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Singapore and its colonial past

My story on Singapore in today's Sunday Herald

The other Orient

Colonial Singapore
With Singapore celebrating its National Day recently, Savitha Karthik tries tounderstand the city-state's colonial heritage...
With Singapore celebrating its National Day recently, Savitha Karthik tries tounderstand the city-state’s colonial heritage, goes on a World War II trail and comes back feeling enriched...
The Universal Studios, Sentosa’s water wonders, the Marina Bay Sands, the Merlion, the Jurong Bird Park, Gardens by the Bay, add or subtract a few more and a trip to Singapore is quite over. Oh, and yes, I forgot the Changi Airport! But, if you are the type who wants to get a better sense of a city, understand its people, culture and heritage, you will walk. Stop. And stare. Like we gazed at the wonderful colonial structures and read aloud street names. The names unravel a story... Fullerton Road, Havelock Road, Albert Street, Church Street, Victoria Road, Stamford Road... the story of Singapore’s British past. Much like India, you can’t miss the stamp of the British Raj. 

In fact, the story of modern-day Singapore does indeed begin with the vision of one man from England — Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. The man who was also the founder of the London Zoo worked for the British India Company and had a deep association with Malaya, Java and Sumatra. En route to ‘Singapura’, on December 12, 1818, he writes to scholar William Marsden, “We are now on our way to the eastward, in the hope of doing something, but I much fear the Dutch have hardly left us an inch of ground to stand upon. My attention is principally turned to Johore, and you must not be surprised if my next letter to you is dated from the site of the ancient city of Singapura.” (Memoir of the life and public service of Sir Thomas Stamford by Lady Sophia Raffles).

Time past & time present
Eventually, Sir Raffles hoisted the British flag in Singapore on February 29, 1819. “Singapore is everything we could desire, it will soon rise into importance; and with this single station I would undertake to counteract all the plans of Mynheer; it breaks the spell; and they are no longer the exclusive sovereigns of the Eastern Seas,” he writes to Marsden on January 31, 1819. The Mynheer is a reference to the Dutch, and Sir Raffles’s aim was to beat the Dutch and expand British interests in the region. 
Cut to the present. As the husband and I take the boat cruise from Clarke Quay across the Singapore river, we are speechless — you can spot the financial and business hubs, the reconstructed bridges of the 19th century, the museums, the Singapore wheel, the glitzy pubs... Cameras click away, I can hear muted conversations, a bunch of Telugu-speaking youngsters discuss evening plans, a man from Sydney describes his city. The water shimmers, as I try and picture Sir Raffles back in 1819 on the same river. It’s surreal. Our boat passes by the Asian Civilisations Museum, close to which is the spot now called the Raffles Landing. 

Iconic hotels
Talking of Raffles, how can you go to Singapore and not visit the iconic Raffles Hotel! We get plenty of photo ops at this beautiful all-white colonial structure, called the Grand Old Dame of Singapore. It is said that during the World War II, when the Japanese occupied Singapore, the hotel was named Syonan Ryokan or the ‘Light of the South’. The hotel was used as a camp for POWs towards the end of the war. The Raffles was where the famed Singapore Sling was concocted! What’s more, it was visited by writers Ernest Hemingway and Somerset Maugham. As we stand and gaze at the lovely Victorian structure, we realise we don’t need any Singapore Sling to get high! We are already drunk on the charming architecture of the place. 
Another iconic hotel that can’t be missed is the Fullerton Hotel. Standing opposite the hotel, I can’t help but notice the juxtaposition of the old and new architecture in Singapore. Much like the Raffles Hotel, Fullerton Building too has a WWII connection. When the Japanese occupied Singapore, it is said that Governor Sir Shenton Thomas and Lady Thomas sought refuge at the Singapore Club which is part of the building. General Percival, a British Army officer, who lost the Battle of Singapore, sat down with Sir Shenton Thomas to discuss plans revolving around surrender to Japan.
On the war trail

The Japanese occupation of Singapore is an indelible chapter in the history of the city. For those who want to know more about this important era of Singapore, the Changi War Museum is the place to go for accounts of the lives of the Singaporeans, and the POWs. There are replicas of the famed quilts that women who were interned by the Japanese during the Occupation made. The murals made by Stanley Warren, a British POW, have been replicated at the Museum. A guide who takes us on a Changi WWII Trail does a great narration of the events that led to the Occupation, and the travails of Singaporeans during the Occupation, with plenty of anecdotes. We also visit Johore Battery, where there is a replica of the 15-inch gun installed in Changi by the British in the 1930s. We get to see a labyrinth of tunnels and a huge shell at the Johore Battery stop. This is turning out to be quite a trail, we realise. There is no better way to get to know a city than by foot, and we are glad we are part of this walk. We get some glimpses of the Changi beach and the village, but a more elaborate exploration would have to wait another day.  

We happen to be the lone Indian group at the trail, so I ask our guide if Indians come here at all. Not many, she says, adding it is the Australians, Europeans and other South-East Asians who come in large numbers. What about the Japanese, I ask? Indeed, she says, as she shares with us memories of the time a group of Japanese were on the trail. At the end of the walk, they were so deeply touched by the stories of the Occupation that they bowed to her, she remarks. They might as well, because the trail enriches us beyond words.

The Changi WWII Trails are held every Wednesday (2.30 pm to 5.30 pm) and every Saturday (10 am to 1 pm). The tour costs $55 for an adult and $30 for a child. The meeting point is at the Pasir Ris MRT Station, Outside Exit B. The walk ends at Pasir Ris MRT Station. Log on to for details of this and other walks. 


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