Singapore, a British Colony since 1819, unexpectedly surrendered to the numerically weaker invading Japanese Imperial Army on 15th February 1942 after a determined but relatively brief resistance and did not regain it until August 1945 when Japan unconditionally surrendered to the Allied forces and ended WWII. The Japanese rule brought about tremendous sufferings to the residents and prisoners of war there. To commemorate the 75th Anniversary of this epoch-making historical event, the National Museum of Singapore was planning to hold a six-month long exhibition commencing on 23rd September 2017.
Sometime in March last year, my 15 years old grandson Cheng En, who was an O-level student at Raffles Institution (RI), asked me if I remembered my childhood during WWII and, if so, could I help his two classmates in their assigned school history project regarding the Japanese Occupation of Singapore. They intended to submit my story to the museum authority as an exhibit for this Exhibition. After some reflections, I agreed to assist his two friends who would be in touch with me shortly about this project.
A couple of days later, Chew Jay Hong telephoned me about this school assignment and arranged for a suitable date for him and his team mate, Gareth Pang, to come to my house to interview me about my recollection of the war.
At the appointed day, two smart-looking and polite young men called on me in their crisp all white RI outfit. After explaining to me the gist of their project, they sought my consent to have my account recorded in order to ensure accuracy. They would be submitting the summary of the interview to the Museum and hoped it would be accepted as an entry for the Exhibition. I told them what they wanted to know and answering their various questions to suit the scope of their project. This initial interview lasted close to two hours. They then told me they would condense what was recorded and e-mailed the version for my approval.
Jay Hong and Gareth came to me again soon. Their edited account was well written and only a few amendments were needed to highlight several episodes of the war that had been indelibly entrenched in my young mind. They in turn also sought further elaborations on certain other aspects of my war time experiences to suit the requirements of their school project. This second interview was also well over an hour.
The agreed version of the interview was finalised subsequently between me and my interviewers who then submitted their project work to the Museum with the hope that it would be good enough for inclusion as a component of the forthcoming Exhibition.
Some weeks later, Jay Hong telephoned me excitedly to tell me that their account of my war memories had been officially accepted as an entry for the Exhibition in September of that year. He also let me know that the Assistant Manager( Curatorial and Programmes), Hui Qi Lock, would telephone me soon regarding the overall format of this Exhibition and how my contribution would be featured in it. I congratulated Jay Hong and Gareth on their well-earned success. They modestly and politely attributed my vivid recall as the deciding factor.
Ms Hui Qi Lock later contacted me with the official confirmation that the two students’ entry would form an integral part of this Exhibition, after editing by the Curator in charge in order to fit the space allotted for each successful entry and the special book publication to mark the grand opening of this 75th Anniversary Exhibition. The Curator in Charge of this Exhibition Priscilla Chua and her team was especially attracted to my 75-year old four-generation family photo which was urgently taken almost on the eve of the fall of Singapore as thoughtfully proposed by my grandfather in order to remember some family members in case they became the unfortunate victims of this war. Hui Qi was most delighted and relieved that I happened to have this rare photo due to its preservation by my younger brother Pin Swee.
Hui Qi then arranged to call at my house with the Museum’s official photographer and his team to take my portrait, plus a photo of me and the two students and the close-ups of my group family photo mentioned above. This family photo is of historic significance for this Exhibition because it would be the only four-generation family photo available and my tender age of five made me the youngest war survival in this Exhibition who had lived to tell my story of the cruelties of war. I am seen squatting in the right front row together with my two younger uncles and aunt as shown in this photo.
Finally, after consultation with the two students and me by Hui Qi, it was agreed that Garath will have his voice recorded in a earphone narrating my war account which can be conveniently accessed by visitors and with my official portrait on the display panel nearby. Both the students will be on duty on the opening day of this Exhibition to answer questions about my war time experiences from visitors.
The opening ceremony on 23rd September was a significant event and much publicised in the mass media. The Guest of Honour was the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Mrs Grace Fu, and other distinguished guests included diplomatic heads of several countries, the leading museum representatives from overseas, other community leaders, survivals of the war and the descendants of others featured in this Exhibition together with a group of school teachers and students. Besides me, my wife Lay Yong, my sister Kim Lian and my eldest son Chih Tsung were also there.
After the opening ceremony, a group photograph of the Minister, the head of the National Museum and the survivals and descendants of the war time families were taken on stage before they and other invited guests proceeded to view the Exhibition. A buffet reception was held for those who would like to meet the participants of this special event and their family members socially.
One could easily spend more than an hour touring the various sections of this Exhibition so as to gain a first hand knowledge of the circumstances that led to the fall of Singapore and its aftermath or to revive memories of their traumatic war experiences. The event was very well planned and executed and was further enhanced with many valuable and rare historic exhibits from the local museums, those lent by reputable overseas museums and participating war survivals and family members of those who lost their lives defending Singapore against the Japanese invaders. Visitors were encouraged to write postcards provided by the Museum to the participants of this Exhibition if their war experiences impacted on them.
Nearing the closure of this Exhibition, my youngest son Chih Ming, my daughter-in-law Leona and their son Cheng En and 12-year old daughter Li Ting went to view it accompanied by my wife and I. After spending well over an hour touring the entire exhibits there, our eldest grandchild, Cheng En, an A-level student at RI, summed up his impression of this event succinctly as follows and I quote:
“The highlight of this Exhibition was that for the same amount of content we learn during History classes in school about the Japanese Occupation, there was so much more experiential and interactive learning which made me understand the Japanese Occupation from a first hand view. Rather than learning hard facts and regurgitating them during exams, I enjoyed learning more about Singapore’s history this way and would definitely remember from this visit than I did after studying for my last History exam.”
After having endured several years of hardships and unhappy childhood because of the Japanese Occupation, my fervent hope is that my grandchildren and their children after them will be spared the horrors and devastations of another war with more destructive weapons at the disposal of the warring nations.
According to the National Museum, at the close of the Exhibition on 26th March 2018, more than 94,000 visitors from Singapore and all over the world had visited this special commemorative Exhibition.
I was surprised and palpably delighted when Dionne Huang of the Museum mailed me a bundle of postcards sent by visitors from locally and overseas, including one from my 12-year old granddaughter mentioned above, extending their sincere appreciation and sympathy of the moving account of my war experiences, in particular my 75-year old four-generation family photo taken under difficult and uncertain circumstances, which had deeply impacted on them. It was my turn to be moved by their very warm sentiments expressed in these postcards.
I would now share with my viewers a few of these postcards as my way of thanking them for their warm sentiments expressed in them. Here they come:
In writing this article, it gives me much pleasure to acknowledge the invaluable help extended to me by the following for this milestone Exhibition organised by the National Museum of Singapore:
- Chew Jay Hong and Gareth Pang of Singapore’s Raffles Institution (RI)who interviewed me for my story.
- Ms Priscilla Chua, the Curator in charge of this Exhibition, for very skilfully and poignantly crafted an episode of my account of the fall of Singapore that would move the visitors to this event.
- Ms Hui Qi Lock, Assistant Manager (Curatorial and Programmes) and her team members as well as Ms Dionne Huang of the same Department for their efficient help both before and during this Exhibition.
- And finally to those exhibition visitors from Singapore and overseas who sent postcards to me to convey their warm and sympathetic sentiments about my WWII experiences.
Lam Pin Foo