A Walk Down Memory Lane
By: Rachel Ng
(Photos: Singapore Police Force)
The Singapore Police Force (SPF) launched the Police Heritage Trail on 26 November 2020. This one-of-a-kind trail is the first in Singapore focussing exclusively on significant landmarks in security and law enforcement history. The trail, consisting of nine sites in the Central Area, marks the SPF’s contributions in policing this city-state from its infancy to its rise to prominence as a highly developed nation.
The Police Heritage Trail marker located near the mouth of the Singapore River.
The First Police Office
A highlight of the trail is a physical marker near the mouth of the Singapore River, in front of the Asian Civilisations Museum Green. This marker indicates not only the start point of the trail but also the location of the first Police Office that was built shortly after the establishment of the police force in May 1820. A symbol of law and order in Singapore’s early development, the Police Office overlooked the busy river where commerce flourished, and diverse migrant communities settled close to the banks. It stood at this location from December 1820 to February 1823.
Before this, the 12-man team that was running on a shoe-string budget operated out of the residence of Police Assistant Francis James Bernard - located in front of Victoria Concert Hall. He was appointed to the post in 1820 by his father-in-law, Major William Farquhar, the first British Resident of Singapore. Some duties of the early police force included fighting crime, working with the chiefs of native populations to affect law and order, fighting fires, numbering streets, settling disputes over minor debts, and witnessing contracts dealing with land transfers.
Kreta Ayer Redesigned Neighbourhood Police Post (NPP) Permanent Exhibition
Exhibition at the Kreta Ayer Redesigned NPP.
Visitors to the trail can also explore a permanent exhibition at the redesigned NPP which provides information about the trail and an insight into the historic area around the NPP. This redesigned NPP may not look like it, but it is more than 100 years old. Built in 1908, the North Canal Road Post Office was initially sited within the Police Courts compound as there was a great demand for stamps used on official documents by both the Courts and the nearby Central Police Station both of which are no longer standing.
In 1990, the building was repurposed by SPF and commenced operations as the 76th NPP in Singapore. As the only NPP in the Central Business District, Kreta Ayer NPP was kept very busy in its early years, working round the clock to preserve the peace in prime land. By 1995, crime rates at Kreta Ayer saw a 20 per cent drop. The NPP also worked with crime prevention committees consisting of shop owners and tenants, security and property management firms on crime prevention measures. Today, it continues to serve the public as a redesigned NPP.
The trail is a self-guided tour and its companion guide as well as the map of the trail can be found online at https://www.roots.gov.sg/places/places-landing/trails/Police-Heritage-Trail on National Heritage Board’s heritage portal, Roots.sg. Take a walk down memory lane and reminisce old times by visiting the trail today!
Other Trail Highlights
Old Hill Street Police Station
Old Hill Street Police Station, 2020.
The Old Hill Street Police Station was built in 1934 as part of an extensive infrastructural scheme spearheaded by then Inspector-General of Police Harold Fairburn to improve police capabilities. It amplified police presence in the city centre at a time when Singapore had the unsavoury reputation of being the “Chicago of the East”. It also enabled the police to target the heart of secret society activities in Chinatown and effectively break up gangs to clean up the town.
Barracks facilities, luxurious by the standards of that time, boosted the officers’ morale and were seen as an incentive in recruitment. It showed the police force’s commitment in the 1930s to ensure the well-being and morale of its men, which was a far cry from the overcrowded police stations of its early days. The police station and cells, Constables’ quarters, canteen, recreation rooms and parade square occupied the ground floor. The Old Hill Street Police Station could accommodate about 1,000 police personnel, including their families.
With more than 900 double-leaf louvred windows to keep the building well-ventilated, it was also equipped with modern amenities like flushing toilet systems and lifts to access higher floors. More than a workplace, the Old Hill Street Police Station was also home to the policemen and their families. The canteen was a place where they shared meals and stories, forged friendships and built a strong camaraderie. Every few months, movies were screened at the open-air courtyard. Residents knew one another very well and children often played together at the communal playground.
The building was vacated by the police force in 1980. It was eventually gazetted as a National Monument in 1998. It currently houses the offices of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth as well as the Ministry of Communications and Information.
View of the Central Police Station at South Bridge Road, Singapore, c. 1911. Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.
Central Police Station (Demolished)
The Central Police Station was converted from Singapore’s first civil jail in 1849. Undergoing reconstruction twice, once in the 1880s and another in the 1930s, the Central Police Station stood sentinel at the heart of Central Division for more than 100 years until it was demolished in 1978. It was nicknamed ‘Yit Hor Mata Chu’ (Number 1 Police Station) by locals. Throughout its history, it had housed not just the Central Police Station but also the Police Headquarters (also known as Police Office) from the 1860s until the 1950s.
For over a century, this station bore witness to much action - from riots and horrific crimes to being occupied by the Japanese forces during World War Two. By the 1930s, order in the city had improved – the operations of brothels had become illegal, opium dens reduced in number, and secret societies were under heavy surveillance. However, the deterioration of social conditions after the Second World War led to a resurgence of gang activities in Chinatown.
From the 1950s, the Central Police Station became a base from which anti-secret society operations were carried out. A common practice in the 1950s or 1960s was for gangs to collect protection money from those in their territories. They harassed the hawkers who thronged the roads around People’s Park during Lunar New Year, on top of collecting $10-$15 a month from them. To combat the gangs, officers patrolled late into the night at the areas where the gangsters struck. In 1948, the Police gate-crashed a gang initiation ceremony. It resulted in the arrest of 88 people and the seizure of triad initiation paraphernalia.
CID Headquarters, c. 1930s.
Criminal Investigation Department (CID) Headquarters (Demolished)
The CID Headquarters was built in 1931 to house what was known as the Detective Department. Located in between Robinson Road and Cecil Street, the three-storey building became the base of operations for the police force to battle increasingly sophisticated crimes. The carefully designed quarters, courtyards and recesses in the building allowed about 40 detectives, four European Inspectors, four Asiatic Inspectors, four Asiatic Sub-Inspectors, and two Chief Inspectors to carry out their work away from public view and prying eyes. Inspectors were also able to leave the building for police raids and missions undetected by taking the steps from the quarters to their waiting vehicles obscured by a brick wall.
The building housed state-of-the-art photographic studios, a criminal registry, and facilities for criminal detection. Hailed the ‘Scotland Yard’ of Malaya, the building’s style reinforced and represented the police’s authority through its columns and corridors. Offices occupied the ground floor and on the upper floors were living quarters for the officers and their families. There was also a “crush” room on the ground floor where visitors waited to be called and an enclosed exercise room for prisoners adjacent to their cells.
It also functioned as the base where operations were planned against crime syndicates and secret societies. The Special Branch – known as the Internal Security Department today – operated from the same building between 1940 – 1976 for joint crackdown efforts on secret societies and subversive organisations. After the building was demolished in 1993, CID relocated to the Lower Barracks before moving to the Police Cantonment Complex in 2001.
SINGAPORE POLICE FORCE
23 February 2021 @ 4:20 PM