Coming from the northeastern part of the island, a trip to Bukit Timah takes around an hour or so. The duration of the trip depends on where you are and what type of transport you use. The island is stringed together by an extensive network of secured train stations (most are annexed to shopping centers) so traveling around is convenient. I alighted at the Clementi MRT station, went opposite the Clementi mall and took the bus number 184. After passing the campuses of Singapore Institute of Management, Ngee Ann Polytechnic and six bus stops, I reached Ford’s old factory.
When I arrived I was greeted by this affable Singaporean fella, Jimmy, who supervises the entire museum all by himself. We spoke for awhile about the history of the place, how it was restored (the museum is actually just the facade, reception hall and administrative area of the former factory, that’s almost 1/4 of the original). The Japanese picked this location for the British to surrender to send a strong message to Britain and her ally, America. The guy knows his turf, knowledgeable and passionate not only about the tasks he performs around the museum but to his country’s WWII history. He invited me to the second floor where the museum’s theater is located. The place could seat 50 or more people, but there I was, watching the history of the island during WWII alone! I later found out from Jimmy that he have Filipino relatives (a first cousin of his founded the brief and t-shirt company “Warren”). During his first visit to the country, he recalls how the posh villages of Makati and the one “near Camp Crame” took him “by surprise”. Seeing those palatial American sized and styled abodes, he thought the richest people in the region lives in the Philippines! But he frequented old relatives in Chinatown too, so he got to see the surrounding suburbs of the capital where he witnessed some of the most wretched living conditions in the country.
The first time I saw the Ford factory was in a book I borrowed while I was in grade school. Of course, I didn’t know what the place was then but I remember the caption reads,”The Fall of Singapore”. I’ll never forget that iconic black and white photo of Gen. Yamashita and his party sitting opposite Gen. Percival and his men. Yamashita demanded his forces unconditional surrender and the British commander, in almost a sheepish manner yielded to his terms. It was the largest capitulation in modern British military history. Yamashita bluffed his way through the negotiation. I wonder if the British General would have made a different decision had he known that the Japanese was running out of supply and ammunition. The failure to continue defending Singapore understandably falls on his laps, as a local historian points out, not only was the Japanese having difficulties with their arms and food provisions during that time; the British, Australian and all local forces out numbers the Imperial army – 30,000 to 100,000+!
Percival carried the weight of this surrender until his death. The only British officer with his military rank that fought in WWII that was never knighted (big honor among the Brits). While he had a storied military career his commanding skills had been subject to criticism and questions after the fall of Singapore. But in fairness to him, while it is claimed then that Singapore was “impregnable”, it was really not that secure. The British empire had thinly “outstretched” her military. Yamashita knew the key to Singapore was to attack it from Johor. So he decided to enter Thailand and take all the Malaysian towns he could get his hands on and from Johor, besiege Singapore. From the time the Japanese reached Johor, there was really no stopping them. Percival destroyed the bridges that connected Johor to the island but it was just a matter of time before the Japs cross the narrow straits. Yamashita’s brutality and sadistic methods against his enemies and civilians weighed on everyone, and I’m sure it did on Percival. For the Japanese, fear paralyzes the mind and then the heart. During the surrender, when Percival demanded that some of his troops remain armed to maintain order, Yamashita threatened him that he’ll command more vicious attacks. At one time during the war an entire hospital, staff and patients were savagely massacred. The island was subjected to continuous air raids that targeted homes and shops. So many had perished during the initial days of the battle that it was impossible to bury everyone that died. There were also these killings called sook ching that took place in Changi and Punggol, hundreds of young Chinese men, mostly civilians, executed.
I can’t help but think about Corregidor, which is much smaller (7 kms long, width around 2 kms) and like Singapore was ferociously besieged by the Japanese. They had to take it, otherwise, their ships would continue to be under threat when it enters Manila bay. Corregidor was bombed from high hell and back – the most bombed piece of land on earth! It took so much shelling that the entire island had to be reforested after the war. The relentless Japanese attacks started on December 1941 and ended when the island was surrendered by Gen. Wainwright, on April 1942. How those men resisted, inflicting damages to their adversaries while doing so, is testament to their fortitude and fighting spirit. The American had the foresight that one day they would be challenged for the possession of the country and control over the pacific. The series of tunnels (complete with a medical facility) and a plethora of high powered, far reaching cannons positioned in the main island and the surrounding islets made it difficult to capture. How the fighters of Corregidor fought under extreme conditions for four long months is stuff of legends.
When things was going bad for the Japanese in the Philippines they called on Yamashita. But around this time the tides of war had already turned against them. Percival would have his revenge, sort of, he attended Yamashita’s surrender in Baguio. A symbolic gesture more than anything because he was not really involved in the Philippine operations. Percival recalls seeing the Japanese general having a surprised look when he saw him in Baguio. It is said that the British general refused to shake hands with the Japanese because of how he treated the POW’s. I think it’s incredible to think that people would hold on to values and morality in times of war (when everybody’s going berserk, mad and just bananas!) but believe it or not, some people do – even Japanese had men who conducted themselves honorably. A story was told to me by film archivist Ernie San Pedro of Japanese soldiers visiting farming villages to help plant rice and during the reaping season, harvest them side by side with farmers. People suspect them to be farmers before they were enlisted. Men wishing to experience their former lives albeit temporarily. Once work is done or when they’re called to report back, they leave without taking anything.
Another popular photo (see here), taken at the end of WWII, was the signing of Japanese surrender aboard USS Missouri at the bay of Tokyo. MacArthur, understanding the symbolic significance of Singapore and Corregidor, invited the commanders that surrendered these two islands as witness aboard. Both appeared gaunt and tired. There he asked the two generals to stand behind him while he sign the instrument of surrender. Each received pens (a Parker Duofold) that was used by the supreme allied commander in signing the surrender documents. MacArthur was said to have signed the last document using a purplish ink. This last pen he later gave to his wife.
In our country, it’s a challenge to bring the younger generation to take interest on history. Same thing here but the local government is pushing hard to bring historical awareness close to the people. And I think they’re slowly meeting their objectives. This museum and similar institutions like it are not only well funded but creative programs are drawn up and created to continue engaging the citizens (locals pay a minimal fee, sometimes fees are waived, like in public holidays). Some of the library and museum projects I’ve seen here are just absolutely incredible. I like that they used “Ford factory” as part of the name (I wonder what the company felt about it). The government is not getting any monetary gains here but they don’t mind that. No one’s counting money here when it comes to matters of historical education.