In 2001, I had the honour to hold the office of President of the St. Patrick’s Society of Singapore. It was in that capacity that I received an invitation, from the British High Commission, to attend that year’s Remembrance Day memorial service and lay a wreath.
I assumed that the event would be full of British pomp and colonial ideation. This notion was re-enforced when I received the agenda for the day. With no allowances for a loose attitude to time, this document was prepared with military attention to detail. Seeing as it had been prepared by the British military, that should have been no surprise. I did gulp slightly, however, when I realised that I was expected to arrive at 0713h!
My companion on the morning was my Vice-President, a wonderful woman from Ballymena called Mary Fynes. Mary picked me up at 0630h, and we drove to Kranji War Memorial, which is located on the north of the island. Kranji War Memorial is in the War Cemetery in Singapore. It is the final resting place of 4,458 allied servicemen in marked graves laid out in rows on maintained and manicured lawns. Over 850 of these graves are unidentified.
I was wrong in my assumptions regarding the ‘Britishness’ of the occasion. The service was conducted with the utmost dignity, reverence and sombreness. There was no sense of British ‘ownership’ and there was a distinct lack of a ‘colonial’ attitude. The British High Commission may have organised the event, but it belonged to all of us.
As we drove through the gates, we were directed by a young man in military uniform to our designated parking spot. We presented ourselves at the wall in plenty of time for the ceremony, greeting those we knew who were also in attendance.
At 0730h, the ceremony commenced. The British High Commissioner welcomed us all and prayers were offered by representatives of various religions; Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Taoist, and Jewish as well as various Christian denominations.
Then, the memories of those who had laid down their lives during armed conflict were invoked. The tones of the bugle added to the solemnity of the occasion and coaxed tears from practically every assembled eye.
Afterwards, those of us who were laying wreaths were invited to do so. When I stepped forward to lay a wreath on behalf of the Irish people, I felt privileged to have been given the opportunity; I also felt grateful to be alive and humbled by the enormity of the sacrifice that so many thousands of young men and women had made in order that the rest of us might live free from oppression.
The ceremony was closed with a rendition of ‘Morning Has Broken’, sung by an Englishwoman in possession of a pure soprano voice. In a scene that could not be invented, just as she reached the end of the first line, the clouds parted and a shaft of light reached down and caressed the wreaths we had just placed.
Before turning away, I read the inscription on the memorial, which reads:
“On the walls of this memorial are recorded the names of twenty-four thousand soldiers and airmen of many races united in service to the British crown who gave their lives in Malaya and neighbouring lands and seas and in the air over southern and eastern Asia and the Pacific but to whom the fortune of war denied the customary rites accorded to their comrades in death
THEY DIED FOR ALL FREE MEN”
I couldn’t help but notice that many of those names were Irish and many of those ‘men’ were still teenagers, or in their early twenties. Sometimes we forget that thousands of Irishmen united with men of many other nationalities and marched towards the common goal of freedom for all men and women. Sometimes we forget the thousands who gave their lives for the cause of our freedom. We should never forget. We should never, ever forget.