A heritage trip out to the east of Singapore
, primarily to the site of the infamous old Changi prison and the nearby museum and reconstructed chapel, but also to other sites of the former POW
camps, the modern prisons and military installations, a reconstructed coastal gun battery and a beach that was the site of one of the massacres of ethnic Chinese at the hands of the Japanese
occupiers during WWII
Changi prison was completed in 1936 and was at the time a relatively modern facility, with electric light in every cell and a comprehensive alarm system, and it served as a regular, civilian correctional facility.
After the British
command in Singapore surrendered to the invading forces of Imperial Japan
on 15 February 1942, tens of thousands of British and allied soldiers (e.g. from India
, New Zealand
) became POW
Some 50,000 Britons, Australians and other POWs, as well as civilians, were incarcerated under concentration-camp
-like conditions in places such as the Selarang barracks and the Changi prison. The latter, although designed for 600 prisoners, eventually had up to 5000 inmates crammed into it.
Many of these POWs were "used" for forced labour – e.g. on the infamous Death Railway
to Burma, which is actually against the Geneva Convention (but Imperial Japan hadn't signed up to this).
At Changi prison, inmates, mainly Australians, constructed a simple chapel in 1944, for which one British prisoner fashioned a cross out of a used artillery shell. Another British POW painted a series of religious murals, using a brush fashioned from human hair and paint made from terracotta pots and such like.
After the end of WWII
the remaining prisoners were released, and in their stead Japanese POW
s were held in Changi prison, until in 1947 it was returned to its original civilian purpose.
The original chapel was dismantled and taken Australia
, where it was re-erected at a military institution in the capital Canberra, while the metal cross went to Britain
But after a long-drawn-out campaign by former prisoners, a replica chapel was built adjacent to the prison in 1988 to serve as a memorial.
The murals painted at the original site (block 151 of Roberts Barracks) had been painted over but they were rediscovered in 1958. The original artist, Englishman Stanley Warren, who had survived the war, was then invited to touch them up, which he did between 1963 and 1988 (but only four of the original five murals were completed). The murals remain at their original location but are now inaccessible to civilians, because it's part of the Singaporean Air Force's Changi air base. However, recreations of the murals were put in the Changi prison museum.
In the early 2000s the old prison was demolished to make way for an expansion of the new Changi prison complex, so the replica chapel was moved to another site ca. 1 km away, and a museum was added. This opened in 2001, on 15 February, the anniversary of the fall of Singapore
in 1942. The old metal cross made from an artillery shell was returned to the recreated chapel too and placed (by its creator's son) on the altar in a special ceremony.
At the new Changi prison, only the old entrance gate and two of the corner watchtowers were retained and incorporated into the new prison wall. The turreted gate has recently (in 2016) been entered into Singapore
's register of historic sites and was declared a 'national monument'. Thus it may be made more visible in the future. When I was there the gate and corner watchtowers were largely hidden from view behind a high fence. I only caught a glimpse of them from the coach. From street level or a passenger car they would have been completely invisible.
The modern Changi prison complex has several parts, including a facility for those sentenced for the most serious crimes. It also holds those on death row. Singapore still adheres to the death penalty and has, until a few years ago, made plenty of use of it – in the 1990s even more than most other countries who also retain this brutal anachronism. In recent years, however, actual executions have occurred less frequently. They have traditionally always been carried out by hanging, at Changi prison, at dawn on Fridays.
By the way, Singapore also adheres to corporal punishment, namely by caning, which is also carried out primarily at Changi prison. There are dozens of offences that can result in such a punishment, including “vandalism”, e.g. in the form of spraying political graffiti, or even just for overstaying one's visa (you have been warned!).
Even though Changi prison is the better-known name, it was actually Selarang barracks that was the main POW
internment camp during the Japanese occupation. It is now a barracks for the Singaporean military and as such out of bounds to civilians/tourists as well.
Two other sites are of note in the Changi area too and form part of the organized tours: Johore Battery and Changi beach.
Johore Battery was a coastal gun emplacement featuring three mighty 15-inch cannons to complement the coastal batteries at Labrador
and Fort Siloso (see under Singapore
). They were destroyed in the war but in 1991 the tunnels of the underground ammunition bunker of one of the guns were rediscovered. Their outline is now marked above ground and a replica gun was installed; the site opened in 2002.
Changi beach was the site of one of the many massacres of the “Sook Ching” purges of ethnic Chinese in the early phase of the Japanese occupation (again, see under Singapore
). A special memorial plaque was placed near the site to commemorate that dark episode.
Dotted around the area are also several surviving colonial-era buildings (generally not open to the public) that played various roles during the occupation and the British rule before and after the war. Some are disused, others have been converted to other uses, but at least they haven't been demolished like so many other architectural relics from those times.
What there is to see:
When I visited Singapore
(in the summer of 2014) I did the three-hour guided tour by coach that is offered by the Changi Museum (see under access & costs
below for details). And the first stop was the Changi Museum & Chapel.
stands in the courtyard of the museum, whose three wings surround it. The wooden chapel construction isn't so spectacular as such, but the guide's stories of its creation (and recreation), the opening ceremony and of the original metal cross on the altar (see above
) made it come to life a bit more. On the chapel's inner walls wreaths of plastic poppies were placed on one side (the typical British war remembrance symbol) and bunches of 'tsuru' (paper cranes) on the other – the latter were placed there by Japanese schoolchildren. These cranes are a typical Japanese form of remembrance, familiar especially from Hiroshima
The museum in the U-shaped building around the chapel has a permanent exhibition that is subdivided into about two dozen subsections, partly thematically, partly chronologically (hence the chronology sometimes “zigzags” a bit).
Amongst the themes are “unprepared surrender”, “the occupation begins”, “living under the Japanese flag”, “forced to be labourers”, “hungry all the time”, “making do”, “keeping the spirit up”, “living in fear”, “rumours, news & letters”, and “the Japanese surrender”.
On display are photos, texts, drawings and documents, as well as a few artefacts, such as barbed wire from the old prison, a cell door and fragments of the prison wall. There is also a reconstruction of a whole typical Changi prison cell. Moreover, there are objects not from the prison but related to the fate of the POWs-turned-forced-labourers, such as pieces from the Death Railway
The museum doubles up as an art gallery
, displaying various paintings, watercolours and sketches by a number of artists, all with some kind of link to the Changi story, as well as recreations of the Changi murals
(the originals of which are not accessible to the public – see above
). In addition there is a replica of one of the Changi quilts
, originally made by girl guides as gifts for the imprisoned men, both to encourage them to stay strong and hold out but also to convey coded messages. A few originals of such quilts survive in Britain and Australia.
The tour guide added a few extra personal stories, using her own photo-and-documents folder. This included the photo and story of one Jack Sharpe who survived the Changi camps weighing only 25kg at the end of the war, and who visited the museum in 2002.
Another noteworthy story is that of Mamoru Shinozaki, a Japanese who's regarded here as “Singapore's Schindler”. Shinozaki was a member of the Japanese Kenpeitai secret police who claimed to have saved a couple of thousand Chinese from persecution/execution during the occupation, though the exact nature of his humanitarian role in Japanese-occupied Singapore (Syonan
) seems to be a controversial subject. He later also served as a witness at the war crimes tribunals in Tokyo
The museum has a well-stocked shop with a wide choice of books relevant to its subject matter and adjacent fields. Well worth a browse.
After leaving the museum the tour bus drove past parts of the modern prison
complex as well as the entrance to Selarang Camp
(now a modern army barracks). The latter was in fact the largest POW
camp during the occupation. Here the guide told the story of the “Selarang incident”, a revolt by thousands of British and Australian POWs who refused to sign a pledge not to try and escape. This they were presented with after four escapees had been captured (and were later executed). The stand-off lasted a whole week, during which the prisoners had to camp in the open with no supplies or sanitation facilities, until their commanders finally caved in and signed the pledge (but – unbeknown to the Japanese – using false names).
The glimpses of the modern prison benefited from the fact that from inside the coach you had a better vantage point than at street level. Since the site is surrounded by a high fence you wouldn't see much from the pavement or the road. Moreover, taking pictures would not be advisable in the open at such sites as a working high-security prison or a military barracks – and the various red warning signs at these sites make their out-off-bounds status quite clear (in five languages plus a pictogram of a soldier aiming a rifle at a man holding his hands up).
The tour next stopped at the Johore Battery
for a quick tour of this WWII
site. At the heart of this is the replica of one of the battery's 15-inch “monster guns”, yet I didn't find it overly impressive. It just looked too fake. Other than the gun there was a 800kg shell with chains connecting it to a lever with a series of ropes attached. Here you can test the leverage effect hands-on (and at the outermost lever you can indeed lift the shell with ease). Other than that there are the concrete outlines of the underground ammunition storage tunnels, but the (flooded) underground parts themselves are not accessible. You can only glimpse into the dark through a half-open manhole cover. In addition there are a few large historic photo panels, which the guide again complemented with her own folder of extra material (photos, diagrams, maps).
The coach then drove to Changi Beach
Park, where the group alighted again and we walked towards the memorial plaques by the beach. Once more the guide used her folder to illustrate the story of the massacres at Changi beach and the whole “Sook Ching” campaign (see Singapore
). To contrast with the calm and serene beach park setting, every so often a plane would come flying low on the approach to the neighbouring international airport of Changi (hence there are no high-rise buildings here).
On the way back the coach drove via some historic colonial buildings that in some way or other played a role during the Japanese occupation and/or the British military presence in Singapore before and after the war, e.g. at Fairy Point (now a resort). And then we were dropped off again where the tour had started.
: the added value of going on such a tour, I would say, outweighs the extra cost. Doing all these points covered on the tour would be tricky on an individual basis and would take at least as much time. Some aspects, such as a glimpse into the new prison and barracks, as well as the extra narration and illustrations provided by the guide, you would miss out on altogether. If, however, you're only interested in the Changi Chapel & Museum, you may indeed be better off going there by yourself (which also can be done at any time you like, whereas the tours run only twice a week – see below
at various sites in the easternmost parts of the main island of Singapore
north of the international airport.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: a little tricky on an individual, independent basis, but easy as an organized combination tour; not cheap, but by Singapore standards not overpriced. The museum as such doesn't charge an admission fee, but audio guides or in-house tours do cost money. Johore Battery and Changi beach are free.
Details: You can go to the Changi Museum & Chapel independently, though it's a little tricky by public transport: take MRT line East-West (EW) to Tanah Merah and then SBS bus line 2 towards Changi village, or MRT Tampines and then SBS bus 29. Get out opposite Changi Chapel Museum (that's actually the name of the stop) – ask the driver to tell you when you get there so as to make sure not to miss it.
Note that there is no direct connection to the site from Changi airport.
Alternatively you could of course simply get a taxi. The official address of the site is 1000, Upper Changi Road North, Singapore 507707.
The museum's opening times are: daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., last admission half an hour before closing.
Admission is free, but you have to pay for hiring an audio guide (in English only – S$8, or S$6 per person if two are sharing one device) or going on a 45-minute in-house guided tour (S$12).
No photography allowed inside the exhibition!
Johore Battery is walkable from the Changi Museum – just get back on the main road (Upper Changi Road) and head north, then turn off to the right and walk to the bottom of Cosford Road. It's about two thirds of a mile (1 km).
Admission to Johore Battery is also free; it's open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
To get to Changi Beach from the museum you can take SBS bus line 2 to Changi village and walk the rest or change to bus lines 9, 19 or 89 somewhere along Loyang Avenue to go all the way to the Changi Beach Park stop.
The modern prisons and military installations in Changi and Selarang are naturally not accessible to the public. This also includes the location of the original restored Changi murals, as these are located within a military compound.
The most convenient and comprehensive way of seeing all the sites related to the WWII
history of Changi and the story of the POWs is to go on an organized tour:
The Changi Museum runs its own “Changi WWII” tour
(under the banner of “Changi Museum War Trails”) – and this also takes in a few glimpses of the inaccessible sites at Selarang and Changi prison (as described above
These tours run twice a week, on Wednesdays starting at 2:30 p.m. and on Saturdays starting at 10 a.m.; the duration of the tour is roughly three hours and includes a knowledgeable guide's narration and insights. So it's worth it, even though at currently S$58 (children S$30) it's not exactly cheap.
The meeting point for the tour is at exit B of Pasir Ris MRT station – that's the terminus of the northern branch of the green East-West line (EW1), i.e. the one that does not go to the airport. To be sure to get a place on the tour you can reserve in advance (though it's not mandatory to do so) – see their website
(external link – opens in a new window). At the end of the tour you are dropped off back at Pasir Ris MRT station/White Sands Mall.
Time required: The combination tour by coach lasts about three hours, plus time to get to the meeting point and back to the city. At the museum, the tour lasts around an hour (the in-house tour 45 minutes). But I guess it could, if you do it thoroughly on an independent basis, keep you occupied for much longer than that.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Singapore
The most relevant other WWII
-related site, thematically speaking, would be the Former Ford Factory
, which is the site where the British surrender was signed in 1942. The old plant is now a modern memorial museum. And this also has a section about the plight of the POW
s. To get there, take the MRT East-West line all the way to Clementi and then bus line 184 for 14 stops (to Aft Old Jurong Rd).
Also in part related is the National Museum
, which is a bit easier to reach from Changi/Pasir Ris: by MRT East-West line to City Hall and a half-mile walk up Stamford Road.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Not much, but those who like beaches, or simply like being by the water, may enjoy Changi Beach Park also for its non-dark merits.
- Changi 01 - hard to miss
- Changi 02 - car park and memorial
- Changi 03 - chapel
- Changi 04 - poppies
- Changi 05 - plaque
- Changi 06 - preserved old gate
- Changi 07 - new prison walls
- Changi 08 - new prison cell block
- Changi 09a - Selarang Camp
- Changi 09b - Selarang camp entrance
- Changi 10 - super-high security
- Changi 11 - Johore battery
- Changi 12 - lift the shell
- Changi 13 - beach and massacre plaque