75 years since Singapore fell: Horror and, today, peace

75 years since Singapore fell: Horror and, today, peace
Some of the many graves at Kranji War Memorial marked simply with the description, "a soldier of the 1939-1945 war". There are now about 4,500 burial plots in the memorial's war cemetery.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

On the morning of Feb 15, 1942, the British raised the white flag of surrender. In the second of a three-part series, Chong Zi Liang drops by the bunker where the decision was made 75 years ago and visits sites that are haunting reminders of the brutality of Japanese rule.

Fifteen minutes. That was all the time it took for the British officers who had the task of defending Singapore to decide to give it up.

Twelve wax figures dressed in khaki uniforms are posed around a long, rectangular table to dramatise the pivotal moment, at the "Battlebox" underground British command centre at Fort Canning, now a museum.

Crammed into this chamber the size of a Housing Board apartment bedroom, the real-life Percival and his compatriots would have sweated profusely in their concrete confines deep under a hill - and especially over their dire situation.

It was a decision that must have seemed inevitable: The Japanese had control of most of the island, including the reservoirs. The British forces that had retreated to the city centre had enough water to last only one day and food to last three days.

Later that day, the dejected British made their way to the Ford Factory in Bukit Timah - which had been seized by the Japanese as their command headquarters - to formally surrender.

The Battlebox - one of a few historic war sites I am visiting over several days - was refurbished and reopened to the public last year with air-conditioning, so visitors like myself do not have to experience the same environment of poor ventilation inside the network of 29 rooms 9m underground.

Photo: The Straits Times

PRISONERS OF WAR

The fateful decision to wave the white flag transformed the British and Allied troops into prisoners of war seemingly overnight.

About 76,000 Allied soldiers and civilians were marched to the east of Singapore, where they were interned at the old Changi Prison and the nearby Selarang Barracks and Roberts Barracks. The prisoners endured hardships of overcrowding, malnutrition and disease.

Many were also sent to work on the infamous Death Railway that spanned Thailand and Myanmar to aid the Japanese war effort.

This suffering is documented at Changi Museum, next to today's Changi Prison Complex. But the exhibits also chronicle the indomitable human spirit of the internees, who banded together to try to make life just a little more bearable.

For instance, a group of inmates scavenged materials to make footwear, brushes and other necessities, wryly naming their operation the "Changi Industries Incorporated".

Others taught their fellow prisoners subjects such as mathematics and the classes came to be known as "Changi University".

During my visit, there is a mix of Singaporeans and overseas tourists at the museum. Mr Loke Tuck Luen, 45, and his wife Kok Kah Hui, 39, are both history teachers who have brought their 11-year-old daughter Erica for an encounter with a grim chapter of the past.

"The displays bring the point across very well," Mr Loke says. "You can really feel for the prisoners. Our daughter has had a fairly comfortable life so it's good to show her that tough times once took place in Singapore."

Read also: Guided trail to offer glimpse of WWII in Singapore

The museum also attracts a steady stream of visitors who have some personal connection to World War II. Many of them pen their thoughts on little slips of paper and leave them on a board at Changi Chapel, a symbolic replica of the simple chapels built by the prisoners as places of solace.

One note reads: "Great Aunt Trixie, to visit the place (where) you suffered so much, brings your suffering to life after hearing all about it. May you rest in peace."

I later meet Mr Andrew Maclaren, 72, and Ms Heather Wilson, 64, both teachers, who are listening intently to the audio guide of the museum.

They are tourists from Scotland and both have relatives who fought in World War II.

Ms Wilson's father was in the Royal Air Force and flew 76 missions in Europe, while Mr Maclaren's uncle was forced into labour on the Death Railway after he was captured as a prisoner of war.

He tells me that though his uncle survived the ordeal, he later took his own life when he was in his 50s.

"He never talked about his war experience. He was damaged by it and there was something not quite right about him," Mr Maclaren says.

THE SOOK CHING MASSACRE

Indeed, life during the Japanese Occupation, which lasted for more than 31/2 years, was brutal. Just one week after taking over the island, the new Japanese rulers began Operation Sook Ching - a Chinese term meaning "purge through cleansing".

The Japanese military, suspicious of the Chinese population because of its experiences fighting in China, ordered all Chinese males aged between 18 and 50 to report to screening centres.

One such inspection centre was in Chinatown, where Hong Lim Complex now stands.

A bronze marker to remember the significance of the location stands near the busy junction of South Bridge Road and Upper Cross Street.

The stated objective of the screening was to root out anti-Japanese elements.

But in reality, the process lacked consistency and often hinged on the whims of whoever was on duty.

Some of the men failed the screening based on their answers to questions, while others were condemned because of their occupations.

In some centres, there were hooded informants pointing out those who were supposedly guilty of harbouring anti-Japanese sentiments.

The victims were loaded onto lorries and taken to remote areas to be executed.

One of these spots was Punggol Beach, today a popular hang-out that is crowded during weekends.

Children build sandcastles, while couples take selfies on the same beach where men were executed after being rounded up from houses in Upper Serangoon Road.

Only a marker at Punggol Point Jetty reminds those who spot it of the place's grisly link to Sook Ching, which claimed the lives of between 25,000 and 50,000 ethnic Chinese across Singapore and Malaya.

FINAL RESTING PLACE

While Changi Prison was the main prison camp during the occupation, there was a smaller one in Kranji.

The inmates there started a small cemetery and in 1946, a year after the war ended, the graves from other parts of Singapore, including of those who died in captivity in Changi, were moved to Kranji.

Even the World War II graves from the Saigon Military Cemetery in Vietnam were relocated here.

There are now about 4,500 burial plots in the war cemetery of the Kranji War Memorial.

I stand at the corner; the neat rows of tombstones seem to carry on endlessly up the hill.

Most carry the name and unit of the dead soldiers.

But with over 850 unidentified graves, many of the headstones are marked simply "a soldier of the 1939-1945 war".

I walk up the gentle slope to the Singapore Memorial, an imposing, sombre series of grey walls that bear the names of more than 24,000 Commonwealth soldiers and airmen who have no known grave.

For a while, it seems like I am alone in the cemetery.

But as I wander down the main avenue back towards the entrance, I run into Madam Jen Lam, in her mid-50s, who lives nearby and is taking a walk with her husband.

She tells me that she has been coming here for her daily exercise for more than 10 years.

While the cemetery sees few visitors, those who come usually linger to soak up the solemn atmosphere evoked by the white tombstones.

"It's very peaceful here. It's a fitting final resting place," she says.

ziliang@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on February 13, 2017.
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