Memories of Malaya - 1. The Japanese Occupation

rubber.jpgMy father seems to be on an inspired roll. Ever since his first contribution to Fusion View, about his first experience of coming to England as a young man, he has been writing down his memories for our family. Here, he writes about his experience of the Japanese occupation of Malaya as a very young boy - stories that I never knew about at all before the email he sent earlier this week.

For people of my father’s generation, their childhood / young adulthood were indelibly marked by the Japanese occupation of Malaya during the Second World War. However, I think it’s important to make the point that these days the relationship between Japan and its Asian neighbours is peaceful and there are many Japanese families living in modern Malaysia, thriving and co-operating together with Malaysians.

My father writes:

When the Japanese in their conquest of South East Asia reached Malaya in 1941 I was 4 years old. Certainly not old enough to read about or understand the politics that gave rise to the war with Japan or the European war. This account is merely that of a family of the professional class in a British Colonial possession in the Far East which underwent about 3 years of the Japanese occupation and survived without any death in the family through torture or other atrocities.

I had 3 other younger brothers each younger by 1 year than the next. My Father was a medical practitioner who graduated in the 1920s from the King Edward VII College of Medicine in Singapore. It was one of the two finest medical colleges in the British Empire, the other one being in Hong Kong University. It produced solidly competent doctors. My Father’s elder brother and their brother-in-law also graduated from the same college. My Father-in-law was also a graduate of the same college at a slightly later date. My Father’s Father (i.e. my paternal grandfather) taught Latin in the secondary school.

The earliest memory of the state of the war was our fleeing to Singapore by train when the reputation of Singapore as an impregnable fortress was still intact. We went to our maternal grand aunt’s house in Bukit Timah where she and her family of her grown-up children lived in a large rambling wooden house in the midst of a pineapple plantation with fruit trees of rambutans and also chickens. A new experience for us was to live in such a large open space with so much greenery and fresh air without electric lights and having to draw water from a well for our baths. Soon the myth of the impregnable fortress was eroding and we fled back to Kuala Lumpur by train and the journey took hours, stopping every time there were hostile planes overhead. My parents must have heard of the rapes and atrocities committed by the Japanese in Shanghai and other parts of China and we then moved deep into a rubber estate with the whole family and livestock (mainly chickens and ducks.)

Here life was quite idyllic. We lived together with other families in rooms one next to the other. There was no electric light again and had only kerosene lamps so we went to sleep very early. The rubber trees kept the temperature cool and there was a stream with clear and clean water in which we could bathe. We were disturbed by the Japanese only once when they came in trucks. We heard the rumbling of their trucks when they went over a bridge which they had to cross to reach the rubber estate. All of us then ran deeper into the jungle which surrounded the rubber estate. All the younger women would put on ugly torn and patched peasant clothes and make themselves as uninviting as possible by rubbing ash or mud on their face or arms and were the first to run away for everyone had heard of their rapes. In this instance none was raped. They were after men who were alleged to have been conducting anti-Japanese activities.

Each one of us had a few clothes and some homemade biscuits tied up in a pillow case standing in the bedroom to be picked up when we had to flee from the house. The peasant clothes were also always ready to be put on.

Other than this disturbance, life was without any untoward event although at all times there was at the back of our minds the worry as to what would the next day bring. The adults must have had a great deal of anxiety especially people like my Mother who had four very young children to feed and bring up.

Next Friday: Japanese school

Written by Guest Blogger Ooi Boon-Leong

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18 Responses to “Memories of Malaya - 1. The Japanese Occupation”

  1. hcpen Says:

    I am looking forward to reading more about your dad’s experiences of that terrible period of time. I am a researcher and historian of WW2 in Asia and am glad to always discover more about that era…however, i wish to correct you when you say that Japan is now at peace with its Asian neighbours. In contrast, relations between Japan and two of its most significant Asian neighbours, China and South Korea, have plummetted to their lowes points in decades precisely as a direct result of its WW2 history…and the feelings of the citizens of both these countries are anything but friendly towards Japan….of cos the situation is very different in Malaysia although some of the older generation Chinese residents may still have bad feelings towards Japan….

  2. Yang-May Says:

    Thank you, hcpen, for this comment. While I am aware of the current tensions in the region, I prefer to emphasise the post-war decades of growth, prosperity and absence of military conflict that has enabled the ASEAN region and Japan to build stable and successful economies. Talking about WW2 is never easy in Asia. Negative feelings about the past remain - I do not think that dwelling on them helps us as individuals or as nations to move on and thrive. That is why I feel that it is important to counterbalance such negative perspectives with a reminder of positive outcomes firmly anchored in the present.

  3. Andrew Eglinton Says:

    This is indeed a fascinating account from your father and I’m looking forward to future installments.

    My first reaction to the post is in thinking about what constitutes a ‘historical record’ or ‘document’. While your father’s voice is one that draws on personal experience, he clearly points out that he was too young to understand the politics of what was happening at the time. Therfore I think the importance of this account lies in the details, the description of daily life as a child growing up in those years. In this sense ‘living memory’ allows later generations to gain insight into the past. I was particularly struck by the description of the wooden house and also the women’s ‘camouflage’. These are vivid images that bring focus to a certain time and place.

    In reaction to hcpen’s comment, and the politics of post ww2 ‘Asia’ (I’m still very weary of terms like Asia, West, East etc because they are fetile ground for essentialism), while there may be discord on a political level between Japan and her neighbours, we cannot read this as indicative of the populations of those countries. Political agendas serve those in power, rather than voicing the opinions of those controlled by it.

    And while I do agree that dwelling on past scars is never a good thing, I often wonder whether there would be any beneficial effect if Japan (just as one example) were to put together a commission to investigate war crimes and lay old wounds to rest. Something along the lines of the South African ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ post-Apartheid.

    No government likes to look back at the malice of its predecssors, since to bring past horror to the fore is to stab oneself in the back, but haven’t we learnt from the Holocaust that is is indeed more important to understand and remember, not matter how painful, than it is to forget? In this regard, as a British national I would like to see truth and reconcilliation in regard to the British Colonial era and to bring this in to debate and learning in the UK curriculum.

  4. Yang-May Ooi Says:

    Andrew, you raise some interesting points about memory in the role of moving forward. Most nations have darkness in their past - whether in the context of their neighbours or their own citizens - that they would rather not remember or discuss openly - including the ones that are mentioned in this chain of discussion. As an ex-colonial and now British citizen, I have been generally impressed by Britain’s self-examination and climate of open debate in the post-colonial years. Of all the European countries, I get a sense that Britain has embraced most strongly its multi-culturalism, a direct inheritance of its colonial past and also most closely examined its colonial past - compared to, say, Spain and France. In general, there also seems to me to be a sincere aspiration towards tolerance and seeking to understand others. The approach seems to be more “what can we do to make things better now and in the future” rather than “let’s try and make better what happened in the past” - I am thinking of the recent anti-discrimination legistlation re religion, sexual orientation, age and disability. I would really like to learn more about any such similar self-examinining debates in China or Japan or Malaysia or South Korea (just picking up on the countries mentioned in this discussion) - can anyone enlighten?

  5. Matthew Says:

    Thank you to Yang May’s father for his fascinating account, I do hope there will be more.

    As hcpen says relations between Japan and its neighbours are still somewhat strained despite the massive economic ties between them (how many other countries have balanced trade with China..?!). But I think Andrew is right that this is more a political / media issue than something about which the broad populations in either country feel strongly about much of the time.

    Having talked about this with quite many Japanese over the years my impressions are that (a) although there is little public debate as such individuals have more awareness of this dark part of their history than may commonly be assumed by outsiders, (b) I have heard quite a lot of people agree that the educational curriculum is lightweight on this period (as regularly charged by Korean and Chinese commentators) and that this is not desirable, (c) it would be better for political leaders not to visit Yasukuni Shrine in view of the predictable reactions of their neighbours (opinion polls bear this out), (d) although terrible deeds were done about which subsequent generations may not be sufficiently informed most Japanese want the world to see them as they are now, a peaceful, good citizen of the world. On the other hand I think there is also some weariness and frustration about having their past repeatedly thrust at them (even though it may be sparked by the antics of clumsy politicians). For example there was real dismay in Japan last year at the public displays of hate layed on for the Japanese football team at the Asia cup in China by crowds of screaming young people (born several decades after the war). In this sense, as a Chinese friend pointed out to me, if Japan is guilty of not educating its young sufficiently about the past and thereby giving the impression it lacks remorse, China could be said to have beeen guilty of continuing to teach hate to its young.

    But again I think for most ordinary people in Japan, China and Korea most of the time the overwhelming sense is of just wanting to have good relations with their neighbours. Popular interest in their close neighbours and direct contact among the 3 countries are growing massively these days. Whenever I pass through Narita in recent years it is thronging with Chinese tourists, there has been a huge “Korea boom” in Japan sparked off by the screening of a Korean TV drama and so on. I think the time for something like a truth and reconciliation commission is long past and such kind of “baring all” approach probably wouldn’t work easily in these countries anyway especially in Japan where public airing of sensitive matters at national or individual level is not really the way of things (there is no Opprah Winfrey show in Japan). Most likely this part of history will never be resolved as well as perhaps it could have been but time will continue to heal as the countries and ordinary people are brought together by economic ties, travel, media, cultural exchange, fashion, music, internet etc. If Japan was also able to overcome the problem of Yasukuni (eg build a separate memorial to their war dead excluding those executed for war crimes) it would probably be a great help.

  6. Yang-May Says:

    Matthew, thanks for setting down some context to this discussion. What struck me as I read your comment is that Asians generally do not feel comfortable “baring all” - that seems to be a Western approach towards dealing with painful events. And you may be right that this particular part of history may never be resolved - should that stop present and future generations allowing time to heal the relationships between their countries and peoples? This is a question that many regions in the world are facing at the moment and how they answer it is likely to have a profound impact on all our futures.

  7. jack Says:

    Thanks for the posting. As a Singaporean, I too have heard many first-person accounts of life during the Japanese Occupation. I also have had a Japanese friend apologize to me after he toured the museum display on Sentosa Island. We were college mates in the US and Yas had never known much about the facts and atrocities of the Japanese in Southeast Asia during WWII. I’m biased, but I’m sure my friend was more cosmopolitan and knowledgeable and engaged than many Japanese are, and yet he was unaware of this history. So I wouldn’t be surprised if Japanese public education glosses over the WWII period.

  8. Mr Roger Braga Says:

    I have an interest in this part of S.E.Asian history- my father serving in the British Army in K.L.1950-1954 and Johore 1957-1959. We (the family) accompanied him on these tours and even as a child overheard adults talking about ‘The Occupation’ and all its horrors. From these tales I began to take an interest and as I got older always tried to find our more information wherever possible. I discover a very interesting book titled -Malaya Upside down by Chin Kee Onn. Written in very basic style it gives a vast amount of ‘day to day’ information on the occupation and how people coped with it. Please feel free to approach me for any information requests, I’ll do my best to assist.

  9. hello! Says:

    Hello! This was a nice account, though i would have prefferred if there was more on the kind of life it was under japanese rule.

  10. Yang-May Ooi Says:

    Thanks for your feedback, “hello”. I’ll ask my dad if he’d like to write more about that.

  11. YeeTon (YT) Says:

    “Hello! This was a nice account, though i would have prefferred if there was more on the kind of life it was under japanese rule.”

    Re Memories of Malaya

    [To hello] if you had read through all the episodes that
    had been written, the recollections that had been alluded to as a young boy who was no more than the
    tender age of eight on termination of WWII in 1945, you would have a pretty good idea of what life was like in Malaya under the Japanese Occupation from 1941-1945 as he saw it.
    Apart from a minor error of fact about US-made B-29s
    bombing Kuala Lumpur in 1945 that was in fact carried
    out by Royal Air Force’ less formidable Liberator bombers, everything else said was spot on. They are after all his personal subjective memories. For the stuff you prefer, you should read the history or sociology book or turn to the Imperial War Museum in London that I’m sure would be glad to enlighten you with whatever information you may want to know about WWII and indeed the wars preceding that at which the British/English were party to or were involved.

    Not a bad idea also to pay a visit to IWM itself down by the Elephant & Castle Tube if you have the time.

  12. Yang-May Ooi Says:

    The Imperial War Museum is an excellent musueam. Its focus is on the impact of war on people so it has a lot of human interest stories. Thanks, yeeton, for that idea - and also to your comments about my dad’s recollections.

  13. Cho ji-Dae Says:

    annyoong sayoh!!!
    wow….this is an interesting blog….
    Do you think I could post my grand’s life and experienced of the japanese occupation in Malaya (1941-1945)?????
    If I’m not mistaken this website is about to share the experience of WW2 right?

  14. Yang-May Ooi Says:

    Cho, thanks for your comment. This website is not about sharing experiences of WW2 - it’s an East/West view on writing, culture and the arts and I’ve been sharing some of my Dad’s memories about his childhood during the Japanese occupation and about Malaya under British rule as I think there is a cultural and historical interest in them. I’m glad you found them interesting. Guest blogging is usually by invitation only but if you’d like to send me a short piece by your granddad (around 500-800 words), I’ll be happy take a look at it to see if it’s suitable for posting up on Fusion View. Please also read my Guest Blogger Submission Guidelines in the Category section on the sidebar.

  15. silivren Says:

    hi there!

    i was very intrigued to read about your father’s experiences during the occupation. real-life accounts of wars and such tend to be so much involved and in depth compared to the stuff one finds in textbooks (not to blame textbook writers, they have to back everything they say with evidence; not an easy task). my own grandfather regales us with tales of the occupation. he was slightly older than your father at the time, about eight or nine years of age. he told us this story of how a man was beheaded because he failed to bow to a japanese sentry. he saw the head on display as he went to school.

    as for the issue of revisiting the past, i agree with andrew and matthew. the japanese did some of the most dirty and underhanded things during the war, and what they did seriously affected a lot of people. i’m not saying that the allies were angels, but they have apologised time and again for their mistakes. they have taken them apart and examined them. the problem here is that the japanese government (not the people, mind you) will not admit the wrongs that they did during the war, or that they did anything wrong to begin with. take the whole row about the comfort women. would it be so difficult for the japanese government to issue an apology to them and give them some form of reimbursement? we are not asking the japanese government to air all of their dirty laundry for the world to gawk at; we are just asking them to show that they are aware that what their predecessors did was wrong.

  16. Yang-May Ooi Says:

    That was a horrible incident for your grandfather to witness at such a young age, silivren. It was a dark time for Asia and, as you say, the legacy remains to be resolved somehow.

  17. chris Says:

    Hi.
    I realise that this is not a blog for experiences of the occupation, but may I appeal for any such material? My name is Chris Brown and I am a professional historian currently collecting material for a general history of civil life under the Japanese throughout Asia in WW2. My e-mail is the_lighthouse@btinternet.com ANy help would be greatly appreciated.
    CB

  18. Chris Broad Says:

    Hello, this is all fascinating reading.

    I am very much interested in this subject and recommend a book called ” The rape of nanking” by iris chang if i recall correctly.

    This tells of the horrors and civilian experience of the fall of the (then) Chinese capital city. the events were truly shocking, a little known holocaust. But what I found most shocking, was the attempts by current day Japanese politicians and pressure groups to deny this event, and slander anyone shedding light on it. Very interesting read.

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