By Emily Sharp, PGR at the University of Leeds
For my Masters by Research degree at the University of Leeds I examined, in part, how the national perceptions of Australia and Britain of both the prisoner of war and civilian internee camps at Changi differ. The project found that they are all individually and deliberatively selective in their portrayal of the Japanese occupation which works to reinforce the desired national image of each country.
In Australia, news articles during 1942 and 1943 focused on reporting basic facts that relatives at home would need to know about the internment of Australians in Singapore, such as the number of people captured and where they were being held. The lack of detail in these reports was mostly due to the fact that little information was actually coming out of Singapore as the Japanese were censoring the news and those who had been interned were restricted from being able to send mail often.
In 1944 a change in the reports on Changi can begin to be seen as some men had managed to escape during transportation to Japan and return to Australia. This escape allowed the Australian press to begin to report their first detailed stories of what their citizens were experiencing with the Imperial Japanese Army in control. The Australian press chose to focus on the atrocities carried out against the Chinese during the Sook Ching massacre and how the Australians had been made to dig mass graves for the victims. This allowed the Japanese to be portrayed as being a barbaric enemy whilst simultaneously letting the Australian public feel like there was no particular threat against their citizens that were still interned as the Chinese were bearing the brunt of the brutality.
Following the war, the press in Australia began to unveil the true conditions that those interned had been exposed to. This was utilised to instil a nationalistic sense of pride in the troops by portraying them as those whose spirit, patriotism and endurance had allowed them to emerge from their internment victorious and alive. It is this theme of being proud of the Australian spirit which got the POWs through their ordeal and which the Australian press still focuses on today. Unlike Britain, the Second World War in the Pacific was the major theatre for action for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) and this is therefore the main point of focus for Second World War history within Australia. By centring the Second World War story around Changi and the other atrocities which have been connected to it as one single narrative for the history of the nation, the war can be presented in a proud and patriotic way. In general, the story follows this pattern: Singapore’s fall was mainly the fault of the British and, as a result, Australian forces were interned at Changi before being shipped to work on the Burma-Thai railway. Many died, but those men who survived did so because of their Australian spirit and returned home battered but victorious. This pattern allows the negative aspects of history, such as the defeat, to be glossed over by blaming another nation. This then stacks the odds against their own citizens who, through no fault of their own, now need to do anything to survive. The reason they survive is because they are Australian (they contain and use the spirit that all Australians as a nation perceive themselves to have). Therefore, the POW story can now be perceived as a period in which Australians survived and had the upper hand because they were Australian.
Britain reported near identical stories as Australia did in 1942 and 1943 and for much the same reasons (Japanese censorship and limited information flow). Britain did not however, have anyone escape and return during the occupation and so the lack of specific news also continued throughout 1944. The minor exceptions to this were the small pieces of information here and there in the local press when a loved one from the community had received a letter from a POW or civilian internees in Changi informing them that they were alright. This was used to reassure the public that their men and women were holding up in internment just fine and there was not much to be worried about. This also allowed the public to remain focused on the war in Europe which was of greater concern and scale and involved more manpower than that in the Pacific.
In 1945, with the war in the West now over, the British press too began to report about the dreadful conditions experienced by those who were now returning home after their internment. In a similar way to the idea of the Australian spirit, Britain used this to perpetuate its underdog style self-image. These prisoners who had everything going against them managed to survive and return home despite the odds and therefore emerge victorious. Again, it can be seen that this is being utilised to allow the public to feel a nationalistic pride for their men and to hold them up as heroes as the fact that Singapore originally capitulated is glossed over, almost forgotten, in favour of this portrayal.
It is this post-war reporting that has carried over into the modern day and led to the British perception of Changi as a brutal place that was difficult to survive in, despite both prisoners of war and civilian internees returning home. Thus, the British underdogs win again. It allows the defeat of the British to be pushed back in favour of their stories of survival and small victories of misbehaviour against the Imperial Japanese Army during captivity. Again, this is then used to fuel a portrayal of heroism in the image of those who had been interned and to give the nation something to take pride in.
Overall, Australia and Britain present similar perceptions of Changi but place different amounts of significance on events that took place there due to their differing levels of involvement in the Second World War. It would seem that in summary, Australia and Britain’s perceptions are focused on pride of the past actions of their citizens.
Text adapted from: Sharp, E.J.M.S 2018. National memories of the Second World War in Changi, Singapore: Australian, British, and Singaporean perspectives. Master of Arts by Research thesis, University of Leeds