Thinking Aloud

Lessons from war in coping with crisis

World War II and the Japanese Occupation offer a guide on preparing for looming shocks

Slightly over an hour before Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941, a division of Japan's imperial army landed on the shores of Kota Baru in Kelantan.

Several hours later, at about 4am - it was Dec 8 in this part of the world - Singapore encountered its first air raid.

Naval bombers attacked Seletar and Tengah airfields, Chinatown, Raffles Place and Keppel Harbour.

Within two months, invading troops had crossed the Strait of Johor and into Singapore, which fell soon after, on Feb 15, 1942.

This month, and the coming months, mark the 75th anniversary of these defining events in our short history.

Several recent commentaries have sought to extrapolate the lessons of Pearl Harbor and the war to spell out how other rising powers today ought to conduct themselves, or even brace themselves to deal with conflict.

But as citizens of a small state that is more likely to have to deal with the fallout of a crisis than to be able to chart the course of events, it may well be more crucial for Singaporeans to try and see how events 75 years ago can help us cope in a crisis.

At a time when the world appears to be heading into uncharted territory, looking back on this tumultuous period of our history could offer lessons on how to get ready and, if needed, respond to a major shock.

There is now a mood of rising angst and discontent in developed democracies, growing divides along ethnic and religious lines fed by extremism, a pushback against globalisation and free trade, and greater geopolitical turbulence not seen since the Cold War.

A crisis in the near future could come in the form of a terror attack, severe economic slowdown, a period of sustained pressure from a neighbouring country or one further afield, or even social, racial or religious tensions that threaten to undermine peace and stability on this island.

But if people are steeled for it earlier and adequately, our chances of pulling through a rough patch together will be stronger.

The first lesson from the war is that it is important to be prepared - even though no amount of drills or emergency exercises can prepare us for the actual horrors of a disaster when it comes.

As war clouds gathered in Europe, the British colonial administration in Singapore announced a committee to deal with air raids and bombardments in 1936, and advised civilians to stay in their homes when sirens were sounded until the all-clear signal was given.

Demonstrations and drills were carried out, and pamphlets distributed.

But media reports at the time suggested that many people were still not aware of what to do in a raid.

When war seemed inevitable in Europe in 1939, blackout exercises were held here to educate residents to turn their lights out.

Civilian air-raid wardens were recruited to help people, and work with firemen and the police to guide people to shelters and rescue others. Bomb shelters were built and evacuation plans worked out.

These paid off when the first wave of bombings took place.

Though the air-raid sirens were first sounded after several minutes' delay, wardens and rescuers rushed to attend to victims.

The raids left 61 people dead and 133 injured.

While the devastation was considerable, people went about their lives. When office workers passed a certain shopping centre that morning, this newspaper - it was then an afternoon paper - reported that they had to step over glass and debris "scattered in great piles over pavement and roadway, caused by blast".

For the most part, people here picked up the pieces and carried on, though the ensuing weeks would prove difficult across the island.

Brown-outs - a reduction in electricity supply during certain times of the day - were put in place, and department stores closed early so staff could get home before dark.

The air raids cast a pall on Christmas and New Year celebrations that year. The situation became grimmer as the invading forces moved south through Malaya, seizing Ipoh after Christmas and Kuala Lumpur not long after the new year.

There was no joy in preparations for the Chinese New Year in February 1942 either as Singapore's defences crumbled within a week, culminating in the British surrender on the first day of the Chinese New Year.

That day, Feb 15, is now commemorated as Total Defence Day, largely in schools and among national servicemen.

A key message is that while we need a strong Singapore Armed Forces to deter attacks and defend ourselves, defence cannot be a job for the military alone - it requires a whole-of-society effort, especially psychologically.

The new SGSecure movement seeks to get citizens ready to deter and deal with a terror attack, and ensure society remains united in the event of such attacks.

It is good that it aims to reach as many people as possible.

But equally important is that people respond appropriately and move forward after a major blow.

This is where the war offers a second lesson: that social unity and resilience can make all the difference in managing a crisis as it unfolds.

The 31/2 years of the Japanese Occupation were a time of great hardship and trauma for people in Singapore.

But reading through the oral history accounts of survivors offers hope - neighbours and strangers alike looked out for one another and helped them survive or sheltered them.

There were many stories of small everyday acts of kindness that helped them tide through the period.

However, there were also stories of attempts to incite discord between persons of different races - occupying soldiers made no secret of their animosity towards the Chinese and, at the same time, sought to treat some Malays and Indians better.

Regrettably, this resulted in some degree of racial tension throughout the war and as the end of the war approached in August 1945.

The heightened awareness of racial differences set the stage for how post-war politics developed, especially in Malaya. The repercussions remain till this day.

They are a reminder that divisions, once widened, can be difficult to bridge - and even as we are reminded of our differences, we should see them as a source of strength, not as what set us apart.

A third, and no less significant, takeaway is that a degree of equanimity can help us stay resilient during, and in the wake of, a crisis.

During the war, tens of thousands of men were forced to labour to construct the Siam-Burma Railway, about a third of whom perished due to the harsh conditions and heat.

One of the men who survived the ordeal would go on to be Singapore's pioneering law minister, Mr E.W.Barker.

As author Susan Sim recounted in a recently published biography: "Barker was almost nonchalant about his war experience. He never had words of bitterness or rage against his captors, and made light of his own suffering.

"Perhaps to reclaim his own humanity in the face of unspeakable vileness, he told his children stories that made his captors sound like friends.

"His children knew he saw terrible things, but their collective memories now of a war that occurred before they were born, are not of cruelty but of survival and grace."

Many others who survived the vicissitudes of the Occupation must have made similar adjustments to leave painful experiences behind.

No one can say with certainty what crisis may come our way in the next few years, or decades.

But what is almost certain is that such a crisis is likely to test our preparedness, social cohesion and resilience.

This makes it all the more important to be aware of how a crisis might unfold, and how when one comes, we can keep calm and let good sense prevail.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 11, 2016, with the headline 'Lessons from war in coping with crisis '. Print Edition | Subscribe