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Talking to a War Survivor: Reflections of a Student Archivist

World War II was a time that countries fought to conquer new land and many others fought to protect their homeland. Singapore was no exception, many lives were lost in the battle for Singapore, even more vividly many survivors recount on the horrific moment when Singapore fell to the Japanese. This was a time that many of our grandparents would remember vividly as a time of fear and death.

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Museum visitors at the exhibit. Photo Credit: Rennes Lee

The history of World War II is told from the perspectives of the prisoners, military, head of state and political leaders.  However, the stories that quite often go unheard, are the stories of the ordinary men and women that survived the war.

The National Museum of Singapore’s Student Archivist Project is a step into the direction of creating a history where people tell their own stories. This project not only tells of past survivors but it gives students the life-changing opportunity to understand an important part of Singapore from war survivors.

A War Survivor’s Story

Mr David Leong, now 80 years old, recounts the time when Singapore fell to the Japanese. At that time, he was only five years old. His older brothers were sent to Operation Sook Ching, but thankfully they returned. A particularly difficult memory for Mr Leong was remembering the death of his younger brother.

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Mr Leong sharing an emotional memory.

Together with his family, they found planks to build a makeshift coffin to lay his younger brother inside. After which, they brought him to the Kallang River, and watched as it drifted away. Due to this sad memory, Mr Leong is unable to ever return to the Kallang River. Despite this traumatic memory, Mr Leong has learnt to remain positive and thankful for everything he has.

Reflections of a Student Archivist

Charlene Tan is currently a Year 3 student at Yale-NUS, majoring in history. She saw the National Museum of Singapore’s call for students to take part in the project, and she immediately jumped on the opportunity.

The training that the Museum provided for the students were invaluable, they were taught practical tools on how to conduct an interview on the sensitive and often traumatic experience of war. They were taught to respect boundaries and to give sufficient space to interviewees if their accounts became too emotional.

Having the opportunity to hear about the experiences of a war survivor from the survivor himself was eye-opening. “This experience provided me with a more intimate and personal understanding of the war.”  Charlene said.

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Charlene interviewing Mr Leong

Charlene’s love for history was only further heightened after this project. “This project gave me a more well rounded view of the war, from what appeared to be ordinary stories.”  This showed the importance of this history for not only her but its importance was for future generations.

Her efforts did not go unrecognised as her project, together with 4 other video projects, were chosen to be part of the Witness to War Exhibition. She was touched by the recognition, but more than that she was pleased to see how excited Mr Leong was for his story to be featured in the Museum.

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Charlene at the Witness to War Exhibition. Photo credit: Rennes Lee

“It was a proud moment and it was fulfilling to be part of this project and to be part of the archive” Charlene said.

The opportunity to be part of history is not often given to many people. Charlene is thankful not only to the museum for giving her this opportunity, but she is also thankful to Mr Leong for being such an inspiration.

“Treasure life more and be resilient. Go for your dreams, that was what I did.” Mr Leong said.

Witness to War: Remembering 1942

Venue: National Museum of Singapore (Nearest MRT: Dhoby Ghaut)

Date: 23rd September 2017 to 25th March 2018

Opening Hours: 10am – 7pm (Last Admission: 6.30pm)

Admission Fee: All Citizens and PR: Free / Adults: $18 / Students & Seniors: $14

For more details visit: http://nationalmuseum.sg/our-exhibitions/exhibition-list/witness-to-war-remembering-1942?sc_lang=en