The last days of Empire

6 02 2017

On the afternoon of Chinese New Year’s day, 75 years ago in 1942, Singapore fell to the Japan. It was to bring three and a half years of hardship on Singaporeans and a shift in power that would bring about the end of the once mighty British Empire. The capitulation of the Empire’s “impregnable fortress” had come swiftly, in a manner nobody might have expected. Just two months had elapsed since the Japanese Imperial Army launched its invasion of Malaya, and in a matter of one week since making landfall on Singapore’s northwest coast, the jewel in the crown was firmly in the hands of Japan.

On the ground, the poorly equipped, ill-trained and demoralised troops defending Malaya and the island were no match for the experienced, efficient and motivated fighting force Japan had committed to the task. With their back to the walls in Singapore, the defenders – British, Australian and Indian troops and members of the Malay Regiment, plus those of volunteer units such as the Chinese organised Dalforce, fought gallantly but there was little that could be done to stem a tide that had already turned against them.

In the less threatening environment we live in today, it is probably difficult to appreciate what these desperate defenders would have been put through. While it will of course not be possible to fully appreciate that, we can attempt to have some sense of it through the testimonies captured of those who have fought – what the National University of Singapore’s Southeast Asian Student’s Society hopes to do in putting together “The Last Days of Empire: Japanese Advance along Bukit Timah Road, 1942”. The guided tour, is one of 12 to look out for this February and March (see also: The ruins on Sentosa and a rare chance to visit), as part of the National Heritage Board’s (NHB) commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore.

The trail starts at the University Cultural Centre (UCC). The UCC stands where the assault on the strategic Pasir Panjang Ridge commenced on 13th February 1942. A vicious battle would be fought over the ridge over two days, which culminated in the Malay Regiment’s last stand on Bukit Chandu and the taking of the British Military Hospital, Alexandra Hospital today, at which a massacre occurred.

Dr. Effendy at the foot of Bukit Timah Hill.

Dr. Effendy at the foot of Bukit Timah Hill.

From the UCC, the trail backtracks the Japanese advance north along Clementi Road – then Reformatory Road, a main thoroughfare that links with Bukit Timah Road and thereby connects north and south of the island. Stops along the way include the site at Dover Road at which the Rimau Commandos were executed. The rather strange spot at which the 10 of brave commandos lost their lives – just a couple of months before Japan was to surrender, was selected by the Japanese apparently for the view to honour the bravery of the men, who were said to have gone to their deaths laughing (see: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19600228-1.2.63). Operation Rimau, mounted by a total of 23 British and Australian commandos and intended as a sequel to the highly successful Operation Jaywick, was aborted with 11 commandos being captured alive.

Marker for the Rimau Commando execution site at Dover Road.

Marker for the Rimau Commando execution site at Dover Road.

Participants are also brought to the sites near the Buona Vista Battery, where a couple of monster 15 inch guns were mounted. More on these guns can be found at Peter Stubbs’ FortSiloso.com. It is though that remnants of the emplacement for No.1 Gun, tunnels serving the guns as well as an underground Battery Plotting Room for the battery are still intact – below what had previously been Mowbray Camp. Some remnants of No. 2 Gun are also thought to exist in the area of Pine Grove, which was also where a POW Cemetery, the Ulu Pandan Cemetery existed until 1975.

A view down Ulu Pandan Road, to the areas on both sides of the road where the 15" guns of the Buona Vista Battery were mounted.

A view down Ulu Pandan Road, to the areas on both sides of the road where the 15″ guns of the Buona Vista Battery were mounted.

Dr Effendy speaking on the Buona Vista Battery.

Dr Effendy speaking on the Buona Vista Battery.

The former Mowbray Camp - remains of No. 1 Gun emplacement, tunnels and a battery plotting room are thought to still exist.

The former Mowbray Camp – remains of No. 1 Gun emplacement, tunnels and a battery plotting room are thought to still exist.

Other sites that will be visited are the area close to Bukit Timah Village, where participants hear of the use of bamboo tyres by Japanese troops on bicycles; the foot of Bukit Timah Hill where the little known contributions of Dalforce is spoken about; and the POW built stairs that once led to the Syonan Chureito – a memorial to the fallen. The memorial, which contained the ashes of 10,000 Japanese who perished in the Pacific war, also included a small memorial for allied soldiers. Some of the local population will be mobilised during special occasions, such as the New Year, to attend ceremonies at the memorial (see also : my entry on Syonan Jinja). The Syonan Chureito was destroyed by the Japanese prior to their surrender for fear of its desecration and the remains of the Japanese war dead moved to the Japanese Cemetery at Chuan Hoe Avenue.

POW built steps leading up to the Syonan Chureito at Bukit Batok as seen during the Occupation.

POW built steps leading up to the Syonan Chureito at Bukit Batok as seen during the Occupation.

Dr. Effendy and students at the steps of the Syonan Chureito.

Dr. Effendy and students at the steps of the Syonan Chureito.

The tour will end off with a guided tour at the Old Ford Factory’s newly revamped Syonan Gallery. The old Ford Factory was where the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese Imperial Army took place on 15 February 1942. The tour will be led by Dr Mohamed Effendy and at the Old Ford Factory, by Syonan Gallery docents. More information on the tour and other tours can be found at:

A view towards the area where Bukit Timah Village was.

A view towards the area where Bukit Timah Village was.

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The ruins on Sentosa and a rare chance to visit

3 02 2017

Sentosa, or the island of peace and tranquility and now also of posh homes, fancy boats and overpriced hotels, was once the rather sinister sounding Pulau Blakang Mati – the island of death at the back. No one seems quite sure of the origins of the name, although there have been several suggestions including one that is tied to the legend that Pulau Tekukor to Blakang Mati’s south had once seen duels to the death pitting Bugis warriors against ones from the Malay world.

Ruins on Mount Serapong.

It was in putting up a deference to violent confrontation that was to be Blakang Mati’s purpose for a large part of British rule. Strategically positioned, it served not only as a natural breakwater for the new harbour. Endowed with high points, it was only a matter of time before guns to protect the harbour from seaward attack were positioned on the island. The idea was in fact already mooted by William Farquhar, Singapore’s first resident, as early as 1820 – a year after the British arrived.

The first military installations would however only come up in the late 1800s. Undeterred by outbreaks of malaria and “Blakang Mati fever”, fortifications requiring extensive use of concrete – then newly introduced to Singapore, were constructed at the end of the 1870s on Mount Serapong – Blakang Mati’s highest point. It would only be in 1885 that work started on the installation of coastal artillery on Serapong. Two 8 inch guns were installed with supporting infrastructure such as casemates built into the terrain, which contained magazines, accommodation and other working spaces.

By 1912/13, the guns at Serapong Battery would be upgraded to 9.2 inch calibre guns and a separate Spur Battery, also equipped with a 9.2 inch gun added. These guns would be decommissioned in the later half of the 1930s when 9.2 inch guns at Fort Connaught were installed. Two 6 inch guns would however be placed on the spur (renamed Serapong Battery) after a review in 1936 and this was operational up to the final days before the fall of Singapore. Both guns were spiked and destroyed, No. 2 on 14th and and No. 1 on 15th February 1942.

With the development of Sentosa today, it may perhaps be surprising that extensive remnants of the installations scattered over Mount Serapong – just a stone’s throw away from the luxury developments at Sentosa Cove – can still be found today. The remnants include a underground magazine built for the 9.2 inch spur battery that was converted for use for Serapong Battery’s 6 inch No. 1 Gun, the battery’s gun emplacements, as well as several other support structures built in the 1930s for the battery. What may be more surprising are casemates, thought to have been built around 1885 can be found along with mountings for the 9.2 inch guns and best of all, a bunker 20 metres under the casemates that served as the Blakang Mati Command Centre. The bunker, with several chambers is in a damaged condition and has a vertical escape shaft at the top of which is a hatch.

The National Heritage Board, through a series of guided tours to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, offers an excellent opportunity to learn more about and see these remnants. One tour, Fort Serapong @ Fort Siloso, for which 3 sessions on the 25 February, 4 and 11 March (from 9.30 am to 12 noon) will be held. Places are limited. More  on the tours and other programmes can be found below.

For more on the guns at Serapong, on Sentosa and also across Singapore, do visit Peter Stubbs excellent FortSiloso.com site.


Photographs of the ruins on Mount Serapong

On the spur, the Gun No. 1 Gun duty personnel rooms and gunners’ shelter.

On the spur, the Gun No. 1 Gun duty personnel rooms and gunners’ shelter.

The collapsed structure of the 6 inch Gun No. 1 emplacement on the spur.

The collapsed structure of the 6 inch Gun No. 1 emplacement on the spur.

The underground 6-inch Gun No. 1 magazine on the spur, converted from that for the 9.2 inch spur battery.

The underground 6-inch Gun No. 1 magazine on the spur, converted from that for the 9.2 inch spur battery.

Inside the Other Ranks shelter in the magazine.

Inside the Other Ranks shelter in the magazine.

In the 'courtyard' of the magazine.

In the ‘courtyard’ of the magazine.

Inside the magazine.

Inside the magazine.

The 1936 kitchen complex.

The 1936 kitchen complex.

More of the kitchen complex.

More of the kitchen complex.

Another view.

Another view.

The 1936 bathroom.

The 1936 bathroom.

Fort Connaught's Battery Command Post (BCP), positioned on the highest point.

Fort Connaught’s Battery Command Post (BCP), positioned on the highest point.

Another view.

Another view.

9.2 inch gun mounting studs.

9.2 inch gun mounting studs.

A close-up.

A close-up.

The 9.2 inch shell hoist.

The 9.2 inch shell hoist.

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Nature reclaiming the space.

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Stairs at the casemate.

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Space inside the casemate.

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Part of the casemate.

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Inside a casemate space.

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Another collapsed structure.

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A underground reservoir.

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Magazine inside the casemate.

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Another view.

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The Blakang Mati Command Centre.

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Another view.

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The view up the escape shaft.

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The hatch at the end of the escape shaft.



Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore

This 15 February will mark 75 years since the Fall of Singapore, an event that brought about 3½ years of occupation by the Japanese and a period of immense hardship.  The National Heritage Board is commemorating the anniversary with  “Battle for Singapore – Years under the Sun Empire: Tales of Resilience” that will see guided tours, talks and activities organised by various Museum Roundtable museums from 16 February to 12 March.

There would be 12 different tours with a total of 49 tour runs to look out for. These will cover 11 World War II related sites and structures, including some rarely opened places such as the former Fort Serapong and the former Command House. There is an opportunity to also hear accounts of battle and survival and learn about the contributions and courage of the local population to the effort to defend Singapore.

Also to look forward to is the re-opening of the Former Ford Factory, which has been closed for a year-long revamp. This will reopen to the public on 16 February 2017 and see a new exhibition gallery with never-been-seen-before archival materials, There is also an interactive component offering a more immersive account of the days of war and suffering. Special exhibitions and programmes are also being put up by the Army Museum, Battlebox, the Singapore Discovery Centre. the Eurasian Heritage Centre, and Reflections at Bukit Chandu. More information is available at  www.museums.com.sg. Sign-ups for the Battle for Singapore 2017 programmes can be made at this link: https://www.eventbrite.sg/o/national-heritage-board-9384989257 (available from 6 February 2017 at 10.00am onwards). Slots are limited and will be allocated on a first-come first-served basis.






Launch of the Ubin Living Lab at the former Celestial Resort

28 02 2016

The first phase of the transformation of the former Celestial Resort into the Ubin Living Lab (ULL), an initiative announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as part of The Ubin Project on November 2014, has been completed with the launch of the ULL (Phase 1) on Saturday by Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee.

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A Singapore conversation taking place by the mangrove tree lined Sungei Puaka?

Set in the midst of the mangroves of Sungei Puaka – one of the largest patches of mangroves left in Singapore, the ULL, intended as an integrated facility for field studies, education and research, and community outreach, will also see a mangrove arboretum set up. The arboretum will see eight critically-endangered local mangrove tree species re-introduced as part of NParks’ ongoing reforestation and habitat enhancement efforts on Ubin.

SMS Desmond Lee at the launch - with ITE College East staff and students working on setting up nesting boxes around the island for the Blue-throated Bee-eater.

SMS Desmond Lee at the launch – with ITE College East staff and students working on setting up nesting boxes around the island for the Blue-throated Bee-eater.

JeromeLim-9942The first phase sees the restoration of two buildings on the site to accommodate a field study laboratory, seminar rooms for up to 100 people and basic accommodation facilities. An outdoor campsite is also being set up to take up to 100. The first users of the ULL will be students from the Republic Polytechnic and ITE College East who are looking at setting up roosting boxes in Ubin for insect eating bat species and nesting boxes for the Blue-throated Bee-eater as part of a biodiversity enhancement and species recovery programme.

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The setting for the ULL – the former Celestial Resort.

The Ubin Project is an engagement initiative launched by the Singapore Government aimed at enhancing the natural environment of the island, protecting its heritage and also its rustic charm, involving a Friends of Ubin Network (FUN) that has been set up. More information on the project’s initiatives can be found at the Nparks website. Members of the public can look forward to a series of activities organised by NParks and the National Heritage Board – who have recently concluded an anthropology study on the island, aimed at bring the rich natural and cultural heritage to a wider audience. Information on the activities NParks already has planned can be found at a NParks news release Celebrating Ubin.

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Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee, launching Phase 1 of the ULL.

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SMS Lee putting the finishing touches on a nesting box.





A look at the One Historical Map app

6 12 2015

I had a little go at the One Historical Map app that was launched by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) on Friday. The app, while not by any means perfect, is a useful tool – especially for those like me who are in the habit of pouring over old maps in trying to connect old Singapore with the greatly altered Singapore of today.

The One Historical Map app is accessible via the Web Portal (www.oneHmap.sg) or via a Mobile App now available on Android.

The One Historical Map app at the media launch. It is accessible via the Web Portal (www.oneHmap.sg) or via a Mobile App now available on Android.

The currently focus of the app is with the developments since independence and it offers access to five old editions of street maps from 1966, 1975, 1984, 1995 and 2007, along with that of the current year, 2015. Not only is there an ability to refer to these maps – already available on the SLA’s very handy Singapore Historical Map and the OneMap portals, there is also the ability to lay them side-by-side for comparison. This certainly is a powerful tool – a natural progression perhaps from the two wonderful mapping initiatives SLA has undertaken, that will allow the user to view how an area has changed over the years and also provides a very quick tool to determine locations of former landmarks. One thing that would be nice as a future feature is the capability to overlay maps and also incorporate maps from from the National Archives of Singapore.

An added feature of the app is that it allows users to upload and geo-tag personal photographs to it. The app does already come with some 300 images pre-loaded, 200 of which were curated by the National Heritage Board (NHB) who SLA has partnered with in bringing the app to the public this SG50 year. The remaining 100 or so photographs were contributed by SLA’s supporters and geo-historical enthusiasts. One concern that the “crowd-sourcing” of photographs does raise is the difficulty in ensuring the complete accuracy of the information being uploaded to the app, although the SLA has stressed that the intention to do this is more to allow the app to serve as a repository of memories.

SLA is looking at improving the app and as such welcomes feedback on it. While it currently is available only for Android mobile platforms, users on other platforms have access to it via the app’s web portal at www.oneHmap.sg.


Some examples of what the app offers:

In search of old Somapah. The ability to compare maps side-by-side on the go is especially useful. Here we can see how the area around the once bustling Somapah Village has changed, how Somapah Road has since been re-aligned and pin-point the locations of landmarks in the area such as Red Swastika School.

The ability to compare maps side-by-side on the go is especially useful. Here we can see how the area around the once bustling Somapah Village has changed, how Somapah Road has since been re-aligned and pin-point the locations of landmarks in the area such as Red Swastika School.

Laying old and current maps side-by-side provides the ability to see changes to the coastline and in this case where the red cliffs at Tanah Merah Besar (where Tanah Merah Besar Road met Wing Loong Road) now are - buried under Changi Airport.

Laying old and current maps side-by-side provides the ability to see changes to the coastline and in this case where the red cliffs at Tanah Merah Besar (where Tanah Merah Besar Road met Wing Loong Road) now are – buried under Changi Airport.

The search for the lost Mata Ikan village leads to Changi South Avenue 2.

The search for the lost Mata Ikan village leads to Changi South Avenue 2.

Finding where old Tuas Village now is.

Finding where old Tuas Village now is.

The app allows users to upload and geo-tage photographs and provide short descriptions.

The app allows users to upload and geo-tage photographs and provide short descriptions.

Example of an uploaded geo-tagged photograph.

Example of an uploaded geo-tagged photograph.


 





Digging the Empress up in search of Singapura

14 02 2015

Just six months or so after the dust seemed to have settled on Empress Place with completion of a four-year long refurbishment of the now almost too clean looking Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, the dust levels seem to be rising again. Since 2 February, a huge hole has appeared in the shadow old Vic, one that is being dug so as to find pieces of our buried past.

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The archaeological excavation, the largest ever undertaken in Singapore, is organised by the National Heritage Board (NHB) with the support of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as part of an effort to commemorate 31 years of archaeology in Singapore.

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The dig, right in a place that when I first came to know it was a car park, has unearthed artefacts that are thought to be highly significant that could possible date as far back as the 14th century. The finds in a previously archaeologically unexplored site, include pieces of porcelain and clay figurines that are thought to originate from as far away as China and  help provide an understanding of a Singapura that seemed to have been at the crossroads even before the British made it so.

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All at sea

24 07 2014

The launch on Saturday of Singapore HeritageFest 2014, bring us to focus on one of the key reasons for Singapore’s being, the sea. This year’s festival much of which revolves around a maritime based theme, “Our Islands, Our Home” has us looking at our maritime past as well as our present as a maritime nation.

HeritageFest 2014 opens a window to Singapore's island heritage.

HeritageFest 2014 opens a window to Singapore’s island heritage.

It is to raise the profile of this heritage, one that goes back to times well before the arrival of Raffles, that is in fact what the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) and the National Heritage Board (NHB) hopes to achieve with the establishment of the S$500,000 Maritime Heritage Fund, which the two agencies will administer – for which a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by the two agencies at Saturday’s launch.

One of the highlights of this year's HeritageFest is a lighthouse trail that includes a stop on Pulau Satumu, Singapore's southernmost island, on top of which Raffles' Lighthouse is perched.

One of the highlights of this year’s HeritageFest is a lighthouse trail that includes a stop on Pulau Satumu, Singapore’s southernmost island, on top of which Raffles’ Lighthouse is perched.

Once a common scene in the waters off the Southern Islands. Boats such as the kolek on the right, are very much part of our maritime heritage (a similar kolek is on display at the Balik Pulau Exhibition at the National Museum).

Once a common scene in the waters off the Southern Islands. Boats such as the kolek on the right, are very much part of our maritime heritage (a similar kolek is on display at the Balik Pulau Exhibition at the National Museum).

The focus of the fund, which complements the NHB’s S$5 million Heritage Grant Scheme launched last year, will be on developing community-initiated projects related to Singapore’s maritime heritage that will promote a greater understanding and appreciation of Singapore’s maritime connections, as was touched on by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Community, Culture and Youth, in his speech at the festival’s launch.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of NHB launching Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of NHB launching Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Mr Wong also spoke of the transformation that will soon take place at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), where the launch event was held. Besides a revamp of the museum with expanded galleries that will include a space allocated for the Tang Cargo and see new shops and dining outlets, the museum will be given a new entrance that will open it up to the river and give it a direct connection into the historic heart of Singapore.

Another lighthouse - the very pretty Sultan Shoal Lighthouse at the western extremities of Singapore's waters seen during the lighthouse trail as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Another lighthouse – the very pretty Sultan Shoal Lighthouse at the western extremities of Singapore’s waters seen during the lighthouse trail as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

The revamp is part of the ongoing effort to develop a civic and cultural belt around Singapore’s colonial civic district (see: The Old Vic’s ticking again) that involves also the newly refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, and the conversion of the Old Supreme Court and City Hall into National Gallery – due for completion in 2015.

The Old Vic's definitely back!

The newly refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall.

A cultural performance at the launch of Singapore HeritageFest2014.

A cultural performance at the launch of Singapore HeritageFest2014.

The launch also coincided with the first evening of a two-night series of programmes taking place around the ACM and the river, River Nights. The event, brought much life and colour to the river, and celebrated its changing identity over the years – in the same way the well received series of activities  for Singapore HeritageFest 2014 celebrates the islands.

A dragon dance performance at the start of River Nights at the ACM's front lawn.

A dragon dance performance at the start of River Nights at the ACM’s front lawn.

More information on the Maritime Heritage Fund, Singapore HeritageFest 2014, River Nights and on Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore’s Islands (an exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore held in conjunction with HeritageFest 2014) can be found in the following links:





Motoring Heritage Day at Tanjong Pagar

5 09 2013

Motoring Heritage Day is back once again at the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. This year’s event will be held on Sunday 15 September 2013 from 10 am to 5 pm. Besides a rare display of some 50 vintage cars, there will also be lots of other activities including guided tours of the station by volunteer guides from the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB), an exhibition on the former railway station that I would be assisting the National Heritage Board (NHB) to put up, and talks (see programme below). The event is jointly organised by the Malaysia Singapore Vintage Car Register (MSVCR) and the NHB. More information can be found at the MSVCR’s site and at NHB’s website. I will also follow up with some further information soon.

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