Seletar Reservoirs: That Rocket Ship Lookout Tower

Upper Seletar Reservoir, Rocket Ship Tower

On July 20, 1969 the Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human being to take “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

That same year, Singapore’s Public Works Department (PWD) built a rocket ship shaped lookout tower for Seletar Reservoir (now named Upper Seletar Reservoir), in time for the reservoir’s official opening which coincided with celebrations for Singapore’s 150th anniversary since its founding as a British trading post. Princess Alexandra of Britain, representing Queen Elizabeth II, officiated at the reservoir’s grand opening ceremony.

The reservoir park with its iconic lookout tower promptly became a family favourite in the 1970s. Many Singaporeans aged 40 and above would have photos of themselves at the tower when they were young. Although I didn’t manage to find any photos of my own family trip there, I was glad to be able to make a trip to this old dame again, some 30+ years after I’d last visited it.

The rocket ship tower looked just the same, although a little weathered, and much smaller than I remembered it to be.

THE LOWDOWN

Seletar is one of the oldest place names in Singapore, with the first mention of the Seletar River in the Malay Annals (Sejara Melayu) in 1401. Seletar means “straits” in Malay.

National Library Archives - Photo from Chua Ai Lin

The opening ceremony in 1969 – Photo from the National Library Archives

The Seletar area itself, in the northern reaches of Singapore, is an area steeped in history. The Seletar River and the coastal waters were inhabited by nomadic sea gypsies in the 1800s called the Orang Seletar – a tribe which took their name from the area they plied. Most of the Orang Seletar were eventually resettled in Johor, Malaysia, across the straits.

Aviation also features richly in Seletar’s past. The British had set up the Royal Air Force Seletar in 1928, boasting the first airfield in Singapore and the first British air base in the Far East. In 1968 the British handed the airport and the military base over to the Singapore government, and Seletar Airport has since operated as a secondary airport used by private charter planes and flying schools.

The Seletar area today is earmarked for further redevelopment as a northern regional hub, with the Seletar Aerospace Park taking prime of place. An industrial park catering to the aerospace industry, the aerospace park is slated to be fully operational by 2018, and will help to bolster Singapore’s position as a world-class aviation hub.

There are 2 Seletar Reservoirs – Upper Seletar Reservoir and Lower Seletar Reservoir. With their wide expanse of water and surrounding greenery, the reservoir parks provide the nearby residential towns of Yishun and Woodlands some very scenic views.

Upper Seletar Reservoir

Upper Seletar Reservoir

View of Upper Seletar Reservoir from the rocket ship tower

The older of the 2 reservoirs, Upper Seletar Reservoir was originally built in 1920 and then enlarged several times. Singapore’s 3rd reservoir (after MacRitchie and Pierce Reservoirs), it was built to cater to the nation’s booming demand for water after World War I. The 17 m deep, 324 ha (hectare) surface area reservoir was officially opened in 1969, when the 18 m tall, 6-level rocket ship tower was added.

Upper Seletar Reservoir

The reservoir and park became a “marked historic site”by the National Heritage Board (NHB) in 1999, denoting it as a place of historical significance with a blue heritage marker or plaque outlining the history of the site.

In December of 2009, the tower was recognized by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as a heritage structure and awarded conservation status. Earlier this year, the National Heritage Board (NHB) announced that it was also starting a documentation project on the tower, one of 4 historic lookout towers the NHB is documenting as part of its aim to capture more of Singapore’s built heritage.

Sadly, the PUB draughtsman who designed the tower, Mr Goh Peng Koon passed away recently on 29 December 2013, at the ripe old age of 92.

Lower Seletar Reservoir

This was a much later addition, built in 1986. First known as the Sungei Seletar Reservoir (“Sungei” means “river” in Malay) before it was renamed, it was formed by damming up the Seletar River. The newer reservoir is slightly larger than its older brother at 360 ha, although it is far shallower at an average depth of only 2 m and going to as deep as 5.5 m only.

Lower Seletar Reservoir

The reservoir is flanked by 2 private golf and country clubs, the Orchid Country Club and the Seletar Country Club on each side of the reservoir.

In April 2010, Singapore’s national water agency the PUB enhanced the recreational facilities around the Lower Seletar Reservoir park, building a Family Bay with a multi-purpose stage and water play area, and a Rower’s Bay along Seletar Club road offering a venue for competitive rowing or radio-controlled boating. There is a 3 ha park on the bank of the reservoir, with a 1.3 km jogging track.

Of interest also is the Heritage Bridge, a bridge resembling the old-fashioned “kelongs” of old – Malay style fishing platforms on stilts, complete with information panels outlining the history of the area. There is also a spacious fishing jetty, and the reservoir is known as a good fishing spot.

Lower Seletar Reservoir

VISITING

Upper Seletar Reservoir

Kapok tree, Upper Seletar Reservoir

Drive up an old road called “Track 7” past the Executive Golf Course. You will soon arrive at the car park, with the rocket ship tower looming into view.

The Singapore Zoo and Night Safari both sit on the edges of the reservoir. If you cock your ears you might just hear a lion or tiger roar (okay maybe not).

There is a nice straight jogging track along the reservoir shore. The 15 ha reservoir park is ringed by forests, however entrance to the forests is off-limits – although by the looks of it people have not been heeding the warning signs. The was a large pile of discarded durian husks by the waste bins, putting paid to the rumour that there are wild durians to be had in the forest for the adventurous.

Do remember to take a look at the humongous Kapok Tree by the washrooms near the car park. Set on a slope, this 30 m tall tree with its expansive trunk covered in characteristic thorns has been endorsed by Singapore’s National Parks Board (NParks) as a Heritage Tree.

Lower Seletar Reservoir

Apart from being an angler’s favourite, the reservoir is also a popular water sports venue offering kayaking and dragon-boating, run by the People’s Association (PA) Water-Venture. Be careful however to stay within the safety boundaries lest you encounter difficulties such as this couple did.

Lower Seletar Reservoir

Lower Seletar Reservoir

The 3 ha park is a nice spot to indulge in some train-spotting, or bird spotting, if you’re not up to the fishing.

Lower Seletar Reservoir

A lovely pair of White-collared Kingfishers

LOCATION

Upper Seletar Reservoir

Track 7, off Mandai Road.

Lower Seletar Reservoir

Main park entrance and car park is along Yishun Avenue 1, although you can also enter the park on foot on Lentor Avenue, near the junction with Yishun Avenue 1.

HOW MUCH TIME

45 minutes at each reservoir should be sufficient if you’re just visiting. You can of course plan to stay longer if you want to participate in any of the water sport activities, or perhaps spend the day fishing at the reservoir.

Lower Seletar Reservoir

Freshly caught! Poor fella.

TIDBITS

  • The Orang Seletar were an indigenous people already settled on the northern coasts of Singapore and the Straits of Johor at the time Sir Stamford Raffles arrived on our island in 1819. The tribe is thought to be Austronesian in racial origins, with similar roots to the aboriginal tribes of Papua New Guinea and Australia. They have dark skin and wavy hair. They are also non-Muslims and worship sea deities, although their language sounds a little similar to the Malay language.
  • There is now a Seletar Cultural Centre in Johor across the causeway in Malaysia, to catalogue and showcase the rich heritage of the Orang Seletar tribal culture.
  • The Orchid Country Club opened in Yishun in 1993 for union members. The idea for the club was mooted in August 1991, when the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong, then Secretary-General of the NTUC (National Trades Union Congress) and ex-Singapore President suggested having a golf and country club for ordinary workers.

TAKE NOTE

  • There are washroom facilities in each of the reservoir parks (1 in each).
  • Lower Seletar Reservoir is a smoke-free park. It was declared smoke-free in December 2013, and smokers caught flouting the ban can be fined up to S$2,000.
  • The parks are lit from 7pm to 7am.
Lower Seletar Reservoir

Peacock Bass

Upper Seletar Reservoir

Casuarina Sumatrana – larger and more interesting cones than the common casuarina variety

USEFUL LINKS

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