Sunday, March 1, 2015

[Buildings] Battle for Singapore Heritage Tour: The Tiong Bahru Air Raid Shelter

The battle for air and land supremacy between the British-led forces and the Japanese raged on ever since the latter landed on the Malay Peninsula and Thailand on December 7, 1941. 

In Singapore, preparations were already in order in 1939. By that year, the Germans flexed its muscle by taking over Czech and Slovakia, and were preparing to conquer Poland. Closer to home, the Japanese had invaded China in 1937 and was trying to get a foothold of the eastern part of China.

Though war was not at Singapore's doorsteps, the country took their first step in preparing for such a possible eventuality.

In 1939, it was reported that bomb-proof shelters would be built within one of the blocks at Tiong Bahru. (1) To give it a community feel, it was said that in normal time, the shelter could be used as a children's playing area.

When I stepped into the air raid shelter, the place felt cold and uninviting. Not a place where I'd send my children to play.

In another report, it talked about the construction of a large communal shelter for 1,600 people. There was even proper electric lighting and ventilation "from two centrifugal fans". (2)  The Improvement Trust then further allocated $200,000 in 1941 to increase the shelter size to accommodate 7,300 people, making it Singapore's largest air raid shelter. (3) (4)

The Main Entrance

I took my first step into the air raid shelter and boy was it huge! Also, it was pitch black too! The lights were not working. There were a couple of entrance, but the group took the easier one which did not require us to climb down via a ceiling entrance.

Ceiling of the air raid shelter

Talking about ceilings, everything in the air raid shelter was built using cement, even the ceiling. To allow for the cement to set, long wooden planks were used to help prop up the wet cement. Thus, the cement pretty much took the shape of the wooden planks.

Air Vent to keep the people breathing
During our walk in the shelter, we passed by rooms where shelves could be found. Apparently these shelves were used to store food items. It was said that there were sanitary facilities within the shelter. Though the toilets and the separator walls have all been removed, we could still see the base of these walls on the cement floor. There were certain area within the shelter where the smell of sewer was highly elevated. In simple terms, it stank! I'm sure the original air vents that rise up to the top of the building had surely helped to freshen up the air a little.

The Warden's room

Finally, we were ushered into the ARP Warden's Room. So what's ARP? Well, it's the acronym for Air Raid Precaution Warden. Only the ARP Wardens and their families were allowed to stay in this room. What was interesting here was that the wordings could still be seen on the wall. Was it re-painted or is it original? 

If you're interested in visiting the air raid shelter, check out the National Heritage Board's website for details or alternatively, you can do a virtual tour.


1. Bomb-proof shelters for new blocks of flats. June 29, 1939. The Straits Times. P15.

2. New block of trust flats. April 4, 1941. The Straits Times. P10.

3. Singapore's largest air raid shelter. October 31, 1941. The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942). P5.

4.Improvement trust allocates $200,000. February 22, 1941. The Straits Times. P11.

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