Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Singapore's Tragic History

Chapel at Changi Museum
Singapore doesn't have that long of a history (being founded in 1819), so there isn't much of historic importance. One big exception are the various sites having to do with World War Two. To my surprise (I guess because I'm American), Singapore played a huge role in that war.

Singapore was then a British colony and a harbor of the greatest importance. Britain being a sea-based empire, Singapore was seen as key to the strategic defense of Southeast Asia, and so millions were spent on the construction of various forts, guns, bunkers and the like to convert the island into a "impregnable fortress". It was the major British military base for the entire region.

In one of the worst ever British military disasters (and probably the worst of WW2), Singapore nevertheless fell to the Japanese in just seven days. About 80,000 British (and allied) troops were taken prisoner (the largest surrender ever in British history): humiliatingly, the invading Japanese had only 30,000 (much better trained) soldiers. Many of the POWs (around a third) would die in Japanese custody as a result of starvation, disease, torture and overwork. 
Candles for the dead at Changi
The Japanese marked their victory with looting, indiscriminate killings (including everyone at a local hospital, even the surgeons and those in the midst of surgery), and a massacre of the "hostile elements" in the Chinese population (the exact number is unknown, but probably 50,000-100,000). Almost all the white population (all American, Australian, and British civilians, including women and children) were sent to prison, where there was little food, no medical care, and rampant overcrowding. The rest of the population didn't fare much better, with malnutrition, "disappearances", constant casual violence (by Japanese soldiers), and economic breakdown being the order of the day. The return of the British was hailed with relief and widespread rejoicing.
Handwritten messages from POWs and their relatives: it's a place of pilgrimage for some
There are a number of museums and sites about this history: the one I visited most recently was Changi Museum. Built by the British as a prison, it housed first the civilian detainees and later the POWs, and was therefore the site of many tragic events. Today it's a museum (and chapel, to commemorate all the dead). It's an interesting if somber place. 
Cross hand-made out of scrap by a POW: he died in custody


  1. Have you read the book Unbroken? It is a really fascinating book about WWII POWs (though, they don't talk about Singapore).

    1. No, I haven't: but now I plan to. I did enjoy her other book about Seabiscuit, so am really looking forward to this one!