Sime Road Camp
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Sime Road Camp is the site of the former combined Operational Headquarters of the British Army and Royal Air Force during World War II. Located along Sime Road, the 470-acre site was used as an internment camp during the Japanese Occupation. After the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, the camp was closed the following year and the buildings subsequently demolished. The National Heritage Board designated the site of Sime Road Camp a historic site in 2003.
Sime Road, where the camp was located, was named after Scotsman John Sime, who came to Malaya in 1909 and founded Sime, Darby & Company in 1910. When Sime was transferred to Singapore in 1915, he joined and became active in the Singapore Golf Club. He supervised the laying out of the Bukit Timah golf course. The road leading to the course was therefore named after him. He retired from Malaya in 1937, before the outbreak of World War II.
Military command centre
Sime Road Camp was the headquarters of the Air Force until early December 1941, when it became the consolidated operational headquarters of the British Army and Royal Air Force in Singapore. As the Commanding Officer for the Malayan Campaign and Battle of Singapore, General Arthur Percival ran military operations from this camp.
Japanese forces landed on the beaches of the northern Malay Peninsula on 8 December 1941, sweeping through Malaya and arriving in Singapore on 31 January 1942. By 11 February 1942, they had advanced to within one mile of the Sime Road Camp, forcing Percival and his forces to retreat to Fort Canning and abandon the camp. This retreat was followed by the capitulation of British forces to the Japanese on 15 February 1942.
During the Japanese Occupation, the Sime Road Camp was converted into an internment camp holding mainly British and European civilians. Among the more prominent internees in this camp was Lady Daisy Thomas, wife of former Straits Settlements Governor Shenton Thomas. Civilians with skills in essential service, such as electrical engineers, were often not interned but were put to work. They wore armbands identifying themselves as civilian enemy while at work.
Men and women had separate compounds within the camp. Even families were split up along gender lines. Among the limited facilities in the camp was St. David’s Church, a small church built by internees amid the many attap (palm leaf) huts in the camp. They occasionally received food items from the Red Cross but this was often distributed among the Japanese guards first, leaving only a few parcels for the prisoners.
During the period of internment, some of the activities that internees were allowed included attending religious services, growing a vegetable garden to supplement their food and doing camp repairs. Some internees were put to work in building projects such as the Syonan Jinja shrine in MacRitchie. The shrine was destroyed at the end of the war, but its ruins, marked as a historic site, can still be found in the forested area surrounding MacRitchie Reservoir.
In early 1945, towards the end of the Occupation, a small group of boys and girls secretly sat for the Cambridge School Certificate Examination at Sime Road Camp. This examination was organised by R. Cheeseman, former Deputy Director for Education in the Straits Settlements. Six students passed and obtained the School Certificate that year.
In 1944, more than 3,000 military prisoners from Changi were transferred to Sime Road Camp to make way for more prisoners from Selarang. Towards the end of the war, some prisoners who survived the building of the “Death Railway” in Burma were also interned at the camp. By the time of their release, there were 4,507 persons from 27 nationalities in the camp, including 1,023 women and 328 children. The British formed the largest proportion of the population but there were also significant numbers of Eurasians, Australians, Jews, Chinese and Poles. They were reportedly treated relatively better than prisoners of other Japanese camps in places such as Sumatra or even Changi in Singapore. However, many prisoners died in the camp, for instance, the editor and managing director of the Malay Mail, Mr. J. H. M. Robson. After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, Japanese administrators of the camp were arrested as the British military administration carried out a full investigation into the conditions in the Sime Road and Changi camps.
After the Japanese surrender, internees at Sime Road Camp were released by the following month. However, a curfew was initially imposed on released internees and they were advised to stay in the camp for their own safety. Released internees were given a small amount of money dubbed the “Freedom Fiver”. Non-Europeans were given half the amount that European internees were given, causing some unhappiness. Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten and Lady Mountbatten visited the camp in September 1945, bringing messages from relatives and friends overseas as well as food parcels.
During the subsequent months, Sime Road Camp became a place of transition for former prisoners before they could find accommodation or were repatriated. The use of Sime Road Camp as a transit camp for internees led to a great deal of unhappiness, since it meant that they had to return to their site of internment. It was also alleged that the camp was used because the prisoners’ homes in Singapore had been taken over by military authorities.
A few hundred internees were repatriated home by sea and air, but some internees were so dissatisfied with the conditions in the ships provided for them that they returned to the camp in protest. Some internees chose to stay behind to help in the rebuilding of Malaya and Singapore. Workers at the Sime Road Camp stayed on to look after the needs of the displaced people who were still in the camp. These people were largely unable to find employment or accommodation in Singapore, although they were local residents. The camp therefore became a transit centre for former internees and other such displaced persons. Social and recreational facilities were provided and sanitary conditions were improved. The inhabitants of the camp were known as “campers”. To help them, the colonial government gave cash grants to those leaving the camp. By October 1945, only about 351 people remained in the camp.
In July 1946, it was announced that the camp would be closed down and its remaining destitute campers were sent to settlement homes in Poh Leung Kuk at York Hill.
To the former prisoners interned in Sime Road Camp, the place has a personal historic significance that some of their descendents wish to preserve. For example, Alex Glendinning, the son of British internee Fred Glendinning, started a book project surrounding the experience of civilian internees.
In 2003, the site of Sime Road Camp became the fifth place in Singapore to be designated as a historic site by the National Heritage Board. Water-resistant boards explaining its historic significance were put up at the junction of Adam Road and Sime Road. The buildings at the site no longer exist as they were not gazetted national monuments. Some graves can be found near the storyboard but it is uncertain whether these graves date back to the Japanese Occupation.
1909 : John Sime arrived in Singapore.
1919 : The laying out of the Bukit Timah golf course began and was supervised by Sime. When it was completed, the road was named after him.
1941 :The Japanese landed in northern Malaya. The British Army and Armed Forces consolidated their headquarters at Sime Road Camp under General Arthur Percival.
1942 : The British surrendered to the Japanese. The camp was converted to a Japanese prison camp where British and European civilians were interned.
1944 : More than 3,000 military prisoners were moved from Changi Prison to Sime Road Camp.
1945 : The Japanese surrendered in August. Prisoners at Sime Road Camp were released soon after.
1946 : Sime Road Camp was closed down.
2003 : The site of Sime Road Camp was designated as a historic site by the National Heritage Board.
Faizah binte Zakaria
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Cecil Street memories. (1945, September 13). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved January 23, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
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Exams in secret, interned boys and girls pass. (1945, December 18). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved February 3, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Freedom Fiver. (1945, October 11). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved February 3, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
From internee to “camper” in Sime Road. (1945, October 15). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved January 23, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
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Sime Road Camp is closed. (1946, August 23). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved February 3, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Sime Rd. Camp: Questions Asked in Parliament. (1946, April 28). The Straits Times, p.1. Retrieved February 3, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
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The information in this article is valid as at 2011 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.
Architecture and Landscape>>Building Types>>Military Sites
World War, 1939-1945--Concentration camps--Singapore
Singapore--History--Japanese occupation, 1942-1945
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