POW in Changi

A prisoner-of-war in Changi camp.

'King Rat' by James Clavell



Changi today

When coming to Singapore by plane the port of arrival is Changi Airport at the very east of the Singaporean Island. A modern, faceless place of international standard. Very few people remember that at this spot a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp was situated in the Second World War.


King Rat

It's early 1945. Changi Camp, designed for 2,000 prisoners, is filled up with 10,000. All the scary tropical deseases one can get, like malaria, dengue, encephalitis, diarrhea etc. etc. appear, together with malnutrition. The prisoners, including the officers, are mostly merely skeletons, dressed in rags. The Japanese and Korean guards are all but friendly to the English, Australian and a handful of American inmates. On the contrary, they would be rather glad to get rid of them, instead of feeding them despite the general shortage of food. In fact, many were sent to serve forced labour building the notorisous 'death railway' at Kanchanabury (Thailand) - Three-Pagoda-Pass - Burma.

Japanese Troops in Singapore 1942

Japanese troops in Singapore, 1942. Winston Churchill alleged that the fall of Singapore was the greatest disaster in British history.

There is a secret radio receiver in the camp, supplying the prisoners-of-war with information from British broadcast from Calcutta. The allies make progress on all fronts, but it seems to be a long way until the Japanese would be defeated finally and the war would be over. Conquering the Philippines with Manila and all the many, many islands in the Pacific Ocean takes a long time, before Japan itself can be attacked. There is no hint of the atom bomb and it looks pretty bad from the point of view of the inmates.

The Japanese authorities have their own version of what's going on in the war. They claim they were on the way to conquer Hawaii and Australia. That's why the radio means hope for the prisoners. Getting catched with the radio therefore means harsh punishment - who rules claimes always the hegemony on information.

It's a thrilling story about the life in the camp, about some certain people and their fate and their memories of the time before they came into the camp. One of the men is very extraordinary and can manage to maintain a privileged living standard even here. Always looking for new profitable business ideas (trading is strictly forbidden in the camp) he once, on chance, has a very particular idea to open a new source of income...

He represents a typical modern business man with only one focus in mind: how to make money out of anything. It's the same mentality the very rich people represent, lets say the Wall Street tycoons and the big modern industrialists. He is the 'King'. But it's not a black-and-white picture about him. His intentions are well understandable.

Another main character is quite the contrary. Peter Marlowe doesn't mind money and has other values in mind. For him it's hard to understand the way, the King thinks. He is straight and honest. Particularly interesting are his memories of a Javanese village in which he lived as a refugee in March 1942, after his spitfire was shot by the Japanese, when they conquered Java and huge parts of Southeast Asia. He escaped capture by fleeing into the jungle, getting lost and came out after days near a village. The depiction of the villagers once more back my opinion that the Javanese were a much better people in the past but really suffer a long, long social decline caused by political oppression over centuries by the Dutch and later, even more, their own authoritarian governments (particularly General Suhartoe's dictatorship).

POW Liberation

Changi prisoners at their liberation.

A third main character is a British camp guard, who takes his tasks very serious. He is from a poor background and suffers more than the King and Marlowe. He is always trying to trap them, playing a cat-and-mouse game with them. Not seldom the 'own' people are the worst and make one hell on earth.

Most surprising is at the end the reaction of the prisoners after their liberation, for which they longed so much. When it happened, they all changed their mentality very quick. They get deeply scared about what will happen now in their post-prisoner life in peace and back home. Their reaction seems most irrational.

James Clavell

James Clavell


James Clavell

'King Rat', James Clavell's literary debut (Clavell was born 1924 in Australia, died 1994 in Switzerland, and is well known for 'Shogun', 'Noble House' and 'Tai Pan'), was a World War II veteran fighting as a British officer in Malaya against the Japanese Armee, got captured and was first imprisoned in a POW camp on Java, before being transfered to Changi POW camp for three years. The character of Peter Marlowe is based very much on Clavell himself in his young years. 'King Rat' was first published in 1962.

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Published on October 16th, 2012