“It was a time where people faced serious issues such as poverty and addiction”, recalls George Matthews. “I remember being involved in a case where a mother threw her three young children and herself off a high-rise block, falling to their deaths.”
Horrified, we pried further. Why did she do that?
“Her husband had racked up huge amounts of gambling debts, and she couldn’t cope I guess, and she felt that was her only way out”, George injected with a hint of sadness.
We were at the exhibition organised by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). There, we were met with two former police officers – Mr George Matthews and Mdm Evelyn Wong. As new tenants of the Former Upper Barracks (now conserved and transformed to house quaint offices), we wanted to uncover the history of this inconspicuous building framed by the colourful scenics of Singapore’s bustling Chinatown.
Pictured above: Photograph of George Matthews and Evelyn Wong
Past a 10-minute introduction with George and Evelyn (who happened to be one of the early 911 girls, fondly remembered by some), we trudged to the secret bunker a short 20-steps away.
Pictured above: Entrance to the secret bunker of the Former Combined Operations Room or fCOR
The heavy steel gate opened to reveal a winding pathway. Like opening a time capsule of sorts, we stepped into the bunker and were catapulted straight into 70 years ago. This bunker was constructed as a bomb-proof structure for the Singapore Police Force (SPF). As some may recall, it acted as the nerve centre, managing and resolving major crises in Singapore from the 1950s. Some of the crises include the 1956 Chinese Middle School Riots and 1969 racial riots.
As millennial Singaporeans, these cases brought hazy bubbles to the surface, aided by what little we recalled from forgotten Social Studies lessons. This was something from the yesteryears, something we knew the facts and numbers to, but could not feel much for. Yet, this tour allowed us to hear from the horses’ mouths – those on the frontline and who helped shaped Singapore’s history.
Pictured above: A corridor in the fCOR
We ambled alongside George and Evelyn to each of the rooms, learning the background, purpose and people who worked in the fCOR during those times. We learnt about Singapore’s turbulent start, and how it took to reach the comfort and security we have today. There were showcases of actual equipment used, such as the shield policemen used in the earlier days, like this one:
Pictured above: Shield used by police officers in the 1950s
Imagine this rattan contraption separating you from impending violence.
It was truly an eye-opener, as George and Evelyn peppered their real-life stories of their days in the police force and their experiences. This made the exhibition more real, like we were in a virtual reality adventure.
We discovered the operation room of the 911 operators – nicknamed ‘911 girls’. For those of you who have worked in this room, can you remember what this red telephone was used for?
Pictured above: A red telephone encased in an acrylic box
We walked further, and eventually ended up in the heart of the fCOR. It was the largest room – a two-storey loft divided by a glass viewing area. This was where important officers gathered to deal with serious cases. What struck us was how things were done so manually, yet it was clear there was a system in placed – such a Singaporean way, even almost a century ago. While this room could only be privy to the highest ranks years ago, we felt privileged to be able to stand in this room which looked like a scene out of a mafia spy movie.
Pictured above: Strategic map with toy task force vehicles
We carried on with the exhibition, checking out the sleeping arrangements of the police officers and collecting memorabilia with the help of the brochure and a stamping machine. We concluded the tour at the last corridor lined with posters of things we didn’t know before. After the 30-something-minute tour, we exited the bunker with strong feelings of pride and wistful lessons to be unpacked with our friends and family.
The Former Combined Operations Room Exhibition is located at 195 Pearl’s Hill Terrace Singapore 168976. The exhibition is opened from Tuesday till Saturday, and is closed on Sundays, Mondays and public holidays. Admission is free and open to all.
We truly recommend this integrated experience for all Singaporeans and tourists, young and old. Led by retired police officers, the real-life experiences and stories is something you may not be able to find in everyday life.
For more information and bookings, you may visit their website.
Pictured above: Brochure for the fCOR Exhibition
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