Tomorrow marks the 72nd anniversary of the Japanese invasion of Singapore when, under the cover of darkness, the first wave of Japanese forces descended in 1942. They landed in Lim Chu Kang, outnumbering and overpowering the Australian troops stationed there.
Thus began what is known as the Battle of Singapore, which lasted until Britain's surrender a week later, on Feb 15.
To mark the anniversary, the National Heritage Board will launch a new public tour tomorrow to the tunnel of a former underground fuel depot in Marsiling.
These were used by the British and Japanese during World War II. The Japanese Occupation ended more than three years later, when Japan announced its surrender on Sept 12, 1945.
In total, the heritage board recognises 50 World War II sites all over Singapore. These include military landing sites such as the one in Lim Chu Kang and the nearby site of the Kranji Battle; buildings such as the Cathay and former YMCA that were used by the Japanese military; and war memorials and places of historical importance, such as the Padang, where prisoners of war were gathered before their march to Changi Prison.
Life! goes on the tunnel tour, visits 15 other World War II sites and picks the five most memorable ones that are well worth a visit.
All offer free entry to Singaporeans and permanent residents.
MARSILING TUNNEL TOUR
What: An hour-long tour of the ruins of the Woodlands North Depot, an abandoned fuel reserve depot used by the British Royal Airforce and the Japanese during World War II.
The tour will be launched by the National Heritage Board tomorrow and can take up to 15 people each session.
Highlights: Do not expect to crawl on your belly through narrow tunnels. In fact, do not expect to go through any tunnels at all. All but one of the depot's four entrances have been sealed off, and the tour will not be taking visitors there due to safety concerns.
The tour is still worth taking though, for insights on how and why the structure was built.
Participants will follow water pipes that are off the main road, then cross the pipes to climb a jungle slope to the base of the site.
The depot's structure goes two storeys underground. Most of what is above ground was covered in dirt during the war to protect it from the impact of explosive shells during air raids.
The sealed concrete entryways, which the depot's servicemen used, as well as some pipes and small reservoirs, are still visible today.
Most of the depot is now overgrown with dense jungle, which makes this tour a real trek. Life! even spotted a bright green tree snake slithering past. So make sure you wear appropriate attire and shoes.
It is fun to journey into uncharted territory, especially since the site is on state land that is closed to the public.
This tour offers a unique opportunity to see the rare few original World War II structures that remain in Singapore, particularly those modified and used by the Japanese, which were mostly destroyed after the war.
Open: By registered tour only; tomorrow and Feb 15 at 9 and 10.30am; tours in Mandarin at 11.30am on both days; other dates to be confirmed
Where: Off Admiralty Road West
How to get there: Tour participants will be picked up at Kranji MRT station and driven to the tour site
Info: Go to www.museums.com.sg. Because of the demanding terrain, you must be between 12 and 45 years old to sign up for the tour.
REFLECTIONS AT BUKIT CHANDU
What: A restored black-and-white bungalow which overlooks the area where the Battle of Pasir Panjang took place between Feb 13 and 14 in 1942.
The museum recounts the details of the battle, the bravery of the 1,400 Malay regiment soldiers who fought there against 13,000 Japanese and the Malay regiment's ultimate defeat.
Highlights: One of my favourite museums, Reflections at Bukit Chandu helps visitors put the battle in context.
I particularly like the 14-minute audio-visual installation, which narrates life in Pasir Panjang village during the war, how the villagers fled for their lives during the Japanese bombing and the valour and resilience of the Malay regiment which fought there. The sounds of dropping bombs and cries of the wounded made me wince and nearly brought me to tears.
It was a wonderful installation, even though I found the last few minutes, where the narrator veered off to talk about the comforts of Singapore's public housing, a bit incongruous. After touring the museum, I went to the Canopy Walk, just 5m away from the museum's back entrance.
The 280m-long Canopy Walk is part of the Southern Ridges trail and provides a great view of the hills and valleys where the Battle of Pasir Panjang took place.
A plaque along the way points out important locations referenced in the museum, and I like being able to figure out for myself where the troops fought and where they might have escaped or were captured.
Then I took the trail through HortPark, where Japanese and Malay soldiers would have walked, and exited the trail at Alexandra Road. From there, I walked about 1km to Labrador Park, where I explored Labrador Battery.
This is one of the artillery forts built by the British to defend Keppel Harbour in the 18th century. During the Battle of Pasir Panjang, the fort, which now lies in ruins, was used to shell the Japanese forces in aid of the Malay regiment.
The plaques mounted throughout the former battery, which explain its limitations, help to put the battle into perspective and make me feel even more sorry for the Malay regiment, which was doomed from the start despite its best efforts.
Open: Tuesdays to Sundays, 9am to 5.30pm; closed on Mondays, except on public holidays
Where: 31-K Pepys Road
How to get there: The museum is a 10-minute walk up Pepys Road from Pasir Panjang MRT station. Bus service numbers 10, 30, 143, 188, 51 and 176 stop near Pepys Road.
Info: Go to www.nhb.gov.sg
What: A museum which gives visitors a detailed and in-depth experience of daily life in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.
During World War II, about 3,500 civilian men, women and children, mostly British and Western nationals and Eurasians deemed "enemies" of the Japanese, were held in the prison, which had been built in 1936 to accommodate only 600 people.
In addition, about 50,000 prisoners-of-war, mostly from Britain and Australia, were kept in the nearby Selerang military barracks, about 1.6km away from the prison.
After thousands of prisoners were shipped off as slave labour in Japan and on the Thai-Burma railroad, about 10,000 prisoners were later incarcerated in and around Changi prison in 1944.
The prison was demolished in 2000 to make way for a new, larger facility, but its front gates were preserved as part of the new prison.
Highlights: It is not the original prison, but this does not make the horrific stories and experiences any less real.
I recommend taking your time to study the details, such as the preserved postcards, notebooks and drawings the prisoners kept, as well as the captions that accompany the panels of photographs.
The real message of the museum and the stories of the prisoners' lives are in these artefacts. They include the quilt that incarcerated women made out of rice sacks and the chapels soldiers built using whatever materials and tools they could find.
These activities showed resilience and hope in the face of brutality and despair.
I was particularly struck by photos of skeletal prisoners working in small vegetable gardens to provide the camp with food and of how they found ways to spy on the enemy and to maintain morale. Here, you get a much clearer sense of prison life than at any other World War II site in Singapore.
It would take you about an hour if you read all the plaques and panels which line the museum's walls in detail. If you choose to skim through everything, you can be done in less than 20 minutes, though that would be a shame.
Open: Daily, from 9.30am to 5pm; last admission at 4.30pm
Where: 1000 Upper Changi Road North
How to get there: Bus service numbers 2 and 29 stop right outside the museum. You can also take the MRT to Pasir Ris station, the nearest MRT station to the museum, and transfer to bus number 5, which will get you within a five-minute walk of the museum.
Info: Go to www.changimuseum.sg
What: South-east Asia's first Ford vehicle assembly plant opened to much fanfare in October 1941. But barely four months later, it bore witness to the fall of Singapore, serving as the site where Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival surrendered to General Yamashita Tomoyuki on Feb 15, 1942.
During the Japanese Occupation, the factory was used to assemble military vehicles by the Japanese company Nissan. The historic building was gazetted as a national monument in 2006.
Highlights: Memories at Old Ford Factory has a few things that make it stand out.
I like its use of multimedia, including recorded interviews and films, which make the war's battles and events come alive for visitors.
After a 25-minute documentary on the fall of Singapore, you can watch clips of Lieutenant-General Percival's surrender, which are projected onto the wall of the museum's gallery, in a replica of the room where the momentous event took place.
It is a unique experience that gives you a sense of the dynamics at play: Lieutenant-General Percival's incessant blinking and meek demeanour versus General Yamashita's stern, imposing presence and puffed up chest.
The sketches, photographs and quotes that fill the gallery detail some of the atrocities Singapore's civilians suffered at the hands of the Japanese.
The troops' brutal treatment of children and infants - bayoneting and torturing them - and beheading people at whim, were especially hard to bear.
This is an aspect of the Japanese Occupation that is detailed more explicitly here than in other museums.
One of the best features of the museum is an interactive map of Singapore with more than 30 buttons. When pressed, each plays a video or audio interview of survivors relating their remarkable experiences during the war, what they saw and how they survived.
What struck me here was not the surrender, but what happened to everyday life after that: the suffering, the easily curable diseases that killed thousands and the scars that people bore from the ordeal.
This gallery showed, more clearly than the other museums I visited, the cost of the war.
Open: Mondays to Saturdays, 9am to 5.30pm; Sundays, noon to 5.30pm
Where: 351 Upper Bukit Timah Road
How to get there: There are no MRT stations nearby, but bus service numbers 67, 75, 170, 171, 173, 178, 184, 961 and 961C stop outside or opposite the museum.
Info: Go to moff.nas.sg
What: An ammunition depot turned camp for prisoners-of-war, the site later became a cemetery in March 1957 for the war dead of Commonwealth countries.
Headstones mark the final resting place of almost 4,500 people, most of whom died in Singapore during World War II.
The cemetery is also home to a number of important memorials. These include the Singapore Memorial, which records the names of more than 24,000 servicemen who went missing during the war and have no known graves; memorials for Singaporeans who fought and made significant contributions during the war, such as 2nd Lieutenant Adnan Saidi, who led a platoon of the Malay regiment and was killed fighting the Japanese in the Battle of Pasir Panjang; Singapore Cremation Memorial, which remembers the names of Singapore's war dead who were cremated according to their religious beliefs; and the Singapore Civil Hospital Grave Memorial, which commemorates the more than 400 servicemen and civilians who died at the hospital during the war and were buried in a mass grave.
Highlights: It is moving to see all the tombstones and engraved names of soldiers who died, in part because they remind one of the thousands more civilians whose names are not there.
The remote location makes the trek even more poignant. Without other distractions, you feel the loss of scores of young lives more keenly as you walk past the graves of thousands of soldiers or see someone searching for the name of a friend or a loved one.
Its hallowed ground is a stark contrast to other sites I visited, such as the Kranji Battle or Sook Ching Massacre sites, where plaques marking their significance seem to be overlooked by those picnicking and cycling nearby.
With soft grass underfoot, flowers planted between the graves and the place cocooned in greenery, the well-maintained cemetery is a peaceful spot for contemplation. I left feeling both sorry and thankful for those who had sacrificed their lives.
Open: Daily, from 7am to 6pm
Where: 9 Woodlands Road
How to get there: The cemetery is rather isolated. Bus service numbers 60, 170, 178, 925, 960 and 961 stop next to the side road, an offshoot of Woodlands Road which leads to the cemetery less than five minutes away on foot.
Alternatively, take the MRT to Kranji station, walk along Woodlands Road, then take the first left after the intersection of Kranji and Turf Club roads. The cemetery is at the end of the road.
Info: Go to www.yoursingapore.com
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 7, 2014
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