Ladies and gentlemen,
We are gathered here today to commemorate Total Defence Day.
2 On this day 75 years ago, Singapore fell. Here, where we are standing, is the site of the Former Ford Factory. Here on 15 February 1942 British Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, commanding the British and Australian forces defending Singapore, surrendered to Japanese Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita. For 3½ years after that, our forefathers learnt what it was like to live through the unspeakable horrors of war and occupation.
3 Therefore, it is significant that today, at the Former Ford Factory, where Singapore surrendered, we are opening “Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies”. The exhibition captures the dark and painful 3½ years after Singapore fell. It is the result of extensive efforts by the National Archives of Singapore to preserve our history and heritage, and make them accessible to everyone. It reminds us that we must never again take our peace, harmony and sovereignty for granted. There have been and will be other exhibitions at the Former Ford Factory, but this exhibition holds a special connection to the site.
4 The period when Singapore was Syonan was a seminal time in our history. The gallery reminds us how precious our sovereignty is. During the Japanese Occupation, Singapore lost not only our freedom, but also our name. For those of us who lived through this period, this brings back many raw and painful memories. For our young, it is a sombre reminder that we must never forget. Instead, we must learn from our history, lest we be doomed to repeat it.
Today We Remember: Courage and Duty
5 At this point, I would like to say a few words to the 2nd Battalion Singapore Infantry Regiment recruits who have just received your weapons here today, at the Former Ford Factory. You have just undergone a symbolic transformation, from being civilians to being soldiers. As you take up arms in defence of our nation on this significant day, at the very site of the fall of Singapore, I hope that you will always remember the lessons of this war, even if you may only know it second-hand.
6 Remember the soldiers of different nationalities and races who had fought together, suffered and died in Singapore during the Malayan campaign and the defence of Singapore, which preceded the Surrender on 15 Feb 1942, and the many more who died during the Occupation, soldiers as well as civilians. Remember not just the story of a country caught in a war, but of individual people who had to live, and fight, through the occupation, and rebuild the country thereafter with courage and with fortitude. And as you take up arms in defence of Singapore, remember, not for the sake of remembrance alone, but in order that you may be inspired to a deeper sense of purpose and commitment to defending our nation.
Today We Learn: Courage, Resilience, Humanity and Solidarity
7 But today, we need to do more than remember. We must also look to what we can learn from all these stories of the war, which have been brought to life for us by our Archives. We encounter individuals who overcame their situations to survive, communities who banded together to help one another, and we learn from their courage, their resilience and, most of all, their humanity.
8 Courage and Resilience. We can draw inspiration from the courage and fortitude displayed by everyday men and women in times of hardship and suffering. Many stories have been told about the Dalforce, or Dalley’s Desperadoes, a group of local volunteers who only had week-long training before going into the battle. It was the Dalforce and the Malay Regiment that put up some of the bravest battles against the overwhelming might of the Japanese forces. These were ordinary men and women, who must have known they were fighting a losing battle but fought it all the same.
9 We can also learn from the resilience of ordinary citizens during the occupation. They made the best of their environment, however harsh it was, and however little hope they had to go on with.
10 Humanity. These ordinary citizens also displayed extraordinary humanity, while caught in a war not of their own making. Despite the conditions, the men and women in Singapore not only prevailed, but also transcended their circumstances to help others including those who were not of their own community. In an oral history interview, Mr David Marshall recalls how some Chinese banded together and risked their lives to help the prisoners-of war, regardless of race:
He said, “Those humble Chinese along Serangoon Road bringing out basins of water with tin cups for us to drink, and getting slapped for it … They showed a lot of courage. And during the time that I was in prison there in Singapore, little Chinese boys would slip through and hand us a loaf of bread… There was nothing for them. There was not even recognition. You didn't know who the boy was. You didn't know where he came from. You didn't know his name. You could never thank him afterwards. That was an act of spontaneous thoughtfulness and helpfulness and sympathy which touched me very, very much. Because here was an anonymous person risking limb if not life, risking very sharp injuries, in order to give a little assistance to a total stranger whom he’ll never see again.”
11 Solidarity. Lastly, we look to the cohesion and the solidarity displayed by the communities who had to work together to survive the war. Haji Mohamed B Haji Abdul Kadir recalls in another account how the Malays helped their Chinese neighbours during the mass inspection of the Chinese that happened in the early days of the occupation.
“We felt sorry for them and their families… Men were taken away, kicked and forced onto trucks. The women went into hiding, some cried… We Malays saw what was happening to the Chinese and felt sorry for them. We tried to shelter their daughters and wives, whenever we could... We saw another race in trouble and we felt we had to help. We provided them with food and clothing. Even now, those people whom we helped still remembered what we have done…we’ve become family.
12 You will encounter such stories and more in the Syonan Gallery. I am very moved by these accounts of these ordinary men and women who found the strength to do all that they could with the little that they had.
Today We Defend: Together we keep Singapore strong
13 Today, threats and challenges to our way of life continue to come in all shapes and sizes, and in increasingly diverse forms. There is growing unrest and challenges to the norm, increasingly dissonant and discontented voices, growing extremism of views – in fact, extremism of any sort. Terrorism continues to be a significant threat facing the world today: in 2016 alone, there were incidents in Baghdad, Kabul, Istanbul, Orlando, Paris, Nice, Brussels, Berlin, Sydney, Jakarta… The list goes on.
14 We have gone from battling for land, to battling for heart, mind and will. These threats are very present and may already be here. They may be a cyber attack or a terror threat, or perhaps the spreading of misinformation or disinformation. How can we ensure that we are resilient enough – and committed enough – to respond to these threats, and to recover quickly when crises strike?
15 The true test of having remembered and learnt the lessons of war is that we live lives of courage and of resilience, every day, today. Far beyond having a strong defence force, we need to all do our part to build community, and to build harmony. These do not magically come about just because various people are thrown together. There will be scrappiness. There will be diversity in opinions. There may even be irreconcilable differences in the way we conduct our daily lives. But our diversity can – and will – be a source of strength and resilience. We need to transcend these differences, and stay united regardless of race, language or religion, to work together to keep Singapore strong.
16 The values that I talked about, courage, resilience, humanity and solidarity, are not abstract principles. They are values lived out by our people during that dark period of 3½ years, captured in the individual human stories – poignant and unforgettable – in the exhibition.
17 The name “Syonan Gallery” has evoked some strong reactions in our community, and quite understandably. Some among older Singaporeans who lived through that dark period feel that the name legitimises the occupation. Others among them say that Syonan was a painful fact of history, and we should call it what it was. The reactions show us how indelible an imprint those 3½ years had left on their lives and on Singapore. Younger Singaporeans did not have the same indelible life experience as their parents and grandparents. But I hope this gallery will give them a sense of what it was like to live through that dark period, and inspire all of us to build and defend our nation.
18 That is why we named this exhibition, the Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies. This name has been previously used for other exhibitions. In 1992, for the 50th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, we held an exhibition at the National Museum, titled "When Singapore was Syonan-to”. The name does not express approval of the Japanese Occupation. Far from it. It remembers what our forefathers went through, commemorates the generation of Singaporeans who experienced the Occupation, and reaffirms our collective commitment never to let this happen again.
19 I am grateful for the rich contributions that the community and private donors have made to the Gallery – over 400 items and treasured personal records were donated during our public call for archival materials last year. Your contributions will ensure that generations of Singaporeans who never lived through Syonan will never forget the lessons it has taught.
20 Our late founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew, at the unveiling of the Civilian War Memorial in 1967, said that,
“… This piece of concrete commemorates an experience which, in spite of its horrors, served as a catalyst in building a nation out of the young and unestablished community of diverse immigrants. We suffered together. It told us that we share a common destiny. And it is through sharing such common experiences that the feeling of living and being one community is established.
If today we remember these lessons of the past, [and] we strengthen our resolve and determination to make our future more secure, then these men and women for whom we mourn would not have died in vain.”
21 I think this sums up how Singapore will continue to thrive – with a deep understanding of how our nation was forged, a resolute determination to build on this future with strength and resilience of character, and a bond of fellowship and community among Singaporeans.
22 I am honoured to have your presence here today, and I would now like to officially declare the exhibition “Syonan Gallery: War and its Legacies” open. Thank you.