I took a walk with a group of about 50 yesterday morning, along a part of Singapore that I frequent only because of visits I make from time-to-time to the National University of Singapore (NUS) in the course of my work, and in doing so, I learnt quite a lot about the area where one of the fiercest battles took place as the impregnable fortress that the colonial masters of Singapore had thought the island was, capitulated to the invading Japanese Imperial Army in the dark days of the February of 1942. The walk had in fact been one that takes place on an annual basis to commemorate the battle, the Battle of Pasir Panjang, with took place over the 13th and 14th of February, in the final hours before General Percival did the unthinkable, being made to take a march of shame up the hill on which General Yamashita had set up shop at the Ford Factory, in an act of surrender that took place on the 15th of February. The walk was organised by a volunteer group, the Raffles Museum Toddycats of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, NUS and was led by the Siva whose intimate knowledge of the history as well as the flora and fauna of the area was supplemented by Dr Lai Chee Kien, of the Architecture Department who shared his insights on the architectural aspects of the NUS and in a few other areas as well.
The walk which started at the University Cultural Centre, close to a corner of the rectangular area where the battle was enacted, at what is now the intersection of Clementi Road and the Ayer Rajah Expressway, began with a short introduction and a walk eastwards up Kent Ridge Crescent to the sight of the rising sun, perhaps as a solemn reminder of the battle during which the forces of the Land of the Rising Sun overran the determined but outnumbered defenders of the Malay Regiment that set out to defend the geographical feature that is now known to us as Kent Ridge, and continued along the length of the ridge eastwards towards what is now known as Bukit Chandu. Along the way, our guide Siva was not only able to share his knowledge of the battle as it played out, but also on some history of the area, the etymology of Kent Ridge and Marina Hill, as well as on the flora and fauna of the area.
The Battle of Pasir Panjang, sometimes referred to as the battle of Pasir Panjang Ridge, involved an invasion force of some 13,000 troops of the first wave of invading Japanese forces of the 18th Division sweeping down from the west towards the city. The ridge was defended by the remnants of the Malay Regiment, in which the origins of today’s Malaysian Armed Forces lie in, a poorly trained and ill prepared group of men who had been tasked to defend the approach to the ridge, the Gap but instead bore the brunt of the thrust of the invasion force. The accounts of this battle are well documented on the wonderful resource page that the Toddycats have put up, which can be found at this link, as well as in a newspaper report in the Straits Times of 13 February 1967 entitled “Fire and Death on Opium Hill” (on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the Battle).
One of the interesting reminders of the military past of the ridge is an outpost, a collection of four flat roofed buildings that served as a lookout point over the southward facing slopes of the ridge. The roofs made the cluster of buildings, which are set on three levels, easily camouflaged. Much of the area is inaccessible to the public as the buildings are in dilapidated state and it was a treat for me to see the buildings. Peeking into some of the rooms of the buildings, it was easy to identify the functions of the rooms as well as to recognise that the lookout would have been self-sufficient. There was one room that was obviously used as a kitchen and another with the remains of an old bathtub – but other than that, very little evidence of anything else remains.
Another interesting set of facts that came out of the walk was the sharing by Dr Lai on the architecture of the NUS and the thinking behind some of the features which the architect behind the NUS shared with him. Among the interesting facts was one revolving around the use of over burnt bricks and the use of the primary colours for the features: yellow for the communication channels that provided the links to the various parts of the NUS laid over the ridge; red for the handrails – the orginals of which have mostly been replaced; and blue for features such as doors.
Moving east to the area which was known as the Gap, where South Buona Vista Road meets Kent Ridge Road, Siva provided the evidence of origins of the name Kent Ridge and Marina Hill just across the road, on which Kent Ridge Park now sits. A plaque commemorating the visit of HRH the Duchess of Kent, Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, and her son the Duke of Kent, Prince Edward of Kent stands at the corner, telling us of the visit of the Duchess and the Duke on 3 October 1952 and the naming of the ridge after the visit of the royal pair as well as Marina Hill after the Duchess. The commemorative plaque is due to be shifted from its original position as there are plans to widen the road.
Across South Buona Vista Road, part of the ridge had to be skirted around due to it being occupied by the premises of the Defence Science Organisation – but we were able to continue further down to where a creek was behind Normanton Park where we were shown the Gelam tree, a member of the Eucalyptus family, also know as Kayu Putih – its oil is used for medicinal purposes and bark is apparently used as caulking material in traditional wooden boat building. It was from here that we made our way back up the ridge to where Kent Ridge Park sits.
Back up on the ridge at Kent Ridge Park, we were able to take in the commanding view which made the ridge an important military asset, and we made our way (some of us, muscles aching) then to our intended destination, Bukit Chandu, via a canopy walk that provides a wonderful northwards view beyond the ridge as well as of the forest below (as well as of some of the colourful inhabitants of the forest that inlcuded a Green Crested Lizard). And after what seemed like a very long walk some five hours after we set off, we arrived at midday at Bukit Chandu or Opium Hill, named after an opium processing plant that had featured at the foot of the hill – the scene of the final stand on the 14th of February 1942 of C Company of the 1st Battalion of the Malay Regiment and on which the Reflections at Bukit Chandu Museum stands as a reminder of the valiant efforts of the men of the Malay Regiment. Leaving the hill, it wasn’t the sore muscles that made the biggest impression, but the overload of information provided by the guides and the great sense of appreciation for the men who fought so gallantly in defence of freedom.
Resources on the Battle of Pasir Panjang and on Kent Ridge:
More blog postings on the walk:
Fifty people and two dogs on the Battle of Pasir Panjang Commemorative Walk, by N. Sivasothi a.k.a. Otterman, on Raffles Museum Toddycats!
The walk to commemorate The Battle of Pasir Panjang! by Leone Fabre on “my life in Singapore”.
The next Battle of Pasir Panjang Commemorative Walk would take place on 12 February 2017. For more information and to signup, please click on this link.