October 6 – Singapore
Another fabulous, sunny and scorching hot day, another day to roam and see some more of Singapore. We’ve roamed around the city and marina and we roamed around the Botanic Gardens, so today we decided we wanted to see a bit of history and learn a bit of Singapore’s story. I’d really wanted to visit Changi and the museum and memorial, because I had an uncle who was a POW in Changi and the Thai Burma Railway, but the museum is closed for renovations until 2020, so a visit couldn’t happen. Instead, we set off for Fort Canning, which had its own stories to tell.
We strolled out into the oven again, without the humidity today, so just a searing, dry heat, but terrific all the same, and made the short walk to Fort Canning. As well as a place of history, this is another wonderful park, with paths and gardens, right in the centre of the city. The paths weave up the hill and we could either follow the path, walk up the steps or there were even outdoor escalators, if we decided the steps were a bit much on such a hot day. It was a lovely place to stroll, amongst more amazing trees and beautiful gardens, all immaculately kept.
In the 14th century Fort Canning was the location of the royal palace and then, in the 19th century, it became a British built fort and was completed in 1860. The site gives commanding views across the island to the sea and so was chosen as the location for the fort, because of this vantage point and the ability to observe seaborne attacks. It was named Fort Canning after the then Governor-General of India and took 500 men to build. It once had a wall and a moat and was constructed to withstand artillery like cannonballs, but all that remains today is a small section of the original wall and the original Fort Gate.
Fort Canning also played a role in the events of World War II, that led to Singapore’s occupation. On top of the hill is the Battlebox, which was part of the headquarters of the allied army that defended Malaya and Singapore during the Second World War. Entry is by tour only, so we joined a small group and were taken through this part of Singapore’s and to an extent, Australia’s, history. No photos were allowed inside the Battlebox, so no pics but it was a really interesting visit and an insight into the events of that time. The Battlebox is a concrete bunker that is nine metres below ground, which is the equivalent of about three storeys deep, with a labyrinth of rooms that served as communication rooms, cypher rooms, engine rooms for air filtration, rooms where enemy locations were tracked and plotted and where the strategic defence of Singapore and the region was planned. It was fascinating to see where it all took place, but staggering to learn once again, just how unprepared the British-led, allied forces were against the Japanese army. As far as weaponry went, the allies had virtually nothing, compared to the Japanese forces, with most of the allied army, navy and airforce already stretched in the theatres of war in Europe. The Japanese had over a hundred tanks. How many did the allies have? None. The Japanese had state of the art aircraft. What did the allies have? Old, outdated planes, including biplanes. It seemed even the small things hadn’t been thought through. In the communications room in the Battlebox, from where orders were dispatched to the forces defending the region, there wasn’t even a designated military phone line, so every time a communication was to be transmitted, it had to compete with the civilian communications happening on the line. During the surrender negotiations, there was to be a cease fire while talks took place, but when officers in the field called the command to confirm when the cease fire was to begin, they couldn’t get through for 45 minutes, just because the line was shared with civilian communication traffic. I was quite staggered that even things as vital as communications hadn’t been thought through.
As we know, from history, in only weeks, the Japanese army was through Malaya and into Singapore. On February 15, 1942 twelve men, officers from British, Australian and Indian command, sat around a table in a room in the Battlebox, to decide the fate of 120,000 troops and the entire civilian population of Singapore. After learning there was only one day’s water supply left for the island, because the Japanese had control of the reservoirs, they decided to surrender. The discussions and decision took just fifteen minutes. That decision, as we know, had an immense and lasting impact on thousands of lives. We saw the room where the decision was made, with very lifelike models of all the men involved and we could get a sense of the weight that was felt and the enormity of the consequences felt by them. Still, our Singaporean guide told us, “They really had no choice.” We then learnt of the events that unfolded during the negotiations for the surrender, with the allies pushing hard for conditions to be included regarding the safety of civilians, but the Japanese command demanded an unconditional surrender, or they would begin night bombings of the city, so again the allies were backed into a corner and signed the unconditional surrender. That saw the beginnings of the horrific events for POW’s, both military and civilian. It was a fascinating place to visit and most of the original bunker has been preserved, so we could get a real sense of the events and actions that took place there, during the War.
After our visit to the Battlebox, we continued strolling along the paths of Fort Canning and came to the Fort Canning Lighthouse. We discovered that Fort Canning Hill was one of the most prominent landmarks for ships entering the harbour and a lighthouse has been on the spot since 1855, which at that time was just a lantern on top of the hill. The one we saw standing there now was completed in 1903. During the occupation, the lighthouse keepers risked their lives by hiding key components of the lighthouse mechanism, so the Japanese were unable to use it. At the end of the War, in 1945, the caretakers retrieved the pieces they had hidden and kept in working order, so the lighthouse could be put back into use. It continued in operation until it was finally closed in 1958, when the development of tall buildings meant it could no longer be seen from the sea. The lighthouse stands at “Maritime Corner” at the top of Fort Canning Park and standing there, looking out across the city, I think I discovered why the design on top of the building we saw yesterday, is a ship. What you see, completely centred as you look from Maritime Corner, past the flagstaff, is the “boat on the building.” Maybe that was the intention, to be a connection to that part of the city and that part of its story.
As we walked along the paths, I stopped to look at a tree. Then I heard a THUNK behind me, as if something had fallen from the tree. I turned around to see what it was and what was there? A squirrel! It was a very tall tree and I don’t know if the squirrel fell, jumped or just felt like playing games by surprising a passing Tasmanian, but I suddenly had a squirrel at my feet! I’m just glad it aimed for the ground and not my head!
After strolling through the gardens at Fort Canning, we made our way back down town, with more views of the mixture of old and new in this lovely city. Then we made our way out to Raffles Hotel, the famous landmark building. Named after Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, it was opened in 1887 and continues to be the chosen hotel for those wanting, or affording, the fancy shmancy hotel experience. I’m still a bit surprised that Mr Raffles is held in such esteem, with so many things named after him, given he was a coloniser. In fact, a secondary reason why the British built Fort Canning, was so the European population had a refuge to escape to if there was local civil unrest. Still, coloniser or not, Mr Raffles has remained a prominent figure in Singapore, with his name all around the place.
We then decided to head out of the city centre for a while and see some of Singapore beyond the main areas. We hopped on a bus and choofed out to Dempsey Hill and Tanglin Village. Dempsey Hill was once a nutmeg plantation in the 1850’s, but when disease wiped out the plantation it was sold to the British Forces in 1860. It then served as an army barracks during colonial times and continued to serve that purpose once Singapore achieved independence. The barracks buildings have been preserved and now the area is a cluster of restaurants, shops and art galleries. We strolled around the area and I still marvelled at just how green Singapore is. It doesn’t matter where you are, there are green spaces everywhere.
Back to the city we bused and after a bite to eat, we rounded out the night by taking the train down to the marina to watch a light show. We joined the crowds sitting and standing along the promenade and watched a brilliant show of laser lights, fountains, jets of water and music, with streams of light beaming through the water and images of birds, flowering plants and shapes being projected through the fountains of water. It was amazing and like a spectacular finale for us. The closing ceremony.
We have really enjoyed our time in Singapore and tomorrow we leave, with plans to return. We could easily have spent more time here, because it’s a lovely place to be and lots to see and do. It is also a place that feels very, very safe. Not that we’ve ever felt unsafe anywhere we’ve been, but Singapore has a particularly safe, easy going and all round polite atmosphere. I haven’t seen a single police officer anywhere, or at least not one in uniform that I’d recognise as police and while in some cities you might see the occasional person or group being a bit disruptive or loud or “anti social”, there’s none of that here. Everyone smiles and is friendly and helpful and lovely and everyone just gets on and the whole place feels very calm. It has been a great place to end our overseas travels. Tomorrow we take to the air again to wing our way back to Australia. Not to Tasmania yet and not quite home, we’ve got another leg and a couple more bike rides before we get there. The next blog post will be delayed again, on account of being in transit, but on we go, Down Under, homeward bound, but not yet home, not quite. See you in Oz!