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This year marks 75 years since the British commander of the huge military base in Singapore surrendered to Japanese forces, on 15 February 1942. More than 130,000 Allied troops including 15,000 Australians were taken prisoner and in London, Winston Churchill announced that the fall of Singapore was the ‘worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.’

The anniversary is an opportunity to examine the legacy of the fall of Singapore at a symposium at the National Museum on 30 October 2017, with speakers including Professor Joan Beaumont.

Fall of Singapore session one: Museums and memory

Joan Beaumont on ‘From ‘inexecusable betrayal’ to Changi; Australian memories of the fall of Singapore, Frank Bongiorno on ‘An Australia of the spirit: The fall of Singapore and Australian nationalism’, Priscilla Chua on ‘Remembering the fall of Singapore at the National Museum of Singapore: The museum as mediator’ and Mat Trinca on ‘The partnership between the National Museum of Singapore and the National Museum of Australia’.
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Presenters: Joan Beaumont, Frank Bongiorno, Priscilla Chua and Mathew Trinca

Fall of Singapore session two: Personal stories

Janda Gooding on ‘Broken families: British evacuees to Australia 1941–42’ and Garth Connell on ‘The blue birds are calling me back home: Aboriginal Australian prisoners of war in Singapore’.
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Presenters: Janda Gooding and Garth O'Connell

Fall of Singapore session three: An enduring legacy

Australian War Memorial curator Anthea Gunn and visual artist Angela Tiatia on ‘After the fall: commissioning and creating contemporary art in response to historic events’.
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Presenters: Anthea Gunn and Angela Tiatia

The fall of Singapore is a Defining Moment in Australian History, a key event of profound significance to the Australian people. The symposium reflects on themes of history, heritage and memory and consider the enduring legacy of the fall on individuals and on Australian foreign policy.

Singapore Strategy

Since the start of the construction on the new British naval base in 1923, Australia had been a wholehearted supporter of the ‘Singapore Strategy’ through finances and military personnel.

The strategy, which had called for a rapid deployment of extra British naval power from Europe to Singapore in the event of a Japanese invasion, was a complete failure. Australia lost almost a quarter of its overseas troops and more than 7000 Australians died as prisoners of war.

Australian troops getting off a ship.
Australian troops disembarking at Singapore, 15 August 1941. Australian War Memorial 009249/19

Foreign policy shift

The fall of Singapore was the final straw that brought about a paradigm shift in Australian foreign policy. Britain’s lack of commitment to Australia had been exposed and Prime Minister John Curtin announced in his 1942 new year’s address:

Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom …

Museum collaboration

The National Museum of Australia has an ongoing collaboration with Singapore’s National Heritage Board. The National Museum’s Director, Mat Trinca, recently attended the opening of the National Museum of Singapore’s Witness to War: Remembering 1942 exhibition.

Mat and National Museum of Singapore curator Priscilla Chua are among the speakers at the symposium in Canberra.

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