River Valley Road Camp

During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945, two prisoner-of-war camps were located in the area bound by River Valley Road and Havelock Road. Due to their proximity, these camps were often referred to collectively as the River Valley Road Camp. European, Australian, Indian and local prisoners-of-war were interned at this camp. In the post-war period, the site was redeveloped into a Fraser & Neave factory, then replaced by the Fraser Suites condominium and the Valley Point shopping mall adjacent to it. The location was marked as a historic site in 2002.

In the 1840s, “River Valley Road” referred to both the current River Valley Road as well as the current Havelock Road because the area along the Singapore River was seen as a valley between Fort Canning Hill and Pearl’s Hill, with the two roads running on the north and south banks respectively. 

The land in the area was once swampy and sparsely inhabited. The British colonial authorities built temporary military camps in the River Valley area just prior to the Japanese invasion, expecting attack to come from the south. These huts were designed for short-term use as the British foresaw a need to be able to quickly evacuate if the Japanese bombed Singapore. These huts were abandoned when the British retreated and eventually surrendered to the Japanese.

Japanese Occupation
When Japanese troops invaded Singapore and took over the facility, they used it to house prisoners-of-war. More than 5,000 prisoners were held at the camp. About 3,000 of them were prisoners from Changi Camp who volunteered for work parties at River Valley Road. These work parties were sent out to clean up and repair war-torn parts of the city, especially infrastructural facilities such as Seletar Airfield and city areas such as Chinatown. Together with prisoners held elsewhere in Singapore, some groups were also sent to build a shrine, known as Syonan Jinja, near the MacRitchie area.

The River Valley/Havelock Road camp comprised groups of makeshift huts in a compound surrounded by barbed wire. The huts were about 100 feet long and housed wooden platforms that could accommodate approximately 150 POWs each. Each group of huts was connected to others by roughly cleared pathways. Some sources suggest that the River Valley Road and Havelock Road sides of the camp were separated by a bridge over a small river or canal.

Unlike most prisoner-of-war camps during the Japanese Occupation, the prisoners in River Valley Road had some special privileges. While other camps conducted mainly Christian religious services, the River Valley Road camp had both a Masonic Lodge and a small Catholic chapel. Prisoners were allowed to have a small library containing books obtained from the collections of interned residents in the surrounding area. Some prisoners recalled that the camp wall was low enough for family members outside to throw items over to them but if they were caught, they were severely beaten.

Guarded closely by Japanese soldiers, the inmates at the camp were nonetheless reportedly better treated than those at Changi and Sime Road, especially in the early stages of the Occupation. This could have been due partly to the composition of the prisoners in the camp. A significant number were soldiers from India whom the Japanese hoped to win over to their side. The prisoners were also in relatively decent health and usually fit to work. Working conditions were not very harsh and prisoners were allowed a lunch break, which some used to visit shops or family members. However, the treatment of prisoners worsened when the tides of war turned against the Japanese.

The camps were mainly run by the prisoners themselves. This included doing chores such as cooking, distribution of food, repair and maintenance. Some former prisoners-of-war recalled some light-hearted moments during their internment, including times when they played jokes on the Japanese guards. Despite the relatively lenient treatment, some accounts allege that at least some Chinese prisoners from the River Valley Road Camp were taken to Changi and executed. A number of prisoners from the camp were also assigned to build the infamous Death Railway in Burma and never returned.

Post-war years
At the end of World War II, the camp was converted into a place to house Japanese soldiers who had surrendered. These soldiers were also held in other places such as Changi and Outram Prison. There were approximately 24,000 surrendered Japanese soldiers in Singapore, about 6,000 of whom were held at the River Valley Road camp. They formed working parties that were assigned to assist in the reconstruction of places such as Tengah Airfield. They marched from the camp to their assigned worksites every day.

During this confinement, there were a few Japanese deaths in the camp, such as when an iron bar from a passing military truck accidentally struck and killed a Japanese soldier. In another incident, two Japanese soldiers were killed by a European sentry for attempting to steal from the Engineering Stores Base Depot. The daily marches of Japanese work parties to and from their work sites also bothered some residents in the area. Plans for their repatriation were put into effect in March 1947.

In 1950, Fraser & Neave (F&N) Company announced plans to build a factory at River Valley Road, occupying part of the former camp site. In 1992, the company tore down the factory and built the S$435 million Fraser Suites condominium on the site. Adjacent to this now stands another F&N commercial development known as Valley Point. Other parts of the former camp site were also built over with business offices. One of the more well-known buildings in the area was the former Straits Times building. Public housing estates and shophouses now occupy what was formerly the Havelock Road side of the camp. Although the camp no longer exists, the National Heritage Board marked the location as a historic site in September 2002.

Faizah bte Zakaria

16-year-old victim. (1946, October 15). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved January 12, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Fraser and Neave profit $1,800,000. (1950, October 5). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved January 12, 2011 from NewspaperSG.

F&N to build $435 million of condos at its River Valley site. (1992, June 30). The Straits Times, p. 39. Retrieved January 14, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Iron bar caused Japanese death. (1927, April 9). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved January 2, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Lee, G. B. (2005). The Syonan years: Singapore under Japanese rule 1942-1945. Singapore: National Archives of Singapore and Epigram Ltd.
(Call no.: RSING q940.53957 LEE-[WAR])

Retired teacher remembers day when Japanese guards say “Ichi” and PoWs start scratching. (1992, February 28). The Straits Times, p. 30. Retrieved February 4, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

River Valley Road Japs. (1946, December 9). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved January 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Savage, V. R. and Yeoh, B. (2003). Toponymics: A Study of Singapore Street Names. Singapore: Eastern University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 91595700014)

Two Japanese killed by store sentry. (1947, August 14). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved January 2, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Wong, K. H. (2005, September 11). Water under the bridge. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved on February 17, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

WWII Shinto shrine marked as a historic site. (2002, September 17). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved on February 18, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Heritage Trails. (nd). Heritage trails: Outram Prison. Retrieved November 14, 2010, from http://heritagetrails.sg/content/621/Havelock_Road_Camp_River_Valley_Road_Camp_.html

Further reading
Akashi, Y. and Yoshimura, M. (2008). New Perspectives on the Japanese Occupation in Malaya and Singapore, 1941-1945. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press.
(Call no.: RSING 940.5337 NEW) 

The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Prisoner-of-war camps--Singapore
Events>>Historical Periods>>World War II and Japanese Occupation (1939 - 1945)
Singapore--History--Japanese occupation, 1942-1945
1942-1945 Japanese occupation
World War, 1939-1945--Concentration camps--Singapore
History>>Asia>>Southeast Asia>>Singapore

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