The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.


On this page:

  • POWs in Singapore
  • Modern Relations


POWs in Singapore

Singapore, strategically located in the Strait of Malacca between the Pacific and Indian oceans, was chosen as the site of a major British naval base in 1919. The British anticipated that in the event of a Pacific war, they would relocate a large fleet of Royal Navy vessels from Britain to Singapore. In 1923 construction began on the massive 54 square kilometre base. Australia and New Zealand both invested in the construction of the facility as it would be a critical centre of defence. Though it was apparent even before the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces invasion of Malaya that the Singapore Strategy was in jeopardy. Britain had been under immediate threat from Germany since war broke out in 1939 and its resources were concentrated on its own preservation. The fleet of aircraft carriers and battleships that had been promised for the defence of the Empire’s eastern possessions was reduced to a single squadron centred around one battleship, HMS Prince of Wales, and one battlecruiser, HMS Repulse. Japanese aircraft sunk both ships north of Singapore on 10 December 1941. This left the base without significant naval protection. To learn more about the flawed Singapore Strategy, watch the first part in a four-part mini-series on the ‘Fall of Singapore’ below.

At the start of the Second World War, Australia deployed most of its forces to assist British forces in Europe and North Africa. In February 1941, with the threat of an impending war with Japan, Australia dispatched the Eighth Division, four RAAF squadrons and eight warships to Singapore and Malaya.

In early December 1941 the Japanese landed in northern Malaya and southern Thailand on the Malay Peninsula. Australian pilots were some of the first to engage with the Japanese when the Imperial Army invaded Malaya on 8 December 1941. Landing in the north at Khota Bharu in Malaya, and Pattani and Songkhla in Thailand. Yet, the Japanese were battle-hardened, well-organised and well-supported by air and armour; the inexperienced Allied forces could offer little resistance and the Japanese moved with incredible speed south along the Malaya peninsula. The Japanese Imperial Army quickly gained air and naval superiority in the region, and by the end of January 1942 they were opposite Singapore Island. The defence of the island was poorly planned and executed. The Japanese crossed the Johor Strait on February 8, 1942, and the British command surrendered the island and city one week later. More than 130,000 Allied troops were taken prisoner. Singapore was renamed Syonan-To, or Light of the South, during an occupation which lasted for three years and seven months until the Empire of Japan surrendered in September 1945.

The Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita had achieved a remarkable feat of arms. In London, Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced that the fall of Singapore was the ‘worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history’. For Australia too, the Fall of Singapore was a disaster. More than 15,000 Australian soldiers were captured. Of these, more than 7,000 would die as prisoners of war. Controversially, the commander of Australian forces on the island, Major General Gordon Bennett, escaped the island with two staff officers on the night of the surrender. Watch the ABC News report on the consequences of the military defeat on Australians and broader strategic consequences for the region.

Throughout the Pacific War, over 22,000 Australians became prisoners of war (POWs) of the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces in Southeast Asia; about 21,000 Army personnel, 354 sailors from the Royal Australian Navy and 373 Royal Australian Air Force personnel. The Army prisoners were largely from the 8th Division captured at the fall of Singapore. Australian troops were also captured on Java, Timor, Ambon and New Britain. POWs were formed into work parties to provide forced labour for the Japanese army. Throughout the war, Changi in Singapore was the main camp from which working parties were sent to other destinations and through which prisoners of war captured in other areas were staged.

For much of its existence Changi was not one camp but rather a collection of up to seven POW and internee camps, occupying an area of approximately 25 square kilometres. Its name came from the peninsula on which it stood, at the east end of Singapore Island. Prior to the war the Changi Peninsula had been the British Army's principal base area in Singapore. As a result, the site boasted extensive and well-constructed military infrastructure including three major barracks – Selarang, Roberts and Kitchener – as well as many other smaller camps. Singapore's civilian prison, Changi Gaol, was also on the peninsula.

Most of the Australians captured in Singapore were moved into Changi on 17 February 1942. They occupied Selarang Barracks, which remained the AIF Camp at Changi until June 1944. For many, Selarang was just a transit stop as working parties were soon being dispatched to other camps in Singapore and Malaya. Initially, prisoners at Changi were free to roam throughout the area, but in early March 1942 fences were constructed around the individual camps and movement between them was restricted. In August all officers above the rank of colonel were moved to Formosa (present-day Taiwan), leaving the Australians in Changi under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Frederick "Black Jack" Galleghan. Security was further tightened following the arrival of dedicated Japanese POW staff at the end of August 1942. The new Japanese commandant requested that all prisoners sign a statement declaring that they would not attempt escape. The prisoners refused en masse and, on 2 September, all 15,400 British and Australian prisoners were confined in the Selarang Barracks area. After three days a compromise was reached: the Japanese ordered the declaration be signed, thus making it clear that the prisoners were acting under duress, and the prisoners were returned to their original areas.

Throughout the war the prisoners in Changi remained largely responsible for their own day-to-day administration. The main contact with the Japanese was at senior-officer level or on work parties outside the camps. Extensive gardens were established, concert parties mounted regular productions, and a reasonably well-equipped camp hospital operated in Roberts Barracks. Damaged infrastructure was progressively restored and both running water and electric lighting were common throughout the Changi area by mid-1943. Camp rations and supplies were supplemented by the opportunities that work parties provided for both theft and trade. For a time even a university operated inside the AIF camp. However, most prisoner activities suffered after May 1942 when large work parties began to be sent out of Changi to work on projects such as the Burma-Thailand railway. In February 1942 there were around 15,000 Australians in Changi; by mid-1943 less than 2,500 remained.

In May 1944 all the Allied prisoners in Changi, now including 5,000 Australians, were concentrated in the immediate environs of Changi Gaol, which up until this time had been used to detain civilian internees. In this area 11,700 prisoners were crammed into less than a quarter of a square kilometre: this period established Changi's place in popular memory. Rations were cut, camp life was increasingly restricted and in July the authority of Allied senior officers over their troops was revoked. Changi was liberated by troops of the 5th Indian Division on 5 September 1945 and within a week troops were being repatriated.

After the war Changi Gaol once again became a civilian prison while the Changi military area was repaired and redeveloped for use by the British garrison. Following the withdrawal of British troops in 1971 the area was taken over by the Singapore Armed Forces and still has one of the main concentrations of military facilities on the island. Roberts Barracks remains in use but the original buildings at Selarang were demolished in the 1980s. Changi Gaol was scheduled for demolition in the second half of 2004, although the original entrance gate and a section of the outer wall were preserved as a memorial. A museum and replica of one of the chapels built by Allied prisoners in the Changi area have been opened on the road between Changi Gaol and Selarang Barracks. In 1988 one of the original prisoner-of-war chapels was transported to Australia, re-erected in the grounds of the Royal Military College, Duntroon, and dedicated as the national memorial to Australian prisoners of war.

Prisoners were used on heavy labouring works in and around Singapore. Tasks included road building, freight moving, mine removal, and work in chemical factories. These troops suffered from diseases such as beriberi, malaria and dysentery. POWs were sent to the following camps around Singapore: Great World, Adam Park No. 1, Bukit Timah No 5, Thomson Road No. 3, Lornie Road, Serangoon Road, Adam Park No. 4, Woodlands, Pasir Pajang, River Valley Road, Havelock Road, and Blakang Mati; and in Malaya to Johore Bahru, Mersing and Endau.

About 850 Australian POWs died during their internment in Changi during the Japanese occupation of Singapore, a relatively low rate compared to the overall death rate of 1 in 3 for POWs in Japanese camps across the Asia Pacific region. However, Changi Prison was a staging camp and so, many more prisoners died after being transferred to various labour camps outside Singapore. Including those sent to work on the Burma-Thailand Railway where more than 2,800 Australians died.

Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. 'Weary' Dunlop is an iconic figure in Australian memory of the Burma-Thailand railway. In January 1943, Dunlop and nearly nine hundred prisoners were transferred from Java to Changi. Two weeks later they left for Thailand. Although only one of 106 Australian doctors captured by the Japanese and of 44 on the railway, Dunlop came to represent the self-sacrifice, courage and compassion which doctors and Australians more generally are remembered as displaying in captivity.

Dunlop was renowned for his untiring efforts to care for the sick. Many times he put his own health at risk, earning himself physical punishment when he protested to the Japanese. At other times his sheer physical presence – he was nearly two metres tall – seemed to intimidate his captors. When a Japanese soldier hit a man with bad feet and malaria and then laughed at him, Dunlop was so enraged that, according to his diary which he kept throughout his ordeal: "I lost nearly all control and advanced on them, calling them every 'cuss' word I ever heard. No doubt the meaning was caught, if not the actual words, and they backed away" (17 June 1943). The POWs suffering in Changi Prison and on the Railway have come to epitomise the ordeal faced by Australians in captivity. To hear more about Weary's story, watch the following video.

During the war, Allied POWs -- mainly Australians -- built a chapel at the prison in 1944 using simple tools and found materials. A series of murals were painted and a Christian cross was made out of a used artillery shell. The POWs also established an education program nicknamed the 'Changi University'. After the war, the chapel was dismantled and shipped to Australia, while the cross was sent to the UK. The chapel was reconstructed in 1988, and is now located at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Canberra. While some changes have been made to the prison complex, a replica of the Changi Chapel and Museum remain in Changi and the gates of the original prison have been preserved.

For 150 years Australia relied on the British Empire for its external defence. Yet, Britain’s military and strategic focus on Europe in the early 20th century meant Australia was gravely vulnerable to Japanese invasion in the Pacific theatre of World War II. The weakness of this strategy, shown in the Fall of Singapore in 1942, led the Australian Government to reconsider its alliance with Britain and brought about a paradigm shift in foreign policy.

The Singapore Strategy’s complete failure and the loss of almost a quarter of Australia’s overseas soldiers at the very start of the Pacific War stunned the country and made consideration of a new defence network a priority. In his new year’s address for 1942, Prime Minister Curtin announced: "Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom … we shall exert all our energies towards the shaping of a plan, with the United States as its keystone, which will give our country some confidence of being able to hold out until the tide of battle swings against the enemy." This was the beginning of the Australian alliance with the United States – a partnership that continued throughout the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War, and remains at the heart of both major political parties’ security policies.

Explore the following resources for more information on the experiences of Australian POWs based in Singapore during World War II.


Modern Relations

Australia and Singapore have a strong and vibrant relationship. Australia was the second country to recognise Singapore when it became an independent nation in 1965. In 2015, Australia and Singapore elevated their relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), which encompasses all aspects of our relationship including trade, defence, science and innovation, education and the arts and the digital economy.

Singaporean and Australian Prime Ministers meet every year, as well as respective cabinet ministers. Under the Singapore-Australia Joint Ministerial Committee (SAJMC), Australian and Singaporean Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence Ministers meet biennially to discuss bilateral trade, defence and security issues. The twelfth SAJMC was held on 27 August 2021, and included the Foreign, Defence, and Trade Ministers from Australia and Singapore. Ministers discussed the breadth of bilateral cooperation under the CSP and agreed on a commencement date for negotiation of a Green Economy Agreement. This will facilitate trade and investment in environmental goods and services, strengthen environmental governance, and contribute efforts to build global capacity to address climate change. A recent example is the well-underway discussions of two-way travel between Australia and Singapore, representative of the close ties and trust between the two Governments.

Trade and business ties between Australia and Singapore are strong. Singapore is Australia's largest trade and investment partner in ASEAN and our sixth largest trading partner overall (AU$27 billion in two-way trade in 2020). In August 2020, Australian and Singaporean Trade Ministers signed the Australia-Singapore Digital Economy Agreement (DEA), which entered into force on 8 December 2020. The DEA upgrades the digital trade arrangements between Australia and Singapore under the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Singapore-Australia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA, signed 2003), which are already among some of the most ambitious globally. A revised SAFTA Agreement, with new market access and greater certainty for exporters of goods, services and investment, entered into force on 1 December 2017.

Singapore is a close and highly capable defence partner of Australia in Southeast Asia, as reflected in the CSP. On 10 December 2020, the Treaty on Military Training and Training Area Development entered into force and will enhance and expand training opportunities for Singapore Armed Forces personnel in Australia. As one of two international training initiatives. This treaty is an important part of the Department of Defence's and Australian Defence Force's strategic vision to achieve policy outcomes.

As one of Australia's longest standing Defence partners in the Southeast Asia region. The Defence relationship is founded on common values and strong, long-standing shared interests in regional trade, stability, and security. The Australia-Singapore Military Training Initiative (ASMTI) is a key element of Australia and Singapore’s CSP, which was announced by both Governments in 2015. The ASMTI provides a unique opportunity to develop and enhance advanced military training areas in Central and North Queensland and further strengthen Australia and Singapore’s Defence partnership. The five objectives are: delivering ADF requirements, strengthening Singapore partnerships, training area development and enhancement, engaging local communities, and developing local industry. The timeline of ASMTI's key milestones are indicative of the strengthening relationship.


Fuel Security

An important aspect of this relationship is Australia’s reliance on Singapore for fuel. A significant portion of Australia’s petroleum products comes from the city-state, 53% in 2012 to 2013, and imports of crude oil are a lot lower. As the Asia-Pacific trading centre, it is the most likely source of imported petrol and diesel. While not all fuel is produced in Singaporean refineries, it is a significant storage base for product produced across the Asian region. For example, Australia directly imports significant product (particularly diesel) from South Korea and Japan and both countries have diesel stored in Singapore for market trading opportunities. This 14-day supply line from Singapore to Australia means a lower export capacity risk but less capacity to meet a surge in demand. Additionally, Singapore-refined petrol and diesel prices are used as Australian benchmarks because Singapore is the closest major refining and marketing centre to Australia.

Since fossil fuels remain the primary requirement in the civil transportation system and how the ADF operates, Australia is reliant on the resilience and security of its petroleum resource. This heightens Australia’s interest in maintaining a close and stable relationship with Singapore. Still, it is generally agreed that Australia overly relies on imported petroleum for its military operations, and that Australia’s current fuel-holding capacity is inadequate. The Australian Government’s priorities relating to fuel security are explained here. There are arguments for Australia to enhance its storage capacity to the extent that it becomes less dependent on threats to its supply line from Singapore and other East Asian countries. The modern linkages between Singapore and Australia are demonstrated by the continuation of the CSP, discussed in the following video.


Singaporeans in Australia

Singaporean migration to Australia was minimal during the 19th and early 20th century. The population only numbered a few hundred until the mid-1960s. This changed after the relaxation of the White Australia Policy as Singaporeans became enabled to migrate without prior family ties in Australia. The Singaporean community has been on the rise since. By 1981, there were over 10,000 Singaporeans in Australia and within 10 years that figure had more than doubled. As of 2016, 60.1% of the Singaporean-born population had arrived since 2007. More than 130,000 Singaporeans have graduated from Australian universities. Since 2014, 3,360 Australian students have undertaken study and internships in Singapore under the New Colombo Plan. Cementing Australia is a popular study destination for many Singaporeans. Many also migrate as skilled migrants. Australia remains a popular destination for Singaporean students, as shown in the following CNA report.

The 2016 census showed that over half (60.9%) of the employed Singapore-born population in Australia work in skilled managerial, professional or trade occupations. The Singaporean community in Australia is incredibly diverse. People belong to various religious, ethnic, linguistic and cultural groups. Almost half have Chinese ancestry, yet there are also many of Indian, English, and Malay ancestry among them. Roughly 50% speak English at home, but 96.4% those that have a different first language (e.g. Mandarin, Cantonese, Malay) are still fluent in English. As of 2016, Victoria had the largest number of Singaporean migrants.

Singapore and Australia are complementary tourism markets and enjoy close commercial links. Singapore is Australia's sixth largest inbound tourism market and seventh largest by expenditure (315,000 international arrivals from Singapore, and $1 billion expenditure as at 30 June 2020). Regular tourism talks are held and both countries have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to establish a framework for collaboration on research, data-sharing, and market insights. For more information on contemporary relations between the two island countries, explore the resources below.


Discussion Questions:

  1. The speed with which the Japanese forces approached and seized Singapore was counter to every allied expectation. With Singapore still a major regional strategic hub, what considerations for its defence are in place today that ensure the lessons of 1942 have been learnt? What are the key threats to Singapore’s national security?
  2. A key strategic consideration of Australia’s relationship with Singapore is fuel transport and storage. What actions should occur with our bilateral relationship with Singapore aid both countries security of these critical elements of national infrastructure and resilience?