Eighty years ago, on this date of 15 February 1942, the former Ford Factory witnessed the darkest chapter in Singapore’s history, when the British unconditionally surrendered to the Japanese, marking the start of Singapore’s three-and-a-half years under the Japanese Occupation.
Built in 1941, the former Ford Factory was American automobile manufacturing giant Ford Motor Company’s first full assembly car factory in Malaya as well as Southeast Asia. But by the time it was completed, the war had came to Peninsula Malaya. Although Henry Ford (1863-1947), founder of the Ford Motor Company, declined to manufacture engines for Britain at his Michigan plant, he permitted his affiliated Ford factories at Canada, South Africa, India, New Zealand and Malaya to produce military vehicles for British’s war efforts.
The first Ford car, Model N, was imported to Malaya as early as 1909. Keen in the potentially massive market in the British’s colonies, Ford Canada established a subsidiary called Ford Malaya in 1926 to focus on the marketing and sales of automobiles in Southeast Asia, where American and British cars were competing for market shares.
In Singapore, the Ford Malaya office was set up at the Dunlop House at Robinson Road. Over at Tanjong Pagar’s Enggor Street, a garage was converted into a small Ford factory for secondary assembly processes such as fitting of the wheels for Model T, one of the company’s first mass produced cars. The factory stayed for three years before it was moved to a larger warehouse at Prince Edwards Road where it engaged in the assembly of semi-knocked down vehicles. Throughout the 1930s, Ford was one of the dominant car brands in Malaya.
By the late 1930s, even with the possibility of widespread war in Southeast Asia, Ford decided to build a full assembly plant in Singapore to meet the increasing demand. In October 1941, the Art Deco-styled Ford Factory at 8½ milestone of Upper Bukit Timah Road was completed. However, barely two months after the commence of its operations, the factory was taken over by the Royal Air Force (RAF) in December 1941 to assemble fighter planes.
By then, Singapore had already came under days of air raids by the Japanese planes. The bombings lasted two months from the beginning of December 1941 to the end of January 1942, resulting in hundreds of civilian casualties. The fighter planes assembled at the Ford Factory did not even have the chance to be used against the Japanese, and were instead hastily moved out of Singapore to prevent them from falling into the enemy’s hands.
The war eventually reached Singapore when the Japanese troops quietly crossed the Johor Strait and landed near Sarimbun beach on 8 February 1942. Intensive battles at several strategic locations followed, but the British was unable to defend Singapore and kept retreating to the city area.
Singapore fell barely a week later. Ford Factory was seized to be used as the Japanese Imperial Army’s temporary headquarters. On the evening of 15 February 1942, the factory’s boardroom became a historic venue in history. It was here where Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival (1887-1966), General Officer Commanding (Malaya), formally surrendered Singapore to the Japanese invaders led by Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita (1885-1946), Commanding General, 25th Army.
Japan’s annexation of Malaya and Singapore, started from 8 December 1941, took less than 100 days. The fall of Singapore, then considered the impregnable British stronghold in Southeast Asia, was largely due to inadequate war preparations, half-hearted support from Britain and defensive vulnerabilities. The commanders’ poor decisions, coupled with the troops’ low morale and insufficient supplies, also played a part.
The speed and manner in which Malaya and Singapore were defeated brought an end to the British’s prestige and reputation in the region.
Shortly after the British’s surrender, Singapore and Malaya were renamed Syonan and Malai. Under the brutal Japanese rule, the people of Malaya and Singapore suffered from constant fear and hunger. Tens of thousands were tortured and killed.
The Ford Factory, during the occupation, was handed over to Japanese automobile manufacturer Nissan for the assembly of military trucks and other vehicles used for Japan’s war efforts in the region.
After the war, the returning British regained control of Ford Factory, returning it to its owner Ford Malaya a year later. Ford Factory resumed automobile production in April 1947, and began exporting its vehicles to the Southeast Asian and South Asian markets.
Ford Factory would operate for 23 more years until 1980, when the company moved out of Singapore. By the time it shut down its assembly lines, it had produced almost 150,000 vehicles in total.
In 1997, the front building of the former factory, where the historic event took place, was returned to the state, whereas the rest of the compound was redeveloped into a private condominium. The building was then restored by the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) in 2005. On 15 February 2006, it was officially gazetted as one of Singapore’s national monuments called former Ford Factory.
On 15 February 2017, a permanent Second World War exhibition was curated and launched by NAS at Former Ford Factory. Initially called Syonan Gallery (Syonan Gallery: War and its Legacies, An Exhibition at Former Ford Factory in full), the exhibition prompted a public outcry over its name which many thought might be misinterpreted as glorifying the Japanese Occupation. After much considerations, the authorities decided to rename it as Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies.
Published: 15 February 2022
Updated: 17 February 2022