The Changi Museum, Changi
Located on the eastern end of Singapore Island, The Changi Museum tells the stories of those who were imprisoned at the Changi Prisoner of War Camp throughout the occupation of Singapore (1942-1945). Rather than just one camp, as many refer to it, Changi was a collection of seven camps located within a 25 square kilometer area. Before World War II broke out the area was home to the British Army’s main military base, including three large barracks, a number of smaller camps as well as the civilian prison, Changi Jail.
In February 1942, when Japan invaded Singapore, thousands of civilians and Allied soldiers were moved to Changi and detained. The Allied soldiers, including 15,000 Australian men, were imprisoned in the Selarang Barracks, while civilian Singaporeans were moved to Changi prison. For the first six months, prisoners were treated reasonably well – the men were able to produce gardens, restore onsite buildings, write and draw, trade on the black market and go about their daily activities under the guidance of their own senior officers. In mid 1942 however, large groups of men were sent to work on projects such as the Thai-Burma Railway and in the August, all officers above the rank of colonel were sent to Formosa (modern-day Taiwan).
The new Japanese leadership inflicted harsh treatment on the prisoners and overtime began to reduce rations and restrict the goings-on around the camps. In 1944, those incarcerated in Changi Jail were moved to another prisoner camp at Sime Road while the remaining prisoners from Selarang, many of whom had now returned from the Thai-Burma Railway, were forced into the Changi Jail – a quarter of a square mile for almost 12,000 individuals. For the remainder of the war, the men lived in these cramped and squalid conditions until the 5th Indian Division liberated them on the 5th of September 1945.
After the war had ended, the military barracks returned to the British Army and Changi Jail was once again converted into a civilian prison. When Singapore gained independence in 1971, the Singapore Armed Forces took over the military base and to this day it stands as one of the main military facilities in Singapore. In light of this, returning prisoners of war to Singapore were unable to view the old barracks due to security reasons and instead shifted their focus to Changi Prison.
In particular, visitors sought to pay their respects at the ‘Changi Chapel’. The original chapel was built in 1944, mainly by Australian POWs and after the war it was moved to the Australian War Memorial. In 1953, a hospital war inside the Changi prison was rededicated as a chapel and was supposed to serve a replacement for the original place of worship from during the war. Only four years later it had become a shrine for former POWs visiting their place of wartime internment. In 1988, a replica of the the original chapel was built in Singapore under the auspices of Singapore's Tourist Promotion Board and with major help from several Australian ex-POW associations. Although not an original wartime structure, the chapel became integral to the memorialisation process. In 2001, due to the expansion of the Changi Prison, the chapel and the small museum, which had developed alongside it, were relocated to the site of the new Changi Museum.
Opening on the 59th anniversary of the fall of Singapore, the Changi Museum was erected to honour those who were imprisoned and educate the public on the significant events that occurred throughout the Japanese occupation. Within the exhibition space, photographs, letters, drawings and first-hand quotes from the prisoners describe the environment in which the men were confined and the emotions they endured because of this. Audio-visual presentations provide a wider historical context regarding the Japanese occupation and a moderately sized collection of objects, many donated from the prisoners themselves, provide a deeper insight into the life as a prisoner of war.
One of the main features of the Changi Museum is the Changi Murals – a recreation of a series of paintings completed on the walls of the camp during World War II. Painted by British Airman Stanley Warren between 1942 and 1943, the paintings reflected biblical themes and were meant to encourage fellow prisoners' faith and endurance. They are considered even more impressive due to the limited materials Warren had to work with and the lengths the prisoners went to to locate appropriate materials. The originals are said to still be on the walls inside the military base.
Voted the most popular museum in Singapore, Changi Museum also operates a resource database for the families of the civilian internees imprisoned at Changi. Details of almost 5,000 prisoners have been collated into an online database that is accessible at the site and also externally. As well as educational tours, the museum conducts commemorative ceremonies on special occasions, including the anniversary of the fall of Singapore and Remembrance Day. A weekly church service is also held at the chapel each Sunday.