The Civilian War Memorial is a monument that commemorates those who lost their lives during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (February 1942—September 1945). Situated in a park near the busy junction of Bras Basah Road and Beach Road in downtown Singapore, four 64.7 metres-tall obelisks were erected in the middle of a shallow pool. Their merging at their bases symbolises the collective suffering of four ethnic groups in Singapore — the Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians during the Japanese Occupation.
Swan and Mclaren's original design of the Clivilian War Memorial was submitted by the architecture firm as an entry for the design competition for the memorial in April April 1963. Sin Chew Jit Poh, 31 May 1963. Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved. Sin Chew Jit Poh, Singapore 1963.
Its is interesting to note that the Civilian War Memorial that stands today is very different from what would have resulted if the originally proposed design had been adhered to. The campaign for a war memorial was initiated by the Chinese community and intended to commemorate specifically the victims of the Sook Ching massacre, who had been predominantly Chinese.
However, when the government took over the campaign, the memorial was “moulded to the cause of nation building”. It was reshaped into one that enshines “a national ideology of Singapore being united through having undergone [a] common suffering.
The Sook Ching Massacre
Mass-screening center at Jalan Besar. Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.
Sook Ching was a two-week mass screening operation carried out by the Japanese military on 18 February 1942— three days after the fall of Singapore - to purge anti-Japanese elements within the Chinese community. In order to Identify who these anti-Japanese Chinese might be, the military summoned all Chinese males between the age of 18 and 50 to designated screening centres for inspection. Those who passed the inspection were issued “good citizen” cards, while those who failed were detained, sent to remote locations across Singapore, and executed.
The Japanese had various methods for executing the Chinese suspected of being anti-Japanese. The first method was carried out off the shores of Tanjong Pagar, Punggol Beach and Tanah Merah Besar Beach. The Japanese would first send the suspects out Into the sea in boats. The suspects, with their hands and legs tied together, were then thrown overboard before being machine-gunned to death.
Mass-screening center at Tanjong Pagar Police Station. It was reported that people detained in this center were executed near Blakang Mati Island (present-day Sentosa). Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.
The second method was carried out in remote areas of Singapore such as Bedok and Siglap. The Japanese would first force the suspects, herded with ropes, to march deep into the jungle before ordering them to dig large ditches. They were then instructed to line up at the edges of these ditches, and were then machine-gunned.
The third method of killing took place on the beaches of Changi. The suspects transported to this site were first ordered to march to the shore. With their backs to the firing squad, they were then mowed down with machine-gun fire.
This ordeal was recounted by Chan Cheng Yean, a survivor of a Bedok execution on 28 February 1942:
“I think [there were] three trenches altogether, 90 of us divided into three trenches. I was [in front of] the first trench. [The Japanese then started to line up the) firing squad [in front] of us. The order came and then they just [shot), bang .. . then the second time they (shot], bang .. . up to [around] about three times like that. Those who died [fell] down. I was hit on my knee. Suddenly, I [realised] that I [was] still alive. So when the first man dropped dead, I followed him. Automatically, I followed him … I just fall In (on top]. Then the third man covered me … To make sure all [were] dead, (the Japanese fired] a third [round of shots]. Another 10 rounds, bomp-bomp-bomp, finished. Then they [had] no time [so] they [covered us] with (planks]. And then they [went on] to the next group and (then) onto another group, and they finished [the execution] in 20 minutes’ time.”
Yap Van Hong, another Sook Ching survivor of a Changi beach massacre, narrated his experience:
“After the whistle, the machine gun(fire started]. I took a deep breath and went underwater and I could hear the bullets ricocheting above me. I never knew what ricocheting bullets sounded like. And that was the first occasion I heard it. It went zheeon zheeon zheeon above the water … If you ask me how long the firing lasted, I am not able to tell you. I only knew that It lasted for quite some time and suddenly it stopped, the firing stopped. So when the firing stopped I was telling myself, “These people will come out to find those who are still wounded to finish them off. They will not leave any wounded.” And I was right. I heard the chung chung of a motor-boat .. . When the sound of the motor-boat came nearer to me, I stayed underwater. Immediately after that, the searchlight came on. And it was searching the sea … When the motor-boat came out, there were a few pistol shots. That [meant] they must have found some wounded and finished them off . . . Eventually the searchlights (went] off and I started to swim underwater to get away from the area as fast as I could.”
Lim Boon Keng, President of the Overseas Chinese Association (OCA) handing over the $50 million to General Yamashita 27 June 1942. Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.
The total number of Chinese killed during the Sook Ching operation varies considerably according to different reports. The Japanese put the figure at about 5,000, while the Chinese estimated it to be around 100,000. But it has been widely assumed that the number of victims was between 25,000 and 50,000. Furthermore, after the operation, the Chinese community had to raise M$50 million as “tribute money” to pay the Japanese so as to prove their loyalty.
The cheque that was given to General Yamashita. Raising the $50 million was a difficult task for the OCA. In the end it was only able to raise $25 million. The rest was loaned to the association by the Yokohama Special Bank. Courtesy National Archives of Singapore.
After the Japanese Occupation, the Chinese community tried to seek closure. Organisations such as the Singapore Chinese Massacred Appeal Committee as well as Tan Kah Kee’s fund-raising committees, namely the China Relief Fund Committee of Singapore and the South Seas China Relief Fund Union, were among the first to attempt to determine the number of Chinese killed during the Sook Ching operation as part of the effort to press the Japanese government for monetary compensation. They also proposed that a war memorial for the Sook Ching victims be constructed. Despite having reported that they had secured a site for the memorial, the plan failed to materialise. A widely-cited reason for the lack of progress was the inability to locate the massacre sites In order to rebury the dead at the memortal site.
The failure to formally set up a memorial site, however, did not stop the relatives of Sook Ching victims from carrying out their own mourning rituals. Driven by the anxiety to appease the souls of their loved ones who had died violently and without a proper burial, families set up ancestral tablets for the victims in their homes so that they could tender the proper offerings to their dead. This was the least the families could do to prevent the dead from becoming “hungry ghosts.”
Chinese academia In Singapore also devised their own way of commemorating the Sook Ching victims: they collected and published the names of the victims. Although this effort began in late 1945, it was not until 1955 that a “most fully recorded” name list was published by Hsu Yun-Tsiao in the Journal of the South Seas Society. The list had about 7,100 names and included the names of victims from Singapore and Malaya.
A Sook Ching Memorial
In February 1962, a Sook Ching mass grave was unearthed by sand-washing workers in Siglap. This discovery reawakened the painful collective memories of the Chinese in Singapore and triggered a strong reaction from the community.
Among the first to respond was the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce (SCCC). It dispatched a team to inspect the Siglap site and to locate other mass graves. When the team returned with further discoveries in Bedok, Bukit Timah, Changi, East Coast and Yio Chu Kang, the SCCC set up an action committee on 1 March 1963 to manage the exhumation of the mass graves. The committee also initiated a campaign to erect a memorial. This was to provide a final resting place for the Sook Ching victims and a site for their families to carry out mourning rituals. To “avenge” the Sook Ching victims, the SCCC demanded that the Japanese government compensate the Chinese community for the atrocities committed against them, a gesture that the SCCC referred to as paying a “blood debt.”
The SCCC’s demands, however, were refused by the Japanese government. Through its consulate in Singapore, the Japanese government issued a statement that compensation claims had already been settled in the ratification of the San Francisco Treaty in 1951. They added that furthermore, they had no reason to address the matter as the Singapore government had not lodged any such demand.
The Japanese government’s response was swiftly rebutted by Ko Teck Kin, then the President of SCCC. Speaking to the press on 3 March 1962, Ko reiterated that the SCCC’s demand was “just and reasonable”. He then berated the Japanese government, saying that it was using the San Francisco Treaty “as an excuse not to address the problem”. Ko further added that the massacre carrted out by the Japanese military was “a crime that has nothing to do with the treaty.” He also said the treaty did not give any justice to the families because it did not “give even a single cent” to them.
In the weeks that followed, the press released many reports on the new discoveries of mass graves and the ongoing exhumation process. These were accompanied by comments expressing the frustration over the fact that even 20 years after the Japanese Occupation, the Chinese Community was still searching for the closure they needed. The press also urged the Singapore government to “unconditionally offer it assistance” to help the SCCC’s action committee erect a memorial so that “the step of appeasing the dead and consoling the victims’ relatives could be carried out more smoothly.”
The Singapore government, however, did not favour the perception of the proposed memorial being dedicated to the Chinese community alone because they felt that the nation suffered collectively during the Japanese Occupation. On 14 March 1962, Lee Kuan Yew, then the Prime Minister of Singapore, raised this issue before the Legislative Assembly. He said that it was “difficult” for the government to confirm the “actual Identity of the persons who had been massacred”, only that it was certain that the “people of Singapore as a whole” had “suffered by these massacres”. As a result, the government felt that any “atonement should be made to the people of Singapore collectively.”
Becoming an Inclusive Memorial
On the insistence of the government, SCCC began to pursue the campaign with a new multiethnic dimension. On 25 July 1962, the SCCC agreed that any compensation from the Japanese government would not be paid to the relatives of the Sook Ching victims but to the government, who would spend it with the interests of the nation in mind. On 15 March 1963, after the government allocated the present site on which the SCCC could erect a memorial, the SCCC in turn announced that it would work with the government to build a memorial for all victims of the Japanese Occupation, regardless of ethnicity. The announcement also came with the decision that the SCCC and the government would not re-bury the excavated remains in a common grave as had been planned earlier. Instead, these remains would be cremated and placed at the proposed memorial site. This was decided on in order to accommodate the burial practices of all the ethnic groups.
On 9 April 1963, the SCCC added representatives from other ethnic groups to its action committee for the war memorial campaign. A.H. Allwie and Ja’afar Shahld were both appointed to represent the Malay community, while the Indian community was represented by D.T. Assomull and P.T. Nathan. The representative for the Eurasian community was Theo Leijssus.
To ensure that the memorial would materialise, the government agreed to cover half of its construction cost, which was estimated to be about M$500,000. The government also facilitated the SCCC’s raising of the other half of the costs by allowing them to solicit public donations. The Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, even personally supported the SCCC’s fund-raising activities by attending one of Its donation drives on 21 April 1963, where he made a donation of M$100. He also took the occasion to remind the people that the process of mourning the victims of the Japanese Occupation was also about remembering the hardship that the people of Singapore had endured. He said that the government “could have built this memorial without public contributions”, but decided “that the memorial will have more meaning and give more satisfaction to the thousands of people who have been so deeply hurt during the Japanese occupation if the people themselves contribute towards the memorlal”. Lee would repeat this message in his speech at the “Breaking the Sod” ceremony for the memorial on 15 June 1963.
The government also played a part in the design of the memoriai. After the site for the proposed memorial was announced, the architecture firm Swan and McClaren was commissioned to design the memorial. The design that was unveiled on 31 May 1963 featured two inverse arches rising to a point with a total of twelve water fountains at the front. It did not contain any of the multi-ethnic characteristics that we see In today’s memorlal. In September 1965, the government requested changes to the design. Swan and McClaren was again commissioned to produce a new design. This resulted in the memorial that we see today.
Besides overseeing the building process, the government also worked with the Japanese government to resolve the matter of compensation. An agreement was reached on 25 October 1966; the Japanese government agreed to pay a total of M$50 million to the Singapore government. By then, the SCCC and the government had completed the exhumation of the mass graves. The remains that were exhumed from more than 50 mass graves were stored in 606 urns.” Before they were buried on 1 November 1966, the public was invited to pay their last respects from 28 October to 31 October 1966.
Under a black urn with lion heads in relief, the words inscribed on the white marble pedestal are "In deep and lasting sorrow this memorial is dedicated in memory of those or our civilians who were killed between February 15, 1942 and August 18, 1945 when the Japanese Armed Forces occupied Singapore." Translations in Malay and Tamil flank it on the right and left respectively. Herwin M. Nasir for National Library Board Singapore. All rights reserved.
On 1 November 1966, a ceremony was held to observe the interment of the 606 urns. The urns were buried on both sides of the memorial podium. At the end of the re-burial, Soon Peng Yam, then president of SCCC, laid a wreath at the memorial “on behalf of the Singapore people” before leading public mourners, other members of the SCCC and the action committee for the war memorial campaign to observe a three-minute silence. During the ceremony, an official from the SCCC extended an invitation to all religious representatives for the unveiling ceremony of the memorial the following year.
The Civilian War Memorial was unveiled on 15 February 1967, 25 years after the fall of Singapore. The unveiling ceremony was attended by thousands of mourners from the public as well as the leaders of the Inter-Religious Council (IRO), made up of representatives from the Islamic, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh and Zoroastrian faiths.
During the ceremony, Lee Kuan Yew, then Prime Minister of Singapore, unveiled a plaque and laid the first wreath at the foot of memorial, before joining the guests and the crowd in a three-minute silence. He then highlighted the symbolism of the memorial in his speech:
“This piece of concrete commemorates an experience which, in spite of its horrors, served as a catalyst in building a nation out of the young and unestablished community of diverse immigrants. We suffered together. It told us that we share a common destiny. And it is through sharing such common experiences that the feeling of living and being one community is established.”
The government reshaped the Civilian War Memorial from one that was intended to commemorate the Sook Ching victims and the Chinese community to a memorial that honoured all the victims of the atrocities suffered during the Japanese Occupation, regardless of ethnicity.
On 15 February every year, a commemorative service held at the site illustrates what the Civilian War Memorial now symbolises. The service is led by members of the government and SCCC (later renamed Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry). It is also attended by members of the public and representatives from religious groups, business and clan associations, and schools. Former prisoners of war from Britain, New Zealand and Australia, and also veterans of the battles of Singapore and Malaya are also frequently present.
During the service, the SCCC’s president lays a wreath at the foot of the memorial before leading the attendees in prayer and in observing a minute of silence. The memorial has shed its original motivations as an exclusive emblem of remembrance to now become a monumental reminder of the government’s vision of a multiethnic society.
The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions of Dr Ernest C.T. Chew, Visiting Professorial Fellow, Institute Southeast Asian Studies, in reviewing this article.
Lim Tin Seng
Lee Kong Chian Reference Library
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