Civilian War Memorial

Singapore Infopedia


The Civilian War Memorial is a monument dedicated to civilians who perished during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–45). It is located on a parkland, along Beach Road, opposite Raffles City.1 The memorial’s structure comprises four tapering columns of approximately 68 m high. These columns symbolise the merging of four streams of culture into one and the principle of unity of all races.2 It resembles two pairs of chopsticks, so it is affectionately called the “chopsticks” memorial. Since its unveiling on 15 February 1967 (exactly 25 years after Singapore fell to the Japanese), ex-servicemen, families and others gather at the memorial every year on 15 February to commemorate that fateful day.3

During World War II, Singapore fell to the Japanese forces, who occupied Singapore from 15 February 1942 to 12 September 1945.4

On 21 February 1942, the Japanese carried out a military operation aimed at eliminating anti-Japanese elements from the Chinese community in Singapore. The operation, which came to be known as “Sook Ching”, lasted two weeks, during which Chinese males between 18 and 50 years old were summoned to various mass screening centres. Those suspected of being anti-Japanese were then executed.5

The number of those taken away and massacred has been an unknown. Immediately after the war, investigation conducted in Tokyo on the Sook Ching operation produced the figure of around 5,000, while Kempeitai (Japanese military police) reports indicated 6,000. The Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce (SCCC), on the other hand, reported a figure of 40,000 during post-war reparation claims from the Japanese.6

Discovery of human remains
On 24 February 1962, an article in The Straits Times, “Mass war graves found in Siglap’s ‘valley of death’”, reported the discovery of five separate war graves in Siglap. The graves contained the remains of civilian victims massacred by the Japanese army during the Japanese Occupation.7

The human remains were first uncovered during sandwashing operations in an area off Siglap Road. After subsequent investigations by a SCCC team comprising Ng Aik Huan, Toh Keng Tuan and Lam Thian, five mass graves were located. The discovery prompted the chamber to make a public call for information on other such graves in Singapore.8

Further investigations uncovered 40 more mass war graves, off Evergreen Avenue in Siglap. Another two were found at the 10.5 milestone along Changi Road, where Ng claimed that more than 1,000 people were machine-gunned and buried.9

Proposal for a civilians grave and monument site
On 28 February 1962, the SCCC formed a committee to undertake the exhumation of the discovered war graves and reburial of the remains. The chamber also asked the Singapore government for a piece of land for the reburial and to erect a memorial, as well as to seek compensation from the Japanese government for the massacre of civilians during the Japanese Occupation.10 However, reparation could only be sought through the British government since Singapore’s foreign affairs were still in the hands of the British.11

On 14 March 1962, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew announced in the legislative assembly that the Singapore government had asked the British government to seek amends and atonement from the Japanese government, in connection with the massacre committed by the Japanese during the war. Lee also announced that a park and memorial would be built at Siglap for those massacred by the Japanese during the war, if the Japanese would make compensation.12

The Civilian War Memorial project
On 13 March 1963, the Singapore government announced that it would set aside 4.5 acres (1.8 ha) of land along Beach Road, opposite Raffles Institution, for the building of a memorial and park to commemorate the civilian victims massacred during the Japanese Occupation.13 The remains from the discovered mass graves would be cremated and the ashes placed in the park.14 The cost of constructing the memorial was estimated at $750,000. The government would pay half of the construction cost by matching public donation on a dollar-to-dollar basis.15

Days later on 19 March, the SCCC set up a Memorial Building Fund Committee to raise funds for the construction of the memorial. A public meeting was then convened on 21 April. Attended by more than 1,000 representatives from 509 societies in Singapore, including those from the Malay, Indian, Ceylonese and Eurasian communities, the meeting raised more than $100,000. Further donations received after the meeting amounted to $30,000.16

Ground-breaking ceremony
On 15 June 1963, a gathering which included representatives from the Inter-Religious Organisation and members of the consular corps witnessed Lee performing the ceremony of “turning (or breaking) the sod” to lay the foundation for the memorial.17

In conjunction with the ground-breaking ceremony, a one-week exhibition was held at the Victoria Memorial Hall, which showcased 25 designs for the memorial, received in a competition held earlier in March.18 Architectural firm Swan and Maclaren won the best design, which originally comprised a rectangular raised platform enclosing a vault in which the ashes of victims would be placed. A total of 12 parallel sets of concrete fins were to be built above the rectangular platform to form a 30-metre high archway.19 However, the design had to be amended when the original plan of cremating the remains had to be changed to reburial, out of respect for the different religions. The design for the memorial was thus revised to the present one, which comprises four tapering columns. It was designed by Leong Swee Lim of Swan and Maclaren.20

Unveiling of memorial
The memorial was completed in January 1967 at a cost of approximately $500,000.21 Before its completion, a ceremony was held on 1 November 1966, during which 606 urns containing the remains from the mass graves were interred on either side of the memorial podium.22

The memorial was officially unveiled by Lee on 15 February 1967, which was the 25th anniversary of the fall of Singapore. In his speech, 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”.23

Before Lee 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 Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh and Zoroastrian faiths. A three-minute silence followed the laying of the wreaths. The event was attended by many families of the dead, especially the mothers.24

The memorial was built on a burial chamber which houses 606 urns containing the remains of thousands of unknown civilians exhumed by SCCC from the discovered mass graves.25

The monument’s structure comprises four tapering columns of approximately 68 m high, representing four streams of culture merging into one.26 Within the columns and resting on top of a pedestal is a large bronze urn with small lion heads all-round, symbolising the remains of the dead buried beneath.27 The base of the monument is surrounded by a shallow pool of water, giving it an atmosphere of serenity.28

Surrounding the memorial is a parkland, which was laid out three years after the memorial was erected.29

Annual commemoration
Since the memorial was officially unveiled, commemorations, ceremonies and services have been held there every year on 15 February to remember civilians who were killed during the Japanese Occupation.30 Total Defence Day is also marked annually on 15 February to commemorate the fateful day in 1942 when British forces surrendered Singapore to the Japanese.31 The memorial was gazetted as a national monument on 15 August 2013.32

Vernon Cornelius-Takahama

1. “Japanese Occupation Memorial,” Straits Times, 6 March 1988, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Chinese Chamber of Commerce 中华总商会, Riben zhan ling shi qi si nan ren min ji nian bei zhi xin lu 日本占领时期死难 人民纪念碑徵信录 [Memorial to the civilian victims of the Japanese Occupation Record of Donations] (Singapore: Chinese Chamber of Commerce, 1969), 5 (Call no. Chinese RCLOS 725.94 CHI); “Mothers Mourn Anew at Memorial,” Straits Times, 16 February 1967, 9. (Microfilm NL12190)
3. “Japanese Occupation Memorial”; “Monument to Get Second Facelift After 2 Months,” Straits Times, 30 October 1988, 19; “Wreaths Laid at Service for Civilians Killed during Japanese Occupation,” Straits Times, 16 February 1990, 27. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Constance Mary Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 195, 221. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
5. Tan Tik Loong Stanley and Tay Huiwen Michelle, Syonan Years, 1942–1945: Living Beneath the Rising Sun (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, 2009), 14–31 (Call no. RSING 940.530745957 TAN-[WAR]); Turnbull, Modern Singapore, 195, 221.
6. Lee Geok Boi, The Syonan Years: Singapore under Japanese Rule 1942–1945. Singapore: National Archives of Singapore and Epigram, 2005), 110. (Call no. RSING q940.53957 LEE-[WAR])
7. “Mass War Graves Found in Siglap’s ‘Valley of Death’,” Straits Times, 24 February 1962, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Riben zhan ling shi qi, 2, 5.
8. “Mass War Graves .” 
9. “Discovery of 40 More Graves in Siglap,” Straits Times, 27 February 1962, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “War Massacre of Civilians: Compensation Demand,” Straits Times, 1 March 1962, 18 (From NewspaperSG); Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Riben zhan ling shi qi, 5.
11. “A Park Will Be Built – If Japan Pays for Massacres,” Straits Times, 15 March 1962, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “Japan Pays for Massacres.”
13. ”Park Will Recall Victims of Japanese,” Straits Times, 14 March 1963, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Memorial to Jap Victims to Be Built with ‘Our Own Money’,” Straits Times, 15 March 1963, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
15. “Victims of Japanese.”
16. “Promise of $100,000 for War Memorial,” Straits Times, 22 April 1963, 9 (From NewspaperSG); Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Riben zhan ling shi qi, 5.
17. “Memorial: Lee to Break the Sod Today,” Straits Times, 15 June 1963, 22; “Gesture of Atonement for War Dead Awaited,” Straits Times, 16 Jun 1963, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Design for Memorial Invited,” Straits Times, 20 March 1963, 9; “Gesture of Atonement for War Dead Awaited,” Straits Times, 16 June 1963, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “Top Design for a Memorial,” Straits Times, 31 May 1963, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Riben zhan ling shi qi, 5.
21. “War Memorial is Unveiled,” Straits Times, 16 February 1967, 17 (From NewspaperSG); Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Riben zhan ling shi qi, 38.
22. Lim Beng Tee, “Remains of Massacre Victims Laid to Rest,” Straits Times, 2 November 1966, 11; “Ceremony at the New War Memorial,” Straits Times, 23 November 1966, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Singapore Year Book 1967 (Singapore: Govt. Print. Off., 1967), 3 (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SIN); “War Memorial is Unveiled”; “Mothers Mourn Anew at Memorial.”
24. “Mothers Mourn Anew at Memorial.”
25. “Mothers Mourn Anew at Memorial.”
26. “Mothers Mourn Anew at Memorial.”
27. “Japanese Occupation Memorial.” 
28. “Mothers Mourn Anew at Memorial.”
29. Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 281 (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA]); Ismail Kassim, “In Memory of the War Dead,” New Nation, 22 February 1973, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Janice Tai, “Over 1,000 Gather at Memorial,” Straits Times, 16 February 2014, 12–13. (From NewspaperSG)
31. “Pupils Mark Total Defence Day,” Straits Times, 16 February 1999, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Preservation of Monuments Order 2013, S 523/2013, Government Gazette. Subsidiary Legislation Supplement, 2013, 2579–581 (Call no. RSING 348.5957 SGGSLS); Maryam Mokhtar, “Civilian War Memorial Gazetted under Newly Named Division,” Straits Times, 17 August 2013, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 2017 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.


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