1942 Singapore’s Darkest Moment at Former Ford Factory

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

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6 Responses to 1942 Singapore’s Darkest Moment at Former Ford Factory

  1. Wuxl says:

    Any ideas what happened to the site between 1980-1997?
    Abandoned from use but allowed to remain in private hands?

    • Hong Leong Group actually acquired the land of Ford Factory after it was closed.

      In 1992, it agreed to hold on to its plan to build condominiums.

      After the front portion of the factory (the one with historical value as the venue for Singapore’s surrender during WW2) was returned to the state in 1997, the rest of the premises was redeveloped into a freehold condominium project named The Hillside.

      The Hillside was completed in 2001.

  2. Jan Hengst says:

    What a great piece on this history, thanks for that! Just one small note: the word Syonan was dropped entirely from the exhibition name, and rightly so I think.
    https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/war-gallery-name-change-a-timeline

  3. The Fall of Singapore – ‘Chivalrous’ Yamashita calls the shot

    7 March 1982
    The Straits Times

    On the evening of Wednesday, 11 Feb, a Japanese reconnaisance aircraft dropped a signalling tube trailing red and white streamers on the outskirts of Singapore City. It contained a message from Yamashita to Percival.

    “In the spirit of chivalry,” urged the Japanese commander, “we have the honour of advising your surrender.”

    Yamashita warned Percival that further resistance was futile, and could only increase loss of life.

    He concluded with instructions for the British surrender emissary, who was to advance down the Bukit Timah Road with an escort bearing the Union Jack and a white flag.

    Percival sent no reply to Yamashita’s invitation, but he was convinced that the end was not far off.

    On Thursday, Feb 12, he went up the Bukit Timah Road as the Japanese 5th Division attacked the are of the Race Course.

    He concluded that there was a very real danger of the Japanese achieving a clean breakthrough, for there was little to stop them once ther penetrated the crumbling front.

    Over the next two days the situation deteriorated steadily, both at the front and in the city.

    On Friday 13th, an appropriate enough date, the Japanese 5th Division punched a salient into 18th Division’s line near the Bukit Timah Road.

    Things were even worse the following day: A determined attack dislodged 1st Malaya and 44th Indian Brigades from the line Tanglin Halt – Pasir Panjang, driving them back into the outskirts of the city.

    The Alexandra Hospital was overrun by Japanese infantry. Captain Walter Salmon of the Royal Signals had been wounded by a mortar bomb and taken to the hospital.

    He was moved down from a ward on the top floor to a canteen on the ground floor because of shelling, which may have saved his life, for:

    “The Japanese… just went through the mass of people right, left and centre, staff, patients, everyone.

    “And they went systematically through the wards, bayoneting, especially if they could find anybody who hadn’t got a wound… I think there must have been about 250 patients and staff who were literally assaulted in a very short space of time, including the surgical team in one of the operating theatres…

    “We in this little place the canteen, could see the Japs running up and down the corridors, because we could see their feet (under the door), but they never came in all the time this was going on.”

    The Japanese had attacked on the pretext that some Indian troops had set up machineguns in the hospital grounds. The incident undoubtedly occurred without Yamashita’s knowledge or consent.

    Captain Salmon remembered that the following day, Yamashita and his staff toured the hospital.

    “Yamashita saluted us, he went round all the beds and saluted everybody and apologised very profusely… He brought up some crates of tinned fruit, and he took a bayonet and opened these tins of fruits and came round himselfdoling the peachese out of the tin…”

    There was a burst of fire outside the hospital shortly afterwards, and Salmon was told that Yamashita had ordered the summary execution of some Japanese looters.

    In the city itself, meanwhile, matters were nothig short of desperate. Large numbers of armed deserters were prowling the streets, looting or hiding from the bombing.

    Some commandeered small boats in which to make their escape, and others forced their way aboard larger vessels.

    Bad news started to reach Percival immediately he had attended a communion service at Fort Canning on the morning of Sunday 15th.

    At 9.30 that morning, he held a conference with all his commanders, and the deteriorating water supply and worsening administrative situations were discussed.

    The water was unlikely to last for more than 24 hours, and there were serious shortages of 25-pounder and Bofors ammunition. Percival put forward two alternatives.

    Either a counter-attack should be launched with the aim of recovering the reservoirs and the food depots in the Bukit Timah area, or the army should capitulate.

    The commanders were unanimous in opposing a counter-attack, and some argued that they would be unable to resist another determined attack. “It was in these circumstances,” said Percival “that I decided to capitulate.”

    At 11.30 a.m., a small deputation left Fort Canning and drove out along the Bukit Timah Road towards the Japanese lines in a car displaying a white flag.

    After being disarmed and taken to Japanese headquarters, they were met by Lieutenant-Colonel Sugita, and discussed the procedure for arranging a cease-fire.

    It was agreed that British forces would cease fire at 4 p.m., and that a large Japanese flag would be flown briefly from the top of the Cathay Building to indicate that Percival accepted the cease fire and was on his way to meet Yamashita at Bukit Timah. The deputation then made its way back to Fort Cannint, arriving there at the height of an air raid.

    Percival, accompanied by three other officers, arrived at the Bukit Timah crossroads at 5 p.m. in a civilian car flying a Union Jack and a white flag.

    The party was met by Sugita, and led into the damaged Ford factory, which Yamashita had deliberately chosen because it was the largest covered area available.

    He was eager that the surrender ceremony should be witnessed by as many spectators as possible.

    A long table had been set up in the middle of the floor, and chalk-marks indicated the positions to be taken up by Japanese observers.

    Yamashita kept Percival waiting for some time and the two commanders exchanged formal handshakes before sitting down. The negotiations were blunt and to the point.

    After enquiring if any Japanese soldiers had been captured, and asking what had become of Japanese residents, Yamashita asked Percival whether he surrendered unconditionally.

    Percival tried to play for time, asking for a few hours in which to consider his reply. “I want a hear a decisive answer.” snapped Yamashita, “and I insist on an unconditional surrender.” “Yes,” replied Percival.

    Yamashita announced that the surrender would take place with effect from 8.30 Singapore time, and warned that if the terms were violated, he would immediately launch a general offensive.

    Percival asked Yamashita to guarantee the safely of the lives of the English and Australians remaining in the city. “You may be sure of that,” answered Yamashita. “Please rest assured. I shall positively guarantee it.”

    Percival signed the surrender terms at 610 p.m. The two commanders exchanged another handshake before parting.

    Yamashita’s brusqueness reflected something more than a cruel desire to hector his adversary.

    He believed that Percival over-estimated the strength of the Japanese forces, and was afraid that he would learn the truth.

    He therefore pressed for an immediate and unconditional capitulation, telling his interpreter that he wanted to hear nothing from Percival except “yes” or “no”.

    Yamashita also felt some sympathy for Percival, who looked more gaunt that ever, with pale face and bloodshot eyes. He told his ADC afterwards that he wanted to say a few kind words to the British commander.

    But he could not say anything because he does not speak English and he realised how difficult it is to convey heartfelt sympathy when the words are being interpreted by a third person.

    Percival returned to Fort Canning to issue the requisite orders. He sent a last message to Wavell.

    “Owing to losses from enemy action, water, petrol, food and ammunition practically finished, unable therefore to continue the fight any longer. All ranks have done their best and grateful for your help.

    “Thereafter,” records the Official History, “all communications with Singapore ceased.”

    Source: https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Page/straitstimes19820307-1.1.12

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