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Transcript 40753

Statement on Indulgence: 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore

Photo of Turnbull, Malcolm

Turnbull, Malcolm

Period of Service: 15/09/2015 to 24/08/2018

More information about Turnbull, Malcolm on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 15/02/2017

Release Type: Transcript

Transcript ID: 40753

Location: Parliament House, Canberra

PRIME MINISTER:

75 years ago Singapore fell to the Imperial forces of Japan.

It was a shattering moment - Australians had believed the might of the Royal Navy and the guns of Singapore’s island fortress would keep us safe.

Its fall began, as Curtin said, the battle for Australia.

Almost 1,800 Australians died and more than 1,300 were wounded in the fight for Malaya and the defence of Singapore.

Just before Christmas, believing Singapore was impregnable, the Curtin Government sent further reinforcements, including 1900 virtually untrained recruits. Samuel Pond, commanding the 2/29th Battalion, leaned to his horror that the men he received had been in uniform for only one month, half of that time spent on the boat from Australia.

Between the 8th and 15th of February 1942, the 8th division battle to hold back the Japanese advance down the Malayan peninsula.

Eventually, fought back to Singapore and with water supplies cut and most of the island’s defences overrun, at 8.30 pm, by order of their British Commander General Sir Arthur Percival, 130,000 troops, including 15,000 Australians, surrendered to the Japanese.

Just two days before the battle John Gorton, posted to Singapore with 232 Squadron RAF, had evacuated the city. Of course most didn’t make it out - and we remember the former members and senators who were prisoners of the Japanese including Tom Uren, a minister in the Whitlam Government, and Alexander Downer, a Minister in the Menzies Government.

In total, more than 22,000 Australians, captured in the defence of Malaya, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies between December 1941 and March 1942, became prisoners of war.

More than 8,000 of them died in captivity.  The cruelties inflicted on our prisoners of war were horrific - murders, beatings, starvation and neglect - war crimes that left a tragic toll and a bitter legacy.

One of those Prisoners of War was Norman Womersley, the father of my stepmother Judy. She was six when he died, just before the war’s end, on the island of Ambon, starved and sick, like so many others who had been flung into battle in January 1942 barely trained only a few months after they had enlisted.

I remember well another Prisoner of War from Singapore who did return and was a big part of my young life. 

George Daldry, a bit of a legend actually, Mr Speaker - captured at the age of 16 and imprisoned in Changi, where he saw his brother murdered by the guards. George returned to become the best sports fitness and conditioning expert in Australia - from his base at City Tatts training national teams and those less athletically ambitious like me and my father who joined his runs and workouts in Centennial Park.

George was always obsessive about cleanliness and fitness – I remember him telling me with a very deep intensity how that obsession kept him alive in those dark days of cruel captivity.

Whole families were engulfed - like the Colenso family, from Kingsford. Four brothers enlisted in 2/18th Battalion on the same day - July the 1st, 1940 - and sailed for Singapore the following year.

When the Japanese landed on Singapore, the Colenso brothers were stationed on the northwest coast.

Of those four brave boys, 23-year-old Ray was killed in action on February 9. His 31-year-old brother Bill died two days later. Their brothers Frank and Ted were both captured after the fall of Singapore and endured terrible miseries as prisoners of war. Thankfully, both returned home in 1945.

Australians who died in Singapore, and those buried at Changi and other prison camps, now have their final resting place in the Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore.

This week also marks the sinking of the Vyner Brooke by Japanese bombers. It was carrying evacuees from Singapore - mostly women and children, as well as the last 65 Australian nurses on the island.

Many of the survivors who landed on Radji beach after the sinking were then massacred by the Japanese. 22 Australian nurses were forced into the sea and shot in the back. The only nurse who survived was the South Australian Sister Vivian Bullwinkel.

This was the single biggest loss of Australian nurses in wartime.

Within days of Singapore’s fall, the Japanese would bomb Darwin, bringing Australia under direct attack for the first time.

On Sunday, I will join the Governor-General and the people of Darwin to mark the 75th Anniversary of the first of many air-raids on northern Australia during the war

For Australians at the time, it must have felt like the beginning of the end.

But just three months later Australian and American forces were fighting together to halt Japan's momentum in the Coral Sea. Soon after that was the Battle of Midway, the turning point of the Pacific War, fighting through the jungle of Kokoda and the Japanese invincibility was exposed for the fraud that it was.

American strategic power became the sheet-anchor for what became a shared regional commitment to a rules-based system which brought peace, relative tranquility and the greatest burst of prosperity that the world has ever seen.

The Republic of Singapore plays a crucial role in this shared effort.

And Australia, Japan and Singapore work side-by-side as friends and partners in securing prosperity, peace and stability in our region.

Mr Speaker, in an age where ancient enmities seem to re-emerge to stoke conflict around the world, it is remarkable that it was the generation who fought and suffered in the war against Japan that in 1957 entered into the Commerce Agreement with Japan which has been the foundation of our strong and growing economic and strategic partnership.

What a generation – what a generation. Fearless as they gave their all to fight against a cruel and overwhelming enemy and then, war won, foe vanquished, they were able to forgive.

Lest we forget.

[ENDS]

Transcript 40753