World War II exhibition at National Museum focuses on survivors' stories

Mr William Gwee's story is one of several stories of survival featured in Witness to War: Remembering 1942.
Mr William Gwee's story is one of several stories of survival featured in Witness to War: Remembering 1942.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - At age eight in 1942, Mr William Gwee was forced from his home in Joo Chiat, along with his parents and six siblings.

It was the early days of the Japanese invasion of Singapore, and a bomb had landed two doors down, devastating their family home. Mr Gwee and his family had to move from relatives' to friends' homes, carrying only a few possessions in cloth bundles.

Returning after school holidays in 1942 to start Primary Two during the Japanese Occupation, he found that his English school in Katong had transformed into a Japanese school.

By 1944, "when things were not going well for the Japanese, they recruited a lot of local youth and tried to form an army in Singapore. The bright boys in the school all got recruited, so before I was called, my father said to leave school," Mr Gwee, now 83, told The Straits Times on Friday (Sept 22).

His is one of several stories of survival featured in Witness to War: Remembering 1942, a new exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore that looks at the untold stories of the events leading up to the Japanese occupation and the aftermath of Singapore's fall.

Using "witnesses to war" such as artefacts and accounts from war survivors and veterans, the exhibition, which opens to the public on Saturday (Sept 23) and will run until March 25 2018, aims to offer a fresh perspective on the war and lead up to it.

The exhibition features over 130 artefacts from the national collection as well as many on loan from overseas museums and institutions and on display for the first time in Southeast Asia.

Highlights include the personal diary of late Singapore war hero Lim Bo Seng, on public display for the first time, and a 25-pounder field gun used by British and Commonwealth armies in World War II.

But it is the human stories that sets the exhibition apart, museum director Angelita Teo said in a speech at its launch on Friday (Sept 22).

Calling it the museum's most ambitious World War II exhibit to date, she said that feedback from a cross-section of society was sought on what they would like to see.

"The most repeated words were 'different', 'people' and 'stories'. What they hoped to see was more diversity with special focus on personal experiences. This inspired our curators to go our and collect stories from scratch," said Ms Teo.

For the first time, the museum also involved secondary and tertiary level students, who interviewed war survivors and helped with the presentation of their stories in the exhibition.

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu, who met with the war survivors featured in the exhibition, said on the sidelines of the launch that the difficult times brought out in them the human spirit.

"I think by having the students and Singaporeans involved, the experience of war through the survivors really teaches us about the important values seen through their actions," she said.

The exhibition commemorates of the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore this year.

Admission is free for Singapore citizens, permanent residents and visitors aged six and below.