In Mr Ishwar Lall Singh’s Yishun home, the fragments of his military past have lost their shine. A faded peak cap sits on a worn coffee table, sharing the space with long service medals, epaulettes and an old sword caked in rust. But while parts of his uniform have faded, the 87-year-old’s memories of Singapore’s fall to the Japanese remain fresh.
(Photo: Kenneth Lim)
“I was a young 12-, 13-year-old boy,” Mr Ishwar said. “There was a lot of shelling and bombing, a lot of destruction of property, a lot of people being killed – I saw some dead people, with worms crawling in them. I saw that myself.”
Mr Ishwar is a survivor of World War II and part of a group of 61 former veterans and national servicemen who share their experiences regularly with students and active servicemen, as part of a Ministry of Defence programme. Since the programme began in early 2015, the group has reached more than 12,000 individuals, including students from more than 80 schools as well as more than 8,000 people in the Singapore Armed Forces.
“We had to queue up for a few rations of corn bread (which was) difficult to eat, rice and some vegetables,” said Mr Ishwar. “This was given on a whim and fancy – it was not a regular thing. Sometimes we queued up and waited for the ration truck to come, and it never came.”
But for him, the Japanese Occupation was about more than going without food.
“We lost our independence; we were not able to do what we wanted when we wanted. We lost that,” Mr Ishwar said. “The Japanese restricted us from doing quite a lot of things. For example, if you wanted to go to a cinema, there was a fear that if you went to a cinema, you may not come back.”
According to Mr Ishwar, Japanese soldiers would pack cinema audiences into trucks at the end of the shows, driving them to Bahar in Johor.
Mr Ishwar showing old photos from his collection. (Photo: Kenneth Lim)
“We were under British rule, who were not actually looking after us at that time,” he said. “The Japanese were able to force themselves into Singapore because we were not willing fighters. We did not have Singaporeans who were fighting to defend their own country.”
But Mr Ishwar was not one of them. He joined the Indian National Army in 1943. Years later, after working as a trishaw rider, storeman and laundry clerk, he joined the Singapore Volunteer Corps, known today as the People’s Defence Force.
“We kept growing,” he said of the Singapore Armed Forces’ predecessor. “We kept getting better, we started to build camps, we had our National Day Parades, which were very obvious to show that the people were united. We realised the importance of being a free people.”
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Singapore’s fall. And today, the father of three and grandfather of seven said his fight is against complacency, or making sure Singaporeans do not forget “the price of freedom”.
“I am afraid that people in Singapore are not yet aware of this – partly I blame the Government,” he said wryly. “Because we have been at peace for 50 years – that’s the Government’s efficiency, the Government’s effectiveness, but this has made people (assume) that nothing is going to happen.”
“WE WILL HAVE TO UNITE”
While Mr Ishwar regularly shares his story as part of the engagement programme, this is only the beginning for the retired major.
“My hope for Singapore is that it will grow, (that) it will grow peacefully, it will be allowed to grow,” he said. “We will not be bullied, we will not accept bullying – we will have to unite.”
He said one way to do so is to ensure racial harmony truly exists in Singapore.
“The word ‘Singaporean’ must be understood by everybody,” he said, citing weddings or festivals as one way people of different races could get to know each other better.
“We should look at each other as that – not as Chinese, Malay or Indian. This is something we need to understand, to raise our children to think along those lines. If we can begin to understand these things, we will begin to respect each other’s religion. We will begin to respect each other’s race; we will begin to respect each other’s doings.”
“We must always remember that a little spark in the wrong time at the wrong place can cause a lot of problems for Singaporeans,” he added. “And we don’t want that peaceful time that we’ve had for 50 years to be shattered.”