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SINGAPORE — Confined four to a cell barely the size of a room in an HDB flat, often thousands of miles from home and loved ones while subsisting on meagre rations, the internees of Changi prison camp found a myriad of ways to survive during the Japanese Occupation. Many turned to religion, music, education and more.
Among them was civilian internee Arthur Westrop, who kept a diary in the form of lengthy letters to his wife in Rhodesia - present-day Zimbabwe - from December 1942 and hid it beneath floorboards from his captors. One entry reads, "I myself feel that 'If I should die today,' I have had a very fair share of this life’s pleasures, joy and sadness too, but I should hate to pass on until I have had a chance of seeing what the children are making of their lives, Alastair in particular."
When he was finally released in 1944, Westrop's diary ran to 400 pages.
The diary, a gift from Westrop's family, is one of 82 new artefacts and objects that will be on display at the storied Changi Chapel and Museum (CCM) when it reopens next Wednesday (19 May), three years after it shuttered its doors for a major revamp.
Other noteworthy items include a Kodak Baby Brownie camera, given to Sergeant John Ritchie Johnston by his wife and hidden throughout his incarceration, a toothbrush fashioned from scratch and a matchbox containing a hidden Morse code transmitting device.
There will also be old favourites such as the Changi Cross, crafted by prisoners of war (POWs) from the casing of an artillery shell, and the recreated Changi Murals, with Biblical scenes which Bombardier Stanley Warren first painted in Robert's Barracks using improvised materials like crushed chalk and brushes made with human hair.
In all, 114 artefacts spread across eight galleries will tell the stories of POWs and civilians interned in Changi. The National Museum of Singapore worked closely with members of the public and interest groups, as well as the families of former internees, to collect stories and personal objects for the exhibitions. Of the new items, 37 of them are loans and gifts from the public.
The internees included tens of thousands of Australian and British troops who fought in the Battle of Singapore. Many were sent to work on the notorious Death Railway, never to return. By 1945, more than 90,000 people would pass through Changi.
One notable civilian internee was the late war heroine Elizabeth Choy, who was imprisoned and tortured for aiding POWs in Changi.
After the war, Changi also served both as a detention area for accused war criminals awaiting trial and the site of one of the courts for the tribunals. Those found guilty were either executed there or served their terms in Changi.
“Whatever personal artefacts one has, there is a story behind it. It is the power of the personal object to convey the story behind it,” said exhibition curator Iskander Mydin, who worked on the project with fellow curator Rachel Eng for two-and-a-half years. Both are part of the National Museum's curatorial team.
Guided tours of the gallery and a recorded orchestral performance based on the experiences of the POWs will be presented during its opening weekend on 22 and 23 May. In light of ongoing safe management measures, visitors are encouraged to pre-book their museum admission tickets and sign up for the opening weekend programmes ahead of their visit from 17 May.
Admission is free for Singapore citizens and permanent residents, with tickets for tourists and foreign residents starting from $5. To commemorate the reopening of CCM, all visitors will enjoy free admission from 19 - 30 May.
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