“$300,000 makeover for WWII bunker”

Published in The Straits Times print edition, 20 January 2016

Byline: Melody Zaccheus

The site where the British decided to surrender Singapore to the Japanese – the Battlebox bunker – has been given a $300,000 makeover.

The one-year effort has rectified the problem of leaks and floods that filled the 9m-deep underground bunker whenever it rained. New generators and an air-conditioning system have been installed too.

The attraction at Fort Canning Park, which is managed by the National Parks Board (NParks), is slated to reopen in March.

Its new operator, the Singapore History Consultants which won a tender in 2013, plans to launch the attraction in three stages.

During the first phase from March to May, visitors will get to go on “high-quality guided tours” costing $18 for adults and $9 for children, said the firm’s director Jeya Ayadurai. There will be around five tours a day.

He said: “In the past, the Battlebox mostly focused on the rooms. We’re investing heavily in retelling the story of the fall of Singapore that led to Lieutenant-General (Arthur) Percival and the allied forces surrendering to the invading Japanese forces on Feb 15, 1942.”

Once the nerve centre for British military operations during World War II, the labyrinth was completed in the late 1930s. It had 29 rooms, including a cipher office and signal room.

Mr Jeya said multimedia guides will be rolled out in the second phase. Archaeological finds such as used ammunition from Adam Park – the scene of the last battle before Singapore fell – will be incorporated into the showcase. The final phase will weave 3D technologies, including ambient soundscapes, across the bunker.

Mr Jeya expects the attraction to draw about 60,000 visitors in the first year, of whom 60 per cent will likely be locals and the rest tourists. The Battle Box used to draw about 2,000 visitors a month.

Mr Kong Yit San, assistant chief executive officer of NParks’ park management and lifestyle cluster, said: “Fort Canning Park has a lot of history and culture. The Battlebox lends a good sense of historical significance to the entire site.

“If the story is going to be told in clearer clarity than before, then it is a good reason to come back and revisit Battlebox.”

Volunteer tour guide Chia Bee Lian, 60, feels entry fees are “a little expensive”, and hopes the content will be “meaty”. She said: “Perhaps the Battlebox could have some kind of a tie-up with neighbouring art gallery Pinacotheque Museum to ensure ticket prices are more affordable.”

Tickets to the Battlebox attraction were previously $8 for adults and $5 for children.

The effort to breathe new life into the bunker ties in with NParks’ move to rejuvenate and draw more visitors to Fort Canning Park, which is a stop along the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth’s Jubilee Walk.

Traces of an ancient Malay kingdom, the British empire’s bunkers as well as gravestones of Singaporean pioneers lie there.

Mr Kong said NParks is working with the area’s tenants to improve navigation. It has installed new lighting across the 18ha space, which draws about 1.3 million visitors a year.

The Singapore Tourism Board has also rolled out a free shuttle that serves museums in the civic district.

NParks also organises tours of the site as well as its sculptures, spice garden and heritage trees nearly every month.