What’s Up, Singapore’s newspaper for students, askedEducation Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng about World War II. Whyis it important that today’s young Singaporeans know about events75 years ago?
What’s Up: Unlike our previous Education Ministers, youwere born after independence — long after World War II. Are therestories your own parents or grandparents have shared with youabout the Battle for Singapore and the Japanese Occupation thathave especially moved or touched you?
Mr Ng: I remember my mum talking about the hardships of war.My grandfather went into hiding during Operation Sook Ching (aterm that means “purge through cleansing”). During this time,Chinese men between the ages of 18 and 50 were called toscreening centres and many were executed. I never met mygrandfather, but I heard about his experience through mymother.
My mother also talked about the hardships of day to day lifeat that time. Most meals were made up of tapioca. Eating an eggwas a luxury. Most importantly, she was very sad and lamentedthat she missed the opportunity of getting an education. She hadto support her family and started working at a young age as aseamstress.
These stories left a deep impression on me. It was an impactfor life. They made me realise the importance of Total Defence tokeep Singapore safe. I heard these stories from my mother, andnow it is our turn to share these stories in today’s context withour children, so they, too, understand the importance of keepingSingapore safe.
Singapore is safe today, but we cannot take peace for granted.We have peace in Singapore today, but that is because we put alot of effort into making that happen.
Ng Chee Meng was a general in the Singapore Armed Forces before he joined the government in 2015. In addition to being the Minister for Education (Schools), he is also Second Minister for Transport.
What’s Up: You once led the Singapore Armed Forces as Chiefof Defence Force. Do you think Singapore is better able to defenditself now than in 1942?
Mr Ng: Absolutely. Firstly we have better weapons. Mostimportantly, Singaporeans have the will to keep Singaporesafe.
In 1942, we were not the most important piece in the BritishEmpire’s war strategy. “Fortress” Singapore was given second-rateweapons to defend itself. But when we became a nation-state, wemade a promise to stand up for ourselves. We decided to getbetter weapons and also train our sons, young Singaporeans, toprotect ourselves. That is what has made the difference. This isworth celebrating. We stand up for ourselves. This year, we willhave 50 years of National Service.
It is terrible when one can’t defend oneself and everythingthat matters to you. A war puts everything we love in danger –brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, friends. You may be hearingor reading about what is happening to the children in Syria, whatIraq is going through. We are happy that our neighbourhood isrelatively peaceful. But we should never take peace for granted.We should always be prepared for the worst – war – but alwaysremember that our main aim is to keep peace.
What’s Up: As a former air force pilot, you must treatmilitary defence very seriously. But your own children aredaughters, who won’t be called up for National Service. What doyou tell them and other girls about their role in defendingSingapore?
Mr Ng: There are many ways of contributing to a strongerSingapore. Gender does not make a difference. There are fiveaspects to Total Defence. You can play a part in making sure thatSingaporeans of all races get along and are kind andunderstanding of one another; you can contribute to the country’seconomy to make sure that all of us are doing well together; youcan be a resilient person who is able to take the right actionfor the country’s good… there are many ways in which everyone cancontribute to Singapore.
In fact I believe that a stronghold of society are ourmothers. They strengthen the family, build relationships incommunities, nurture the young – these are all components ofTotal Defence.
Defence is not the domain of the men, but all of us. Ourdaughters will stand up for Singapore, and some have also chosenthe military path.
What’s Up: Singapore looks completely different from whatit must have been like 1942, so it is hard to imagine the settingfor the Battle for Singapore. But is there any historic site intoday’s Singapore that you think is very evocative?
Mr Ng: The Former Ford Factory in Bukit Timah is one of them.This is where the British forces surrendered to the Japaneseafter the Battle of Singapore. But if I had to choose, I wouldchoose Sentosa.
Sentosa was a military base during the Second World War, butthe guns were facing south because the British expected theJapanese to come from that direction. The Japanese came from thenorth. It’s a good place in which to understand what went wrongwith the British strategy against the Japanese.
Sentosa was also a prisoner of war camp. During Operation SookChing, which I mentioned earlier, Chinese men suspected of beinganti-Japanese were killed on the beach. There are many poignantlessons to be learnt here. To me it is a reminder of howimportant it is for Singaporeans to be at the top of our game,and take Total Defence seriously, not just at war times, but intimes of peace to ensure war does not dawn upon Singapore.
Mr Ng with students from Princess Elizabeth Primary on the first day of school this year.
Picture credits: Australian War Memorial; Ministry of Defence; Ministry of Education.