'It doesn't need to be sitting in a box': Donors to Changi Chapel and Museum thrilled to share their heirlooms

The National Museum's curators scoured the globe for items that could help it better tell the story of Changi Prison.
The National Museum's curators scoured the globe for items that could help it better tell the story of Changi Prison.PHOTO: CHANGI CHAPEL AND MUSEUM
Artefacts on display at the Changi Chapel and Museum on May 11, 2021.
Artefacts on display at the Changi Chapel and Museum on May 11, 2021.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - Donors in Britain and Australia were "absolutely thrilled" to gift or loan memorabilia and heirlooms to the Changi Chapel and Museum (CCM), hoping the stories of their parents will be remembered by visitors from all over the world now that the museum has reopened.

"It doesn't need to be sitting in a box. It is something that needs to be shared, and a museum is the best place for it," said Mr Malcolm de Carteret Bowen, who gifted the CCM the Changi souvenir song album.

"I thought that it would be better to donate it to CCM because it's almost like it's coming home. That's where it started its life," he said at the virtual opening ceremony of the museum on Tuesday (May 18).

The album belonged to his father, Mr William de Carteret Bowen, who was imprisoned at Changi Prison during World War II. It is a compilation of songs sung by Allied prisoners of war during their 3½ years of imprisonment and forced labour under the Japanese.

"In his latter years, my father did start opening up about his time there and always brought up the Changi chapel," Mr Carteret Bowen added. "I'd promised that my wife and I would go down to Singapore to see it. We had actually booked a trip in 2019 (but Covid-19 happened)."

After the CCM was closed for a revamp in 2018, the National Museum's curators scoured the globe for items that could help it better tell the story of Changi Prison, where nearly 50,000 prisoners, including soldiers, their families and other civilian internees, were held during WWII.

They have since put together 114 artefacts, including 82 new ones. Of these, a third are community-contributed donations and loans from the families of prisoners of war and internees.

Decisions to loan or gift CCM the items were not taken lightly. Mr Ken Aldridge, who loaned his father William Aldridge's Japanese-issued driving licence to the CCM, said it was an heirloom.

"It's one of the things my father managed to keep with him throughout the conflict in the Far East and brought home with him. So it is of great value to us. We believe that it should be there for the world to see," he said.

The Japanese had given Mr Aldridge the licence to transport supplies from the docks after the British surrendered. "But my father being my father, he didn't like helping the Japanese at all. So he did everything in his power to discreetly try and slow the effort down," his son recounted.

"He would put sand in the engine oil or the gearbox oil to try and seize the engines up and cause problems. Either that or he would remove a minor part of the engine or the electrics so it wouldn't start."

With the reopening, the CCM will join other sites like the Former Ford Factory and the Reflections at Bukit Chandu, also due to reopen this year, in telling Singapore's experience as an eventful arena during the global war that began some 79 years ago.

Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, said these memories are important, even though they took place before the independence of Singapore.

"They are important reminders of this country's journey, and indeed, an indelible part of our national identity. They also represent how far we have come as a nation," he said in his speech at the ceremony.

"Since the CCM was opened in 2001, it has been well-received locally and internationally for its portrayal and recognition of the contributions of (those imprisoned at Changi Prison camp). I would like to thank all those who have made generous loans and donations."

Another donor, Ms Sandra Sleeman, whose father, Lieutenant Penrod V. Dean, was imprisoned at Changi Prison, said people must recognise that terrible mistakes are made during wartime, in the spirit of respect for all races that her father has since taught her.

"He and my mother made several trips to Japan, finding the Japanese as a race to be kind, gentle and respectful people who welcomed my parents into the inns where they stayed. We must understand the effects that war imposes upon its participants and do everything we can to help afterwards."