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Feb 27, 2017

Food Rationing in Singapore during the Japanese Occupation

Hokien Street in Singapore c 1950s

Hokien Street in Singapore in the 1950s as I remember it from the above "memory-aid" photos (with the courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore) when I was about 8 years old.  My mother once lived in one of these pre-war 2-storey houses when I was not yet born.  She was staying with her relatives at Hokien Street for many years in the 1940s.

The related blog about Hokien Street posted here . When my mother brought me to visit her relatives at Hokien Street one day, I learnt something about her life in Singapore from her conversation with them. 

When she was young, energetic and active in her 20s, she ran errands for the relatives and neighbors to make herself useful and do things which others are too busy or too old and weak to perform these tasks by themselves.

Photo of my mother taken at the Mellow Photo Studio in Great World Amusement Park in 1958

I learnt that during the Japanese occupation in Singapore from 1942-1945 after the war, my mother would help them to buy rice, sugar, salt and other daily necessities available with the use of food ration certificates.  She would join queues under the hot sun and help the needy friends, relatives and neighbors.

Food Rationing in Singapore

The Japanese Occupation in Singapore from 1942 to 1945 caused the disruption of Singapore's traditional entrepot trade.  This caused a shortage of food, mostly from neighboring countries by roads, ships or boats.

The Japanese decided to implement the system of food rationing to solve the problems of food shortage which drove inflation upwards.  (Courtesy of  NewspaperSG, National Library Board).

Every registered household was given a "Peace Living Certificate" to obtain ration cards.  It was a certificate that allows people to get ration can buy the daily necessities like rice, salt, sugar etc at the allocated distribution centres in Singapore.

The lack of fresh vegetables, fruits and food caused many people to suffer from malnutrition because there is limited food supply for them to consume a square diet for the young and old.

"Black Markets"

What are "Black Markets"?

We have heard of "night markets" (pasar malam), open-air markets, "flea markets" but few young Singaporeans know about "Black Markets".  However, our pioneer generation heritage friends would remember the "black markets" in Singapore in the old days.

The food rationing caused people to open 'black markets' where they sold goods at exorbitant prices which only wealthy people can afford to buy.

In Singapore during the Japanese occupation, food and other commodities were in very short supply and strictly rationed.  This means that people would be willing to pay higher prices to get more than their limited ration.

There were also thousands of people who made a living by hawking goods on the street, and even door-to-door salesmen.  So the black market was everywhere.  The enterprising businessmen with money and capital to obtain the commodities would then sell them at a high profits. 

During the Japanese occupation from 1942-1945, founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was stopped from going to university and he ran a successful black market business selling tapioca-based glue.  [Source: Wikipedia].

The 'black market' was so rampant and people deliberately hoard supplies of food and desired products in order to drive up the prices.

The Japanese printed "banana notes" with no serial numbers.  This cause them to lower the value of the currency notes as money.  The "banana notes" are not legal tenders and not recognised elsewhere except in Singapore during the Japanese occupation.  After the surrender by the Japanese after the war, the "banana notes" was worthless to use as money.

Grow More Food Campaign

The Grow More Food Campaign was started during the Japanese Occupation to place a check on inflation. People were encouraged to strive for self-sufficiency by growing their own food. Vegetables, tapioca and sweet potatoes, yam, maize, were some of the common crops grown. The campaign targeted people from all walks of life including city-dwellers, government workers and schoolchildren.

People planted wherever there was empty space of land  - in front, beside and behind their houses in the kampong and along the roadsides.  No space was left vacant.  Even the grand Padang was not spared.  In 1944, its grassy plains were planted with tapioca trees.  These changes in the city landscape led a Japanese wartime official, Shinozaki Mamoru, to comment that Syonan had changed into a vegetable garden.

Today, Singapore is a Garden City, not a "Vegetable Garden"

The transformation of the Padang after the surrender to Singapore in 1945

Under the supervision of the British colonial administration in Singapore after the surrender in 1945, the Japanese prisoners-of-war (POW) working on the Padang to restore the condition of the land.

Japanese POWs performing heavy manual work under Allied Forces supervision after the surrender.
Photo dated September 1, 1945. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore).