Not far from the Esplanade Park Memorials stands the Civilian War Memorial, the first memorial in Singapore dedicated to the civilian victims of the Japanese Occupation (1942 – 1945). It calls to mind the shared sufferings of the various ethnic communities in Singapore, and the ardent hope that locals had after the war to rebuild their homes.
Discovery of Mass Graves
During the 1950s and 1960s, extensive excavations were carried out around Singapore as part of the foundation works for residential and industrial development projects. In 1962, several mass graves containing the bodily remains of thousands of civilian victims were discovered in multiple locations; more than 40 of these were found in the infamous ‘Valley of Death’ in Siglap.
The remains belonged to victims of Operation Sook Ching (肃清), an attempt by the Japanese to sieve out anti-Japanese elements – primarily among the Chinese populace – during the war years. Thousands of men, many who were innocent, were arrested at screening centres and taken to different suburban locations around the island where they were brutally massacred and unceremoniously buried in mass graves.
Commemorating the Civilian Victims
The Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce (SCCC, the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry today) assumed the responsibility to excavate and resettle the victims’ remains. At that time, existing war memorials in Singapore commemorated only military personnel: the Cenotaph honoured the soldiers who had sacrificed their lives in the two World Wars, while the Kranji War Memorial was erected in memory of the Allied servicemen who had perished during the Second World War.
After the Government had allocated a plot of land on Beach Road for a memorial park, SCCC established a Memorial Building Fund Committee on 19 March 1963 to raise funds for a proposed structure. The memorial would be dedicated solely to the civilian victims of the Second World War. In addition, SCCC promised to match public contributions dollar-for-dollar.
An architectural competition was launched for the design of the new memorial. Swan & Maclaren, the well-known firm which also designed the Cenotaph, won the competition. The winning design was considered to have best met the competition’s requirements in expressing the feelings of ‘solemnity, tranquillity, courage and sorrow’.
Swan & Maclaren’s initial proposal consisted of 12 parallel sets of sweeping interconnected fins forming a grand archway; this was later revised to become the present design. The memorial was completed in January 1967 at a cost of approximately S$450,000, and was unveiled by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on 15 February the same year, the 25th anniversary of that fateful day the British surrendered Singapore to the Japanese.
Comprising four tapering columns at a height of 67 metres, the Civilian War Memorial is affectionately known as the ‘Four Chopsticks’ by locals. Each column represents one of the four main ethnic groups in Singapore who perished during the Japanese Occupation: Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Eurasians. While the majority of the civilians who suffered under the Japanese rule were Chinese, it was agreed that the new memorial should commemorate all victims of various ethnicities in Singapore.
Painted white, the prominent structure can be seen from afar, both in the day and at night. It sits on a raised platform enclosing a vault that holds the victims’ remains in 606 urns. Within the four columns, an empty urn placed on a pedestal, together with inscriptions commemorating the deaths of countless civilians, brings visitors’ attention to the burial chamber underneath. Indeed, the Civilian War Memorial was a form of catharsis for war survivors as well as a symbol of hope for a brighter future in post-war Singapore.
Displayed at the base of the Civilian War Memorial are the words ‘Memorial to the Civilian Victims of the Japanese Occupation, 1942–1945’ in Singapore’s four official languages. The tall structure is surrounded by water pools and greenery, providing a sense of serenity and peace to a memorial commemorating a troubled past.
Civilian War Memorial Today
Every year on 15 February, the anniversary of the Fall of Singapore in 1942, an inter-religious memorial service is held at the Civilian War Memorial. This day has also been designated as Total Defence Day. Religious leaders from various faiths offer their prayers during the ceremony in the presence of dignitaries and members of the public.