Launch of the Singapore War Crimes Trials Web Portal (http://www.singaporewarcrimestrials.com): Post-WWII justice in Singapore
For better or worse, war crimes trials have become very much part of today’s international legal landscape. This was not always the case. During the Second World War, the Allied Powers discussed different ways of dealing with Axis wartime atrocities, and even considered the summary execution of Axis war criminals before finally deciding to hold war crimes trials. This resulted in the well-known Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials, which tried a select number of high-ranking Axis leaders. Apart from these jointly organised trials, the Allied Powers also individually conducted hundreds of war crimes trials across Asia and Europe.
After the war, the British military conducted war crimes trials in Asia and Europe pursuant to a 1945 Royal Warrant (Army Order 81/1945). In Asia, the British chose to base war crimes investigations in Singapore and also conducted the majority of trials in Singapore. Altogether 131 war crimes trials were held in Singapore. Though these trials dealt with historically significant atrocities, they remain relatively unknown in Singapore and the region today. This is not surprising. These trials are not comprehensively discussed in Singapore’s history textbooks. The original trial transcripts and trial-related documents are housed in the UK National Archives. The National University of Singapore’s Central Library carries copies of most trial transcripts. The Singapore War Crimes Trials Web Portal Project (http://www.singaporewarcrimestrials.com) hopes to fill this gap by increasing public knowledge and interest in these lesser known trials by bringing together information about these trials in an accessible and interactive manner, and by making this information available on an open access basis.
The Portal is generously supported by the National Heritage Board of Singapore and the Singapore Academy of Law. It also would not be possible without the help of our research assistants and the organisations we approached for photos and information. The Portal was launched on 29 August 2016 at an event co-organised by the Singapore Law Review. The Portal contains background information about these trials, explanations of the trials’ legal framework, and case summaries of each trial (e.g. crime details, interesting facts, details of trial actors, trial findings). It features archival and present-day photos of these trials, crime locations, and buildings where the trials were held. The Portal also contains maps of crime locations and highlights how the Singapore Trials dealt with crimes that took place not only in Singapore, but throughout the region.
Why study these trials? How should we go about studying these trials? These is a need to exercise caution when studying these historical trials. Many of the legal categories and standards familiar to us today did not yet exist or were still evolving at the time of these trials. Furthermore, these courts did not issue comprehensive judgements so it is difficult to conclusively determine the grounds for their findings or sentences. Nevertheless, the trials remain historically and legally interesting for many reasons. For example, the majority of those tried in these trials held lower-level positions as opposed to the political and military leaders tried at the Tokyo Trial. The Singapore Trials thus shed light on the involvement and responsibility of lower-level military personnel in wartime atrocities. We hope that the Singapore War Crimes Trials Web Portal will encourage the public and researchers to learn more about the Singapore Trials. This is a continuing project, and we welcome all suggestions for improvement and collaboration.
The portal is at http://www.singaporewarcrimestrials.com.
CHEAH Wui Ling and NG Pei Yi (co-researchers)
Cheah Wui Ling is Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Faculty of Law since 2007. She was educated at the National University of Singapore (LL.B., LL.M.), Harvard Law School (LL.M.), European University Institute, and Oxford University (D.Phil). She is a qualified lawyer (called to the New York Bar) and holds a diploma in arbitration (Queen Mary University of London). Prior to entering academia, Wui Ling served as a Legal Officer at the Office of Legal Affairs of Interpol’s General Secretariat (Lyon). Her teaching experience includes periods at the Centre for Transnational Legal Studies (London, UK), Oxford University (UK), Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3 (France), and Cambodia’s Royal University of Law and Economics. Presently she also acts as Senior Adviser to the Forum for International Criminal and Humanitarian Law and Asia Correspondent for the ILA Committee on Complementarity in International Criminal Law.
Ng Pei Yi is Co-researcher and Executive Officer of the Singapore War Crimes Trials Web Portal Project and Legal Counsel (Asia-Pacific) at Travelport, an American travel technology company. She has a keen interest in the intersection between technology, law and history. Her experience with international criminal law began with a short stint in 2012 with the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and she has been working with Dr Cheah Wui Ling on the Singapore War Crimes Trials Web Portal Project since 2013. She’s called to the Singapore Bar and practised commercial litigation and cross-border transactional work prior to her current role.