article from the Singapore Straits Times 12th December 2003
Don't let Force Z deaths be forgotten
By David Boey
Wednesday marked the 62nd anniversary of the sinking of the British
battleship, HMS Prince of Wales, and a battle-cruiser, HMS Repulse, by
The Prince of Wales - in its time, one of the most powerful warships in Britain's Royal Navy - was sent to the bottom of the sea off Kuantan on Dec 10, 1941, just two days after setting sail from Sembawang Naval Base as part of Force Z.
More than 760 British sailors and dozens of Japanese aircrew lost their lives in that battle.
The encounter was a turning point in naval warfare, for it marked the first time air power triumphed over heavily armoured warships free to manoeuvre in the open sea. Yet, despite its significance in military as well as Singapore history, this battle appears to have disappeared from the collective consciousness of Singaporeans.
In contrast, sailors who served with Force Z have held memorial services every year since the end of World War II to mark the tragic occasion.
Such apathy is unfortunate, as there are many lessons Singaporeans can learn by analysing this ship-versus-plane battle. More importantly, Singaporeans' apparent forgetfulness of how British and Commonwealth forces fought to protect Malaya exposes our relative lack of historical awareness.
Though the number of Commonwealth survivors who fought in what was then British Malaya continues to dwindle each year, associations set up by servicemen who served here are a reminder to us not to forget the past.
Take Singapore Prison Service's change of heart this October about demolishing Changi Prison. Instead, prison authorities pledged to preserve a small part of the jail for public display.
Changi Prison won its dark place in history after British forces surrendered Fortress Singapore to the Japanese Imperial Army on Feb 15, 1942. Some 50,000 people - civilians as well as Allied prisoners of war (POW) - were crammed into the prison and its surrounding area following the surrender.
Living conditions were atrocious. Many POWs did not survive their imprisonment or emerged from incarceration in a terribly emaciated state.
More than six decades after the end of World War II, many of Changi's former POWs or their surviving families are not about to let Singapore forget the ordeal they suffered.
The about-turn by the prison authorities appears to have been triggered by the concerns of historically minded people here and abroad that a vital physical link with World War II would vanish if Changi Prison were razed.
As an estimated 15,000 Australian soldiers were held there during the war, it's understandable that Australians are watching the prison's fate with more than just a passing interest.
At least half a dozen Australian Cabinet ministers joined the chorus of former Australian POWs asking that Changi Prison be saved, including Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, who reportedly raised the issue with Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong a few months ago.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, too, was one of those who urged Singapore to preserve the prison. His father spent three years as a POW in Changi.
If it had been improperly handled, the Changi Prison episode could have soured ties between Singapore and Australia. A workable compromise appears to have been struck between the need to modernise the Changi Prison complex, and calls to preserve a link with the prison's notorious past.
It is instances like these that demonstrate how a keen sense of historical awareness can alert authorities here as to why a seemingly mundane issue like prison redevelopment can elicit emotional responses in Australia.
To be sure, one cannot expect all Singaporeans to be walking encyclopaedias of historical fact. But a keener appreciation of history - especially by institutions overseeing historically significant places here - would help assure friends overseas that Singapore is not about to blot out key buildings or places in the name of urban development.
Indeed, a willingness to engage overseas interest groups, like POW associations, could debunk impressions of Singaporeans as an arrogant lot who are insensitive to others.
One should also not write off the tourism potential of the vast pool of foreigners who served with British forces here for more than four decades till the British withdrew in 1971. There are many servicemen who fondly remember their days at Royal Air Force airfields in Changi, Seletar, Tengah, or at the vast Royal Navy base at Sembawang.
Coming back to Force Z, the hulks of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, which are war graves, are likely to rust away in a decade or so. It would be a fitting tribute to these warships - as well as to their gallant destroyer escorts, HMS Express, Electra, Tenedos and the Australian destroyer HMAS Vampire - if the authorities did something to mark or commemorate their last port of call at what is now the West Wall of Sembawang Shipyard.
Nothing of that sort has been done in the past 60 years. Doing so would at least signal that the efforts of Force Z, though in vain, will not be forgotten by Singaporeans.