the cat sat on the first floor balcony railing, surveying the quiet surroundings with a regal air. the sun was beginning to set. another big singapore tree right in front. a funny kind of happiness as aj and i started out on a new walk after almost three years. the roads were empty and winding bordered by grassy verges, blocks of three-storey black and white apartments with red tiled roofs here and there, gentle green slopes with clumps of trees and shrubs fell away from the edge of the path, no traffic, hardly any people. what could be more peaceful?
then i saw gaza.
weren’t these names all associated with battles? why were they written on the ageing facades of these nice homes with their faraway, romantic air? cannons fired. did the slopes camouflage hidden ramparts? vimy, mons, blenheim, ramillies. the menacing whir of low flying planes came from the skies. should we duck for the trenches?
“half a league, half a league,” whispered tennyson. “– oh what made fatuous sunbeams toil to break earth’s sleep at all,” lamented owen. we were in a war zone.
then i saw delhi.
i stopped and stared, what was my birth place doing here? was it the theatre of a battle ever?
we were walking around wessex estate, a neighbourhood on a low hill in the western part of singapore. we’d explored the newly developed one north that borders it before, coming right up to colbar, the well known eatery and bar from colonial days.
the classic british times black and white dwellings we were passing by were built, most likely, just before and soon after ww2. the twenty-six blocks of flats and a few stand alone bungalows and semi-detached homes were meant for non-commissioned officers during what the british called the “malayan emergency,” which lasted from 1948 to 1960. “anti-british national liberation war,” was how it was referred to by the malayan national liberation army, the military arm of the malayan communist party, that fought a guerilla war against the british for years.
each of the twenty-six blocks of flats is named after a battle field or war theatre where more often than not the british had done well. the glories of british power in its neighbourhood and its ever expanding empire. from nomur in belgium in 1695 to lucknow in india in 1857, and several combats in between… the might of the british military emblazoned and asserted in large bold black font, in the island that was to be their greatest military defeat in history.
is that why it had to be here and nowhere else that this pride and glory had to be proclaimed?
a curtain of aerial roots hung down from an old old tree. a cat loped up, low and prowling, every bit the tiger’s cousin. the green all around made me take a deeper breath.
back to delhi. there was indeed a battle there, in fact there were three at least. the maratha empire had fought for authority over the fabulous capital of the mughals in 1737 and 1757. upon winning, they’d established a puppet mughal king and gone looking for confrontation elsewhere. the british came along in 1803 and challenged the marathas in the battle of delhi; they won and grasped control of the city i always think of as mine.
aj said we had to find the fabled old water tank on a hill. we turned along another curve in the path, and another, the verdant inclines tilted away. was that a horse down by some trees? it was a large alsatian with its owner. we looked left, and the circular top of the tank appeared. it was huge. we found the gradient leading up to it.
the water tank, like everything else here, spoke of a different time. it’s a miracle that singapore with its love of upgrading has allowed it to hang around. the couple posing for pictures below the tank – looked like it was for their wedding album despite the casual clothes – couldn’t stop holding hands.
we passed corunna. you can’t take that name and not think of… speaking of which, the couple and their photographers were not wearing masks, hmmm.
what was that path through a slope out there? we went down it, and suddenly we were in the green corridor; that wonderful passage way between and behind buildings along what used to be a railway track, part of the former malayan railways.
we’d walked on a stretch of this corridor before, then it was new, no asphalt laid, only green grass and blue butterfly, now the road was grey and concrete, alongside at regular intervals maps were posted to tell you exactly where you were and how you could get in or out, there were also qr codes: scan and you’d get a google map. did the old tank have any idea, or those nearly eighty year old flats, how privileged they were to be even allowed to exist?
but fact of the matter is, despite all its love of the latest, this city has regard for history, and you see many glimpses of it as you walk around. wessex estate reminded me of the black and white houses in the former british naval base at sembawang, and the quaint estate in seletar with roads named after british cities and towns.
back home, while looking up wessex estate on the net i found that though there are supposed to be twenty-six buildings, they have twenty-eight names. a mystery i couldn’t solve even after checking the map of the estate. maybe some buildings have two names or perhaps there are actually twenty-eight blocks. looking down the list of names, i saw plassey.
the battle of plassey, 1757, siraj-ud-daula, mir jafar, clive, naba krishna deb, jagat seth, omi chand, betrayal, drama, war. plassey, where it all started. the beginning of british power, then rule in india. in fact, had there not been plassey, would there be this singapore?
i had not seen the building named plassey. how could i have missed it? the evening after, i went with my husband for a drive to wessex estate, and found plassey. the queenly cat would have been pleased i think.
the blocks and their names
block number / battle or campaign place ~ date / location current ~ historical
1 / aden ~ 1839 / yemen ~ arabia
2 / arras ~ 1914–18 / france ~ france
3 / arabia ~ 1914–18 / syria + s. arabia ~ arabia
4 / barrosa ~ 1811 / spain ~ spain
5 / blenheim ~ 1704 / germany ~ bavaria (höchstadt)
6 / chitral ~ 1895 / pakistan ~ india (british empire)
7 / corunna ~ 1809 / spain ~ spain
8 / cambrai ~ 1918 / france ~ france
9 / delhi ~1803 / india ~ india (british empire)
10 / flanders ~ 1944 / belgium ~ belgium
11 / gaza ~ 1917 / palestine ~ ottoman empire
12 / gallipoli ~ 1915–16 / turkey ~ ottoman empire
14 / hyderabad ~ 1843 / pakistan ~ sind (british empire)
15 / waterloo ~ 1815 / belgium ~ under french control
16 / inkerman ~ 1854 / ukraine ~ crimea (russian empire)
17 / tangier ~ 1939 ? / morocco ~ morocco (french empire)
19 / vimy ~ 1917 / france ~ france
20 / khartoum ~ 1898 / sudan ~ sudan (british empire)
21 / ramillies ~ 1706 / belgium ~ spanish netherlands
22 / lucknow ~ 1857 / india ~ india (british empire)
23 / quebec ~ 1759 / canada ~ nouvelle-france
24 / marne ~ 1914 / france ~ france
25 / plassey ~ 1757 / india ~ bengal (british empire)
26 / mons ~ 1914 / belgium ~ belgium
27 / pegu ~ 1852 / burma (myanmar) ~ burma
28 / namur ~ 1695 / belgium ~ spanish netherlands
chart courtesy wessex estate: recollections of british military and imperial history in the heart of singapore by rodolphe d koninck
a few years ago, wessex estate had a makeover and was recast as an artsy spot with studios and trendy work lofts, no idea how successful this plan has been, but the houses look lived in and there were children playing around. on our evening drive, what looked like an offbeat restaurant had had several guests having a good time.
information and research sources: remembering singapore.org, jtc.gov.sg, and radolphe d koninck’s article on researcgate.net
wessex was an anglo-saxon kingdom in the south of great britain, from 519 until england was unified in 927, according to wikipedia. all the roads in the estate have names beginning with w. woking, whitchurch, westbourne, weyhill, wilton. why? no idea. could be because it’s wessex, or maybe because it’s wars.
road to singapore, wessex estate, woking road, whitchurch road, westbourne road, green corridor, tanglin halt road, commonwealth road, 23/10/2020 #SG50
end of 1997, we moved to singapore from india. in 2015, the country celebrated fifty years of independence. singapore has given me much and i am fascinated by the spirit of this gutsy city state with hardly any land or resources, but oh what dreams and chutzpah (the finest interpretation of the word), the ability to reach big, hunker down and hold and strategise and act and grow. despite my many years here, i haven’t seen a lot of the island, which started out at only 28 miles by 18. now of course it’s bigger, thanks to that spirit i spoke of. so anthony john or aj as i call him, my walking partner, and i decided to do fifty walks in the island to celebrate #SG50. well, we didn’t stop at fifty; couldn’t. there was still so much to see and feel and also how not to let the hot, merciless, climate-change sun not have its way with us. so the walks continue, as does the walk talk. hope you enjoy, try to bring an umbrella.
Lalita AryaOctober 26, 2020 at 6:13 am
Hi indi, omg..that singapore article gave me the creeps for its historical almost real look, even though virtual!! I am a history graduate and have studied European, British and World Histories and your well written narrative gave me goosebumps, I tell you. I have read some of your previous articles on your tours of this interesting “city state” as you refer to it. But this one is really good, with the audio part making it so close & real. I have passed through that place on my way to Darwin, but had only visited the Botanical gardens. thanks for all the details, links also. corunna, hmm..stay safe.
indrani robbinsOctober 26, 2020 at 7:51 am
lalita, delighted you read and enjoyed so much. i thoroughly enjoyed the walk, that must have shown in the writing. so you are a student of history… singapore is rich in recent history, history that has affected our lives directly. the whole british thing, fascinating, yours and my life touched by it and how. do i call singapore city state at times? must be because of athens and sparta, read about way back… but yes, these can be powerful spots on the earth with the most intriguing ways of managing to survive and thrive. next time, don’t just stay for a day, come for a few days, we can go walking to some historical sites.