Total Defense Day

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the fall of Singapore to the Japanese “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”

15-Feb 1942 was the day that the British formally surrendered Singapore to the Japanese after a week of intense fighting. The British had colonized Singapore since 1819 and felt themselves to be invincible. They thought the Japanese military to be inferior. But they also knew they were under supplied and had no backup. The British had sent communication to that effect prior to the battle of Singapore that had been intercepted by the Japanese. So the Japanese also knew that the British were vulnerable to attack.

Why did the Japanese want tiny Singapore? For the same reason it had been invaded and colonized for 100’s of years. It’s strategic position at the end of the Malaysian peninsula allows access control between India and the South China Sea. It also allowed access to oil rich Borneo and Java, which is something the Japanese desperately needed to feed their war machine.

The Japanese basically outwitted the British. They made them believe they would attack from the north east (up near Changi airport) but instead sent most of their troops into the jungles of the north west (near Taus). They were able to drive the British south and overtake the reservoir water supply. On Feb 15th, the British formally surrendered. Lieutenant-General Percival and his troops were made to March from Fort Canning to the Ford Factory in Bukit Timah where General Yamashita only would accept unconditional surrender. Percival and the remaining troops (British, Australian and Indian) were taken to a POW camp in Changi.

The Japanese used a process of “Japanisation” on Singapore. Singapore was renamed “Soyonan-to” which means “light of the South Island”. The language and currency were changed to Japanese. Food and provisions were strictly rationed. The Kempeitai (Japanese police) committed many atrocities to the people of Singapore. Most notably the policy of “Sook Ching” which means “purging through purification”. People of Chinese descent were deemed hostile to the empire of Japan. Male citizens, primarily of ages 18-55 of Chinese descent were routinely rounded up and massacred. It is estimated that between 25,000-55,000 people in Singapore and nearby in Malaya were killed in this way. This included Chinese and anyone seen as “sympathizers”. I have also recently learned of the practice the Japanese military had of taking “comfort women” from areas of their occupation. These were women that were forcibly taken and held captive (sometimes they were told that money was being sent to their families, it wasn’t) to attend to the Japanese military men’s “needs”. They were raped for years on end. For those that survived, when they were returned to their families, they were most commonly turned out as to not bring shame to them.

This was a very dark period in Singapore’s history and has visibly shaped many of the decisions that Singapore makes as a nation. February 15th was declared “Total Defense Day” in 1984 to commemorate the nations Total Defense Strategy. The day is meant to remind Singaporeans of what could happen if they cannot defend themselves, and to strengthen their resolve to keep Singapore safe, secure and independent. At 6:20 pm (the official time of the surrender) the island wide public warning system sounds as a reminder.

There are 6 pillars to Singapore’s Total Defense Strategy. Military, civil, economic, social, digital and psychological defenses. Each person living in Singapore has a role to play in the defense. There are posters and “themes”. The current theme is “together we keep Singapore strong”. Living here through COVID-19 were are seeing this strategy play out in real time, DORSCON Orange and #SGUnited are just a few examples.

Growing up in the US, we learn western centric history. A part of me feels cheated on this. Everyday I feel like I learn something new or from a different perspective here. This year, Avery is learning Singaporean history. She knows the “3 great leaders” of Singapore (Sang Nila Utama, Stamford Raffles and Lee Kwan Yew). I’m sure she missed something at home. But I know she will have a lifetime to learn her Connecticut’s and US history. Here’s to hoping a little Singaporean history imprints on us all.


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