Former Ford Factory

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A former car factory in Singapore that was the site of the surrender of the British to the invading military of Imperial Japan on 15 February 1942. It has been converted into a modern memorial museum about Singapore in WWII, and the plight of the POWs and civilians during the time of the occupation. It's possibly the best such museum in the city.    
More background info: in general see under Singapore.
The Ford Motor Works had only opened their plant in Singapore in October 1941 – it was in fact their first car assembly plant in South-East Asia. Yet after only a few weeks, on 8 December, as the Japanese started their landings on the Malayan peninsula and launched air strikes on Singapore, the plant was taken over by the British Royal Air Force and for a brief time fighter planes were assembled here instead of cars.
As the attack on Singapore by Japan progressed the plant was seized on 13 February 1942 by the Japanese and their commander, General Yamashita, made the damaged factory his forward command headquarters.
After Yamashita had sent his demand for an unconditional surrender to his British counterpart, General Percival, it was decided at a commanders' conference at the British headquarters at Fort Canning on the morning of 15 February to accept defeat and surrender. A deputation was sent to Yamashita inviting him to the British HQ to discuss the terms of the surrender.
Yamashita instead insisted that the British come to his HQ at the Ford Factory by 4:30 in the afternoon. Not having much choice, Percival and his delegation drove to Yamashita, where they arrived about half an hour late (due to heavy fighting in the area). The men shook hands and then sat down at the negotiating table. Pervical initially attempted to plead for some milder terms of surrender (wanting to keep some 1000 troops in arms to maintain order), but Yamashita insisted on an immediate unconditional surrender, eventually demanding a simple “yes or no” from the British.
This was partly because of the poor quality of the Japanese interpreter, who Yamashita didn't trust to convey any nuances of expression (apparently he had wanted to express feeling sorry for Percival, but feared it wouldn't come across properly so he didn't). Another reason for Yamashita's impatience was the fact that he was aware that his forces comprised only about a third of the strength of the British forces, even though the latter were not aware of this mismatch.
At some time after 6 p.m., Percival signed the single copy of the unconditional surrender of Singapore to Japan. It was in fact the largest capitulation in the whole history of the British military. Between 70,000 and 135,000 British soldiers, including Indian, Australian and other nationals under British command, thus became POWs – see also under Changi. (The figures given in different sources vary quite a bit, with a certain tendency towards the lower end.)
During the following three years and seven months of occupation, the Japanese used the Ford Factory to produce vehicles for their own military. After WWII, the factory went back into the hands of the original manufacturer. The plant was closed for good in 1980. A real estate company bought up the land and demolished parts of the plant to construct residential buildings. The iconic Art Deco front building, however, was retained, handed over to the state in 1997, and declared a national monument.
The original memorial museum entitled “Memories at Old Ford Factory” was opened on 15 February 2006, i.e. on the 64th anniversary of the British surrender that was signed here. Ten years later the exhibition closed for a revamp that was in turn opened in February 2017, under the new name “Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies”, yet the initial part of that new name was quickly removed again, apparently because it was perceived as insensitive to use that Japanese name for Singapore under occupation in the title, as if legitimizing it. So it's now just referred to as “Former Ford Factory – and the exhibition carries the subtitle “Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and Its Legacies”. It's run under the aegis of the National Archives of Singapore.
What there is to see: I saw the exhibition in its previous incarnation (“Memories at Old Ford Factory”) and the photos below represent that. How much the exhibition content has changed, I cannot say. From some recent reviews and media articles I've read, as well as from the museum's own website, it seems to me that the changes mostly relate to an increase in interactive/multimedia elements and more personal stories, more “oral history accounts”. Some reviewers complained that this has come at the cost of fewer artefacts. I can neither confirm nor deny that.
When I'm next in Singapore (hopefully before too long) I will check it out and update this chapter accordingly. For now, here is just a very brief account of the layout and some of the highlights.
The new exhibition is subdivided into four major sections. The first is an introduction and mostly about the site and the building as such, i.e. the former Ford Motor Works. The first main section is about the fall of Singapore, followed by the largest section entitled “becoming Syonan” (that's the new name the Japanese occupiers imposed on Singapore). This is further sub-subdivided into three themes: the takeover by the Japanese, the “Sook Ching” purges (see under Singapore) and the enforced “Nipponization” and propaganda.
The fourth section is semi-separate from the rest and called “Legacy of War”. It's about the post-war time, the gradual “political awakening” of Singaporeans and the path to independence.
A key exhibit is the boardroom with the table and chairs at which the surrender meeting had taken place. The table is a replica, but the chairs are genuine relics from the Ford Factory (though probably not the very ones the delegations had sat on). A projection on the rear wall illustrates the historical moment. At one point, so some reviews have led me to believe, the scene was also enlivened with wax dummies of the protagonists, but when I was there in 2014, none were in sight. There were, however, statues of the two main men, Generals Percival and Yamashita in the lobby, as well as various more in the sections about POWs and civilian life.
The coverage of the topic of POWs I remember as particularly interesting and found that it complemented the equivalent exhibition at Changi (that I had seen on the morning the same day) rather well. The section on the hardships of civilian life under the occupation was also illuminating and moving.
When I saw the previous exhibition, this included amongst its artefacts on display some old rusty machine guns, bicycles, hand grenades, communications gear, handcuffs etc., as well as clothes and personal belongings. Also on display was the money that the Japanese issued during their rule and that the locals referred to as “banana money” (because of the depiction of a banana tree on the 10 Dollar note).
One large interactive element was a kind of table with a relief of the territory of Singapore and a panel with a few dozen buttons. Pressing these would activate a highlighting lamp on the map/relief and a series of associated individual stories could be played on a screen. Whether this is still part of the exhibition now, I don't know, but it was definitely already a precursor to the current overall approach.
The rest of the exhibition was mostly made up of photos, documents and plenty of text. So you had to read a lot. But I found it interesting enough to keep me going. The new exhibition may be less text-heavy and more geared towards contemporary attention spans of the smartphone era. After all, the museum also considers itself an important educational institution, primarily for Singaporean schoolkids, that is.
Overall, I found the exhibition “Memories at Old Ford Factory” an absolute highlight of my brief visit to Singapore in 2014, better than Bukit Chandu or the Changi Museum. Whether that would still hold now, remains to be ascertained.
I also remember chatting to one of the museum staff quite a bit after having gone through the exhibition. He quizzed me on what else I had seen in Singapore that was related to the WWII theme. After I had run through my list of what I already had ticked off and what I was planning to see over the following two days, he commended me on my efforts and even presented my with a copy of a big tome about the Japanese occupation. It was a previous edition from 2006 (a new edition was apparently in the pipeline), but I was quite touched all the same. And the book has proved a valuable resource on the topic too when it came to writing these chapters.
Location: in the Bukit Timah area to the north-west of the city centre of Singapore, some 8 miles (13 km) from Downtown, as the crow flies, and just under 7 miles (11 km) south of the causeway and border with Malaysia. The address is: 351 Upper Bukit Timah Road, Singapore 588192 .
Google maps locator: [1.353, 103.769]
Access and costs: quite a long way out from the centre of Singapore, but still fairly easily reachable on public transport; inexpensive.
Details: To get to the Former Ford Factory you have to get a bus. Several lines stop just outside the old plant. The most convenient route from Downtown is getting the East-West MRT line (green) from e.g. Raffles Place all the way to Clementi (EW23) and from there go by bus line 184 for 14 stops to Aft Old Jurong Rd, which is just steps from the museum. Altogether the journey takes about an hour.
From north of the city centre you can alternatively get bus line 170 from Newton Station, either all the way or, to speed things up a little, first use the new Downtown MRT line to the stop at the “Beauty World” Mall and get the bus from there (but you'd have to pay MRT and bus separately).
Admission to the museum is a very reasonable S$3.
Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Sundays only from 12 noon.
Walk-in guided tours in English (no extra charge) are offered at 2:30 p.m. weekdays, on Saturdays at 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m, and on Sundays at 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. – they're on a first-come-first-served basis, maximum group size 20.
Time required: When I visited the site in 2014, I spent significantly longer there than I had anticipated – over two hours. The intro film alone had a running time of 25 minutes. Whether the revamped exhibition is more concise, or rather more extensive, I cannot say. I'd say err on the side of caution and allocate at least two hours.
Combinations with other dark destinations: Just round the corner used to be the Bukit Batok memorial, or two memorials in fact. The one was erected by the Japanese to honour their soldiers who had fallen in the Battle of Singapore. The work was done by POW forced labourers. These then demanded that a memorial was also added for the dead on the British side. This was granted and so a smaller cross was put up behind the main Japanese monument. However, just before the Japanese surrendered in 1945, they destroyed both memorials. Today only the approach stairs up the hillside survive and a new information plaque has been installed.
Other than this almost non-site, everything else of interest for the dark tourist is much further away. The Kranji war memorial and cemetery, however, can be fairly easily reached from the Ford Factory by bus lines 170 and 178, so they'd make a good combination. Yet, when I visited the museum, I spent so much longer there that my time ran out so I couldn't make it to Kranji as well. I had already been on the three-hour Changi tour in the morning. By the time I left the Ford Factory, basically as it was about to close, is was late in the afternoon so I gave up on Kranji. If/when I go to Singapore again, however, I'd plan it in differently, i.e. go early and then make this combination.
See also under Singapore in general.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: not much that is truly touristy, but nearby are the Bukit Batok Nature Park and especially the much larger Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, where you can walk about in almost wild jungle and enjoy the wildlife (birds and monkeys mainly).
Otherwise head back to the city centre of Singapore.
The only non-central major attraction is the zoo, which is even further out to the north. But you can go up the road by bus and change along Woodlands Road to line 927, which goes all the way to the zoo entrance.
One little tip: if going via Clementi, the hawker centre there has a stall that specializes in a less common version of the ubiquitous laksa (spicy noodle stew – see under Singapore), namely one made with fish balls (similar to the Thai sort) instead of the usual chicken or prawns – it's super tasty and at the same time dirt cheap, just a fraction of what you'd pay in any touristy parts of the city.  
  • Ford Factory 1 - outsideFord Factory 1 - outside
  • Ford Factory 2 - insideFord Factory 2 - inside
  • Ford Factory 3 - surrender table reconstructionFord Factory 3 - surrender table reconstruction
  • Ford Factory 4 - POW sectionFord Factory 4 - POW section
  • Ford Factory 5 - security itemsFord Factory 5 - security items
  • Ford Factory 6 - Japanese occupation moneyFord Factory 6 - Japanese occupation money
  • Ford Factory 7 - toiletFord Factory 7 - toilet
  • Ford Factory 8 - life under occupationFord Factory 8 - life under occupation
  • Ford Factory 9 - interactive mapsFord Factory 9 - interactive maps

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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