How did the idea of setting up a british club come about?
“A British Club? What do they want a British Club for? They’ve got the Tanglin.”
Such was the thinking back in the Sixties when the idea of a British Club was first mooted.
In the colonial era, with few exceptions, club membership was based on race. The Chinese had their clubs; the Indians and Eurasians theirs; and the Tanglin Club had been the exclusive domain of Europeans with the majority of its members British. It was only after a special EGM held in 1962 that it had voted, almost unanimously but for one dissenting voice, to open its doors to all races.
The problem then was a long waiting list. “Well”, said some, “by the time you get your letter of acceptance from Tanglin your contract is finishing. Fat lot of good that is.”
Others thumped the patriotic drum. “Damn it, the Americans have a club, so do the Dutch, the Swiss, the Japanese and the Germans (though the British confiscated their club on the site of today’s Goodwood Hotel in World War I and never gave it back!) and we Brits don’t. It’s a poor do. What is the British Association going to do about it?”
So the B.A. “fathers” got weaving. Meetings were called to see how much support really existed for the idea of their own Clubhouse. Not all the vociferous British voices were prepared to put their money where their mouths were, but sufficient did to make it possible to have enough in the kitty to hire an architect, draw up plans and search for a site.
After office hours we would spend many a long evening, courtesy of a room in HKSB building, to plan and plan and plan. Many were the sites we trudged over in those far off days. Finally we came across a huge domain up for sale. It was the mansion in Pasir Panjang of a wealthy towkay, with a swimming pool and right on the edge of the sea. Oh what an ideal site! But thanks to a benign and far-seeing providence, the deal fell through, or today we would be ensconced well inland with all the paraphernalia of Phase III of the PSA development surrounding us. I’ve looked for that mansion recently but I think it has long been demolished to make way for container hard-standings.
Our present landlord is, as most of you know, the Swiss Club. Fortunately our founders knew that the Swiss were anxious to develop the vast area of steep jungle on Bukit Tinggi (‘High Hill’ in Malay) that they had owned over many years. But development costs were pretty steep so other potential tenants had to be sought out to share costs. We were lucky to find them in the French, German and Dutch Schools and the Institute of Engineers.
I can’t help wondering how it was that the first three Club Presidents, and many of the original committee, were Scots, as was our much loved architect Jamie Ferrie. The Scots have a predilection for highlands and perhaps that is what drew us to Bukit Tinggi. (The Club was registered as a society in 1983.)
The land on which the Upper and Lower Clubhouse are situated, and which we now take so much for granted, had to be contoured and carved out of primary jungle, and woe betide the contractor who cut down any specially marked tree that Parks and Gardens had ordained should be left inviolate.
The most challenging and expensive problem we faced was getting water to the Upper Clubhouse and especially for the swimming pool. Providing electricity and building the road, Jalan Bukit Tinggi, was no mean cost either.
Registered in January 1983
The British Club is owned by our Members who, through an annually elected President and Main Committee, provide the strategic direction for the General Manager and his staff. Founded to meet the needs of the British community, the Club is also a favourite retreat for over 50 other nationalities and Singaporeans who together form nearly half the membership.
Registered in January 1983, it took a further three years to complete our clubhouse which was officially opened in 1987 by HRH Princess Anne. In 2008 we celebrated our 25th Anniversary.
To give you an idea of the early years, here is a recollection of how it all started by our past President and founding Member, the late Mike Gorrie OBE.
The Opening 1986
Finally, we were ready to open and Members could see something for the money they had invested many years before. So the ‘soft opening’ was in 1986 and the Club had been running for about a year before the formal opening occurred.
The Opening 1987
We were fortunate that HRH Princess Anne was passing through Singapore in November 1987 and, thanks to help from the British High Commission, she graciously agreed to open the Club formally on 15 November. Great excitement prevailed and the Committee lined up to greet her and follow her as she went round all the floors chatting with Members and staff and paying particular attention to the children. A sit-down lunch at tables for 10 took place in the Tudor Room and she had barely time to finish hers when an ADC came up to the Princess and said “Ma’am, it’s time to go” and she was whisked away before most people even realised she was going.
It is not an easy job to be a Club President. My one consolation was to discover that the first ten years of the life of any club are alleged to be the worst. I remember reading somewhere that the Tanglin Club almost closed down for lack of funds and support soon after it was founded in the 1860s.
Our opening coincided with a period of recession and we did not get as much support as we had hoped from major British firms in those early days. Keeping financially viable was a struggle, and we should always be grateful to the top men of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and the Standard Chartered Bank who didn’t press us when we were sometimes slow in repaying the large sums borrowed to get us going and keeping us going.
As probably the only Member of the original committee left in Singapore, I can say how proud I feel when I view the Club today and see the results achieved by successive Presidents and their Committees. Not only have all our debts been paid off long ago but also we are pleased to be able to say we are an international club with a British ambience.
The Club’s facilities are way beyond anything we could have imagined when we set out on our quest to found a British Club in Singapore.
The late Mike Gorrie OBE served as President from 1989 to 1990 and was conferred with Life Membership in 1990 for his outstanding contributions to the Club.