IT IS an area frequented by airplanes and birds of colourful plumage but these days, sleepy Seletar sees just as many clunky, dusty trucks trundling along its streets.
For change is in the air.
The vehicles are ferrying materials for a new road network that will serve the area around the $60 billion Seletar Aerospace Park.
The 320ha aerospace park, home to 45 global and Singapore firms, is set to get more crowded as developer JTC Corporation moves into the final phase of a project expected to add 10,000 new jobs and pump $3.3 billion a year into the economy. It will be ready by 2018.
On the cards too are more amenities such as restaurants and sports centres. The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) plans to open up 32 bungalows and two military buildings for various uses under its Draft Master Plan 2013, on top of conserving them.
Three bungalows along Park Lane are also slated to be turned into food and beverage outlets and other amenities by the second half of next year.
But Seletar's planned facelift has sparked fears that the estate may lose its serenity to increased human and vehicular traffic. Residents and activists said they hope a balance between development and preservation can be struck.
"What's special about Seletar is that you don't feel you are rubbing shoulders with everyone everywhere you go. If it becomes too commercialised, it might lose its charm," says housewife Shynna Lai, 53.
Retiree Ho Bak Hai, 76, agrees. He paints an idyllic picture of life in Seletar - he spends some afternoons playing football with his grandson in their garden. In the evenings, he takes a quiet, solitary stroll around the estate.
He sees colourful birds circling the area's undulating terrain and well-manicured green fields. Butterflies, dragonflies, frogs and even the occasional snake visit his Maida Vale home. "The fresh air is good for the soul. It's a quiet respite and a nice place to retire with the company of your family."
Mr Ho, who pays $6,000 a month for a two-storey terraced house, fears renewed interest in Seletar may drive up rents.
But his neighbour, Dutch national Edith Kraaijeveld, 45, a Seletar resident of nearly two decades, feels its beauty and heritage should be shared with the rest of Singapore. An interactive gallery showcasing the area's heritage, with artefacts such as vintage cars, will be one way to engage families, says the airline executive.
Architectural historian Lai Chee Kien hopes the history and culture of the area's original occupants - the Orang Seletar or sea nomads - can be showcased.
The area has special significance in Singapore's history - its changing occupants reflecting the changes in the region and Singapore's rise and fall. From the early 1800s until the 1950s, "the riverine landscape was home to the Orang Seletar and their boats", says Dr Lai. Immigrants from China and India who settled there grew pepper, gambier and rubber.
The colonial government set up a camp - the largest British RAF base in the Far East then. It became operational in 1928. To ease servicemen's homesickness, roads and roundabouts were named after places in London, such as Piccadilly Circus, Hyde Park Gate and Baker Street. These still stand today.
The camp fell into the hands of the Japanese navy during World War II. In the late 1960s, after the British withdrawal, the Singapore Armed Forces took over the eastern part of the camp and its residential and commercial parts were made public.
Observers say the area needs to be developed with sensitivity to the landscape. Singapore Heritage Society's president Chua Ai Lin says Seletar could enjoy the success of former army camps turned into food and beverage clusters, such as Rochester Park and Dempsey Hill.
Meanwhile, Nature Society president Shawn Lum says consideration must be given to the role Seletar plays as part of the island's larger network of green sites. The green expanses of Seletar that connect through the Seletar Country Club to the woodlands lining the Lower Seletar Reservoir comprise a large habitat, he adds.
Their ability to sustain wildlife will be diminished if it is chipped away without longer- term planning, says Dr Lum.
A URA spokesman says it is working with other agencies to retain the "low-scale environment" and Seletar's existing greenery to "enhance the historical charm" of the conserved buildings.
Ms Kraaijeveld says: "Seletar is a really special place with a rich history longing to be told."
Earmarked for conservation
THE Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) will be conserving 32 bungalows as well as two military buildings at the former Royal Air Force (RAF) Seletar camp under last year’s Draft Master Plan.
Block 179: The RAF’s station headquarters, along Seletar Aerospace Drive, is one of the oldest buildings in the area. It was the target of air raids and suffered extensive damage in World War II.
Block 450: This was one of several large barracks in the area. Like nearby Block 179, it was designed in the tropical Art Deco style.
Clustered around The Oval and Park Lane, these 32 bungalows were built to house servicemen and their families. Of these, 23 are black-and-white bungalows, made of timber and bricks.
Another nine were built in the post-war early modern style and feature reinforced concrete work. The bungalows are well integrated into the landscape and have generous front lawns, said the URA.
The asymmetrical alignment of the buildings along the roads adds to the area’s spacious feel.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 21, 2014