Fort Siloso: Remembering Singapore's Wartime Past
Singapore’s fall to the Japanese on 15 February 1942 was the largest surrender in Britain’s long colonial history, with enormous repercussions for its far-flung empire.
The story is well-known. Expecting an attack from the sea, the British were ill-prepared when Japanese forces invaded by land from the north, having made their way down the Malay peninsula.
Most of the big British guns pointed south and were designed for use against a naval attack, with their armour-piercing shells. They were turned to the north as the Japanese approached but were largely ineffective against infantry targets. Only a week after invading, the Japanese forced the British to surrender.
Some of these guns were at Fort Siloso, a coastal fort on an island known today as Sentosa, just to the south of Singapore’s main island. At the start of the war it was one of 12 such forts in Singapore, four of them on Sentosa. It’s the only one still surviving today.
Under the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945, Fort Siloso became a small prisoner-of-war camp. After the war, the Royal Navy occupied it until it was eventually handed over to the Singapore Armed Forces.
Today the fort, set amid attractive tropical greenery, is a military museum. It’s open to the public and is well worth a visit for anyone interested in the tumultuous history of the war in Singapore.
Visitors can go to Sentosa by cable car - a little expensive at 29.50 Singapore dollars (about US$22) for a round trip - or by driving across a short causeway. You can travel from central Singapore to Fort Siloso by public transport but the easiest way is to take a taxi or Grab car.
If you arrive on the island by car or taxi, you’ll have to pay an entry fee of 6 Singapore dollars (about US$4.40) but entry to the fort itself is free.
The best place to start is the Fort Siloso Skywalk. Opened in 2015, the treetop walkway runs 180 metres to the fort and is an attraction in its own right. You reach it via a tower, either by climbing the stairs or by elevator.
The walkway affords excellent views of Sentosa, part of the Singapore Strait, and mainland Singapore across the water, as well as the greenery all around you.
If my experience is anything to go by, older travellers will find themselves in good company here. I shared the walkway with at least two groups of friendly, chatty senior Singaporeans.
The grounds of the fort cover about four hectares (ten acres), with walking trails leading through forested, hilly areas to all the main sites.
It’s a good idea to check the weather forecast before you leave for Sentosa and take an umbrella if necessary, as you’ll be spending much of your time in the open.
Pack snacks and a drink too, as you’ll probably want to spend a couple of hours at the fort. Although there’s at least one water drinking fountain and a drinks vending machine at the fort, I didn’t see any food outlets.
And don’t rush. Walking in Singapore’s tropical heat is exhausting, and it’s a good idea to take a rest from time to time.
The two main walking routes are the Heritage Trail and the Gun Trail. It doesn’t really matter which one you choose first because they cross each other’s paths here and there, and sometimes follow the same path.
Using the map boards standing at various points, you can mix and match the trails and ensure you see all the important sights.
These include big guns, munitions tunnels and an intriguing recreation of the two surrenders, the British in 1942 and the Japanese in 1945.
The fort’s buildings, several of them underground, house displays showing what life was like for Singaporeans during World War II, and the lives the soldiers led.
Of the many quotes on the walls, two stand out. One is by Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister. Writing on 13 January 1941, a year before the Japanese invasion, he says: “The political situation in the Far East does not seem to require…the maintenance of large forces in the Far East at this time.”
Reinforcements from India and Australia did arrive in Singapore in the following months but to little avail. A total of 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops became prisoners of war after Singapore fell.
The other, by Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s Prime Minister, in 1961, describes how the fall of Singapore lit the spark of nationalism and hastened the end of the British empire.
“My colleagues and I are of that generation of young men who went through the Second World War and the Japanese Occupation and emerged determined that no one – neither Japanese nor British – had the right to push and kick us around. We determined that we could govern ourselves and bring up our children in a country where we can be proud to be self-respecting people.”
By 1947, India and Pakistan had won their independence. Malaya and Singapore followed in 1957, forming the Federation of Malaya, later to become Malaysia. Singapore broke from Malaysia in August 1965, becoming an independent nation in its own right.
The guns on display are mostly British but a few are Japanese. Many have been brought to the fort from other parts of Singapore. One or two are replicas of big guns the British destroyed just before the surrender to prevent them falling into Japanese hands.
The Surrender Chambers are a highlight of a visit to the fort. They feature wax figures depicting the two surrenders: the British capitulation in 1942 and the Japanese surrender of Singapore to the Allies on 12 September 1945, 10 days after Emperor Hirohito had formally surrendered.
The display opened in 1985 elsewhere in Singapore but was moved to Fort Siloso in 2004 and enhanced in 2017 with new audio-visual features.
The fort is open every day from 10am to 6pm and the skywalk from 9am to 7pm.
If a visit whets your appetite, another poignant reminder of World War II can be found at the Kranji War Cemetery in northern Singapore.
Beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the cemetery includes the graves of more than 4,400 Commonwealth victims of the war.
Elsewhere in Singapore, several monuments erected by the government are designed to ensure the hardships of the Japanese occupation are not forgotten. Some stand at the sites of massacres of civilians by the Japanese.
A more unusual reminder of the war is a set of brick steps that lead to the Plant House in the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
The Japanese authorities forced Allied prisoners of war to make the bricks and the steps. As a sign of defiance, the soldiers engraved arrows on many of the bricks to indicate they were working as prisoners. The arrows are still clearly visible today.
Header image: © Alan Williams