To survive WWII, he was dressed up as a girl

Mr Tommy Wong says he is operationally ready for life.
PHOTO: The New Paper

Today is the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore. A survivor remembers

Mr Tommy Wong was only three years old when the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1942, during World War II.

During the three years and eight months of the Japanese Occupation, his family took desperate measures to survive.

Now 78, Mr Wong needs a walking aid to move around. He still gives talks to national servicemen and students about the importance of Total Defence.

Armed with a hat and an umbrella for a walking stick, Mr Wong, a freelance tour guide, takes students on battle trails like Bukit Chandu, and shares his war experience with them.

He feels everyone should play a part in defending Singapore and is part of the Commitment to Defence (C2D) Ambassadors Programme.

It comes under Nexus, the Ministry of Defence department responsible for Total Defence.

Mr Wong's experience during World War II was one of the factors that prompted him to become a soldier.

He was a regular in the army from 1964 to 1989.

He said of the occupation: "It was a very tough time. We had no food. My sister had to carry me to queue for fish, and even then it was rotten fish."

Japanese troops killed staff and patients at Alexandra Hospital in WWII

  • Alexandra Hospital feels more like a chalet than a hospital.
  • The three-storey hospital blocks - comprising several linked buildings - are spread across sprawling grounds of 130,000 sq m, surrounded by greenery.
  • It even has a football field.
  • Its corridors are wide and airy and the hospital's main entrance at Block 1 overlooks a butterfly garden facing Alexandra Road.
  • Mr Lee Yan Chang, an executive architect from the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), says: "The intention was to provide airy spaces and encourage fresh air to circulate through the grounds so patients could recuperate - fresh natural air was considered 'health giving'.
  • Furthermore, there was no air-conditioning back then, so that is why the buildings are more spread out."
  • Members of the public are encouraged to enjoy the greenery at the hospital, especially the butterfly garden.
  • Mr Lee says: "The butterfly garden is a unique community landmark of the area that offers a quiet sanctuary everyone can enjoy. It is worth a visit if you are in the vicinity."
  • But beneath the serenity of the hospital's grounds lies an unsettling history: Staff and patients at the hospital were massacred by Japanese troops on Feb 14, 1942, during the Japanese invasion.
  • In recognition of the hospital's WWII history, the National Heritage Board marked it as a Historic Site in 1998.
  • Built in 1938 by the British Armed Forces, it was originally known as the British Military Hospital until it was handed over to the Singapore Government in 1971 for a symbolic $1.
  • It was then opened to the public as a general hospital.
  • Mr Lee adds that it is rare to find old hospital buildings which still function as hospitals today.
  • "Look at the Old Changi Hospital - it's no longer used as one," he says, referring to the hospital's old premises in Halton Road in Changi.
  • It moved to new premises in Simei in 1997.


He was also dressed up as a girl because there was a rumour going around that the Japanese would kidnap boys.

He wore a girl's samfu (traditional everyday wear for Chinese women) and his hair was grown and tied in a ponytail.

Four of his sisters had to hide in a fake ceiling, and came down only for meals.

His father was jailed for sabotaging the Japanese, but was released after the war. His entire family survived.

In 1960, he joined the Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps, where he realised the importance of being united and defending Singapore.

He said: "Once a soldier knows why he's here and that he is protecting his family, he will be committed to fight.

"This unity will be important in times of trouble. This is how you learn to be strong without using strength.

"Even if you are on a motorised wheelchair, you can hold a gun and still help to defend Singapore."

On Total Defence, he said: "The law states that you are an NSman for a number of years, but to me, I am operationally ready for life."

Yesterday, Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen delivered his Total Defence message at the former Ford Factory in Upper Bukit Timah Road, where Singapore's British rulers surrendered to the Japanese on Feb 15, 1942.

He said the Japanese Occupation was a period of subjugation and deprivation that taught that generation two bitter but valuable lessons.


He said: "One, you cannot depend on others to defend you and two, the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

"It created in the pioneer generation of Singaporeans a deep-seated conviction that if ever we were in charge of our nation's destiny, we will ensure a strong defence to keep Singapore safe and independent."

This article was first published on Feb 15, 2017. Get The New Paper for more stories.

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