Friday 17 February 2012

70th anniversary of the fall of Singapore on Feb 15, 1942

Amid the tears, a reminder to defend home
By Yen Feng, The Straits Times, 16 Feb 2012

AS A young girl nearly 50 years ago, she came looking for her grandfather.

In 1965, the War Memorial Park was still an empty field - except, she said, for the urns.

'They were these knee-high urns - the kind used to make preserved vegetables,' recalled Ms Y. L. Chow, 55, a civil servant.

Inside the urns were the remains of those lost or killed during World War II - up to 50,000 people, according to some estimates.

Ms Chow's grandfather, a sinseh or Chinese medicine practitioner, was among them. He was taken by the Japanese and never returned. He was 48 years old.

Yesterday, two separate services were held to mark the 70th anniversary of the fall of Singapore on Feb 15, 1942.

The first was at the War Memorial Park in Beach Road and the second at the Kranji War Memorial in Woodlands.

Both hour-long services were attended by families of the victims, veterans, students, the diplomatic corps and religious leaders. For all, it was a day of ritual and remembrance.

About 1,000 people attended the morning service at the War Memorial Park. As religious leaders took turns to place wreaths at the memorial, the sound of bagpipes, played by members of the Singapore Police Force Band, filled the air.

Ms Chow's mother, Madam P. H. Sim, 93, watched the proceedings from her wheelchair. 'My last memory was him boarding a truck, telling me to go home,' she said of her father, after the service.

Apart from two years when she was ill, Madam Sim said, she has attended the annual service for more than 40 years, since the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) began them in 1967.

Mr Norman Richardson, 88, a British war veteran known to his friends as 'Dickie', served as an air gunner during the war. This was his fifth time attending the memorial service.

'We lost more than 40 planes out of 120 in two days of battle,' he recalled.

Those who attended the evening service at the Kranji War Memorial shared similar stories - of lives put at risk, fought for, and lost in the war.

Mrs Rosemary Fell, 72, a British retiree, was taken by her mother back to Britain when she was two years old. She has no memory of her father, an army officer who was taken prisoner by the Japanese and died in Thailand in 1943.

Last night, at the Kranji memorial, she met Mr Joginder Singh, 93, a veteran who had served under her father. 'I was very happy to meet someone who knows my father,' said Mrs Fell, who flew in last Friday to attend the ceremony.

The two ceremonies were attended by various community and political leaders, who called for more awareness of Singapore's history and greater unity among Singaporeans to defend the country in times of crises.

At the War Memorial Park, SCCCI president Teo Siong Seng said in Mandarin that sacrifice for the nation was a kind of 'moral education'.

Mr Michael Palmer, the Speaker of Parliament, urged those gathered at the Kranji War Memorial not to forget the lessons that come from war. Of those who lived through the war, he said: 'They did not allow the circumstances to rob them of their will to live, their dignity, and self-respect.'

He told reporters later that his parents were taken prisoner by the Japanese during the war, adding: 'It's not something that I will forget.'

A sober reminder was heard at noon yesterday with the minute-long sounding of the siren by the Singapore Civil Defence Force to commemorate the day.

The anniversary date also marked Total Defence Day, which was celebrated at four schools, among them ITE College West in Bukit Batok. The theme this year was It's My Turn.

Speaking at the college, Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen reminded students that Singapore's ability to defend itself, ultimately, lay in their hands.

'The responsibility has come to us, the present generation, to appreciate what has been handed down to us, play our part to make it stronger, and pass it to our children,' he said.

Building on this theme, he added that the Defence Ministry would be commemorating 45 years of national service this year with the theme 'From Fathers to Sons'.

'If each new generation of Singaporeans commit themselves strongly to defend this home we love and treasure, then indeed our future is secure and bright,' he said.

On the 70th anniversary of the fall of Singapore, four World War II survivors, now in their 70s and 80s, recall how the wartime experience wiped out their childhood innocence and honed their survival skills
By Clarissa Oon, The Straits Times, 15 Feb 2012

He survived Death Railway

When an 18-year-old George Prior came home from work one morning and found his house bombed into a pile of rubble, he was so incensed he decided to take up arms himself.

The Japanese had just launched their first air raid on Singapore on Dec 8, 1941. The small Tanjong Pagar house where Mr Prior, now 88, lived - owned by his aunt and uncle - was a casualty of the raid.

The older couple had already been evacuated to India, along with Mr Prior's parents and four younger siblings. His father is Eurasian and his mother, Indian.

Young, idealistic and hot-headed, Mr Prior insisted on staying behind in Singapore and was working as a journalist at the now-defunct Singapore Herald. The St Andrew's School alumnus had escaped being flattened along with his house because he had spent the night at the newspaper office filing his stories.

'I'd lost everything I owned in that air raid. And when you're 18, you think there's nothing you can't do,' he says, recalling the feelings that led him to enlist in the British army's Royal Artillery, an antiaircraft unit which gunned down Japanese planes.

The next few months passed by in a whirl. Assigned to Changi beach, he operated a cannon along with two other soldiers.

'We would cheer every time we hit a Japanese dive bomber and saw it coming down in flames,' he says.

But the British troops were suffering heavier casualties. The bottom line was that they had expected the Japanese onslaught to come from the coast and not overland via Malaya.

After capturing Malaya at end-January 1942, the Japanese advanced into Singapore and defeated the British army - which included Australian, Indian and local troops from Malaya and Singapore - in fierce battles all over the island.

On Feb 15, the British surrendered. Mr Prior recalls the events of that fateful day with a sigh.

'We were told we had to stay put with our units so that the Japanese could count us and send us to Changi Prison. Those who tried to escape were shot.'

Then, along with the other prisoners of war, he had to march through the streets of Singapore, all the way to Changi, the taunts of the Japanese officers ringing in their ears. The total number of prisoners of war was more than 100,000.

Humiliating though it was, 'I will never forget how when we walked through areas such as Chinatown, residents would go out of their way to leave a small bag of rice or a drink of water by the side of the road for us'.

Life in Changi Prison was harsh. Meals consisted of two or three cups of soft rice, topped with a spoonful or two of minced meat. The prisoners were expected to survive on that while doing manual labour such as construction work every day.

But there was worse in store. The Japanese packed him and other prisoners of war onto trains bound for Thailand. They were forced to build a 415km railway from Ban Pong in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in neighbouring Burma (now Myanmar). The prisoners were not given proper construction equipment, only pickaxes and shovels.

'The Japanese had visions of conquering India through the railway,' says Mr Prior, the years having mellowed away all traces of rancour in his voice. Burma and India share a border, and India was then a British colony.

Nearly 15,000 Allied prisoners of war and an estimated 80,000 Asian labourers died from disease, starvation and torture by their captors while building what became known as the Death Railway.

Mr Prior says he was often singled out for a beating by his captors 'if I wasn't properly spading, it's awful when I think of it'.

'They couldn't understand why this dark-skinned guy was with the British Army instead of the INA, which was on their side.' The INA was the Indian National Army, a Singapore-based armed movement of Indians who wanted to liberate India from the British and allied with the Japanese to reach that goal.

War produced other cruel ironies. 'Sometimes, after we had finished building 300m of rail, Allied bombers over Thailand would raze the tracks and we would have to start all over again,' he recalls, closing his eyes at the memory.

Two things kept the young man going. One was his Catholic faith. The other was music.

He was a good guitarist and his fellow prisoners came to know of his talent. 'Some of them stole steel strings and wood from the store shed, and there were carpenters among them who knew how to make a guitar.'

During campfire nights - granted to the prisoners by kinder Japanese officers at the end of a week - Mr Prior would play the guitar and sing.

'I would walk around the camp and sing the popular love songs of the time. When I passed the bamboo huts where the sick lay, you could see from the look in their eyes how much hope and inspiration this gave them,' he recalls.

He survived nearly three years on the Death Railway, until the Japanese surrendered in September 1945.

When that happened, Red Cross officers came to transport the prisoners to major cities in Thailand and Burma.

Once he was certified fit for the rest of the journey, he was sent to Britain to be officially demobilised. He then went to India where he was reunited with his family.

In late 1946, he returned to Singapore. He joined the police force and retired 22 years ago as a lieutenant.

His wife of 50 years, Esmeralda, died six years ago. They have three children in their 50s and four grandchildren.

Despite being tested beyond the limits of what is humanly possible during the war, he has only a simple and very practical piece of advice to share.

'Fitness is the most important thing. I was a pretty good sportsman and this helped me in wartime. So stay fit and treasure good health,' he says.

She lost her parents, siblings

At the age of six, Madam Zaleha Sumun witnessed her birth parents being dragged out of their house to be killed by Japanese soldiers.

The incident happened at the end of February 1942, in the small town of Kota Tinggi, Johor, where she lived before coming to Singapore a year later. She was born into a Peranakan Chinese family and, after the tragedy, was adopted by Malay neighbours.

At that time, Japanese troops had just occupied Malaya and Singapore and had begun targeting the ethnic Chinese - their historical arch-enemy - in several massacres across Singapore and Johor.

She and her birth parents and five siblings were living among Malay and Chinese villagers in a Kota Tinggi kampung, which suffered a surprise attack by Japanese soldiers armed with bayonets.

Recalls Madam Zaleha, now 76, in Malay: 'Two or three of them barged into our house and dragged my parents away. Amid the chaos, some of our Malay neighbours managed to take us children away and saved us from the Japanese.'

Later, she heard that her parents had been taken to a nearby plantation and beheaded along with other Chinese villagers. She and her siblings, aged one to 16, were separated and adopted by different Malay families in an attempt to protect them.

During the occupation, the Japanese were known to be less brutal towards non-Chinese, although in Johor 'we did hear of Japanese soldiers raping Malay widows and young ladies to satisfy their lust', she says.

Her adoptive father was an ustaz (Muslim religious teacher) and she was brought up as a Muslim.

Her adoptive family left Kota Tinggi for Singapore in late 1943 because it was felt that the situation here was more stable than in the Peninsula, where there were frequent killings as anti-Japanese resistance forces slugged it out with the Japanese.

In Singapore, the family of five - Madam Zaleha, her adoptive parents and their two sons - settled in a Malay kampung in the Geylang Serai area. They eventually became Singaporeans.

Apart from the killing of her birth parents, her other indelible memory of the Japanese Occupation is having to queue once a week for the family's rice and tapioca rations. She remembers, at eight years old, being constantly hungry. 'The rations were never enough. We were so desperate that we ate the skin of sweet potatoes.' Among the food shortages was a lack of milk powder and neighbours with infants fed their babies rice water instead.

By 1944, there were also power shortages as the Japanese lost control of sea lanes to US submarines. Singapore households had to use candles at night as Japanese rules forbade the switching on of lights. These privations aside, life was quite peaceful and Japanese soldiers never came into the kampung.

After the Japanese surrender in September 1945, the war ended. Madam Zaleha went to school for the first time, enrolling at a Malay-medium school, Sekolah Kampong Glam, until Primary 6, when her parents could not afford to pay for her education.

At 16, she entered into an arranged marriage with her husband Othman, a carpenter, who died two years ago at age 80. They have 10 children, 18 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Asked if she still feels sad about the killing of her birth parents, she shakes her head. 'It was a very long time ago and my adoptive parents treated me well.' She has lost touch with all her birth siblings, apart from one sister.

Nonetheless, the wartime hardships are forever stamped in her mind. 'I always tell my children and grandchildren to finish their food and not to waste anything. I tell them to be prepared for rainy days. Now we may be much better off but you never know,' she says.

Gandhi kept his family safe

When Singapore fell to the Japanese on Feb 15, 1942, many Indian households here put up pictures of Mahatma Gandhi on their doorstep. Mr Bala A. Chandran's family was one of them.

Gandhi was the well-known leader of the Indian independence movement against the British colonialists.

The Japanese knew that, and it was a sign to them that the household in question was Indian and not Chinese. Chinese men were being targeted by the Japanese in islandwide killings because of their perceived support of Japan's arch-enemy China.

'When the Japanese came and saw the picture of Gandhi, they would say, 'Ah, Gandhi ka (is it)?', 'Hindu, ka?', and go off,' recalls Mr Bala, who was then 14. He is now 82.

His was also one of numerous Indian families who took the opportunity to hide close Chinese neighbours in their Gandhi-protected homes.

'Of course, if we had been discovered, we would all have been killed. And some Indian families did get into trouble that way,' he says.

This was not to say that the Japanese did not behave aggressively towards the Malays and Indians during their three-year occupation of the island, he adds.

'If the Japanese were short of food, they would raid your house for canned food. If they wanted to do their laundry, they would call you to fetch water from the well for them. If you didn't go, they would give you one tight slap. Slapping was very common,' says Mr Bala matter-of-factly.

Born in Ipoh to a Tamil family that had been in Malaya for three generations, he moved with his family to Singapore in 1937.

His father, then an engineer in the Malayan Railway, had a job transfer here. Mr Bala was the second of four children.

The Japanese Occupation was a rude interruption to normal life as the family knew it. Mr Bala's education at Radin Mas School ground to a halt - he was in Standard Six, the equivalent of Secondary 2 - and he witnessed some of the cruelty of an invading power.

But it also provided the young man, a supporter of the Indian independence cause, with an unexpected opportunity to realise that dream.

The platform was the Indian National Army (INA), an armed movement rallied by the Indian revolutionary Subhas Chandra Bose, who visited Singapore in July 1943.

The 40,000-strong army comprised Indian civilians here as well as Indian prisoners of war who originally fought with the British.

The Japanese backed the INA as they wanted to use it to fight the British on the Indo-Burma border. The army is the subject of a book to be launched later this month on Bose's legacy, titled A Gentleman's Word and published by the Institute of South-east Asian Studies.

Mr Bala joined the INA's youth wing in 1943 because he had long chafed against the 'arrogance, superior attitude and colonial pride' of the British.

He lists instances of British discrimination - toilets in Singapore at the time were segregated and marked 'European' and 'Asiatic', while his older brother 'was once hauled up by a British officer and told to clean up a public toilet that had been dirtied by a passer-by'.

In the youth wing, he was trained for intelligence work on the Indo-Burma border. This involved making studies of British camps and other strategic facilities and reporting back to his officers.

However, he never went to the front, where the Japanese and the INA were suffering heavy casualties. As much as one-third of the army could have perished in the 1944 battle for Imphal in north-east India.

As a result of their alliance with the Japanese, members of the army were treated better than the rest of the Singapore population, which subsisted mainly on rice and sweet potatoes.

'We got to eat mutton once a week and chicken once a month. We could drink black coffee and black tea,' Mr Bala recalls.

He says INA members did not suffer any backlash from locals during the war, though they experienced some hostility after the war from Indians and Malays who were pro-British.

By 1945, however, tension set in between the Japanese and the INA, as the Japanese were losing the war against Britain and other Allied forces and the INA was seen as a burden.

After the Japanese surrender in September 1945, Bose ordered the INA to disband immediately.

Today, a monument to the Indian National Army stands at Esplanade Park. A few readers have weighed in recently in this newspaper's Forum pages that this historic marker is disrespectful to the other war dead who lost their lives fighting the Japanese.

Mr Bala's view, however, is that 'the memorial was set up in memory of soldiers who died fighting for a cause they believed in - the independence of India'.

He thinks that spirit of heroism should not be discounted just because they fought on the losing side and that it 'should be respected by both the victor and the vanquished'.

After the Japanese Occupation ended, he went back to school and obtained his Junior Cambridge certificate, the equivalent of O levels. He has held various jobs in media and public relations, including being a journalist at two now-defunct newspapers, the Tribune and the Singapore Tiger Standard.

He and his 62-year-old wife, who works for Changi Airport, have two god-daughters aged 35 and 40. He has also been active as a grassroots volunteer for 25 years.

His wartime experiences have driven home two things to him. One, the need to 'fight for your rights, without fear or favour, in a peaceful manner'.

The other is the importance of patriotism to your country, which to him now means Singapore. 'I hope young people today can spare some time for community service,' he says.

His brother was massacred

The first day of Chinese New Year fell on Feb 15, 1942, but no one in Singapore was celebrating.

Mr Paul Cheah Thye Hong, 81, was then 11 years old. His English-speaking Hokkien family had learnt the night before that the defeated British army was going to surrender to the Japanese invaders the next day. They found out not through the radio, which few households could afford back then, but through his second brother, Thye Hean, then 22 and in the local volunteer forces. 'He came home and told us his Straits Settlement Volunteer Force was abandoning their uniforms because the British had lost. It was unthinkable,' recalls Mr Cheah.

Singapore had been part of the once-mighty British Empire for more than a century.

The Japanese takeover of the island seemed like terrible news, coming after two months of bombings that saw Mr Cheah, his parents and nine siblings scurrying to the nearest air-raid shelter, or lying flat under the longest table in their Tiong Bahru shophouse. (According to Mr Cheah, 'when a bomb explodes, you always lie flat - the killing is caused by shrapnel, not the bomb itself'.)

But the worst was yet to come. Several days after the fall of Singapore, Japanese troops rounded up all male Chinese above the age of 15 to be screened. Thye Hean was taken away and never came back.

That was how Mr Cheah's family got caught up in the infamous Sook Ching massacres (the term 'Sook Ching' comes from the Japanese word 'shukusei', meaning 'purging' or 'cleansing') which claimed up to 25,000 lives.

They were carried out by the Japanese to punish the local Chinese for ostensibly supporting China, with whom it had been at war since the 1930s.

Mr Cheah recalls: 'All my five brothers who were above 15 went for the screening. My second brother initially didn't want to go, he had a bad feeling about it. But we said, if you don't go and the neighbours squeal, the whole family will be in trouble.'

At the screening centre, a captain of the Straits Settlement Volunteer Force who was in cahoots with the Japanese identified Thye Hean. He was ordered to board a lorry with the other victims and taken to beaches and other remote areas to be bayoneted or shot.

His body was never found, but his name appears in the Kranji War Memorial honouring the war dead.

But the Cheah family had no time to grieve. Mr Cheah's father, a former businessman who was unemployed during the war, and his housewife mother had nine other children aged between eight and 24 to think about.

'We were very young then and I remember just living from day to day,' says Mr Cheah. Food and daily necessities were scarce. Apart from weekly rice rations, they grew sweet potatoes to eat.

They did what they could to earn a little money to survive. The younger children sold small quantities of cigarettes at the five-foot way in front of their shophouse. The cigarettes came from a shop in New Bridge Road that got cigarette supplies on the sly from the Japanese.

Mr Cheah became an office boy at the College of Medicine in College Road in the Outram area, which the Japanese had taken over for its bacteriology department. There he could eat beef as the Japanese were doing tests on the meat. 'But if you tried to smuggle it back for your family, you would be punished. The Japanese would string you to a tree and unleash ant nests on you,' he recalls.

After the war ended, he resumed his studies at Outram School and obtained his School Certificate, the equivalent of today's O levels.

A retired accountant, he now has three children aged between 51 and 44. His nursing officer wife of 51 years, Patricia, died 11/2 years ago.

The experience of the Japanese Occupation, he says, shaped his character and 'made me more resilient, patient, compassionate and humble'.

He adds: 'Hence, with good health, I was able to work non-stop for 50 years until I retired at the age of 68. Then I worked voluntarily for my church for eight years. In my own way, I lead a contented life.'

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