base Again,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 15 February 1939, 3. (From NewspaperSG.
5. Lily Kong, Conserving the Past, Creating the Future: Urban Heritage in Singapore (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 2011), 171. (Call no. RSING 363.69095957 KON)
6. Chew, Of Hearts & Minds, 28, 34, 40.
7. “Dock Opening: Air View,” Straits Times, 20 February 1938, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Kong, Conserving the Past, 168, 171.
9. Mohsin Bin Ismail, “Experience Will See Us Through,” Straits Times, 18 September 1971, 11; “Naval Base Firemen to Go When S’pore Takes Over Station,” Straits Times, 4 September 1971, 11; “Govt. to Take Over Base Fire Brigade,” (1971, September 1). New Nation, 1 September 1971, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Chew, Of Hearts & Minds, 50–51.
11. Chew, Of Hearts & Minds, 54.
12. Chew, Of Hearts & Minds, 54.
13. Chew, Of Hearts & Minds, 56–57.
14. “All Out By 1971,” Straits Times, 17 January 1968, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Cheong Yip Seng, “Britain Hands Over,” Straits Times, 9 December 1968, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Cheong, “Britain Hands Over”; Chew, Of Hearts & Minds, 63.
17. Cheong, “Britain Hands Over.”
18. “Brigade Takes in 90 Firemen to Fill Vacancies,” Straits Times, 11 October 1971, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “Naval Base Firemen to Go.”
20. Lai Yew Kong, “Proposal to Build New Fire Centre and Academy,” Straits Times, 11 April 1982, 8 (From NewspaperSG); Joan Hon, 100 Years of the Singapore Fire Service (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 103. (Call no. RSING 363.378095957 HON)
21. “Three New Fire Stations By 2003,” Straits Times, 15 May 1999, 49. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Ho Peng Kee, “The Official Opening of the 3rd Civil Defence (CD) Division Headquarters and Yishun Fire Station,” speech, 15 November 2005.
23. Kong, Conserving the Past, 171.

Further resources
Diamond Plan to Put Firemen into Action Faster,” Straits Times, 1 February 1980, 21. (From NewspaperSG)

Sembawang Shipyard Takes Over,” Straits Times, 2 December 1968, 15. (From NewspaperSG)

S’pore to Take Over Base Fire Brigade,” Straits Times, 2 September 1971, 21. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of 2011 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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