February 20, 2019

Museum Review - Singapore

I visited Singapore in April of 2017, and took the opportunity while I was there to visit as many military-related sites as possible. I'm going to give a short review of each, in case I have any readers who are headed that way. For non-military things, my recommendations are Gardens by the Bay, which was flat-out amazing, and the National Museum of Singapore, which was really well done.

Changi Museum


The replica of the prison chapel at the Changi Museum1
Type: Prison camp museum
Rating: 4.4/5, A very moving look at the hell of Japanese captivity
Price: Free

Website

When Singapore fell to the Japanese, a large number of British, Australian, and Indian soldiers became POWs. They, along with a number of civilians who were deemed suspicious, were held at Changi, on the eastern tip of the island, in conditions of almost unimaginable brutality. The Changi Museum tells the story of these men and women in gut-wrenching detail. I have an incredibly strong stomach, and I was queasy during my visit. It's an excellent rebuttal to those who think dropping the atomic bombs was unjustified, and a touching memorial to those who suffered and died in the camps. I also ate dinner at restaurant next to the museum, and it was pretty good (not that good food is hard to find in Singapore).

The Battlebox


The interior of the Battlebox2
Type: Preserved British Headquarters
Rating: 3.8/5, Interesting to see, but not great.
Price: $20SG for normal adults

Website

Singapore was the cornerstone of British strategy in the Far East, and the British decided to build a secure command bunker for its defense. This bunker, where the momentous decision to surrender the city was made, is now a tourist attraction. It's not a bad place to visit, although you can only visit on a guided tour which runs about every hour and a half, and there's no photography allowed. It would probably be amazing with a good guide, but my guide wasn't great, and I'd recommend reading up on the Malaya campaign before you go. My strongest memory is when she said that the war started on December 8th, and I burst out laughing. Everyone else on the tour was Australian, so I suppose December 8th is the date they grew up with. But it's downtown, and easy to get to, which makes it a decent way to spend a few hours.

Singapore Navy Museum

Type: National Naval Museum
Rating: 4/5, Really well-done, but a logistical nightmare
Price: Free

Website

The Singapore Navy Museum is on the main Singaporean Naval Base at Changi3 and far from any public transit.4 I had to take a taxi there, and trying to leave, it was the only place the taxi system failed me.5 I had to wait about 20 minutes until someone else took a taxi there and I could get back to the MRT. You also have to get a pass to get on base, which you have to ask at the windows for. But in compensation, you get a really good museum, with a nice display of naval weapons, cool models and a good explanation of why sea power matters. I left half wanting to sign up for the RSN, and I'm not even Singaporean. If the Navy is as good as their museum designer, then they're a force to be reckoned with.

Singapore Air Force Museum

Type: National Air Force Museum
Rating: 4/5, As well-done as the Naval Museum, and a lot easier to get to
Price: Free

Website

The Singapore Air Force Museum isn't really an air museum in the same way the USAF Museum is. Sure, there are some planes and a few missiles, but the real showpiece is the inside, with a great discussion of the role of air power and how the RSAF is vital in protecting the nation, along with models, history, and some cool interactive exhibits. It's clearly designed as a recruiting showcase6 and it works really well. The staff was friendly, and unlike the Naval Museum, the nearby road has a bus stop, the taxis will come there, and it's not on the active military base.

Singapore Army Museum

Type: National Army Museum
Rating: 3.5/5, Decent, but not nearly as good as the other two
Price: Unknown

Website

As I write this (February 2019), it appears that the Singapore Army Museum is closed for renovations. It's entirely possible that the museum which emerges will bear no resemblance to the one I visited. But I've decided to publish this anyway.

The Singapore Army Museum is an OK museum, but it pales in comparison to those of the other services. If you just want to see military hardware, particularly green-painted vehicles, then it was the best, but whoever the Air Force and Navy hired was apparently too expensive for the Army.7 The museum is OK, but I definitely didn't leave with any desire to sign up and they didn't do nearly as good a job articulating their story. There was a digital shooting gallery (which is why they charge), and I had an interesting talk with the guy there, who was surprised to see an American instead of a Singaporean school group. Logistically, it was kind of a pain to get to, being way out on the west edge of the island away from all the touristy stuff, although still better than the Navy Museum. Overall, I'd recommend spending your time on other things, unless you really like ground vehicles or run out of other things to do in Singapore (which you shouldn't).

Other military/naval-related sites

There were a number of sites that fall within my remit that I didn't have time to get to, but I thought I'd list the ones I know of for completeness:

  • Johore Battery: A reconstruction of one of the 15" gun emplacements installed to protect against naval attack. It's close to the Changi Museum, and I was planning to go, but it was raining at that point, and the staff at the museum said it wasn't really good enough to make the trip in the rain.
  • Fort Siloso: One of the coastal defense batteries installed in the 1880s to protect Singapore, now converted into a museum that covers both the defenses of Fortress Singapore and the surrenders of both the British and Japanese during WWII.
  • Reflections at Bukit Chandu: A museum covering the Malaya Campaign, with a focus on the Malay Regiment.
  • Former Ford Factory: The location of the British surrender to the Japanese is now a museum documenting the surrender, as well as the Japanese occupation of Singapore.
  • The Maritime Experiential Museum: A museum documenting the maritime history of Singapore. I actually tried to go, but it was closed when I was there. It's part of the Sentosa Island resort complex, so unlike the others, it's not free, and online reviews are mixed. On the other hand, it should be easy to get to from Fort Siloso.

1 All photos from my collection, except where otherwise noted.

2 This is the one that isn't mine. I got it off wikimedia, from someone who was apparently allowed to take pictures.

3 Changi is the name for basically the entire eastern section of the island, so this isn't that close to the Changi Museum.

4 Having looked at this, it appears that Google failed me, and that the No 35 bus does stop near the base. But it's certainly not close to the MRT (light rail), which is the best way to get around.

5 Every other time I tried to use it, it was great, both cheap and responsive.

6 I suppose it's much easier to get lots of schools to take field trips there when it's maybe an hour away by bus from everywhere in the country.

7 This may not be a joke. Singapore has conscription, and the Army gets the lion's share of the conscripts, while the Air Force and Navy rely more on long-service volunteers.

Comments

  1. February 22, 2019Neal said...

    Were there any displays commemorating the loss of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse? A bit north of Singapore proper, of course, but critical to the unfolding of events.

  2. February 22, 2019bean said...

    I didn't run across any, and some googling shows nothing prominent.

    Also, I think I'm going to update the OP with a list of places I didn't get to.

  3. February 22, 2019Neal said...

    Your mention of Changi prison reminded me of one of the most pig-headed stupid pieces of bureaucracy I have ever run across. A couple years ago I read a book called The Forgotten Highlander by a Scots veteran Alistair Urquhart. He was captured in Singapore in January 1942 and miraculously (...and I do not use that word lightly here) survived the horrific depredations that you so well remind us of--including passage on, and the sinking of, one of the infamous Hell Ships back to Japan.

    He is rescued by the Americans and, long story short, makes it eastward across the Pacific to California, across the U.S., and then back to Britain where he is officially demobilized (de-mobbed). As his accounts are being settled he is docked back pay because he "lost" his rifle. Also he was not in government quarters and that was nicked from his pay. Seriously...It is almost too much to believe but was in fact true.

    Whenever I run across some blockhead rule/regulation/policy I think of what Urquhart must have felt standing there, having survived a 3 1/2 year journey into a hell on earth, and had a Sergeant chide him for losing his weapon.

    Sadly many of those veterans who suffered in this theatre were not as quickly recognized for what they went through. Perhaps the shame of how Singapore was lost or that it was all so far away, but the vets had to fight for recognition.

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