World War Two

From British Singapore to Japanese Syonan-To

7 min read


The first bombs of World War Two were dropped on Singapore soil on 8 December 1941.1 61 people were killed and 133 others injured.2 This was followed by a swift Japanese invasion from the north in Malaya two months later.3 Local forces and the British military were completely overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the Japanese army and surrendered a mere week later.4 Singapore was renamed Syonan-To, or Light of the South, in an occupation which lasted a dreadful 3 years and 7 months.5

Watch: 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore


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

The end of an era

It was 8 December 1941. Flames of war were burning across Europe and China, but no one in Singapore had expected the battle to reach its shores that soon. After all, the British colony was considered an impenetrable fort that was well guarded by giant cannons pointing towards the sea.6

When Japanese planes dropped the first bombs on the island, the country plunged into a state of panic. Sensing the lack of defences from the north of Singapore, Japanese troops attacked from Malaya, and the first invaders stepped foot on the shores of Singapore on 8 February 1942.7

The Battle for Singapore had begun. 

A ruthless and swift invasion

The narrow Johor Straits proved to be little challenge for the first Japanese troops, who crossed into Singapore using assault boats and barges, under the cover of darkness. The 22nd Australian Brigade guarding the coastline was overwhelmed by their sheer numbers within just two hours.8

Japanese Troops Crossing Bridge Besides the northeast, the Japanese also swiftly repaired the bombed causeway to allow more troops to enter 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

Armed 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. Ford Factory was turned into the headquarters of the commander of the Japanese Imperial Army, General Yamashita.10

Opium Hill – Singapore’s last line of defence

With Bukit Timah taken, allied troops were forced to their final defence perimeter. And it was up to Lieutenant Adnan Saidi and his men of the “C” Company of the 1st Malay Brigade, to put up the fierce fight in what was known as the Battle of Opium Hill.11

Biar putir tulang, jangan 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. (c.1941. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Forced to retreat to Bukit Chandu with a platoon of only 42 men,13 Lt Adnan foiled a sneak attack by the Japanese, who tried to disguise themselves as friendly troops. As the fight drew on and ammunition ran out, the resilient fighters even charged at the enemies and fought them hand to hand. They were eventually outnumbered but refused to surrender. Their commitment enraged the Japanese, who hung Lt Adnan upside down on trees and stabbed him to death.14

Assisted by bombings from their planes,15 the invaders went on to massacre 260 staff and patients at the British Military Hospital (now Alexandra Hospital), despite being offered peaceful intent by a British officer.16 After a discussion with his commanders at Fort Canning Bunker (Battle Box), Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, the commanding officer of the British Commonwealth Forces, officially surrendered Singapore to the enemy. The date was 15 February 1942, just one week after the first Japanese landing 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 Ford Factory in Bukit Timah on 15 February 1942. (c.1942. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Syonan‐To — Light of the South18

Despite the name given to Singapore under the Japanese occupation, it was a dark 3 years and 7 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 'Sook Ching' Massacre. (c. May 1946. Collection of National Museum of Singapore)

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

Aside from the constant fear of persecution from 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 notes’, but due to hyperinflation, it was worth so little that almost nothing could be purchased.22 This made the poor even poorer.

Prisoners-of-War (POWs) were also forced to do hard labour while being imprisoned in cramped cells ridden with disease. They were even made to sign a pledge of non-escape, a violation of the Geneva Convention, after four prisoners attempted to flee from Selarang camp.23

Day-to-day life was not much better for those living outside. Food rationing meant that many had to survive on meagre scraps, while the introduction of Banana notes caused massive inflation, making it impossible for many to purchase or possess anything. There was also the constant fear of the Kempeitai (Japanese military police), who were always on the lookout for dissidents attempting to rebel against the Japanese forces.

Japanese government issued one dollar banana note Banana Notes were the local currency issued by the Japanese during the occupation. The massive inflation made these notes practically useless. (Image from National Museum of Singapore)

Back to the Union Jack

In other parts of the world, the Japanese were suffering from numerous defeats.24 What finally ended their terror in Singapore was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki leading to their surrender on 2 September 1945.25

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 Museum of Singapore)

2 days later in Singapore, General Seishiro Itagaki signed the first instruments of surrender on 4 September while on board the HMS Sussex at Keppel Harbour. Then on 12 September 1945, General Itagaki, accompanied by four other generals and two admirals26, signed 11 copies of the surrender documents at thenMunicipal Council Chamber27 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 of what could be considered the country’s most horrifying period in 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)


27 Ceremonial For Installation Of Governor-General, [ARTICLE] Page 2, Morning Tribune 18 May 1946