Pioneer navy unit marks 80th anniversary

They are a dwindling group, but Singapore's little-known naval volunteer reservists who saw action during Konfrontasi and World War II yesterday marked the 80th anniversary of the unit's inception.

In attendance were representatives from the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australian defence forces as well as the Singapore Navy.

Formed by the British in 1934 as the Straits Settlements Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, the unit evolved into the Malayan Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (Singapore Division) in 1952, before being named the Singapore Naval Volunteer Force in 1966.

Many reservists served during the Japanese invasion of Singapore and a few were on Royal Navy ships in the battle of the Atlantic, noted retired commander Jaswant Singh Gill in his address to the gathering yesterday.

Mr Singh, 92, who was the most senior Singaporean naval reservist officer, also recalled 1963 as a significant year when some 126 men and women naval volunteers were mobilised against Indonesian president Sukarno's Konfrontasi campaign against Malaya and Singapore.

Reservists such as teachers like Mrs Judy Kong, civil servants like Mr Steven Goh and professionals like lawyer C. Arul were among the 80-plus veterans present.

The naval volunteer reservists were eventually demobilised though some were recalled to serve as regulars in various appointments in the newly established Republic of Singapore Navy, formed in 1967, and other posts in the Defence Ministry.

"It is with great pride that we, the surviving veterans of Naval Volunteer Reserve, were the precursor of two regular navies: the Republic of Singapore Navy and the Royal Malaysian Navy," said Mr Singh, who later served in the Singapore Armed Forces.

Their history is recorded in the recently launched book Naval Reservists In Action: WWII (Far East) & Confrontation (1963-1966), edited by Singaporean Adrian Villanueva, 73, a lieutenant who saw active service at sea during Konfrontasi.

The volunteer women, billed as Swans, or Singapore Women's Auxiliary Naval Service, served in supporting roles such as in communications and manning radar stations. "When all the boys left for the ships to face the Confrontation, we filled up the needed manpower for the office posts on shore," said Mrs Iris Han, now 72, who served at posts in Woodlands and Outram from 1964 to 1966.

Mrs Kong, 66, who is retired, said she joined the volunteers in 1964 out of "nationalistic fervour", having seen Singapore grow from colonial rule to self government and independence.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth sent her best wishes in a message to "all those present for a most memorable and enjoyable event".

This article was published on April 29 in The Straits Times.

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