The Joy of Museums

Finding Meaning in a Museum

Changi Flag

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This treasured British flag originally flown over the Sultan’s palace in Johore, the most southern state in Malaya, in 1941.  In late January 1942, this giant Union Jack flag was removed from the palace to prevent it falling into enemy hands. After Singapore’s surrender on 15th February 1942, Australian Army Captain Ken Parsons, who originally removed the flag, together with other medical staff, preserved the flag during their time as Prisoners of War in the infamous Changi camp. The Australian POWs concealed the flag for the entire three and half years of their imprisonment at Selarang Barracks, Changi.

Locked up along with thousands of Allied prisoners in Changi, the flag became a symbol of stoic determination and only brought out on ceremonial occasions or for the burial of prisoners. They then secured the flag again and it became a symbol of the courage of the prisoners of war.

Orderly on His Rounds in X Ward, Changi Gaol, Singapore, With Pow's Suffering from Starvation and Beri-beri Art.IWMARTLD5618

Orderly on His Rounds in X Ward, Changi Gaol, Singapore

Between 1942 and 1945 over 100 people signed the flag and their signatures are visible on the flag. Ninety-one were Australian, the other signatures belonged to members of the liberating force and foreign patients looked after by the Australian medical unit. Sixteen of the Australian’s who signed the flag, prior to their departure for the Burma – Thailand Railway in 1943, did not survive their ordeal.

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Many of their signatures have faded, but a hopeful message from Changi hospital patients remains: “Xmas 1942. Wishing Capt Parsons speedy release and everything good for the coming year. From the patients.”

The Japanese used the British Army’s Selarang Barracks, near Changi prison, as a prisoner of war camp, holding some 50,000 Allied soldiers, predominantly British and Australian. The name “Changi” has become synonymous with the infamous POW camp. About 850 POWs died during their internment in Changi during the occupation of Singapore, a relatively low rate compared to the overall death rate of 27% for POWs in Japanese camps.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”

Australian POWs built a chapel at the prison in 1944 using simple tools and materials. A series of murals were painted at the chapel. A British POW, built a Christian cross out of a used artillery shell. After the war, the chapel was dismantled and shipped to Australia, while the cross was sent to the UK. The chapel was reconstructed in 1988, and is now located at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Canberra.

Changi chapel at duntroon

The original Changi Chapel at Duntroon and dedicated to Australian POWs.

Captain Parsons brought the flag back to Sydney after the war, where it was eventually passed to his only son and it lay folded away in a pillowcase and forgotten at the bottom of a cupboard. In 2004 Mrs Parsons, now a widow, decided to sell the flag and it was purchased by a Melbourne businessman who donated it to the Shrine of Remembrance.

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Essential Facts:

  • Title:                        Changi Flag
  • Significance:          POW symbol of defiance
  • Date:                        1941
  • Dimensions:           1.8 metres by 3.7 metres

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“A determined soul will do more with a rusty monkey wrench than a loafer will accomplish with all the tools in a machine shop.” Robert Hughes

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Photo Credit: 1) By GordonMakryllos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons 2) By GordonMakryllos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons 3) By Cole, Leslie [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 4) Cfitzart at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons