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Singapore's Road to Independence

Updated: Aug 16, 2021

Singapore celebrated her 56th year of independence on August 9. Despite this tender age, when compared to other countries, the fight for independence anywhere deserves greatness and glory equal to the magnitude of its grit and gore. Apart from folklore hailing Srivijayan Prince Sang Nila Utama who stumbled upon this island he named Singapura (“The Lion City”); British imperialism; or the bold separation from Malaysia, perhaps the most critical epoch in Singapore’s history is the Japanese Occupation.

The Time When Singapore was Syonan-to

Following the successful Malayan Campaign, the Japanese arrived from the north, confounding the British commanders who had expected a naval attack from the south. Surrender was swift after only a week into invasion. Singapore, once heralded the Crown Jewel of The Empire, the “impregnable fortress,” fell into the dark reign of the Japanese on 15 February 1942 who renamed it Syonan-to (“Light of the South Island”). Being the largest surrender of British-led forces ever, then Prime Minister Churchill called the loss of Singapore “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.”

Britain surrenders Singapore to the Japanese. Lieutenant-General Yamashita (seated, third from the left) faces Lt. Gen. Percival (sitting second from the right, back to camera)

Sook Ching

The reign of terror brought an extensive genocide of ethnic Chinese who were deemed to be anti-Japanese by a system termed Sook Ching (肃清 in Simplified Chinese denoting “purging through cleansing”). The Japanese relied on informants to determine who to pick, but people were also persecuted simply for not bowing to Japanese military personnel on the streets! While other ethnicities were not spared, the great majority was Chinese given Japanese suspicions over the ongoing Sino-Japanese War. The massacre was carried out by the Kempeitai (Japanese military police) similarly to Nazi death pits, mostly at beaches. Prisoners of war (POWs) were also used as labor on the Siam-Burma Death Railway where, as the name of it suggests, many died in its construction due to harsh, unforgiving conditions.

Diorama depicting the Japanese soldiers screening Chinese men during the Japanese Occupation in Singapore. From 21 February to 4 March 1942, the Japanese carried out Operation Sook Ching to weed out the anti-Japanese elements amount the Chinese community with brutality and execution exhibit during 700 years of Singapore's history at the National Museum of Singapore.

Life under the Japanese

As with any colonization, media and education were greatly changed in line with Japanese propaganda to disrupt Western influence. Basic goods were acquired through ration cards called “Peace Living Certificates” and British Straits currency were displaced by “Banana Money” (so named due to the banana tree printed on notes). The establishment of a command economy led to scarcity, hyperinflated prices and black markets. The devaluation of Banana Money was worsened by the authorities’ unregulated printing of it whenever they needed more, thus making necessities virtually inaccessible for citizens. People turned to subsistence farming of tapiocas and potatoes in their own backyards.

Ten dollar note issued by the Japanese Government during the occupation of Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei. Courtesy Jacklee

Map of Singapore (known as Syonan-to) under Japanese rule. Courtesy Magyer Lohasa

Japanese Surrender

Following the US’ bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Soviet invasion of Manchukuo, the Japanese were forced to surrender. Three years later, on 12 September 1945, the Japanese Occupation ended.

The Japanese delegation leaves the Municipal Building after the surrender ceremony on 12 September 1945. Courtesy the Imperial War Museums.

Significance of the Occupation in Singapore’s Independence

When the British returned off the heels of Japanese forfeit, the country didn't return to its pre-war status quo. The jarring failure of Britain in defending its colonies destroyed entire belief systems glorifying a seemingly infallible British prowess which had been used to justify colonialism. The emergence of nationalistic and anti-colonial sentiments grew, with the call for Merdeka (“independence”) becoming widespread and resonant.

This led to the dissolution of the Straits Settlements in 1946 which gave Singapore greater autonomy as a Crown Colony, regulated by the British but not ruled by them. The State of Singapore Act was passed in 1958 to enable full internal self-government after local government effectively abolished communist and leftist groups following ideologically-backed riots. The hoped-for merger with Malaysia a half a decade later for practical reasons fell through with persistent racial tensions manifesting in a series of bloodshed-filled conflicts. There was simply no choice but to separate. Less than two years later, on August 9, 1965, Singapore became independent.

Museums to Visit

Hopefully, the brief glimpse into Singapore’s short but rich history has piqued your interest! Here are three places worth the trip to learn more during this period celebrating Singapore’s independence! And note there are also monuments throughout Singapore dedicated to this time in history.

1. Changi Chapel and Museum The museum presents artefacts and anecdotes to recount the unfathomable experiences of prisoners of war and civilians interned at the Changi prison camp, offering a display of the resilience and stoicism the human spirit is capable of. Location: 1000 Upper Changi Road North, Singapore 507707 Opening Hours: Tuesday to Sunday (closed every Monday except Public Holidays), 9.30am to 5.30pm (last admission 5pm) Visit their website for more information on admissions:

Newly revamped Changi Chapel. It was modelled after St. George's Church and painstakingly built by prisoners of war. Courtesy of Changi Chapel and Museum. Image courtesy of Changi Chapel and Museum.

2. Former Ford Factory The very site where the Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival surrendered unconditionally to Lieutenant-General Yamashita, sealing the fate of Singapore for the next three years. Location: 351 Upper Bukit Timah Road, Singapore 588192 Opening Hours: Tuesday to Sunday (closed every Monday except Public Holiday – not including first day of CNY), 9am to 5.30 pm Visit their website for more information on admissions:

Exterior of the museum. Image courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

3. Battlebox Built in 1936, the Battlebox is a 9-metre underground emergency bunker and command centre buried inside Fort Canning Hill. It was part of the headquarters for the British, boasting a labyrinth of 30 rooms. This is where the decision to surrender was made. Location: 2 Cox Terrace, Singapore 179622 Opening Hours: Fridays to Sundays and Public Holidays, 9.30am to 5.30pm Visit their website for more information on admissions.

Entrance to the Battlebox. Image courtesy of Battlebox Singapore.

About the author Born and bred in Singapore, Theodorus graduated with an IB Diploma from Anglo-Chinese School (Independent). He has a penchant for creative problem-solving and holds multiple World Finals awards from his time competing in Odyssey of the Mind. He believes in the power of culture and of volunteerism to bridge humans with one another. Currently a trainee with the Republic of Singapore Air Force, he is also awaiting matriculation.

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