The Sembawang area, in the northern reaches of Singapore is an area steeped in naval history. The massive Sembawang Shipyard which dominates the coast and faces the Johor Strait, actually started life as a British naval base pre-World War II (WWII) in 1938.
It’s no wonder then that the streets in the Sembawang area have naval-themed names or names linked to the British Empire. Admiralty Road is probably the most well-known, referencing the British government’s naval authority, while Deptford Road is named after the first Royal Navy Dockyard. Other roads are named after former British colonies and territories, and British Commonwealth countries and cities, not to mention “King’s Avenue” and “Queen’s Avenue” after the British monarchy.
In a fitting tribute to the area’s rich naval history, the recently upgraded Sembawang Park neighbouring the shipyard features a new children’s playground with an adventure climbing structure in a battleship design.
In the 1930s the British built a grand naval base in Singapore to counter Japan’s growing naval might. Constructed over 10 years, the naval base was intended to be an integral part of the British defence of the Far East. When completed in 1938, it boasted the largest dry dock in the world – the more than 300 meters long King George VI Graving Dock. The naval base also had the world’s 3rd largest floating dock measuring 275 metres in length, and was equipped with underground storage for ammunition, water and fuel, and additional above-ground storage tanks storing enough fuel to support the entire British Navy for 6 months. A town complete with churches, cinemas, hospitals and 17 soccer fields even was also built around the base to house the 12,000 local workers. Some 11,000 people including many dignitaries attended the opening ceremony of the dock.
The naval base unfortunately never lived up to its potential, as the British Navy continued to focus its resources on its main base in Europe. During WWII in 1942, Singapore also fell quickly to the Japanese troops who came over land via the Malayan Peninsula instead of the expected sea route.
Post-Singapore’s independence, the British began withdrawing from Singapore and in 1968 the British Admiralty handed the naval base over to the Singapore government, which then converted it into a commercial dockyard. Sembawang Shipyard, a government-linked company was established, and the shipyard today is part of the larger Sembcorp Marine.
Sembawang Park was developed during the 1970s so there are lovely mature trees throughout the park, although the park itself is just 15 hectares large. Long-time residents such as a friend of mine who grew up in the area have many fond memories of the park – my friend let on that the park was a popular late night dating venue during her teen years way back when.
The almost 40-year-old park’s infrastructure was upgraded earlier this year, and the park now features better paths, toilet facilities, a made-over jetty, wooden seafront boardwalk, fitness exercise area, and the crowning glory battleship climbing feature in the children’s playground.
The historic Beaulieu House still stands, home to the same Chinese restaurant that has been there forever. Beaulieu House was built by a wealthy businessman in the early 1900s as a private seaside villa, and was later acquired and used by the British Navy as the residence for its senior naval officers. Meaning “beautiful place” in French, Beaulieu House, built in a lovely neo-classical Victorian style, received conservation status in 2005.
The historic 30 metre long Sembawang Jetty, started by the British and completed by the Japanese in the 1940s, has been given a new coat of paint and had its wooden floorboards replaced. The jetty remains a popular fishing spot, although the surrounding waters are frankly quite polluted due to the area’s proximity to the shipyard.
At the end of Sembawang Road.
There are 2 car parks – one at the front of the park where Tuah Road branches from Sembawang Road, and another right at the end of Sembawang Road closer to the beach.
Park is lit from 7pm to 7am.
HOW MUCH TIME
An hour to 2 should be plenty to stroll through the park, beachfront and jetty.
- Sembawang is named after the Sembawang tree – the Mesua Ferruginea. A type of ironwood or hardwood tree, it is a rare tree in Singapore and the only known specimen is in the middle of Car Park 1 (the one closer to the beach) at Sembawang Park.
- Naval Base Secondary School, now located in Yishun, was initially in Sembawang when it opened in 1957. The British had set it up on the naval base for the children of the naval base employees. Today the school continues to salute its naval heritage by maintaining ties with the Republic of Singapore Navy for important events, educational visits for students to the naval base, and for career guidance.
- According to Singapore’s URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority) Draft Masterplan released in November 2013, the Sembawang Shipyard area has been rezoned and the valuable waterfront site is likely to be redeveloped into a residential and lifestyle area in the future. Sembawang Shipyard will probably be moved to the Tuas industrial area in the west.
- Although the small beach at Sembawang Park is apparently one of the few remaining natural beaches in Singapore, I have to say the beach is rather unattractive. The water was brackish as well, no surprise being right next to the shipyard.
- Kampung Wak Hassan, the last surviving Malay Kampung (village) which used to be located next to Sembawang Park, is unfortunately no more. Cleared in 1998, all that remains today is a road sign.
- NParks (National Parks Board Singapore) site on Sembawang Park
- NParks downloadable Sembawang Park Guide
- Infopedia site (by National Library Board) on Singapore / Sembawang Naval Base
- Infopedia site on Beaulieu House
- Article in the Straits Times about the playground battleship (by playground specialists Playpoint)