Army veteran displays nautical collection in mini museum

The man who was instrumental in starting Singapore’s naval diving unit shows his nautical collection

Tay Suan Chiang
Published Sat, Aug 13, 2022 · 06:00 AM

YOU can take the man out of the water, but not the water out of the man. Army veteran Winston Wong may have retired, but he still speaks fondly of his days in the military, and even has plenty of memorabilia to show for it.

Wong, 75, now a freelance heritage tour guide at The Barracks Hotel Sentosa, joined the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) when he was in his early 20s. 

“There was a lot of publicity in the late 1960s about starting the SAF, when the British left Singapore,” says Wong. “I thought I would give the army a try.”

Wong was an SAF combat engineer who was part of the pioneer batch of trainees at the School of Field Engineers who were posted to Pulau Blakang Mati, better known as Sentosa.

His training included building bridges and fortifications, and mine warfare. Wong specialised in demolitions and was even sent to the United Kingdom for a year to train in bomb disposal and mine clearance diving with the Royal Engineers and then with the Royal Navy.

An engine order telegraph that is still in working condition. PHOTO: YEN MENG JIIN, BT

Upon his return to Singapore, Wong was tasked to set up the naval diving unit, which was established at Fort Siloso in Sentosa.

Friday, 2 pm

Our picks of the latest dining, travel and leisure options to treat yourself.

His days in the naval diving unit are still clear in his mind, and he loves sharing these stories with visitors to come to his vintage shop, By My Old School, in Commonwealth Drive.

Together with his daughter, Rebecca, they started the shop several years ago. The space is filled from floor to ceiling with lots of pre-loved items, spanning from the 1940s to 1990s. Some items are for sale, or they can also be rented as props.

In one section of the store, there is a sign that says “Tiny Maritime Museum”, where Wong displays nautical items that he has collected.

The Tiny Maritime Museum at By My Old School. PHOTO: YEN MENG JIIN, BT

There are life buoys, flags, badges, plaques, water bottles and bells. “These are not for sale, so they are displayed in my mini museum,” says Wong.

But he is happy to share stories on other pieces in his private collection, including a jablex, which is a wooden torch with a light at the end that lits up when in contact with water. The light wood enables it to float, and Wong used it when doing endurance night dives.

He tells a story of diving into a lake during his training days in the UK and then having to run a distance as part of the course. His superiors felt he was taking too long, but Wong had them fooled when he started swinging his jablex. “In the end, they were convinced that I was indeed running as quickly as I can,” he chuckles.

A jablex, diving knife and tallies are some of the items in Wong’s collection. PHOTO: YEN MENG JIIN, BT

Pointing to his diving knife, he recalls an incident where he had to consider whether to use the knife in a life and death situation. “The knife is a double-edged sword at times. Sometimes, it can make the situation worse, so you really have to rely on your instinct when choosing to use it,” he says. 

Elsewhere in the store, there are bigger pieces such as a ship binnacle, which is a waist-high case in which navigational instruments are placed, and a few engine order telegraphs, which are communication devices for the pilot to order engineers in the engine room to power the vessel at desired speeds.

A ship binnacle in which navigational instruments are placed. PHOTO: YEN MENG JIIN, BT

Wong says he collected most of these memorabilia during his time in the UK, picking up pieces during his visits to flea markets. There are some other items which he bought off his colleagues. And then there are also tallies that he had exchanged with officers from other ships. These are ribbons on a sailor’s cap bearing the name of the ship.

Most of the items are least 5 decades old, and are still in good, working condition. “They are made of good quality wood, and brass, which doesn’t rust,” says Wong. He collects the items not only for nostalgic reasons, but also because he appreciates the functionality and aesthetics of the nautical artefacts.

Wong has even had the chance to show his nautical collection at an event to mark the end of Keppel Club’s 118 years at Bukit Chermin. The club, named after Admiral Sir Henry Keppel, an aristocratic British sailor, is moving to a new location at Lornie.

“Every item in my collection has a story behind it, and there’s nothing more I like than sharing these stories,” says Wong.



BT is now on Telegram!

For daily updates on weekdays and specially selected content for the weekend. Subscribe to



Get the latest coverage and full access to all BT premium content.


Browse corporate subscription here