Bidadari death register to go on display

Bidadari death register to go on display

Squeezed into the pages of a thick, crumbling leather-bound death register from the Bidadari Cemetery are the names of the war dead.

They run into the thousands. These were Singapore civilians who died between March 1942 and April 1944, and their names were penned in neat, cursive script by cemetery administrators.

The National Archives of Singapore (NAS) has pulled out the rare war record for display at its Memories at Old Ford Factory museum in Upper Bukit Timah Road, which will reopen to the public on Feb 16 after a year-long revamp.

Curator Fiona Tan, an assistant archivist at NAS, said: "Behind the death register's official entries are poignant and personal stories, many of which we perhaps will not know the full details of. The civilians' experiences during the difficult period are something to ponder."

Causes of death range from skull fractures to beriberi, while some entries detail the dead who were dug up from the civilian cemetery and re-interned at the Kranji War Memorial in recognition of their fight against the Japanese.

War records were largely destroyed by the Japanese administration prior to their surrender in 1945, so the Bidadari register is rare, said Ms Tan.

The NAS has been the custodian, with its mandate to care for and conserve public records. The register is undergoing conservation such as the repair of its half-bound leather cover and binding, among other things. It will be ready for the gallery's re-opening in February.

Bidadari death register, 1 March 1942–114 April 1944
Such death registers are an example of how administrative records collectively also tell a personal story of life (and more accurately death) under the Japanese Occupation. Many of the causes of death here are of diseases caused by malnutrition, such as beri-beri, but there are also notes that show the imprints of war, with reinternments in the post-war period where those who died of battle were reinterned in war cemeteries.
Archives Conservation Lab has yet to conserve this item and will be able to explain the challenges of conserving this large register and the repair needed for the spine etc.Photo: The Straits Times

Earlier this year, the NAS, an institution under the National Library Board, decided to revamp its museum to make it more dynamic and exciting, moving away from a cluttered display of photographs and text-heavy explanations.

Ms Tan said that the revamped gallery aims to show the "diverse experiences and perspectives" of the war and occupation - through the use of more artefacts and newly conserved records.

The gallery highlights the lives of ordinary citizens and also takes in the perspectives of the Japanese and British forces.

For instance, to home in on the individual's experience, the NAS held a public collection drive in March seeking artefacts from 1937 to 1954. It received more than 400 items. Among them was a Malaya ration card and a 1940 graduation yearbook of the Chinese Military Academy. The yearbook is from Mr Lim Kheng Jun, 96, who has lent it to NAS.

Raised in Malaya, Mr Lim enlisted in the military academy in 1939 in response to a call for the Chinese in South-east Asia to fight in the Sino- Japanese War, which went on from 1937 to 1945. His photograph is in the yearbook.

Private collector Lim Shao Bin shared a 1939 Japanese map of "Singapore Town", which marks out 83 key areas such as municipal buildings and Japanese shipping lines.

Ms Tan said: "The map helped the Japanese to identify key government and commercial buildings such as the Japanese Embassy and the Supreme Court. It showed how prepared the Japanese were to invade Singapore."

Other artefacts that will go on display include export receipts of goods to Malaya from China which were issued during the pre-war period. These were clearly labelled as "national goods" to show they were not of Japanese origin, reflecting the sentiment on the ground.

Oral history records on the war which NAS has been collecting since 1981, two years after it was established, will also feature heavily.

Ms Tan said: "We're happy to continuously make our history more accessible. We're eager to showcase our records and community contributions that were made over the years."

This article was first published on December 20, 2016.
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