Never forget darkest time of Singapore's history: PM Lee Hsien Loong

No one owes us our sovereignty, he says, pointing to lessons learnt from Occupation

The tweaked signages (pictured top and bottom right) at the new World War II exhibition - Syonan Gallery: War and its Legacies. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

The lessons learnt from the Japanese Occupation must never be forgotten, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday, as the country marked the 75th anniversary of its fall.

"Every year, we observe Total Defence Day on this day, so that we will never forget that darkest time of our history", when Singapore lost its freedom and even its name, he wrote on Facebook. "We now have the SAF and Home Team, but Singapore will always be small and vulnerable. No one owes us our sovereignty or security. These are truths we must never forget."

A new exhibition was launched yesterday at the Former Ford Factory in Upper Bukit Timah Road, the site where the British formally surrendered Singapore. It highlights not just the 3½ years of misery caused by the Occupation, but also the bravery of those who fought it.

This courage and the humanity showed by ordinary people hold important lessons even today, said Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim, as he urged citizens to work together to keep the country strong.

He explained how the way of life here is being challenged by a host of threats - from increasingly dissonant voices to terrorism.

"We have gone from battling for land to battling for heart, mind and will," he said in an emotional speech as he opened the exhibition.

"These threats are very present and may already be here. They may be a cyber attack or a terror threat, or perhaps the spreading of misinformation or disinformation. How can we ensure that we are resilient enough - and committed enough - to respond to these threats, and to recover quickly when crises strike?"

One way is to draw inspiration from the stories captured by the National Archives and in the new Syonan Gallery: War And Its Legacies exhibition - of Singaporeans banding together during the Occupation to help one another survive.

Tearing up, he recounted oral history interviews which spoke of how some Chinese handed water to prisoners of war and were slapped for it, and of Malays giving shelter to Chinese neighbours targeted by the invaders. He described how local volunteer group Dalforce and the Malay Regiment fought the Japanese, despite knowing it was a losing battle.

Dr Yaacob said that the true test of having learnt the lessons of war is that "we live lives of courage and of resilience, every day, today".

Community and harmony do not "magically come about" just because various people are thrown together. Instead, differences, even irreconcilable ones, need to be overcome. People have to "stay united" and turn diversity into a source of strength.

A minute of silence was observed by the 200 guests and 400 national service recruits, who were handed their rifles in a ceremony there.

About 1,200 people, from schoolchildren to religious leaders, took turns to pay their respects at the foot of the Civilian War Memorial in Beach Road.

In the evening, a remembrance ceremony at the Kranji War Cemetery was attended by 700 people, including diplomats, military officials and veterans.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2017, with the headline Never forget darkest time of Singapore's history: PM Lee Hsien Loong. Subscribe