Reflections on THE JAPANESE OCCUPATION (1941-1945)
K T JOSEPH (EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF LAND USE STUDIES, DEPARTMENT of GEOGRAPHY, UNIVERSITY OF MALAYA)
On the 8th of December, 1941 the first bombs fell on Singapore and on Penang. My mother, sister and I were visiting Butterworth for my cousin’s wedding. My uncle and aunt lived next door to the cattle quarantine station (where my uncle was the Veterinarian in charge) which was very close to the Butterworth Airport. When the dog fights between the Japanese and the British began, we had to jump into the deep narrow drains to avoid being caught in the cross-fire. It was a terrifying experience for a nine year old. I could see the bombs dropping, looking like shiny eggs .
The trains were crowded with people all wanting to move south. We managed to get the last train from Prai which then took us safely to Tampin where my father came to pick us up to take us back to Malacca.
The whole country was swamped with Indian and Australian forces. Bridges were destroyed to slow down the progress of the Japanese army. The advance forces came in all sorts of commandeered vehicles including bicycles.
Japanese Kamikaze squadrons destroyed the battle ships THE Prince of Wales and the Repulse, off Kuantan. This was a crippling blow indeed .The British appeared to be completely unprepared. In fact, the guns in Singapore were pointing in the opposite direction ( to the sea) whereas the Japanese approach was from the Johore end.
Soon after the sinking of the ships off the East Coast, one bomb fell in front of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation in Malacca and the very next day, the British Resident and the Remaining British left for Singapore. They gave each government servant one month salary and left them to the mercy of the incoming forces. There was looting on a large scale in Malacca. My family together with the family of Dr A X Pakiam as well as the families of Dr YC Foo ( all good friends and fellow Rotarians) moved to an estate in Merlimau as they thought that they would be safer there
Soon after the Japanese occupied Malacca they made a proclamation that all citizens should return to their homes. They struck terror into the hearts of the population by cutting off the heads of those suspected of looting. The heads were displayed prominently in the centre of the town.
This was a difficult time for the family especially as food was in short supply, getting progressively worse as the war continued. After the sale of various items we had to do with less and less and finally our diet consisted of mainly tapioca in many forms and kanji, as rice was in very short supply. An uncle of mine, K T Oomen started growing ragi in Merlimau on the outskirts of Malacca. It was this ragi that saved us from getting beri-beri.
When the Japanese first arrived in Malacca they came into my home and confiscated a Gesner machine that had belonged to the Rotary Club of Malacca as my father had been Secretary of the club since 1937. This machine was used to print out notices and it was worked on by my cousin, AP John who was staying with us The Japanese wanted to use this machine and so my cousin, John was the first person to be given a job. He worked in the Treasury in Malacca State in the accounts department Rations of cigarettes and rice were given to him in addition to a salary . The cigarettes were valuable as they could be sold for cash.
When the Military administration was set up and a military governor had assumed office, the Japanese authorities requested all Government servants to report for work and these people were then given Japanese lessons and after a short period , exams were held. My father was then a government servant, teaching at the Malacca High School. Earlier, in 1928 he had gone to Raffles College in Singapore as a Malacca Settlement Scholar where he became the first President of the Raffles College Union. In the Japanese Language exams, my father came out first in the State, and as a consequence was then appointed Inspector of Schools under the Japanese Director of Education and Religion (Bunkyo Kato) much to the annoyance of some of his Normal trained teaching colleagues at the Malacca High School.
The CEO of the Education Department was a Japanese called Yamamoto who had studied in Harvard . He was very lonely and used to visit my father quite often, always bringing with him some fish or meat which my mother would cook. He would discuss all sorts of interesting topics including the works of Shakespeare. Some of our neighbors were suspicious of his visits but my father continued his association with him . In fact it was Yamamoto that warned my father that he was being watched and that he should be careful There were many rumor mongers in those trying times and you did not always know who was friend or foe . For a small favour, some people were ready to betray anyone to the dreaded Kempetai ( Military Police) One night at 4 am, they surrounded the house and came in with fixed bayonets to examine a number of boxes which were kept in the store room . Fortunately for us they did not open the bag which contained helmets gas masks, flags of various Rotary clubs, including the Union Jack This was all dangerous because if the Japanese Kempetai had found the bag, my parents would have had their heads chopped off. That night itself, all of us in the family dug a huge hole behind the house and buried the bag.
As Inspector of schools. my father was able to travel and help some of the teachers. I do remember his helping teacher, Ayathuray ( classmate Walter’s father) who was in a bad way health wise with some rice , from his own rations. My father was drawing a monthly salary of 180 in Japanese currency ( Banana Notes) with rice, salt and sugar and a carton of “ KOA” cigarettes which could be disposed of quite easily in the black market.
In July 1943, Subhas Chandra Bose came to Singapore from Germany to take over the Azad Hind Fauz or The Indian National Army (INA) He formed a cabinet of which he headed. Soon after he travelled to all the major towns, including Malacca where he spoke at the Capitol Theatre. I attended this meeting and was mesmerized by his charismatic personality. I can still recall his first words : “My beloved brothers and sisters .We are NOT Hindus or Musulman, or Sikh or Christian . WE are the children of Bharat (bharat ke bacchon). He spoke in Hindi and in English. His words were also translated into Tamil. He was appealing for funds and I saw with my own eyes rubber tapper women taking their gold thalis and giving it away. It was a sight that will never be witnessed again! Soon after, the Balak Sena was formed and I joined the group. In early 1945 I had volunteered to go for special training with the Azad Hind Fauz. The commander was 2nd Lieutenant A W Rana of the Rajputana Rifles. He was an excellent commander and took special pains to tell us to be careful when dealing with hand grenades cautioning us that we need to fall flat on the ground after the pin was taken out, still clutching on and after throwing it forward and before a count of five, we had to hit the ground. He also gave us valuable training on the use of submachine guns, teaching us to strip and re-assemble so that in the eventuality of the jamming of the gun, we could re-use it later This was carried out in the mornings but in the afternoons we had lectures on types of maps and map reading and other aspects of war.After tea time, we had a Bengali political commissar , who brain washed us with his vitriolic hatred of the colonial powers. Despite the fact that I was influenced by him there was something nasty about him. We were scared of him whereas A W Rana was very well liked by all of us as he was a professional soldier. After about 6 weeks of intensive training we were ready for action and about 12 of us (I was the youngest at 12, the oldest being 18) were selected to be the initial group to be sent by submarine to Imphal. where we would be involved in sabotage. I remember that S Mani Iyer was also with me from Malacca. I remember him because he visited me in the seventies to talk about old times. He now lives in Madras. Fortunately, the war was coming to an end so the decision was made to let us go home and not become canon fodder. In retrospect, I am glad that the AZAD HIND FAUZ was made up of humane senior officers .
The 3 and ½ year period of Japanese occupation came to the end with the return of the British military administration followed by a civil administration. But before the British military could come back (mainly Indian troops who landed in Morib) in the interim period, the Chinese Communists took control. They took retribution against those whom they thought had collaborated with the Japanese
Killing men in front of their families was quite common. In fact this happened to Hassan Ibrahim who witnessed his own father’s killing in Malacca which left a terrible mark on him . According to many reports this period was far more frightening and chaotic than the entire Japanese occupation.
The message that I would like to give to-day is that I was indoctrinated so much so that I was willing to die at the time. I was just 12 years old and having had this experience of having been indoctrinated , I can understand the evil of indoctrinating the young and easily influenced. Even worse than the child soldier are those who indoctrinate the young and women to blow themselves up. This evil has now spread all over the world.
For those who support these practices by providing funds for such nefarious activities must surely have blood on their hands. The killing of the innocent bystander can never be justified.