Forgotten Names Recalled: The Singapore Cenotaph Project


Recently I gave a talk in one of the libraries here in Singapore. Because it was a specialist library on the Chinese community I was asked if the usual talk I give could be altered. I agreed, and in fact suggested topics that were included in the book Forgotten Names Recalled: Stories from the Singapore Cenotaph under the chapter 'The War Effort in Singapore'. Had I'd known how much more research this would entail I would have stuck with the original version.

It isn't that I didn't know the topic. I did. It was finding illustrations for the inevitable PowerPoint presentation. It appears that nowadays every speaker must have slides. Searching for pictures that would help hold an audience's attention was not the most trying part of adjusting the talk. Modifying those pictures to fit neatly into the presentation was long and fiddly and I am not sure entirely worth it for just one outing.

Nevertheless, the exercise did bring in some extra information which I hadn't come across because I never looked for it. The project is not about the war in Singapore, it’s about the men named on the cenotaph. But since I now have some interesting in pictures I thought I would share three to another group of forgotten people, this time with no names.

Because of the war tin and rubber prices suffered. Tin and rubber were the two main commodities that made Singapore, Penang, Malacca and the rest of the Malayan Peninsula well off and able to employ migrant workers from China, India and elsewhere, including Europe.

The government of the Federated Malay States brought in a repatriation scheme because so many of these low-paid workers were put out of their jobs. With no means of living and no means of returning home, they were viewed as a threat. They would have had no alternative but to find some means of staying alive, probably by breaking the law.

By November 1914, the date of the above newspaper excerpt, the prices of tin and rubber had recovered but repatriation was still taking place. It took another month to reverse the process of repatriation and allow immigration of new workers. Whether any of the repatriated men were able to return to Singapore and Malaya is unknown. Having put themsevles into debt to get here once, it is unlikely that were able to find the means to return. Most would have used the indentured system of an agent paying their fare upfront and repaying with the first few years' of their wages. Many would have left while still owing the agents for their original fare.

It may be hard to believe nowadays that Singapore still had rubber plantations during the First World War. One well-known estate was situated in the Bukit Timah area. 'Bukit Timah' means 'Tin Hill', a misnomer as there was never any tin in Singapore.

The largest tin-mining area was in the Kinta Valley in Perak, now Malaysia. The workers were mostly from China. Small shops offering goods and services sprang up around the mines and the living quarters. When war broke up these little businesses were hit in three different ways.

The first was that German goods were forbidden to be sold. German companies supplied many of the items for sale in small sundry stores, as we tend to call them. The second blow was that credit was called in. Most businesses, large and small, operated on a credit basis, ironically because the German companies had introduced a long-credit system that others had to follow or lose customers. Many small shops could not meet the debt at short notice and folded. The third and most immediate cause of businesses closing down was their customers were suddenly out of work as the mines stopped production. The London Exchange was suspended therefore there was no price for tin therefore tin was neither bought nor sold.

Ironically the war brought a boom in tin and rubber, beginning late in 1914, and made many a fortune for even the most mediocre of businessmen.

Rosemary Lim