Veterans mark RAF's centenary

Above: Mr Mohamed Haniffa, 71, joined the Royal Air Force as a trainee in 1965 three months before Singapore split from Malaysia and had no idea if he would still have a job. He eventually joined the Singapore Air Defence Command, the precursor of th
Members of the Singapore Wing of RAF Veterans gathering yesterday at the RAF100 celebration at Riverwalk Tandoor Restaurant. ST PHOTO: Mark Cheong
Above: Mr Mohamed Haniffa, 71, joined the Royal Air Force as a trainee in 1965 three months before Singapore split from Malaysia and had no idea if he would still have a job. He eventually joined the Singapore Air Defence Command, the precursor of th
Above: Mr Mohamed Haniffa, 71, joined the Royal Air Force as a trainee in 1965 three months before Singapore split from Malaysia and had no idea if he would still have a job. He eventually joined the Singapore Air Defence Command, the precursor of the Republic of Singapore Air Force.ST PHOTO: Mark Cheong

S'poreans in British force recall how they later became pioneers in building up RSAF

It was a dream come true for 18-year-old Mohamed Haniffa in May 1965, when the aviation geek beat some 1,800 applicants to join the British Royal Air Force (RAF).

But when Singapore split from Malaysia three months later and had no air force of its own, he had no idea if he still had a job.

Now 71, the former RAF aircraft technician recalls how his British superior summoned the Singaporean and Malaysian trainees to his office separately.

"His message to us was that he did not want any trouble between us. Then he said, in an offhand remark, that Singapore will probably now come crawling back to rejoin the British as a colony," said Mr Haniffa.

"How wrong he was."

Mr Haniffa's recollections were among the stories shared by 82 veterans at the centenary of the RAF, organised by the Singapore Wing of RAF Veterans yesterday at Riverwalk Tandoor Restaurant in Farrer Park.

The RAF was founded 100 years ago at the end of World War I in April 1918. Since the 1940s, the skies of Singapore, Malaya and other British colonies in the region were defended by RAF's British pilots under its Far East Air Force, headquartered in Changi.

At its peak, there were several hundred Singaporean and Malayan employees in the RAF.

SELF-DEFENCE

The RAF has given us important experience when many of us had none, and we are thankful for that. But no one else can defend us, only ourselves.

MR MOHAMED HANIFFA, on turning down the British offer to remain in the employ of the RAF in 1968 to join the fledgling Singapore Air Defence Command.

Some were involved in the Malaya Emergency and the Indonesia-Malaya confrontation, and many later joined the Singapore Air Defence Command (SADC), which was later renamed the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF).

Said Britain's Defence Adviser, Commander Martin Moore, who attended the event: "Your service will not be forgotten and our thoughts will be with those that paid the ultimate price during that time."

At the dinner, the veterans held a minute of silence for their departed comrades and cut a large cake to commemorate the centenary.

RSAF celebrated its 50th anniversary this year.

But back then, there was little certainty that Singapore would have its own air force, until Mr Lee Kuan Yew announced after the split with Malaysia that Singapore would have to build its air force from scratch, said the veterans at yesterday's event.

In 1968, Britain said it would be pulling out all its air forces east of the Suez Canal, and the SADC was formed later that year.

The transition was chaotic, said Mr Haniffa, as they were the only ones in Singapore with aviation experience then.

Like other Singaporeans working for the RAF at the time, he was given a choice to remain in the employ of the RAF or join the SADC to defend Singapore.

BASIC EQUIPMENT

When we were previously repairing Ferraris, we were now fixing Datsun pick-up trucks.

MR MOHAMED HANIFFA, on the stark difference between the RAF and the SADC.

All 17 in his batch of aircraft mechanics picked the latter.

"The RAF has given us important experience when many of us had none, and we are thankful for that. But no one else can defend us, only ourselves," he said.

But they had to switch to maintaining Cessna 172s, basic training aircraft typically used by student pilots, not fighter aces.

This was a far cry from the sleek British aircraft such as the Gloster Javelin and the English Electric Canberra, said Mr Haniffa.

"When we were previously repairing Ferraris, we were now fixing Datsun pick-up trucks," he said.

Many things had to be done manually, with the SADC technicians figuring things out as they went along.

It was through experience and trial and error that Mr Haniffa went from being a wide-eyed aviation geek who had never sat in a plane to one of the 82 pioneers at the event yesterday that helped raise the RSAF from its infancy.

Said Commander Moore: "The RSAF's foundation in the RAF and the amazing journey that has occurred in the last 50 years is a fitting parallel track to the development of the RAF and our first century."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 09, 2018, with the headline 'Veterans mark RAF's centenary'. Print Edition | Subscribe