Soon after my arrival on steamy Singapore, I swore I heard bagpipes—faint, haunting skirls that, in my mind, were fading echoes from the past. The scenery, the tropical weather, the history of the island—all invoked in me a strange feeling of kinship with the defenders of Singapore. I envisioned a ghostly column of 2nd Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, popularly known as the Argylls, in brimmed Brodie doughboy helmets and tattered khaki, marching to the strains of “Highland Laddie” as they crossed the Straits of Johor, seeking refuge from the Japanese. They were the rear guard of the humiliating retreat from the Malay Peninsula from December 1941 to February 1942.
These imperturbable Scots, like the Commonwealth forces ahead of them, expected to withdraw to Fortress Singapore, as it was known, and resume the fight there. That happened, but the fighting didn’t last long. The myth of the island’s impregnability, propagated by the prewar press, was shattered on February 15, 1942, when General Arthur E. Percival gave up the famed British colony, sometimes called the Gibraltar of the Far East, to aggressive yet numerically inferior Japanese forces after a seven-day battle. Some 80,000 Commonwealth troops surrendered. Winston Churchill famously described the defeat as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in Britain’s history.”
Like the Argylls, I, too, was disappointed not to find Fortress Singapore. Most of the remnants of one the most controversial battles of World War II have been swept away, like so much historic litter, in this modern squeaky-clean city-island. Still, there is a lot to see. I took a taxi from congested Orchard Road and was soon striding up Upper Bukit Timah Road in the center of the island, literally following in the footsteps of the British surrender party that carried a large Union Jack to the Ford Motor Factory, the site of General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s headquarters.
The American automaker’s first assembly plant in Asia is now the Old Ford Factory Museum, a first-class facility operated by the National Archives of Singapore. On the grounds I noted a tiger orchid, a massive tropical plant with beautiful blooms resembling a tiger’s coat. Yamashita was dubbed the Tiger of Malaya following his stunning capture of the peninsula. Inside the museum, a tunnel-shaped entrance—lined with display cases showing maps, flags, and other battle artifacts—funnels visitors to the main attraction: the works canteen, where the room in which General Percival signed the surrender document is enclosed in broad glass panels.
The room contains a replica of the plain teak table upon which the document was signed (the original is in the Australian War Memorial at Canberra), as well as a period clock set to 4:30 p.m.—when Percival affixed his signature. The glass seems to have preserved not only the room, but also the overwhelming sense of British shame. Singapore’s fall was a staggering blow that foreshadowed the eventual demise of the British Empire.
Other exhibits at the museum are both emotional and educational. Most interesting are those of occupied Singapore, recalled through items such as rare photos and ration books. Indian soldiers are also represented; some 40,000 Indians defended Singapore, although three-quarters of them later joined Subhas Chandra Bose’s Tokyo-aligned Indian National Army.
I wanted a more in-depth look at the defense of Singapore, and literally found it in a labyrinth some 30 feet beneath Fort Canning Park. The Fortress Headquarters of Malaya Command, now called the Battle Box, is the last surviving major wartime military structure. Sealed off in the 1960s, it was rediscovered in 1988 and, after a decade-long restoration, opened to the public for tours.
British officers and men who manned the underground structure called it the Dungeon. I understood why. Wearing wireless headphones, I navigated the narrow passageways and claustrophobic chambers as part of a terrific multi-sensory tour. Lights flickered in the Post and Telegraph (signal) Room as a robotic Tommy manned the exchange, connecting calls from frantic officers at the front. Down the corridor, a faux Percival and his generals debated the value of further resistance.
After exiting from a foliage-shrouded sally port into the fading daylight, I went for a stroll along the waterside shops, bars, and restaurants on Clarke Quay, then past the bubbling waters of the Tam Kim Seng Fountain and the spotlighted Doric colonnades of the Fullerton Hotel in Fullerton Square, where the Japanese held a victory parade.
That was fun, but there’s only one way to unwind after a day spent exploring sweltering Singapore: a visit to the legendary Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel. Toward the end of the battle, the Raffles ballroom was converted into a temporary ward for the wounded, but the hotel is best known for its celebrity guests. Bending my elbow like Kipling, Hemingway, Conrad, and Maugham before me, I imbibed not only a Raffles signature pink Singapore Sling or two, but the sights, sounds, and smells of a lost colonial era—the dark tropical timber paneling and polished brass fixtures, the antique palm frond ceiling fans called punkahs, the creaking wicker furniture.
The next morning, I visited the Reflections at Bukit Chandu museum in southern Singapore. Perched atop old Opium Hill, this remarkable repository of wartime artifacts is housed in a restored black-and-white colonial bungalow set in a lush garden bordered by aromatic tembusu trees. It is roughly the location of the Battle of Pasir Panjang, where the Malay Regiment made a valiant last stand, killing hundreds of troops of the Imperial Japanese 18th Chrysanthemum Division in hand-to-hand combat. A short film based on war diaries introduces Malay Regiment soldiers, many of whom lived in the kampongs and on the rubber plantations that were once scattered in the nearby fields. Frightened yet patriotic, the men were essentially fighting for their families and their own homes.
For defenders and civilians alike, the fall of Singapore led to the hell of occupation and captivity that lasted almost four years. That experience is catalogued and chronicled at the Changi Museum, a memorial to the infamous Changi Prison. Although the original prison was demolished in 2000, the main gate and two guard towers, as well as a 180-meter section of the outer wall, have been preserved. Changi Prison held more than 70,000 military and civilian POWs, and was the inspiration for inmate James Clavell’s famous novel King Rat. About 850 prisoners and internees were shot or tortured to death, or died from starvation and disease. I learned the sordid details of their suffering, but also that internees coped with captivity in a variety of ways. Some sewed quilts; others painted murals. Replicas of prisoners’ artwork adorn the museum’s walls.
Upon leaving Changi Museum, it occurred to me that Singapore had finally lived up to its reputation as a stronghold. Its museums and historic sites are a fortress of knowledge for future generations, eternally manned by the spirits of the Argylls, Malays, and others who fought, surrendered, and died on Singapore.
John D. Lukacs, author of Escape From Davao: The Forgotten Story of the Most Daring Prison Break of the Pacific War, is a writer and historian whose work has appeared in USA Today and the New York Times. During a research trip to the Philippines for his upcoming book on the Battle of Manila, he visited Singapore, where his in-depth “Time Travel” reporting included trying a famous Singapore Sling cocktail. Visit johndlukacs.com.
When You Go
All major international airlines fly to Singapore’s Changi International Airport. Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) offers clean and efficient transportation throughout the island via train and bus. Taxis are plentiful downtown, but difficult to find or flag down in outer areas.
Where to Stay and Eat
Five-star accommodations can be found in Singapore’s Colonial District, Marina Bay, and west of the city’s core, while cost-efficient alternatives line the entertainment and shopping area of Orchard Road. There are a multitude of dining choices for culinary adventurers (Chinese, Indian, and Malay cuisine) and conservative diners (European and Western fare) alike. Go to Clarke Quay for bistros and microbrews; Harry’s Bar (28 Boat Quay) for live jazz. If you hunger for atmosphere and history, the Bar and Billiard Room at the Raffles Hotel (1 Beach Road) offers chalk, cues, Cuban cigars, cocktails, an epic Sunday champagne carving brunch, and delightful local lore. According to legend, the last surviving wild tiger in Singapore was shot underneath a billiard table at Raffles in 1902.
What Else To See
For more than 150 years, the Singapore Botanic Garden (1 Cluny Road, www.sbg.org.sg) has cultivated the largest and most breathtakingly beautiful collection of orchids in the world. Approximately 1,000 species and 2,000 hybrids of orchids, as well as other varieties of exotic flora, dominate a landscape of waterfalls, terraces, and greenhouses.