Since he was a little child, Mr Teo Yew Chiat loved everything related to aeroplanes. The 81-year-old aviation buff fondly remembers the first model plane he had received from his cousin – a tiny four inch rusty toy plane which ‘fell from the sky’, as his older cousin had him to believe.
His cousin had introduced model planes as aeroplanes to him during his childhood days. Mr Teo was five-years-old when he saw aeroplanes. “In the sky, (they looked) small. When they came down, they were also small, so I believed him. That was my infantile logic.”
Yet, that was the first of many to come. When it came to laying his hands on more model planes, Mr Teo says how he had never taken “no” for an answer.
“The moment I saw any aeroplane or toy plane, I was very adamant to get it. They were sold at Happy World, Great World and New World,” he says. “When I looked at the (model) plane, I would pester my mother to buy the (model) plane for me. If she refused, I would squat down and make a lot of noise.”
Foray into aviation
At the dining table in his home, Mr Teo pulls out memorabilia from an old plastic bag – an album, a stack of books, files, and loose papers. The items look rather unassuming but they hold the key to unlocking the knowledge on his pet topic: the history of aviation in Singapore.
His face lights up when he mentions the first plane he laid his hands on when he was just 11-years-old. It was a damaged British plane abandoned not far off from Geylang English School where he studied. Mr Teo and his friends headed straight for the abandoned plane each time school was dismissed abruptly because explosives and ammunition buried before the Fall of Singapore had gone off in the vicinity.
“All the boys will run over there to play with the plane,” he says. “That was the first time I ever touched a plane and I felt so happy.” Even when he came of age, Mr Teo’s adolescent obsession with planes continued. His foray into aviation was powered solely on his passion for air crafts.
Unable to afford formal tertiary education in engineering or aviation, he built his knowledge and experience by working and learning alongside the mechanics at the Singapore Flying Club. Every afternoon for two and a half years, he did this without remuneration, on the side of his teaching career, to prepare for the day when he would be able to service Singapore’s first aircraft.
“I knew that one day Singapore would buy some small, light aircraft and that the flying club had a lot of light aircraft,” Mr Teo explained. “So I was preparing myself (for the time) when Singapore would buy their first aeroplane and I was thinking to go into aviation.”
In 1954, Mr Teo enrolled in the Main Auxillary Air Force (MAAF), a unit established within the British Air Force to train local pilots and aircraft servicemen. This began his professional foray in aviation. He served in the MAAF until 1960 before returning to serve in the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), formerly known as the Singapore Air Defence Command, in 1966. This time, he returned as an aircraft engineer.
Shortly after joining the RSAF, Mr Teo found himself at the crossroads of aviation history. In the early years of Singapore’s independence, the nation was weak economically and the British had made plans to withdraw their forces from Singapore by 1971.
Moreover, the newly established air force was beset with budgetary challenges. Forced to work under a tight budget, Mr Teo and his colleagues had to scour around Sungei Road to procure affordable common tools to use for servicing the aircrafts. “At least we had some basic tools to begin with. That was all very challenging. Everything was left to us to do (on) our own, we had to use our own initiative…We must know how to troubleshoot,” Mr Teo recalls.
It took three years before the RSAF received their first plane and became operational. When the first Singapore aircraft, which he serviced, glided across the skies at the 1968 National Day Parade, he felt nothing but pure satisfaction.
A leap onto higher ground
Mr Teo left the RSAF in 1977 but to date, his passion for aviation never wavered. Together with his friends and ex-colleagues, he has written and compiled a number of periodicals on the transformation of the aviation industry in Singapore, in the hope of creating resources students and researchers can consult with regard to aviation.
Having documented Singapore’s aviation industry, Mr Teo is now setting his sights on making history. In his backyard, he shows off the frame of what may be his ticket to the Guinness Book of Records – a remote-controlled life-size replica of the world’s smallest plane, the ‘Baby Bird’.
When it takes off, Mr Teo’s fate in world history will be sealed. Ever supportive of his aviation pursuits, his family has never questioned his passion and stands firmly behind him.
When Mr Teo was little, his parents always indulged him when it came to his interest. Even though the war years were fraught with insecurities and dangers under the Japanese administration, his father would often invite him to ride pillion on his bicycle to see Japanese air crafts at an airfield situated at the junction of Tanjong Katong and Mountbatten Road.
Seven decades later, he continues to enjoy unwavering support from his family. On his seventieth birthday, his son surprised him with the exact childhood toy plane he had received from his father.
At 81 years old and having stood unfazed in the face of adversities, for Mr Teo, the sky is truly the limit. “When you have passion, you have ideas,” Mr Teo exclaims. “You go beyond the boundaries that surround you. And it worked (for me)!”
Words and photos by Wong Yeang Cherng and Lim Shao Han
Published by the Singapore Memory Project