National Museum of Australia Director Dr Mathew Trinca, historian Professor Joan Beaumont, National Museum of Singapore curator Priscilla Chua and historian Professor Frank Bongiorno, 30 October 2017
SUZANNE BRAVERY: Good morning everybody and welcome. Welcome to the National Museum of Australia and welcome to this symposium. I‘m Suzanne Bravery. I‘m head of the Australian Society in History team at the Museum. I‘d like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal, Ngunawal and the Ngambri people, the traditional custodians of this land on which we meet, and pay respect to their elders, both past and present. I extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples here today. So today we‘re looking at the themes of history, heritage and memory to mark the events of 1942, a watershed moment in Singaporean history and also in our region. It offers the start of an important conversation; historical narrative is relevant now as when the actions took place.
Some housekeeping: proceedings are all audio-recorded and will be published as part of the Museum’s Audio on Demand series. Each speaker will present from the lectern with an audience question and answer at the end of each session, and we have allowed time for that so please keep your questions ’til then. To ensure that there is reasonable time for Q&A, a bell will ring to assist the speakers with their personal timekeeping.
We will break in between sessions with lunch served at 12.30pm and afternoon tea at 2.30pm, both in the Bay Window located in the Main Hall. While in the Main Hall you might wish to engage with other Defining Moments in Australian History through the digital wall which is next to the café, or after the symposium using the Museum‘s website. Do stay until the end of the symposium. There’s a lot to listen to and to look at and all of it’s really worthwhile. I acknowledge with appreciation the Australian Asian Council which has facilitated this relationship including staff exchanges with the National Museum of Singapore and made today possible. I’d like to introduce Dr Mat Trinca to the stage.
MAT TRINCA: Thanks Suzanne. Great to welcome you all here today for this symposium. Can I begin by offering my respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal, Ngunawal, Ngambri peoples and to say how grateful I am for their continuing welcome and support for the work of the institution in this place.
It’s a real delight to actually be here to welcome you to this symposium, especially some friends from Singapore; Priscilla Chua is here from the National Museum of Singapore, but more generally to the opportunity we have today to discuss, really, how these events in 1942 have been seared into the national memories on both sides. I’d like to thank all our speakers today. We have Professors Joan Beaumont and Frank Bongiorno from the ANU, great friends of ours, and we’re just talking before this began this morning about the opportunities that really exist for the already strong relationships between ANU and the NMA to do more work together, so you’d better watch this space ’cause we’ll cook something up.
Priscilla, who I’ve mentioned, curator at the National Museum of Singapore, it’s terrific to see you again. Thanks for making the trip. To Garth O’Connell and Dr Anthea Gunn who are here as well, I believe, or for who will be here if they’re not already – friends from the Australian War Memorial, Angela Tiatia, who is artist-in-residence, or has been for the course of this year, at the Australian War Memorial and the National Museum of Singapore. A great project, I saw the proceeds of some of your work in Singapore recently, I think Angela. And the other speaker, Dr Janda Gooding of our very own National Museum of Australia. The Australia-Singapore relationship has a long history. It’s one that stretches back into the 19th century and really dates from the time that the Straits Settlements, you know, came together as territories controlled by the British and East India Company in the 1820s, and really through the 19th century, those connections with the Australian colonies were very important.
For a time our mails went through Singapore, was a very important staging post in terms of the telegraph communications that were established through the course of the second half of the 19th century. And there are strong connections as a result of the Chinese immigration to Australia in the course of the 19th century as well amongst other things. ’Course in the 20th century that relationship really deepened and extended, in particular when you think in strategic terms, when both Australia and New Zealand invested so strongly in naval facilities there from about the 1920s in Singapore to establish it as, really, a British stronghold intended to safeguard British interests in the region.
You can hear my phone going off. I don’t know quite what’s happened but I’m getting a lot of messages, hope it’s because someone’s tweeting.
The battle for Singapore, of course, in 1942, really changed that conception of what Singapore would guarantee in terms of our interests. In the Asia Pacific and, more particularly, that very signal defeat led to the incarceration of 15,000 Australians with a great number who lost a lot of subsequently as a result of their being prisoners of war.
And strategically the loss, I think, is of Singapore in the war from the British world had far reaching impacts on Australian sentiment as well as the nation’s strategic relationships. And it’s true I think to say, and Priscilla might talk about this, that even today that those events connect the memories of both nations.
The High Commissioner to Australia for Singapore, His Excellency Kwok Fook Seng, great friend of the Museum incidentally, often refers to people’s connections between our nations that date back to that time and he’ll tell you stories about Australian POWs [prisoners of war] who returned to Singapore in the years after World War II, really to try and sponsor and help people, across a range of interests, quite often in health because of how grateful they were to the Singaporean people for their assistance in the course of their incarceration at Changi. Australia was the first nation to recognise Singaporean independence when it was expelled from the Malayan Federation in 1965, and really what has happened in Singapore – For those of you that haven’t been lucky enough to travel there in the subsequent decades is really something to behold.
It’s a testament, I think, to see the development progress of Singapore in the 50 years; they celebrated the 50th anniversary only a couple of years ago. It’s a testament to the Singaporean genius really for marrying vision to execution to see how that nation has progressed and developed over time. And, of course, through that time the relationship between our two nations has continued to progress and develop. I’m very fortunate, indeed proud, to co-chair a group that’s been established in the last year to advance the arts and cultural relationships between Singapore and Australia expressly as a bilateral relationship and this was established under the comprehensive strategic partnership that was signed between the two nations in 2015.
I’m so grateful, and I think our colleagues in Singapore are grateful too for this, that culture and the arts has been identified as a key plank of that comprehensive strategic partnership between our nations, because it’s really through establishing contacts and through developing, in truth, what’s already a very strong relationship in arts and culture between our nations but in further adding to those relationships, that I think we really come together as peoples and start to understand each other at a deeper level. The relationship is one that will benefit from the intrinsic value of those arts and cultural relationships, and as well it makes good sense, there’s material, instrumental reasons why the two nations coming together in arts and culture are actually coming together on something that will have mutual benefit for our economies in the emerging knowledge economy.
Today we’re looking back in that relationship and we’re considering the Australia Singapore relationship in terms of our experiences of 1942, the fall of Singapore and the occupation of the island by Japanese forces; still something that’s discussed, argued about, debated today and in fact in September, I joined Priscilla and her colleagues, and her great director Angela Tiaia who is a great friend of Australia and a great director, in my opinion, in the region for the opening of their show Witness to War in which we, the Memorial, and a number of other Australian institutions have been engaged in supporting us. A great exhibition if you get the chance to go to Singapore. And then in Adelaide, just at the end of September, I was also lucky enough to see a very fine play by the Singaporean company, Wild Rice, called Hotel, which traces the history of Singapore over about a hundred years or so, I think, Priscilla, doesn’t it?
And the events of 1942 loom very large in that play. As do the consequences of the successive years for the impact for the mark that they have left on Singaporean history. So we know that in this country we return to the subject of 1942, successively it seems, every time we have a new prime minister. They feel required, almost, to say something about what the fall of Singapore might mean to us – for those of us who can remember back to Paul Keating, in the 1990s, expressly in that everyone since. But it is a sign of how, for both nations, this continues to be a subject of real debate, real attention, and I’m fascinated today to hear all that our great speakers might say to us about this but also to hear what you may say back to them, because one of the great things about symposia like this, is the opportunity for dialogue and debate that they foster.
Thank you to everyone involved in this event. I wish you very well for the course of the day. I’m going to stay this morning as long as I can, before duties drag me away, but I hope you very much enjoy the rest of the day today at the National Museum Australia. Thank you.
SUZANNE BRAVERY: Thank you Mat. I’d like to introduce Joan Beaumont. Professor Joan Beaumont is an internationally recognised historian of Australia in the two world wars, Australian defence and foreign policy, prisoners of war and the memory and heritage of war. Joan is a Professor Emeritus at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, and a former Dean of Arts at ANU and Deakin University. Her publications include the critically acclaimed Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, joint winner of the 2014 Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History. Joan will talk about, today, from An Inexcusable Betrayal to Changi, Australian memories of the fall of Singapore. Please welcome Joan.
JOAN BEAUMONT: Thank you very much. It’s a great pleasure to be here and to revisit a topic very dear to my heart as you will hear in a moment: the fall of Singapore and its place in Australian memory. Now there are few events, I think, in Australian’s memory of war that rival of the fall of Singapore on the 15 February 1942, and this is partly because that event exposed Australians to an existential threat that was really unparalleled in the nation’s history since the time of white settlement. But Singapore’s fall, as we’ve already heard, also has and had a very close association for many Australians with one of the most traumatic experiences of World War II, namely captivity. As Mat mentioned with the fall of Singapore, around 15,000 Australians became prisoner of an alien, and in some ways, cruel enemy. The personnel captured in Singapore formed the majority of the 22,000 thousand Australians captured by the Japanese in early 1942 and some 36 per cent of those prisoners of war did not survive.
So Singapore therefore has played a very prominent role in Australian national memory of the war. By national memory I should explain that I mean not only the discourses about the past in the public sphere, but also the representation of the past in cultural media such as museums, film and television, and the rituals of public remembrance and commemoration. National memory, I need to stress, is not history. History is the outcome, I believe, of rigorous investigation of the surviving evidence of the past and although it is always influenced by an historian’s individual subjectivity, nonetheless, history aspires to be a semi-scientific and objective narrative of the past. National collective memory on the other hand are always selective and very often politicised.
Collective memory changes from generation to generation and it tells us as much about the values of the present as about what actually happened in the past. So not surprisingly in the past three decades, in what’s now I think commonly called the war memory boom across the globe, history and memory have followed parallel but often divergent paths and I think this is very much the case with the memory of the fall of Singapore. The historical scholarship on the campaign of February 1942 is extensive and on many points there is a scholarly consensus which has been there for some years. For example, it’s agreed that the Imperial strategy on which the defence of the island depended was quite impossible for the British government to implement after France had fallen initially into the war. British strategists had known and told their governments, since the mid-1930s, that it was beyond Britain’s capacity to fight simultaneously a war against Germany, Italy, and Japan.
It’s agreed too, that Australian governments should have known this and that they share some of the responsibility for the parlous strategic situation Australia faced in early 1942. In the 1930s Australian governments had embrace Imperial defence, and had limit the amount of expenditure they were willing to expend because, particularly the effects of the Great Depression, on defence. Moreover, in 1939–41, Australian governments had willingly sent such forces as it had had, to serve mostly outside the East Asia Pacific region. Thousands, in the end 27,000 Australians, were sent to serve in the Empire Air Training Scheme in Europe and at the time of Pearl Harbor only one of Australia’s AIF divisions was located to the north of Australia, and even this was spread in what I think was appalling and almost incomprehensible strategic decision across Malaya, Timor, New Britain and Ambon.
Again, it’s axiomatic in the historical scholarship of the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, did not prohibit the withdrawal of the 6th and 7th Divisions from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific region. The dispute he had with the Australian Prime Minister John Curtin, was about whether some of these forces should be diverted to the defence of Burma. The Curtin Government refused to allow this but it did agree to elements of the 7th Division being diverted to what was arguably an equally lost cause, the defence of Java. And finally, I think acknowledged amongst historians that although the British General Percival did not manage the defence of the island of Singapore well, there was a virtual command breakdown in the Australian 8th Division under General Gordon Bennett.
And there is considerable evidence that Australian troops were like many others; thoroughly demoralised by the end of the Singapore campaign, and engaged in duty desertion and a desperate scramble on the docks to find some way of escaping. I could go on but the point I’m making is that, although all of this I think is widely accepted in history, Australia memory tends to be shaped by the narrative of inexcusable betrayal. This phrase has its own intriguing narrative. As many of you all know, it was used in a telegram from the Australian government to the British government late in January 1942, when it was known that the evacuation of Singapore was likely.
The telegram was sent on to Curtin’s name, was probably written by the Minister of External Affairs, Doc Evatt, and was indicative of the panic that was then afflicting decision makers in Canberra. But it infuriated Churchill who we now know that, when Churchill came to write his six volume history, The Second World War, he delegated much of the drafting of those volumes to ghostwriters but he took a particular interest in the chapters that dealt with Australia, particularly the Australian withdrawal from the siege of Tobruk in late 1941, and this tense exchange he had with Curtin about the reinforcement of Singapore. It was Churchill who chose to make the phrase ‘inexcusable betrayal’ public by introducing it in his history in the early 1950s. And it was in that he made the point that in response to the entreaties of the Curtin government in January 1942, he agreed to send the British 18th Division into Singapore when Singapore’s collapse was imminent. So, as British historian David Reynolds has put it, Churchill made sure that his history of the war, set in opposition between Curtin’s partisan parochialism and Churchill’s grand sense of an imperial responsibility, and Churchill’s memoirs tell a story of betrayal but not Churchill’s betrayal of Australia, but Curtin’s betrayal of the empire.
Now this, of course, is not how Australians like to remember it. The notion that Churchill was guilty of inexcusable betrayal, which of course links nicely to the history of Gallipoli , resonated down the decades. We’ve already heard that two decades ago, Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating declared in February 1992, that at school he had learned about self-respect and self-regard for Australia, not some cultural cringe to a country which decided not to defend the Malay Peninsula, not to worry about Singapore, and not to give us our troops back to keep us free from Japanese domination.
Keating’s anti-British diatribe was, it must be said, one of the more extreme articulations of the great betrayal in recent times, but much public commentary about this event continues to elide some of the more difficult questions about Australia’s role in this poorly executed campaign. As is so often the case in Australian memory of war, it’s easy to imply that the fault for military disaster lay not with our own heroic Anzacs but with those traditional scapegoats: British commanders. We often see images of General Percival making that journey to the Ford factory to surrender in the great heat of Singapore in February 1942. I can’t find a photograph of General Bennett taking the boat from Singapore. If anyone’s found one I’d love to see it.
Now a further way in which the memory of Singapore’s four has diverged from historical scholarship is in the way in which this crisis is described as the beginning of the Australian alliance with the United States. I found this on the NMA website, Mat. The concern of academic historians is that Curtin’s famous ‘Australia looks to America’ article of December 1942 did not constitute a radical and permanent shift in Australian defence policy. This came much later in the 1950s and the 1960s particularly, and was confirmed with the Vietnam War.
Now third, and for me most intriguing example of the divergence between history and memory relates to the captivity of the Australian prisoners of war. In the decade since 1945, the word Changi has come to be coded for captivity, not just in Singapore but throughout the Asia Pacific region. But Changi which was a permanent cub camp close to a major logistical centre, Singapore city, was not the site of any appalling loss of life. Fewer than five per cent of Australian prisoner of war deaths occurred in Singapore. 35 per cent occurred, in contrast, on the Thai Burma Railway. Yet despite this, the current Changi Museum in Singapore has appropriated the horror of the wider experience of captivity by selling, on the left you’ll see it, souvenirs which depict a Ray Parkin image from the Thai Burma Railway of emaciated victims of malaria and cholera. Changi and the railway has an additional complexity in the memory of Changi which is this; there is an absolutely intriguing conflation between the Changi barracks and the Changi Prison.
Now the main internment camp for Western prisoners of war from 1942–44 was a Selarang Barracks which were arrested – erected by the British in the 1930s at Changi, and it was here that this very famous incident depicted in the pictures when these trained soldiers refused to sign an oath saying there were escaped, occurred. They were kept there for some days until the public health risk meant that the officers agreed to sign the oath under duress and that incident was captured by George Aspinall on camera and to me has become absolutely enduring image of Australian captivity.
[Points to slide] So that’s actually the Selarang Barracks, the Changi barracks built by the British. Shortly after this incident, the Australian prisoners started to be moved to work on projects throughout the Asia Pacific region including the railway, and it was only when survivors of the railway returned to Changi that the prisoners were returned, were moved to Changi Prison, another facility very close by which had been built by the British in the 1930s but was quite distinct from the barracks.
It had been used in the early years of the war to intern civilian Singaporeans and British, but not prisoners of war; but it’s this prison where Australian prisoners of war only spent a year of their captivity, if that, which became emblematic of the whole experience of captivity, so much so, that when in 2003 it was learned that the Singapore Government intended to demolish the Changi Prison, in order to build a more state of the art facility, there was an outcry in Australia, and the Returned and Services League said most of the Australian servicemen who were captured by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore in 1942 had been held in this prison or had passed through it on their way to the horrors of the Burma Railway, the mines of Japan, and the labour camps of Borneo; but all of those men have been moved in 1942–43, they came to the prison in 1944, the survivors. So I’ve been very interested over the years of how did this conflation of Changi barracks with Changi Prison happen, and I think it speaks to the importance of locality and space in the shaping of memory and war heritage.
A very interesting story that I now need to tell you; soon after World War II veterans started to return to Singapore to revisit the site of their captivity but they were denied access to the Selarang Barracks, the Changi chain barracks which had become a base. Well, they were a base for the British and they became a base for the Singaporean Defence Force as after their independence. And even today, access to the barracks is restricted. And all these traces of the great square of Selarang Barracks have been erased. They’ve been replaced by modern buildings or even the square has been partially built over, and the cemetery of the Australians who died at the barracks has been moved to the centre of the island at Changi. So it’s virtually impossible to recognise the story of captivity at the Selarang Barracks. But Changi jail, in contrast, has remained more publicly visible and because it’s a gloomy – was a gloomy 1936 penitentiary with high walls and corridors and concrete walls, it lent itself to the mythologising of captivity.
Indeed, conditions in the Changi Prison, as you’ll see on the right [points to slide], were very crowded but the number of deaths there of Australians was not great. In fact, it’s been estimated that of 87,000 prisoners who passed through the prison, only 850 died. But as I said it became emblematic of captivity. Now parallel to that was another very interesting example of what I’m calling displaced heritage significance. It’s displaced from the barracks to the prison but also the story relates to the Changi chapels. This, again, is a long story which I just summarise briefly. During the war, allied prisoners at Changi barracks built many chapels and one of these, which you’re probably familiar with, was dismantled in 1946 and brought back to Australia, where it remained in storage at the Australian War Memorial for more than 40 years. It was then reassembled with money raised through public subscription in the grounds of the Royal Military College of Duntroon, here in Canberra, and in 1988 it was dedicated as the National Memorial to Prisoners of War [National Prisoners of War Memorial].
Now in Singapore a somewhat similar but older process was also developing in relation to a Changi chapel. Originally, initially, when veterans started going back to Singapore they wanted, as I said, to visit the barracks but they couldn’t so they went to the prison and the very tolerant prison authorities would allow them in. And there was a chapel within the prison which was just a converted hospital wall which became the focus of visits by veterans and tourists. But it had never been located in the prisoner of war camp or in the prison at the time of captivity, but it began to be decorated with clocks and in 1957, it was formally dedicated to the memory of POWs and civilian tourneys. Then by the 1980s, when the number of tourists had becomes difficult to manage, the prison authorities decided to move this chapel outside the prison walls. But when they moved it appeared to lose any emotional link with its past or with the war and so the Singapore Tourist (promotion) Board, together with veterans, decided to build a new chapel. Here it is. [points to slide]
Now this was open in February 1988 and was originally located outside the prison’s walls. And, you see, it was modelled on a Changi chapel. It soon became the focal point for pilgrims and veterans even while it was outside the prison wall, but in time the prison authorities wanted the land outside the wall back, so in a quite extraordinary example of how new heritage constructions acquire their own authenticity, this prison … this chapel, a product of the 1980s, was dismantled and carefully reassembled at the Changi Museum a bit further down the road. And it has been the site of many commemorative events and also weddings, I think.
Now this ambiguous history of the chapel in the Changi Prison perhaps explains why the Singapore authorities were taken by surprise when the question of the demolition of the prison became a cause c é l è bre in memory politics. When the news broke in 2003, the Australian government took the matter up at the highest diplomatic level. Leading the campaign, interestingly, was the Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, whose father himself had been a prisoner of the Japanese and a politician in the 1950s. But at least five other federal ministers raised the issue of the future of the prison when they visited Singapore and the Australian High Commission went into battle locally lobbying every minister they could find, every heritage authority they could find, and every tourist authority they could find in Singapore to save the whole prison.
It’s important to note also that there was support for this initiative from local heritage activists. The whole issue that perhaps we might talk about later, that’s very relevant, is that Singapore itself was becoming aware of the value of its historic past in a physical form and so there were arguments in Singapore about well could you keep the whole prison and redevelop the centre of it, as for example Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin has been. Could you move the prison somewhere else? Did you really need the prison? And should you keep the prison because it had its own place in the history of Singapore?
Not just civilian internees who had been there during the wartime, but People’s Action Party leaders had been imprisoned there at various times in the 1950s. Well ultimately that diplomatic intervention by Australia, remarkable though it was, as an intervention on the part of a foreign government in the decision making processes of another government – it worked because a compromise, well worked partially, because in 2003 a compromise was agreed. It was decided that the prison, Changi Prison, would be demolished but one section of it would be kept. That’s shown on the right here. [Points to slide] It’s 180 metres long, it’s one of the walls and you’ll see they have kept – can you see? Yes, right down the end you’ll see that they kept the turrets on either end where the Japanese guards would have been posted.
This is the most publicly visible wall running along Changi Road North, the road that takes tourists to the Changi Museum and the chapel just a bit beyond. Interestingly the emblematic gates, which are shown on the left of the slide, were transferred and stuck onto the wall, they’re actually fixed onto the wall, which is a rather odd thing to do in heritage terms, because nobody can now replicate, if they had access to the wall, the experience of walking through the gates which was walking through the gates to freedom, which is what was captured so memorably in so many photographs of 1945. So the war was preserved in a whole lot of artefacts and fittings were sent to other museums across the world including the Australian War Memorial.
Now the Australian government seemed satisfied with this compromise solution but I would suggest the outcome is a curious one so far as memory politics is concerned. The wall now stands alone. The new prison was never built behind it. Interestingly. So, was the demolition work necessary? And this wall was gazetted by the Singaporean authorities, last year, as a national monument but since it’s right next to a functioning prison, in my experience you can’t get much access to it.
So it doesn’t become, or I’ve never seen any sign that it’s become a place where pilgrims congregate to hold memorial services, or leave their own personal memorabilia. It’s not a place where you can go and touch the wall and leave, as has happened at the Vietnam Wall, shoes, any memorabilia of the person you’re commemorating. And I’ve argued on many occasions that active sites of memory, if I can call them that, are those which have names on them and where people can connect their family history with the national history through that name. Here we have, of course, the Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour and the Menin Gate on the Western Front. And intriguingly, there have been aspirations by some heritage authorities in Singapore to inscribe on that wall of the Changi Prison, the names of every man and woman who was held in captivity on Singapore during World War II.
Now that idea, that proposal, has been current for some years. I have yet to hear of its progress and I look forward to hearing more if anyone knows about with the idea of inscribing the names on the wall is feasible, because I think it would transform the character of that wall. Now in the interim, the rituals of commemoration of the fall of Singapore held either in the Changi chapel, if I can call it that, in the Changi Museum, which as I said, is a chapel which has no historic or physical connection with the events it commemorates, so it’s a fascinating example of acquired significance.
The National Heritage Board, I’m advised by Priscilla, is assuming responsibility for this chapel which was previously overseen by a private heritage institution, and intriguingly in Australia, this is where the recent 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore was held, not at the Changi chapel in Duntroon which was originally deemed to be a national memorial to prisoners of war, but at this new, relatively new facility built in Ballarat in Victoria as a result of the initiative of local people, veterans, the RSL and the Ballarat Council. Now I have a theory totally unproven but I shall throw it out there, for interest’s sake. This has got something to do with installing Albert Coates against ‘Weary’ Dunlop, because Coates was a son of Ballarat. But I think the growth of this memorial and the changing patterns of commemoration around the chapels speaks very powerfully to the dynamic and organic nature of memory formation and ritual. They are not static. They change from generation to generation, and period to period as I have said.
So in conclusion, I was about to say it, I think there are many divergences, only some of which I’ve managed to explore in the time between history, memory, and the way that Australians remember the fall of Singapore and its aftermath. And I’d like to conclude by saying, well do these matter? Well obviously as an historian I think they do. I do think that institutions such as this and the Australian War Memorial have a duty to be as faithful to the empirical evidence of the past as we can be. But after more than a quarter of a century, of this extraordinary war memory boom, I’m not especially optimistic about the relative power of history and memory, or historians and custodians of memory.
Memory at the national level is always political. And hence narratives which affirm a celebratory version of Australian identity will always be dominant. As I speak, our Prime Minister, beleaguered though he may be by domestic political events, is at Beersheba. And I think also that at the state, at the level below the stage, individuals, collectives, communities, revisionist history as it’s often depicted can generate such cognitive dissonance that it can’t displace or challenge those personal constructions of the past. And as the Changi chapel in Singapore shows individuals and communities seem to have the capacity to invest with significance whatever they will. It seems then that we shall continue to have multiple diverging and sometimes competing narratives of the fall of Singapore and Australia for some years yet. Thank you.
SUZANNE BRAVERY: Thank you Joan.
I’d like to introduce Priscilla Chua. Priscilla is a curator at the National Museum of Singapore. Her latest and current exhibition is Witness to War: Remembering 1942, the special international exhibition to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore. Priscilla joined the museum in 2008 and worked on the post-war section of the 2015 revamp of the Singapore history gallery. She has also developed and curated various Singapore themed exhibitions. Priscilla will talk today on remembering the fall of Singapore at the National Museum of Singapore, the museum as mediator.
PRISCILLA CHUA: Good morning everyone. Thank you again to the NMA for inviting me to this symposium. It’s a great honour to be here today to be talking about the World War II exhibition, Witness to War: Remembering 1942, which the museum, the National Museum of Singapore recently launched. In the next 20 minutes or so I’m going to be introducing you to this exhibition and also sharing with you the National Museum of Singapore’s approach to it so I’m taking you behind the scenes and talking to you about the curatorial thinking and approach behind it, as well as explaining how, in this exhibition the museum has actually played the role of a mediator in putting this exhibition together. We’ve taken on different types of presentations styles both conventional and new methods.
So just to provide a bit of the context, basically at the National Museum we have already a few sections in the permanent galleries; they are dedicated to the World War II narrative in Singapore. So on level one of the Singapore History Gallery we have a section, for example, that provides visitors with an overview or a summary of what happened to Singapore and what happened in Singapore between 1942 and 1945, so it gives you an idea of the battle that was fought in Singapore, the Japanese occupation. And then to complement that section we have an entire gallery on level two, which is dedicated to the Japanese occupation, which is basically how the people, and the civilians in Singapore at that time, actually lived under the Japanese occupation and how these people, they had responded with tenacity, fortitude as well as resourcefulness as to try to cope with this very difficult time of their lives.
Which then brings me to Witness to War: Remembering 1942. So as we all know, this year being the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore, I mean as part of the museum’s larger commemorative efforts, we’ve launched this exhibition and it’s really the first time that with curator, an exhibition on World War Two on such a scale; and it’s also the first time where we’ve had quite a number of overseas museums and institutions on board with us and this project. Of course, museums with whom we share this period of history and the NMA is one of our partners for this project.
As I mentioned earlier, at the museum we already have permanent galleries that we talk about the World War II narrative in Singapore so with this special expedition, the whole idea that we had was that we wanted something to complement the existing narrative that we already have, rather than duplicating the content. So with this exhibition we’ve decided to give a slightly different focus on World War II in Singapore and what we wanted to do was really to focus on the fall of Singapore quite specifically, as well as immediate aftermath and we really explored this theme of the fall of Singapore using two interwoven threads.
So the first layer being exploring the fall using a macro perspective by situating this event within a larger dual political context, and what this means is that, what we felt as we were curating the show was that it was, you know, in order to better understand or to better appreciate the fall Singapore and the significance of the fall of Singapore it is critical that we understand it within that larger goal, that larger international context. And that in that sense the museum has taken great lengths in projecting or in portraying this context, in presenting this lead up to the fall of Singapore or to lead up to the outbreak of the Second World War. So at the exhibition, the first thing that visitors actually get to see is this film montage section, as it were, I mean visitors get to travel through this time tunnel which is made up of footage and extracts from 52 popular films of the 20th century.
As you can see in the picture on the screen, [points to slide] visitors basically get an idea of what the world was like before World War II. So this is one of the ways that we’ve actually tried to place this larger structure or this larger international framework in place, and with that we start putting in the micro histories, which we do so using personal stories, and personal experiences of the wartime survivors and veterans. Now, and in fact, that the use of personal stories, it has become increasingly a popular way or, in fact, an important way of presenting a museum storyline, for the simple fact that if you actually put a name or a face behind that particular object it goes a long way in narrowing the distance between yourselves, I mean, the visitors and the object. It makes the stories a lot more accessible, a lot more personal, and definitely a lot more engaging.
On the screen you see some examples of the personal items that are on display at the exhibition and I’m sure friends of the NMA would be quite familiar with the camera which, of course, belong to Frank Hurley, the official wartime photographer of the Australian troops. And Frank Hurley was actually documenting the Australian troops movements and actions in North Africa, as well as in the Middle East; and as our Professor Joan has mentioned earlier, with the fall of Singapore, then PM John Curtin basically recalled the troops from the Middle East to come and defend Australia, and of course Churchill wasn’t too pleased about it. So, and that was that the camera that Frank Hurley used to document these soldiers in the Middle East.
And next to it is a very personal artefact which is a silk pin cushion that’s known to us from the Australian War Memorial. Now it belonged to an Australian soldier Corporal Clarke, of the 8th Division. He was in Singapore before the fall and for a lot of soldiers like him at that time, I mean, a young man that time, it was for them the first time travelling out of Australia, travelling out of New Zealand, and if I might say it, kind of was like a little adventure for these young men. On their way to Singapore, while they were in Singapore, they actually purchased little mementos or souvenirs such as these [points to slide] and they sent it back home to their families in Australia. Now Corporal Clarke, unfortunately he was captured after the fall, he was interned and he died in camp.
Now with this curatorial approach in mind, we then worked very closely with our exhibition designer and tried to create an immersive or multisensory experience for our visitors. And we all recognised the importance of creating a contextualised setting for visitors to experience a space for them to better understand the storyline that we’re presenting. So the keyword here is really experience, I mean, it’s a key approach that perhaps makes museums distinct from history textbooks, for example. And so the question that we frequently asked ourselves is that, now how do we then transform these objects into a physical environment so that it will make it a more meaningful experience for visitors and it will make it – it will help to enhance their understanding of the narrative?
And as we have learned from our own revamp of the permanent galleries back in 2015, we realised that, hey visitors, they actually do enjoy going through the experiential journey that we put them through. So with this in mind, this immersive or contextualised approach is perhaps then best exemplified by the display of the 25 Pounder Field Gun in exhibition, and as you can see at the bottom of your screen. Now this Pounder Field Gun, it’s actually one of a recent acquisitions for the NMS. It was acquired from a private collector in Perth so we brought her back from Perth.
So anyway we’ve created a theatre set around this gun and then we also created a two and a half minute light and sound show around it, and what that means is that when visitors stand in front of the gun, they get to experience it; strobe lighting, they hear sounds, battle sounds, and music is actually a very important component of this installation. So it starts off with the popular World War II British song ‘White Cliffs of Dover’, and visitors get to hear the British anthem as well as the Japanese military song at the end which was titled ‘Doki No Sakura’, which was sung by the Japanese soldiers at that time to celebrate the esprit de corps among themselves. And we really went all the way because we even created gunpowder scent to complete the multisensory experience. Now I can’t quite bring that experience over, of course. I’ve tried to video the installation but it just didn’t work on my iPhone so maybe you need to make a trip down Singapore. So, and basically, this is an example of how we’ve tried to create this immersive experience and with different elements to really draw the visitors into the display and into the set.
And so it is really in the second half of the exhibition that we start to present the personal stories in much greater detail, and we do so by having them … by housing them in what we call the story ports. And there are four of these story ports, each of them with its own theme. And we decided to design it in such a way, as you can see, they are largely curved walls so that we could actually create an intimate setting for visitors to enter, for them to actually then experience, to hear, and to view the stories of these wartime survivors and wartime veterans.
Now there are a total of eleven stories in these story ports and every single one of them we’ve gone out to collect them from scratch, so what this means is that we went to the homes of these survivors, we interviewed them, and then we invited them back to museum where we then do a proper recording of their voices which would then be presented in the exhibition. It’s been a very, very humbling process, a very meaningful experience interacting with these seniors. Having said that, one of the key challenges was how do we do justice to these stories, how do we then actually bring these story together in a meaningful display, because it was virtually impossible to actually get relevant artefacts to complement these displays, and we definitely didn’t want this to turn out to be a collection of oral history clips. We wanted to add a different layer, to add some texture to these stories. So what we decided to do was to work with illustrators, artists.
In each of these ports, there is an anchor story and each anchor story is actually sketched out by a different illustrator. What happens is that the illustrator listens to a firsthand account of each survivor, and then he or she then draws out these stories and that truly brings them alive. A visitor’s experience would be basically, they enter the port, they get to sit down on a bench under the sound cone, and they hear the voice of the survivor narrating his or her own experience as the scenes unfold in front of the visitor. Now a colleague from the National Library back in Singapore, back home, told us that what we’ve done was that we’ve brought these oral histories to life and I think, personally, it is quite a powerful experience to really sit there and listen to the stories of these survivors.
And very quickly when putting these stories together, of course we have to tap on personal memories, right, and some people might question that. I mean memory, as a source, it’s contested because it’s sometimes – it can be considered unreliable in comparison to the more objective, empirical method. But I think, I mean for sure, memory is selective, it’s emotional but I think it’s perhaps such psychological and emotional dynamics of human recollection, of how memory is constructed, that keeps us continually engaged. With this quote I’ll move on to the next part of my presentation. I’ve shared with you the curatorial thinking and approach behind it, but I think the other important part of this exhibition process was really how we have played the role of a mediator in how we’ve actually reached out to the community to bring this exhibition to the public.
Now the exhibition has involved a very extensive public, extensive engagement with the public, and, in fact, the NMS has never done anything like that before. Usually curators, we write a narrative, we put it out in an exhibition and after that we get some public feedback, but that’s pretty much about it. For Witness to War, however, when we first drafted these storylines, more than a year ago, we involved the community right from the start. So over a period of nine months we reached out to the different groups in the community, and one of the questions that we asked them was, so what would you like to see in an exhibition on World War II? We carried out five such sessions with about 120 people, basically groups with special interests in World War II, our stakeholders, our docents as well as groups from the Chinese community.
This process basically – it’s very important to us because you realise that the ways in which war will be remembered henceforth really lies on the shoulders of the current generation, and hence it’s important how history is recounted or presented, has to be done in a way that is contemporary, relevant and accessible to today’s people. Such focus group sessions, and such engagement sessions were actually very useful and helpful to us. It made us, it helped us to understand what was going through on the minds of these people and definitely what they’d like to see in exhibitions.
One of the main reasons why we have embarked on this engagement process is due to the very contested nature of war; it’s highly emotive, and we are also very cognisant of the fact that as the national museum there are certain expectations of us that whenever we present an exhibition of war, for example, we are expected to also present the national mandate, or the national narrative of how war is actually presented in Singapore. And, of course, not to forget that museums have become sites of cultural authority and what that means is that we are really in a position to spark conversations, we are in a position to actually shape collective memory.
For example, when young kids comes to museums with schools for example, how the impressions of war is literally shaped by how they experience the galleries, so that’s the role of museums is really important here. And with that in mind, how do we then even begin to do justice to memory of war? Who are we, who does the narrative belong to, and how do we make it representative or, and how do we actually be respectful of memory of war? And I’m sure, to a great extent, most people would agree with me that nobody can claim ownership of this memory. I mean, it belongs to everyone, the young and old, depending on how they remember it.
With all of these in mind, it basically made it very clear to us that public engagement is a key part of this exhibition, because we did not want the production process to be a didactic one, we wanted the exhibition to actually reflect what people wanted to see. So then you might ask how did the engagement process then affect the narrative? Well for one, it definitely helped us to influence our selection of the stories to be exhibited, and in one of our earlier focus group sessions with tertiary students, the comment that kept coming in, one after another, was that you know they’ve grown rather tired of the same old narrative of war; that yes the scarcity of food, times were tough, I mean not to trivialise these matters but for them, they were rather tired of the generalisations of war and what they really wanted to see are some complexities, some diverse experiences, especially of women.
And so we have an example of Miss Dattar [sp] in the exhibition. Now Miss Dattar, s he published her memoirs after the war, and her memoirs basically paint a very vivid description of what she experienced in the weeks leading up to the fall of Singapore. Miss Dattar was a volunteer nurse at 16 or 17 years old at the time and saw her memoirs actually show her struggling with very complex emotions of regret, especially after she had to see a young girl, a young injured girl, leave the medical camp where she was volunteering at, and only to learn that a young girl actually died later in an air raid; so I think basically for the rest of her life, Miss Dattar was always grappling with that. With regret, with guilt. These are some of the complexities that the current audience really like to see.
The next question is how do we then, with so many diverse opinions and with all the public engagements going on, how do we then negotiate through this minefield? Oh, it’s a very new exercise and process for us so in a case in point is really very difficult birth of our exhibition title. Initially it was called 1942 War Stories, but when we presented it to the members of the Chinese community they expressed concerns with the title because when translated into Chinese, the word stories, gushi, right in orange over there, [points to slide] it seems to convey a sense of lightheartedness. It seems to belittle the war experiences of the veterans, so this was something that we took very seriously. We literally went back to the drawing board, came up with different permutations of what a possible ideal exhibition title would be like. In the end we settled for the current one because we felt that the word witness actually carries more gravitas to it.
And the second part of mediation that I want to talk about is really that connection that we formed with the community as a result. As we went out to collect these stories, what happened was that it was a very active process. Like I said, we went to the homes of these seniors and we bonded over tea sessions. They were so generous and kind with us with their time. They made tea, made cakes for us and, as I mentioned, it was a really, really privileged and a humbling experience talking to them because the fact that they were able to open up to us, in spite of their vulnerabilities, in spite of the fact that they’ve gone through a very traumatic time in their lives. They entrusted us with this responsibility of telling their story in a very public platform through the expression so for that, we felt truly privileged.
And finally, instead of a one-way street where visitors would simply consume or take on the narrative, we would like the audience to actually contribute in some way and hence we created the student archives project where we got students between 13-years-old to the early 20s, to tertiary students, to actually go out and interview wartime survivors. In some cases they got to interview their own grandparents. And you have here an example of Parani [sp], [points to slide] a 15-year-old boy who got to interview his grandad. In his own words Parani said that he felt nervous interviewing his grandad, but it turned out to be a very inspiring experience for him because he got to know a lot more about his grandfather that he didn’t have known otherwise. So indeed, one of the joys, one of the greatest joys in having these projects was the fact that we were able to help to facilitate such intergenerational bonding.
[Points to slide] And this is the final zone of the exhibition where it’s largely a contemplative and reflective section for visitors. We thought it was important to have such a section for visitors to collect their thoughts and emotions, especially after experiencing such an intense exhibition about war. In this space the visages are inspired by the stories they’ve seen; they are invited to write a letter to these wartime survivors. At the end of the exhibition we actually collect them and bring them back to the survivors or to their families. Or if they like to just simply leave a note for us, they can do so on the orange cards, and then hang it on the wall in the exhibition where everyone gets to see what they’ve written.
And I’ve picked up one example that was probably done by a 4– or 5-year-old kid; that the responses have been overwhelming, it’s really been positive and it’s just been brilliant seeing what people have – how people have actually felt coming through the expedition. And personally, this is one of my favourites, I mean, how a young child actually has got – what he’s gotten out of the exhibition. I mean, he’s drawn the policeman, I mean the soldier, a doctor and a navy officer, and he’s written there, ‘Thank you protectors’. [Refers to slide] So I think this kind of nicely sums up the fact that we tend to take peace for granted today and it really, really is a gentle reminder to us.
So very quickly, I’ve shown you the curatorial approach and some of the engagement process that we’ve actually taken on for this exhibition. Very fresh approach, very fresh perspectives, all in the hope of bringing greater meaning to the memory of war in Singapore.
And with that I’d like to thank everyone again, especially to NMA, [points to slide] … so this picture is of the opening where we have some of our guests from overseas, partners and Mat was there as well and, definitely, I want to thank my colleagues from back in Singapore, Iskander, Iskander Mydin, and Sarah Yip, my co-curators for the exhibition, of course. It’s a huge exhibition, I wouldn’t have been able to do it on my own so thank you very much again.
SUZANNE BRAVERY: Thank you, Priscilla. I’d like to introduce Professor Frank Bongiorno. Frank’s an Australian labour, political and cultural historian. He teaches at the Australian National University and previously held posts at King’s College London, the University of New England, Griffith University and the University of Cambridge. Frank’s publications include The Eighties: The Decade that Transformed Australia, and The Sex Lives of Australians: A History. Frank is today talking about an Australian of the spirit, the fall of Singapore, and Australia nationalism.
FRANK BONGIORNO: Thank you very much. In his recently published autobiography, A Fuhrer for a Father, the cultural historian and biographer Jim Davidson calls himself, and I quote, ‘One of the last of the British-Australians’, as a hyphenated condition. ‘I was born a few months after the fall of Singapore in 1942,’ he continues. In retrospect, this became the most crucial British defeat of the 20th century, but in Australia, British-Australia kept on keeping on, running on empty. It’s not surprising then that many of us were still educated on outdated assumptions. Now Davidson’s book centres on his own troubled relationship with his father; very much a man of the empire in a Rider Haggard kind of way, and the book elegantly and perceptively weaves an account of the relationship between the brutal patriarchy exercised by man within a family, with the wider Imperial dominance of which it was both a microcosm, and also arguably a buttress or a foundation.
Davidson speculates that second-wave feminism could only really get into its stride with the end of Empire. By implication, for his book is also about his own gay sexuality, the other forms of liberation that came with the social revolutions in the 1960s and 70s also seem to depend on the dissolution of that grand patriarchy, represented by the British Empire; perhaps the European empire generally. Now there was a time, not so long ago, when historians of Australia took for granted that the fall of Singapore was a critical moment in the shaping of modern Australia, perhaps the critical moment. A landmark in the emergence of an independent nationalism. In a much quoted contribution to the crisis edition of the magazine Meanjin, published in March 1942, the novelist Vance Palmer recognised the potential, as well as the dangers, of that moment. The article, simply titled ‘Battle’, which runs to little more than one page, is worth a closer examination for what it tells us, I think, about the historical consciousness that a thoughtful, progressive, intellectual brought to the crisis of February 1942.
The next few months, Palmer declared, may decide not only whether we are to survive as a nation, but whether we deserve to survive, not just continue. [Points to slide] No need to read it, I just thought I’d give you a sense of what it actually looks like on the page. ‘As yet, none of our achievements prove it,’ I’m quoting from Palmer here.
At any rate, in the sight of the outer world, we have no monuments to speak of, no dreams in stone, no Guernicas, no sacred places. We could vanish and leave singularly few signs that for some generations there had lived a people who had made a homeland of this Australian Earth. A homeland? To how many people was it primarily that? How many penetrated the soil with their love and imagination?
Now to a modern Australian sensibility it’s the whiteness, I think, of this reflection that might be most striking. No achievements, no sacred places. No one who’s penetrated the soil with their love and imagination. It’s taken for granted, I think, in this passage as throughout I think much – pretty much all in fact, of the anxious soul-searching occasioned by the fall of Singapore, that it’s specifically a white civilisation that seemed to be endangered by Japan’s southward thrust.
It’s hard not to wonder whether, in this fear of vanishing and leaving few signs of occupation behind, Palmer is not projecting what Richard Windeyer had, a century before, called this whispering in our hearts about the disposition of Aboriginal people. Had white Australia’s 1788 arrived in 1942? But Palmer also saw hope and, I quote:
If Australia had no more character that could be seen on its surface,’ he declared, ‘he would be annihilated as surely and swiftly as those colonial outpost white men built for their commercial profit in the east, but there is an Australia of the Spirit submerged and not very articulate that is quite different from these bubbles of old world imperialism.
Now here of course we found one of the conceits of the radical nationalist tradition that the soul of the nation lay in the natural egalitarianism of the bush tradition, the world evoked by Henry Lawson, and Banjo Paterson, Joseph Furphy. Just a few years later, of course, in the 1950s, the last decade, I think, of British Australia, Russell Ward would become its most eloquent historian in the book The Australian Legend. But Palmer evoked that legend in a fully formed shape in March 1942. I quote again:
Born of the lean loins of the country itself, of the dreams of men who came here to form a new society, of hard conflicts in many fields, it had developed a toughness all its own. Sardonic, idealist, tongue-tied perhaps, it is the Australia of all who truly belong here. When you’re away it takes on a human image, an image that emerges brown and steady-eyed from the background of dun cliffs, treed bushlands, and tawny plains.
Now the men invoked in that passage, and I think Palmer was indeed talking only of men, seem rather like a new kind of Aborigine, a white Aborigine apparently, born of the lean loins of the country itself and that rather ripe image. Palmer was optimistic that with the leadership of such men, Australia would survive. On he went, that what is significant in us will survive; that we will come out of this struggle battered, stripped, but spiritually – stripped new, but spiritually sounder than we went in. Surer of our essential character, adults in a wider world than the one we lived in hitherto.
Now that’s marched on in ’42; when, years later, historians turn to these events, they too were impressed by the war as a moment in which Australia’s place in the world had changed irrevocably. Most also considered that Australia had matured as a nation in the 1940s. In his 1973 essay Gallipoli to Petrov, Humphrey McQueen thought that, and I quote:
a revival of national consciousness had occurred in the context of the Second World War.
That he thought was loud and clear, especially with the presence of so many Americans in the country. He explained it like this with a comparison with the First World War; just as the Anzacs of First World War had come to recognise how much they differed from British soldiers when they stripped off beside them on the beaches, every Australian came to realise his Australianness in contrast with the attitudes and behaviour of the Yanks.
According to Manning Clarke, writing in the 1980s, of course back in 1942 he was a schoolmaster at Geelong Grammar, recently back from Oxford, but he thought that the war had unleashed forces that would turn Australian Britons into museum pieces or darling dodos of the second half of the 20th century. The war, he said, gave us a chance to free ourselves from the stigma of mediocrity and inferiority.
Noel McLachlan, another radical national historian, argued similarly that the possibility of a Japanese invasion gave, again I quote:
the Heftiest hoist ever to Australian consciousness.
Now historians writing around the time of the 50th anniversary of the fall of Singapore, so back in the early 1990s, I’m thinking of Greg Pemberton, David Day, also claim that the fall of Singapore, in short, there will be no turning back to what had been felt and experienced before, however earnestly many Australians may have desired that in the later 1940s and 50s.
Pemberton commented in their 50th anniversary supplement, on the fall of Singapore in the Australian newspaper, 1992 and I quote:
the government acquired the ability to think for itself and make its own decisions even if it meant disagreeing with its traditional overlords in London, and their sympathisers in Australia. Britain could never again revive the imperial relationship in its paternalistic form.
David Day, same publication, considered that Singapore marked the dramatic fall of Britain’s Humpty Dumpty empire in the Far East, whose pieces would never be put together again.
Now among these historians that emerged a consensus of sorts; Joan also referred, I think, to a consensus about the significance of Singapore, and the Pacific War more generally, as a defining moment in Australian history, but there was never total agreement. Peter Edwards, diplomatic historian, argued in 1975 that the turning to America of 1941–42, appears not so much as a decisive and permanent shift in Australia’s foreign alliances and allegiance, but as the immediate and temporary reaction to the moment of extreme danger. So it was a kind of counterpoint that tended to downgrade the significance of the fall of Singapore in the broader evolution of Australian nationalism and foreign policy.
Among the efforts made by the Curtin Government to repair its damaged relationship with Britain, suggested Edwards, was the November 1943 appointment of the Duke of Gloucester as governor-general. After all, the Labor party had gone to considerable trouble back in 1930 to have an Australian appointed as governor-general. Isaac Isaacs, in the face of opposition from the King, for instance, so clearly its decision to appoint not merely an Englishman, but a member of the royal family, a prince, signalled a diplomatic priority.
Notwithstanding Edwards’ qualifications, this seemed rather limited disagreement, I think, at this stage among historians about the significance of the fall of Singapore, or indeed the war more generally for Australian nationalism; so nationalist historians recognised that while there was growing self-confidence, Australians still considered themselves British after 1941, despite Curtin’s famous appeal to the United States in December of that year, which Joan referred to and, of course, the subsequent unravelling of the European Empires in Asia in 1941–42.
But such historians, while recognising the continuing appeal of Britishness, added the rider that the empire was never quite the same again, rather as Jim Davidson did in that quote at the beginning of my talk. The idea of the British Empire’s days were numbered even if it wasn’t fully appreciated at the time. In his book We Were There, published in 1988, based on surveys of Second World War veterans, John Barrett the historian, concluded that empire loyalty did in fact decline during the war for the cohort of soldiers whom he questioned. A couple of quotes:
‘Britain’s failure to fight a long, hard war on the Malay Peninsula had a profound effect on my thinking,’ said one man.
‘I was no longer madly British,’ said another.
Admittedly, these men are, of course, being asked their views in the 1980s, a lot of water has passed under the bridge, but nonetheless that’s how they remembered their feelings at the end of the Second World War.
Now these waters, I think, were muddied in the early 1990s by Paul Keating. As part of his Republican push, his quest for closer engagement with Asia, and of course coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the fall of Singapore, Keating launched an extraordinary round in the History Wars. As he told the Opposition in the very month of the Singapore anniversary, in an intervention that was really just one stage in his progressive demolition of Opposition leader John Hewson, I’ll quote it although John partially did so earlier:
I was told that I did not learn respect at school. Well I learned one thing. I learned about self-respect and self-regard for Australia. Not about some cultural cringe to a country which decided not to defend the Malayan Peninsula, not to worry about Singapore, and not to give us our troops back to keep ourselves free from Japanese domination. This was the country that you people wedded yourself to.
– he’s talking to the Opposition –
and even as he walked out on you and joined the common market, and you were still looking for your MBEs and your knighthoods, and all the rest of the regalia that comes with it, you would take Australia right back down the time tunnel to the cultural cringe we you have always come from.
as it was the whole campaign was shockingly conducted and the only leader who showed the slightest tendency to fight the Japanese was Bennett, in charge of our division.
I don’t think that author, that that’s emerged as an orthodoxy among historians, but years later, Evatt’s tune hadn’t changed much. Here he is speaking to the Irish minister in Australia in 1949, and even allowing for the likelihood of a sympathetic hearing from an Irishman, this is what Evatt had to say:
Churchill had gone at once to Roosevelt to ask him to let the Pacific [inaudible] lie undefended and to throw everything into the war in Europe. This although Germany had not attacked the USA. Australia was to be left even without her own troops which were in the African campaign, and Churchill’s idea was that Australia could be recovered when the Germans had been defeated. The last war had opened Australia’s eyes to the kind of support she could expect from Britain.
You can see why I can hear Keating echoing Evatt.
The highly politicised radical nationalist interpretation of Singapore provoked a strong reaction from civil historians who pointed to the problems that it avoided, and especially its innocence of the complexities of Alliance politics, diplomacy, and strategy in wartime. But the most significant response, at least for how it’s affected historians, came a few years later from the work of the Sydney historian Neville Meaney, and several of his own doctoral students. Now there’s no time here to enter into the complexities of their contribution, but it would be fair to say that they spent a great many words, perhaps too many words, criticising the Keating-esque radical nationalist understanding of Australian history. The idea of an Australian nationalism, never quite able to flourish and independence never able to take root, because being regularly thwarted by British imperial overlord and a local imperialist fifth column.
Australian nationalism, argued many, was really British-race patriotism until Britain turned decisively to Europe in the early 1960s, when it applied to join the European Economic Community. What looks like Australia nationalism, say in John Curtin’s resistance to that mixture of arrogance, bluff, and blackmail that Churchill deployed to divert those troops, or attempt to divert those troops to Burma, was for many just an expression of Australia’s regional strategic interest. It did not express any larger sense of cultural identity because Australia had no cultural identity that was not just a species of Britishness.
Many, for instance, reduced the ideas epitomised by Palmer’s ‘Australia of the Spirit’, with which I began to, and I quote:
‘provincial distinctions, comparable to those of Cornwall and Yorkshire here.’
Now Meaney, in my view, badly misjudges the nature and temper of Australian nationalism. Claims to Australian distinctiveness are not comparable with British provincial differences partly because by the 20th century, they were underpinned by a democratic sovereign state, which was itself an expression of Australians’ quest to become something other than mere colonials. The thrust of white Australian anti-colonialism was not anti-British, anti-imperial, or anti -monarchical, and it was thoroughly imbued with racial chauvinism; all that can be admitted. It assumed that whites should rule over other people. But it was anti-colonial in its rejection of the idea of white Australian inferiority and deference, and in its claim that Australia should be treated respectfully by Britain and the United States as a sovereign state, and a self-governing democracy.
Now this claim didn’t have its origins in the 1940s but the rapid and dramatic shifts in power politics in the 1940s gave an enormous boost. Even a cursory reading of the cable traffic between Canberra and Whitehall over the question of the diversion of troops reveals, all too clearly, that the world of 1914–18 has long passed. Us Australians were no longer willing to trust the assurances of London or Washington, that all would be well and they’d be looked after. But Australia’s resistance to such assurances was not a narrow calculation of strategic interest without larger cultural and political consequences. Christopher Waters astutely calls it a fracturing of the empire; not a complete break, but a fracture. Australia’s politicians, bureaucrats, and generals have now grasped, in a manner fully comparable with no previous Australian government, what is arguably the primary responsibility of any state; to protect its people from coming under the rule of another people, another state.
So to conclude, my approach treats the 1940s as a decolonising moment for white Australians, and I follow Chris Waters in that. The Australian nationalism that was increasingly apparent was created, in large part, out of British materials, but it had also gained a kind of autonomy in its own right as a distinctive Australian cultural community; one that resembled contemporary European nationalisms and would indeed come to resemble the deep colonising nationalisms of Asia, and of Africa, while also diverging from them in its entanglement in a wider British world, and of course as I’ve mentioned in its racial politics. The continuities were there. This was fundamentally and explicitly a white nationalism, and it remained British in all sorts of ways. The day after the fall of Singapore, the Canberra Times had looked forward after the war to a refashioning of the British Commonwealth whose strength would, and I quote, ‘be exerted and directed from the dominions where it belongs.’
This vision persisted as an ideal after the war but it proved an illusion. Those very same Labor governments who thought that you might be able to do that, refused to commit Australia to sending troops to the Middle East in the event of a third World War. They’d learned the lessons of 1942. And even if the Menzies government did briefly make those sorts of commitments in the late 40s and early 50s, that was soon overtaken by the threat of communism in Asia itself. So my argument here is the downgrading of the significance of the fall of Singapore has been an aspect of some historians’ stress on the resilience of Britishness, has actually obscured rather than helped our understanding of the profound shifts in identity and nationalism that have occurred amongst Australians over the last century.
And I end on that image which appeared in The Bulletin in mid-December 1941. It’s a Norman Lindsay. [Refers to slide] The poem quoted underneath will probably be familiar to some of you even though it’s a rather now obscure nationalist poet, Bernard O’Dowd:
‘That reddish veil which o’er the face of night-hag East is drawn. Flames new disaster for the race? Or can it be the dawn?’
The lines were written in 1902, O’Dowd was still alive. Of course, some of you will recognise the lines because they were the lines with which John Curtin open that famous appeal to America just what, a couple of weeks later, in the Melbourne Herald. O’Dowd and Curtin had known each other in Melbourne in the socialist movement, in the early 20th century, both were nationalists and, I think, that image and the verse that went with it in the Bulletin dramatises the way in which Australia’s response to this crisis in 1941–42 draws on an older radical nationalist tradition. Thank you.
SUZANNE BRAVERY: Thanks Frank. I’m going to ask you to remain on the stage and for Joan and Priscilla to come up and take a seat, and there’s a microphone. And we have 15 good minutes of question time. So please come up.
QUESTION: My name’s Allison Russell French. My father was a Japanese prisoner of war and it’s interesting, Joan, your comment on history memory and I’d probably add mythology to that as well. Changi was never a real focus for us of the war because Dad was at Hellfire Pass and then he went to Kinkaseki in Japan to a copper mine. So we had a much broader perspective on his activities during the war and when he came back he was a survivor, thank God, cause we’re here. But he had beriberi, which is one thing that isn’t – his wife couldn’t recognise him, having had, because he was completely changed.
But the one thing that I found very impressive about my father was that he never really carried a strong anti-Japanese view throughout his life. In fact, I studied Japanese at university in Sydney, majored in that language, and I always was amused with Dad trying to communicate his form of Japanese, which he’d learned in the prison camps. And I kept telling him, ‘You don’t use that language to a woman in Japan, Dad.’ It’s really low-level, poor, awful Japanese. And he couldn’t quite get around that thought but – The memories people have are really important. We never had much in the way of memory of Dad’s activities because he wouldn’t talk to the family about it.
But the thing that I found really depressing about a lot of the 8th Division that came back, they had this terrible sense of shame and I think society here did very little to address that until perhaps into the 80s and 90s. But a lot of the 8th Division men who were POW, they go to Anzac Day more to get together with their colleagues than to actually commemorate things, because there was that overlaying sense that they were never recognised for this service, and there was that sense of shame that cost a lot. So I’d be interested in your perspective from a historical viewpoint as to what you feel about that.
JOAN BEAUMONT: Thank you very much for that comment. I’d like to make a bit of an advertisement for my colleague Christina Twomey, whose book The Battle Within will be coming out in a matter of weeks, if not months, which looks at the experience of prisoners of war on their return to Australia. In some ways you’re right but I think we underestimate the prominence that was given to the prisoner of war experience, particularly in the late 1940s. There were programs, for example ABC, programs about the death march at Sandakan, there were ‘welcome home’ crowds. So in some ways the story of lack of recognition has become part of the memory of the war, I think. The same can be said of Vietnam veterans who, as we know, many people feel have been given inappropriate treatment in the decades since Vietnam War. I think there were 16 welcome home marches, there certainly were welcome home marches for Vietnam veterans but it’s very rare to hear them spoken of.
So one of the questions, I think, fascinates us both as historians and as students of memory, is why is it the particular stories about the past, emerges the dominant ones. And I can tell you that the welcome home marches are getting our veterans but it doesn’t make any difference. And that to me is the issue. What is it that we distil from the past that has prominence at a particular time.
FRANK BONGIORNO: There was also that very large, apparently large market, for POW memoir in the 1950s, which again speaks to a certain place in postwar Australian culture too – Rohan Rivett, and Russell Braddon, Naked Island.
JOAN BEAUMONT: – millions of copies of the Naked Island, so maybe more that there was a decline in memory in the 60s and 70s but that could be said of many many cohorts of veterans, I mean, if I could over generalise this sort of interest in the 40s and the early 50s, then there’s an ebbing when, of course, the RSL came under significant attack, as a very conservative institution, you get the Vietnam War and the protests movements. And then you get this extraordinary phenomenon that I refer to as the war memory boom which most people would date in Australia’s beginning somewhere between 1985 and 1990.
QUESTION: Thank you for your wonderful contributions and just a point, that in the cities – Melbourne city, the major cities of Australia, there were large numbers of people who we labelled as being deros who were really around in the 1970s. And I spoke to a social worker who explained to me that most of them were actually members of the 8th Division, and some Australians who were captured in Greece as well. That they absolutely devastated by the experience, and was no significant supports there for those people.
JOAN BEAUMONT: That may be a memory but there was a thing called the Prisoner of War Trust Fund set up particularly to support them. Now there was the very common negotiation or contest between the veteran and the state about what were their entitlements but – can I just add to this? I find very interesting how we, and this is being commented on by many others, core to the war memory boom is a notion of victimhood. And that’s because much of the interest in memory arose out of the Holocaust, the Jewish experience.
We now find it very difficult to acknowledge that some soldiers were resilient, but in my experience of interviewing prisoners of war, some of them got on very productively with life. They even talked about their experience of captivity as being the driver for overachievement later in their lives, so victimhood is very much part of how we understand war today.
QUESTION: Well it was very clear the Exhibition Gardens in Melbourne, and around Fitzroy, Collingwood – there were significant numbers of those people – and I saw them there in my backyard, so it didn’t work properly for all of them, but the – but the other point I was trying, wanted to make is just about – my mother worked for John Curtin, the prime minster during the war, and she sort of watched him sort of worrying himself to death and exhausting himself over all these problems, dealing with the British and perhaps to this extent the Americans, and particularly bringing those soldiers back from the Middle East to Australia.
My question now is really what was the impact on ordinary Australians over the fall of Singapore? Because the impression given to me by my parents was that people were certainly extremely concerned; it was an amazing commitment by so many Australians to work an extra half a day or a day if they worked for the government, for nothing. People were deadly concerned about it, but my father was quite certain that if the Americans to come into the war, that ultimately you know the Allies would win.
FRANK BONGIORNO: There’s a lot of panic, including within government if – there’s an interesting passage in Paul Hasluck’s memoirs where he’s talking, well in fact he’s reporting something that Frederick Shedden, the Secretary of Defence, had observed and he thought that initially the Cabinet panicked actually, particularly – this is immediately, not after Singapore, it’s immediately after the bombing of Darwin actually, a few days later. So there’s some, there’s certainly some panic I think initially, and one thing it’s always very important to keep in mind is the intersection of these two topics really that, when Singapore falls, it means a very large number of Australian families had a lot to worry about and it was very unclear initially what had happened. That is, they hope that large numbers had been able to escape and so there’s a lot of worry, a lot of panic for very good reasons.
JOAN BEAUMONT: And of course many of them didn’t hear much for the next three and a half years, either.
QUESTION: David Stevens from the Honest History Group. It’s a family footnote I suppose, but some Australians, of course, didn’t get to Changi, and some Australians didn’t get to the Burma Thailand Railway. After a thing called the Battle of [inaudible] which was in January 1942, just sort of northwest of Singapore, a couple of dozen Australians and British soldiers were trapped behind Japanese lines, and they wandered around in the jungle for about the next 15 months taking their own lives or dying of disease.
Being sort of warily looked at other local Malays, who were worried about what the Japanese would do, being looked after, to some extent by Chinese Communist guerrillas, one of them was my uncle. And the, sort of, funny thing about this was that in the battalion history, the second 29th Battalion, John Lacksbook [sp], this is referred to as guerrilla operations, and most of the time they’re unarmed because the Malays took the arms away from them. Anyway, my uncle died of beriberi in May 1943. So the Malayan campaigned, in the extent, goes on a long – to an extent goes on a long time after the fall of Singapore.
And the final element of the story; one soldier, a fellow called Jim Wright, who was a British soldier, was eventually rescued in 1945 by a submarine on the east coast of Malaysia, Malaya. And that was all told in a book in 1984. And the footnote to the footnote is my uncle Hec’s family didn’t find out about this story until 1994, when someone found the book by accident in a library in Perth. So there are little tiny stories in the middle of all the bigger stories of Changi, and the Burma Railway. And I apologise for taking up your time with our family’s tiny story.
JOAN BEAUMONT: I agree entirely, and, of course, this is what I’ve been talking for want of a better term is dominant narratives that really do obscure the complexities, I mean, how many people in Australia know that the death toll on Ambon was 80 per cent? 80. Eight zero. It’s the Thai Burma Railway we talk about that rather than Ambon.
QUESTION: Hi. My question is for Priscilla. I’ve had the privilege to see the exhibition. I think it’s fantastic. I’m particularly interested in the way you worked with various stakeholder groups. I wonder if you can just elaborate a little bit on the student archivists project for one thing, but also whether you anticipate that any of that material that you’ve generated in that exhibition will find its way into the permanent displays?
PRISCILLA CHUA: Thanks Janda. So the student archives project, I did manage to explain a bit more earlier, so it was really the result of the focused group sessions that we had with the students in Singapore. So we conducted two of these focus group sessions with tertiary students back last September. So we talked to them, we tried to understand what they would like to see in an exhibition on World War II. And we found out that, in fact, a lot of these young people, they are still very passionate about World War II history and one of the feedback that they got back to us was that they would like to, you know, participate in this exhibition making process or to contribute in some meaningful way.
And so we created this project and we did an open call out for students throughout Singapore. And we had a pretty positive response to that. We followed up by actually sending these students to some of the workshops that were conducted by our colleagues at the National Archives. So we got them to go through oral history lesson, so how would you interview a senior or a survivor, for example. We also got them to actually attend a workshop on transcriptions because obviously they wanted to take down notes and you know one of the criteria that we had for them was you have to give us your transcription of your work.
And so with that, equipped with these skills, they went out to interview the veterans and survivors and, like I said earlier, we had 47 submissions out of which six were on display at the exhibition. And in fact, the remaining ones we have sent them to our archives, to the repository where they will be kept for research or it’s going to be opened up on the archives for anyone who searches for that particular record. And in terms of the long term plan for the archives project, I think we recognise that it’s been a very successful project and we’re thinking of how we can actually apply this in future exhibitions. And with the current witness to our exhibition specifically, we have definitely plans to incorporate some of the content into our permanent galleries as part of our rotation. So I’m looking, we’re looking at sometime next year perhaps to rotate some of the exhibition content when it goes down in March 2018.
QUESTION: To the two professors; I’ve done a fair bit of research on Changi in particular, but on the whole campaign, it seems to me, in Changi, and I like your comment on it, that there was a top down approach from the senior Australian officers that clashed mightily with the bottom-up approach from the men; and the examples I talk about are the concert party, the Changi football league and the Changi University. Is that a fair assessment?
JOAN BEAUMONT:I haven’t looked in detail at those particular episodes, I’m sure Lachlan Grant could comment better on that for me but let me say that part of that sort of tension between the Australian soldier and the Australian officer is one of our most deeply embedded assumptions about relations within the Australian Infantry Imperial Force. I think it – Changi had a problem that the officers were physically removed from the men because it was so big and had been a barracks; added to that was the fact that the officers, the most senior officers were removed and sent to Formosa and Manchuria, so the men were actually only led by Lieutenant Colonel and ranks below that. My own work has been on what happened between officers and men in other camps. I think it is a testament to the dominance of many aspects of the Anzac legend and that the story of Ambon is scarcely known. There were terrible relationships between the men and the officers on Ambon and Hianan Island. On Hainan Island there, a commanding officer actually handed men over to the Japanese for punishment, which included electric shock punishment.
The men rebelled against him. His own officers wanted to deem him insane so they could take control of the situation in Hianan. Now that’s been – I wrote that in 1988 and it doesn’t get out. I have written a number of times on the fact that in the very remote areas of the Thai Burma Railway at F Force, which had the highest death rate of any of the groups on the Thai Burma Railway, no officer died of malnutrition or overwork. To my knowledge, no officer volunteered to rotate with the men, so they didn’t have to go out and do this crippling work. The difference between life and death, I believe, in the prisoner of war camp was not having to do manual work. And generally, there were exceptions, but generally Australian officers stuck by their right not to have to do manual work so there’s a whole story about office and relationships, which has been explored by historians but again it’s one of those interesting aspects of the way, collectively, Australians want to remember war, that those stories of very difficult relationships are eclipsed by other versions of the past.
FRANK BONGIORNO: I think another aspect that’s often neglected with Singapore, too, is that people have not paid enough attention to, I mean, it’s a year really beforehand almost, isn’t it, where they’re essentially garrisoned. It’s incredibly frustrating for many of these men when, you know, their comrades elsewhere in other theatres of war earning plaudits while they’re effectively stuck there in Malaya. And there’s articles appearing back home that sort of makes out as if they’re having a holiday. And that in itself is intentionally frustrating and I think I wonder if it’s a contributor to that sense of not really having been recognised afterwards. The garrison experience was clearly a very frustrating one for many of those who had been there for some months, beforehand. Not all of course had, I mean, there were more recent arrivals but many had, in fact, been there for some time.
SUZANNE BRAVERY: Lady in green will be the last person in the audience asking a question and then we’ll have lunch.
QUESTION: Hello. I’m Maggie Brennan and my father was a prisoner of war at the fall of Singapore, not long after. He was a doctor and with 16 other Australians was taken through Korea up to Manchuria, to Moncton and has a long story; but two years ago my sister and I, and our husbands went to Shenyang, we were invited there to the museum that’s been put on the site of the actual prison. And I had undertaken to transcribe my father’s diary, which was three years of being a prisoner of war in Manchuria and I handed over a copy to the director of the museum and we were taken through the museum, which was about three years old. And it’s the most fantastic building right on the side of the prison and I was wondering if anybody in Australia, or if anyone knew about it or had been as well?
JOAN BEAUMONT: I certainly knew about the experience of captivity there, I didn’t know the museum had been created, no, so that’s very interesting. Thank you.
QUESTION: It’s very big. It’s worth a trip.
JOAN BEAUMONT: Amazing, yes. Well as we’ve discussed there are many dimensions to this experience and other war stories, which tend not be heard widely or if they’re heard sometimes people simply deny that they have a value comparable to the other more dominant stories.
SUZANNE BRAVERY: I have a question to Priscilla. There’s a lot of community stakeholder and a lot of anticipated interaction with that exhibition. It’s now been on a month. What has the response of visitors been?
PRISCILLA CHUA: I think most majority, it’s been very positive judging from the comments that visitors have written on the orange cards and have shared it on the wall in the museum. I mean every week, or every two days, I get stacks of these cards given to me. And I think some of the messages, if I remember, would be things like, you know, ‘We should treasure peace’ and ‘We shouldn’t take anything for granted’, and messages like, you know, people are generally very appreciative and very grateful for what the former – I mean the older generation has actually gone through during that time.
Of course there is still some people out there whose expectations that we didn’t manage to fulfil with this exhibition. In fact, I think we all understand that it’s – we can’t possibly please everybody with an exhibition so there are some comments from people who were expecting, you know, expecting more aggression from a war exhibition, sort of expecting to see more action in that sense; whereas with this exhibition it’s – we portray that using personal stories so it’s a lot of subtle messaging from this exhibition. We did not put them out in your face as it were. So there were some people who were expecting that sort of narrative but it didn’t come out through this exhibition, but of course, we explained to them that we have to look at it holistically because, like I mentioned, we have other permanent galleries that look at the other aspects of war.
SUZANNE BRAVERY: Okay, thank you. Please join with me in thanking again Joan, Priscilla and Frank.
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Date published: 01 January 2018