On the Familiar Made Exotic
The Japanese Occupation comes to vivid life
By Wena Poon
Life and Death in Changi
The Japanese Occupation of Singapore from 1942-45 is not a subject that excites many Singaporeans today.
There are several reasons. It is the greatest tragedy that has ever happened to our country in recent history and has been harped to death in school textbooks. Over time, it just became old hat.
The Japanese massacre of the ethnic Chinese makes for good soap opera. Too many cheap Chinese television dramas about men with bayonets deflowering girls in floral samfoos have reduced memories of the Occupation into a pathetic, tidy cliché.
Japan is also viewed by many Singaporeans today as a superior economic and cultural force in the region. A Straits Times survey once found that Singaporean youths would prefer to be Japanese (or Caucasian) if given the chance to change their racial identity.
These days, the only Singaporeans who dwell on the horrors of the Japanese Occupation are the uncool: our thundering father-politicians, who continue to rail against the effeminacy of the younger generation; our grandparents, who constantly tell us we are ungrateful for what we have today because all they had to eat during the Occupation were sweet potatoes; and our Chinese-language teachers, who belong to a stubborn tribe of Chinese intellectuals whose epic grudge against the Japanese reach far back, before the Occupation of Singapore, to the Nanking Massacre and other instances in which the Enemy violated the ancestral Motherland.
Along comes a book like Life and Death in Changi, which – more effectively than any lurid television show – reminds us what exactly it is that we have forgotten. It is a factual account of the Japanese Occupation through the eyes of British citizen Thomas Kitching, who was Chief Surveyor of Singapore and who had worked in Malaya for thirty years prior to the Occupation.
Kitching’s determination to capture Singapore for posterity in his war diaries leaves us with an unexpected legacy. We benefit from two things in particular: his quasi-military discipline in topography and field survey, and his vantage point as a relatively high-ranking member of British colonial society. These traits allowed Kitching to write an unparalleled account of the chaos preceding the fall of Singapore and of life in a POW camp.
There is something hopelessly strange and riveting about the streets and landmarks of our small country - Geylang, Clemenceau Avenue, Orchard Road, Cairnhill Road, Stamford Road, Serangoon Road, Battery Road, the Padang, the Singapore Swimming Club – when they are invoked by Kitching as the backdrop for war.
Was it only sixty years ago, when one could write that Newton Circus was heavily bombed, that Cold Storage has been raided, that shells had dropped on Fort Canning, that there were heavy air-raids at Clifford Pier, that a car exploded right through the windows of the Singapore Cricket Club, that Robinson’s was looted for scarce supplies, that Raffles Hotel was turned into a brothel for Japanese officers, that Methodist Girls’ School was requisitioned for the protection of British records from the enemy; when one could stand on the rooftop of the Fullerton (which I have done, today, after a swim in the ice-blue hotel pool to the tittering of sparrows) and watch the Singapore harbor fill with black smoke plumes and count twenty seven enemy planes roaring overhead, so close (one imagines) that you could see the pilots in the cockpits.
This is the country of Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene, and this time it’s not war-torn Vietnam or the jungles of Siem Reap, it’s our very own – boring, staid, uncool, pathetic, cynical, prim, unlovely, unimaginative, bourgeois, kiasu – Singapore.
Our country is never as interesting as when we think of it under spectacular enemy attack. There is something to be said about imagining the familiar landmarks of our lives completely obliterated. (Think of what aerial bombing could do now to HDB blocks!)
One of the greatest – and most profitable – obsessions of Hollywood, at least before 9/11, has been to imagine the apocalyptic destruction of Washington D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles in movies such as Independence Day, A.I., and Volcano. American audiences love to imagine their own digitally-created downfall; to be reminded, for the space of two hours, of the fragility of their great country. When the credits roll out, they return to real life, happy and proud that the White House has not been blown up by Martians.
Life and Death in Changi exerts a similar effect on the reader, yet it is not a work of the imagination. Just sixty years ago, somebody really did blow us up to kingdom come, without the aid of computer animation. We just forgot about it.
Although it does not pretend to be anything more than a war diary, Kitching’s work – more than any novel Maugham or Greene could have written – draws the reader concisely into the world view of a British colonial. It conveys the sense of the tragic nobility of the white colonial: noble because he views himself as superior to the natives (Kitching refers to the locals – us – as “the Asiatics”), tragic because it is only through this skewed sense of racial superiority that he is able to love us, as a parent loves a child.
Kitching refused to flee Singapore when opportunities arose. He wrote of his deliberations with his wife: “Duty says ‘Stay’, Common-sense says ‘Go’.” That mysterious thing called the British “stiff upper lip”, the overarching sense of the white man’s burden, asserted itself: “Surely we will be of considerable use in restoring normal working conditions or improving the lot of our Asiatic staffs? That at any rate seems to me to be what we are here for, partly: and also it would be very bad if all the Europeans deserted the sinking ship like a lot of rats. No, I shan’t go...”
Having chosen to stay behind, Kitching then became appalled at the lack of enthusiasm by his own government, and by local troops, to defend Singapore when the Japanese attacked in 1942: “The Perak and Selangor Volunteers were given the option – do you wish to defend your country or not? Almost with one accord they said, “NOT!” [and] so were disbanded. So much for all the time and money spent training them.”
Kitching also noted the peril of relying on imported Australian troops who had little commitment to Singapore: “They had seen a few Japanese soldiers in the distance, who appeared to be coming in their direction, so [they] thought it was about time [they] left.”
From Kitching’s point of view (and he was writing without benefit of any hindsight whatsoever), it would not have been difficult to defend Singapore had there been adequate British air support and more committed troops. Above all, he thought it was a great pity for civilians with relevant skills to jump ship at the sight of danger: “Are the people who have been training to help, to go away now? Reason says, ‘No’!”
When Singapore finally fell, Kitching stayed behind even though he knew he would be interned as a prisoner of war. He died in 1944 in Changi camp and never saw his family again.
Why did he choose to remain in Singapore? Perhaps it was a matter of colonial pride; perhaps it was something else. Whatever it was, his sentiments are not shared by many today. Ever since I was very little I have heard Singaporeans saying that they will flee at the drop of a hat if our country was ever threatened: “We’re such a small island, what’s the point of fighting? One bomb die already!”, “If anything happens I’ll just wave my Australian passport!” and so on. It is precisely this sort of blithe willingness to desert our country that infuriates our politicians and causes perfectly respectable, white-haired community leaders to degenerate into name-calling and finger-pointing, calling us weak, traitorous, cowardly.
The question of commitment to Singapore’s defense, whether on the part of domestic or foreign troops, will inevitably arise in any future military conflict in Singapore. Will many Singaporeans, as Kitching says, “desert the sinking ship like a lot of rats”?
A friend recently remarked that it is “so easy to find an American patriot; so difficult to find a Singaporean one.” What’s wrong with the picture?
“Patriotism” is a dirty word among us. Our founding fathers have been so earnest in their efforts to imprint “patriotism” on our consciousness, that the concept is now redolent of clumsily-worded National Day jingles and antiquated Confucian notions of “love for one’s country”. How many times have we heard the “world’s best airport” claim? People do not love their country because it has the world’s best airport! Nor do they love their country because its most distinguishing feature is that it is clean.
Patriotism, like ethnic pride, is a primordial concept, something that springs from the soul. The love of food, too, is a primordial passion, something that is passed down blood lines. That’s why you have the char kway teow patriot: the countless Singaporeans abroad who say that it’s the local food that would make them return to Singapore. Snub not the char kway teow patriot: he is on to something.
In Singapore culture, the association of patriotism with manufactured sentiments, with State-sponsored propaganda, has been tragic, even fatal. The sooner this association is erased, the better. People should naturally desire to defend their own country, and if they do not, it is worth looking into why.
A natural offshoot of the modern Singaporean’s contempt of patriotism is his utter indifference to the war chapters of his national history. We don’t want to remember the Japanese Occupation: remembrance is for old dotards who can’t move on.
An Australian told me he was surprised that while Australians still hold remembrance ceremonies for family who died in Singapore during the Occupation, he never hears Singaporeans talking about the war. “You’d think the Occupation affected far more Singaporean families than it did Australian families,” he said.
Do we not remember because it is a very Singaporean trait to look down on anything Singaporean (which we belittlingly refer to as “local”, as in “who does she think she is, she’s just a local”)?
Do we not remember because, on the political front, it would be embarrassing for Singapore as a nation to dwell on the past misdeeds of a very wealthy and important trade partner?
Britain – a nation of surprising sentimentality when it comes to wars – is not shy of commemorating not just the Second but the First World War ad nauseam, and nobody views such commemoration as antagonistic to present-day Germany.
The Americans still indulge in memorial events such as re-enacting (uniforms, guns, and all) the 140 year-old Battle of Gettysburg, every year.
Perhaps we just don’t want to remember. Because the war years belong to a colonial past whose memory is anathema to our progressive nation today. Who wants to remember a time when the White Man kept us out of his air-conditioned British clubs (“No Dogs and Chinese”).
That way of life is gone now. Kaput.
Yet Life and Death in Changi has done something important for me as a Singaporean, and as a writer. It has reminded me again that the familiar may become exotic, that the banal and despised may become strange and lovely, and that, in many respects, our country and our environment is only as much as we make it.
Kitching never thought Singapore was boring. His diary reveals a genuine affection that the British colonials had for Singapore. No doubt they had looked on Singapore so fondly because it provided them with prestigious appointments, a cushy lifestyle, large bungalows with “Asiatic staff”, loyal Malay chauffeurs, and what-not.
But beyond these material gains, one senses that people like Kitching – who, after all, made maps for a living – had a deep feeling for the trees, the roads, the landscape, the buildings, the people, the history, the very idea of Singapore. He believed it was worth defending, and was upset that his government failed to do more.
Could we ever rise to a similar level of conviction about our country?
We buy books about exotic other lands, be they Western or Eastern (as long as it’s not Singapore). We admire patriotism in the American citizen and get choked up over 9/11, but we’ll be damned if we get caught weeping over our own stupid little town. We have a collective fantasy that our Asian neighbors like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Shanghai, Tokyo, are all infinitely more “happening”, more affluent, more urbane, than home.
Anything, anything that can take us out of this boring, repetitive land of COEs, HDBs, PAPs, and MRTs would be welcome.
As long as we have this desperation, this envy for the outside world, this sick sense of being trapped in an air-conditioned, boring Disneyland with no opportunities; as long as we continue to despise people who resemble us the most, and use the adjective “local” pejoratively, we will not be patriots. (And we will not buy “local” books).
And yet, just the other day, I was at Newton Circus, walking through a field, past a little school, and came across, beyond the rusty iron fence, a low-roofed tuck shop, open to air, with small child-sized wooden benches, tabletops made of hammered tin, and a solitary hawker cleaning up after the kids were gone.
Someone had carefully hung tropical plants in hemp-knotted flower pots all around the tuck shop: a prim, school-marmish attempt at decoration for the children. Bees and flies roared deep in the vegetation. I could have been in Tonga.
And suddenly I thought of the strange exoticism of Singapore, and how easily one could just pass all this by without even a second glance. And I remembered Kitching’s entry in his diary about the heavy bombing of Newton Circus, and wondered, with world affairs in its current sorry state, whether there would ever be another occasion when this familiar, banal, monotonous, uninspiring, overlooked landscape would be the subject of literary interest.
And so I would encourage people – particularly the hip and the jaded – to read this book.
Because walking down Orchard Road is infinitely more meaningful, the hot air more precious, when one remembers Thomas Kitching’s lines describing how, not that long ago, all that could be seen on that street was the debris of heavy shelling, and a long line formed by prisoners of war.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003