Interview with Jim Gentle (Served 1967-1969)(6 Tactical Signal Units)

a) Did you mix with the local population when you were stationed at Seletar?
When we lived in Jalan Kayu between 1967 and 1969 we lived amongst the local population in Jalan Kayu. Although we did not personally mix socially with Singaporeans we got on very well with our local community that I suspect lived and worked in occupations supporting the RAF base at Seletar.

b) What was Jalan Kayu and Singapore like back then?
I think it was much less developed then. We remember that there were Kampong dwellings and communities living quite close to our flat on Jalan Kayu. I must say we felt very comfortable and never had any worries or fears for our safety. We were quite young of course. I had only just turned 21 and my wife was also 21. We did not have any children nor did many of our acquaintances who were essentially RAF people like ourselves. We loved living in Singapore and we have very fond memories of our time back then.

c) What were your feelings and sentiments about being sent to a place so far from home?
I was very excited about coming to Singapore. I was newly married and it seemed like a big adventure. I was also fortunate enough to be able to bring my wife out with me and following a 24 hour flight from the UK we arrived at Changi at around 5am. We had booked into a hotel in Payar Lebar. However we only stayed there for one night before I managed to obtain a flat in Jalan Kayu via a local shopkeeper named Nee Soon Watt. We stayed in that flat for our whole tour in Singapore. We did sometimes miss our families and whilst some of our friends had visits from their parents, our families never made it.

d) What was a typical day like at the base?
The type of work I was involved in never really meant that you had a "typical" day. I was attached to 6 Tactical Signals Unit who were pretty much always carrying our military exercises all over the Far East. We provided communications facilities for the RAF during these periods. When I first arrived in Singapore in July 1967 I had only been there around 4 or 5 days before I was posted up to RAF Butterworth in Malaysia on an Exercise for two weeks. I was a bit concerned for my wife who hardly knew anyone and was pretty new to service married life. However she soon made friends. Being younger we were much more adventurous then, but I must admit that I never felt concerned for her personal safety whilst I was absent on military exercises. As our circle of friends grew our wives became very close and we formed a sort of family in Jalan Kayu.

e) What did you all do after work?
After work I was involved in sport. Usually football and Rugby. I played for the station a couple of times and went on a trip to Hong Kong to play competitive matches there. We also loved to make use of the swimming pool on Seletar. We also did a lot of socialising with our friends. We visited many of the sights of Singapore. I remember Tiger Balm Gardens, Raffles, Orchard Road, and the many good restaurants that were in Singapore.
We loved eating out at the Makan Stalls that were at the top of Jalan Kayu. I remember Pops Keema shop and loved all the local food. Here in the UK they still can't make proper Chinese/Singapore food.

f) What do you all know about the Singapore Flying Club which was set up by the British forces?
I'm afraid that I don't know anything about the Singapore Flying Club.

g) What do you think about the locals back then?
I thought the local people were very friendly although some were slightly distant. I think the British may have had a different mindset back then. A legacy from the old colonial empire days I guess. We didn't bother to attempt to speak any of the local languages. Depending on local people to speak English. Terrible really but I think that was just the climate and the attitudes we had back then. We got on very well with local people and nieghbours. We lived in a flat above the shops on Jalan Kayu, so you could say we were in the heart of the community. We had a Tamil family living underneath us who had a tailor shop. Next to them was a Chinese Hi-Fi Store.

h) Did you make use of the services that Jalan Kayu had to offer?
We bought most of our goods in Jalan Kayu. The shops were great and the service excellent. Initially our grocery food was provided by Nee Soon Watt but eventually my wife would visit the market a Sembawang and purchase much of our fruit, vegetables and fresh meat there. Every Friday we loved to watch the Amah's Market being set up. We would watch from our balcony as all the stalls set up their goods. Just underneath our flat a baker would put up his small stand with an oven and all his baking equipment and make the most wonderful cakes and pastries. We couldn't resist them and always purchased some to take home after the market. One of the things they used to say amongst married servicemen was that you either took home to UK a new baby or a camphor wood chest. We took home a camphor wood chest! We still have it today and it is still a treasured possession. We had our two children after we returned to the UK.

i) What was your most memorable experience in Jalan Kayu?
There were many. I recall how we celebrated New Year twice. Both for Singapore and the UK. We would have terrific parties and occasionally some local people would get involved. I remember the Monsoons, the elaborate Chinese funeral parades, the wonderful shops, our friends and the warm weather. Mostly good memories.

j) What type of missions did you embark on?
All the military exercises usually involved going up country and living in jungle conditions providing tactical communications back to base or to other services. We were sent on SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organization) exercises that involved many different nations. On one occasion in 1968 we were posted to Thailand where Americans were based who carried out air missions to Cambodia and the then North Vietnam. We were not involved at any stage with these missions but it did feel very odd being so close to the war and speaking to people who had first hand knowledge of the conflict.

k) How do you think that the locals react toward the servicemen?
I think in general the local people were quite pleased to have servicemen living amongst them in Jalan Kayu and contributing financially to the community. I am sure there were times when servicemen became a problem for locals but on the whole we never felt any animosity towards us personally. In fact we felt the reverse. Many of our friends still keep in touch with Singaporean friends today.

l) What was your favourite local food when you were serving at Seletar?
I loved Nasi Goreng and Egg Mee Hoon. The prawns were great and so were the curry's if you could take the heat! I can't remember having a bad meal in Singapore, there may have been but I can't remember one.

m) What activities do you all engage in to bond together?
In my case I think it was sport. I enjoyed playing football and rugby. Many of the matches involved inter section revalry and 6 TSU as we were then known were pretty useful at sport. We won quite a few trophies. Because we were part of a separate unit on RAF Seletar we formed strong friendships within the unit. Our families socialised and we became very close especially because we lived in pretty cramped and difficult conditions when we were away on detachment and exercises in some difficult terrain in the Far East. I still have close friendships with former RAF people I met in Singapore. I left the service in 1977.

n) What was the level of discipline like in the camp and how was it enforced?
I can't recall discipline being really strict. I lived off camp in our flat in Jalan Kayu and in some respects it felt like a nine to five job sometimes. Discipline was obviously inherent within the military hierarchy but if you behaved like a human being then you didn't really have any worries. I was never disciplined whilst I was in Singapore although there were some who got out of line and would be on a "military Charge" and would have to carry out extra duties. Physical punishment was never used.

o) What do you like most and least about your time here?
I find it hard to single out what I liked the most. I think perhaps that I was young and all the friendships that I made. Singapore was an exciting place to be with so much to do. We were never bored. I didn't care much for the monsoon period or the latter period when the RAF camp started to decommission around 1969. The place started to look a bit like a ghost town. I felt that my time in Singapore between July 1967 and December 1969 were the best times to be there. However I am certain that any service person from whatever period they were based in Singapore would feel that their period was the best.

p) How would you like to have your services to be remembered?
The British military in RAF Seletar will be remembered by the elder local community with some nostalgia I suspect. I served in other parts of the globe and in areas where the British were less popular. During many of these postings the local community were struggling to attain independence and on many occasions these led to bloody conflict. Whilst Malaysia and Singapore did have the communist emergency in the 1950's it had ended by the time of our tour in Singapore. I do feel though that Singaporeans especially had a closer affinity with the British and that they will look back on the British period in Singapore with fond memories