We regularly cover Singapore history and current news at Expat Living, bringing you interesting facts, tips and trivia about the island. Here’s out latest instalment, covering everything from the Second World War to natural science, Guiness World Records and more. Check back regularly for new stories!
Singapore commemorates Anzac Day (25 April) each year with an annual service at Kranji War Memorial in remembrance of Australians and New Zealanders who served their countries. (See cwgc.org for more info.) Here, we take a look at a key event featuring Australian soldiers in Singapore’s Second World War history.
In December 2020, a Japanese flag made by Australian and British troops in 1943 sold at auction, together with some WWII medals, for around S$70,000. The flag had been used to help conceal a boat, the MV Krait (pictured), during an Allied mission in Singapore titled Operation Jaywick.
That mission saw a 14-man crew disguise themselves as Malay fisherman and sail the Krait – named after a type of snake – all the way from Western Australia and into Japanese-occupied Singapore Harbour in September 1943.
On the night of 26 September, six soldiers in three canoes paddled into the harbour and placed explosives on the hulls of a group of Japanese ships. The men escaped safely. When the explosives were detonated, at least three of the ships were destroyed, with three more damaged in some way.
The raid was considered a success by Allied forces – not only from a strategic viewpoint, as it further stretched the already thin Japanese resources, but also from a morale standpoint. However, there would be unfortunate ramifications for those on the ground in Singapore. Since the operation took the Japanese by surprise, they believed it had been carried out by the civilian population. In what became known as the Double Tenth Incident, more than 50 people were arrested and tortured. Though, of course, they also had no idea how the ships came to be destroyed.
Among this group was Elizabeth Choy (1910-2006). Together with her husband, she had been risking her life smuggling messages and food to prisoners-of-war at Changi. She somehow survived the Double Tenth ordeal, going on to become an educator and politician, and known as one of Singapore’s war heroines (swhf.sg/profiles/elizabeth-choy).
New Chapter At Changi
Exciting news for history buffs: after closing in 2018 for a major redevelopment, Changi Chapel and Museum (CCM) reopened last month, on 19 May. There’s a whole bunch of interesting new stu to see, including fascinating artefacts donated and loaned from families of internees at the infamous Changi prison camp.
The 114 artefacts are showcased across eight galleries highlighting the daily lives of internees, and how they responded to the hardships they faced. Over 80 of these items have never been displayed before – here’s a glimpse at just four!
#1 Toothbrush Fashioned From Scratch
These toothbrushes were made between 1942 and 1945 in a broommaking workshop at Changi. POWs used their skill and innovation to produce 30,000 items during the workshop’s operation. Coconut fibres were used as bristles, and attached to a bamboo handle by bitumen from roadways.
#2 A 400-page Diary
Arthur Westrop was a civilian internee at Changi who risked retribution by keeping a diary, with entries styled as letters to his wife (in Rhodesia at the time). He took care to hide the diary under the floorboards of his cell, and it was never found by the Japanese.
#3 Christmas Dinner Menu
When Private Albert Riley of the Royal Army Medical Corps was interned at Changi, he had in his possession a Christmas menu he’d enjoyed aboard the US troopship that brought him to Singapore in 1941. The menu features roast turkey, giblet gravy, cranberry sauce, plum pudding and other goodies, and includes the following poem: “We’re way out here upon the sea And not where we should like to be / But don’t complain on Christmas Day / Just smile and to each other say / ‘Merry Xmas’ – that’s the way / To be real happy all the day”.
#4 An Old-school Camera
Like Arthur Westrop’s diary, this metal Kodak Brownie Camera was painstakingly hidden from Japanese troops by internees for the duration of their time at Changi. It belonged to Sergeant John Ritchie Johnston, and was given to him by his wife.
Other highlights include a section of the Changi Wall, a Morse code device hidden in a matchbox that was used by internees to transmit messages, and replicas of biblical murals that were painted for spiritual comfort.
In addition to artefacts, you’ll find new multimedia offerings in the revamped CCM, which help to convey stories of the time. These include a projection show of the key events of the three-and-a-half year Japanese Occupation; you can also step inside a recreated Changi cell to get a sense of the cramped living confines, while listening to historical recordings of internees’ conversations.
Did you know?
The logo of the Changi Chapel and Museum incorporates the site’s acronym (“CCM”) in a way that shows the silhouette of the chapel’s architectural shape, while also representing prison bars. It’s a clever nod to the site’s history and significance.
Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 9.30am to 5.30pm. For info and tickets, visit changichapelmuseum.gov.sg or CCM’s Facebook and Instagram pages.
One of Singapore’s earliest hotels
Today, there are over 400 hotels in Singapore, including dozens of big-name international brands. Back in the 19th century, however, only a handful of lodgings existed. The best known were Raffles (of course!), the Adelphi Hotel, Hotel de la Paix and the one we’re looking at here, Hotel de l’Europe.
Originally built on Hill Street in 1857 by a French entrepreneur, the premises shifted to its final location – the spot now occupied by the Old Supreme Court Building (the current National Gallery) – in 1865. In the early 1900s, it was rebranded as the Grand Hotel de l’Europe. By this time, it had over 100 luxury rooms, with all the “mod cons”, including electric lights and fans. There was even a roof garden.
In the 1930s, the hotel was demolished, and replaced by the courthouse of the Supreme Court, which opened in 1939.
About the photo
The image dates to around 1900, with the Hotel de l’Europe front and centre. The Padang is in the foreground, with Fort Canning Hill in the distance. Out of shot are St Andrews Cathedral, to the right, and the Cricket Club, in the left foreground.
A review of Hotel de l’Europe
Here’s what American author and travel writer Frank Vincent had to say about the hotel in his 1882 book, The Land of the White Elephant.
“This hotel we find to be very large and comfortable, situated in the midst of beautiful gardens, facing ‘the green’ and commanding a fine view of the straits, the large island of Bintang [sic] in the distance, and the Chinese junks and foreign shipping in the harbour. Attached to the establishment, which is kept by a German, is that ‘peculiar institution’, an American barroom, where California mixed drinks are served. There is also a ‘regular down east’ Boston Arctic soda-water fountain; a billiard-room; and a reading-room, where one will find papers and journals in four or five languages, from New York, London, Bombay, Calcutta, Batavia, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Yokohama and San Francisco.”
Sikhs in Singapore
According to the census of 2010, Singapore has more than 12,000 Sikhs. If you’re keen to find out about this community, “Sikhs in Singapore – A Story Untold” is an exhibition running until 30 September at the Indian Heritage Centre. About Sikhism
- Sikhism or Sikhi, is the fifth largest organised religion, and one of the youngest major religions in the world; it originated in the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent in the 15th century.
- There are thought to be around 25 to 30 million Sikhs in the world.
- The word Sikh is perhaps derived from the Pali word “sikkha” or the Sanskrit word “shishya”, meaning disciple.
- Sikhs consider themselves disciples of the ten Gurus, or spiritual guides of the faith
Most of the first Sikhs who came to Singapore were employed in police and security work. In 1879, a Sikh Contingent was formed within the Straits Settlements Police. Recruitment was strictly controlled: only Khalsa Sikhs from the Punjab region could be considered; they had to be under 25, with a minimum height of 1.68 metres and minimum chest measurement of 84cm.
By the first few decades of the 20th century, the Sikh community had grown beyond just their martial role. Successful Sikh businesspeople were trading textiles, food, electronics, sports goods and more.
Did you know? Sport is an integral part of Sikh culture, and tournaments set up for hockey, cricket and football in the 1940s still continue to this day. For example, the Gurdwara Cup is an inter-state league of multisport teams from Malaysia and Singapore – this year’s edition is the 69th.
Everyone enjoys a proverb. (This writer’s young children love this one: “Never play leapfrog with a unicorn.”) Proverbs are a feature of every literary culture, including Malay; but did you know that the cat (kucing) is used very commonly in Malay proverbs? Sure, you’ll find them in English, too – from “curiosity killed the cat“ to “raining cats and dogs”, and “when the cat’s away, the mice play” – but in Malay the cat is used metaphorically to convey a very wide range of human behaviour.
The Malay Heritage Centre (85 Sultan Gate; malayheritage.gov.sg) is currently running an event called “Paw-verbs on the Lawn”, which features a bunch of these proverbs accompanied by cute cat illustrations by renowned Japanese artist Juno.
Here are half a dozen of the featured proverbs, alongside their English meanings.
#1 Bagai kucing lepas senja “Like a cat after dusk” Meaning: A description of someone who is difficult or hard to find.
#2 Ikan gantung, kucing tunggu “Like dangling fish before a cat” Meaning: A state of annoyance caused by the inability to get what you want.
#3 Duduk seperti kucing, melompat seperti harimau “Crouches like a cat and leaps like a tiger” Meaning: A quiet person who is agile and quick-thinking.
#4 Anak kucing menjadi harimau “The kitten has become a tiger” Meaning: Someone who gains power and status, which elevates his or her standing in society.
#5 Bagai mengail kucing hanyut “Fishing for a drowning cat” Meaning: A wasted act or deed.
#6 Kucing bertanduk “A cat with horns” Meaning: A piece of advice to not expect the impossible
10 Things About Jubi
You’d be forgiven for thinking the skeleton in the picture below is a dinosaur. In fact, it’s a whale – and not just any old whale!
- The photo shows the skeleton of a female sperm whale on display at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.
- The creature was a 10.6m female sperm whale that washed up off the coast of Jurong Island in 2015.
- It was given a nickname by researchers and scientists: first name “Jubi”, second name “Lee”. Why? To commemorate Singapore’s Jubilee being held that year!
- Studies suggest the whale died off the west coast of Malaysia, perhaps as a result of a collision with a ship. (It had spinal injuries and a large cut.) The body then floated to Singapore.
- Sperm whales have one of the widest global distributions of any marine mammal species; however, this is the first sperm whale found in Singapore waters.
- DNA analysis initially linked the whale’s “mitochondrial genetic signature” to sperm whales in the North Pacific Ocean. But later research connected her with a pod from the Southern Indian Ocean, perhaps near the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.
- Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales; they don’t have a baleen filtering system for eating krill. Examination of Jubi’s stomach showed that her diet consisted mostly of squid – a lot of squid. In fact, she had 1,800 undigested squid beaks in her gut! Researchers also found fish, a lobster and other marine life.
- Unfortunately, Jubi hadn’t only been eating all the tasty stuff. Her belly also contained a number of plastic objects, including drinking cups, food wrappers and bags.
- This is not the first time a whale has been displayed in Singapore. The skeleton of a 13m Indian fin whale was an exhibit in the old National Museum from 1907 to 1974, before it was presented as a gift to Malaysia. It had originally been found on a beach in Malacca, and is now displayed in the Labuan Marine Museum off the coast of Sabah.
- Sperm whales are listed as vulnerable to extinction by conservation authorities; they’re protected by a whaling moratorium.
See Jubi up close and personal at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, National University of Singapore. 2 Conservatory Drive. lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg
4 Singapore World Records
We have our fair share of world beaters in Singapore. Here’s a handful just to begin with!
#1 Fluoro Flowers
Anyone who’s strolled in the Botanic Gardens knows that Singapore does a great orchid. The national flower is a type of orchid. And the country leads the world in creating new hybrids of orchids. But have you ever seen one that glows? Back in 1999, Professor Chia Tet Fatt from the National Science Academic Group produced the first ever successful bioluminescent flowers – orchids, of course – and set a Guinness World Record in the process.
The professor used a white-petalled strain of orchid known as the “Dendrobium White Fairy #5” and transferred biologically active DNA containing a gene from the firefly into the orchid’s tissues. He then propagated them, and was eventually able to grow stable orchids that retained the firefly gene. The flowers emitted a greenish-white glow from petals, roots, stem and leaves that lasted up to five hours at a time.
#2 Yoga Guru
A more recent record was achieved in Singapore by Jeyaseelan Venkadasamy of India. On 4 December 2020, he set a new Guinness World Record for the “longest time to hold the tree pose”. His time of 1 hour, 12 minutes and 59 seconds eclipsed the old record by around six minutes. Known as Vrikshasana and named after the Sanskrit word for “tree”, this balancing yoga pose is centuries old. It involves placing one foot on the inside of the opposite thigh, while leaving the other foot on the ground.
#3 Longest Satay
The world record for the longest satay stands at just over 140 metres. (That’s nearly the length of one and a half football pitches!) The Kopitiam Group of Companies (Singapore) set the record at famous food centre Lau Pa Sat on 21 July 2007. Around 150kg of chicken was marinated with cumin, coriander, fennel, ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, onion, sugar and salt, and then grilled over charcoal by 150 staff.
#4 Largest Game of Pass the Parcel
A record-breaking 3,918 students gathered at Nanyang Technological University on 28 February 1998, where they played a 2.5-hour game of Pass the Parcel, removing 2,200 wrappers from an enormous parcel (1.5m x 1.5m x 0.5m). Though they still hold the record for the most participants, the record for the largest parcel used in Pass the Parcel was set in the UK in 2014. It was the size of a car!
Technology in Singapore
New source of solar
A trial started in late March 2021 to see if solar panels can be used on the top of Singapore buses to effectively aid in reducing the greenhouse gas emissions and fuel consumption of the vehicles. Local public transport provider Go-Ahead Singapore is trialling two solar panel buses until 30 September this year; it will then determine if a wider rollout is warranted. The route being used for the trial is Bus 15, through Pasir Ris, Tampines and Marine Parade.
Beating the BIG Mac
McDonald’s arrived in Singapore in 1979, with the first outlet opening at Liat Towers on Orchard Road. Despite popular belief, however, it wasn’t the first American fast-food chain to open here. That gong goes to A&W Restaurants, named for its popular root beer.
Having launched in the US in 1923, the first A&W burgers rolled off the grill in Singapore in 1968, in the SIA Building on Robinson Road (now known as Robinson 77). American couple Al and Geri Lieboff, who had come to Southeast Asia on honeymoon, were responsible for setting up the business.
The franchise disappeared from the Little Red Dot in 2003 because of stiff competition, but it returned in 2019, with the opening of a flagship outlet at Jewel Changi Airport. There are now a handful of new A&Ws here.
This article first appeared in Expat Living. Purchase the latest issue or subscribe so you never miss a copy!
For more interesting facts and trivia about Singapore, see our Things To Do section.