The Battle for Singapore
The Beginning of a Nightmare
When Singapore was Syonan-to
Lessons from the Japanese Conquest
The British had built a Naval Base in northern Singapore. In addition, the British built underground bunkers in secret places all over the island. These bunkers were used as stores or air-raid shelters for defence purposes.
The defence plans for Singapore were designed to prevent an attack from the sea. The big guns that were placed in Singapore were to be used for firing at big ships. These guns could also be turned landwards to fire at enemies on land. However, they were not equipped with the right ammunition to shoot at such enemies.
The British did not think that Singapore could be attacked from the land because the jungles of Johor were difficult territory for enemy soldiers to move in. Thus little was done to defend northern Singapore. The naval base, underground bunkers, big guns and the natural protection of the Johor jungles led the British to believe that Singapore was as strong as a fortress.
The Japanese soldiers, however, were well-trained in jungle warfare, and so the jungles of Malaya were not a problem to them. While the Japanese were invading Malaya, they also dropped bombs on Singapore. The British fighter planes were outnumbered by the Japanese "Zero" fighters. Soon, the British moved their planes from the airfields in Singapore to Sumatra. The airfields in Singapore were abandoned before the Japanese soldiers landed on the island. The British air defence failed to protect Singapore. In addition, the Singapore Naval Base was destroyed by the British themselves to prevent the Japanese from making use of it. The air and sea defences of the British had thus been crippled. By 31 January 1942, the Japanese were already in Johor Bahru - the doorstep of Singapore. Only a damaged Causeway separated Johor Bahru from Singapore.
The Japanese Commander, General Yamashita, set up
his headquarters at the Sultan of Johor's palace. The choice was a
clever one because the palace had a five-storey high tower. From
this tower, General Yamashita could see every key target in
northern Singapore. Although the tower was an easy target for the
British, Yamashita was confident that the British would not fire
at the home of their old friend, Sultan Ibrahim. He was right.
To mislead the British, the Japanese in Johor made
intense bombings at Changi. To make it even more convincing, the
Japanese attacked Pulau Ubin on 7 February 1942. Thinking that the
Japanese intended to invade Singapore from the northeast, the
British moved precious stocks of defence supplies like petrol and
explosives from the northwest to the northeast. This was exactly
what the Japanes had wanted the British to do.
Since the narrowest point of the Johor Strait was
at the northwest of Singapore, it was easy for the Japanese to
cross the Strait there. But the British had not stationed a large
number of troops there. The Japanese found it easy to send
divisions of soldiers across from Johor to Singapore in rubber
boats and on rafts. Some of their tanks were also floated across
the Johor Strait. The Allied soldiers, who had too large an area
to defend, opened fire at the Japanese but could not stop
The Japanese quickly repaired the Causeway so that
both men and equipment could move easily into Singapore. To
prepare for the worst, the British Commander, General A.E.
Percival, made plans for the British soldiers to withdraw to
protect the town centre if the situation called for it. When
Percival issued the secret plans in the midst of the battle, they
were interpreted as a command to withdraw immediately. Thus, many
of the British soldiers on the western part of the island withdrew
even before the Japanese soldiers moved into the area. When the
mistake was discovered, orders were given to counter-attack, but
these were carried out half-heartedly. By then, the Japanese had
gained control of Bukit Timah.
On 11 February, the Japanese reached the Bukit
Timah area. It was an important place as the British had stocked
up food and ammunition as well as vehicle and machine parts there.
The north-eastern slope of the hill faced a reservoir, which was
vital source of water supply. It was here that the fiercest
fighting took place. Armed only with swords, grenades, rifles and
guns that they used for hunting birds and animals, the Chinese
Volunteers fought bravely, side by side with the Allied soldiers.
Many on both sides were killed. The Japanese later took revenge on
the Chinese by killing all the Chinese men, women and children
found in the village.
By 13 February 1942, the Japanese had already reached Pasir Panjang Ridge (Kent Ridge Park). It was close to the Alexandra area where the main ammunition stores and British military hospital were located.
There, some men of the Malay Regiment, led by Lieutenant (Lt.) Adnan bin Saidi fought bravely. Many of the Japanese soldiers were killed or wounded. The next day, some Japanese soldiers tried to disguise themselves as Indian soldiers in the British army. It was Lt. Adnan who was sharp enough to noticed that those familiar turbaned figures were marching in fours instead of the usual threes in the British army. He ordered his solders to open fire, killing several of them. This cause the rest of the Japanese to flee down the hill.
But, the Japanese were soon able to surround the
hill. The Malays were heavily outnumbered. Fierce hand-to-hand
bayonet fighting took place. Many soldiers on both sides were
killed. Lt. Adnan was also hit by the enemy's fire. In spite of
his wounds, he kept on fighting. He was later captured by the
Japanese and stabbed to death.
The Japanese then marched into Alexandra Hospital
(then a British military hospital). There the Japanese killed the
doctors, hospital staff, patients and even a British corporal who
was lying on the operating table.
15 February was Chinese New Year's day. A
meeting was held in the underground bunker of Fort Canning.
Percival wanted to discuss ways to counter-attack but his
commanders were against the idea. There were too many problems.
The soldiers were tired. The prospect of street fighting meant
more would be killed. Their supplies of food and water were
running out. To prevent further bloodshed, they decided to
The British surrendered to the Japanese at the Ford Motor Factory in Bukit Timah. It was a cheerless New Year's day for the Chinese. Unknown to Percival, Yamashita had also used up most of his ammunition. Whatever weapons he had were those which the British had left behind in their hasty retreat. Yamashita's soldiers were outnumbered by more than three to one.
The occupation of Singapore by the Japanese was like a long nightmare that lasted for three and a half years. During this period known as the Japanese Occupation, the people suffered and lived in constant fear of the Japanese - the price that a country has to pay when it is occupied by another country.
"Syonan-to" was the new name that Japanese gave Singapore. It was a Japanese name which meant "the Light of the South". However, this light did not shine brightly as the people of Singapore spent the darkest days of their lives under the rule of the Japanese.
One of the first things that the Japanese did was to imprison all the Europeans found in Singapore. They became prisoners-of-war (P.O.W.s). The P.O.W.s were kept in various prison camps such as Changi Prison, Selarang Barracks, Sime Road Camp and other camps.
Life was hard for the P.O.W.s. Some were sent to Thailand where they were made to construct a railroad. It was difficult working on the railroad as the men were given simple tools to fell huge trees and cut through rocks. They were made to work long hours and were not given enough food to eat. The Japanese engineers had estimated that it would take five years to build the railroad. But, the P.O.W.s were forced to work so hard that it was completed in 16 months. The whole project cost the lives of thousands of people who worked on it and the railway became known as the Death Railway.
Those who remained in Singapore in the prison camps also suffered a great deal. They were made to clean up the city, bury the dead bodies, and restore water and electricity supplies. There was a great shortage of food. The P.O.W.s had to plant their own vegetables as they often did not have enough to eat. At the Sime Road Camp, some of the men discovered that if they added talcum powder to their rice porridge, they would have a fuller meal! Due to the poor health conditions in the prisons, many P.O.W.s fell ill and died.
The Japanese had told the people of Singapore that they had come to set them free from British rule. However, the people of all races found that they were not freed. Instead, they had new masters. In fact, they lived in fear of their new Japanese rulers.
Barbed wire was put across the roads to form roadblocks. Japanese guards then bullied the people passing by, sometimes making them kneel on the roadside for hours. Once, a cyclist who tried to ride away when the Japanese guard was not looking was caught. He was made to kneel down and was then hit on the head until he fainted. The Japanese soldiers wanted everyone to obey them and to show them respect. Whenever anyone passed a Japanese soldier on guard duty, he had to bow to him. If he did not do so, he would be slapped, kicked or punished in some other way.
The Malays suffered under the Japanese. Some Malays were arrested from the streets by Japanese soldiers and sent to Thailand to build the Death Railway. They were not spared if they did something wrong as the Japanese did not hesitate to beat them or chop off their heads.
The Japanese wanted the Indians to join the Indian National Army (I.N.A.) to fight against the British in India. However, many Indian soldiers (mainly Sikhs) and the Gurkhas in the British Army refused to join the I.N.A.. Some of those who refused were killed. The Indians, too, were not spared from the Death Railway.
The Eurasians also suffered under the Japanese because they looked like Europeans. Many were put in prison camps. Several of the Eurasians were members of the Singapore Volunteer Corps and had fought against the Japanese. Those suspected of helping the British were shot.
It was the Chinese who suffered the most. They had actively helped China in its fight against Japan. To punish them, the Japanese told all Chinese men between 18 and 50 years of age (sometimes women and children too) to report at certain centres. There, they were "examined" by the Japanese. There was no proper way for deciding who was anti-Japanese. At some centres, men wearing hoods or masks would simply point out certain people as enemies of the Japanese.
Those who were identified as anti-Japanese were not allowed to go home. Some were given a small piece of paper stamped with the word "Examined". The word could be stamped onto their shirts or arms and became an important pass which allowed them to avoid further questioning by the Japanese.
However, there were thousands who were identified as being anti-Japanese. These were taken in lorries to Changi Beach and other beaches on the east coast.
The Chinese in Singapore and Malaya were also forced to form the Overseas Chinese Association and were made to contribute $50 million towards Japan's war efforts. The Chinese leaders found it hard to raise the money. Though they were prepared to sell their houses, no one could afford to buy them. The Chinese in Singapore and Malaya could collect only $28 million altogether and had to borrow the rest from a Japanese bank.
Before the Japanese took full control of Singapore, there were many looters who stole whatever they could lay their hands on. To stop further looting, the Japanese shot those who were caught, beheaded them, and had their heads displayed at Dhoby Ghaut (near Cathay Cinema), Anderson Bridge and Kallang Bridge. The looting stopped at once.
The Japanese Military Police, known as the Kempeitai, were probably the most feared of all the Japanese. They had spies all over the island and encouraged people to supply them with information by giving rewards and privileges. As a result, nobody knew who to trust. A cloud of suspicion and fear hung over Singapore.
Anti-Japanese suspects would be arrested and taken to a Kempeitai building, such as the YMCA building at Orchard Road, or the Central Police Station at South Bridge Road. There, the suspects were beaten and tortured until they revealed the information that the Japanese wanted.
To remove Western influence, the Japanese set up schools to teach the people the Japanese language. Textbooks were printed in Japanese. Every morning, the children had to stand facing the direction of Japan and sing the Japanese national anthem.
In the cinemas, only Japanese movies and propaganda films were shown. These films showed the virtues of the Japanese and made fun of the British. Going to the cinemas had its dangers too since the Japanese might suddenly appear and take away young men to work on the Death Railway. Sometimes, the Japanese would plant themselves in the cinemas and would listen secretly to conversations, hoping to overhear anti-Japanese remarks.
The local Chinese and English newspapers had very little local news. Most of what was reported was the Japanese version of the war and pro-Japanese speeches. Radio stations were controlled by the Japanese and radio owners could listen only to local broadcasts. Tuning in to foreign broadcasting stations was done at great risk. Those caught doing so were severely punished or even killed.
Many people experienced hunger during the Occupation because there was a shortage of food. Essential foodstuffs like rice, salt and sugar were controlled. Ration cards which limited the amount of food for each person were given out. If a person wanted milk powder from a shop, the shopkeeper would say that he had none. But if one was prepared to pay a very high price, the shopkeeper would know where to get it. This was known as the "blackmarket". If a person was not able to pay the price, he or she had to go without it. The people were also encouraged to grow more food. Even in schools, pupils had to look after vegetable plots.
But the food shortage did not affect the Japanese. They had the best of everything: rice, sugar, meat, fish, whisky and cigarettes.
The situation was made worse by the money which the Japanese issued. These were called "banana notes" as many of them had pictures of banana trees or other fruit on them. The money was printed on poor quality paper and had no serial number. Whenever the authorities needed more money, they printed more notes. As a result, there were lots of banana notes and their value dropped.
The money was worth so little that the phrase "banana money" came to mean useless money. Some people even went shopping with bags of banana notes. In fact, a used towel could fetch as much as $300 worth of banana notes!
An anti-Japanese group, called the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (M.P.A.J.A.) was secretly formed to fight against the Japanese. Members of this group would carry out sudden attacks on the Japanese officers and their men whenever they had the chance. They hid in the Malayan jungles to escape from the Japanese. To ensure a regular supply of food, M.P.A.J.A. members grew crops deep in the jungles. They also tried to arouse anti-Japanese feeling among the people by distributing newspapers to them.
Another group which aimed to recapture Malaya and Singapore from the Japanese was Force 136. This was a secret British organisation which was set up to gather information about the Japanese. Local men were also recruited into the Force. They were trained in India and sent secretly into Malaya by submarine to help the M.P.A.J.A. in its fight against the Japanese. Lim Bo Seng, a Singapore businessman, was one of the leaders in Force 136. Unfortunately, he was captured in March 1944. Although he was tortured severely, he refused to reveal the names of those who worked with him. He finally died in prison in June 1944.
Several invaluable lessons can be learnt from the the swift Japanese invasion and occupation of Singapore.
The defeat of the British was due partly to their poor preparations for war. They under-estimated their enemies. Their soldiers were disorganised and their defence was weak. From this, one can learn the lesson that the government and people of a country should always be well-prepared to defend the country against any enemy.
The British defeat by the Japanese (who were Asians) showed that the Europeans were not superior to the Asians. After the war, many Asians did not respect the British as much as they had done before the war.
The sufferings that the people went through during the Japanese occupation also taught the people to see the need to get rid of their foreign masters. In the words of Lee Kuan Yew, who later became the first Prime Minister of Singapore,