In Singapore, housing just one of the perks of living in paradise
Views of sweeping green lawns each morning serve to remind a small community of servicemembers and their families that they live in a unique paradise.
Temperatures rarely dip below 80; swift daily afternoon rainshowers ensure everything stays vivid green.
Singapore, the small island city-state that has hosted a U.S. military presence for more than a decade, is like a hidden treasure, say those stationed here.
“Most everyone who transfers to Singapore wants to extend and stay,” said Navy Cmdr. Chris Ray Jr., Naval Regional Contracting Center executive officer. “Given the opportunity, I think everyone would stay.”
About 600 servicemembers and their families live on the tiny island in one of Asia’s most strategic and critical waterways. It’s on the main sea route linking the Pacific and Indian oceans. Billions of dollars of trade goods pass through the adjacent Straits of Malacca, as do 7th Fleet ships en route to the Arabian Gulf and Southwest Asia.
Servicemembers and their families live and work in one of the military’s smallest and most remote bases, a tiny footprint helping extend the U.S. presence across the region.
“We call it a place, not a base,” said Lt. Chuck Bell, Logistics Group Western Pacific spokesman. It’s not a base as such; it’s more of a close-knit community living next to a Singapore Navy base on the 26-mile-long island’s northern edge.
A few Navy logisticians have served in Singapore since the 1960s, but a permanent community is fairly new. The community grew after U.S. bases in the Philippines closed in the early 1990s and Singapore emerged as a possible place to relocate some commands. One Air Force and several Navy commands now operate from Sembawang Terminal in the Port of Singapore Authority.
Singapore opened a new pier in 2000 large enough for an aircraft carrier. More than 100 U.S. Navy ships visit Singapore yearly, officials said, mainly for recreation but in part to bolster regional stability.
“I don’t think there’s another country in the world that welcomes our presence more and makes more assets available to the United States than does Singapore,” then-Ambassador Steven
Green stated in a 2000 Pentagon news release. “Singapore sees the United States and its presence as a stabilizing factor for the region.”
Navy personnel stationed in Singapore support the 7th Fleet; Air Force personnel support fighter squadrons visiting for training.
The Navy and Air Force together provide all the facilities for the “place.” The Air Force manages housing, medical services and some clubs and facilities; the Navy maintains Morale, Welfare and Recreation facilities, dental services and its own clubs.
Singapore is a major tourist destination where most speak English. “You don’t have any problems in terms of translating,” said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ricky Aquino, with the 497th Combat Training Squadron.
He and his family arrived in November; it’s his wife’s first overseas duty station, but she reported little trouble settling in. “It’s been a good transition for us,” Tess Aquino said.
Servicemembers in Singapore, including a few from the Army and Coast Guard, live beside others from Australia, New Zealand and Britain.
Aquino is the only airman on his block. But, he said, little interservice animosity surfaces: “Overseas, it’s seamless.”
The community also has a welcoming host. Although Americans stationed in Singapore were targeted by a terrorist cell in January 2002, an attack was thwarted. And Singapore hasn’t been affected by anti-base protests like in Japan and South Korea.
“It’s a very small community here, and we blend in well,” said Navy Capt. Donald R. Price, Logistics Group Western Pacific chief of staff.
The community’s location helps provide things to do, said Scott Abell, regional MWR director for Southeast Asia and Australia.
Armed Forces Entertainment performers heading to Diego Garcia stop in Singapore first and often stay to perform. When ships arrive, the place can fill up quickly with sailors taking advantage of free laundry and other services. MWR has hosted barbecues for hundreds.
Ships primarily stop at the new Changi Pier a few miles away, but Abell said he hopes to encourage them to come to Sembawang.
“It’s just better quality of life for the guys to come up here to enjoy the facilities,” he said. “We’re a fleet-based facility. When the fleet comes, we are glad to see them.”
When ships are not in port, the place assumes a sleepy tranquility. But residents are a short train ride from the city center, famous for miles of shopping malls, restaurants and beaches.
“It’s a small island. You can do a lot of things from here,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Pedrito Acosta, a Logistics Group Western Pacific yeoman.
Family members attend a world-class international school, and Singapore is a short flight to some of Asia’s best travel destinations. And it’s much less expensive than Japan, where many of the servicemembers were stationed previously.
Acosta, his wife and two children spent five years at Atsugi Naval Air Facility in Japan before coming to Singapore. They like the small, close-knit community, the school and certainly the weather, they said.
But being a “place, not a base” means fewer services such as a child development center. Fewer facilities also means fewer jobs for spouses.
The community also lacks a commissary. Local groceries’ inventories compare with western stores but cost more than what a commissary would charge.
Also, the Government of Singapore issues limited numbers of vehicle permits, leaving families such as the Aquinos walking for a few months until their permits come through.
There are a few surprise perks, such as medical and dental care. Contract health care personnel are available only during limited hours, so most appointments are referred to specialists.
“That’s one of the best points here,” Teresita Acosta said, “the medical benefits.”
Servicemembers benefit from the proximity to central Singapore’s nightclubs, markets and other attractions.
“There’s plenty to do,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Chris McCoy, a single sailor and Logistics Group Western Pacific quartermaster. “If you can’t create something to do in Singapore, you have no life.”
The U.S. government leases a small, leafy community for permanent residents. Families live in spacious former British colonial military housing. McCoy said the quality of life is the best he’s seen in the Navy.
“My dining room is bigger than most people’s barracks rooms,” he said.
At the international school, dependent children interact with others from dozens of nationalities and learn Mandarin.
“There’s a lot of programs,” Tess Aquino said, “more than in the States.”
Before receiving orders to Singapore, Ricky Aquino said he hoped to work within the Pacific Air Force command. He tried for Japan but was just as happy with Singapore, he said.
The Aquinos were even happier once they saw their large house with more bathrooms than in other base houses they’ve seen, and a beautiful lawn they don’t have to care for.
They might miss some amenities, but it’s become a true home.
“Even though it’s a small place,” he said, “I think it’s a favorite place.”