Tales from Tengah: 4 Tengah Air Base veterans recall their days as airmen

Mr Mohamed Haniffa (standing, fourth from the left) and Mr Derek Yeo (standing, second from the left) at RAF Training Centre in RAF Seletar, with their Aero Engine course mates. This photo was taken in August 1965.
Mr Mohamed Haniffa (standing, fourth from the left) and Mr Derek Yeo (standing, second from the left) at RAF Training Centre in RAF Seletar, with their Aero Engine course mates. This photo was taken in August 1965. PHOTO: MOHAMED HANIFFA

This story was first published on April 20, 2016, and updated on July 19, 2017

SINGAPORE - Plans to expand Tengah Air Base so as to facilitate the relocation of Paya Lebar Air Base (PLAB) were announced on Tuesday (July 18). 

To make way for the additional space needed, some 80,000 graves at the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery will be exhumed and six farms in the Murai area acquired or not have their leases renewed. 

This will yield 106ha of land - a quarter the size of Clementi town - that will allow the base to house aircraft assets, operational flying and support squadrons and other facilities from PLAB. A new runway will also be built. 

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For many veterans, Tengah evokes memories of RAF Tengah, an air base located outside the new Tengah town.

RAF Tengah was commissioned as an air base for the British Royal Air Force, in 1939. It was built in response to the Japanese threat to the British empire, during World War II.

RAF Tengah remained under the control of the RAF until 1971, when the British withdrew their forces from Singapore.

On Sept 15, 1971, RAF Tengah was officially handed over to the Singapore Air Defence Command (SADC). The SADC evolved to become today's Republic of Singapore Air Force. RAF Tengah also changed its name to Tengah Air Base.

The Straits Times spoke to some veterans of the Royal Air Force about their experiences at RAF Tengah.

All of them served in 81 Squadron, a unit of the Royal Air Force, which was based at Tengah in the 1960s. The squadron, which was in charge of photographic reconnaissance, disbanded in 1970 , shortly before the handover.


1945 topographical map of Singapore (Tengah area). PHOTO: MOK LY YNG

Some of the men who served then are Briton Ray Dadswell, as a photographer, and Singaporeans Mohamed Haniffa, Derek Yeo and Eddie Tan, who were aero engine mechanics. These airmen are now all retirees, except Mr Haniffa, who is a human resource manager.

They share some of their memories of their time at the base more than 50 years ago.

1. Ray Dadswell, 78


PHOTO: RAY DADSWELL

Mr Dadswell was 20 years old when he first joined RAF Tengah in April 1958.

He recounts an incident in June 1959 when he and a friend visited the nearby Tengah Village to buy coffee.

Instead of leaving by the main entrance, they took a short cut through an opening they discovered in the fence.

When they returned, they were caught by a corporal who immediately charged them with breaking and entering the camp.

Mr Dadswell said: "We both saw the funny side of it, as it would have made more sense had he charged us with breaking out!"

However, they were not punished in the end, as the commanding officer "saw the funny side" of the incident as well.

A few months later, Mr Dadswell's service came to an end, in September 1959.

2. Mohamed Haniffa, 69


Mr Mohamed Haniffa, with an Airframe mechanic, Jackson Ng, in June 1968 at RAF Tengah. In the background are the Canberra PR7 aircraft that they worked on. PHOTO: MOHAMED HANIFFA

Mr Haniffa had always been interested in airplanes from a young age.

"Even in secondary school, I would borrow books about airplanes from the library," he said.

So he jumped at the chance to send in an application when, at age 18, he saw an advertisement in The Straits Times in April 1965 on the RAF looking for young men to join its ranks.

He recalled the highly selective process of becoming a member of the RAF, and found out that he was one of 1,800 applicants for 40 vacancies.

Applicants had to undergo many tests at the Kolam Ayer Air Training Centre, like on mathematical reasoning and their English skills. Each test had about 30 to 40 questions, with the final round being an interview with the commanding officer

"After every test, they would announce the results. If you failed, you would go home," he recalled.

After the interview, there was another series of tests at RAF Seletar. These took five days, with applicants having to stay the night.

"The first time I slept on a mattress was on May 17, 1965, when I stayed overnight at RAF Seletar. Before that, I slept on a straw mat in my kampung home," he added.

Mr Haniffa passed the tests and started his service in RAF Tengah from January 1966 to August 1968.

Another new experience for him at RAF Tengah was eating his first beef steak at age 19. "There was so much meat," he said.

However, one thing he does not remember fondly about RAF Tengah is the smell of animal waste from the farm near the airbase.

Every morning, the farmers would put manure on the soil as fertiliser. Depending on the wind direction, there was no escaping the smell at the airbase.

"The British airmen would call it Arabian perfume. That was British humour back then," Mr Haniffa said.

3. Derek Yeo, 70

Mr Yeo described his early morning routines as an aero engine mechanic.

"Sometimes, we would wake up at 5.30am. The first planes would take off about 7am," he said. Mr Yeo, who joined RAF Tengah at age 19 in January 1966, was involved in conducting pre-flight inspections of the engines and directing planes on the runway.

The Airmen's Mess, the RAF's cookhouse, would serve them breakfast.

"Airmen would collect packs for the other air crew, like the pilot and navigators. We had chocolate in the packs. The Airmen's Mess even had an omelette bar, where you can order tomato and cheese omelettes and they cooked them on the spot," he said.

"The camp was a whole different world from home," he said of RAF Tengah. He and the other airmen stayed at the base from January 1966 to May 1969.

He has good memories of the MacGregor's Club, where concerts were held for the airmen.

Popular acts from Britain, like pop band Freddie And The Dreamers and crooner Matt Monro, performed at the club.

"MacGregor's Club was the equivalent of your Zouk in the 1960s. It was flooded with people and we couldn't even squeeze in. Instead, we went upstairs to the billiard room and tried to make out their voices," he added.

Other facilities in RAF Tengah included a swimming pool and Astra cinema.


The swimming pool at RAF Tengah. PHOTO: RAY DADSWELL

On occasion, the airmen would go to Rex Theatre, now known as Rex Cinemas, in Rochor in pirate taxis or "ba wang che", which means "unlicensed taxi" in Hokkien.

These taxis would stop along the road to pick people up until the taxi was full.

This was a more affordable alternative to the licensed taxi, which was more expensive.

Said Mr Yeo: "In that sense, the pirate taxi was like Uber."

4. Eddie Tan, 76


Mr Derek Yeo (left), Mr Mohamed Haniffa and Mr Eddie Tan (right). ST PHOTO: JESSIE LIM

Mr Tan joined the RAF as a 21-year-old in November 1961 and stayed with the force till April 1966.

When he was not busy servicing engines, he played for the RAF Tengah hockey team in friendly matches against other teams in the military.

He remembers an incident when he was still a rookie learning the ropes.

An airman who was also new to RAF Tengah was tasked to direct a helicopter, as part of his duties.

Being inexperienced, he turned to another airman for advice.

"The airman he had turned to for help jokingly told him to lie down on the tarmac and signal to the plane," Mr Tan said.

The airman did exactly that, not realising that it was all a joke.

But an RAF sergeant did not see the humour of the prank, especially as the commanding officer of RAF Tengah was on board the helicopter, after returning from a trip to another air base.

The airman was reprimanded and replaced, with sergeant personally directed the helicopter to a safe landing.

"It would have reflected badly on the officers in charge if the sergeant had not replaced the airman," Mr Tan explained.