I didn’t know there was a museum in the eastern side of Singapore which tells the story of what happened when the British surrendered Singapore to the Japanese during World War II. I thought the museums were all within the city’s Civic District. It makes sense to have one within Changi.
It’s called the Changi Chapel and Museum. Getting here was interesting. It’s located in a rich neighbourhood with “landed properties” (houses that sit on their own land, compared to majority of Singaporeans which live in condos or HDB flats). It is served by a quiet bus stop. The surrounding area is home to the Singapore Prison Service.
According to the staff I spoke to, the building was renovated after three years. It’s beautiful (by beautiful – how a memorial should be beautiful). The chapel inside is located in a central courtyard. It’s elegant. Surrounded by white walls and some greenery.
I’m not well-versed with these designs and I won’t dive much into the detailing here. But the first half of the open air chapel have these overhangs. To me, they look plentiful and lined up neatly… but crowded into half of the open space. Maybe it’s meant to interpret how this area was once home to prisoners-of-war (POWs) and how they were squeezed into the tightest spaces and exposed to disease.
Finally, the museum itself. It is free for Singaporeans and PRs. It’s $8.00 for non-Singaporeans, even pass holders such as myself. I’m always fine to help pay my part to support a museum.
The museum is split into sections with visitors walking room to room in a clockwise direction. Each section tells the history of the occupying power. First, the British whose troops were already in Singapore since the country was a straits colony. The Empire of Japan invaded in 1942 and Singapore surrendered, which left the British, Australian, and local forces at their mercy. They were interned at Changi. Others were sent to do hard labor by building a “Death Railway” in Thailand-Burma.
Here we are 80 years in the future and looking at the pain of our great-grandparents generation. By ‘our’, it’s because this was a suffering shared across Southeast Asia. The same empire invaded the Philippines. Over there, Americans and Filipinos were captured. Some ended up on the Bataan Death March.
There’s an audio guide that visitors can access using their smartphone. Personally I prefer to read information from the panels on my own pace.
What also caught my attention was a topography map of the area. I live in this side of the city so it was interesting to see where the roads were before the war broke out.
The museum documents how the interned POWs became resourceful. They hid cameras that could document how life was like. They built a workshop to create artificial limbs for POWs who needed life-saving amputations. I was thinking that around the same time, there was fierce fighting in other parts of Asia.
A British bombardier POW painted murals in nearby Changi Camp (the originals are inaccessible to visitors). These are displayed in one of the larger rooms inside.
And what also caught my attention was this:
That really hit me.
The war, as everyone knows, ended in 1945.
I think it was a fair recalling of the war. It did not read out as propaganda or asked visitors to take sides. Obviously, anyone would feel horrible to see all this suffering. I didn’t feel emboldened to anger. War is horrible, no matter which side.
The Changi Chapel and Museum is located at 1000 Upper Changi Road North. It is far from MRT stations (I think the future Loyang MRT station might be the closest). The museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM (Last admission 5:00pm). Closed on Mondays but open on Public Holidays. They observe safe distancing measures (although it wasn’t crowded when I went). Learn more here.
I want to mention that the museum staff that greeted me was the friendliest. Her name starts with the letter P. ❤ I visited the museum in January 2022 and highly recommend it to those who can make the effort to reach this part of the city.