The Fall of Singapore – 15th February 1942



Today,  at precisely 12 pm, the sirens will sound all over Singapore to mark the darkest period in our nation’s history. 71 years ago on 15th February,  the British surrendered to the Japanese after the devastating defeat of Singapore’s last strategic post  of  Bukit Chandu (Opium Hill.)  Read Jerome Lim’s moving tribute to those who died valiantly to protect Singapore  in that battle  here.

a.t bukitbrown remembers the war by sharing the life and times  of Tay Koh Yat, one  of the  war heroes buried in Bukit Brown.

Tay Koh Yat (1880 – 1957)

Tay Koh Yat

He was a pioneer in Singapore’s public transportation, but also a feisty patriot who started and led his own self defence force of 20,000 during the onset of the Japanese Occupation of Singapore in World War 2.

His grave located near the Bukit Brown cemetery gates is a fairly well maintained tomb and comes with benches, as if to offer a chance for people to gather and talk about his legendary deeds.  The funeral cortege for Tay  was grand  with a reported 100 cars in attendance.

Tay Koh Yat’s grave site  invites reflection on  his deeds.


Tay was born in 1880 in Kinmen and  came to Singapore when he was 22 years old. He started as a general worker in a trading company and was paid $2 a month. $1.50 was sent home to his family. Tay managed to survive on what was left because at that time, the meals, transport, housing was provided by his employer. So 50 cents was a luxury to be spend on aerated water or some porridge at hawker stalls. 2 bowls of porridge would cost only 1 copper coin, and 1 cent was equivalent to 4 copper coins.

After working for more than 10years, Tay saved up enough to start his own small firm, dealing with salted fish. He was just 26 years old. His reputation for being hard working and trustworthy led to the expansion of his business in Indonesia

In 1938,  Tay noticed that local transportation was inadequate and started the Tay Koh Yat Bus Company. He built up his fleet to 120 buses and became the largest bus operator among the 10 other bus companies.



Tay Koh Yat bus ad



But more than buses, 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. His rallying cry “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 escaped to Indonesia to escape certain death only on the eve of the fall of Singapore. He was on the Japanese most wanted list. But before he left he had organised a 2000 strong rescue team, for people who injured by the Japanese air raids.

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. Initially rejected, he appealed and the government finally gave in.

Tay next went on to form the Singapore Chinese Appeal Committee for the Japanese Massacre victims to seek justice and compensation.  It was estimated that some 50,000 people had died under Japanese hands.

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.

They had been  in charge of the Sook Qing operation in Singapore which massacred thousands of ethnic Chinese.

Tay was  invited to witness the execution of the two war criminals. Tay was one of only six people to witness the 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.”

Tay Koh Yat never lost his fiery nature. During the riots of the early 50s of union unrest and political instability,  Tay who was by then also managing a newspaper became an indirect target.  One day he received a phone call that 4 young people were burning his buses near Rex Cinema.  He got his driver to take him to the scene of the arson.  When he  saw 2 young men burning his bus, he caught hold of one of them and exclaimed   “How dare you, burn my bus!” But at 70 he was no match against a young rioter and barely escaped.

Tay Koh Yat’s tomb is in the line of the proposed new highway that cuts through Bukit Brown and his grave is slated to be exhumed, finally uprooting a pioneer and a hero who had always stood his ground.

His tomb is marked as A1 at Blk 5 division 1

A postscript on Bukit Brown ‘s war years: Many of the  those who died during  the 3 1/2 years of the Japanese Occupation  had to be buried hastily  in mass plots without tombs at the Paupers Section. They remain largely unknown.


Mass grave at Bukit Brown dating to the war


A Singaporean recalls praying at the site of a similar mass grave where one of his relatives was buried during the war. The circumstances then dictated that bodies were collected and buried in a communal trench. This is in Block 5.


Here’s another blog on another war hero buried at Bukit Brown: Wong Chin Yoke. (credit: the Rojak Librarian)

Here’s a newspaper article on Wong Chin Yoke.



Other family details:

Marriage certificate of Tay Koh Yat’s daughter with Tan Ean Kiam as marriage solemnizer and 5 colored flag, the national flag at that time (on display at the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall)