IT INTRIGUES historian Kevin Blackburn that each time the fall of Singapore is observed on Feb 15 at the Civilian War Memorial, there is little poignancy and power.
By Lee Siew Hua, Senior Writer
Yet, that pivotal day at the start of the Japanese occupation 70 years ago produced the seeds of modern Singapore.
A new nationalism was stirred in that season of great suffering, epitomised by the massacre of 20,000 Chinese - perceived to be hostile elements - between Feb 18 and March 4, 1942, by Japanese death squads.
Chronicler of the war years
DR KEVIN Blackburn, 46, is an associate professor of history at the National Institute of Education (NIE). The Australian has taught trainee teachers in Singapore since arriving here in June 1993.
He grew up among pineapple farms and cattle properties in central Queensland, where he heard an older generation recount stories of how they had fought the Japanese in far-off places.
He has since published four books and numerous papers on war memory, the prisoner of war experience, oral history and heritage.
This year, in time for the 70th anniversary of the fall of Singapore today, he published two books on the Japanese occupation.
With British historian and former NIE colleague Karl Hack, he co-wrote War Memory And The Making Of Modern Malaysia And Singapore. He also authored The Sportsmen Of Changi, the story of how sport became a lifeline for prisoners of war.
In his community role, he has worked with the Singapore Tourism Board on heritage projects. He led the historical consultancy on the Johore Battery heritage site in Changi (2001-2002). He also advised on the Changi Chapel and Museum project (2000-2001).
Dr Blackburn pursued his bachelor's and PhD in history at the University of Queensland.
He is married to Madam Tan Swee Ngin, a Malaysian and fellow NIE lecturer who teaches chemistry. They have a daughter and son who are young teenagers.
Q&A: Rediscovering the voices of history
Why does your research highlight Dalforce, the Chinese volunteer unit that resisted the Japanese here? What does Dalforce reveal about our war generation and heroism?
We know there were taxi dancers, Raffles College students, young and old in Dalforce. It did represent a cross-section of Chinese society, although it was broadly communist.
The whole idea of a crash course to fight the enemy was so spontaneous.
It happened in the space of a few weeks in 1942. Knowing they could be sent to the front line, the volunteers were still drawn to Dalforce.
So, Dalforce lent itself to being made into a legend, even though its numbers were small, just 1,250 at the front line.
It sounds preposterous, crazy, that someone who was 66 like Madam Cheng Seang Ho, a grandmother, could join. But her story is documented. It is compelling because we tend to see the cliches of young men dressed up for war.
Singapore is so pragmatic now, but Dalforce had a kind of romanticism.
Although war repels us, at least there were people who went out singing songs about building a Great Wall of China against the enemy.
While the Singapore Government decisively closed the chapter on Japanese atrocities to focus instead on learning from Japan, how did the dynamics change when Japan appeared unrepentant in the 1980s?
The need for Japan was much greater in earlier years. But in 1982, Japan was getting a roasting from Korea and China for trying to expunge Japanese aggression in East Asia from school textbooks.
In Singapore that year, parliamentarian Ow Chin Hock said the wartime generation wasn't very happy about the Learn from Japan campaign, but they acquiesced.
In 1990, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, shortly after stepping down as prime minister, said 'the Japanese conscience is yet to be purified'.
Japan had come out as unrepentant, and Japanese politicians practised the art of seeming to apologise.
So, by the 90s, the Singapore leadership was willing to change their views. Singapore, by then, had a mixture of foreign investments and was no longer heavily dependent on Japanese capital.
What is the value of having multiple, ordinary voices for the war narrative and the Singapore Story?
It is about turning people back into real individuals with different stories, not icons and 'hollow men' to be filled with whatever values states and communities want to promote.
By discovering other voices, self-censored or perhaps marginalised, the past becomes richer.
The point might be to start to rebuild a more complex, democratic, inclusive picture, better suited to an Internet and Facebook age, to more mature post-colonial societies, and to a civil society that has grown up and should be able to debate such things, warts and all.
Scenes of the British in defeat, at the same time, destroyed the illusion of colonial supremacy.
Founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew would later harness such intense war memories to build a Singaporean Singapore, says Professor Blackburn, 46, who teaches history to trainee teachers at the National Institute of Education (NIE).
The Australian lecturer has made NIE his intellectual home since 1993, and published two books this year that introduce marginalised voices to the Japanese occupation story.
He likes to attend the annual ceremony at the memorial, in front of Raffles City, to remember war victims on Feb 15.
But he finds the event somehow 'less evocative' compared to similar war remembrances like Anzac Day and Hiroshima vigils held across the world.
'It is hard to establish the connection emotionally to the horrible atrocities of the Japanese occupation,' he says of the Republic's observance, which involves wreath-laying, interfaith prayers and a ministerial speech on the island's defence.
Singapore's wartime generation is largely absent from the occasion, he also notices, although these men and women in their 70s and older are still alive.
He suggests this could have been a different story if the People's Action Party had not deviated from the original plan by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce to build a memorial to the Chinese victims of the massacre, known as sook ching. This translates as 'a purge through cleansing' in Chinese.
He tells The Straits Times: 'Singapore's Chinese, like those of Malaysia, initially sought a monument to their dead, possibly in traditional Chinese form, with 600 urns holding victims to be visibly on display, and possibly plaques with the name of each massacre site.'
In 1962, victims began to be exhumed from more than 100 sites around the island, including Siglap, Bukit Timah and Punggol Beach.
In the intervening years before the monument was unveiled in 1967, however, Mr Lee was forming a 'cross-communal united idea of what a Singaporean was', as Prof Blackburn and British co-author Karl Hack recount in their book, War Memory And The Making Of Modern Malaysia And Singapore.
In that spirit, the monument had to symbolise common suffering - not communal grief.
Neither did Mr Lee wish to impede investments and relations with Japan, in an era when Singapore was scouring the globe for models of economic and industrial policy, Prof Blackburn notes.
What rose in place of the original winning design of visible urns is today's abstract 'Four Chopsticks' design, telling the tale of equal suffering of four ethnic groups in war.
The desire to forge a new nation made sense then. 'To a degree, it still does,' he says. 'But the memorial lost the emotional force associated with the mainly Chinese experience of massacre... and the physical, terrible immediacy that having urns accessible and sites named would have provided.'
During each Feb 15 ceremony, to the side of the memorial, there is a table of Chinese food offerings. Hell paper is burned. 'There is a Chineseness to the side, but it is an abstract ceremony emphasising the national suffering.'
He says state and community myth-making comes at a cost to individual memories - and these individual memories never die out.
In his research, he has sought such personal memories to present a complex, resonant, full understanding of the war.
He looks for ordinary people in extraordinary times, such as fiery grandmother Cheng Seang Ho, who was 66 when she and her husband joined Dalforce, a populist Chinese military movement. In a last stand, they fought alongside British and Australian forces at Bukit Timah from Feb 10 to 11, 1942.
He has interviewed one of three Raffles College students, Mr Choi Siew Hong, who volunteered as a Dalforce quartermaster. He was 20 and a peer of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who later praised Dalforce as 'a legend' in his memoirs.
Mr Choi and two friends read a newspaper advertisement for Dalforce, signed up and trained for a week. They were impelled to do so because of atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese in China. They also wished to play a liaison role between British officers and predominantly Chinese-educated recruits.
While war heroes such as Lim Bo Seng and Lieutenant Adnan Saidi are rightly lionised, they are somewhat like 'cartoon voices that are incredibly brave, without self-doubt', the professor says.
So, he weaves little-known figures into the tapestry of history to enrich it.
These voices increasingly augment war memories and the Singapore Story, for there is a new explosion of history books and memoirs - including opposition voices. Mary Turnbull's A History Of Singapore, 1819-1975 is no longer the only such tome, he points out.
And in the online world, history and heritage blogs abound. The National Library Board is also collecting five million memories of Singapore under the irememberSG drive, which has potential to offer a vast range of perspectives, he notes.
The outcome is 'the democratisation of memories', he says.
This creates a sense of belonging, even upliftment. 'Your family has a place in the memory of the nation. History becomes like heritage.'
The power of personal testimonies is great in contrast to the rather didactic messages of National Education, he feels. 'You must defend yourself, you must have racial harmony. Who will disagree?
'These are implicit in all nations, and it is common enough sense that it doesn't have to be exaggerated and hammered in. Many of these messages are so obvious, it is almost setting yourself up for cynicism, and young people are sceptical.'
Indeed, the Ministry of Education plans to embed historical inquiry in the curriculum, he notes. This involves drawing personal narratives from relatives.
While the young cannot relive history, they do connect emotionally with it, he suggests.
Reading their comments at the Changi Chapel and Museum, he realises they do identify with prisoner of war experiences from a distant day. He sees comments that run along such lines: 'God bless these men for defending Singapore.'
He says: 'There are signs that there is an emotional connection for children on battlefield trips. Perhaps it is because they have a greater sense of suffering and identify more than we expect.'
So, confronted with war memories, a sense of poignancy and power is possible.