National Monuments Of Singapore: Civilian War Memorial
Welcome to the first in a series of pieces on Wonderwall.sg that help you (re)discover Singapore's National Monuments. What is a National Monument? Who gazettes them? How many national monuments are there in Singapore? To date, the Preservation of Sites and Monuments, a division of National Heritage Board, has identified and gazetted 75 buildings, structures and sites of national significance as an integral part of Singapore’s built heritage.
And we're here to tell you all about them - one National Monument at a time!
Ok mai tu liao, let's get straight to it. Here they all are on a Google Map we specially created. Every Wonderwall.sg logo, or "W", indicates a spot where a National Monument of Singapore is located:
You've probably passed by or stepped into more than a few of them without realising they were National Monuments: Al-Abrar Mosque, Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), Saint Andrew's Cathedral, the Esplanade Park Memorials, Fort Siloso on Sentosa - no need to plan an itinerary for friends visiting from overseas; just show them this article ✌️
Fun fact: The Padang (the site of Singapore's first National Day Parade on 9 Aug 1966, and the venue for NDP 2023) is the 75th and most recent National Monument, and was gazetted as one on National Day in 2022.
But let's turn our attention instead to one of Singapore's most important monuments: the Civilian War Memorial.
The towering structure can be found within the War Memorial Park, right opposite Raffles City.
📅 Significant dates
Date built: 1963-1967
Date unveiled: 15 Feb 1967. Every year on 15 February (which commemorates the Fall of Singapore to the Japanese on 15 Feb 1942), an inter-religious memorial service is held at the Civilian War Memorial. Also known as Total Defence Day, it is an occasion that serves as a reminder that we must take ownership for the protection of Singapore.
Date gazetted as National Monument: 15 Aug 2023
When you visit the monument, you're actually standing atop a gravesite. A burial chamber is housed beneath the Civilian War Memorial. | IMAGE: NG KAI
A sombre reminder of a dark chapter in Singapore's history, the Civilian War Memorial was built to remember the civilian victims of the Japanese Occupation (1942-45).
Mass graves found post-Japanese Occupation
During excavation works carried out around Singapore during the 1950s and 60s to lay the foundation for residential and industrial projects, multiple mass graves were found. In one year alone (1962), the bodily remains of thousands of civilian victims were unearthed in several places.
The massacres were a result of Operation Sook Ching (肃清), a brutal undertaking by the Japanese in an effort to quash anti-Japanese elements during the warring period. Thousands of innocent civilians were randomly arrested at screening centres, transported to various locations around Singapore, murdered and hurriedly buried in those mass graves.
As you ascend the steps to the structure, ponder over the fact that beneath the raised platform is a vault that holds the victims’ remains in 606 urns. | IMAGE: NG KAI
IMAGE: NG KAI
Resettling the victims' remains
What is known today as the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) was then called the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce (SCCC). The organisation took the responsibility of restoring dignity to the victims' remains by excavating and resettling them.
On 19 March 1963, the SCCC started a Memorial Building Fund Committee to collect funds for a proposed structure, after the Government had put aside a plot of land on Beach Road for a memorial park. In addition, the SCCC matched public contributions dollar-for-dollar.
The base of the memorial displays the words "Memorial to the Civilian Victims of the Japanese Occupation, 1942–1945" in Singapore’s four official languages. | IMAGE: NG KAI
📐 Design and architecture
Design firms submitted blueprints as part of an architectural competition for the new memorial. The competition called for the winning design to express the feelings of "solemnity, tranquillity, courage and sorrow". Swan & Maclaren, the same firm that designed the Cenotaph, won the competition with their proposal of 12 parallel sets of sweeping interconnected fins forming a grand archway.
The initial winning design was later revised to become the monument we see today. Construction began in 1963, and was completed in January 1967, and costing approximately $450,000. It was unveiled by the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on 15 February the same year, which marked the 25th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore in 1942.
IMAGE: NG KAI
The 61m-tall structure comprises four columns, each representing one of the four ethnic groups in Singapore (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasians), a reminder that regardless of race, it is imperative that we stand strong together as one Singapore in order to guard against threats to our safety and sovereignty.
🕗 Opening hours