Singapore is both a big city and a country, it is unique! I was always going to experience the land where east meets west but it came earlier in my schedule than planned as I got stuck in Indonesia, where all roads seem to lead to Bali. I hadn’t had the pleasure of running water for a week and was unable to do laundry for 3 weeks so I decided I needed out for a few days. I found myself in Singapore for a long weekend break.
The rumours are true, this is one of the cleanest places you’re ever likely to visit and the laws are tough so after the hustle and bustle of Asia I felt completely safe. It’s a thriving metropolis of skyscrapers and big companies and one criticism a local guy had was that the Government run it like a business. Tis all true but for me Singapore had the additional pull of its history. I’m no history buff, in fact I wasn’t even allowed to sit in most of my history lessons (too distracting apparently). I have to ask my knowledgable brothers even the most basic details but I was very aware that my great grandparents had spent 3 and a half long years banged up as prisoners of war in Singapore’s Changi Jail.
My great grandfather, Arthur Harold Dickinson was Chief of Police in Singapore when World War II broke and the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1942. Him and his wife, Constance Ethel Dickinson (also known as Bunny) were quickly captured and were catapulted from their lives of luxury to the dire conditions of a war time jail. Throughout my childhood, I’d heard stories of how they ate snails and cockroaches for sustenance throughout those tough years and when the war was over and they were released (yes, they were a few of the lucky ones to be released – hundreds lost their lives) they were mere skeletons. So visiting Changi Chapel and Museum was important to me. The prison is still in use so visiting it was not an option, although I did stand outside and felt completely humbled by the high concrete walls and barbed wire meshes.
I learnt a lot about what went on in Singapore and listened to first hand accounts from survivors. I’m not ashamed to say, I spent most of the afternoon in tears. It’s really hard to know what your own flesh and blood went through and only reinforces the reality of war and how I don’t believe it can ever be okay. Thousands of Malaysians, Chinese and local Singaporeans lost their lives when the Japanese promised them an escape to a better life – they were actually heading off to build the Burma railway, where many never returned from. Local woman became ‘Comfort woman’ and were there to provide ‘entertainment’ to the officers, enduring countless rapes night after night.
The prisoners were unbelievably resilient and if accounts are correct all looked out for each other, often taking beatings for their fellow men and women. Impromtu sing-alongs were held to keep morale up and there was a prison radio system run out of a device in a matchbox. This is how news spread around the jail, as all whisperings the prisoners heard were reported to the prisoner with the device. He had a wire transmitter woven into a mosquito net and news was passed round in this way. The women sewed their own designs onto patches of torn sheets to make quilts and the British and Australian quilts still remain. I know my great-grandmother sewed an image of her dream cottage onto a pair of silk knickers whilst she was in jail. Her knickers once hung in a Dorset museum and I’m proud to say they bought that dream cottage after the war years.
Once the war had ended locals were able to find a silver-lining amongst the tragedies. Many believe that independence would have been a long time coming without the war, but they still welcomed the British as inhabitants.
History lesson aside, spending the afternoon wandering around the colonial district was interesting and there’s still a big statue of ‘Raffles’ the Brit who discovered the small village of Singapore and turned it into the trading hub it is today.
Yes the majority of buildings are tall and locals claim there’s not enough space but the streets are wide and I never felt even remotely claustrophobic. In fact, it feels more spacious than any city I’ve ever been to. The Government have sacrificed space for 3 big botanical gardens and everything is run meticulously.
I visited Sentosa Island, a beachy part of Singapore, where you’ll find the American-esque attractions and a beach with an odd artificial feel to it. It wasn’t my thing and like much of Singapore felt quite soulless.
Shopping in western shops at high prices seems to be the main pastime, that and working. But I lapped up the cleanliness, space and a little bit of western for the weekend before heading back to ‘real Asia’. The transport, (MTR and buses) work like clockwork, all cultures and religions live in harmony and the skyline at night is breathtakingly spectacular.