Changi Museum (aka how little I know of Singaporean/Asian History)

The older I grow, the more I realize how little we are taught of history in the US Education System (at the bottom of the post I’ll give a detailed description of what we are taught).  Granted, there are constraints of time, but we remove a larger context far too often.  That the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the reason we won the war of 1812 both happened because Napoleon was raising money to fight England, and that England was too busy fighting France to put any real effort toward fighting the US, for example.  Or that Pearl Harbor was bombed for a reason, or that they were bombing a bunch of other places at the exact same time.

Since moving to Asia, one of the things I’ve come to realize is exactly how lacking my education is when it comes to South American, African and Asian History.  I’m very well versed in American and European History.  I know very little of the others–and I have a degree in History.  My BA program, however, didn’t require coursework in Latin American History, African History, or Asian History to create a more well rounded student of history.  We just took two “World History” courses, which covered a million subjects with no depth to any of them.  The MA/PhD in History program that I began (but left) also didn’t require any history coursework outside our area of interest.

This is all to my (and others) detriment.  However, my lack of knowledge of Asian History is something I am slowly correcting.

Singapore was supposed to be impregnable.  It was the major British military base in the East.  Yet it fell to the Japanese after only seven days.  There is a quote from the Japanese commander, noting that the attack on Singapore was, in many ways, a bluff as he was seriously outnumbered.  It was, however, a bluff that worked.  Singapore was occupied by the Japanese from 15th February 1942 (the end of the Battle of Singapore) until 12th September 1945, when it was given back to the British.

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 7.03.11 PM

Entrace to Changi Museum

Today I visited the Changi Museum, which tells the story of Singapore during World War II, with an emphasis on the Prisoners of War held by the Japanese in Singapore.  No photography is allowed in the museum, and they direct you to use the photos on their website.  All photos are taken from there.

I strongly urge you to do the audio tour.  It gives a more in depth story than you can get from reading just the displays.  There are also several first person accounts given, which are incredibly powerful.  It only costs 8 sgd for adults, and there is no admission fee to the museum, so you really should do it.  Allow two hours for the tour.

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 7.09.42 PMDisplays in the first section of the Museum

The Museum is a U shape plus the outside chapel.  In the first leg of the museum are a series of displays on various topics.  My undergrad internship focused on creating museum exhibits, and I was really focused on how they balanced information, artifacts, images, and quotations from everyday people (as opposed to history books or just leaders).

Among other artifacts, they have a radio that would’ve been used to send morse code messages.  There are pictures of radios hidden in brooms and in shoes. There is a rail spike from the Thai/Burma railway-one of the many projects the Japanese used male POW’s for; this one killed 25% of those sent there.

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 7.22.05 PMA quilt made by women prisoners. Some square have secret messages.

One of the things that the museum does well (where so many other similar museums fail) is that they discuss the lives of women (and to a lesser extent, children).  The story of a woman tortured for passing messages to prisoners.  The women POW’s who sewed quilts and sent them to the men’s prison.  How the quilts had messages to let husbands and family members know they were alive.  The audio tour includes a first person account of a girl who was removed from her mom at the age of 17 and forced to become a “comfort woman” (sex slave) to the Japanese Military-a sadly common fate.  That many women gave birth in the prison and then had to watch their babies die because they couldn’t make enough milk (as they themselves were also malnourished).  That male children were removed from their moms at the age of 10 and put in with the adult male prisoners.

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 7.31.11 PMReproduction of the St. Luke’s Chapel and the Changi Murals

There is a chapel with the story of the Changi Murals.  The room after is full of art created by prisoners.  That they include these more mundane parts of prison life, which helps to broaden your view of the experiences of the POW’s lives adds another layer of complexity.  The Japanese allowed this.  Later you see images of the vaudeville shows and musicals/plays put on by prisoners with the full enthusiasm of the Japanese (one was called Kokonut Grove).  The museum includes these more humanizing moments, rather than just paint the Japanese as monsters, is impressive from the historian’s perspective.  (Certainly there is bias, but history is always biased).

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 7.38.25 PMPlaques commemorating individuals/groups/regiments who died defending Singapore

In the room commemorating the surrender of the Japanese there are swords on display, and a copy of the surrender.  There is this wall of plaques.  There are letters from soldiers.  I learned that 1,000 Americans were held POW at Changi.

From there you move into the gift shop, which has a number of books on various topics.  I picked up several books

  • The Battle for Singapore: The True Story of the Greatest Catastrophe of World War II by Peter Thompson (note, Prime Minister Winston Churchill of England called it that, this is not authorial hyperbole)
  • Stolen Childhood: The Untold Story of the Children Interned by the Japanese in the Second World War by Nicola Tyrer
  • You’ll Die in Singapore: The true account of one of the most amazing POW escapes in WWII by Charles McCormac
  • A different Sky by Meira Chand (this is fiction, taking place in SG before during and after WWII)

I am looking forward to reading them and expanding my very limited knowledge.  Once I’ve read some or all of them, I want to visit the Kranji War Memorial.  But I want a better understanding before I do.

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History as Taught to American Student

American History is often taught as–Spain, Portugal and England came to the Americas and began their conquest (ignoring that the Dutch were here, too, and the French are often glossed over as well).  There’s some small acknowledgment of how Native Americans were treated, but it’s somewhat downplayed (the US is a country where we have a Public Holiday to celebrate Columbus, who committed rape, slavery and genocide–but we ignore that because he “discovered” America).  Then there’s the myth of the First Thanksgiving, a fast forward to the Revolution and establishment of the US (1770’s), the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the war of 1812, the Civil War/Reconstruction (1860’s/70’s), some gilded age, WW1 (but mostly that we stayed out of it, selling weapons until the Lusitania was sunk, and then the story is that we roared in and kicked ass and won the war for the Allies), Roaring 20’s, Depression, WW2 (neutrality until we decided to save France and the kick Hitler’s ass, and until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor-FOR NO REASON-and then we dropped the bomb and ended WW2).  Sometimes you’re lucky enough to have a class cover the Civil Rights movement (but in a limited way that downplays just how bad life was for African Americans, and largely ignoring the Red Power movement, the Chicano movement and the women’s rights movements).  Super rarely they’ll talk about Korea or Vietnam, but again in a way that downplays why we were there (because communism is bad, yo–sarcasm) or exactly how much the US screwed up both.

World History is two courses taught as–(World Civ 1) Fertile Crescent, Ancient Egypt (but not the greek/roman invasions), Ancient Greece, (sometimes ancient china, depending), Ancient Rome, the fracturing of the Roman Empire, the rise of Europe and the Catholic Church, and the occasional nod to Islam. (World Civ 2) The age of exploration (a colloquialism for the conquest of the Americas) with maybe a nod to the Mayan and Incan empires, and then some amount of modern European and American history.  You get a slightly more involved explanation of the causes of World War One than you’d get in a US survey.  If you get to World War II (which is rare) you still get a Eur0-centric view.

Africa is only taught in reference to the slave trade.  There is no history of the European colonization, or the post colonialist creation of states without regard to tribal lands and the way that has resulted in bloodshed in forcing tribes to share a “country”.

South America is only mentioned for the Mayan and Incans and the “age of exploration” with no discussion of the other native peoples or the colonial experience.  No discussion of how the colonial powers were kicked out.  No discussion of modern era South American politics.

Asia is again only rarely referenced.  Again, no real discussion of the history pre, during or post colonialism periods.  It’s why people are SHOCKED they speak English in Singapore and are confused when I say “yes, but it was a British colony.”  Or why people don’t know what Partition was in India.

We are failing our kids, and it’s sad that it took moving to another continent for me to fully begin to appreciate exactly how little I knew.  (Obviously I knew my knowledge was lacking, but I had no idea the full scope and span of what I didn’t know, or how much it impacted events I thought I understood).

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2 Responses to Changi Museum (aka how little I know of Singaporean/Asian History)

  1. KJ says:

    Great post.

    FYI: Up near Kranji and basically at the site where the Japanese landed in SG there’s a black & white at the end of a pier. Apparently, this was a “comfort station” for Japanese officers during the occupation. Of course, “comfort station” is code for “sex slave house”. It’s not easily accessible as you have to bash through the mangroves and the one time I tried the mosquitos drove me back before I was mire than 2 metres from the car.

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