Turbulent times

Workmen clearing the rubble (left) following a Japanese air raid on Singapore in 1942. The back page of The Straits Times on Jan 30, 1942, carried "An air raid alphabet" (below) for readers to cut out and keep for reference.PHOTO: ARGUS NEWSPAPER COL
Workmen clearing the rubble following a Japanese air raid on Singapore in 1942.PHOTO: ARGUS NEWSPAPER COLLECTION OF PHOTOGRAPHS, STATE LIBRARY OF VICTORIA

World War II coverage was muted to avoid panic

Friday, Jan 30, 1942: Greta Garbo's spy story Mata Hari was being screened at Alhambra, Singapore's first air-conditioned cinema, in Beach Road. The Raffles Hotel was holding its dinner and dance, lasting till midnight. The advice for those intending to drive on this day cut to the chase: "Keep windows open to reduce flying glass. By day, keep moving until you see pedestrians, police disappearing from the streets. That is cue for the 'Alarm'. Pull well into the side, stop car and engine and take shelter. Remove ignition key.

"By night, on 'Alert', all headlights must be switched off. Keep moving with sidelights, if you must."

The instructions appeared on the back page of The Straits Times, under the headline "An air raid alphabet". Cut and keep for reference, readers were told.

World War II had broken out in the Pacific and Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill had declared that Singapore must be held at all costs. Kuala Lumpur had fallen into Japanese hands and Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita took up a perch at the Sultan's palace in Johor Baru, the venue chosen for its commanding view of the Strait of Johor. His big guns were trained on the naval base in Sembawang. The endgame had begun.

Very little of the ominous sense of disaster and hopelessness showed on Page 1 of then Malaya's largest-selling newspaper. It splashed not the latest news from the battlefront but advertisements.

The back page of The Straits Times on Jan 30, 1942, carried “An air raid alphabet” for readers to cut out and keep for reference.

At least seven on the Straits Times staff died during the war... 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 many interned at a camp in Changi.

  • 1931


    Malaya’s first Sunday paper, The Sunday Times, is launched in face of increasing competition from the Malaya Tribune. It carries 16 pages of news, features, sports, a women’s page and book reviews.



    The Straits Times’ eight-page morning tabloid, the Singapore Daily News, is launched. It lasts four months.



    In face of increasing competition, the struggling Free Press is sold to The Straits Times. In February, the Daily News merged with the Free Press, which is moved into the Cecil Street premises.

    The Straits Times expands its offerings to take on the Malaya Tribune, introducing a page of Garrison Gossip for British servicemen. It also wins readers through a weekly football pool competition with a prize of $500 (Straits dollars) that is later increased to $1,000.

This was The Straits Times standard practice for nearly 100 years, since its founding in 1845. Excusable or not, that Friday, the advertisements were for Whitbread Light Beer, Robinson's department store and Goodwood Park Hotel.

The sole reminder of war on Page 1 was a short notice addressing "workers": "Don't let sirens stop your work. The enemy bombers may be miles away. They may never come near you. Carry on till the roof spotters give the signal to take cover. The fighting men are counting on you. Back them up in the workshops, shipyards & offices."

If you turned the page, the Alhambra and Raffles advertisements would catch your eye.

But the incongruity could not be carried far. The merry advertisements fit oddly next to an unadorned appeal that exhorted men and women between the ages of 17 and 55 to go to the Medical College to "Give Your Blood to Save an Air Raid Victim".

Only on Page 4 and in the eighth paragraph of a report, with the headline "BATTLE OF JOHORE", did readers learn of an air raid two days earlier that killed 105 people and injured 243 in Singapore.

A curfew was imposed across Singapore on that fateful Friday, but the heightening sense of alarm was delivered only on Page 6, next to a short item that cautioned against believing in rumours of riots between the Malays and Chinese in Johor Baru.

Perhaps, in an effort to restore some sense of balance, a longer report highlighted the remarkable record of a Royal Air Force Hurricane fighter pilot who in a week had shot down a Japanese bomber over Singapore skies, destroyed two enemy aircraft, tackled three other bombers and silenced three rear-gunners.

That Friday, Jan 30, 1942, was the 880th day of the war, The Straits Times kept count and displayed it in a line above its editorial.

A day later, on Jan 31, the Causeway was blown up with dynamite; Singapore came under siege.

About a week later, Japanese soldiers would swim ashore. And in a fortnight, Britain's Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, heading the Malaya Command, would wave the white flag and surrender Singapore to Japan.

TURBULENT TIMES continued...

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