Story of Lion City's occupation lives on

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2001, 12:00am

ELIZABETH CHOY, a canteen worker, was tortured with electric shocks in an effort to get her to confess her 'crimes'. To make the ordeal even tougher, her persecutors forced her husband to watch as they drove the current through her body.

Lim Seng, another civilian, was forced to drink gallons of water until her stomach swelled: her tormentors then kicked her until she vomited. The attack was repeated the next day.

Jack 'Crackers' Kyros, an Australian serviceman, was incarcerated in a wooden box 1.5 metres high and about 75 centimetres square. The sentence was meant to last 30 days, but he managed to secure an early release after his comrades duped his jailers into believing he was dead. To ensure that the ruse remained undetected, the corpse of another, unknown man was buried bearing Mr Kyros' military dogtags. The deception worked.

The three tales of systematic brutality - and many more like them - are featured in Singapore's new Changi Museum, which opens this Thursday. It is the first museum dedicated to telling the story of Japan's three-year occupation during World War II and makes a thorough effort to reflect the experiences of Singapore's largely Chinese civilian population, who suffered severely under Japanese administration. Some accounts suggest as many as 25,000 Chinese were put to death in the first two weeks after the Japanese stormed across the Johore Strait.

The project is located in the far east of the island, where thousands of people were interned between 1942 and 1945. 'We wanted something that was human and living, actually an embodiment of everyone's experiences in Singapore at that time: civilian and military,' an official from the Singapore Tourist Board said.

Thursday's opening date was carefully chosen, and underlines the museum's dual function. February 15 marks the anniversary of the Allied forces' surrender of the island. It is also modern Singapore's Total Defence Day, an annual event promoted by the Government as a reminder that all citizens have a role in protecting the city state. The one-storey, white-walled Changi Museum acknowledges the suffering of the past century, while preserving the lessons of that painful episode for the citizens of this century. It is a deft blend of paying homage to the past while keeping an eye on the future.

Both themes emerge at the door, with a nod towards Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew. 'My colleagues and I are determined that no one - neither Japanese, nor the British - had the right to push us around,' Mr Lee says in a quote from his autobiography reproduced on the main wall. 'We were determined that we would govern ourselves and bring up our children in a country where we can be self-respecting people.'

The entrance room also features remarks from George Yeo Yong Boon, Singapore's minister for trade and industry, who will preside over the opening ceremony. 'It is very important that we do not take peace for granted - that we do not always assume that there will always be harmony, that there will be no more war, that there's no need to defend ourselves,' says Mr Yeo, who graduated from military ranks into the ruling People's Action Party, a not uncommon route into parliament.

The opening salvo is completed with words from Sir Winston Churchill, wartime prime minister of Britain, then Singapore's colonial master. Visitors read that Churchill considered the threat against the island to be theoretical, and its defence attracted a lower priority than other British interests. Many military historians lay much of the blame for Singapore's ultimate loss at his door, a conclusion the museum appears to endorse.

The motivation for the project came neither from politicians nor historians, however, but from a desire to escape the destruction of the wrecking ball. A mock-up wartime chapel, built in 1988 in the grounds of Changi Prison for returning servicemen and their families, faced demolition to accommodate a planned jail revamp. With 11,000 visitors a month, nearly half of whom came from overseas, the loss of the site, however modest, would have been considerable.

And so a search was launched for a new Changi plot, while Singapore Tourist Board officials also scoured Britain, New Zealand and Australia for ex-prisoners with stories to tell and artefacts to donate. The Singapore delegations were at times forced to issue appeals through the media to find those who had lived through years of the occupation. When found, many gave their words, some of which have been written up onto the walls, while others gave their cups, bibles and diaries from that time.

The heart of the museum - both literally and emotionally - is the new chapel, which sits in the centre of the block and is open to the sky. Ranks of bare wooden benches face a crudely built shed, which houses a small crucifix. It is designed to resemble the places of worship built in many of the half-dozen Changi internment sites.

Ahead of this week's opening, families of those who experienced Changi under the Japanese were stepping over paint pots to pay their respects. Some of them left behind scraps of paper with messages to people who either never made it out alive, or who survived the years only to be haunted by the effects of captivity in the years that followed.

While some of the notes carried long messages, lists of family names and even photos of the dead, others had been scrawled on whatever odd bits of paper came to hand at the time. Under the chapel's cross, 'Belinda, Brian, Ella and the family' wrote to say a goodbye to Norman Edward Fischer, who died last August: 'We as your family will never fully understand the torment you went through. But will always remember your quick wit and humour.'

This week, Singapore is hoping that the new museum will serve to commemorate the trauma of the past, and provide a reminder of the country's vulnerability as an island nation.

Jake Lloyd-Smith ( is the Post's Southeast Asian correspondent