15 February 1942 is a date etched into the Singaporean consciousness – either as a haunting memory for those who lived through the dark years of World War Two, or as a student, learning that no one can defend Singapore but Singaporeans themselves. On this day, British forces in Singapore surrendered unconditionally to the Japanese after a week of fighting against General Yamashita's thinly stretched army. By this point, around 140000 Allied troops, including Australian, New Zealand, British, Indian, Dutch and Malay soldiers, had been killed or imprisoned. Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime Prime Minister, described the fall of Singapore, dubbed the “Gibraltar of the East”, as 'the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history'.
The defeat of Allied forces on Singapore has been labelled by some historians as the key moment in the decline of the British Empire, when faith in Britain's military might was shattered. From this point, the island was plunged into the darkest times it has ever witnessed. Allied prisoners-of-war were herded to the horrors of Changi camp, or shipped off to an even worse fate in building the Death Railway in Thailand. Thousands of Singaporean Chinese were indiscriminately targeted for torture and massacred at Sentosa and Changi Beach, where it is said that the beaches ran red with blood. Those who survived the war endured harsh rule under the Japanese, where abuse, poverty, sickness and starvation became a daily reality in those tumultuous years.
The sheer number of museums and memorials, devoted to the memory and study of the Japanese Occupation, stand testament to the impact of the occupation on the nation's collective memory, and aids in understanding Singapore's modern preoccupation with national security. Veterans, former prisoners-of-war and their families, as well as Singaporeans both young and old, visit historical sites around the island to remember and learn about the nation's darkest times.
This itinerary takes you through the war, beginning at The Battle Box at Fort Canning Park, Singapore's largest underground military operations complex during the war. Two of Singapore's new and engaging interpretative centres are next - Reflections at Bukit Chandu, where the Malay Regiment made their heroic last stand against the Japanese, and Memories at Old Ford Factory, where the Allied forces surrendered in 1942. The tour ends at the quiet Kranji War Memorial, an immaculately-maintained war cemetery containing over 4000 graves of Allied servicemen.
View Half-day Itinerary - Battlefield Singapore in a larger map
The Battle Box at Fort Canning Park (10am)
Start the day with a stroll up Fort Canning Hill to the Battle Box at Fort Canning Park. Located some 9 metres underground, this was Singapore's largest wartime underground military operations complex, part of the Malaya Command headquarters. Through the use of fascinating hi-tech exhibits housed in 26 rooms and tunnels, including audio-visual effects, high-quality animatronics and specially-crafted figurines, the Battle Box brings some of tense moments of the war back to life. Gaze through binocular-like lenses to view holographic figures tapping out messages in Morse code, and see the Japanese codes still etched into the walls of the bunkers.
(1 hr. 2 Cox Terrace. +65 6333 0510. Daily 10am – 6pm. Admission $8 adult, $5 child; includes guided tour. Nearest MRT Dhoby Ghaut [NS24/NE6/CC1].)
Make your way back down the hill towards the Central Expressway and board bus 143 “Aft Haw Par Glass Twr” to “Pasir Panjang FC”. A walk up the hill along Pepys Road takes you to Reflections at Bukit Chandu.
Reflections at Bukit Chandu (12nn)
Bukit Chandu, or Opium Hill, was a key defence position where the 1400 Malay Regiment servicemen made their heroic last stand against 13000 Japanese soldiers during the Battle of Pasir Panjang. Through undeniable esprit de corps and discipline, attributed in a large part to 2nd Lieutenant Adnan bin Saidi, many garrisons held their ground until they were down to one man standing, even fighting hand-to-hand. Today, Adnan bin Saidi is considered a war hero for refusing to surrender and encouraging his men to fight to the end, and the hill is now home to Reflections at Bukit Chandu, an interpretive hands-on centre. Hi-tech displays use film from the period, accompanied by audio effects, to evocatively recreate scenes from the battle, and visitors can experience carrying the rifles and wearing the helmets these soldiers wore. Two of the National Heritage Board's Star Artefacts are housed here: a Tin Mug used by Lt. Ibrahim Sidek, who was executed for defying Japanese orders to remove his Malay Regiment uniform. and Valerius Sepi's Wall Mural, depicting the natural foliage of the hill in the foreground, embedded with an image of the treatment of captured Malay Regiment soldiers by the Japanese in the background.
(1 hr. 31K Pepys Road. +65 6375 2510. Daily 9am – 5.30pm, except Monday closed. Admission $2.)
Walking down the hill, board bus 51 at “Opp Currency Hse” and alight at “Alexandra Hosp”.
Alexandra Hospital (1.30pm)
Established in 1938 as the British Military Hospital, Alexandra Hospital served as the principal hospital for British forces in the Far East and was the site of a massacre by Japanese soldiers of wounded British servicement and some medical staff. Lunch in the area around Alexandra Hospital can be had at either Anchorpoint (1 hr. 370 Alexandra Road. +65 6475 2257. Daily 10am – 10pm.), Singapore's first outlet mall which houses boutique outlet stores alongside attractive dining options, or at well-known IKEA (1 hr. 317 Alexandra Road. +65 6786 6868. Weekdays 9.30am – 10pm, Weekends 8.30am – 10pm.), popular with Singaporeans for Swedish meatballs. After lunch, head to “Aft Queenstown NPC HQ” and board bus 961 to “Aft Old Jurong Rd”. Alight and take short walk to the Old Ford Factory, a gazetted National Monument of Singapore.
Memories at Old Ford Factory (3pm)
Once Southeast Asia's first car assembly plant, the Old Ford Factory takes on greater prominence in Singapore's military history – this is where British forces formally surrendered Malaya (Singapore and Malaysia) to the Japanese. The in-situ museum, Memories at Old Ford Factory, offers visitors an opportunity to walk in the ceremonial footsteps of the British forces to the original Board Room where they surrendered and witness this historic moment. A diverse collection of original visual and audio recordings, photographs, maps and other artefacts allows visitors to gain deeper insight into the subsequent 44-month ordeal of the Japanese Occupation. Look out for two of the National Heritage Board's Star Artefacts: Lim Bo Seng's War Diary, which contains the anti-Japanese resistance fighter's innermost thoughts, and the Prisoners of War Cook Book, a collection of recipes for dishes that POWs dreamt of preparing when they were interned.
(1 hr. 351 Upper Bukit Timah Road. +65 6332 7973. Mon – Sat 9am – 5.30pm; Sun 12nn – 5.30pm. Opening hours from 28 May 2011 onwards: Mon 1pm - 5.30pm, Tue - Fri and Sun 9am - 5.30pm, Sat 9am – 9pm. Admission $3.)
As you leave Memories at Old Ford Factory, return to the same bus stop and board bus 961 or 170 and travel from “Aft Old Jurong Rd” to “Opp Kranji War Memorial”.
Kranji War Memorial (4pm)
The Kranji War Memorial and Cemetery is the final resting place for 4458 Allied and Commonwealth servicemen, and its walls pay homages to 24346 other personnel whose bodies were never recovered. The registers listing the dead by the memorial walls are a reminder of how distressingly costly the war was. Covering all three branches of the military - the Air Force, Army and Navy, the 12 memorial walls are engraved with the names of veterans including men and women from Britain, Australia, Canada, Sri Lanka, India, Malaya, the Netherlands and New Zealand. Unlike other war sites in Singapore, the hilly grounds here are immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – this is the just about the only heart-warming aspect of the place.
(30 min. 9 Woodlands Road. +65 65 6269 6158. Daily 7am – 6pm. Admission free.)
After you have taken a moment of silence, head down the hill and take a 15 minute walk to Kranji MRT Station [NS7], which lies 45 minutes away by MRT from the city on the North-South Line.