by Jack Demlow
The Fall of Singapore was a military disaster contemporary with Pearl Harbor, but it led to division and finger-pointing instead of rallying the Allies further against Japan. The Japanese invasion of Malaya (today’s Malaysia) began December 8th, 1941, landing troops on its shores and pushing south through the peninsula. The combined British, Indian, and Australian forces under General Arthur Percival’s command had great difficulty stalling the Japanese attack, and in two months the struggle was over: Japan had taken all of Malaya and the surrender of Singapore 130,000 Allied soldiers was being negotiated. This defeat was called “the worst disaster and the largest capitulation in British history” by British prime minister Winston Churchill, and the British generals that had led the defense were not viewed very graciously. Most of the popular blame for the capture of Singapore would fall on General Percival, though arguably this was unjust given lacking support for fortifying the region and a number of his generals who held him in contempt and inhibited smooth military operation.
Among these belligerents, General Henry Gordon Bennett, commander of the Australian 8th Division, was a notable case. He already had a reputation as a courageous frontline commander in WWI: Bennet had been wounded on his first day of battle, but he escaped the hospital ship as soon as he had a chance (not permission) and went right back to the front lines. This reputation was bolstered on many other battlefields, but it gained some unpleasant dimensions as Bennet was found to be argumentative and had a sensitive ego when working with other officers. Additionally, Bennet was not a full-time soldier in peacetime and had a poor opinion of officers who served in the military full-time, a position he vocalized frequently and even worked into a number of newspaper articles in 1937. This drew enough attention to Bennet for him to face Censure by the Military Board, which doubtless only worsened his relations to other officers.
When WWII began, Bennet was the third-highest ranking officer in the Australian military, but he was passed over for command in the field on three separate occasions. A courageous soldier Bennett may have been, but his touchy ego and dislike of regular officers would have harmed Australian capability to work jointly with British forces that were also operating in the Pacific. The promotion of the commander of the 8th Division, Major General Vernon Sturdee, finally gave Bennet a position to fill in the field. Bennett's performance as a commander against the Japanese advance through Johore was as strong any of his fellow commanders in Malaya, but it was not enough. Aside from a successful ambush at Gemas, his Australian and Indian units were pushed back along with the rest of the defending line. Malaya fell in early February, as did Singapore.
Bennet was known as a brave and enthusiastic soldier, no matter his pettiness with his peers and superiors, but his actions during the surrender of Singapore marred that reputation in the eyes of many. Allegedly having sufficient knowledge of Japanese tactics to provide an advantage later on in the war, Bennet gave up his command to Brigadier C.A. Callaghan and escaped Singapore alongside civilian evacuees. Bennett’s claim to possess valuable intelligence did not save him from rebuke for leaving his troops, and his senior officers kept him out of field command for the rest of the war. Bennett, and extended his defense to include criticism of the other commanders of the Malayan campaign in his book Why Singapore Fell. At the end of the war, Bennett found himself under military investigation for his flight from Singapore after the now-released General Percival accused him of unlawfully vacating his command. The investigation’s conclusion condemned Bennet’s actions as unjustified, no matter his intent or his degree of personal courage. Bennett returned to civilian life with his military reputation tarnished, though not in tatters, and he continues to be a controversial figure in the history of WWII.
Austrailian War Memorial. Lieutenant General Henry Gordon Bennet. n.d. web page. 27 June 2018.
Bell, Morgan. Gordon Bennet. n.d. web page. 27 June 2018.
Diamond, John. General Arthur Percival: A Convenient Scapegoat? 17th June 2016. web page. 27th June 2018.
Lodge, A.B. Bennett, Henry Gordon (1887-1962). 1993. web page. 27 June 2018.
by Kelly Peng
The Japanese occupation of Singapore took place from 1942 to 1945 after the British surrendered in February 1942. One month later, in March 1942, the Japanese government adopted an educational policy as part of the “Principles for the Gunsei Disposition of the Occupied Area”. The objectives of the policy were to teach industrial technologies and the Japanese language as the lingua franca of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, to promote the spirit of labor, and to unite the cultures of the indigenous peoples of the southern region with Japanese culture under the spirit of Hakko Ichiu (universal brotherhood). Education was essentially a propaganda tool.
In order to make Japanese the lingua franca of the co-prosperity sphere, Japanese had to be taught in schools. The government’s desire to create a unified education system meant taking over the different language schools from the colonial regime. When the Japanese took control of English, Malay, and Chinese schools, they also set up a few Indian “national” schools (most of which were staffed by unqualified teachers and were used mainly to spread propaganda about the Indian independence movement). Colonel Watanabe Wataru (Chief of General Affairs Department) ordered primary schools to allow only Japanese or Malay as the language of instruction and to abolish the use of English, Dutch, and to ban Chinese for the time being. Teaching in Malay was permitted in Malay schools since it was the indigenous language and the Japanese encouraged the study of Japanese in other schools. Watanabe wrote about his reform ideas in a notice “Principles for Reforming School Education,” in which he said that Japanese language education at all levels must be emphasized to educate the people in their everyday life in discipline, obedience, and cooperation. Local teachers were required to learn Japanese as well. He regarded the retraining of local teachers as important, a “spiritual misogi (washing away of impurities)” that would eliminate the materialistic and individualistic western way of life that had stained the indigenous culture, and that would generate an oriental morality based upon seishin (the spirit of the imperial way).
Forcibly teaching Japanese was not easy to implement. Mamoru Shinozaki, a chief executive of the education department during the occupation, noticed that there was a shortage of teachers and textbooks. The first Japanese textbooks did not arrive until July 1942. Because of this inconvenience, upon opening the first school in April 1942, Mamoru had to allow the use of English.
Besides enforcing the Japanese language, the government also rejected the former British educational curriculum, which emphasized academic subjects, and instead, focused on character building, physical training, vocational instruction, and primary education. By March 1943, Singapore had six technical schools. In the same year, the medical college in Tan Tock Seng Hospital was reopened and two teacher training schools were opened. Even in technical institutions, the curriculum consisted of language training, indoctrination, and rudimentary crash courses designed to meet wartime needs. A six month course at the naval construction and engineering centre devoted half the time to learning Japanese. Similarly, in the teachers’ training colleges and the leading officials training institute, a significant amount of time was taken up in studying the language, “nippon (Japan) spirit”, military arts, and gardening. As part of this kodo seishin (spirit of imperial way) education policy, the gunsei kambu (Military Administrative Superintendency) observed Japan’s national holiday and enforced on people to participate in a ceremony in which they bowed in the direction of the imperial palace, shouted three cheers for the emperor, and sang the kimigayo (Japanese national anthem), and on December 8 listened to the declaration of war on the allied powers. This type of education was supposed to strengthen their bond of trust in imperial Japan and teach basic knowledge, skills, the spirit of labor, and self-sacrifice, while deemphasizing intellectual education.
Watanabe was interested in training manpower to unite young men around a common objective and to reconstruct a war-torn society. He established the Syonan Koa Kunrenjo (Asia Development Training Institute) in May 1942, in which trainees between the ages of 17 and 25 were trained for three months (later six months). The trainees underwent a rigorous physical and spiritual training along with language study. When Watanabe attended the Kunrenjo’s first commencement exercise, the cadets impressed him with their spiritual discipline and vigorous physical appearance. Even in a military-like training program youths were required to study the language and have spiritual training.
The intention of enforcing Japanese language lessons and technical training, idealizing labor, and unifying indigenous cultures with japanese culture was to promote imperial Japan’s vision for the larger Asian region, including the ideas of “Asia for Asiatics” and the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. These views supported the idea of the Japanese as the liberators of Asia from the enslavement of Western rule. To learn more about this, check out our publication.
The Fall of Singapore that took place in February, 1942 was a great triumph for the Imperial Japanese Army and almost certainly one of the biggest defeat for Britain in WWII. The invasion was led by General Yamashita after years of spying on the British colony. General Yamashita decided to use a strategy that the British had never thought of, which was to invade via the Malaya jungle. At the time, most of the canons were faced toward the ocean and there was almost no defense at the line of attack by the Imperial Japanese Army.
There were more than 80,000 allied captives who were captured by the Japanese in the mass surrender that was ordered by General Percival. This shocked even Sir Winston Churchill greatly as they described this kind of disgrace as the "foulest disaster and the greatest capitulation in the British History." Most POWs had never ever told their families of the atrocities that they went through during the three years in captivity as they felt ashamed of the fact that they ended up being prisoners of the feeble Japanese army that had captured and tortured them.
The order to surrender by General Percival came as a complete surprise to the soldiers. Two days after the surrender, almost 15000 Australians and 35,000 British prisoners were ordered to start marching to Changi which was located on the eastern end of the Singapore Island. Given that the prisoners had no idea what would be provided by their captors, they decided to carry clothing, beddings and some food to keep them going. However, as the journey continued, most people ended up dropping things along the way and by the time they arrived at Changi, some of them ended up arriving with very little. As much as the journey to Changi proved to be very difficult, they were able to pull through with the help of the Chinese who sneaked them some drinks at least to keep them hydrated, as they wouldn’t have survived if it was not for them.
For the POWs, there was a very tight ration when it came to food. They were eating just one biscuit with bully beef pasted all over for lunch. In the evening, they had some tinned veggies smeared over a biscuit. Under this tight ration, things were quite difficult in the beginning. The prisoners then complained about their meals. The general in charge suggested that there was rice and if they were willing to eat it then it would be prepared. The rice, however, was not in the best of qualities as it was moldy, full of rats and weevils, sulfur, and unpolished, but they had to survive. Rice were often very watered down with lots of water. Regardless, the next four weeks had been an issue for them as the cooks did not know what to do with it as they were subjected to very bad food. As much as it was unpleasant and tasteless, they still ate it.
As the days went on, the cooks found ways to better prepare the rice as the Australians got to get accustomed to it. They were grateful that at least they had something to eat. The POWs started losing a ton of weight. Many started developing beri beri, malaria, or dysentery. The POWs learned to divide themselves up in group of 3-5. In the event that one of them had malaria or dysentery and could not eat his rice, the rest would share it instead and the favor would be returned when they were stricken.
Humor became a very essential part of survival. Given that the Japanese revered their emperor very much, the POWs took the opportunity to toast to the emperors’ birthday in order to have a drink. This was the only time the prison guards allowed them to have a drink during the internment time.
Some prisoners were shipped out on prisoner transports that were nicknamed hell ships to work on the Siam-Burma Railway, which was also known as the Death Railway and the Sandakan Airfield in Northern Borneo. Most of them did not survive the journey, but the ones that did end up suffering from various diseases and maltreatment before they were liberated in 1945.
The lost of Singapore to Japan during this time contributed to the lost of confidence of the British empire. Even though British ended up reoccupying Singapore following the Japanese surrender in September, the colony will soon claim its independence under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew. Yamashita was tried by a US military commission for war crimes, but not against the ones committed by his troops in Singapore and Malaya. He was convicted and hanged in the Philippines in 1946.
To learn more:
by Mark Witzke
There is no person more important to Singapore’s modern history than Lee Kuan Yew. He led Singapore into the modern age, guiding Singapore from devastated British colony to thriving and prosperous independent city-state. His determination to reshape Singapore was shaped in part by his experiences during the brutal Japanese occupation.
Lee was born in 1923 to an ethnic Chinese family that had lived in Singapore for several generations. Originally from Guangdong, his family had been early settlers in Singapore after it was established as a British colony. Lee was educated in English schools and was often at or near the top of his class. However, his schooling was delayed by the onset of World War II and he found himself in Singapore as the Japanese invaded, just struggling to survive.
Later in life, Lee would reflect poignantly on the atrocities suffered by Singapore during the occupation. In his earlier days, Lee stated that he knew the Japanese as “a clean, neat, disciplined and self-contained community” so he was shocked when he faced the realities of the oppressive occupation. He found the Japanese occupiers to be “unbelievably cruel… systematic brutalization by their military government made them a callous lot. We suffered three and a half years of privation and horror” . Lee described that later during the rebuilding of Singapore, it was not uncommon to find caches of bones in mass graves. Ultimately 40 such sites were located and by Lee’s own estimates, more than 50,000 people were executed following the fall of Singapore. When pressing the Japanese government for reparations and apologies, he was met with regrets and favorable loans, but never a complete apology . (For more information on the fall of Singapore be sure to check out other PAE blogposts here and here)
Lee had himself narrowly avoided the aforementioned purges following the fall of the city he would one day rule. In the chaotic aftermath of Singapore’s defeat, the Japanese began to carry out what became known as “Sook Ching”; a process of routinely rounding up and executing anyone whom they thought might oppose their rule. As an educated Chinese man, Lee soon found himself targeted. After being confined to a detention center for several days, he was ordered to board a truck, along with many other young Chinese men. Lee instinctively felt something was wrong and asked for permission to gather his belongings before he left. Permission was granted but Lee did not return, he instead searched for a hiding place and managed to take refuge in the shanty of a rickshaw puller who had worked for Lee’s family his entire childhood, eventually managing to escape a few days later . Lee later heard that those who boarded the truck were shot on the beach near Changi prison. Lee had narrowly avoided being executed and Singapore narrowly avoided losing someone who would become a transformational leader . Thousands of others were not so lucky and the city of Singapore would have to persevere through several more years of hardship before eventual liberation.
These experiences, while harrowing and traumatic, would shape Lee’s outlook on life and create determination to build a thriving and strong Singapore. Lee stated the fall of Singapore was “the single most important event of my life” and shaped his worldview such that he felt “determined that no one – neither the Japanese nor the British – had the right to push and kick us around” . The trauma of Japanese occupation made Lee see that the Singaporean people would have to depend on themselves if they wanted safety and security. The dead can’t be brought back to life, the past cannot be erased and the hardships should not be forgotten. However, Lee and the rest of Singapore successfully moved past these hardships and used these events to inspire the creation of an independent and prosperous Singapore.
Bowring, Philip. “Lee Kuan Yew Obituary.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 22 Mar. 2015, www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/22/lee-kuan-yew.
Chew, Cassandra. “The Rickshaw Puller Who Saved Lee Kuan Yew.” The Straits Times, The Straits Times, 19 Jan. 2016, www.straitstimes.com/singapore/the-rickshaw-puller-who-saved-lee-kuan-yew.
Chng, Henedick. “4 Intriguing Stories of How 4 of S’Pore’s Founding Fathers Survive the Japanese Occupation.” Mothership.SG , Mothership, 15 Feb. 2017, mothership.sg/2017/02/4-intriguing-stories-of-how-4-of-spores-founding-fathers-survive-the-japanese-occupation/.
Josey, Alex. Lee Kuan Yew. Time Books Internaitonal Times Centre, 1980.
“Lee Kuan Yew.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 22 Mar. 2015, www.economist.com/news/asia/leekuanyew.
Lee, Kuan Yew. From Third World to First: the Singapore Story, 1965-2000: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2015.
by Sally Ma
*Syonan- name of Singapore during the Japanese occupation
Shortly after the British surrendered Singapore to Imperial Japan in February 1942, the Japanese Military executed Operation Sook Ching to wipe out all anti-Japanese elements. The Japanese military police, Kempeitai, were afraid of Singapore resisting Japanese rule and feared losing control of the city. Therefore, General Tomoyuki Yamashita ordered the military to execute members that would be considered a threat to the Japanese government. The series of purges to eliminate all anti-Japanese threats among the Chinese community is known as Sook Ching, in Chinese translation means “purge through cleansing.” From February 21 to March 5, the Japanese military summoned Chinese males between the ages of 18 to 50 for mass screening and executed those who were suspected to be anti-Japanese. They considered members of the volunteer force that resisted Japanese occupation in Malaya and Singapore, communist, looters, people who owned armed weapons, businessmen who provided financial support to resist Japanese invasion in China, gangsters, and names of people on the list given by the Japanese intelligence to be anti-Japanese.
In order to adequately secure control of Singapore, General Yamashita’s priority was to eliminate all Chinese resistance. There was a massive influx of refugees coming from Malaya Peninsula due to the recent Japanese invasion. The population of Singapore was estimated to be 1.4 million, and more than half of the population was ethnic Chinese. In comparison to the Chinese population in Singapore, the Japanese treated Indians and Malaya more kindly. The Japanese did not trust Singaporean Chinese because the Japanese and Chinese have already been fighting for about five years since the Second Sino-Japanese War beginning in 1937 and many of the Singaporean Chinese support resistance against the Japanese force in China. For that reason, the Japanese launched a brutal operation to wipe out and clean impure elements against Japanese ideology and specifically targeted the Chinese population.
Operation Sook Ching divided Singapore into four regional zones to assemble the Chinese community in preparation for the screening process. Issues and notices were sent out, posters were shared, and men used loudspeakers to announce the news to advise Chinese males between the ages of 18 to 50 to present themselves at screening centers. Kempeitai carried out the screening sessions and decided which individuals are deemed to be anti-Japanese. However, the Japanese military police poorly conducted the selection process. The specifications to measure anti-Japanese qualities differed in every screening center and officers. In some instances, victims were chosen solely based on their occupation, others were selected based on the way they responded to questions, and some were suspected because of their tattooed body. The chosen suspects were transferred to isolated areas in Changi, Punggol, and Bedok for execution. It is estimated that the Sook Ching Massacres killed 10-20 percent of the Chinese male population in Singapore. According to the Japanese record, Sook Ching killed 5,000 civilians, but Singapore’s record estimates the death toll to be 50,000 to 70,000. However, the exact number is unclear due to lack of written records.
Geoffrey C. Gunn, “Remembering the Southeast Asian Chinese Massacres of 1941-45,” Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol.37, No.3, August 2007, pp. 273-291.
Jean Abshire, “Chapter 5: Fortress Singapore to Syonan-to: World War II,” in The History of Singapore (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011).
Lee, Geok Boi, The Syonan Years: Singapore under Japanese rule 1942-1945 (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore and Epigram, 2005).
Peter Thompson, “Chapter 26: Sook Ching (Purification by Elimination),” in The Battle For Singapore: The True Story of the Great Catastrophe of World War II (London: Piatkus Books Limited, 2005).
The Dutch East Indies as known as the Netherlands, colonized Indonesia in 1800. Although, Indonesians knew that Japan was conquering many countries they hoped that if the Japanese invaded it would lead to their independence from the Netherlands. On December 8, 1941 the Netherlands declared war on Japan. Several countries fought under the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command structure, but it was a losing battle. The Japanese were too powerful and well prepared; they were focused on the Dutch East Indies due to their vast natural resources. By mid February many places were under Japanese control including Borneo, Singapore, and Java. On March 8, 1942 the Dutch surrendered to the Japanese Empire and it decisively ended 300 years of Dutch rule.
The Japanese forced Indonesians and Dutch out of their homes and into makeshift internment camps. Many Dutch believed they would be spared because they helped the Japanese gain valuable resources and they would help run the cities. However that was not the case, everyone was taken to internment camps. Japanese and Indonesian people were installed in higher-ranking positions, while the Dutch were sent to the camps. The conditions of the internment camps were horrific. Originally, Indonesian people welcomed the Japanese with open arms, but soon learned they would not be kind in return. The internees were treated terribly mainly at the hands of the Japanese. Parents were separated from their children, young teenage girls were forced to dig graves for those who were killed either by starvation or by Japanese police, and everyday women and children were forced to face Japan and bow to a representative of Emperor Hirohito. The killing of internees and sympathizers were a common occurrence and could happen at any moment. Food and basic supplies were extremely scarce as the Japanese were still trying to fight on other fronts.
Helen Colijn was just a teenager when the Japanese invaded her homeland. Originally from Tarakan, Helen, her father, and two sisters fled to Tabuan when her father realized the Japanese would be invading the Dutch East Indies. But soon after they arrived in Tabuan, they were arrested by the Japanese and separated from each other. Helen and her sisters, Alette and Antoinette, were sent to a women and children camp while her father, Anton, was sent to a nearby men’s camp. Helen was imprisoned with other civilians including Dutch, British, and a group of Australian Army nurses.
After Helen became imprisoned, she volunteered for grave duty along with three other prisoners. She wanted to help and the one way she could was to make sure those who had been killed had a proper grave. The guards wouldn’t dig graves for people, so it was up to the prisoners. As she spent more time digging graves, her outlook on life and death substantially changed. Death was no longer a shock or a time to be sad because it occurred almost everyday and the few healthy women didn’t have energy to grieve. Many prisoners were not only dying due to lack of food and medication, rather they had lost the will to live.
There were countless rules imposed on people inside the camp and outside of the camp by the Japanese. One rule the Japanese had was roll call or tenko. The internees were ordered to bow from the waist to the local representative of Japan. Oftentimes they had to stand for hours in the sun if one didn’t meet the standards of the guards. Anything that didn't meet the guard’s satisfaction could lead to physical abuse. The punishment also extended to outsiders. There was an elderly Chinese man who got caught trying to sell eggs to starving women inside the camps. The guards dragged him into the camp, then tied rope around his hands and neck in a way that would strangle him over time. Everyone in the camp had to walk past him on their way to tenko; it took three days for him to die. There was one rule that worked in favor of the internees: they were allowed to conduct their own educational activities. This brought a piece of peace for the women because they were able to have a place to talk in a communal library and they could pass down traditions and teachings to their children.
Unfortunately, all of this changed early in 1943 when they were moved from individual structures to hastily constructed barracks camps. This created stress because now everything was shared and public. The restrooms were public and the showers were open for everyone to use in front of one another. Margaret Dryburgh, an English musically gifted missionary, wanted to do something to bring joy back in their lives. She wrote a song called “The Captives Hymn” with Norah Chambers. Together Dutch, English, and Australian singers rehearsed at night and put together a concert for everyone to enjoy.
Alette and Antoinette were both in the choir. While many were looking forward for a brief escape, others were not so supportive. One told Helen, “It’s absurd to waste precious energy singing. The singers should be using their energy for just staying alive!” Helen quipped, “But the singers say they generate energy by singing.” Once at the concert, one could feel the excitement in the air and that only intensified when 30 women appeared and faced the audience. Then they began to sing: “I felt a shiver go down my back. I though I had never herd anything so beautiful before” Helen later recalled. But then Helen heard the voice of an angry guard and she saw his bayonet and his rifle. To her surprise the music continued and his angry voice did not. It was as if he was mesmerized by the enchanting sounds. Later, during intermission one of the women offered him a cookie and he humbly accepted it with thanks. Since the first concert was such a success many followed after. The music brought back a feeling of humanity in both the internees and guards. Overtime more officers attended and in a way it brought everyone together. An Australian member of the orchestra said, “When I sang that vocal orchestra music, I forgot I was in the camp. I felt free.”
On August 24, 1945 a camp commander told the prisoners that the war was over, but not who won. The following day they began to receive items previously thought to be scarce: medicine, food, blankets, mosquito nets, bandages, towels. Numerous prisoners continued to die, but the ones who still were holding on knew help was on the way. September 7, 1945 is a day Helen and her sisters will forever remember because that day Dutch paratroopers entered the camp. By this time Helen was so weak she couldn’t walk very far. She finally believed that the Allies were coming to rescue them when she saw red, white, and blue flags instead of the Japanese rising sun flag. The Colijn family moved to the United States and rarely discussed their imprisonment, but in 1980 Antoinette rediscovered her 68 page vocal orchestra scores. This brought international attention to the orchestra and to the surviving members. The Colijn sisters wrote books and participated in documentaries. Alette, Antoinette, and Helen will always be remembered for how they used music to bring people together.
Atwood, Kathryn J. Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review, 2013. Print.
Chen, C. Peter. "Dutch East Indies in World War II." WW2DB. World War II Database, n.d. Web.
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