Thursday, February 16, 2012

The fall of S'pore casts its shadow

For many Westerners, this British defeat remains a footnote. But when you live here, you come to understand that it's more than that. I became fascinated with the story while helping my teenage daughter on the 'Adam Park Project' as she dug for bullets - and war stories. What became clear was how the defeat signalled the end of Empire, foreshadowing a wave of decolonisation that reshaped Asia, and casting a shadow that lingers to this day.
Singapore looked like a sitting duck in February 1942. Japan had bombed the island and British Malaya within hours of bombing Pearl Harbour. Japanese tanks then rolled towards Singapore, ramming through British defence lines. The colonial community appeared complacent through mid-January, attending dinner dances at Raffles Hotel as the bombs kept falling. Westerners believed what locals believed: Singapore was Britain's 'impregnable fortress' of superior military might.
Percival must have known better. The Japanese had sunk the HMS Repulse and the Prince of Wales in December due to a lack of air cover; Churchill needed the Royal Air Force in Europe. In the last week of January, retreating British troops from Malaya poured over the Causeway into Singapore. Apparently, only then did Percival implement the battle plan for a 'potential' attack on the north coast. He blew a hole in the Causeway, though he left Japan's lookout tower intact, giving the enemy a bird's-eye view of Singapore's defences.
The Japanese picked the narrowest portion of the Strait and attacked, blowing through a thin line of inexperienced Australian recruits. They rolled on, one unit engaging in hand-to-hand combat with a Cambridgeshire regiment at Adam Park, a leafy neighbourhood of black-and-white homes. Though the British reportedly held their ground for four days, Percival made the call to surrender after losing the reservoirs.
'I couldn't believe we were abandoning the territory to the enemy,' former sergeant Len Baynes, now 93, told our family over tea at his Cambridge home. 'We thought the island had to be retained at all costs.'
Three years of horrendous Japanese occupation followed. Captors staged the Sook Ching massacre straight away, lining up Chinese males deemed 'anti-Japanese' and shooting them. Meanwhile, Westerners and some locals were jammed into Changi Prison, the island's first prisoner-of-war camp.
'I was 11 when I went into this prison,' Ms Louise Branson, 81, told me when we met at Changi last week. 'We could smell bacon and eggs for the Japanese, but we were starving. At night I could hear the 'boots' coming for women. 'They're coming, change places!' My sisters and I would lie over my mum to hide her.'
Like many Singaporeans, she grew to hate the Japanese, and lost respect for the British who had actually bombed her family home by mistake while trying to defend the island.
Disillusionment with Britain continued after the war. I asked a retired teacher how she felt when the British returned: 'We renamed the Royal Air Force 'run away fellas'.' Her comment seems to sum up one reason why Asia decolonised, and why the fall of Singapore still casts a shadow today.
So what shadow do Westerners see?
Vigilant security tops the list: officials paid well to keep the 'tiny red dot' on secure footing; missiles capable of hitting enemy aircraft 24/7; a nation keen on alliances, including the deal to bring United States Navy combat ships here. We note these differences: national service, Gurkhas in jeeps, armed police on patrol by the American Club. When counting pluses, parents cite safety. We don't flinch about allowing teens to take taxis alone at night. That's not the case in London or in American cities.
Relations with Japan appear amicable. Japan is an ally, many Japanese live here, and sushi is popular. But hard feelings and superstitions linger. I once asked a taxi driver to take me to a Japanese gravesite near the Old Sime Road camp. He abruptly stopped the taxi and told me to get out. For some, forgiving Japan is impossible.
The cloud over Singapore-Britain relations seems to have disappeared. Singapore is one of Britain's largest export markets outside Europe, and 700 British companies are based here.
Officials here do focus on developing the nation's wartime memory, from designating Feb 15 'Total Defence Day' to creating commemorations - special museums, bus tours, walks, conferences and battlefield archaeology projects. 'We haven't had a big disaster since World War II,' National Archives director Eric Tan observed. He listed the values he wants young Singaporeans to affirm this month: resilience, love for country, honour for those who died.
As people bow their heads at Kranji, and listen to veterans' stories, they shore up the nation's memory. No doubt, the shadow of Singapore's defeat will be spreading even further.
The writer is a freelance journalist who has lived in Singapore since 2007.