Do they remember the 15th of February?

There have been several references to the results of this roadside poll by The Straits Times, mostly as a result of the last paragraph in “Fall of Singapore remembered by survivors,” by Lindsay Murdoch. The Age, 16 Feb 2012 [pdf], which reads:

“A street poll conducted by the Singapore Straits Times found that many Singaporeans did not recognise the date while others confused it with Racial Harmony Day or joked it was Valentine’s Day.”

That was artfully inserted, I thought, and many indeed decried the ignorance of our youth or the way they are taught as a result. Well, I wanted to find out just how much “many was”. But it was difficult to find the article, even for an ST subscriber like myself. Eventually though, I did and here it is below, for you to judge. Nice idea to try the poll, I must say.

As it turns out my reaction when reading the article was one of pleasant surprise – of 100 youth polled, 36 knew 15th February was the date Singapore fell while 25 identified it as Total Defence Day.

Sure, we need to improve they way we tell the stories, and get past our conflicts about how and what we tell about the events surrounding World War II. Then I think back and realise I was not taught about Singapore’s history in school! I wonder how long ago that gap lasted – I did read the books older students were using and in those I learnt about the Fall of Singapore.

This year, on the 14th of February, I watched as primary school kids learn about the Battle of Singapore in Reflections of Bukit Chandu. I think they’ll remember.

“What Feb 15 means to young people,” by Kenneth Goh, Chen Shanshan and Denise Cheong. The Straits Times, 15 Feb 2012.

“On the 70th anniversary of the fall of Singapore, four World War II survivors, now in their 70s and 80s, recall how the wartime experience wiped out their childhood innocence and honed their survival skills

Mention Feb 15, 1942, and some young Singaporeans do not associate it with the day that Singapore fell to Japanese troops during World War II.

In a Life! street poll of 100 Singaporeans between the ages of 15 and 25, 39 did not recognise the date.

However, 36 people did know that was the date Singapore fell, and 25 recognised Feb 15 as Total Defence Day. Those how did not know the significance of Feb 15 confused the date with Racial Harmony Day on July 21 and some even joked that Feb 15 is not Valentine’s Day.

Those who do remember the historical significance of the date attribute their awareness to social studies and history lessons in school.

Singapore Management University student Lorraine Loh, 21, who is studying political science, says: ‘Most people don’t remember it well because all we know is that Singapore was this ‘impregnable fortress’, which we learnt in primary and secondary school social studies. If I were not studying history recently, I would not really remember the significance.’

Entrepreneur Mohamad Saddiqi, 23, on the other hand, takes the day quite seriously. The history buff sets aside a few minutes of his time on this day each year to reflect on the tragic chapter in Singapore’s history.

‘It happened on the first day of Chinese New Year, which is considered an auspicious day,’ he says. ‘But if you look at it in a different light, it is also a good wake-up call for Singaporeans not to be over-dependent on outsiders.’

Student Lisa Tan, 21, from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) shares the same view. She says: ‘We are always celebrating the rise and success of Singapore, but no one seems to talk about the fall, which is actually more significant.’

Those who know this day as Total Defence Day mostly recall how it was commemorated during their school years with food- and water-rationing activities and the sounding of the siren five minutes after noon.

Some schools also simulate the tough living conditions of wartime with canteen vendors selling only steamed sweet potatoes and tapioca on the day.

Some students are also given ration coupons to ‘buy’ these food.

Another NTU student Luo Xi En, 21, remembers ordering a bowl of sweet potato porridge at the canteen during a Total Defence Day when she was attending Zhonghua Secondary School.

She recalls: ‘It was a strange experience as we do not eat such simple fare usually and I still felt hungry after finishing the bowl of porridge.’

According to the Ministry of Education National Education website, Total Defence Day is remembered in schools every year to mark Singapore’s fall to the Japanese in 1942. It serves to remind students that Singapore is defensible and is worth defending and citizens must defend the island themselves.

NTU student Pang Ruiting, 21, remembers that the lights and fans in her primary school, Ai Tong School, were switched off to commemorate Total Defence Day.

‘Most of us would have forgotten by now because we are too comfortable with our lives,’ she says. ‘National education is emphasised in primary school, but after that, studies become more important.'”

Singapore Free Press, 26 Jan 1942


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