Singapore Remembers

By Evans, George | Contemporary Review, September 1992 | Go to article overview

Singapore Remembers

Evans, George, Contemporary Review

JAPAN's new found freedom to dispatch troops overseas for the first time since 1945 has proved far from welcome news in those Asian countries which the Japanese army over-ran and occupied during the last war. The fact that the parliamentary bill authorising this radical departure from post-war policy, which was passed by the Diet in the teeth of strong left-wing opposition, merely empowers the government to provide up to 2,000 men for non-combatant duty in support of United Nations' peacekeeping activities has done little to allay fears of a Japanese military revival. Even the Japanese themselves have their doubts, despite assurances by Mr. Miyazawa, the Prime Minister, that the change of policy would enable the country to play a bigger role in international affairs. More than half of the population, if opinion polls are to be believed, are opposed to it and, given the choice, would prefer to steer clear of involvement in foreign conflicts. The Japanese so-called Defence Force, with the world's fourth largest defence budget, has nearly a quarter of a million men under arms. Any expansion of its role or capability is clearly seen by neighbouring states as cause for concern if not downright alarm.

Memories of the infamous record of the Imperial army are still fresh nearly half a century after the Hiroshima bomb ended the war. Though Malaysia which was invaded in 1942 professes to see no problem so long as Japan acts only under the auspices of the United Nations, lingering doubts persist about Tokyo's motives. |We have had experience of Japanese imperialism', a Foreign Ministry spokesman said, |and I am sure everyone in South East Asia is very concerned about Japan embarking on another military adventure'. In Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister, put it more bluntly. Allowing the Japanese military to serve abroad again would, he said, be like giving liqueur chocolates to an alcoholic. The same fears have surfaced in China, South Korea and the Philippines coupled, in the case of Communist North Korea, with denunciations of |Japan's wild ambition to become a military power'.

Nowhere is the memory of Japanese atrocities more deeply-rooted than in Singapore where the fiftieth anniversary of the island's humiliating surrender has been marked by a series of exhibitions depicting the horror and deprivation of the occupation. The Japanese who had earmarked Singapore as the hub of their grandiose plan for a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, immediately re-named it Syonan-To (Light of the South). Its fate had been sealed when General Yamashita, known as the Tiger of Malaya, over-ran the Malayan peninsula in just seventy days, bottling up British, Australian and Indian troops on Singapore island. The formal act of surrender of that |impregnable' fortress, signed by General Percival, the British commander, on February 15, 1942 in, of all places, the Ford car factory, was described by Churchill as the greatest catastrophe in British military history.

General Yamashita said it was bicycles and good roads which helped to bring about such a famous victory. |Bicycles and the excellent paved roads built by the British were our secret weapons,' he exulted. His Chief of Staff wrote: |Singapore, the British stronghold which for over a hundred years had dominated Asia, now lay before our eyes pawing the ground in its last moments'. In the triumphal celebrations which followed the capture of this mighty citadel the Imperial Guards led a huge victory parade along Singapore's main processional way, Orchard Road, banners and regimental flags held aloft proclaimed the Samurai code: |The Bushido spirit will live forever'.

In theory this ought to have reassured the populace that they had nothing to fear but if such hopes were entertained they were short-lived. The spirit of Bushido was enshrined in an official pamphlet issued by Imperial Army Headquarters to 40,000 officers and men as they embarked for Malaya but regrettably it did nothing to restrain the ruthless brutality with which the campaign was conducted. …

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