Sunday, 13 September 2020

12 September 1945: Why we must not forget

Japanese surrender marks radical break from the past, starting a process where Singapore gains independence 20 years later
By Clement Yong, The Sunday Times, 13 Sep 2020

It was 75 years ago yesterday that Singapore ushered in the post-World War II era, starting a process which would see it gain independence 20 years later.

On Sept 12, 1945, thousands gathered to hiss at the Japanese around the Municipal Building of Singapore - now known as City Hall.

General Seishiro Itagaki of Japan signed 11 copies of the Instrument of Surrender that day, marking the end of nearly four years of the Japanese Occupation of South-east Asia.

An eyewitness account in The Straits Times on Sept 13 observed that the Japanese delegates at the surrender ceremony were "immobile, except (for) one who twiddles his thumbs and twitches his feet".

It further noted that the Japanese representatives were bareheaded, perhaps recently shaven. "The lights glint on bald pates," it said.

The time of Gen Itagaki's signature: 11.10am. Nine minutes later, the Japanese stood, bowed and shuffled out to "jeers and catcalls" from the crowd.

Perhaps intoxicated by the moment, the journalist wrote: "All Singapore turned out to see the pageantry."



These days, however, the occasion is hardly remembered, much less commemorated enthusiastically.

Checks with the National Library Board, the National Heritage Board and the Singapore Armed Forces Veterans' League (SAFVL) show no events have been planned, in part because of the coronavirus.

While the SAFVL organises a memorial and school trips on Feb 15 each year - when the British surrendered Singapore in 1942 - it said Sept 12 is significant but not as "compelling to illustrate the national values we wish to instil in our children".

The National Museum of Singapore is holding a talk in commemoration of the end of WWII only on Sept 28.

Meanwhile, Covid-19 led to the cancellation of a ceremony originally planned to take place at the Kranji War Cemetery, leaving representatives, including high commissioners and ambassadors from seven former combatant nations - Australia, Canada, India, Japan, New Zealand, Britain and Singapore - to separately lay wreaths at the Cenotaph yesterday.

Students of The Japanese School Singapore also made 2,000 tsuru, or paper cranes, to symbolise peace and reconciliation.

In part, the lack of locally organised events reflects how Sept 12 continues to be a hard date to pin down when it comes to what it means for Singaporeans.

It is indisputable that residents received a reprieve with the departure of the Japanese, whose violent reign included campaigns such as Sook Ching, which killed 40,000 to 50,000 Chinese in Singapore and Malaya.

But the years when Singaporeans could decide their own fate were still to come.

It was "Rule Britannia" which sounded at the 1945 ceremony, and the Union Jack that was hoisted.

Peace was also only slowly re-established and scarcity continued.

It was neither a trough or a crest of Singapore's history.

NOT END OF HARDSHIP

On what Sept 12 meant for most Singaporeans, historian Goh Geok Yian of the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) said: "It would have signalled to most an expectation of escaping a particular period of fear, uncertain living conditions and limited food and resources, but it did not mark the end of uncertainty.

"It was definitely not the end of hardship as access to food, amenities and cooking oil continued to be limited."

But it should be remembered that the departure of the Japanese also marked a radical break from the past, for both Singapore and the surrounding countries.

The feting of the British as liberators during the ceremony was never equated to a return to pre-war Singapore.

Associate Professor Albert Lau of the department of history at the National University of Singapore said: "What the Japanese destroyed beyond repair in those three short years was not only the once seemingly indestructible myth of British invincibility, but also their moral right to rule Asian peoples.

"The defeat of the British gave the colonised courage to believe it was not hopeless to challenge them."

Sept 12 ended a chapter of the "mental revolution" that made nationalists of leaders such as founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, Indonesian President Sukarno and Burmese General Aung San.

Many of Singapore's Old Guard attributed their political awakening to their wartime experiences, said Prof Lau.

Indonesia would declare independence in 1945, Burma would gain independence in 1948, and Malaya in 1957, to name a few.

Previously colonised nations progressively shook off their Western shackles and came into their own.

The age of formal empire was over.



Still, for survivors of the war, the power struggles of nation-states and empires were far from their minds.

Amid patchy memories of wartime Singapore, it is impressions of its extremities that remain seared in their minds seven decades later.

Mrs Anita de Conceicao, who then lived near a prison in Malacca, was six when the war ended in 1945.

Asked if her family celebrated Japan's surrender, the 81-year-old simply noted: "Everybody was equally poor, so there was almost nothing in the pantry to bake a cake with to celebrate.

"All I was concerned about as a young child was being with my parents.

"At six years of age, one isn't affected by any power change, except noticing perhaps the lightness of spirit in my parents and neighbours."

Some who lived through the war have put pen to paper to document their lives.

Mr William Gwee Thian Hock wrote A Baba Boyhood: Growing Up During World War 2, a 271-page account of his perspective of the period.

He told The New Paper in 2016 that the war led him to become "an avid reader of everything pertaining to historical events in general, World War II in particular".

Associate Professor Goh of NTU said such unique individual memories need to be preserved, in addition to collective memories stored in museums and textbooks.

Although private memories are more meandering, "one should realise the importance in having our older generations recount the sights, the people, the smells and the feelings they felt", she said.

"We run a risk of memories being forgotten, especially as our pioneer and older generations age and their individual memories fade."



RELUCTANT TO RECALL PAST

But efforts to elicit memories can be difficult.

Retired teacher Chian Yang Hui, 95, was reluctant to talk about the atrocities of war as "it stirs up bad memories".

After some persuasion, however, she recalled the Japanese sorting Chinese men in front of where she lived during the war.

"Those with rougher hands were given odd jobs to do.

"Those with smoother ones, which usually meant they could read and write, were lined up and shot," she said.

She was nearing 20 at the time and lamented how some men lost their lives or became forced labour, putting an end to budding love among some of her friends and acquaintances.

Women also had to wear their hair short to pass off as men to avoid being raped.

"I hated the Japanese for a long time, but it's forgiven now," she said.

Madam Lim Ching, 80, was a toddler then.

Her mother told her she laughed during the air raids when people were scrambling for safety, as she had no concept of danger.

Her younger brother, born in 1942, is much smaller in size than her other siblings, she added.

"It could be due to the malnutrition at the time. We used to mock him."

When she was three, a Japanese soldier hanged himself from a tree in front of her, near where Thomson Plaza is today. It was her first encounter with suicide.

"It was a long time ago, and I am quite easygoing, so I want bygones to be bygones. But the young dying is unnatural and sad," she added.

Such accounts add important complexities to the way Singapore currently focuses on the resilience of its people in public narratives.

Prof Goh said: "The decision was likely made to emphasise resilience as a positive trait, as it can be used to unify the people and build confidence, rather than a negative experience which focuses on pain, hardship and horror that would not lend itself to developing a community which can go beyond committing itself to preventing the same thing from happening again."

Depending on ethnicity and how much access they had to resources, different groups of people were also treated differently by the Japanese, she added, and this heterogeneity should be taken into account even as "the grit to survive through the hardships and shortages was an experience that would have been shared by all".

Prof Lau said Singapore does not have the "luxury for historical amnesia" as the Japanese Occupation contains important lessons for nation-building.

He added that war is a powerful force in the forging of a nation.

Prof Lau said: "War provides people with a common ordeal and a shared experience.

"War's very revolutionary nature unleashes forces that can be transformative.

"The memory of our national past, including the British colonisation and Japanese Occupation, makes us who we are... We must do all we can to ensure we do not forget."


No comments:

Post a comment