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When History meets data

When I studied history as a subject back in school, it was largely about remembering the events and the associated dates which the events had occured. In the context of the Singapore education system, it revolved around the history of the country; such as who, how and when it was named Singapore (or Singapura), when the British arrived and colonised it; how it grew as a trading hub since, the fall of Singapore in World War II and was occupied by the Japanese after, its independence from the British and its economic growth post independence.


But history as taught in school back then, were a series of disconnected events along a timeline; these events are often cited for how it positively or negatively impacted the people back then. But it was difficult to contextualize or quantify these various events in relation to each other. Some examples could include,

  • India has suffered many famines over its long history; which one costs the most number of lives?

  • Several parts of Asia have gone through several wars since World War II, which ones had the bigger impact in terms of lives?

  • Asia has also experience several pandemics; Spanish Flu, SARS, MERS, and Covid19; how does the most recent ones compare?


The topic of interest FYT has chosen for this article is World War II and its impact on countries in Southeast Asia. Any war has negative impacts on any of the countries involved, both for the aggressor and the defender; but were the impacts the same for the various countries in Southeast Asia during the Japanese campaigns? What were the contributing factors for any of the differences observed?


Setting the stage


Southeast Asia was a very different place than it is today. Back in 1941, except for Thailand, just before WWII Southeast Asia was made up of colonies of major western powers of the day; such as US, Dutch, Portuguese, French, the Americans and the British. As it turns out, the fact that these were colonies were a contributing factor to the outcomes of WWII.

Impact of WWII on Life Expectancy

As in any war, lives will be lost on both sides. This is often reflected by a decrease in life expectancy. The larger the decrease, the greater the impact of the war on the countries involved. For purposes of analysis, with the help of Gapminder data, we had tracked the changes to life expectancy between 1941 and 1945 for all countries across Southeast Asia. Using the data as the basis for further research, we then identified the specific historic events that contributed to any major changes to life expectancy.


Start of WWII in Southeast Asia

Japan had already been at war withj China since 1937, the formal start of World War II in Southeast Asia began with the invasion of French Inochina in 1940 and further escalated with the simultaneous attacks on Pearl Harbour, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaya in 1941. With reference to the chart above,

  • Life expectancies fell at the start of the Japanese campaign for many countries, The sharpest fall was in Singapore, followed by Malaya, Timor Leste, Indonesia and Myanman (Burma)

    • Singapore's drop in Life Expectancy could potentially be attributed to the smaller population and size; any deaths due to war would have a bigger impact on life expectancy. It could also be attributed to the fact that there was a higher ethnic Chinese presence to which the Japanese showed significant more prejudice.

    • Malaya and Burma saw some fierce fighting, but saw a lower drop in life expectancy than Singapore; possibly due to the lower ethnice Chinese mix.

    • The Philippines, Indonesia and Timor Leste saw similar drops in life expectancy as Malaya and Burma, likely for similar reasons

  • But life expectancy was not impacted in Thailand, Lao, Cambodia, Vietname and Brunei; which prompted the question of why

    • Thailand allied itself with Japan and thus declared war on the British and the Americans. They supplied the Japanese during the war and help complete the Thailand-Burma Railway. The data suggests that it managed to keep many of the Thais from the ravages of war

    • Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam were French colonies in 1941 and had just emerged from the Franco-Thai war in a position of weakness. This along with the direction of the European campaign of WWII contributed to the signing of an agreement with Japan to allow Japanes troops to transit through as well as a staging ground for the remainder of the conquest of Southeast Asia. These are likely contributing factors for stemming the loss of lives across all three countries at the start of the war.

    • Brunei was taken by the British with little resistance from the British; and the data suggests that the local population did not suffer much under Japanese conquest occupation.



Japanese Occupation

Most of the resistance in the Southeast Asian theatre of war were from the Americans, the British and Dutch colonies. By 1942, both the British and Dutch abandoned their colonies and the Japanese Occupation begun. The practices of the Japanese occupation have been well documented by many countries across Southeast Asia, these include massacres of ethnic Chinese, comfort stations and Torture of prisoners. And these practices appear to impact life expectancies.

  • The life expectancies appear to fall across all the countries that opposed Japan during the war, including the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, Indonesia, Burma and Timor Leste

  • Thailand was not under the Japanese Occupation, ife expectancy remained steady throughout.

  • While technically allied with Japan, Laos Vietnam and Cambodia showed progressive decreases in life expectancy. The alliance between the French and Japanese remained tenuous over the entire period and there was a also a growing nationalistic movement for independence which resulted in clashes between locals and the Japanese.

End of World War II

War does not only impact the countries that Japan conquered. Japan's life expectancy appears to drop as the war progressed; but most notably in 1945 when the atomic bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Vietnam also saw a significant drop in life expectancy in 1945; but it wasn't due to the war. It was attributed to a typhoon which landed in Vietnam resulting in mass famines that year.


Key lessons

  • Data can provide quantifiable context to topics typically not well known for data; such as history. Imagine the possibilities that this could make for those learning history in school?

  • Data alone is not enough, it was able to tell us how life expectancy changed for each country over time. It could not tell us why. Data needed to be contextualize through research of historical events to make sense of the changes

  • But once context and magnitude has been established, it paints a richer texture of historical events which allows us to ask even better question.

  • Click any of the visuals to get access to an interactive version of the charts


Data sources

Worldbank and Gapminder for the life expectancy data and population data for each country

Various sources for the related historical events



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