Cherlyn Lee Suet Yean
I am a Junior College student who loves history and writing poetry. To me, history is a grand story with so many interesting details waiting to be discovered. In my free time, I love taking long walks around Singapore, letting my feet absorb the atmosphere of different places. I learn so much about Singapore’s history that way.
Naturally, I am interested in Bukit Brown because it is full of history. In fact, I went there earlier this year. But amidst all the tombstones, there was one that held a special resonance for me—the tombstone of Khoo Seok Wan. He was a poet and a scholar, and his life story is particularly fascinating because it contains all the vicissitudes of life.
I became interested in visiting Khoo’s tombstone after I attended an excellent exhibition on him at the National Library. He was born rich but became poor, and died of leprosy. But what really struck me was the beauty and immediacy of his poems, written in classical Chinese style. He is refreshingly honest about his poverty, and his poems chronicle details of his daily life very poignantly.
I suppose I was also was able to identify because I write poetry. I enjoy writing poetry because I get to express myself, and it is a way to channel my emotions. So I decided to visit Khoo’s grave as a pilgrimage to seek inspiration, and to pay homage to a great poet.
For me, the poem of his that I loved most was “Reflections on Building my Grave”. It is by an immigrant who has reconciled himself to the fact that there is no return to the motherland, and his characteristic honesty (with himself) can be seen. He also reconciles himself to inevitable change, and the line “年年新綠到天南“, as much as it describes how grass will grow yearly around his grave, is a statement that accepts change. This is particularly fitting given the change that is happening now, with a road being constructed through Bukit Brown.
In fact, I recited this poem by his tombstone because it felt right to do so, like completing life’s cycle. In his acceptance of dying in a foreign land that has become home, there is perhaps a larger acceptance of change. Given that the highway will be constructed through his tomb, it is perhaps a way of sending him to his final rest. And this is fitting because of the way he stoically endured through the vicissitudes of life with courage and dignity.
This is my tribute to Khoo Seok Wan:
Visiting Khoo Seok Wan’s Grave
As I enter, a tripod covered with verdigris promises
That if I pause long enough, its invisible
Camera will capture me against a hill of tombs.
This afterimage will bewilder passing cars.
At Khoo’s burial mound I recite
“Reflections on building my grave”.
Translated, its crow-squawked syllables
Hover in the somnolent air. A creased map
Guided me here, amid the river of red
Inscriptions I cannot read.
The highway blueprint that sent in
An army of excavators must have been
A summons from the dead. Otherwise I
Would not have come to you
With a broom and a book of your poems.
“Reflections on Building my Grave” by Khoo Seok Wan
(translated by Shelly Bryant from the NLB exhibition)
in sea and on hills
little space even for my abode
how then may these buried bones
leap over the Sword Pond
even were you to call a third time
I will have no hope of rising
from Singapura’s soil [Xing zhou]
when I fall, at last, into repose
a petal brushes my headstone –
another butterfly repeats life’s circle
yet even in these grave markers
styles alter with time
like grass growing anew
in its season
with each passing year
changes again touch
our southern home
Editor’s note: Khoo Seok Wan was exhumed on 12 March 2014, with his grandson and his great grandsons in attendance.
The following blog entry was written by Denyse Chua Pei Yun, a first year Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences undergraduate at Tembusu College. She and her classmates visited Bukit Brown on 8 March 2014.
Cemeteries to me seem to extol the notion of death and seat its weight in the society of the living. A collectivized piece of land plotted to house the dead community, to which the living visits to give flowers and incense and their respects. These skeletons habiting under our feet are commanding our ways of life without as much of a murmur. Yet even with such daunting and ghoulish imaginations of cemeteries, Bukit Brown posits a sense of familiarity and nostalgia – not the eerie predispositions of the phasma phasmatis, but a reminder of culture and nature tumbled in an isolated park-like setting of greenery and avid runners; a platform that accommodates both the living and the dead at a grassroots level.
Conditioned by the media’s chilling and unnerving perspective of such death collectives, and coming from a community where life and youth is celebrated, the fourteen of us wide-eyed and intrigued undergraduate students didn’t know what to expect when we arrived at the largest gravesite in Singapore. Fortunately, we visited the site in the afternoon when the sun was still up and the possibility of the specters of our dead forefathers being in our presence didn’t spook us too much.
We visited Bukit Brown as part of a research field trip for a module on the topic of death hosted by Tembusu College, a University Town College in the National University of Singapore. Our lecturer Dr Connor Graham, who was also present at the site, teaches this module with an unusual level of enthusiasm for the departed. A bus ride down to Bukit Brown cemetery took us on a trip down Singapore’s memory lane, and much was to be explored around the willowing trees and hastily buried graves.
We found ourselves touring with other cemetery enthusiasts on International Women’s Day. The tour was led by a group of avid volunteers eponymously named Brownies, who help to manage and educate the public on Bukit Brown’s history, strategically centered on the graves of women, their stories, and their legacy.
Altruism was a key theme throughout the tour, as the guides shared stories of women both of status and none, who played significant roles in creating and contributing to today’s Singapore, amongst other quirky figures. One specific story of a 19-year-old lady who encompassed the virtues of bravery and heroism spoke to me. The grave of a 19-year-old maiden and her story was reminiscent of the willingness to sacrifice oneself for others, a virtue and value that can I feel can hardly be seen in today’s youth, and I include myself here. Soh Koon Eng was my age in the 1941 when she was unfortunately killed by an air raid during the Second World War, throwing herself in front of her family to shield them from flying fragments of furniture from the explosion. This selfless act cost her life in the most painful way possible, but saved the lives of her family, who lived on to tell her story.
With so much happening in the living world, it is easy to overlook the abundance in culture Singapore provides, contrary to the belief that this island is all but a concrete jungle with nowhere to get away. In Bukit Brown, an area isolated from the perpetual churning of our roaring lion city, the voices of those forever silenced are deafening. Thankfully, we have the Brownies to be grateful for voicing their rumbles, recanting stories of the dead with a whisper of vivacity while maintaining the gravitas of their life, legacy and contribution to Singapore’s modern success.
Coming from a generation of Singaporeans where cremation is the last step in life (and death), it hadn’t occurred to me that cemeteries in Singapore were such an important part of the landscape and were so entwined in national discourse, not only in her history, but also in our present. The sequestration of a part Bukit Brown would be the final effort of legendary figures untold in history books for Singapore, paving the way for the future, and for the living.
The Brownies will be conducting 2 special walks as part of the urban community movement called Jane’s walk. There are other walks at various parts of the city as well and you will need to sign up at the website for the Jane’s walk of your interest.
Here is the link to all the Jane’s walks that will be conducted in the weekend of Fri 2 May’14 till Sun 4 May’14.
To sign up follow the link on the Jane’s walk page or go there directly here.
An Evening Stroll into the Past (Sat 3rd May’14 @7.00pm)
Andrew & Beng will throw a light on the lives and times of the Pioneers at the turn of 20th century Singapore in this special dusk to dark stroll from Bukit Brown Cemetery to McRitchie carpark. Listen to stories of the pioneers that helped build Singapore, while looking out for night birds such as night jars and owls during a leisurely stroll through the cemetery. Please note, to bring your own torch lights for this guided walk.
We will end the walk at the McRitchie carpark.
…. read more
Heritage Walk Botanic Gardens to Bukit Brown (Sun 4th May’14 @8.00am)
Useful info here: Getting There/游览信息
Disclaimer: By agreeing to take walking tours of Bukit Brown Cemetery, I understand and accept that I must be physically fit and able to do so.To the extent permissible by law, I agree to assume any and all risk of injury or bodily harm to myself and persons in my care (including child or ward)
Useful info here: Getting There/游览信息
Friday 18 April, 9am – 11.30am. Meeting place: At the Lor Halwa Main gates at Bukit Brown
Fabian and Steven will be guiding a tour on the Straits Settlement and life in the early days in Singapore. Get enriched by their stories of how pioneers, revolutionaries, missionaries and merchants alike settled in Singapore.
If you have a facebook account please register here . This is to help us keep track of numbers turning up
Sunday 20 April, 9am – 11.30am. MEETING POINT: Junction of Lorong Halwa, Kheam Hock Road and Sime Road
What makes Bukit Brown so fascinating is the many layers of history academics and amateurs alike have uncovered. This is where Chinese pioneers were buried between 1922 and 1973. Their lives – prosperous and paupers – paint a society that blossomed after Stamford Raffles landed and made this part of the Straits Settlements, a gem in the British empire in the Far East. The links to Penang, Malacca and Johor speak of the colonial empire. The links to Java and Sumatra tell of the maritime empires under the British and the Dutch. The lives of the revolutionaries and reformists speak of a struggle for identity with the fall of Imperial China.
In the 1940s, this was site of fierce battles involving British (4th Suffolks) and Indian (Royal Deccan Horses) forces, near a village of Chinese and Malay civilians had lived.
Your guides are Claire, Ish and Yik Han. Together they will help piece together the importance of our multifaceted history laid bare in a cemetery. We welcome anyone with knowledge of personal stories to share them with us on the trail.
NOTE: A documentary film crew will also be attending the tour and filming. By agreeing to the tour, you agree to be on film. We thank you for your understanding as we agreed to the filming as part of the outreach to raise awareness of this historic site.
If you have a facebook account please register here
“We guide rain or shine or exhumations.” – we urge you to wear sensible shoes, carry a bottle of water, put on insect repellent, and come with an open mind as we explore together. We share and talk as we walk, and learn from each other. Our walking tours are meant to be learning journeys, for both participants and guides. We believe in building communities and growing organically.
Sunday 20th April, 9am – 12pm Mandarin Guided Walk with Walter Lim
By Sugen Ramiah
The Qing Ming festival, or tomb sweeping day, is observed by the Chinese worldwide. It is a day for them to pay homage to their ancestors, either by visiting graveyards, columbariams or ancestral tablets in ancestral halls.
The actual day falls either on the 4th ot 5th of April, but families have a window of ten days before or after the actual day to conduct Qing Ming. This year, I was fortunate to have been able to observe Qing Ming in Bukit Brown and other locations.
Qing Ming, has many stories to its origin, but is mainly observed as an act of being filial and for geomancy (feng-shui) reasons. The Chinese believe that the bones of their ancestors and the lives of the descendents are inextricably connected. For abundance in wealth and happiness, firstly, one has to be filial. Secondly, there has to be a good flow of Chi (positive energy) on the forecourts of their ancestors. During the dry season, the foliage clogs the drainage causing an obstruction to the flow of water. During Qing Ming, the drainage is cleared, to allow the flow of water (Chi) onto the forecourt of the tomb. Qing Ming is also a perfect opportunity for extended family members to get together amidst busy work/family commitments.
Descendents set off as early as first light, to wash, sweep, and weed the tombstones. Inscriptions on the headstones are then re-inked using red or gold paint. A stack of coloured paper or a stone is placed on the headstone to signify that the dead is not forgotten. The paper is also scattered on the mound of the grave. This recalls how an emperor from the Han Dynasty in China could not find his parents’ tomb after he returned from war. He was then told to throw five coloured paper into the air and where they lodged, that was the location of his parents’ tomb.
Two sets of offerings are prepared by the families. First set is for the earth deity by the side – a pair of candles are lit, food and incense offered to the Tu Di Gong who is the guardian of the tombstone. Paper money is also burnt as a form of offering.
Second set is for the deceased – a pair of candles are lit, offerings of tea, fruits, favourite food, and longevity cakes are placed on the tombstone altars. Incense sticks are firstly offered to long departed ancestors and subsequently to the deceased. Incense sticks are placed in an urn and sometimes around the mound, and then descendents wait for the deceased to ‘finish’ their meal Sometimes during the wait, incense sticks are offered to neighbouring tombs – recalling the days of the kampong spirit.
Once approval has been given through the moon blocks or coins, offerings of hell notes and silver paper, clothes, shoes and even latest technological gadgets such as the ipads are burnt for the deceased. Sometimes the required items are packed in a paper treasure box, sealed with the name of the ancestor and burnt for them exclusively. To conclude, tea or any form of liquid is poured around the offering to “secure” the area of the burnt offerings, so as to avoid invasion by other wandering spirits.
It has been a rewarding experience, to learn from family members on how they up hold traditions that has been handed down to them. All they hope is that these traditions will be carried on by the generations to come and that their ancestors will not be forgotten. I will close with a quote that is close to my heart.
“To acknowledge our ancestors means we are aware that we did not make ourselves that the line stretches all the way back, perhaps to God; or to Gods. We remember them because it is an easy thing to forget: that we are not the first to suffer, rebel, fight, love and die. The grace with which we embrace life, in spite of the pain, the sorrow, is always a measure of what has gone before. ” – Alice Walker
Sugen Ramiah is a teacher by training and his interest includes observing and documenting Chinese festivals and rituals conducted by temples.
Read about the tombkeepers’ Qing Ming here
Post-Museum will be exhibiting 8 works from The Bukit Brown Index in Unearthed.
Mar 21 – 6 Jul : 10am – 7 pm
Unearthed seeks to investigate our relationship with Earth and the natural world, and charts SAM’s ( Singappore Art Museum) new direction in encompassing and presenting projects and practices where art intersects with other disciplines and modalities. Drawing on works from SAM’s permanent collection as well as private collections, the exhibition at SAM offers an insight on how artists in Singapore view and respond to the natural world, coming from and living in such an urban and built-up environment.
The other artists who are in the exhibition include Lucy Davis, Debbie Ding, Ho Tzu Nyen, Donna Ong, Ezzam Rahman, Robert Zhao Renhui, and Twardzik Ching Chor Leng.
[Image: Installation view of Bukit Brown Index #98: List of Names of the Deceased to be Exhumed to Make Way for the New 8-Lane Road through Bukit Brown and Seh Ong Cemeteries (Unclaimed Tombs as of 1 March 2013) Handwritten by Members of the Public]
By Claire Leow
This week marks the second anniversary of this blog, started to support a volunteer effort to raise awareness of Bukit Brown’s intrinsic value: its heritage, habitat and history. More importantly, it marks the 72th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore to Japanese occupation during World War II. The two anniversaries dovetailed neatly as All Things Bukit Brown hosted a special tour to mark the Remembrance of the War Dead, tracing the routes of the Japanese advance and the British retreat to defend the city as the battle spilled over from Bukit Timah and Adam Park to Sime Road and into the cemetery grounds, a prelude to dreaded hand-to-hand combat in the thick forest. This is the battle at Bukit Brown in the last hours before the fall of the “Impregnable Fortress” that was Singapore, the jewel of the British empire. James Tann contributed a moving chronology of events.
On Feb 15, 2014, we were able to guide 55 participants in an energising walk to retrace the steps of the soldiers as Bukit Brown is unique as a battle site from WWII that is still largely intact, according to the findings of battlefield archaeologist Jon Cooper, who serendipitously landed in Singapore to find himself living at Adam Park, the site of a battle and near to the Sime Road prisoners-of-war (POW) camp during Japanese Occupation (February 1942 to September 1945). This has enabled Jon to advance his research and fieldwork, reinforcing the historic value of the endangered heritage site, as the government has started its project to exhume more than 4,000 graves to make way for an 8-lane highway despite arguments for alternatives.
In January last year, we discovered his research had taken him to Bukit Brown and collaborated with him to start battlefield tours and talks.
Indeed as exhumations started in recent months, Jon accelerated his search for missing soldiers, initially the nine missing Suffolks soldiers. His research recently led him to archival materials from a Reverend Eric Cordingly about a massacre of five Indian soldiers, with burial records that they were laid to rest at a now-defunct village on the outskirts of Bukit Brown. Their last known resting place is unknown.
As Jon writes, “it was noted in the initial report that we only had details for missing Suffolk men and that most likely there are many more of other units who could have gone missing on Bukit Brown. This addendum to the report is a great case in point. Here we have independent reports which tie in nicely with the existing documents and shed light on more missing soldiers. The fact that they were Indian troops reminds us of the global heritage that is encompassed in this battlefield site. Also the suggestion that men were rounded up bound together and then shot is a vivid reminder that the Kheam Hock road was a scene of one of the horrific atrocities that were taking place across the island at the time.”
Tomorrow, February 18, marks the 72th anniversary of the start of the Sook Ching massacre, after the Japanese forces conducted an island-wide scourge to execute able-bodied Chinese men aged 18 to 50, partly in revenge for the overseas Chinese support during the Sino-Japanese war. There are no records of the final numbers killed but the official estimate stands at 50,000 men.
Grace Seah is one of many descendants of the victims of Sook Ching, as she tells here in this blog post, Sook Ching: Our Loss, of how her uncle Tan Kim Cheng failed to heed her father’s plea to flee. Our tours to the ornate tombs of Tok Cheng Tuan and his widow Oon Tuan Cheng always moved participants, in a personal tragedy in reported in “Oon Tuan Cheng: A Life of Loss“ as a young widow with six children to raise, only to lose her sons to Sook Ching. A young lady Soh Koon Eng was cut down in her prime in a bomb raid. Her story was brought to light after a niece opened up to the volunteers. These are moving stories of the civilians caught up in the throes of war.
Among the most wanted on the Sook Ching list was Wong Chin Yoke. Wong, a decorated police inspector (he received the Coronation Medal) who had escaped Singapore with 10 men before the fall in 1942, fleeing to Indonesia to start an underground resistance movement. He was betrayed and then caught and eventually killed by Japanese in 1943. His body was whisked away by a friend from the Japanese Military hospital and buried. It was not for another 11 years before this war hero was re-interred in Singapore. Nonetheless, his remains were buried with full police honours in Bukit Brown on 21st September 1954. Suitably, a fearsome pair of Sikh guards stands guard at his tomb. They never fail to wow visitors.
Next on the most wanted list was another war hero, Tay Koh Yat, a community leader. Tay was admired for his patriotism and daring-do in leading a 20,000-strong self-defence force which he formed just before the Japanese invasion to aid those injured by the Japanese air raids. His rallying cry was “20,000 people, one heart.” The force helped to maintain order and prevent panic and chaos as people started to flee the country with the invasion of the Japanese forces.
Tay stood his ground until the eleventh hour and fled to Indonesia to escape certain death only on the eve of the fall of Singapore. After the war, Tay returned and immediately started to compile the fatalities from his volunteer force and lobbied the colonial government for the same compensation given to widows and children of servicemen who died during the war. Tay next went on to form the Singapore Chinese Appeal Committee for the Japanese Massacre victims to seek justice and compensation for the estimated 50,000 people massacred. In March 10, 1947, the War tribunal committee found Lieutenant General Kawamura Saburo, Singapore garrison commander and Lieutenant Colonel Oishi Masayuki Kempeitai commander guilty of war crimes and sentenced them to hang.
Tay was one of only six people to witness their execution; such was his standing in the community. And, on seeing the two generals, he burst out in anger and sorrow: “You have committed big sins and really deserve to die, but even when your soul descends to hell to suffer further punishment, still it is not enough to atone for your sins.”
His great granddaughter Jaime Ho read of his exploits on this blog and wrote her of her mother’s emotion. It was equally prescient that as we ended our tour at Tay’s tomb, the Civil Defence siren went off at noon, very similar to the air raid sirens that haunted Singapore in 1941 and 1942. We held a minute of silence for Tay.
There were notable volunteers, such as Tan Chow Kim, one of the original members of the Singapore Voluntary Infantry (S.V.I) , a company within the Singapore Volunteer Corps. Another was Tan Huck Wan, a Corporal of the Singapore Voluntary Field Ambulance, Straits Settlements Volunteer Force, who probably died as a prisoner of war on 31st May 1944. That same year, his daughter Ruby Tan died on the 26th Oct 1944. She was only 6 months old. His widow had to raise two sons alone. (Sadly, both father and daughter have been exhumed to make way for the highway.)
The losses were great during the war. Many died in unmarked tombs. Norman Cho found his grandfather’s grave after 66 years, and retells the story of a man of wealth and repute who lost his fortune during the war. Though Cho Kim Leong survived the occupation, he died a broken man mere months after Singapore was liberated. His bereft widow was too impoverished, a single mother with two young sons, and had no money for a tomb. Norman built a tomb for his grandfather only in 2012.
Many others are remembered only as burial entries which record that “SMC” (Singapore Municipal Council) trucks dumped their bodies in trenches at Bukit Brown in March and April. It is not clear how they died. We are still searching for these mass graves.
From the civilian defence force to the police force, community leaders to defenceless civilians, many were felled during the war. Families suffered. Children died premature deaths. Poverty, disease and malnutrition were rife.
Bukit Brown is not just another cemetery. It is the final resting place of pioneers from the 1830s right up to victims of the war in the 1940s. It represents universal heritage and a reminder of our frailty and also a measure of our resilience.
The volunteers have now guided more than 10,000 visitors to Bukit Brown. As much as this is a testimony to the dedication of these amateur historians and researchers, it is a greater testimony to the intrinsic value of Bukit Brown as a repository of historical artifacts and resources as well as heritage values. It would not have been possible to move so many with mere passion. Once there, the participants recognise immediately the natural serenity and lushness of the habitat, bird calls rising from the forests. With the aid of some story-telling, the meanings of the sculptures, inscriptions, motifs and tomb designs become clear.
With research comes deeper knowledge of the lives and times of those interred there, a story arc of Singapore from the early years, through good times and bad. Fortunes were made and lost. Lives ordinary and deeds extraordinary came to pass. It would be a great loss to the nation and to students of history to have Bukit Brown lost to a highway and housing.
This chronology of the Japanese invasion was compiled by James Tann, a heritage blogger, in the lead up to the 72nd anniversary of the fall of Singapore on 15 February, 1942.
Feb 8, 1942.
The Japanese Army invasion of Singapore Island begins with the crossing at Lim Chu Kang.
February 9, 1942.
Having landed the night before along the Lim Chu Kang coast, by the afternoon of 9th Feb, Tengah Airfield was in the hands of the invading Japanese Imperial Army.
Also on 9 Feb, the Japanese Army opened a 2nd battle front by landing the Imperial Guards Division at Kranji and the Causeway. This Division was to move east heading towards the Sembawang & Thomson regions.
The Jurong-Kranji Line – 9th February, 1942.
The Allied forces formed a futile blockade called the ‘Jurong Line’ stretching east of Tengah Airfield, through Bulim to the Jurong River (where Chinese Garden is today) to try and contain the Japanese forces within the western sector of Singapore.
By evening of 9th Feb 1942, the Jurong Line had collapsed completely due to miscommunication. The main Australian 22nd Brigade retreated, resulting in a domino effect leading other units to retreat as well.
Luckily for them, the Japanese forces did not press their advantage as they had to wait for reinforcements and logistic supplies to follow up across the Straits to continue the invasion.
You can also read how a jungle dirt track saved the lives of 400 soldiers by James Tann here
10th Feb 1942.
The capture of Bukit Panjang and the massacre at Bukit Batok.
With the overnight collapse of the ‘Jurong Line’ blockade, the Japanese 5th Division easily manoeuvred down Choa Chu Kang Road and overpowered the defences by the Argylls & Sutherland Highlanders and the Hyderabad Regiment at Keat Hong. Pushing them back all the way to Bukit Panjang Village. It was the first encounter with Japanese tanks in Singapore by the British.
By the early afternoon, Bukit Panjang Village had fallen to the Japanese. Some British units managed to escape through the farmlands of Cheng Hwa and eventually followed the water pipeline down to British lines near the Turf Club region.
Intending to re-establish the ‘Jurong Line’, the British High Command despatched 2 battalions from Ulu Pandan to Bukit Batok (West Bukit Timah).
X Battalion made it way to 9ms Jurong Road (opp today’s Bukit View Sec Sch), while Merret Force lost its way and camped at Hill 85 (Toh Guan Road today).
The Japanese 18th Div coming down Jurong Road encountered both X Battalion and Merret Force during the night. X Bn, caught totally off guard, was annihilated and lost over 280 men, while Merret Force had half its force killed in the ambush.
The Japanese Commander, Gen Yamashita, had ordered both his 5th and 18th Division to take Bukit Timah Village and Bukit Timah Hill by the 11th Feb. Thus, both units were in a frenzied rush to capture the strategic high point.
By midnight of 10th Feb, Bukit Timah Village was ablaze and effectively conquered by the invasion force.
Photo credits: Australian War Memorial
1. Japanese soldiers at Bukit Timah Hill
2. Japanese Type 95 HaGo Light Tanks in Bukit Timah Village
11th February 1942.
The Fall of Bukit Timah Hill and the Tragedy at Sleepy Valley.
By the time Gen.Yamashita’s army crossed into Singapore, he was critically short of supplies, fuel, ammunition and even food for his troops. His strategy was thus to conduct a tropical blitzkrieg – ‘hit them fast hit them hard’ – to capture Bukit Timah. It being the high point for observation also held the British ammunition, food and fuel depots which he coveted.
To raise morale of his troops, he set Feb 11 as the day to capture Bukit Timah Hill. The significance of Feb 11 was that it was the Japanese Kigensetsu, the day they celebrate the ascension of the 1st Emperor and the founding of the Japanese Empire. The task was assigned to competing 5th and 18th Divisions with untold glory going to the unit achieving the objective first.
By midnight of 10th Feb, both units had already reached Bukit Timah Village and the resultant battle against the British defenders set the entire region ablaze. The British retreated and held their line at Reformatory Road (Clementi Road)
By early morning of the 11th, the Japanese had secured Bukit Timah Hill.
Meanwhile back at Bukit Batok…
By the morning of 11 Feb, the senior commander of 15th Brigade, Brigadier Coates, who was to lead the re-taking of the Jurong Line, knew that the Japanese had surrounded his position. He cancelled the order and proceeded to retreat, together with the Special Reserve Battalion, back to allied lines at Ulu Pandan.
Forming 3 columns consisting of 1500 men from the British, Indian and Australian units, they proceeded from Bukit Batok to cross an area called Sleepy Valley.
Unknown to them, the Japanese 18th Division was already waiting to spring their trap on the British soldiers.
What happened next is a seldom mentioned debacle which actually had the highest number of casualties of any skirmish within Singapore during the war. The firefight that took place at Sleepy Valley took the lives of 1100 allied soldiers out of the 1500 who entered that valley of death.
Throughout the day, the British sent in reinforcements to try and re-take Bukit Timah. However, both Tomforce and Massey Force could do little to dislodge the Japanese.
When Bukit Timah Hill fell, Gen Percival moved his HQ from Sime Road to Fort Canning. The fear of the approaching Japanese Army also led them to destroy the infamous 15” Guns at Buona Vista Camp at Ulu Pandan that morning. It was a sign that things had come to bear…
12th Feb 1942.
Tomforce’s attempt to re-take Bukit Timah and Bukti Panjang ended in futility. Unknown to them, they were up against the battle hardened Japanese 56th and 114th Regiments of the 18th IJA Division, Yamashita’s crack troops, who had fought all the way from China.
By the morning of 12th Feb, the British lines were being pushed backed.
Tomforce fell back from Reformatory (Clementi) Road to Racecourse when the Japanese overran the supply depots at Rifle Range. By the end of the day they would retreat all the way back to Adam and Farrer Road.
By then, Gen Percival had redrawn the defence line.
Massey Force would protect the waterworks from Thomson Village to the east of the MacRitchie golf links, where the former HQ at Sime Road was.
Gen Heath’s British units would fall back from Nee Soon, having abandoned the Naval Base, and form the line from Braddell to Kallang.
In the west, the Australians fell back from Reformatory Road to Holland Road (Old Holland Road), while the 44th Indian Brigade formed the line from Ulu Pandan to Pasir Panjang. Sporadic fighting occurred throughout the day along the line.
Elated with the capture of Bukit Timah, Gen.Yamashita was still faced with logistical problems including a critical shortage of ammunition. He knew he wouldn’t be able to last out in a war of attrition and thus resorted to his plan to bluff the British into surrendering, by dropping ultimatum notes into the British lines.
“To the High Command of the British Army, Singapore”
I, the High Command of the Nippon Army have the honour of presenting this note to Your Excellency advising you to surrender the whole force in Malaya.
My sincere respect is due to your army…bravely defending Singapore which now stands isolated and unaided…..futile resistance would only serve to inflict direct harm and injuries to thousands of non-combatants….Give up this meaningless and desperate resistance…If Your Excellency should neglect my advice, I shall be obliged, though reluctantly from humanitarian considerations to order my army to make annihilating attacks..”
(signed) Tomoyuki Yamashita”
Getting no response to his ultimatum message, Yamashita sent his units on probing incursions along the line.
These took place mainly at Sime Road and Pasir Panjang near Normanton.
He had no intention to enter the city as he knew he did not have the resources to fight a street to street battle.
13th Feb 1942.
The noose tightens around Singapore City.
With the core of Singapore Island firmly in the hands of the Japanese Army, Gen.Yamashita moved his HQ from Tengah to the Ford Motors factory at Bukit Timah.
Strangely, the previous day ended somewhat with a lull in the fighting.
This allowed Gen Percival to continue finalising his last line of defence.
From Kallang Airfield to Paya Lebar, Paya Lebar to Braddell, Thomson Village to Adam Park, Adam Road to Farrer Road to Tanglin Halt, from Buona Vista across Pasir Panjang ending at Pasir Panjang Village.
The last unit to pull out , the 53rd Brigade, left Ang Mo Kio area around noon and the traffic along Thomson Road was so choked that Japanese planes had an easy time strafing the columns along the route.
Gen.Yamashita had actually feared that Gen.Percival would dig in and fight to the last.
In order to continue his feint, despite running low on ammunition and men, he launched attacks to give the British the appearance of Japanese strength.
He ordered the crack 18th Division to take Alexandra Barracks and the 5th Div & the Imperial Guards to attack the Waterworks at MacRitchie and the pumping station at Woodleigh.
Alexandra Barracks was the main British Army Ordnance Depot, where most of their equipment, stores and fuel storage, as well as the main Alexandra Military Hospital, were located
The attack on Alexandra Barracks began from Pasir Panjang (Kent Ridge) after 2 hours of heavy shelling at noon.
Waves of Japanese soldiers fought determined defenders from the 1st Malaya Brigade and the 44th Indian Brigade. Fighting was vicious and often hand to hand. The Malay Regiments were slowly overpowered with the Japanese winning height after height. The Gap, Pasir Panjang Hill III, Opium Hill, Buona Vista Hill, would fall one after the other but fighting would continue till the following day.
Over at MacRitchie, the Japanese 5th Division fought the 55th Brigade (1 Cambridgeshire & 4 Suffolk Regiments) to gain control of the reservoir. An all night tough fight including tanks forced the British Regiments all the way back to Mount Pleasant Road across Bukit Brown cemetery. The Suffolks lost over 250 men defending their ground.
The Japanese Army was now within 5 kilometres of the City on 2 fronts.
All this while, civilians casualties were mounting in the collateral damage from the Japanese shelling.
The City now had up to 1 million evacuees, most in dire straits without shelter, food nor water.
An Officer was to record travelling down Orchard Road:
“Buildings on both side went up in smoke…civilians appeared through clouds of debris; some got on the road, others stumbled and dropped in their tracks, others shrieked as they ran for safety. We pulled up near a building which had collapsed, it looked like a slaughter house; blood splashed, chunks of human being littered the place. Everywhere bits of steaming flesh, smouldering rags, clouds of dust and the groans of those who still survived.”
At the Battlebox, the new HQ at Fort Canning, Gen.Percival and his senior commanders were contemplating the latest orders from Gen.Wavell as well as an order from Churchill.
14th Feb 1942.
Prelude to Capitulation
Throughout the night of 13/14th Feb, sporadic skirmishes occurred both at Pasir Panjang and Adam Road.
At daylight 8.30am at Pasir Panjang Ridge , the Japanese charged up for a final assault on Hill 226 and Opium Hill facing heavy resistance from the 1st Malay Regiment. Bitter hand to hand combat lasted till 1.00pm in the afternoon when the Japanese gained control of the hills and in the process annihilating the Malay Regiment.
As the loss of the strategic ridge gave way, the Japanese advanced along Ayer Rajah in pursuit of Indian troops towards the British Military Hospital. It was then that the tragic incident occurred at the BMH with the senseless slaughter of wounded patients and medical staff.
There was also little relief along Adam Road. The Japanese, with Col Shimada’s Tank Regiment, pressured the line with a bulge through Bukit Brown, towards Caldecott Hill and Adam Park. Bitter fighting occurred around Hill 95 and Water Tower Hill (today’s Adam Park/Arcadia).
The Imperial Guards Division harried the eastern battle line at Paya Lebar and were near to capturing the Woodleigh pump station by mid day.
At British HQ in the BattleBox at Fort Canning, Gen.Percival conferred with his field commanders.
Brigadier Simson advised that the water situation was extremely grave with the threat of epidemic.
Gen Heath, commander of British Forces, and Gen Bennett, commander of Australian Forces, urged Gen Percival to surrender. Percival refused to yield, having direct orders from Churchill via Gen.Wavell, the Commander in Chief based at Java, not to surrender and to fight to the last man.
However, Gen.Percival informed Gen.Wavell that the enemy was close to the City and that his troops were no longer in a position to counter attack much longer.
Gen. Wavell sought permission from PM Churchill to allow Gen.Percival to consider the option of surrendering.
Churchill replied to Gen. Wavell:
“You are, of course, sole judge of the moment when no further result can be gained at Singapore., and should instruct Percival accordingly, C.I.G.S. concurs”
With that, the final key was inserted into play for Singapore. (But the permission for Percival to consider surrendering did not go out to Percival until the next morning of the 15th.)
*CIGS = Chief of Imperial General Staff
15th Feb 1942.
Chinese New Year – The Year of the Horse
There was absolutely no joy in celebrating Chinese New Year in 1942. The country was in shambles.
The foreboding fear of the encroaching Japanese military, preceeded by tales and rumours of their atrocities in China all portent the unknown that lay ahead.The British masters and their families had all bugged out. What did this mean for the locals now?
A Japanese flag could he seen flying from the top of the Cathay Building! Was this the end?
For the locals, especially for the Chinese, it was going to be the start of three and a half horrifying years.
Morning of 15th Feb saw the opposing forces holding most of their ground, with infiltration mainly by the Japanese within the eastern sector reaching Kallang Airfield. In the west, Japanese troops reached Mount Faber.
Gen. Percival convened his most senior officers at the Battlebox at 9.30am for the latest status reports.
Brigadier Simson reported that water supply could not be maintained for more than a day due to breakages everywhere which could not be repaired. Water was still flowing despite the pumps and reservoir being in enemy’s hands!
The only fuel left were what remained in each vehicle and at a small pump at the Polo Club.
Reserved military rations could last for only a few more days.
With unanimous concurrence of all present, the decision to cease hostilities and to capitulate was made.
A deputation comprising Brigadier Newbigging, HQ Chief Admin Officer, the Colonial Secretary Mr Fraser and Major CH Wild as interpreter, left Fort Canning for the enemy lines at Bukit Timah Road.
At the junction of Farrer Road, they proceeded on foot with Union Flag and a white flag across the defence line for 600 yards where they were met by the Japanese soldiers. They were later met by Col Sugita who refused their ‘invitation’ to the City for negotiations. Instead, Col Sugita demanded that Gen.Percival was to personally surrender to Gen.Yamashita.
To acknowledge this condition, the British were to fly a Japanese Flag from the top of the Cathay Building.
At 5.15pm, the British surrender party drove up to the Bukit Timah Ford Motors factory.
The delegation was made up of Lt-Gen AE Percival, Brigadier Newbigging, Brigadier Torrance, Gen Staff Officer Malaya Command, and Major Wild, the interpreter from III Corps.
Though Gen.Percival tried to negotiate for some terms for his men, Gen Yamashita thought that he was playing for time and pressed Percival for an unconditional surrender, telling him that a major attack on the City was scheduled for 10.30pm that night and any delay, he might not be able to call off the operation in time.
“The time for the night attack is drawing near! Is the British Army going to surrender or not?”
Banging the table he shouted in English “Answer YES or NO.”
At 6.10 pm. Gen.Percival signed the surrender document, handing Singapore over to the Japanese Empire.
Read about the Battle at Bukit Brown on 14 February, 1942, a day before the surrender to the Japanese, here
And the latest on missing soldiers here
by Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh
My wife and I went on a lovely tour of Bukit Brown, conducted by Fabian, lawyer-cum-history buff and very proud “Brownie”, on the morning of Saturday, January 25th 2014.
Before then, the last time I had visited Bukit Brown was in Junior College, when classmates and I would go there for a spooky tipple, more focused on whisky than history.
Only now do I realise how much I have missed. On that Saturday, I learned so much about Singapore’s past. Love the crazy characters: polygamists, guerillas, tycoons, benefactors, sometimes one and the same.
Although I have read much about the Bukit Brown controversy over the years, it is only after visiting that I have a deep appreciation for what we—as a country, society and culture—are about to lose.
Many of us decry Singapore’s rush to development, and GDP-maximising policies. When we speak about, say, high population growth or unnecessary destruction and rebuilding, it can sometimes get a bit abstract, the story lost in numbers and details. A visit to Bukit Brown illustrated the problem to me in a very visceral sense, in a way a thousand articles can never do.
It seems almost perverse that Singaporeans, myself included, will travel abroad and marvel at historical ruins and temples in places such as China and India, yet can stand by and allow a place of such historical import to be ripped from our soul. Our collective Singaporean identity is suffering, slowly, with each grave exhumed. I feel ashamed.
As a writer, I also drew a lot of inspiration from my visit. First, in terms of history, I learned a lot about Singapore’s connections to China and India. I am currently working on a book about the two countries, and Bukit Brown threw up some fresh ideas for stories. For instance, I started to think more about the role of Singapore-based revolutionaries, aside from Sun Yat-Sen, who is oft spoken about, in China’s 1911 revolution.
Meanwhile, it also occurred to me that there are many more interesting intersections of Chinese and Indian culture in Singapore, for instance the Sikh guards who protect the Chinese tycoon’s grave (see picture).
Second, in a broader sense, I was also inspired by the greenery, architectural beauty, and solitude that Bukit Brown offers. Artists in Singapore often bemoan the city’s dry, insipid environment. A walk through Bukit Brown left me rejuvenated, in a way that the artificial icons like Marina Bay Sands and Gardens by the Bay will never do.
Exhumations are slated to be completed by the end of this year. For those of you who have yet to visit, please do. Especially those with children. Do take them—who knows what will be left of Singapore when they’re older?
(For more on my book about China and India, tentatively titled From Kerala to Shaolin, please see here.)
About Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh:
After seven years at The Economist Group, in early 2013 Sudhir left the professional world to write full-time. His literary interests concern the way grand socio-political systems influence ordinary people’s lives, their worldviews and their interactions with each other. He hopes to follow his first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, with narratives on Asia’s other great societies—he is currently working on a book about China and India. He has written for a variety of publications, including The Economist, The Straits Times and Yahoo! News.
Sudhir blogs at sudhirtv.com
By Serene Tan
Not long after my dad passed away in 2011, the government announced plans for an 8 lane highway that would cut through Bukit Brown, and graves in the way would have to be exhumed.
The news of the highway triggered a memory. The last time I visited my grandpa’s tomb was more than 40 years ago when I was a young girl. I could vividly recall my grandpa’s tomb at Bukit Brown. Concerned it might be affected, I realised it was time to visit him.
I arranged with my cousin to visit the grave for the ’Qing Ming’ festival the next year, 2012. It was a relief to learn that his grave was not staked for exhumation. But to my dismay, the tomb was in a dilapidated condition. The tomb had been neglected for more than 15 years after my dad suffered a massive stroke which left him paralyzed and wheel chair bound.
It dawned on me then, that I now had the responsibility to carry on my father’s duty to ‘sweep’ grandpa’s tomb during the ‘Qing Ming’ festival. His tombstone spoke to my roots.
Inscribed on the tombstone was my ancestral hometown , Kimen, my grandfather’s death date, 1937, and the names of his children. My father was the only son. For the first time I came to know my father’s birth name 陈天吉, Tan Tien Kiat, inscribed on the tomb. My grandpa passed away when my dad was only five and dad changed to a simpler name, 陈 亞 旺, Tan Ah Ong
I arranged with a contractor to renovate my grandpa’s tomb, and before work started, I decided it was also time to visit my ancestral home in Kinmen, Taiwan . Unconsciously, I think I was seeking the blessings of my father and grandfather.
My grandpa Tan Teow Meng （陈 朝 明 ）left his home in Kinmen, more than 100 years ago. In Singapore, I was told he worked as a lorry driver and died because of a bout of high fever.
My father had attempted to visit his ancestral home, thrice in the 80s. Kinmen is a small archipelago of islands and at that time was under a military administration because of fighting with China. The only means of transport then was by military helicopter. Visitors to the island were restricted but because Dad could claim to be descended from his ancestors in Kinmen, getting permission was not the problem. Each time, it was bad weather which prevented my father’s flight on the helicopter from taking off from mainland Taiwan.
He was so close and yet so far. I felt deeply the pain of his disappointment. Dad subsequently passed away, without fulfilling his dream.
It was in my ancestral village of Houshan (后山), now known as Bishan, that I learned my father had contributed funds to two temples. His name was inscribed on the list of donors for both temples. This one is from the smaller village temple 陈氏宗祠
My heart swelled with pride. There is an old Chinese saying “Drink Water, But Remember the Source”- “饮水思源” . My father, although he was not able to visit his ancestral home, never forgot his roots.
The family home and land in Kinmen, remains abandoned. But at home in Singapore, my grandpa’s tomb has been rebuilt with granite stone and fresh inscriptions in gold dust. My grandpa had a humble life his son – my father – worked hard and became a successful business man and never forgot his father. I have always admired my father for his work ethic and persistence.
So as I marked Qing Ming at my grandpa’s new “home” after my visit to Kinmen, I felt happy and blessed to have been able to accomplish my father’s dream of visiting our ancestral home.
My journey to my ancestral home in Kinmen in a photo essay.
The village temple 陈氏宗祠
The temple serves residents nearby to offer prayers anytime as and when they deem necessary. (陈氏宗祠）
My father also donated to the larger Tan clan ancestral temple, 陈氏 家廟. Unlike the village temple, it’s opened only for certain festival celebrations and entry restricted to only male descendants. I was privileged to be granted permission to enter, as an exception.
My father’s name 亜 旺 on the donors list.
Meeting my relatives for the first time, I learned my great grandfather’s name is 陈 正. So he is the earliest of my ancestors I have come to know.
I will be marking my father’s third death anniversary at the Singapore Buddhist Lodge, 17-19 Kim Yam Road on 23 Feb 2014 at 10 am. Friends and relatives are welcome to join us in prayers.