World War Two

From British Singapore to Japanese Syonan-To

8 min read


World War Two came to Singapore when the first bombs were dropped on the island on 8 December 1941.1 61 people were killed and 133 others injured that day.2 This was followed by a swift Japanese invasion from the north two months later.3 Local forces and the British military were completely overwhelmed by the Japanese army and surrendered after just one week.4 Singapore was renamed Syonan-To, or Light of the South, during an occupation which lasted for three years and seven months.5


Watch: 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore


Japanese Troops landing in Singapore The first Japanese troops landed in Singapore on 8 February 1942, the day The Battle for Singapore began. (Image from National Archives of Singapore)

The end of an era

On Monday, 8 December 1941, the first bombs were dropped on Singapore. The flames of war had been raging across Europe and China, but the battle had not been expected to reach the island at the time. The British colony was touted as an impregnable fortress, so there was a confidence that even if attacked, it would not be overwhelmed.6

The events of that day shattered Singapore's air of confidence. Meanwhile, aware of the weak defences on the northern border, the Japanese planned an invasion from Johor, and the first soldiers set foot on the shores of Singapore exactly two months later, on 8 February 1942.7

The Battle for Singapore had begun. 

A ruthless and swift invasion

The first Japanese troops crossed the narrow Johor Strait on assault boats and barges, entering Singapore under the cover of darkness. The 22nd Australian Brigade guarding the northern coastline was overwhelmed in just two hours.8

Japanese Troops Crossing Bridge The Japanese swiftly repaired the bombed causeway to provide troops with another point of entry into Singapore. (Image from National Archives of Singapore)

"When you encounter the enemy after landing, think of yourself as an avenger coming face to face at last with his father’s murderer. Here is a man whose death will lighten your heart."
– Excerpt from a manual issued to Japanese troops in Southeast Asia.9

With ruthless determination, the Japanese then moved swiftly to capture Bukit Timah's petrol, oil, and supply depots from the Allies on 11 February 1942. The Ford Factory was turned into the headquarters of the commander of the Japanese 25th Army in Southeast Asia, General Tomoyuki Yamashita.10

Opium Hill – Singapore’s last line of defence

With Bukit Timah taken, allied troops were ordered to withdraw to the defensive perimeter along the city area, stretching from Pasir Panjang to Kallang. Among them were Lieutenant Adnan Saidi and the men of the “C” Company, 1st Malay Brigade, who put up the fierce fight in what became known as the Battle of Opium Hill.11

Biar putih tulang, jangang putih mata.” (Death before dishonour)
–Lt Adnan Saidi, 1st Malay Brigade, Battle of Opium Hill12

Battle at Bukit Chandu The Malay Regiment, led by Lieutenant Adnan Saidi, fought one of the fiercest battles against the Japanese in Singapore. (c.1941. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Forced to retreat to Bukit Chandu from Pasir Panjang Ridge with a platoon of only 42 soldiers,13 Lt Adnan and his men were heavily outnumbered. At one point during the battle, they  foiled an infiltration attempt by the Japanese, who were wearing captured British Army uniforms, by recognising that they were marching in a line of four columns, not the usual three columns typical of British troops. As the fighting dragged on and with ammunition ran running out, the men of "C" company engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. They were eventually overwhelmed but refused to surrender. Their commitment enraged the Japanese, who reportedly hung Lt Adnan upside down on a tree and stabbed him to death.14

After taking Bukit Chandu,15 the Japanese troops moved further inland, eventually reaching the British Military Hospital (now Alexandra Hospital). Despite being offered peaceful intent by a British officer, the Japanese soldiers rounded up about 260 staff and patients, and massacred them the next morning.16 After a discussion with his commanders at the Fort Canning Bunker (Battle Box), Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, the commanding officer of the British Commonwealth Forces in Malaya, officially surrendered Singapore to the Japanese at the Ford Factory. The date was 15 February 1942, just one week after the first Japanese troops landed in Singapore,17

General Percival and surrender team approaching Ford Factory Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival on his way to surrendering Singapore to the Japanese at the Ford Factory in Bukit Timah on 15 February 1942. (c.1942. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Syonan‐To — Light of the South18

In contrast to the name given to Singapore by the Japanese occupation, it was a dark three years and seven months19 for many on the island. The Sook Ching Massacre saw people suspected of being anti-Japanese executed along the beaches of PunggolChangi, Katong, Tanah Merah and Blakang Mati (now Sentosa Island). Massacres were said to have also occured at Hougang, Thomson Road, Changi Road, Siglap, Bedok and East Coast. Due to a lack of written records, the exact number of people killed in the operation is unknown. The official figure given by the Japanese is 5,000, although the actual number is believed to much higher.20

Sook Ching Massacre Witness Account Witness statement of the 'Sook Ching' Massacre. (c. May 1946. Collection of National Museum of Singapore)

POW Selarang Camp The Selarang Prisoner-of-war Camp was overcrowded and prisoners lived in inhumane conditions. (c. 1942. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Aside from the constant fear of persecution by the Kempeitai (Japanese military police),21 many living in Singapore during the occupation had to survive on limited food rations. The Japanese issued a new local currency, informally known as ‘banana money’, but hyperinflation caused its value to drop drastically, so that eventually almost nothing could be purchased with it.22 

Prisoners-of-war (POWs) were forced into hard labour and being imprisoned in cramped cells ridden with disease. They were also made to sign a pledge of non-escape, after four prisoners attempted to flee from Selarang camp. This was a violation of the Geneva Convention, which gave POWs the right to escape.23

Japanese government issued one dollar banana note Banana money was the local currency issued by the Japanese during the occupation. Massive inflation rendered these notes practically useless. (Image from National Museum of Singapore)

Back to the Union Jack

As World War Two dragged on, the Japanese began to suffer numerous defeats in other parts of the world.24 Following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Soviet Union’s declaration of war in August, Japan formally surrendered on 2 September 1945, in Tokyo Bay on the American battleship USS Missouri, bringing an end to the war and their occupation of Singapore.25

Japanese Surrender in City Hall The Chamber of the Former City Hall, where the Japanese surrendered on 12 September 1945. (c.1945. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Two days later in Singapore, General Seishiro Itagaki signed the instrument of surrender on board the British cruiser HMS Sussex in Keppel Harbour. On 12 September 1945, General Itagaki, accompanied by four other generals and two admirals26, signed 11 copies of the surrender documents at the Municipal Building (now known as the Former City Hall)27 to officially return Singapore to Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, the British Supreme Allied Commander in Southeast Asia.28 12 September was celebrated as “Victory Day” for the rest of the colonial era in Singapore,29 closing the chapter on one of the darkest periods in Singapore's history.

Lord Louis Mountbatten observing the Allied Victory Parade Lord Louis Mountbatten observing the Victory Day Parade. (c.1945. Image from National Museum of Singapore)



27Ceremonial For Installation Of Governor-General, [ARTICLE]Page 2, Morning Tribune18 May 1946