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Museum Musings: Dislocations – Memory and Meaning of the Fall of Singapore, 1942 at National Museum Singapore

Although the vividness of wartime experience is best captured through the personal accounts of those who experienced it first-hand, the passing down of the memories and stories of World War Two for generations, continue to leave a lasting impression until today. With 2022 marking the 80th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, the National Museum of Singapore will be launching a new exhibition, Dislocations: Memory and Meaning of the Fall of Singapore, 1942, from 29 January 2022 to 29 May 2022 that shares some of these memories and perspectives of the war. As the first exhibition that examines the impact of war memory on subsequent generations of Singaporeans up to the present, Dislocations will bring together different personal accounts and examines how the war continues to leave a lasting impact on our nation’s consciousness.

Dislocations will go beyond the usual World War Two narratives to showcase an extended timeline of the war to provide a deeper understanding of the people’s experiences in wartime Singapore. The full narrative is presented in seven exhibition zones that feature historical artefacts together with video projections, immersive experiences, and digital touchpoints. The narrative covers events in the lead-up to the war including defence preparations, the subsequent battle, the Fall of Singapore, and its aftermath. The exhibition will also shed light on previously unexplored topics such as the evacuation of civilians the week before the surrender, defensive preparations by locals, and war memories depicted through commemorative materials, documents, sketches, and paintings, which attempts to juxtapose and draw connections between the diverse experiences of the war. For the first time, the exhibition will also feature the largest display of over 200 personal artefacts from the Sook Ching burial site at Jalan Puay Poon.

The war affected the people in Singapore in different ways. Dislocations will explore these diverse perspectives and stories which, although disconnected from one another, can be taken collectively to add further dimension to our understanding of how the war was experienced in Singapore. Some of these accounts are presented in the exhibition through personal objects such as a typewriter belonging to Geoffrey Tan, who was 15 years old at the time of the war. Tan used his typewriter to record his experiences of living through the war, which was eventually turned into a memoir.

Also on display is a scrapbook that features portrait photographs taken by Peter Chong, who documented people he encountered in his daily life during the Japanese Occupation in Singapore. These included Japanese officers and nurses, as well as some locals. Both Tan’s and Chong’s recorded accounts are rare and unique as there were limited written accounts by locals documenting their wartime experiences. Visitors can also view a collection of Japanese memorabilia stamps that commemorated the Fall of Singapore by depicting how Singapore was invaded. These stamps were available for collection in most Japanese post offices during that period.

Dislocations also utilises interactive methods such as gamification and augmented reality to present different aspects of the war. The exhibition experience begins before one steps into the museum, through an immersive pre-exhibition game, Sunset in Singapore, that allows visitors to encounter the war through the lens of various groups of people in Singapore at that time, such as an Allied soldier, nurse, or civilian. Sunset in Singapore offers players a glimpse of the various ways in which the war was experienced. The public can play Sunset in Singapore before visiting the museum. The second section of the exhibition also features a tactical game that allows visitors to understand the strategic decisions that were made in relation to the defence of Singapore.

The third section of the exhibition, The Battle of Singapore, features a selection of objects salvaged from the wreck of the Empress of Asia (EOA), a former passenger cruise liner requisitioned by the British Admiralty in January 1941. The EOA met its demise after coming under intense aerial attacks by the Japanese forces while it was headed for Singapore to bring reinforcements between 4 and 5 February 1942. Visitors will have the opportunity to interact with an Augmented Reality (AR) experience that will allow them to use their phones to view what eight of the salvaged objects may have looked like in their original state. More details about the objects may also be found in the information cards within the AR application.

Another interactive highlight of the exhibition is featured in the fourth section, The Surrender. Visitors can view accounts of the surrender in the form of diary entries, memoirs, and oral history interviews through fragments of the surrender table. These fragments were modelled after the original teak table in the boardroom of the Former Ford Factory in Singapore, on which General Percival signed the surrender document on 15 February 1942. This experience invites visitors to appreciate and understand the complex repercussions of the Fall.

Through a blend of personal artefacts, official documents and oral histories, familiar stories are enhanced by lesser-known accounts to engage Singaporeans young and old on their memories – whether lived or inherited – of the war. The concluding section of Dislocations invites visitors to reflect upon their family’s own retelling of the war, facilitating intergenerational dialogue about its significance, while allowing the National Museum to engage in a conversation with families on this historic event that remains relevant even after decades have passed. Visitors are further asked to visualise what they would like to see in a future exhibition commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore in 2042.

To encourage younger generations to reflect on this pivotal episode of Singapore’s history, students were also invited to be part of the National Museum’s Student Archivist Project, bringing together seniors who shared accounts of the Fall of Singapore and 147 students from 11 secondary schools. The students recorded the seniors’ accounts of how the war and the events that followed affected subsequent generations born during or after the war. Three of the accounts were shortlisted and will be featured in the exhibition. For the first time, visitors will hear personal anecdotes from seniors who lived through the war as children, as well as their memories of the war as told through the passing down of experiences and stories of their parents and older family members. This is the National Museum’s third run of the Student Archivist Project that was first introduced in 2017.  

Also on display on the National Museum’s Front Lawn is a decommissioned and surviving example of the AMX-13 SM1 tank. A day after the British Surrender to the Imperial Japanese Army, a procession of Japanese Army tanks that took part in the invasion paraded past City Hall to commemorate the occupation of the island. Twenty-seven years later, four years after Singapore’s independence, the first tanks of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) paraded past City Hall during the National Day Parade in 1969. The French-made AMX-13 tanks led the mobile column and had a lasting impression on the spectators and public. These tanks signified the fortitude, indomitable will and fighting spirit of our fledgling nation, and demonstrated the Singapore Armed Forces’ defence capability and the role of national servicemen during this period of newly independent Singapore’s history. In 1988, the AMX-13 tank was upgraded to the AMX-13 SM1 tank to improve its efficiency and cost-effectiveness. This display serves as a reminder of how everyone has a part to play to ensure Singapore’s security.  

In conjunction with Dislocations, the National Museum is also launching a series of public programmes aimed at engaging the public that will allow visitors to feel a personal and emotional connection with Singapore’s history and the museum. These programmes include talks and tours exploring different aspects of World War Two in Singapore. There will also be storytelling programmes held for families during the March school holidays, encouraging families to learn more about the Fall of Singapore. Visitors can also bring home exclusive exhibition-related merchandise from Supermama The Museum Store @ the National Museum of Singapore.

In February 2022, the public can also look forward to the launch of Battle for Singapore 2022, a series of public programmes across Dislocations, Changi Chapel and Museum (CCM) as well as Reflections at Bukit Chandu (RBC) that will provide a more holistic understanding of the World War Two experience in Singapore. These programmes, which include special tours and storytelling sessions, will provide different perspectives of viewing the exhibitions, as well as invite visitors to explore the surrounding areas of World War Two sites in Changi and Bukit Chandu. Visitors can also hop onto a complimentary shuttle service that will take them to CCM and RBC from the second half of February till May 2022. These joint programming will allow visitors to have a better understanding of the interlinked narratives that piece together the story of World War Two in Singapore. More details on the shuttle service will be shared on the National Museum’s website and social media pages. 

Chung May Khuen, Director of the National Museum of Singapore, said, “World War Two may be a distant memory for many of us, but it is a significant chapter in the story of Singapore’s history, and it is important that we continue to remember it. By piecing together diverse accounts from multiple voices and perspectives, we hope that Dislocations will spark conversations and intergenerational exchanges of memories and experiences on the devastating impact of the war, reminding us how the Fall of Singapore and its aftermath remains relevant today, and also serving as a reminder to never take peace for granted.”

Photo Credit: National Museum Singapore

Dislocations: Memory and Meaning of the Fall of Singapore, 1942 runs from 29th January to 29th May 2022 at National Museum of Singapore. Visitors are encouraged to pre-book their museum admission tickets ahead of their visit. For more information, please visit https://go.gov.sg/dislocations1942 or the National Museum’s Facebook and Instagram pages to book tickets or for more information on the museum. 

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