Community centres are commonly found in the West, especially the United States and the United Kingdom. Largely catering for the needs of the grassroots, some of their oldest community centres were built in the early 20th century. After the Second World War, the British brought the concept of community centres to its oversea colonies such as Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Today, community centres, or CC in short, together with HDB flats and hawker centres, have become representative features of Singapore heartland. In its sixty years of history, the local community centres have evolved from simple zinc-and-wood buildings to sophisticated clubs furnished with different types of modern facilities.
The Early Community Centres (1950s)
When the British returned to Singapore after the war, they wanted to foster the community development in order to dampen the anti-colonial sentiments. The idea of community centres was mooted in the late 1940s, and the task was given to the Department of Social Welfare, which under the instruction of the Colonial Office, started building community centres in the early 1950s.
The first community centres in Singapore were the Serangoon Community Centre and Siglap Community Centre, both officially opened in May 1953. A couple of community centres, such as the Balestier Community Centre, Rochore Community Centre and Alexandra Community Centre, were built as early as 1951, but were only officially opened a few years later, thus losing the honour of being Singapore’s first community centre.
Tiong Bahru Community Centre was unofficially Singapore’s earliest community centre, with its history traced all the way back to 1948. Started as a suburb communal hall, the Tiong Bahru Community Centre’s initial objective was to provide social amenities for the residents of Tiong Bahru. Basketball court, football field and badminton courts were built, while night classes, open-air cinema and even barber service were offered at cheap rates.
By 1951, 13,000 residents at Tiong Bahru district had signed up as members of the community centre to enjoy its facilities. It later became so self-sufficient that it could assist residents’ in funeral works, provide ambulance and civil defence training, and, at one stage, even planned to recruit volunteer police to ensure the security of Tiong Bahru.
The community centre, however, became mismanaged a few years later. In 1956, it was forced to shut down after it became a notorious gambling venue for the residents. The management of the centre was handed over to the Department of Social Welfare, and later to the People’s Association. After a thorough revamp, the community centre was reopened in 1960.
Most of the early community centres were relatively small and simple structures which cost around tens of thousands of dollars in their construction. The larger ones, such as the Bukit Panjang Community Centre and Buona Vista Community Centre built in 1955 and 1956 respectively, cost about $150,000 each.
Built at a cost of $160,000, the Bukit Timah Community Centre, equipped with basketball court, football field, badminton halls, classrooms and a science room, was dubbed as Singapore’s best community centre when it was opened in 1959.
The Roles of Community Centres
When the People’s Action Party (PAP) won the election in 1959 to form the full internal self-government of Singapore, the community centres started to take on many other roles.
Its function as a to-and-fro channel remained; to disseminate information and policies, as well as gather feedback from the grassroots. In addition, social unity, multi-racial harmony and national identity were promoted through nation-building activities at the community centres. Residents mingled with each others. Youths were encouraged to compete through sports and games, so as to reduce the chances of them getting involved with drugs and gangsterism. Pro-communist ideas were also contained as they were kept out of reach to the ordinary folks.
The People’s Association (PA) was established in 1960, taking over the management of community centres from the Department of Social Welfare. Top civil servants and political leaders formed the board that managed PA, whereas grassroots leaders were appointed as members of the Community Centre Management Committee (CCMC), in order to engage with the residents in a more efficient way.
The Rise of Community Centres (1960s)
The 1960s of Singapore represented an eventful decade that was plagued by social instability, protests and riots. It was also glorious moment in history of community centres as more than a hundred of them sprung up like mushrooms in many parts of Singapore.
As many as 60 community centres were established in 1961 alone. Community centres became places to hold celebratory events, such as the Chinese New Year, Hari Raya, National Day (after 1965) and send-off dinners for the early batches of National Servicemen (after 1967). Other common activities included children camps and exhibitions of national campaigns. Inter-community centre games were such as basketball, sepak takraw, and even boxing, became extremely popular.
There were issues, though, faced by the community centres in the early 1960s. Secret society members often infiltrated the centres, while pro-communist groups tried their means to enter the organisation and management committees. The communist supporters even gathered and camped at the entrance of the PA’s headquarters, forcing the PA to shift its operations temporarily to the Department of Social Welfare at Havelock Road.
Chinese-educated grassroots leaders, consisting of businessmen, teachers and even shopkeepers and hawkers, were the key to the struggle against the pro-communist elements. Many contributed effortlessly in time and money in the building of the community centres and the cohesiveness and harmony of the different communities.
In order to ease the demands at the National Library at Stamford Road, the National Library Board kicked off the mobile library services at the rural schools in 1960. By 1964, it was extended to the community centres, with Tanjong Pagar, West Coast, Nee Soon and Bukit Panjang Community Centre among the first to provide such services.
In 1966, a gift of $10,000 grant from the New Zealand government helped the library to purchase more than 20,000 books which were then offered for loan at the mobile library services established at six more community centres (Chong Pang, Changi, Kaki Bukit, Kampong Tengah, Bukit Timah and Paya Lebar). Over the next 30 years, many more community centres were chosen to provide the services.
(Perpustakaan Negara Perkhidmatan Berkereta refers to Mobile National Library Services in Malay)
By 1991, with more public libraries built in the new towns, mobile library services gradually lost their popularity and were eventually stopped for good. Nevertheless, the services were a big success. It had provided many kampong dwellers, especially the kids, the chance and joy of reading.
In February 1963, the first television broadcast, aired by Television Singapura, was held at the Victoria Theatre and Memorial Hall. Many witnessed the historical milestone in more than fifty community centres elsewhere in Singapore that were supplied with television sets, another novelty service offered by the centres.
Two years later, thousands of Singaporeans, cramped in front of the television sets at the community centres, captured the defining moment of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew speaking in tears upon the announcement of the separation of Malaysia and Singapore.
Between 1966 and 1967, the leading politicians gave dozens of speeches at the community centres to disseminate the idea of compulsory military conscription to the public. Becoming the citizens of a newly independent nation with unknown future, many Singaporeans were feeling a sense of insecurity. The importance of National Service (NS) and the sense of national pride and loyalty were thus emphasized to the people, that Singapore would be able to survive and defend itself.
Send-off dinners and ceremonies of the early batches of National Servicemen were mostly held at the community centres.
Community centres also played an instrumental role during the racial riots in 1964. They provided secure venues where different community leaders came together to discuss plans in defusing the rising racial tensions.
The Kampong Community Centres
In 1959, the self-government of Singapore decided to extend community centres to the rural areas of Singapore. Kenneth Michael Byrne, the former Minister for Labour and Law, suggested nine venues to be given top priority for the construction of community centres.
In addition to relatively urbanised Minto Road and Joo Chiat, Nee Soon Village, Thong Hoe Village, Sembawang, Tuas Village, Kampong Tengah, Jalan Kayu, Kampong Bugis, and later Lan Sam Village (13th milestone, Lim Chu Kang Road) and the new Malay Settlement, were some of the earliest kampongs in Singapore to receive their community centres.
Located at 18th milestone Jurong Road (near junction of AYE and PIE/Tuas Road today), Tuas Community Centre was the westernmost community centre in Singapore in the sixties. When it was first opened, more than 700 villagers, most of them Chinese and Malay fishermen and their families, visited the community centre daily. Civil courses on the improvement methods of fishing and farming were held by the centre for the villagers, while their children joined in the fun with basketball, table tennis and carom.
The community centres at the rural places were mostly simple single-storey zinc-and-wood buildings that cost less than S$10,000 each. Despite their simplicity, they were powered by electricity and water supply. In some cases, the local residents gathered together to build their own community centres, one of which was the Yio Chu Kang Community Centre, being set up in 1956.
A typical kampong community centre usually carried a large black plaque, sometimes white, that listed the community centre’s name in four main languages of Singapore. A flag pole with the Singapore flag would be standing in front of the building. Those larger kampong community centre would have a basketball court or a sepak takraw court, or an outdoor television set mounted on a tall frame. By night fall, the benches were filled up quickly by eager residents from the nearby kampongs to watch their favourite TV programs.
By the late eighties, most of the rural community centres were demolished together with the kampongs. Many of them, with their unique and colourful names such as Malay Farm, Boh Sua Tian, Hun Yeang Village, Jin Ai Village, Ong Lye Sua (黄梨山), Tua Pek Kong Kow (大伯公口), Khe Bong Village, Lam Tong Village, Kampong Jagor, Kampong Chu Ban San, Kampong Heap Guan San and Plantation Avenue Village (see “List of Community Centres” below), had vanished in the rapid progress of Singapore.
Reaching Out to the Islanders
As the government started mass building community centres in the sixties, the residents living on the outlying islands of Singapore were not forgotten. On each island with sizable populations, there was a community centre built. By the late sixties, the community centres at Pulau Semakau, Pulau Bukom Kechil, Pulau Tekong, Pulau Samulun, Pulau Seking, Pulau Seraya and Pulau Ubin were up and running.
In 1960, a community centre was also planned for the detainees at Pulau Senang. Intended for penal experiment, the prisoners on the island were not restricted in their freedoms. Soon, the number of prisoners detained on Pulau Senang grew to more than 300. A large-scaled riot broke out in 1963, resulting in the death of a superintendent and two police officers. The offshore prison was eventually shut down, and the plan of Pulau Senang Community Centre was cancelled.
Pulau Ubin Community Centre started as a small simple community hall in 1961. It was built by the residents of the island, and was converted into a community centre five years later. It occupied a vast area of 1,900 square metres, including a basketball court, the only basketball court on the island, that sometimes functioned as a temporary open-air cinema for the residents.
Throughout its existence, Pulau Ubin Community Centre had witnessed the rise and decline of the island. When the granite quarries were operating at its peak during the seventies, there were several thousands residents and workers living on Pulau Ubin. By the nineties, the island’s population had decreased to only a few hundreds; majority of them elderly folks who had lived on the island for decades.
The community centre was given a renovation in 1993 to replace its wooden-planked walls with brick and concrete. The roof was also upgraded from zinc to tiles. Until its closure in 2003, Pulau Ubin Community Centre was the oldest community centre in Singapore, and was the only remaining community centre found in the outlying islands. Its premises is being utilised as a Volunteer Hub today.
Most of the Southern Islands’ villagers were resettled on mainland Singapore by the late eighties. Likewise, rapid development of new housing estates such as Pasir Ris, Simei and Tampines at the Changi district in the eighties and nineties provided alternative resettlement plans for the residents of Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong. Affected by the militarisation of the island, the last batch residents of Pulau Tekong was relocated by the early nineties.
New Generation Community Centres (1970s to 1980s)
For twenty years after independence, Singapore had enjoyed rapid economic growth. It was not until 1985 before Singapore experienced its first economic recession. The two decades of progress had seen many kampongs made way for satellite towns and new housing estates. Thousands of zinc-and-wood houses were demolished, replaced by rows of new public flats.
Likewise, changes were also made to the community centres. By the mid-seventies, the models of single wooden structures for community centres were discontinued. Larger double- or three-storey concrete buildings were built and fitted with modern amenities such as air-condition, general purpose rooms and better sports facilities. New modern courses and classes were also offered to the residents, such as tai chi, fencing, interior decoration, canoeing, yoga, cooking and flower arrangement.
During the seventies and eighties, it was not unusual to have donation drives or building funds, in order to raise funds from the members of the public to build community centres.
The rapid economic growth in the seventies also brought years of inflation to Singapore. Consumer clubs were thus set up in areas such as Chinatown and Chai Chee, in order to help residents to fight inflation by providing basic necessities at low cost.
Moving into the eighties, more emphasis were placed on the designs and facilities of the new generation community centres. Architects and designers were tasked to make the buildings more aesthetically pleasant, and well-equipped gyms, studios, computer labs and function rooms were added.
Each constituency in Singapore was also “assigned” with a key community centre. This was different from the fifties and sixties, where there were hundreds of small community centres stationed in different kampongs. The larger new towns, though, had more than one community centre.
Ang Mo Kio, for example, currently has five community centres (Ang Mo Kio, Teck Ghee, Kebun Baru, Yio Chu Kang and Cheng San) in its six districts. Other earlier centres such as Ang Mo Kio Bo Wen, Chong Boon, Jalan Kayu, Jalan Kayu South and Kampong Cheng San had all ceased to exist.
There are also five modern community centres at Tampines, namely Tampines Central, Tampines Changkat, Tampines East, Tampines North and Tampines West. The old rural Tampines before the eighties had as many as seven community centres, including Tampines Community Centre (along Tampines Avenue), Hun Yeang Village Community Centre and Teck Hock Community Centre.
Excursions to places of interest and oversea trips were common activities organised by community centres especially in the eighties when Singapore’s standard of living improved by leaps and bounds, benefited by years of economic expansion.
Trips to Singapore Zoological Gardens, Van Kleef Aquarium, Haw Par Villa, Pulau Ubin, Kusu Island, Sisters’ Islands, St. John Island, Genting Highland, Desaru, Tioman and Batam were often met with overwhelming responses and high participation rates from the residents.
Upgrading to Community Clubs (1990s to Present)
Since 1990, many community centres were renamed as community clubs. Signifying a status upgrade, many modern community centres began to function more like recreational and leisure clubs with facilities such as swimming pools, libraries, café and restaurants. The upgrading, however, was not applied to all. Many remained as community centres. A few, like the Aljunied Community Centre along Lorong Ah Soo and Bukit Gombak Community Centre at Bukit Batok West, still have their offices located at the void decks of public flats.
Community bonding and social harmony, however, still remained as the top objectives for community centres and clubs.
Community Centres… A Political Tool?
Even though their importance may look less significant today, the fact that community centres have played a crucial role in assisting PAP’s status as the dominant ruling party of Singapore for more than five decades is undeniable. Together with other grassroots organisations like the Residents’ Committees (RCs), they easily reach out to the low- and middle-class of the Singapore population.
When it comes to politics, the roles of community centres become complicated. Their primary objective is to serve the community of Singapore, yet their management by PA ensures PAP gets the advantage. The opposition parties have difficulties in their participation in PAP-controlled wards, while in their own constituencies, the community centres are run by grassroots advisers from PAP.
Despite the flaws, the community centres aim to continue doing their part in reducing the disparity between the rich and poor. In his book, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew highlighted the importance of such social outlets in the midst of Singapore’s growth and progress. It ensures that the ordinary and poor have equal chance of using facilities provided by the community centres. While the rich have their exclusive private clubs, no Singaporeans should be denied a place to play sports, use computers or read books.
After six decades of existence, how will the community centres evolve in the future?
Community Centres A to Z
Below is the list of community centres, in alphabetical order, of the past and present. Today, a total of 106 community centres can be found in almost every part of Singapore. The names in red refer to the community centres that are functioning today, while those in green refer to the community centres once found on the outlying islands of Singapore.
Published: 24 March 2013