Unmasking history: A journey into Singapore’s stories during World War II

The history of Singapore and Malaya were brought to the fore at NUS Sheares Hall on 13 August in a lecture by historian Dr Gary Lit who spoke passionately on the Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II (WWII) from 1942 to 1945, as well as a period in 1948 when a state of emergency was declared in Singapore due to a spate of violence between Malayan Communists and British-owned entities.

A retired academic and WWII historian, Dr Gary Lit is also an alumnus of Sheares Hall, having resided at the hall from 1981 to 1982 during his time in university. Addressing an audience of about 200 guests, Dr Lit elaborated on the harsh challenges brought about by the war, shedding light on previously lesser-known aspects of the realities of life during that era in Singapore and Malaya’s past.

More significantly, Dr Lit also shared anecdotes from his interviews with survivors, who had witnessed or experienced first-hand wartime brutalities such as bayonet and samurai sword assaults. While the brief glimpse into wartime pain and horrors was grim and sobering, these anecdotes also brought to light the unyielding resilience and undying optimism of the society, which enabled them to overcome the daunting challenges and difficulties together.

The event was attended by a distinguished crowd which included NUS University Professor Wang Gungwu, himself also a historian, as well as 103-year-old Captain Ho Weng Toh, who is the last surviving member of the tenacious Flying Tiger Squadron, bomber pilots who fought against the Japanese during WWII. Other attendees included the families of important WWII figures Lim Bo Seng and Tan Kah Kee, as well as representatives from government agencies, societies and corporates in Singapore and Malaysia.

“Dr Lit's sharing really illuminated the war survivors' resilience and determination amidst adversity,” said Brandon Lee, Vice President of Sheares Hall’s 43rd Junior Common Room Committee (JCRC).

“It revealed a narrative of courage and tenacity that continues to inspire generations. Exploring the challenges faced and the sacrifices made provided a profound understanding of how history shapes the identity of a nation,” he added.

These thoughts were also echoed by Mr Cheong Tak Leong, a Sheares Hall alumnus and Director of Standards (Services) at Enterprise Singapore. Describing the talk as ‘very informative’, Mr Cheong added that it “covered an aspect of history that I am not familiar with during WWII and Malayan Emergency, especially the atrocities and suffering in Singapore and Malaysia. Moreover, with the presence of many invited guests at the talk, who are related to these events, made it more poignant to me on how these atrocities have affected so many lives, even after some 70 years.”

“The talk highlighted the importance of keeping peace even as we live in a more divided world," emphasised Mr Cheong.

A heightened sense of connection to their nation's history was palpable among the attendees as the event drew to a close, as they departed with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the struggles and sacrifices made during that tumultuous period. With its stirring blend of personal accounts, rigorous research, and thought-provoking insights, the event was a reminder that the past continues to carry lessons for all of use today, and how history continues to remain strongly relevant even in today’s modern conflict.

By Sheares Hall