Civilian War Memorial


The Civilian War Memorial is a monument dedicated to civilians who perished during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942-1945). It is located on a parkland, along Beach Road, opposite Raffles City, in the Downtown Core of Singapore's Central Region. The structure of four pillars soar to more than 68 m symbolising the shared 'war experiences' of the Chinese, Indians, Malays, and other races. It resembles two pairs of chopsticks, so it is affectionately called the "chopsticks" memorial because of its unusual design. Since its completion and unveiling on 15 February, 1967, exactly 25 years after the "Fall of Singapore", every year on 15 February, ex-servicemen, families and others gather at the memorial to commemorate that fateful day. 

In World War II, Singapore fell to the Japanese Forces, who occupied Singapore from 15 February 1942 to 15 September 1945. The total loss of civilian lives in the 'Battle for Singapore' remains uncertain. A major massacre was that of "Operation Sook Ching" (which literally means "to purge" or "to eliminate"). The atrocities which occurred started on 18 February 1942, shortly after the fall of Singapore. Among the civilians who lost their lives were a large number of Chinese. The torture and killing was a mass exercise to wipe out potential threats. These atrocities continued until the Japanese surrendered in World War II. The numbers of those taken away and massacred can never be accessed, but unofficial figures put the number of dead at about 50,000 people.

Discovery of Human Remains
On 15 February 1962, in a headline, "Mass war graves found in Siglap's 'valley of death'", the Straits Times reported the discovery of five separate war graves located in a "Valley of Tears" in the Siglap area. Twenty years ago, on its rugged countryside, hundreds of civilians of which a large number were Chinese residents, were rounded up by the Japanese Army, machine-gunned, and buried in several places. The massacres by the Japanese took place during their occupation in 1942-1945. The human remains were uncovered during sandwashing operations in an area off the 7.5 mile Siglap Road. Subsequent investigations were carried out by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce team of Messers. Ng Aik Huang, Toh Keng Tuan, and Lam Thian.

Eye-Witness #1
Mr. Chue Choon Kwee, aged 72, a farmer living near the area, told of how Japanese soldiers forced him and 30 other villagers to dig five trenches, each 20 feet wide and 30 feet long. Then all the villagers were driven out of the area, but he hid among the bushes on a hilltop. Observing, he next counted 66 lorries entering the valley packed with civilian internees, each lorry carried about 60 to 70 people. These victims were lined up at the edge of the trenches, and machine-gunned. This happened soon after the fall of Singapore, on 15 February, 1942.

Eye-Witness #2
Mr. Lim Sai Yong, aged 62, now principal of a Chinese primary school, escaped death. He told of how he was among a large group of detainees transferred from a concentration camp at Lorong 3, Geylang to Siglap. There they were tied in groups of six, and the soldiers opened fire. But he managed to break loose the bonds, free himself, and run to a clump of bushes. He was hit in the thigh but somehow succeeded in escaping.

Eye-Witness #3
Mr. Ngo Yong Seng, aged 62, principal of Puay Boon School which is situated near the "Death Valley", told of how he was forced to dig graves before he was driven off. Three days later, he returned to find bodies heaped in the graves with only loose sand over them. He returned a week after and saw the Japanese with a gang of labourers to help cover up the graves with more earth.

More Discoveries
Further investigations uncovered forty more mass war graves, off Evergreen Avenue in Siglap. Then, another two were found at 10.5 milestone Changi Road, where, Mr. Ng Aik Huan of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce claimed that more than 1,000 people were machine-gunned and buried here.

Suggestions for a Civilians Grave and Monument Site
The Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce sought the Government's permission, to provide a seven-acre site along Thomson Road to rebury the dead and erect memorial plaques. At a Legislative Assembly Meeting on 14 March, 1962, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said, "a park and memorial for the thousands massacred by the Japanese in Singapore will be built at Siglap IF Japan makes reparation". Mr. Lee added 'that it was the Government's view that atonement should be made collectively to the people of Singapore'.

The Civilian War Memorial Project
At a 21 April 1963 public meeting, it was agreed to raise money for the erection of a Civilian War Memorial (or the Memorial for Civilian Victims), remembering the civilian victims of the Japanese Occupation. The site of 1.82 ha (4.5 acres) at Beach Road was given by the Government of Singapore, who also paid for half of the "memorial" construction cost. The balance was borne by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Two project teams were led by Mr. Ko Teck Kin, Chairman of the Memorial Fund Committee; and Mr. Soon Peng Yam, Chairman of the working committee of the memorial.

Ground-breaking Ceremony
At a site on a vacant ground opposite Raffles Institution (today stands Raffles City), on 15 June 1963, VIPs, Inter-Religious Organisations, members of the consular corp, community leaders, and others, watched Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew perform the ceremony of "turning (or breaking) the sod", to launch the project. Prime Minister Lee in his speech said, "However painful the past, we have to live and plan for the future, without being hobbled by past experiences". He added, "dedicating the ground to the memory of all races and religion who died in Japanese-occupied Singapore, was part of the process of making the past less unbearable. We cannot forget, nor completely forgive, but we can salve the feelings that rankle in so many hearts, first in symbolically putting these souls at rest, and next in having the Japanese express their sincere regret for what took place. It is in this hope that I officiate at today's ceremony."

Memorial Unveiling
Then finally the Monument was unveiled by Prime Minister Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, on 15 February 1967, the 25th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore. In his speech, Mr. Lee said, "We meet not to rekindle old fires of hatred, nor to seek settlements for blood debts. We meet to remember the men and women who were the hapless victims of one of the fires of history. This monument will remind those of us who were here 25 years ago, of what can happen to people caught completely unaware and unprepared for what was in store for them. It will help our children understand and remember, what we have told them of this lesson we paid so bitterly to learn".

Before the Prime Minister unveiled a plaque, and laid the first wreath on behalf of the Government and the people of Singapore, prayers were said by leaders of the Inter-Religious Council representing Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh and Zoroastrian faiths. A 3-minute silence followed the laying of the wreaths. Many families of the dead were there, especially their weeping mothers.

The monument was built on a burial chamber which contained ashes of thousands of unknown civilians exhumed by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce, from those "mass graves" that were discovered. The base, surrounded by a shallow pool of water gives an atmosphere of serenity. Completed in 1964, and popularly known as the "Chopsticks", this 68 m high monument with four tapering columns symbolises the four cultures of Singapore merging into one. Inscribed on the memorial's platform base, in our four main languages (English, Mandarin, Malay and Indian), are the words, "Memorial to the Civilian Victims of the Japanese Occupation 1942-1945". Swan & McLaren, were the architects. The memorial originally had a parkland of about 1.82 ha (4.5 acres), but some of that space may have been reduced due to development in the area.

Monument Cost
The memorial was partly financed with the $25 million paid by the Japanese Government to the Singapore Government as atonement for the atrocities committed during Japan's occupation of Singapore. The memorial was built at a cost of $750,000 with the government paying 50% and the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce contributing the rest of costs.

The 'Fall of Singapore' Anniversary Commemoration
Every year since its official opening, there have been 15 February commemorations, ceremonies and services at the monument to mark the "loss of the local peoples" lives during those three and a half years of foreign occupation. The 15 February is also Total Defence Day, commemorating that fateful day in 1942 when British forces surrendered Singapore to the Japanese.

Today, the monument stands nobly on the well-landscaped parkland amidst the towers of tomorrow. It attracts locals, tourists and other curious eyes with lots of photo-taking.

Vernon Cornelius-Takahama

Edwards, N., & Keys, P. (1996). Singapore: A guide to buildings, streets, places (p. 281). Singapore: Times Books International.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 EDW)

Samuel, D. S. (1991). Singapore's heritage: Through places of historical interest (pp. 315-317). Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 SAM)

Singapore: An illustrated history 1941-1984 (p. 85) . (1984). Singapore: Information Division, Ministry of Culture.
(Call no.: RSING q959.57 SIN)

Singapore Year Book [Microfilm no.: NL 6554] (p. 3). (1967). Singapore: Government Printing Office.
(Call no.: RCLOS 959.57 SIN)

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew Speeches. "Breaking of the soil for the memorial to civilian victims during the Japanese Occupation, on 15th June, 1963". Unveiling ceremony of memorial to civilian victims of Japanese Occupation on 15th February, 1967. 
(Call no.: RCLOS 959.57 LEE)

A park will be built - if Japan pays for massacres [Microfilm no.: NL 12,131]. (1962, March 15). The Straits Times, p. 5. 

Discovery of 40 more graves in Siglap [Microfilm no.: NL 12,130]. (1962, February 27). The Straits Times, p. 4.

Mass war graves found in Siglap's valley of death [(Microfilm no.: NL 12130]. (1962, February 24). The Straits Times, p. 4. 

Prayers for Victims of Massacre [Microfilm no.: NL 12133]. (1962, May 4). The Straits Times, p. 11.

Singapore Massacre [Microfilm no.: NL 12131]. (1962, March 17). The Straits Times, p. 5.

Further Readings
Hiroshima Peace Marchers Arrive [Microfilm no.: NL 12133]. (1962, May 7). The Straits Times, p. 1.

Japan's Speaker of Parliament lays wreath at civilian memorial [Microfilm No.: NL 19398]. (1994, August 25). The Straits Times, Home; p. 24.

Memorial [Microfilm no.: NL 12146]. (1963, June 16). The Straits Times, p. 3.

Mothers mourn anew at Memorial [Microfilm no.: NL 12190]. (1967, February 16). The Straits Times.

Remembering past, preparing for future (2001, February 16), The Straits Times, Home; p. 2.

S'poreans touched by visit to memorial, says PM Goh [Microfilm No.: NL 19398]. (1994, August 30). The Straits Times, p. 5.

Wan Meng Hao.  (2009). Heritage places of Singapore. (p. 61-62). Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 WAN)

The information in this article is valid as at 2001 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.


Architecture and Landscape>>Building Types>>Monuments
National monuments
Arts>>Architecture>>Architectural structure
History>>Asia>>Southeast Asia>>Singapore
War memorials--Singapore
1942-1945 Japanese occupation
Events>>Historical Periods>>World War II and Japanese Occupation (1939-1945)

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