The J-thing (jemauvais) wrote,
The J-thing

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The Finest Airport In The British Empire

Before Changi was the best airport in the world, even before Paya Lebar, we already had an airport which won that accolade (or rather, 'The Finest Airport in the British Empire', to be more precise).  I have passed by this iconic building so many times along Nicoll Highway.  I remember how 20 years ago, every Sunday we would head out from my grandfather's house in Katong for lunch at the old Mayflower Restaurant at the DBS Building, and we would certainly pass by the old Kallang Airport terminal building.  I remember asking my mum why Old Airport Road was named thus and she told me that long ago there used to be an airport here, and that funny round building used to be the control tower.  Considering that Changi T1 was built when I was 3 years old (and that I only have a singular, very vague recollection of Singapore International Airport Paya Lebar), it intrigued me that this small building was actually an airport once, and I remember even thinking that Nicoll Highway used to be the runway.

It was only when I grew older that I realised that Kallang was indeed our international airport right up till 1955, and when it was built in 1937, it was considered 'The Finest Airport in the British Empire'1, with facilities which would have been considered revolutionary at that time and an iconic glass-clad terminal building.  I learnt that after the airport moved to Paya Lebar, the People's Association took over the building as its HQ, and occupied it up till April this year.  Right now, the compound is left unoccupied, and what struck me as I took a double-decker bus ride past it recently, was how large the compound actually is.  All along I had assumed that after the airport had shifted, the runway, taxiways, and hangars had been demolished, leaving only the terminal building.  It was amazing that even after 54 years, the original Malayan Airways hangar is still there, and the land area occupied by the airport compound is still substantial.

It was also amazing that of all the airports Singapore has ever had, I have been to each and every one except Kallang Airport.  Realising this, I told myself that since I was nearby for lunch on Monday, I should take the opportunity to see if I could check out the place.  And this little adventure reminded me again of why I 'miss' working with the Civil Service.

Walking past the outer entrance, I walked towards the inner gates of the compound only to see that they were each marked with 'Gate Closed' and a security booth just inside.  Noticing that one of the gates was ajar, I walked through them to approach the security booth to ask permission to go take a look around—but there was no one there.  I was a little hesitant about just strolling in unwelcome in case some security guard jumped out from nowhere to tell me off so I decided to play by the rules and called the number on the sign at the gate to ask if it was OK.

Big mistake.

The number was supposedly that of SLA Security Centre, but it turned out to be AETOS's HQ instead.  After explaining to them that, no, I was not from any organisation, no, this was not an official request, and no, I don't need anything other than to take a walk around the building, they told me that I need to ask permission from SLA, and that once SLA says OK, they would inform AETOS that I was allowed to enter.  It was pretty ironic considering that not a single security person was in sight.  That phone call took about 5 minutes.

Then I called SLA and had to explain the whole story to them again.  After taking 5 minutes to figure out which Kallang Airport I was talking about, which area it was located in, the address of the place, and finally getting the point that I was not enquiring about the future possibility of getting in but that I was right in front of the open gate now, the receptionist finally realised which district's jurisdiction this request fell under and gave me the number of the admin officer in charge.  This took another 10 minutes.

I called the admin officer—who was not at her desk.  After waiting another 5 minutes, I called again, with the same result.

I called the SLA main line back and explained the situation to yet another receptionist.  She was really very helpful, because after advising me that such requests have to be made 1 day in advance, she realised that I was 'right there right now', and proceeded to call a couple of other admin officers to ask for permission.  She revealed that these admin officers often have to go for site visits and that's why they were not at their desks.  I asked her, "So if a backpacker tourist comes by and wants to check this place out just because he spotted it, he also has to request 1 day in advance?" and she said yes.  I don't understand why they can't have a list of guidelines where visitors could be escorted in to just go take a look around the compound for a few minutes without having to enter the building, then she reveals that there was actually no security person on the site, and the 1 working day was for them to arrange for the security people to come unlock the gate.  At this point, I remind her that the gate was actually already unlocked, and the only thing stopping me from sauntering in was my preference to play by their rules, and that's why I called to ask for permission.  She did the whole 'oh dear' thing and tried calling more people without success.  By this point, I had been trying to get permission to enter for more than half an hour, and was getting quite impatient at the fact that the gate was really wide open and there was nothing stopping me.  So while I was still negotiating on the phone with her, I took a few steps past the gate, and continued walking as she tried calling more people.  Finally, when she told me there was really no one around, and I should just ask for permission 1 day in advance, I thanked her for her help, hung up the phone, and looked up at the building right in front of me. -_-

Initially when I decided to call, I thought that there would be a guard on site and the call would be more of a notification than an actual request for approval.  On hindsight, I could have just saved half an hour of my time if I had just happily walked through the open gate without abandon instead of trying to manoeuvre my way around the civil service.

Anyhow, what matters is that in the end I finally got to see this building up close, and here are some pictures so that if you too have never been there, you may see it too:

The old Straits Settlements crest of the Colony of Singapore.  The sign also used to read SINGAPORE AIRPORT, but the lettering has since been removed

These street lamps date back to 1937!

This building is already 72 years old, and it seems like it will outlive the National Stadium (visible behind it), which was built on the land that used to be the landing circle/runway strip

The main entrance

The elegant City of Singapore Crest... in stark contrast with the row of smiley faces beneath

The iconic circular control tower

DC-3s and Lockheed Constellations used to park right at this spot on the apron in front of the terminal

Another view of the wide expanse of space occupied by the old hangars and sheds

The old Malayan Airways hangar.  Some remnants of the Malayan Airways inscription seem to remain.

Kallang Airport in its heyday

Malayan Airways (the forerunner of Singapore Airlines) DC-3 parked in front of the terminal

Crowds assembled at the Kallang Airport Terminal on the Singapore Air Day, c. 1955

For those of you who wonder what the airport looked like before the runway and taxiways were torn up and removed to build the National Stadium, this is a rare aerial photo of Runway 06/24 taken in 1955.  The terminal building is at the bottom left, and at the basin end of the runway you can see the slipway (where Oasis now stands) originally built to allow flying boats like the Imperial Airways Short S.23 Empire to be served at the same terminal as land planes.

1 The Finest Airport in the British Empire

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