The old Ford car factory was the first plant of its type in Southeast Asia when it opened in Bukit Timah in October 1941. But by February 1942 the Japanese had arrived, and on February 15 Lt Gen Percival, head of the Allied forces in Singapore, surrendered to Japan’s General Yamashita in the factory’s boardroom. Today the Art Deco building houses a little wartime museum, Memories at Old Ford Factory, making good use of military artefacts, period newspapers and oral history recordings.
While the surrenders that bookended the Japanese occupation obviously get some attention, as do the lives of British POWs, it’s with its coverage of the civilian experience of the war that the museum really scores. Predictably, the occupiers mounted cultural indoctrination campaigns, and displays recall how locals were urged to celebrate Japanese imperial birthdays, and how Japanese shows were put on at Victoria Memorial Hall. This was not a benign intellectual sort of occupation, however. Stung by local Chinese efforts to raise funds for China’s defence against Japan, the Japanese launched Sook Ching, a brutal purge of thousands (the exact number is unknown) of Singapore Chinese thought to hold anti-Japanese sentiments. These violent events are illustrated by, among other items, some moving sketches by Chia Chew Soo, who witnessed members of his own family being killed in 1942. Not least among the privations of occupation were food shortages, as recalled by displays on wartime crops – speak to any Singaporean above a certain age today, and chances are they can tell you of having to survive on stuff like tapioca during those dark years.