The Changi Prisoner of War Camp

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Changi prison” is the named used to refer to not only the actual prison, built by the British in 1930 and later used to house civilian prisoners by the Japanese, but also to the nearby prisoner of war camp that housed some 50,000 Allied POWs (“Changi Prison” 2015; Havers 2003, 11). R. P. W. Havers claims that Changi prison camp “probably ranks as the greatest untold story – and certainly the greatest enigma – of the Second World War” (Havers 2003, 1). Part of what marks Changi out as so interesting is the seeming contradictions, the extremes experienced at the prison itself, as well as the way it fits into and complicates the entire question of the treatment of prisoners of war by the Japanese. This is because, for Havers, Changi does not represent the case of total brutality and inhumanity that seems to form so many descriptions of the life of the POW in Asia. Havers presents Changi as a “shared experience” of the captors and captives, and argues that in Changi this was no clear “master-slave” relationship but instead required navigation through a system in which there was a certain amount of fluidity and “maneuvering room” for the captives, and certain powers or rights that were observed by their captures. At Changi, captives had a considerable degree of autonomy—much more so than say a federal prisoner in the United States today. That upwards of 50,000 prisoners of war (February 1942, Changi contained 45,562 POWs) were accorded such autonomy, not in some Texas outpost but in an occupied territory during a fierce war, complicates the very idea of what it is to be a POW (Havers 2003, 11). And where this is such an autonomy and rights, there comes an obligation to respect that autonomy and those rights, and as such Japanese power was “curtailed” if voluntarily. Hence, Havers highlights this with a quotation from Kenneth Harrison, who was captured on the Malayan mainland, who wrote that his initial impression of Changi, after having be interred elsewhere was, “rather incredible to us Pudu [Pudu gaol in Kuala Lumpur] men, and in many ways [it] could have been called a POWs’ paradise” (Havers 2003, 4). Further complicating the picture, however, is that Changi was a “jumping off point” for many of those who would endure the much more brutal conditions of forced labor, sent to assist with the construction of the Burma–Thailand railway.  As such, investigating Changi brings new perspectives, questions, complications and nuances to our understanding of both the Japanese and Allied experience in Southeast Asia during World War Two.


Changi Prison.” 2015. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.

Havers, R. P. W. 2003. Reassessing the Japanese Prisoner of War Experience the Changi POW Camp, Singapore, 1942-5. London; New York: RoutledgeCurzon.

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