Old newspaper report says there were Japanese-built tunnels at MacRitchie Reservoir

Were they where the Syonan Jinja Shinto shrine was?

By Henedick Chng | September 30, 2017

Mention MacRitchie Reservoir and the Japanese Occupation (1942 to 1945), and one would probably think of the Syonan Jinja Shinto shrine.

Located near Sime Road at the western part of MacRitchie Reservoir, the shrine was constructed on a hill by the Japanese deep within the forests of MacRitchie with the labour of about 20,000 British and Australian prisoners-of-war (POWs).

Screenshot from Google Map

The shrine commemorated the Japanese soldiers who died in the the battles for Malaya and Sumatra.

It was destroyed by the Japanese shortly before their surrender because they feared that it would be desecrated by the British, after they returned.

Construction of Syonan Jinja. Source: NAS
Construction of Syonan Jinja. Source: NAS
Source: Wikipedia

More than just this shrine at MacRitchie

But it seems that Syonan Jinja was not the only thing that the Japanese built at MacRitchie.

According to an old Straits Times article on September 20, 1945 — eight days after the Japanese formally surrendered in Singapore — British troops found an “extensive” tunnelling project, that was also located in the western area of the reservoir.

It was part of a Japanese defensive position on a hill in the forest, and had “railway lines running into the hill”. Underground power and pumping stations were also found near the area.

Straits Times, Sep. 20, 1945. Source: NewspaperSG

Could the British have mistaken the ruins of Syonan Jinja as a defensive position?

Since the British were foolish enough to think that the Singapore did not need to be defended from an invasion by land early on in the war, you might be thinking that they were gullible enough to have mistaken the Syonan Jinja’s ruins for a defensive position.

This could perhaps be so, but yet it also seems unlikely. The identification of a place as a “defensive position” suggests that the area might have been militarised in some way, perhaps with gun positions with ammunition and supply stores.

The presence of “extensive tunnelling” with railway lines running into the hill also suggests that the position was more than just the ruins of a Shinto shrine.

It brings to mind the examples of the extensive tunnel networks the Japanese built to defend the islands of Okinawa and Iwo Jima during the Second World War.

Tunnels and bunkers were also used by the British for defence. There is a network of them at Labrador Park.

Labrador Park defensive position. Screenshot from Google Street View.

Were these tunnels at the same location as the shrine?

Both the tunnels and Syonan Jinja are reportedly located at a hill in the western area of MacRitchie Reservoir, so they may be actually at the same location.

It seems plausible, but we can’t be certain.

Considering their reputed fanaticism, the Japanese might have perhaps destroyed Syonan Jinja when defeat was imminent in order to construct the position to defend what they had already designated as a sacred site for their war dead.

In Shinto, there is a belief that spirits interred at a shrine become kami, or venerated beings similar to saints, and they can’t be separated or removed from a shrine.

This is the same reason why war criminals interred at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine cannot be removed from it according to Shinto priests.

So, to defend a sacred site where their war dead’s spirits are believed to be around to help them, even if it meant dying in the process, might be a plausible reason that the tunnels and defensive position are indeed on the same site.

The underground power and pumping stations found by the British might have also served the shrine before it became a defensive position.

Intriguing mystery remains

So, are there any remnants of the MacRitchie tunnels that have survived to the present day?

We are not sure about the tunnels, but there are remnants of Syonan Jinja still lying in the MacRitchie forest.

Image via
Remnants of Syonan Jinja. Image via Pinterest
Remnants of bridge leading to Syonan Jinja. Image via

The ruins of Syonan Jinja is out of bounds to the public in the present day.

If the MacRitchie tunnels have survived and are indeed in the vicinity of Syonan Jinja, it might be an added reason for the authorities to keep the area out of bounds to the public for safety reasons.

However, the tunnels might well be at another location.

The mystery remains, but it is intriguing to know that there might be much more lying in the forests of MacRitchie than we thought we knew.

Top image Wikipedia, NAS and NewspaperSG.

1819 is a labour of love by Mothership.sg where we tell stories from Singapore’s history, heritage & culture. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter!

About Henedick Chng

Henedick loves food. He is always hungry. In between his eating binges, he cooks and is just another food blogger who anyhow shares his recipes and dining adventures with the world.

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