Thursday, 24 October 2013

Kranji War Cemetery: Singapore and the politics of the dead

Politics don't end with life. Whether it is a Japanese Minister honouring the country's war dead by visiting Tokyo's Yasakuni Shrine or the right to (permanent) burial plots here in Singapore, politics is unavoidable even after death.

Burial plots are valuable real estate in land scarce Singapore. Despite having increased the Republic's surface area through land reclamation by about a quarter since 1965, graves are available only on a fifteen year lease-hold basis. In 1998, the Singapore government announced the New Burial Policy to limit the burial period to 15 years. Henceforth, graves after 15 years will be exhumed. The exhumed remains may be cremated and put into a columbarium or be re-buried, according to one's religious requirements. (The New Burial System as described on the National Environment Agency website.)

No rest for the wicked, the weary or the brave ... at least not in Singapore.

However, there is one group of deceased which is privileged in its exemption from exhumation: the brave souls who gave their lives defending Singapore during World War Two; and some who died during the Malayan Emergency; and some of their family members too. Their graves can be found at the Kranji War Cemetery located off Woodlands Road.

Certainly, soldiers deserve to be honoured. Nay, they must be honoured. It is a mark of a civilized society. Disciplined militaries fight to preserve commonly accepted social values, property and a nation's dignity.

These soldiers resting at Kranji fought and died for Malaya. Other than people from Malaya itself, Malaya's defenders came from Britain, Australians, India, New Zealand and other dominions of the British empire.

A glance at the list of the War Dead on the memorial suggests that a significant number of soldiers who died defending the British crown originated from the Indian subcontinent. For example, just in one battle, the Battle for Muar the 45th Indian Infantry Brigade started with 4,000 men and ended with only 800. Furthermore, after Singapore's surrender in 1942 approximately 55,000 servicemen from the Indian subcontinent were taken prisoner of war by the Japanese.

Yet, walk into Kranji War Cemetery and one is forgiven for assuming the cemetery is dedicated only to caucasian war dead.

The prominent areas of the cemetery are taken up with tombstones dedicated to deceased caucasian soldiers. Yes, tucked away at the back, behind the war memorial are some tombstones apparently of Nepalese Gurkha and Indian Hindu soldiers. And, yes, the inscription on the memorial itself is in multiple languages, including Urdu. However, the valuable real estate within the graveyard is virtually monopolized by tombstones dedicated to white soldiers. In fact, I had trouble locating any tombstones pertaining to Muslim soldiers from the Indian subcontinent.

It appears a little piece of Europe survives in the heart of Singapore: the Kranji War Cemetery. To the uninitiated, Singapore's cherished values of plurality and ethnic equality seem conspicuously absent from the many gravestones located at Kranji cemetery.

Undoubtedly, the blemish is a legacy of Singapore's colonial past and the cemetery's management lies with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (not Singapore). However, that fact does not justify the organization of the cemetery in a manner unbefitting of the sacrifices made by the many non-caucasian Commonwealth soldiers who died defending Singapore and the Malay Peninsula.

PS – Stay tuned for more on this subject. I expect to do some additional research on the Kranji cemetery and the annual remembrance ceremony to better understand the facts (and correct any errors in this article).
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

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