More Than A Job - Kannaya Somu: Guardian of the war dead

Photo: Cheah Wenqi/Yahoo Singapore
Photo: Cheah Wenqi/Yahoo Singapore

More Than a Job

Whatever your chosen craft, vocation or profession, we all have work to do. In an occasional series, Yahoo Singapore talks to individuals who have chosen unique, unconventional and distinctive careers. For some, it’s about passion. Others have a sense of duty. But for all of them, it’s more than a job.

As manager of the CWGC Kranji War Memorial for the past seven and a half years, Kannaya Somu has seen his fair share of unwelcome visitors to what is sacred ground. They range from animals like wild boars, snakes and iguanas to teenagers sneaking into the grounds after hours to have picnics and parties.

But nothing can top the night when the 62-year-old heard noises coming from the shrubbery near the house where he lives on site. With flashlight in hand and his dog Tyson barking incessantly, Somu went to investigate.

“This couple, poly students, were having their love at the bush. I was taken aback, they saw me, they were shocked,” said the father of three, still bemused by the memory. “I said, what the hell, this is not a place for you to do that, you can have it somewhere else, but not here.”

Somu ended up handing the amorous couple over to a policeman who patrols the grounds every night. “That is one incident that I will never forget,” he said, chuckling.

(Video by Nurul Amirah)

CWGC Kranji War Memorial sits on a hill at 9 Woodlands Road, a stone’s throw away from Kranji MRT station and accessible via three flights of stairs. It holds the remains of some 4,461 servicemen who died in the Malayan campaign and the Battle of Singapore during World War II. More than 24,000 names of servicemen whose remains were never found are also engraved on the Singapore Memorial, located at the top of the hill. The site has been in existence since 1946.

Somu is the third man to manage the cemetery since 1975. He is an employee of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), which operates in 23,000 locations in 154 countries. It employs around 1,300 staff. The cost of maintaining the various grounds is provided by the partner governments of the Commonwealth nations, who share the cost of the Commission’s work proportionate to the number of their graves.

With his love of horticulture and as a former Singapore Armed Forces regular of 30 years, Somu is uniquely qualified for the job. “Though I have not seen war…today, I have the honour to serve the heroes who fought for our country, and that’s the least that I can do.”

Daily maintenance

Photo: Cheah Wenqi/Yahoo Singapore
Photo: Cheah Wenqi/Yahoo Singapore

Ironically, before taking on the job, Somu had not been aware of the memorial’s existence. After his retirement from the SAF, he found out about the role through his father-in-law, also a former regular, who had connections at the CWGC. Though he was the last of 65 applicants, Somu educated himself thoroughly about the memorial and landed the job.

And despite the initial reluctance of his wife to live on site – a requirement for the cemetery manager – his family has grown to love the memorial. “The best thing about this place here is, it’s so quiet in the night. It’s so peaceful. My children are able to concentrate very well on their education, and there’s no disturbance from the neighbours whatsoever.”

Somu supervises a staff of 10, including a head gardener, in their daily upkeep of the site. Their tasks include trimming the plants, mowing the grass and renovating damaged turf. Cracked or damaged headstones are also replaced regularly by civilian contractors – in 2016 alone, 216 headstones were replaced.

Photo: Cheah Wenqi/Yahoo Singapore
Photo: Cheah Wenqi/Yahoo Singapore

Somu walks the grounds every day with his bamboo stick, which comes in handy to deal with errant snakes that he encounters. All of his staff hail from India. “We should have local workers,” lamented Somu. “But because of their education level, if you ask them to come here and pluck out grass, they wouldn’t want to do that.”

The memorial receives at least one VIP visit every month, be they ministers, generals and diplomats from the Commonwealth or British royalty. Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, and his wife Catherine came in 2012, while Princess Anne – daughter of Queen Elizabeth II – visited in 2016.

During the memorial service on Wednesday (15 February) to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore, Singapore’s Chief of Defence Force Perry Lim and Australian High Commissioner Bruce Gosper were among the guests.

Somu takes pride in the compliments of visitors, whether foreign or local. “They tell me, the cemetery is gorgeous. Your guys are doing an outstanding job.”

Lest we forget

A register of all the war dead interred in Kranji War Cemetery and the rest of Singapore. Photo: Cheah Wenqi/Yahoo Singapore
A register of all the war dead interred in Kranji War Cemetery and the rest of Singapore. Photo: Cheah Wenqi/Yahoo Singapore

Outside Somu’s office on the grounds sits a register with the names of all the war dead interred in Singapore, whether at Kranji or other sites like the Chua Chu Kang Jewish Cemetery. He has often had occasion to refer to it over the years, as the loved ones and family members of the fallen come calling.

“They will knock on the door and say, can you please show me where is this headstone? Then I will bring them to the ground. The sad thing is, it’s very painful to the heart. They will just squat down there and they will start crying.”

About four years back, an elderly lady from London came in search of her husband’s grave. “She just sat down there and started crying, her children were all beside her. It’s a very sad moment,” recalled Somu.

With WWII a distant memory, local visitors to the grounds – be they full-time national servicemen, students or ordinary members of the public – are often unaware of the memorial’s existence. So Somu spends time talking to them about the significance of the site. “The younger generation must know. We do not want this to be forgotten…because these are historical stories,” said Somu.

And while Somu hopes to stay in the job for at least another decade, he has already put in a request to the CWGC that his own remains be interred at the cemetery. After all, some of his predecessors have their final resting place there.

“It’s a place where I feel a belonging because I was a soldier too.”

Look out for the next instalment of More Than A Job.

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