Friday Philosophy – Visiting the Changi Murals by Sue’s Uncle Stan April 29, 2016Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, off-topic, Private Life.
No tech or management this week – this Friday Philosophy is about something in my home life.
This week we are in Singapore, our first ever visit. The main reason that we have come here is to look at some pictures painted by Sue’s Uncle Stan. They are also called the Changi Murals. Stanley Warren painted these murals when he was gravely ill in Changi during World War 2. He was a POW, captured with the taking of Singapore by the Japanese. Conditions were extremely poor in the POW camps, and across Singapore as a whole. During the occupation thousands died from disease and malnutrition.
Stanley had been a graphic artist before the war and he did some painting whilst he was in the camp of what he saw. He was a deeply religious man and when people knew he could draw his fellow POWs asked him to draw murals on the walls of a chapel they’d built at Bukit Batok. Not long after, he was so ill with amoebic dysentery that he was moved to the Roberts Barracks hospital in Changi, block 151. I don’t think he was expected to live. Whilst he was there, he heard a choir singing in the local chapel for the hospital and his talking to the padre after that led to a request for him to paint some murals on the walls there.
Stanley had to paint the first mural bit-by-bit, he was too unwell to work for more than a few minutes at the start. They also had to use material stolen or obtained as they could. In the first mural there are some areas of blue – that came from a few cubes of billiard cue chalk. He had so little that it ran out after the second mural. The first mural was completed just in time for Christmas and he was carried back up to the wards and could only hear the service from there, no one knowing if the latest bout of dysentery would kill him or not. But it didn’t. Over the next few months Stanley drew four more murals as his health waxed and waned. The amazing things it that, despite the condition he was in, under a brutal regime with very little hope for survival, his message was all about reconciliation. The figures in the murals are from all races and the messages of reconciliation are constant through the murals.
You can read more about Stanley and the Murals at the wikipedia link at the top of this blog, at the RAF Changi association page here or in an excellent book about them by Peter W Stubbs, ISBN 981-3065-84-2
Stanley survived his time as a POW in Singapore and with the end of the war he came home. Stanley is actually Sue’s great uncle – his older sister was Sue’s paternal grandmother. After the war he became an art teacher and had a family. As well as being Sue’s great uncle, He also worked in the same school as Sue’s father and she saw a lot of him, so she knew “Uncle Stan” very well. And, of course, she knew all about the murals.
The story of the murals does not stop with the war as, after the war (during the later part of which the murals were painted over with distemper, when it stopped being a chapel) the murals were re-discovered. They became quite well known and there was a search for the original artist. When Stanley was found they asked him to go back and restore them. He was not keen! He’d spent years trying to forget his time and what he had endured as a POW. But eventually he was persuaded and over 20 or so years made three trips back to restore them. He still did not talk about the war much but the Murals are part of the family history. Stanley died in 1992, having lived a pretty long and happy life given where he was during the 1940’s.
Sue has long wanted to see the Changi Murals and, with the lose of her mother 2 years back, this desire to link back to another part of the family has grown stronger. So we organised this trip out to Asia with the key part being to visit Singapore and the Changi Murals.
There is an excellent museum about the history of Singapore during WWII, especially the area of Changi and the locations which were used to hold POWs and enemy civilians, the Changi Museum. It includes the murals. Only, it does not. This is a new museum which was built a few years back and it has a reproduction of the original Block 151 chapel, with all the murals. The reproductions are very accurate we are told and there is a lot of information in the museum – but they are not the originals as drawn by Uncle Stan.
We only really realised this a couple of weeks before we were heading out to Thailand (our first stop) but we felt it was not a problem as almost every web site that mentioned the murals said you could organise to see the original murals. Only, you can’t really. Someone at some point said you could, and maybe then it was easier, but none of the current articles tells you how to request to see the originals. They don’t even give a clue who to ask. They just repeat this urban myth that you can organise to see the originals. The only exception to this is the Changi Museum web site that lists an email to send a request to – but the email address is no longer valid! (prb@starnet…).
We managed to contact the museum and Dr Francis Li tried to help us, but he could not find out the proper route to make the request at first and then hit the problem we later hit – not much response.
After hours and hours on the net, failing to find out who to ask, I contacted a couple of people who had something to do with the Murals. One of them was Peter Stubbs, who wrote the book on the Changi Murals that I mentioned earlier. Peter was wonderful, he got in touch with people he knew and they looked into it and after a couple of days he had found out the correct group to approach – MINDEF_Feedback_Unit@defence.gov.sg. You email them and you get an automated response that they will answer your question in 3 days. Or 7-14 days. It’s the latter. We waited the 3 days (if you have dealt with government bureaucracy you will know you can’t side step it unless you know HOW to side step it) but time was now running out and I sent follow up emails to MINDEF and Mr Li.
Mindef did not respond. But Mr Li did – to let us know he had also had no response from MINDEF and had gone as far as to ring up – and no one seemed to know about how to see the original murals.
So we were not going to get to see the originals, which was a real shame, but out first full day we did go up to the Changi Museum. It was a very good, little museum. The museum is free. We took the audio tours which cost a few dollars but to be honest all the information is also on the displays. There was a lot of information about the invasion by Japan and what happened and the reproductions of the Murals were impressive. They also had some duplicates of some of the press stories about the murals, from local papers as well as UK ones. There are a lot more press stories than the museum show, we know this as there is a collection of them somewhere in Sue’s Mum’s stuff that we have not found yet.
It was quite emotional for Sue of course, and something well worth us doing. It really brought home to us an inclination of what he and the other POWs had gone through, and yet Stanley did these murals of reconciliation and belief. Of course we don’t really know what it was like, nothing like that has happened to either of us – we just got a peep into that horror.
The rules of the museum said “No photographs” – but we ignored this. These murals were the work of Sue’s Uncle Stan! (we noticed several other visitors were also ignoring the rule anyway). Most of the pictures are poor, no where as good as others you can find on the net (most from the originals) but they are important to us. I only include a couple in this blog.
If you wonder what the small picture of a man in a hat is, below the mural, it is one of only two we have by Uncle Stan. He painted this when on a school holiday in Spain with Sue’s dad also. We have no idea who the picture is of!
It is a great shame we did not get to see the original murals in the room in which her great uncle Stanley Warren painted them, as part of the chapel that was so important to people in such awful circumstances. After we got back from the museum we finally received a response from MINDEF. It was a simple refusal to consider granting us permission to see the murals as they only allow it for surviving Singapore POWs (there will be very few of them now) and direct family (whatever that limit is). I can’t help but feel that was a little inflexible of them, even a little heartless, and was applying a blind rule without consideration of the specifics of the situation.
When Sue is next going to Singapore, with me or not, I’ll see if I can make them relent and grant access to Sue to see the originals.
Irrespective, we got to see something of Uncle Stan’s murals, and that was worth all the effort.