Mr Vernon Wee grew up in the police quarters during the turbulent days of Singapore’s early independence, watching his father and his colleagues in the police force train and live. Nearly half a century later, Vernon still remembers the sights, sounds and smells of life back then.
One of Mr Vernon Wee’s tasks as a young boy was to meticulously polish his father’s silver badge. It was a badge his father wore with pride on his khaki police uniform.
“I can still remember the number 3716 on the badge,” said Vernon, now 58, who polished the badge for extra pocket money. “That was his identification number, sometimes the police called him by that.”
Vernon’s father, Mr Wee Choon Eng, had been a policeman his entire career. He devoted his life to protecting the people around him, particularly during Singapore’s most turbulent days from the 1950s to 1970s. Despite that, Vernon never saw his father in action on the streets, nor did the elder Wee talk about his work with his family at home. Still, Vernon and his siblings grew up amid the smells, sights and sounds of daily police life.
For most of their childhood, Vernon and his lived in the police compounds at Mount Vernon and, later, Queenstown.He doesn’t remember much about Mount Vernon as he had been a toddler then. His parents told him that their home was a small two-room apartment, plain but clean.
Vernon, however, remembers that there was music. Every week, the police band’s bagpipers would come out to practise.
(Extreme left; seated) A young Mr Wee Choon Eng with his unit, the Anti-robbery and Anti-gangsters Squad in 1959. Image Source: Mr Vernon Wee
He has more vivid memories about living in Queenstown. He had stayed on the 10th floor and from that vantage point, the young Vernon would observe the police force going about their daily activities, including their strict training regimen.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Singapore was hit by a series of riots and violent attacks as a result of labour unrest, communal tensions and the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation. The police were on standby for these emergencies and had to be ready to place their lives on the line. Regular training was a key part of their preparations.
Riot police patrolling North Bridge Road a day after the racial riots. Image source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore
Vernon remembers these training sessions vividly: the riot drills always began with the ringing of a bell, followed by a rush of men onto the parade square. On one side of the parade square stood policemen armed with batons and shields; on the other, their colleagues acted as rioters.
“I saw how they defended themselves, how they dispersed the crowd – they would make a lot of noise to frighten the rioters; bang their shields to create noise,” said Vernon.
“Living in the police quarters was very noisy. You had people training, shooting… but the bagpipers sounded beautiful. I enjoyed that the most as a young boy. I don’t remember the songs – I just know they were beautiful songs.”
(Extreme left; seated) The elder Mr Wee with his unit in 1962, wearing the iconic police uniform of those days — khaki shirt and shorts. Image source: Mr Vernon Wee
But it was not always fun living in the police quarters. Although it comprised policemen and their families, not all were the upstanding officers that people associated the police with.
A view of the Queenstown Police Station. Image source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore
According to Vernon, some residents were crooks and not afraid to break the law inside the quarters. Thefts and break-ins were common and his father always warned him to be careful and lock the doors.
Vernon’s father, however, had no such issues. A no-nonsense man, the elder Wee was selected to be one of the bodyguards for former Defence Minister Goh Keng Swee.
Vernon’s own journey to serve the country began as a recommendation from Mr Goh’s wife, who had told the elder Wee that Vernon would have good prospects if he enlisted in the army.
Vernon took the advice, signed on with the army and, like his father, put on a uniform. Over 30 years, he rose through the army’s ranks to become a colonel.
“My father taught me how to live, how to be street smart. The most important thing – you must be able to protect yourself [and be] self-sufficient. He brought us up to be proper,” said Vernon.
“That’s how he lived his life as a policeman.”
Written by: Cheryl Wee
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign