On the road to Syonan-to: How Singapore got swept into WW2

Here's what the war was like in the lead up to the Japanese invasion of Singapore.

Joshua Lee | February 11, 2017 @ 10:04 am

It was 1941 and Japan had already been in a long drawn out war with China.

The raw materials that Japan needed for the war, particularly oil, were in short supply – especially since she was subjected to trade embargoes by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.

In order to get raw materials, such as tin and rubber, Japan decided to snatch it from Allied territories in Southeast Asia – the Malay Peninsula and the Dutch Indies.

To give you an idea on how the Japanese swept their way through Malaya to Singapore, the stories below feature fictitious characters, but the events described are based on the actual ones that occurred during the war.

Upper Cross Street, Singapore
December 8, 1941, 4.30am

Nadia Hassan woke up in her home startled by a deafening explosion, which pierced the darkness. Unknown to her, it was an air raid by Japanese forces – the first of many to scar the island in the coming weeks.

Another explosion rattled the walls, and Nadia’s baby started wailing from his crib. She hurried over and held him close as she gazed out in horror at the burning bodies littered outside her window.

She wasn’t surprised that war had arrived. After all, it was all that people could talk about on the streets for the past weeks. However, all that talk did not prepare her for this nightmare.

Raffles Place, Tengah Air Base, Seletar Air Base, and Keppel Harbour went up in flames as the air raid sirens failed to sound an advance warning.

Across the world, the same destruction was seen at Pearl Harbour, Hong Kong, and the Philippines – an opening act to the vengeance that Japan sought to inflict upon the Allied forces’ interference in the Sino-Japanese War through their embargoes.

ST 8 dec 1942
Articles from the Straits Times dated December 8, 1941. Taken from NewspaperSG.

Just as the bombs rained down on Singapore, the Japanese invaded northern Malaya. It was the start of the Malayan Campaign – the trail of battles fought along the Malay Peninsula from December 8, 1941 to January 31, 1942 as the Japanese razed their way southward, making their way to Britain’s crown jewel, the impenetrable ‘Gibraltar of the East’ – Singapore.

55 days – that was how long it took the Japanese troops to decimate Malaya before arriving at Singapore’s doorstep.

malayan campaign
Allied Forces deployment during the Malayan Campaign. Image from Syonan Gallery.

South China Sea, off Kuantan, Pahang
10 December 1941, 12.30pm

The Japanese had managed to inflict the greatest British naval defeat by sinking two warships – HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse – all within the span of 90 minutes. Each warship was hit by four Japanese torpedoes. In comparison, the British only managed to down four Japanese aircraft.

It was clear to the Allied forces that they were being outwitted and outgunned by the Japanese on land, sea, and air. They were fighting a losing battle.

Singapore Causeway
31 January 1942, 8.15am

Each time Private Jerry Gladwell of the 53rd Infantry Brigade closed his eyes, he could picture the massacre that occured a week earlier in the town of Parit Sulong.

It made him sick to survey the aftermath of the bloodbath – tied up bodies burnt beyond recognition, piles of bodies gunned down on the roads, and mowed over by heavy trucks. One body was riddled with so many bullets, it was practically see-through.

Artist impression of the Parit Sulong Massacre. Image via Australian War Memorial.
Japanese artist’s impression of the Parit Sulong Massacre. Image via Australian War Memorial.

This wasn’t the war he wanted to be involved in. He wanted to be back in Europe fighting against the Nazis. That was where the real fight was, he thought. Instead, he was flown halfway across the world to trek through the humid jungles of Malaya. God forbid he should die in the jungle without actually bayonetting a Nazi in his life.

Private Gladwell was quite certain that he wouldn’t make it out of this fight alive. The Japanese troops had out-manoeuvred the Allied forces throughout the Peninsula and forced them southward.

The Allied forces had no choice but to retreat to Singapore and blow up the Causeway in order to stall the Japanese. Malaya was lost.

The Battle for Singapore was about to begin.


Sarimbun Beach, Singapore
8 February 1942, 10.30pm

For a week, everyone on the island waited with bated breath. Morale among the soldiers and ammunition were low.

Chen Xi from the Dalforce Company held his breath as he awaited the assault from Japanese forces. He wasn’t particularly confident about his fighting skills, but what he lacked in training, he compensated with sheer nerve.

Suddenly, a watch guard cried out. Something was moving in the water. As the night clouds parted, the brilliant moon illuminated a horde of Japanese assault boats approaching the beach. Within minutes, the serene beach turned into a haze of ricocheting bullets, sand, and blood.

Chen Xi took a deep breath, tightened his grip on his rifle, and leapt into the fray.

Map of Allied deployment (in blue) and Japanese landings (in red) on 8 February 1942. Via Wikipedia.

British Military Hospital (present day Alexandra Hospital), Singapore
14 February 1942, 1.30pm

Even though the nurse had assured him that he would be safe in a hospital, Ranjeet Singh felt apprehensive. He could hear shots being fired outside the hospital. Staff and patients alike were screaming as the shots got louder and louder.

A loud bang echoed from the operating theatre next door. Ranjeet broke out in cold sweat as he heard the slash of metal slicing into flesh and screams of agony. He slid himself off the bed and crawled frantically towards the nearest window as fast as his injured legs would allow him.

Just as his fingers grasped the ledge of the open window, the door to his ward burst open. The last that Ranjeet recalled seeing was the bloodstained face of a Japanese soldier, and the smoking barrel of the Arisaka Type 38 rifle he carried.

Ford Motor Factory, Singapore
15 February 1942, 6.20pm

Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival held his head low as he sat under the leering gaze of General Tomoyuki Yamashita at the Ford Motor Factory which the Japanese had taken over as their headquarters. After the analysis with his commanders in the morning, Percival realised that they had no choice but to surrender.

Surrender Room at the Ford Factory replicated at the Syonan Gallery.
Surrender Room at the Ford Factory replicated at the Syonan Gallery.

All of Singapore’s reservoirs had fallen into Japanese hands, food rations were only expected to last three days, and the number of deaths and casualties from the battle had exceeded what the British were willing to suffer.

syonan times
Newspaper articles from the Syonan Shimbun dated 21 February 1942. Taken from NewspaperSG.

Within a week, Singapore transformed into Syonan-to (Light of the South), with the Japanese flag flying from the top of the Cathay Building.

General Yamashita published a declaration in the new state newspaper, the Syonan Shimbun (Syonan Times) on February 21, 1942 gloating over the humiliating defeat of the British. He berated the “English egoism, injustice, and unrighteousness” as “beyond description, and worthy to be called as the common enemy of humanity”.

General Yamashita ended his declaration with an ominous warning, which gave a foretaste of the horrors that laid ahead for Singapore:

Nippon army will drastically expel and punish those who still pursue bended delusion..those who disturb the public order and peace and those who are against the orders and disturb the military action of the Nippon army.

On the fall of Singapore, the above declarations have hereby been given to the populace to indicate the right way for the purpose of eliminating their possible mistakes.

The Syonan Gallery*

For an immersive experience into the war as well as the Japanese Occupation that followed, visit the former Ford Motor Factory which has been reopened as the Syonan Gallery: War and its Legacies.

Gallery 1

From pre-war Singapore to the day the Japanese surrendered to legacies that we retain from World War Two, the Syonan Gallery will give visitors an all-rounded perspective into the driving forces behind the horrors of war.

Gallery 2

Visitors will be able to view archival materials that were donated by members of the public during a public call held by the National Archives of Singapore. Additionally, a special garden filled with common food items grown during the Occupation has been set up beside the Gallery to showcase the ingenuity and resilience of the people in finding food substitutes.

The Syonan Gallery will be opened to the public on February 16 2017. For more details, please visit the National Archives of Singapore.

*As of 17 February 2017, Syonan Gallery has been renamed Surviving the Japanese Occupation.

Here are more articles you can read on World War 2 and the Japanese Occupation:

Here’s how S’pore’s Japanese Occupation survivors endured 3 years of hunger: Part 1

Here’s how S’pore’s Japanese Occupation survivors endured 3 years of hunger: Part 2

Food people ate during Japanese Occupation gets yummy 21st century makeover


Top painting of Japanese naval bombers taken from National Archives

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