Rigorous research on WWII brought together

War and Memory in Malaya and Singapore
Edited: P. Lim Pui Huen and Diana Wong
Published: The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies

The Singapore-based Institute of South-east Asian Studies is an excellent source of material of all sorts on this complex and varied region, and in this volume they have brought together some very rigorous research on World War II and the memory of it in Malaya and Singapore.

This, needless to say, covers the period of the defeat of the British in 1942, the Japanese Occupation and the return of the British power in September 1945.

It is the story of the effect of the Japanese Occupation on the three major ethnic groups in the British colonies, the Malays, Chinese and Indians. As P. Ramasamy says in his piece on the Indians, “Wars mean different things to different people.”

Indeed, they do. Each of these groups had experienced a different type of interface with colonial power and the Japanese themselves had different expectations of them.

The Chinese, for example, knew instinctively that they would be targeted and scapegoated. The Overseas Chinese had pre-war been a major source of funds and moral support for their mainland kin when the Imperial Japanese Army overran parts of China in the 1930s. Chinese men in particular had much to fear and so it proved.

The Japanese, who renamed the island Syonan-to, mounted sweeping operations known as sook ching and many Chinese males were unlawfully executed in them. No wonder then that the Malayan Anti-Japanese People’s Army had a very large Chinese component – it would be a mistake, however, to view it as a single-race fighting force.

Many Chinese resisted in other ways, and here it is something of a disappointment to find that none of these essays gives a separate mention to a heroine, Elizabeth Choy whom the British later decorated with the O.B.E.; a remarkable woman. Nor does the Eurasian doctor Sybil Karthigasu, G.M., who is buried in Ipoh’s Connolly Road Cemetery and who left Japanese interrogation semi-paralyzed, merit an individual mention.

The Malay scholar Abu Talib Ahmad has done an excellent research job on “The Malay Community”, having interviewed many older rural Malays for their recollections of the Occupation.

Whilst acknowledging that more of the Malays were acquiescent, Abu is also insistent that many resisted. The writer points out Malay peasant resistance in the form of a refusal to plant anything other than their family plots.

The Indian experience is nuanced by the very real influence of Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army among them. Its anti-imperialist “modus operandi” was to collaborate with the Japanese around the slogan ‘On To Delhi.’ As Ramasamy says, anti-British agitation and the memory of heavy work on the plantations prompted many Indians to prefer the Japanese vehicle, and after the war their anticolonial sentiment became evident in widespread Indian support for the Malayan Communist Party.

This is an extremely thoughtful but occasionally overwritten series of essays about the immediate effects of the Japanese Occupation and its consequences for post-war life. After reading it, I am left, yet again, wondering why there is no memorial to the Asian slave labor that died in the tens of thousands on Japan’s ‘Death Railway’ in Thailand.

(pub. The Jakarta Post 22nd March 2001)

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