Changi war remembrance asks how we keep peace today

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We chug along a freshly surfaced freeway; metres of sharp barbed wire fences crowd the roadside. The sun today feels like it's cutting through my skin and it's terribly hot — like someone is boiling water and I can't find a window to open.

Two Malarias and a Cholera by Ray ParkinLuckily for me, this air-conditioned bus offers a temporary sanctuary from the tropical temperatures outside. It's hard to believe these are the same temperatures experienced by inmates over 70 years ago on this site.

Changi prison today is only used for its original purpose; a home to those who have been charged for breaking the Singaporean law.

This is a country which still practices capital punishment and where caning is still court ordered for over 30 offences. Peace and order, like in any country, is an ongoing process by citizens and government. Changi memorial today reminds visitors that peace time is not a gift, but something we must be aware of if we want to avoid wars.

It's been 75 years since the Japanese invasion of Singapore and the opening of the Changi internment camp on these grounds now shared by the modern prison. Singapore today is a wealthy, clean and ordered city with steady growth and low crime rates. It's hard to believe less than a century ago it was still a colony of Great Britain, a past shared by many developing countries today.

Changi was named after a tree of the same name which means 'The Time Tree'. Legend has it that the tree, which was 76 metres tall, was put onto maps from 1888 and became a prominent landmark because of its height. During WWII the tree was cut down to stop the Japanese from being able to use it as a vantage point, but the tree falling may have been an omen to the falling of Singapore itself.

Folklore aside, the connection between Changi and time rings true to the lasting memory of the community which was formed between its walls during the three and a half years of occupation. The museum stands in memory to the thousands who suffered here and the lives they built while interned. It is their will to live, not their suffering, which is recreated through the countless wartime artworks and outdoor chapel which resembles the original one inmates worshiped in.

In the entrance, the artwork of Australian Ray Parkin is printed onto a white wall in dark black ink. In Two Malarias and a Cholera (pictured) Parkin depicts two POWs suffering malaria helping a sicker man with Cholera as they constructed a railway. It stands as a reminder of there being no good in war and at the same time, good things happening despite the evil in war.

 

"It was a place where, despite the time in history, differences had to be put aside for a common goal — to stay alive and in good spirit."

 

Of the inmates processed through Changi, over 62,000 were sent to work on the Thai-Burmese railway. Many suffered hunger, physical abuse and tropical diseases. Parkin's own war experiences are mirrored in his artworks now scattered around the memorial in Singapore. They don't leave an impression of hatred towards the Japanese despite the pain of the men in the images. Instead there's a tone of personal spirit being more important than harbouring the same hatred towards enemies.

The experiences in Changi were not just Australian, but also Indian, Dutch, American, English, New Zealander and Singaporean. While the imprisonment of armed forces was unjust and painful, over 3000 civilian men shared the same fate including 400 women and 66 children. It was a place where, despite the time in history, differences had to be put aside for a common goal — to stay alive and in good spirit.

'It is very important that we do not take peace for granted — that we do not assume that there will always be harmony; that there will be no more war; that there's no need to defend ourselves.' These words mark a wreath adorned with delicate white flowers. They were spoken by George Yeo, the Singaporean Minister for Trade and Industry 2001.

It is not often that we consider peace as something we must constantly work for. Often it is portrayed as something which can be achieved by generations gone by and then passed down to us. Changi reminds us 75 years on, we shouldn't become complacent in our memory of war because it might cause us to lose sight of how we keep peace today.

 


Francine CrimminsFrancine Crimmins is studying a double degree of Journalism and Creative Intelligence & Innovation at the University of Technology Sydney. She is on twitter as @frankiecrimmins. Francine is the recipient of Eureka Street's Margaret Dooley Fellowship for Young Writers.

Topic tags: Francine Crimmins, Singapore, Changie, World War II

 

 

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Existing comments

Beautifully written Francine. It's a stark reminder that in the same week we celebrate ANZAC Day, we also receive a threat from a neighbouring nation that they would inflict thermonuclear destruction on our nation. Yes, as you conclude, we must stay vigilant and continue to not take our existence for granted. We owe it to our inhabitants and also to the world. China has brought a vicious dog into the neighbourhood, they have fed it and trained it and given it fighting weapons. It is highly strategic, it means that everyone in the neighbourhood focuses on the bad dog and not on China's actions. The USA is right to tie the actions of North Korea to China and the governments of Japan, Australia agree.
Patrick | 01 May 2017


Francine, I have visited the Changi Museum in Singapore while on a stop over, travelling to other parts of the world. The heat and humidity is overpowering! My visit was and remains a powerful reminder of the risk of becoming complacent about the peace and prosperity we now enjoy. The Museum displays made a very powerful impression on my family and I. I have since read two very powerful books, purchased in Changi Airport, about the trials and tribulations suffered by the people of Singapore and the former British Colonies in SE Asia during the Japanese occupation . They should be an essential read for all concerned Australians.
Gavin | 01 May 2017


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