Jan 26 2011
Sometimes I get the feeling Singapore doesn’t want visitors to know about places like the Battle Box. Maybe it’s because the events that happened here aren’t exactly a high point in local history or maybe it’s simply because most tourists come to Singapore to eat at hawker centres and shop, but the Battle Box remains surprisingly unknown and under-touristed.
Located perfectly between downtown and Orchard Road, Fort Canning Park is a hilly green space that’s best known as an open-air concert venue when acts like Lady Gaga come to town. But 9 metres below its immaculately tended lawns is a series of tunnels that were used as a command centre by British officers during World War 2. During the Battle of Singapore, the decision to surrender to the Japanese was made at the Battle Box on February 15, 1942, and it was sealed off shortly after. The story goes that the Battle Box was forgotten about after the war until it was rediscovered in 1988 and preserved as a museum with animatronic generals recreating its final day.
Before entering the tunnels, visitors are shown a short black and white film of the events leading up to Singapore’s fall – an adequate refresher for anyone who’s forgotten their history lessons. The tour through the 13 underground rooms is guided, but there’s also a wireless headset with an audio commentary available in 7 languages. As the tour moves room to room, the animatronic soldiers spring to life, operating radio switch boards and speaking in sync with the audio guide. Unless you’re familiar with historic names like General Percival their chatter can get a bit confusing, but propaganda posters and newspapers with falsely optimistic headlines posted on the bunker walls are often more interesting than the dialogue.
In the final room the senior officers are gathered around a large table strewn with maps and, after discussing the shortage of food and ammunition, make the hard decision to surrender unconditionally – something Winston Churchill would later call one of the “worst disasters” in British history. A video shows the generals’ procession with a Union Jack and white flag of surrender to the Japanese headquarters to meet General Yamashita. After the guided tour, visitors have a few minutes to explore the Battle Box on their own before the next group arrives. For a city with a habit of paving over everything old, everything in the Battle Box from the dank latrines to notes scrawled on the bunker walls in chalk has been immaculately preserved.
Singapore has a number of interesting WW2 sites, but the Battle Box is one of the most easily accessible and a tour takes less than one hour. You certainly won’t see it on any list of must-sees, but if you’re tired of malls and manufactured attractions then the Battle Box is a breath of (un)fresh air.
The Battle Box is located at 2 Cox Terrace, Fort Canning Park. Opening hours are 10:00 – 18:00 daily and admission is S$8 adults / S$5 children. T: (65) 6333 0510
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