Revamped Reflections at Bukit Chandu tells of war and opium history

SINGAPORE – Never-before-seen footage of wartime hero Adnan Saidi is now part of an immersive exhibition at the revamped Reflections at Bukit Chandu that brings to life the valour of the Malay Regiment during World War II.

After three years of redevelopment, the World War II museum in Kent Ridge Park – sited not far from where the soldiers made their last stand – reopens on Thursday (Sept 9).

Its exhibition will be a rich, multimedia retelling of the Malay Regiment’s last stand on Pasir Panjang Hill against overwhelming Japanese troops, moments before Singapore’s surrender.

Where visitors used to have just an unmoving bronze bust to imagine Lieutenant Adnan, who fought to his death in the Battle of Pasir Panjang in 1942, he is now brought to life with pre-war footage. With touching vivacity, he is seen drilling his troops during a ceremonial parade.

First opened in 2002, Reflections at Bukit Chandu was closed in 2018 for major redevelopment works, and its experience has been updated to keep with the times.

While previously hand-cut figures in a box with simple animation as background were used to tell the soldiers’ story, a multimedia show now takes up an entire room – with flashes of light, thunderous sound effects and an Edwin Thumboo poem. Augmented reality features will be installed later, the museum said.

Over three days in 1942, a 13,000-strong Japanese force – more than a third of its troops deployed in Singapore – was met with defiance by 1,400 soldiers of the Malay Regiment, an experimental creation by the British to give military training and employment to young Malays.

They fought valiantly, many to their deaths, and are to this day hailed as national heroes.

Lt Adnan, despite being mortally wounded, had fought on and was later caught, shot and bayoneted. His body is said to have been hung upside down from a tree.

Ms Chung May Khuen, director of the National Museum of Singapore, said: “Reflections at Bukit Chandu commemorates the tenacity and heroism of the Malay Regiment in the Battle of Pasir Panjang, a key moment in Singapore’s World War II history.

“It complements the National Museum’s World War II galleries and the recently revamped Changi Chapel and Museum’s story of the prisoners of war and civilians interned at Changi prison camp. Together, these interlinked narratives piece together the story of World War II in Singapore.”

The stories told remain relevant to people’s lives and can hopefully inspire and resonate with visitors, she said.

Next February, Singapore commemorates the 80th anniversary of its surrender.

Perhaps the most obvious change at Reflections at Bukit Chandu is that the iconic sculpture of the mortar crew of the Malay Regiment has been moved from the back of the building to the front. The sculpture, which had been created based on archival footage, now announces the compound’s purpose even before visitors enter the centre.

But the revamped museum also differs from its predecessor in another significant way.

A room on the second floor of the museum replicates the work station in the opium packing plant. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

There is a greater focus on the site’s pre-war history – its role as an opium centre before the war and how inhabitants of the bungalow would have lived and looked out to see the bustling harbour.

Bukit Chandu means opium hill in Malay and, before the war, had an opium packing plant at its foot. Opium processed in a factory in Telok Blangah was sent to Pasir Panjang to be packed before being sold to smokers.

A room on the second floor of the museum replicates the work station in the opium packing plant. Hydraulic machines hang over benches where female workers would have sat and packed the opium into containers.

An opium pipe is on display at the Bukit Chandu museum. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

An opium pipe is on display. Visitors are told of how pioneer social reformers Dr Chen Su Lan and Dr Lim Boon Keng tried to get the drug outlawed and set up an opium treatment clinic.

A lounge area helps visitors imagine how occupants of the bungalow would have enjoyed the sea breeze and view of the Singapore Strait. Items excavated from the bungalow, including blue glass from a medicine bottle and a vitamin supplement for dogs are on show.

A mysterious amulet, inscribed with Thai words, was also dug up, and is believed to likely belong to a Thai construction worker in the area.

A lounge area helps visitors imagine how occupants of the bungalow would have enjoyed the sea breeze and view of the Singapore Strait. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

An outdoor installation of a pineapple cart reminds visitors that pineapple plantations used to dot the area and the fruit was exported out of Singapore in the 19th century.

Curator Iskander Mydin said: “We wanted a more inclusive history. Apart from the Malay Regiment – and that is important – we also added the colonial residents of the bungalow, which is the last surviving one here, and the opium history.

“There is a longer history to the bungalow, so we have tried to pay attention to this in the treatment of this site.”

Entry to the museum, which is now wheelchair- and stroller-accessible, is free for Singapore citizens and permanent residents.

Programmes, including a self-guided scavenger hunt, are planned for the museum’s opening weekend on Sept 11 and 12.

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