Letter to Today, 07 Aug 2009: WWII: There are many more memories seldom mentioned

There are many facets to our history.  There is much for everybody to learn.


Today, 07 Aug 2009
(Online Only)
WWII: There are many more memories seldom mentioned
Updated 02:20 AM Aug 07, 2009
Letter from John Kwok

I am a Singaporean historian based in Australia and I am currently on vacation here in Singapore.

The recent series of published letters involving the renewed interest in the story of war hero Lim Bo Seng and especially an online letter by Murali Sharma suggesting that a WWII museum be set up has caught my attention.

Two points needs to be taken into consideration. .

Firstly, the Singapore National Heritage Board documents the history of the Second World War in Singapore in its heritage centres and museum; the Reflections at Bukit Chandu documents the contributions of the Malay Regiment during the Battle of Singapore while Memories of the Old Ford Factory captures the collective local memories of the Japanese Occupation. These heritage centres achieve what a collective and centralised WWII museum could not; these centres are housed in significant historical localities during the war which have been preserved to showcase different wartime experiences in Singapore. Elsewhere, the Second World War is also featured prominently in Singapore's national history at the Singapore National Museum and the Changi Chapel Museum.

Secondly, the phrase used in Murali Sharma's online letter "lest we forget" is a contentious expression. Embedded in the act of war remembrance is also the act of forgetting. Previous letters to the forum is indicative that popular war history in Singapore centres on local key personalities like Major-General Lim Bo Seng and Lieutenant Adnan Saidi of the Malay Regiment. What is seldom mentioned is that Lim Bo Seng was part of a large network of covert operations involving volunteer agents from Chinese Nationalist government, the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the local Malayan Chinese Communists. What drove Lim's to join the British SOE was his strong sense of Chinese patriotism and nationalism for China. This is not to detract from Lim's sacrifice and contributions to the war effort in Malaya but the emphasis on Lim's death has overshadowed the stories of his comrades and the contributions of Force 136 in the war effort in Malaya.

The popular interpretation of the Malay Regiment's history is another case in point. The emphasis on Lieutenant Adnan in the history of the Malay Regiment has overshadowed other key personalities in his regiment namely his commanding officer Captain Rix and fellow officer and platoon commander Lieutenant Stephen. Captain Rix was a British volunteer officer and during the battle of Bukit Chandu he rallied and inspired his men to hold the line even if they have to fight to the last man and last round. He was killed in action; his body was found alongside that of 12 dead Malay soldiers. Lieutenant Stephen also inspired his platoon with gallantry and after seeing many of his men killed and wounded in action, he led a bayonet charge against the Japanese when they were 50 metres of his platoon's position. His valiant effort was in vain; he was shot dead before he could reach the enemy. His body was never found.

There are indeed more memories of the war that are seldom mentioned in popular war history in Singapore. During the Battle of Bukit Chandu, British and Commonwealth troops elsewhere in Singapore were bracing for possible Japanese attacks. When enjoying a meal or drink at Dempsey Road next time, have a look around for you are quite close to the Australian's last line of defence during the Battle of Singapore. After the British surrender of Singapore, many local Singapore Eurasian volunteers in the Singapore Volunteer Force were marched to Changi Prison as prisoners-of- war. Many would later be sent to the infamous Thai-Burma railway and were never heard of again. Their rare story and the experiences of other Singapore Eurasians during the Japanese Occupation are now retold at the Eurasian Association's public exhibition "World War II, The Eurasian Story".

Currently our popular war histories are narrowly defined by local war heroes and enemy war atrocities, making it difficult to contextualise a collective story of the war in Singapore.

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