Every year, on this date of 15 February, the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) will organise the war memorial service in commemoration of the civilian victims of the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945). It is also the Total Defence Day on this date. Back in 1942, the British forces surrendered Singapore to the Japanese, marking the beginning of three-and-a-half years of sufferings for the people of Singapore.
One of the commemorations is carried out annually at the Civilian War Memorial at Beach Road. The monument dedicates to those who had perished during the occupation; its four 68m-tall columns symbolising the shared sufferings, hardship and unity of Singapore’s four main races – Malay, Chinese, Indian and Eurasian.
Shortly after the fall of Singapore, the Japanese forces carried out the notorious Sook Ching operation, starting from 21 February 1942. Many Chinese males, aged between 18 and 50, were rounded up and massacred at different locations in Singapore. The total number of victims remains inconclusive, ranging from an estimated 5,000 to as high as 40,000.
In 1962, many mass war graves of the Japanese Occupation victims were discovered at Siglap and Changi Road. While requesting the British government to seek atonement and compensation from Japan (the British was still in-charge of Singapore’s foreign affairs), Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the Singapore government also lobbied for a war memorial to be built in commemoration of the war victims.
In 1963, a plot of land of size 1.8 hectares at Beach Road, opposite the former campus of Raffles Institution, was selected for the construction of the war memorial park and monument. Half of the $500,000 construction cost would be paid by the government, while the remaining funds were raised through donation drives carried out by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and other local organisations and societies.
A design contest for the monument and park was launched, followed by a ground-breaking ceremony conducted on 15 June 1963. An exhibition was held at the Victoria Memorial Hall, displaying the various designs submitted by the participating design firms. In the end, Swan and Maclaren won the contest and its architect Leong Swee Lim was the designer of the iconic monument we see today.
The Civilian War Memorial was completed in early 1967 and officially unveiled by Lee Kuan Yew on 15 February 1967, marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of Singapore. The solemn ceremony was attended by the public, many of them the surviving family members of the war victims. Singapore’s religious leaders of the Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh and Zoroastrian faiths also attended the ceremony.
The remains of the thousands of victims uncovered in the mass war graves were exhumed and reinterred, based on different religions. Those who were cremated had their ashes placed in 606 urns, and were stored inside the chamber of the memorial podium. A large bronze urn at the centre of the four columns symbolises the remains of the dead buried at the memorial podium underneath.
Since 1967, annual commemoration and memorial services were conducted at the Civilian War Memorial. In the seventies and eighties, many families still wept at the losses of their loved ones at the ceremonies. The passing of the older generations may have brought along with them the agonising and horrific memories of the war and losses of family members. But it remains important for the next generations of Singaporeans to remember this painful lesson and darkest moment in Singapore’s history.
“We meet not to rekindle old fires of hatred, nor to seek settlements for blood debts. We meet to remember the men and women who were the hapless victims of one of the fires of history. This monument will remind those of us who were here 25 years ago, of what can happen to people caught completely unaware and unprepared for what was in store for them. It will help our children understand and remember, what we have told them of this lesson we paid so bitterly to learn.” – Lee Kuan Yew, 1967
The Civilian War Memorial was gazetted as a national monument on 15 August 2013.
Published: 15 February 2020