How does it feel for a retired officer to work at a hotel that used to be his military barrack? Winston Wong, a heritage tour guide at The Barracks Hotel in Sentosa, walks us down memory lane.
“I’m 74 now. When I joined the army, I was in my early twenties. Back then, many thought Singapore was too small to have an army. But in 1967, the government began to publicise the need for a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). That was when National Service was formalised.
Incidentally, that was around the time I left school. Me and my contemporaries were looking at different job opportunities. I went for interviews at some British companies, but there was such a strong pull from the army. I thought joining the SAF was a great way to start a career.
I was posted to Pulau Blakang Mati – now known as Sentosa – to join the first batch of trainees at the School of Field Engineers. For six months, the type of training we did as Combat Engineers included construction of bridges and fortifications, and demolition and mine warfare.
Historically, the island of Sentosa is very famous for setting up military units. The two most elite units that were started at Fort Siloso were the Naval Diving Unit and Bomb Disposal Unit. I was actually sent to the UK for about a year to get training on bomb disposal, and subsequently, Mine Clearance Diving with the Royal Engineers and Royal Navy respectively.
Back in the day, the Communist Party of Malaya was very strong in Singapore. The communists cultivated a lot of students, and they planted flag bombs that injured and even killed civilians. As emergency responders, my men and I were activated to dismantle these bombs.
The police once arrested a university student and brought him back to his school campus to locate a flag bomb that he had planted. He planted it, so why should I have to dismantle it? From afar, we could see him trembling as he dismantled the explosive device.
What did we do over the weekend? Well, I was posted to the Royal Garrison Artillery barrack. It’s situated at Pulau Blakang Mati where we trained recruits, so I was very busy during the weekends. But when we were not on duty, we did have some time for recreation such as sailing, horse riding and sketching.
My very first girlfriend was a school teacher named Rupia. She lived in a Malay village at Serapong. I knew her dad; he was the penghulu of the kampung or the chief of the village. I’d bring her out for dinner but, of course, I respected the curfew set by her father.
I also knew the Commodore of the Singapore Sailing Club, Major CV Dennis, at the time, and I enjoyed getting sailing lessons from him. We’d sail on his boat from Ulu Pandan to Palawan Beach. I was always escorted by him because I was not a very good sailor.
Today, the military Garrison has been transformed into The Barracks Hotel. Palm trees have been introduced to the terrain and the former Parade Square is also covered with astro turf. Suddenly, you get a different flavour. Now, it’s a holiday resort with a colonial charm.
I decided to become a heritage tour guide at The Barracks Hotel because of my friend Jerome Lim. He is a naval architect who was commissioned to curate a heritage tour for The Barracks. He asked if I could help him with certain historical facts, and I agreed.
He came up with the itinerary, but what I did was to come up with sketches. I did them so that people can better visualise the history of the community and The Barracks. Otherwise, it becomes very boring. Hotel guests don’t want to go on a history lesson, unless they genuinely want deeper knowledge. Our focus is on the people, places and events.
Looking back, I’m obviously very proud that the buildings were not demolished. The British did quite a marvellous task with the buildings. There is so much history here, and we need to appreciate the legacy that is left behind. The terrain, flora, and fauna were retained throughout and this natural setting is most enduring.” – Winston Wong, 74
Interview by: Arman Shah