Thin & grim


The coverage of the many battles lost, the widespread destruction and the steadily mounting casualties were deliberately muted in The Straits Times, to keep panic low and morale high as the situation grew increasingly desperate. Wartime newspapers everywhere followed that policy.

The first Japanese air strikes on Singapore, in the early hours of Dec 8, 1941, were a shock. The bombs falling on Chinatown, Raffles Place and Seletar and Tengah airfields killed 61 people and injured 133. The Straits Times, in its edition that very afternoon (it would become a morning newspaper only after the war) saw it as a duty to quote official reports, and said: "Slight damage was done and there were a few casualties." The "excellent work" of the volunteers who cleared debris and sent the casualties to hospital was applauded.

The fall of Penang on Dec 18 was not reported till two days later. The restrained reports may have been with the best of intentions but they certainly contributed to the false sense of security about the impregnability of Fortress Singapore.

The newspaper kept people's morale up in other ways. It regularly asked readers to help with civil defence duties and its staff took on those roles too. It also raised $6 million through a war fund which, among other things, helped buy bombers that were used against the Nazis. The triumphs of these "war fund aircraft" were told in despatches from Europe.

  • War & peace

  • 1941

    Dec 8: At 3am, Japan begins its conquest of Malaya by bombing Singapore Dec 10: Japanese bombers sink two battleships off the coast of Kuantan. The HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were sent to defend Singapore.


    Jan 28: British military officer Arthur Percival, who is in charge of the Malaya Command, orders troops to withdraw from Malaya to Singapore by Jan 31.

    Jan 31: Johor Causeway dynamited

    Feb 15: Britain surrenders Singapore to Japan; the last issue of The Straits Times is published.


    Sept 5: The Allied troops land in Singapore after World War II ends.

    Sept 7: The Straits Times resumes publication.

    Sept 12: Japan surrenders officially, bringing the Occupation to an end.



    24-page editions of The Straits Times are frequently released even as regular editions remain at 20 pages.

    In January, a weekly four-page supplement targeted at women titled In A Malayan Bungalow is launched.

    Editor George Seabridge decides to buy local papers up north in order to expand The Straits Times’ presence upcountry. The Pinang Gazette is acquired in April and the Times of Malaya in November.

    The papers keep their original characteristics while beneting from their links to The Straits Times and access to additional capital.

    But they fail to take off and are sold to the Straits Echo to cut losses. The Times of Malaya eventually closes down while the Pinang Gazette operates as an afternoon paper.


    BY AIR

    Delivery times to the peninsula are accelerated even as production activities remain in Singapore. Wearne’s Air Service is contracted to fly the Free Press to Kuala Lumpur each morning, allowing financial news and cables received up to 5am to be available in Kuala Lumpur by 9am.

On New Year's Day in 1942, just one-and-a-half months away from the Fall of Singapore which Churchill would call the biggest capitulation in British military history, an editorial noted the difficult times as it bid "good riddance" to 1941 and predicted victory: "We have suffered and we shall suffer. But when it is all over and Singapore still stands as an outpost of a victorious British Empire... we shall look back... as people who, having been caught at a great disadvantage, dug themselves in, stuck out their chins and fought back."

Frustration with the carefully-rationed details about the war could sometimes be detected in the commentaries of the newspaper's editor George William Seabridge. In one editorial, he asked that his remarks be regarded as "constructive criticism" on the part of the "middle-class Asiatic who has been asked to help in maintaining morale but finds himself quite unable to do so". The generalities the officials dole out about the war, he said, provide "a very flimsy basis indeed for detailed comment - so flimsy that we do not propose to attempt a task which is very nearly impossible of achievement".

Some reports questioned whether the British had the resources to win the Pacific War and criticised the mistakes in Malaya, namely, the utter failure to understand the terrain when drawing up battle plans.

The Straits Times also paid homage to the everyday heroes and stressed examples of solidarity.

"Eurasian, Chinese and other Asiatic girl exchange-telephone operators" were praised for being "staunch, loyal, unfearing" in one incident when they remained at their posts even when the Ipoh Post Office near the railway station was repeatedly bombed by the Japanese.

Right until the day before Singapore's fall, The Straits Times reports continued to focus on successes in the battle against the Japanese and scorn the invading army. On Feb 13, the day Yamashita moved his headquarters to the Ford Motor Factory in Bukit Timah, The Straits Times reported that the Japanese "have suffered huge casualties in Singapore". By then, Reuters and United Press Agency, the American news agency, had shut down.

The Straits Times itself had been reduced to a single news sheet printed only on one side and brought out under great strain by a demoralised newsroom. Some staffers had been mobilised for active duty in the war and others juggled their jobs with civil defence duties. Still, the newspaper appeared each day, thin and grim as any wartime survivor and clinging to shreds of hope.

As CM Turnbull recounts in her book Dateline Singapore, The Straits Times war correspondent Harry Miller one day found himself taking cover from shell fire while heading home from the office. Yet, military communiques insisted on reporting the situation as "in hand". On Feb 15, the day a bomb attack on Collyer Quay caused chaos and left trails of burning cars, The Straits Times put out its last issue until after the end of the war, with the headline: 'Strong Jap pressure; defence strongly maintained." The official communique said "the enemy are being held". That very day, the Japanese occupation of Singapore began.

Five days later, the Japanese were bringing out their own English-language newspaper from The Straits Times premises, employing some former technicians from the newspaper and recruiting some local journalists. Deriving its title from the name the Japanese gave to Singapore, Syonan or "Light of the South", it was called The Shonan Times, later renamed The Syonan Shimbun.

At least seven members of the Straits Times' staff died during the war, among them chief reporter Ivan Palmer who was killed while serving with the Australian air force in the Middle East. Leslie Hoffman, a Eurasian who would become The Straits Times' first local editor-in-chief in 1956, was interrogated for his anti-Japanese writing, and tortured on suspicion of being a British spy. George Peet, who would become editor after the war, was among the many interned at a camp in Changi.

When the war came to an end following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans, many journalists rushed straight from the internment camp to the newspaper's office in Cecil Street. After fending off looters and repairing the badly-damaged printing press, they brought out the first post-war edition of the newspaper on Sept 7, 1945, just two days after the allied troops landed in Singapore. Jubilant staff handed out copies of that edition for free. The Straits Times was back in business.

But it was a different newspaper. Most noticeably, Page 1 no longer carried just advertisements but major news. Newsprint was scarce, for one thing, so advertisements were banned.

Anyway, there was little for business to advertise in the ravaged economy. In another break from tradition, The Straits Times began to be published in the morning instead of the afternoon.

The biggest transformation, however, was in the newspaper's outlook. The age of empires had ended and The Straits Times offered glimpses of Asia's comeback in its coverage of the independence struggles in various nations.

In the newsroom, the new power balance was reflected in the paper's new Malayanisation policy - doors were opened for Asians, not just the Europeans, to enter senior editorial positions.

It mirrored the larger shifts taking place in Singapore society, as the levers of power and commerce changed hands after WW II.

The Ahlambra cinema, where Greta Garbo's Mata Hari played before Singapore fell to the Japanese, was acquired by the ambitious Shaw Brothers in the 1950s. It was eventually demolished to make way for the Shaw Towers in 1974. • ST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2015, with the headline 'Thin & grim'. Print Edition | Subscribe