TCS Daily


Ports in a Storm

By Sallie Baliunas - September 15, 2005 12:00 AM

CHANGI, EAST SINGAPORE -- A great port city is inundated. Hundreds, even thousands die in the initial wave.

No. It's not New Orleans. It's Singapore. And it wasn't a hurricane, typhoon or tsunami, but the terrible wave of the Japanese invasion of February 1942. Yet, New Orleans and its residents may draw hope from Singapore's story on this month's 60th anniversary of its liberation from Japanese occupation.

The Sanskrit name Singapura, or Lion City, appears in Asian records from the late 14th Century. The attributes of its deepwater port as an Asian trading center, especially for rubber, attracted the British East India Company, which established a commercial post in Singapore in 1819. Malacca and Penang joined Singapore as the 1826 Straits Settlements under the rule of the Colonial Office in London. Singapore prospered as a shipping and trading arena east of the Suez Canal.

In September 1931 the first wave of events building toward war in Asia crested with the Mukden Incident, an unauthorized provocation and invasion by the Japanese Kangtung Army. China was then brutalized by war with Japan's militaristic dictatorship.

The year 1931, as Samuel Eliot Morison summarizes in The Rising Sun in the Pacific, had also seen Hakko Ichiu instituted as Japanese policy. Reflecting Japan's ancient culture, the "bringing the eight corners of the world under one roof" meant liberation of Asian indigenous peoples from western domination and a supreme peace built, if necessary -- and it was -- under the terms of terror imposed by the Imperial Japanese Army.

Thus on Dec. 8, 1941 (Asian time zones) as elements of the Imperial Japanese armed forces attacked Pearl Harbor, Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, Shanghai and Midway, General Yamashita Tomoyuki (1885 - 1946), the Tiger of Malaya, commanded the fearsome 25th Army as it struck three sites -- on British Malaya at Kota Bahru, and in Thailand at Singora and Pantani. The assault from the north through Malay reached Singapore only 70 days later.

As the Japanese troops closed in on Singapore in February 1942, a stately Sindora wallichi (Sepetir) tree was destroyed by U.K. troops stationed on the island. Rising approximately 250 feet above Changi at the eastern edge of Singapore, the famous Changi Tree could be seen for miles seaward, thus marking the approach for the Straits of Johore. It would have become a landmark by which Japanese warships could have gauged the range for their artillery had it not been quickly felled with the help of a series of explosive detonations. The magnificent tree can be seen in a 1936 photo by George T. Crouch on the cover of a 1969 issue of Malayan Nature Journal (seen here courtesy of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research). Clothed in deep brown bark, the cylindrical trunk, at its base 11.5 feet in diameter, was topped by a distant, spherical crown of leaves and spiney legumes.

When the Japanese army reached the southern coast of Singapore the approximately 200 patients and staff at the Alexandra Hospital in the harbor were killed. Singapore officially surrendered hours later, on Feb. 15, 1942. With surrender the Japanese occupying army began to Nipponise the local peoples, consisting mostly of Chinese, along with European, Indian and Malaysian ethnicities. The city was renamed Syonan, meaning Light of the South, and served as the administrative center of the Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere in southeastern Asia. Within two days of surrender, Europeans were marched to Changi Prison, the newly-built gaol on the island, or nearby Selarang and Roberts Barracks. Eastern Changi through the occupation housed a total of approximately 76,000 POWs, both civilian and military through Japanese occupation.

The Changi area became a transfer point for the slave labor needed to build the notorious Death Railway, the Burma-Thailand Railroad. The sea lane to Burma was at risk by attacks launched from India across the Indian Ocean; a railway through Thailand to Burma would provide an alternate supply route. While earlier estimates of the cost and complexity of mounting such a railroad caused the British to abandon the idea, the Japanese had slave labor in the form of UK, Australian, Dutch, New Zealand and American POWs and impressed non-Japanese Asians, primarily Chinese, and called by the racially derogatory slur romusha. As poorly as POWs were treated by Japanese troops, the impressed laborers were treated worse. Some 12,000, or approximately one in five, Allied POWs died in the service of the Nippon Army Railway Construction Corps. Estimates of the number of deaths for the impressed Asian laborers vary, with minimum estimates approximately 70,000 to 80,000. Death came from exhaustion, malnutrition and complications from diseases like dysentery, pellagra, beriberi, cholera, tropical ulcers, scabies, and malaria, the last of which was contracted by approximately 90% of the POWs.

Living Hell is an eyewitness account by a Chinese Singaporean of the grievous treatment dealt to impressed laborers and POWs on the Death Railway. Tan Choon Keng (nicknamed CK) became an imprisoned medical technician for the POWs and laborers who worked on the Nippon Army Railway in horribly primitive camps lacking food, medicine, equipment, clean water, sanitation and human rights in an environment of severe forced labor, monsoons, heat, humidity, disease and dirt.

Sixty years after the liberation of Singapore a memorial to Changi POW prison can be seen, very near Singapore's Changi International Airport and the old gaol, which has been modernized and is still in use.

The true monument to Singapore's resiliency isn't the memorial, but the fantastic story of Singapore's economic power. It permeates this densely-populated island housing over 4.4 million people.

Singapore has few of the so-called natural resources. It is a place without large farms because land is scarce, so much produce arrives daily from Malaysia. Singapore lacks significant deposits of gold, diamond, or other precious ores to mine, or petroleum to drill. Yet its deepwater port is one of the busiest in the world, with over 21 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units, a volume of shipping container 20 feet by 8 feet by 8.5 feet) handled in 2004. The port, though, is less than Singapore's greatest natural resource -- its people.

Someday a memorial will be raised to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, which houses another of the world's top deepwater ports, bringing natural rubber, coffee and steel to the US, and grain to the world. Hurricane damage is already under repair, and the port has partly reopened.

And it will be that city's great resource, its people, who will rebuild New Orleans, too.

Reading and References

Goh Chor Boon 1999 Living Hell, Story of a WWII Survivor at the Death Railway, Oral History of Mr. Tan Choon Keng Asiapac Singapore 124pp

George T. Crouch 1969 The Changi Tree, Malayan Nature Journal 22, 88 (see front cover for his 1936 photo of the Changi Tree)

Samuel Eliot Morison 1948 The Rising Sun in the Pacific 1931-1942 (Vol. III) Little, Brown 411pp.

To see more of the extensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina from TCS, click here.

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