Ah, Changi! You were heaven to us then!
[Stan Arneil, One Man's War, Sydney Alternative Publishing Cooperative, 1980, 155.]
'Changi', like Hellfire Pass, has come to represent the wider experience of Australian prisoners of the Japanese during World War II. Often thought to be synonymous with horror it was in fact a relatively comfortable camp, at least compared to those on Borneo, Ambon, Hainan, Japan and the Burma-Thailand railway.
There were in fact two 'Changis', which over the years came to be conflated in popular memory.
The first was the Selerang barracks, a British military installation from the inter-war years. This was the camp to which Allied personnel were marched almost immediately after being taken prisoner on Singapore Island in mid February 1942. These barracks soon became a huge base camp, through which thousands of Allied prisoners transited on the way from their place of capture to work sites elsewhere in Singapore and Asia. It was to Selerang barracks also that survivors of the Burma-Thailand railway returned, emaciated and exhausted, in late 1943.
The size and permanence of the Selerang barracks meant that conditions here were relatively good. The prisoners could maintain gardens, kitchens, latrines and other facilities. Under the day-to-day control of their own officers they were relatively free from direct Japanese harassment. They had the freedom to establish a 'university' drawing on the expertise of prisoners and to hold regular entertainment aimed at maintaining morale. Much to the concern of camp authorities there was also a black market in stolen goods, including medicines.
It was at Selerang barracks that one of the most famous confrontations with the Japanese occurred. In August–September 1942 the Japanese administration insisted that the Allied prisoners sign an oath not to escape. When the POWs refused to do so—on the grounds that this violated their honour and was inconsistent with international law—the Japanese herded over 15 000 prisoners into the barracks parade ground. They kept them there for four days until the Allied leadership, faced with a potential health crisis, agreed to sign the oath under duress. As Captain Adrian Curlewis recorded in his diary:
I argued with my conscience, Death and Glory vs Common Sense
[Philippa Poole, Of Love and War, Sydney, Lansdowne, nd, 151.]
The second 'Changi' was the prison a short distance from Selerang barracks. Built by the British in 1936 this was originally used by the Japanese to intern some 3500 civilians (mostly British citizens and Eurasians), although its capacity was only 600. In May 1944 these internees were transferred to a camp at Sime Road in central Singapore. The prison was then used until August 1945 to house Allied prisoners of war, some of whom were returning from the Burma-Thailand railway. In January 1945 around 10 000 prisoners were crammed into the cells, corridors and common areas of the gaol or huts erected in the prison grounds.
The memory of Changi
In the post-war years 'Changi' gained considerable notoriety through popular novels such as Russell Braddon's The Naked Island (first published in 1952 and reprinted many times) and James Clavell's King Rat (published in 1962 and later made into a commercial film).
However, for practical reasons to do with tourist access, it was Changi prison not the Selerang barracks which became the focus of commemorative activities as ex-POWs began to revisit the sites of their wartime experiences. This was because much of the Selerang barracks was demolished and what remained became a base for the Singapore armed forces inaccessible to the public.
Hence tourists seeking to find 'Changi' turned to visiting Changi prison, and in particular the chapel within its grounds erected in the 1950s by inmates. In time this chapel would be replaced by another one, a replica of a wartime Changi chapel built outside the prison grounds in the 1980s. Then in 2001 this 'Changi chapel' was moved a little down the road to the Changi Museum. Here it became the site of multinational commemorations on anniversaries, such as of the fall of Singapore, which continue to this day.
When, in 2004, the Singapore government decided to demolish Changi prison, in order to build a more state-of-the-art facility, there was an uproar in Australia from the press and ex-POWs. But despite considerable diplomatic pressure the prison was demolished. As a compromise, one wall was left standing with the original gates affixed to it.
Artefacts from the prison were sent to the Australian War Memorial and veterans' associations in Australia and the United Kingdom. The original chapel pews were installed in the Changi Museum, Singapore.
The continuing significance of Changi as a symbol of Australian captivity was clear in 2001 when the ABC released a mini-series Changi (script by John Doyle). It was a composite of POW experiences resembling life in Changi itself only partially.
The national memorial to prisoners of war at the Royal Military College Duntroon also invokes Changi as it is a chapel from the Selerang barracks which was brought back to Australia after World War II and reassembled in the late 1980s.