“You’d better say goodbye to your plushies and your childhood because you ain’t gonna need them no more! We are at war, ladies and gentlemen! So grow up! Strap up! Man up! And wipe that smile off your face, SOLDIER!”
Not the most child-friendly introductory line by a teacher ever, but war isn’t all warm and fuzzy, isn’t it?
The seed of Singapore’s modern history was sown in the blood-drenched, potholed soil of war in the 1942 Japanese Invasion. The blitzkrieg that overran the supposedly formidable “Gibraltar of the East” brought the then British-ruled smorgasbord of immigrant inhabitants to its knees with a three-year Occupation that broke hearts and crippled souls.
From that quagmire of lost faith in our ‘defenders’ but faithless in our own defences, we rose.
Although Singapore is a thriving city-state now, we remember the heroes who had their backs pressed against the cold walls in the trenches of trepidation, grasping their rifles and final few bullets as they made the decision to rip themselves from their positions and into the blanket of crossfire above them.
In the Malay language, that fighting spirit is known as ‘semangat’. The word has no direct English translation, but in a wartime context, it refers to a blend of zeal, courage and perseverance amidst sacrifices made. And that is what students will experience and inquire into: “What is semangat in times of war?”
In the role of enlistees about to face the mighty Japanese army, students signed drama contracts and put on a persona of a soldier, signified by a jockey cap they donned. As long as they wore the cap, they were military.
Facilitated by teachers in the roles of boorish sergeants and officers, the enlistees headed to the site of one of the last stands in the defence of Singapore in World War II – Bukit Chandu, or Opium Hill – the final resting place of the lionhearts from ‘C’ Company of the Malay Regiment, now a museum to honour our nation’s first heroes.
Gathering intelligence about the enemy from artefacts and information panels, the enlistees discovered they were outmatched severely by a veteran force steeled by years of war experience, armed with cutting edge weaponry, and guided by the unmatchable bushido code and indomitable leaders…
“I’m never going to make it back from this war.”
That realisation arrived in the form of an activity requiring enlistees to pen down someone or something that they treasure the most, taking a last look at it, and to the horror of everyone, rip the paper to shreds!
Hands quivered, hearts clenched and tears welled, as our young enlistees relinquished what they cherished… Much like the Malay Regiment soldiers in the prime of their youth, trading their tranquil village lives and their tender family ties for the certainty of death in the defence of Singapore.
That’s the sacrifice of our heroes in war – what they left behind that will never be theirs ever again.
But the soldiers were not the only ones who sacrificed…
Interviewing a masterful parent in the role of ‘Madam Saadiah’: a woman widowed by her husband’s choice to honour his duty, enlistees discovered the anguish of a wife losing her pillar of strength; a mother forfeiting her partner; a person watching through foggy tears of reluctance as her better half walked away into flames of war.
That’s the sacrifice of people in war – who they let go whom will never be theirs ever again.
The context was set. The enlistees’ minds made up. It’s time to prepare for war.
Learning from the examples of heroes like Lieutenant Adnan bin Saidi, enlistees discussed and decided on the ammunition needed to fight the Japanese. They were not concrete ones like bullets, but more importantly that which resides within each and everyone of them: acts of courage and perseverance, along with the importance of these virtues when confronted with the inferno of battle.
Time to put our young soldiers to the test!
The enlistees set off, squad by squad, crouching for cover across an ominous terrain…
Springing from the hedges, two berserked Japanese soldiers charged towards the startled squads!
IT’S AN AMBUSH!
FWEEEEET!!! A sharp, stinging whistle sped through the air! Everyone froze.
The sergeant who blew the whistle calmly approached the enlistees. Placing a hand on the ‘frozen’ enlistees, he inquired into the soldiers’ state of mind.
“What are you thinking right now? What are you feeling?”
“What is the first thing you wanted to do when ambushed?”
“You found out you have no ammunition left. What are you going to do?”
“Your squad is in a state of panic. What are you going to say to them?”
Whilst some enlistees admitted their thoughts of fear and retreat, many found it within themselves to press on:
“I’ll never give up!”
“This is it! I’ll give it everything I have!”
“Let’s go, everyone! This is what we’re here for!”
And toward the enemy they lunged.
No more enlistees, they were soldiers now, with semangat in their hearts.
When the dust settled and the battle won with courage and perseverance, like leagues of heroes in the past, it was time to honour the brave.
The honour of creating a crest fell now to the creative hands of the soldiers: an expression of their understanding of semangat, and a reminder to display the courage and perseverance in everything they do.
Finally, it was the time everyone was waiting for: graduation!
Our young, honourable soldiers – naive enlistees no more – marched forward, chest full of pride and beaming with fulfilment, to receive Graduation Certificates from our Commanding Officer. They have gone through a lot to get here.
With a last military tradition, the soldiers excitedly placed their jockey caps over their hearts, and with a unanimous swing, hoisted them into the cerulean sky, peppering the blue with their glorious joy!
With their caps off, our soldiers now reprised their identities as students and stood in front of those who actually fought and died at the ground beneath their feet: the Roll of Honour for the men from ‘C’ Company, The Malay Regiment.
For these 42 men who bore the brunt of the Japanese attack on Bukit Chandu, it was not a school-based learning journey, neither was it something they could ‘unhook’ from: it was real.
Their semangat, their struggles, and their death, was all too real.
“We are here, celebrating Singapore’s 50th year of independence, because of men like these. Lion-hearted men, who gave their lives yesterday so that we can enjoy ours today.”
“At this moment, I would like everyone to, in your own way, thank these men, for the semangat they have shown and the sacrifice they made.”
Some of those who were still wearing their caps took it off, placed it at their hearts, and bowed their heads.
Some saluted the Roll of Honour.
But in every student’s eyes, and surely in their hearts, was the silent appreciation of the callous hands that planted the seed into the grim earth of Singapore’s history – a seed which bestowed the fruits in which they revel in today.
“Bukit Chandu: The Last Stand” is the first part in a project to redesign Social Studies learning journeys in Singapore. The focus of the teacher-initiated ‘Project LIFE’ is to place inquiry and experience at the centre of beyond-the-classroom learning across three learning journeys, progressing from the beginnings of Singapore (Project Seed) to its modernisation (Project Roots), and lastly its present (Project Fruit).